Blind faith

Christian fundamentalism offers America's underclass hope and security - at the price of total obedi

American Fascists: the Christian right and the war on America

Chris Hedges Jonathan Cape, 254pp, £12.99

ISBN 0743284437

Jeniece Learned's early years were a catalogue of misery. She was sexually abused by a family member. Her mother was beaten up by her father, who upped and left them when Jeniece was in eighth grade. The family, such as it was, was constantly on the run from landlords wanting back rent. Inevitably, she went to lots of different schools. At 15, she had an abortion. Her younger sister, also abused, committed suicide as an adult. Jeniece thought about it too. Instead, she drifted through bar work and the fringes of the sex industry. Then she met Jesus. This, Chris Hedges suggests, is a typical CV of the new Christian fascist, bred from the wreckage of America's ailing rust belt.

Jeniece's conversion was prompted by the screening of a revolting-sounding, Christian anti-abortion film called The Silent Scream, which shows a foetus struggling to survive an abortion. It led to an emotional collapse. "I started crying and asking God over and over again to forgive me. I had murdered His child. It was just incredible. On the fourth day I remember hearing God's voice: 'I have your baby, now get up!' It was the most incredibly freeing and peaceful moment. I got up and I showered and I ate. I just knew it was God's voice."

So her new life began. A new life reconstructed by certainty and stability, a new life of fixed points and unquestioned references. Here was the security she'd always wanted. It gave her a family that was never going to physically harm her. And, as someone pretty much at the bottom of life's pile, it gave her a pretext for moral superiority, with all the pain of her childhood refocused as fury towards that ideology held responsible: secular humanism. She was born again.

The term "fundamentalist" came into being in America in the 1920s, and since then it has been variously applied: Muslim fundamentalists, Jew ish fundamentalists, even secular fundamentalists. The common denominator, and the key difference between the fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist versions of any worldview, has to do with an ability to accommodate ambiguity and uncertainty. Fundamentalism is a closed system of thought, demanding certainty and providing emotional security. For fundamentalism is commonly an epiphenomenon of change, and has grown in parallel with the rapid social and economic changes that have come about through globalisation. "Change and decay in all around I see, O thou who changest not, abide with me."

As Jeniece's story illustrates, the need for strict internal coherence has little to do with the dem ands of truth and a great deal to do with the way people keep their demons at bay. The glue of the whole intellectual structure is fear. If one thread were to come loose, Jeniece would feel herself tumbling back towards her former nightmare of pain and chaos. That's why debate with fundamentalists is all but impossible. Doubt and rational inquiry serves only to open the jaws of hell.

So Christian fundamentalists inhabit a world of cut-and-dried oppositions: God/world, saved/unsaved, male/female, right/wrong. As Hedges concludes: "The petrified, binary world of fixed, immutable roles is a world where people, many of them damaged by bouts with failure, can bury their chaotic and fragmented personalities and live with the illusion that they are now strong. Those who do not fit must be pro selytised, converted and 'cured'." Or destroyed. For it has become an increasingly significant part of the fundamentalist world-view that those who see things differently will end up being exterminated in the mother of all holocausts.

It is astonishing, and deeply disturbing, that the Left Behind series of fundamentalist novels have become among the bestselling books in the US, with more that 62 million copies having been printed. Written by the former comic-strip writer Jerry Jenkins and a Southern Baptist minister Tim LaHaye, they have been made into slasher movies and "Christian" video nasties. The idea is that, at the end of time, God will lift all true Christians into heaven - "the rapture" - and leave everybody else on earth to fight it out in an orgy of misery and violence. This will all take place when Israel reclaims its biblical boundaries and the al-Aqsa Mosque is destroyed. Christ will then take on the (mostly European) soldiers of the Antichrist in some final battle that will see "bodies bursting open from head to toe at every word that proceeded out of the mouth of God". The forces of darkness will be defeated, "their flesh dissolved, their eyes melted, their tongues disintegrated". It is the imagined revenge of those who have come to hate the world.

Nietzsche famously argued that Christianity is driven by hate. The experience of persecution and slavery incubated a deep hatred towards oppressors that came to be sublimated into the notion of the Judaeo-Christian concept of the divine. The Christian God thus became a vehicle for fantasies of violence. So, for example: psalm 137 begins with the experience of oppression by the rivers of Babylon where "we sat down and wept". It concludes: "Happy shall be he who takes your children and dashes their heads against the rocks."

As it happens, I think Christianity has deep resources for the containment of what Nietzsche came to call ressentiment. Indeed, theologians like René Girard argue that ressentiment is an unfortunate but unavoidable by-product of the Christian commitment not to answer violence with violence. For, in reality, turning the other cheek, and not indulging in the satisfaction of returning violence in kind, is always going to result in a world of emotional complexity, of nightly dreams of revenge. And bad dreams may be a price worth paying for a commitment to peacemaking.

But Girardian theology is a world away from a fundamentalism that manipulates the explosive power of ressentiment to drive its evangelism. Hedges is utterly Nietzschean in diagnosing hate rather than the Holy Spirit as smouldering within the fundamentalist breast. It's what turns them into fascists, out to destroy liberal democracy and to impose their own strict theocratic rule. There may be those who want to quibble with Hedges about the historical locatedness of the term "fascist". But his warning is too urgent to allow that diversion. Not unlike Nazi fascism, the fundamentalist Christian right has deep appeal for a culture of discontents, alienated from civil society and depressed by poverty. The rise of the Christian right is a measure of disintegrating societies. Sure, fundamentalism exists in the middle classes too, although here it often manufactures insecurity in order to get its grip. As Nietzsche also observed, Christians first need to poison the wound before they can present themselves as the cure. Even so, as Hedges rightly points out, American fundamentalism is essentially the theology of the dispossessed and those exploiting the poor for money and power.

The challenge for the mainstream churches in this country is to recognise that fundamentalism is now beginning to get a grip over here, even within the traditionally liberal and inclusive cloisters of the Church of England. The gay debate is just the beginning of a takeover bid for the soul of the church. And given the way this country's church and state are joined at the hip, it is no surprise that some are predicting a constitutional car crash. The leadership of the C of E, caught in the oncoming headlights, does little to resist. The quotation from Karl Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies with which Hedges opens his book, ought to be written in letters of fire on the bedhead of the Archbishop of Canterbury:

Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend the tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.

Giles Fraser is the vicar of Putney and a lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford

David Young
Show Hide image

The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide