Religion of despair

Disciples of evangelism in the United States are often regarded with fear and suspicion. But for man

The engine that drives the radical Christian right in the United States - the most dangerous mass movement in American history - is not religiosity, but despair. It is a movement built on the growing personal and economic despair of tens of millions of Americans, who watched helplessly as their communities were plunged into poverty by the flight of manu facturing jobs, their families and neighbourhoods torn apart by neglect and indifference. They eventually lost hope that America was a place where they had a future.

This despair crosses economic boundaries, enveloping many in the middle class who live trapped in huge, soulless exurbs where, lacking any form of community rituals or centres, they also feel deeply isolated, vulnerable and lonely. Those in despair are the most easily manipulated by demagogues, who promise a fantastic utopia, whether it is a worker's paradise, liberté-égalité-fraternité, or the second coming of Jesus Christ. Those in despair search desperately for a solution, the warm embrace of a community to replace the one they lost, a sense of purpose and meaning in life, the assurance that they are protected, loved and worthwhile.

During the past two years of work on the book American Fascists: the Christian right and the war on America, I kept encountering this deadly despair. Driving down a highway lined with gas stations, fast-food restaurants and dollar stores, I often got vertigo, forgetting for a moment if I was in Detroit or Kansas City or Cleveland. There are parts of the United States, including whole sections of former manufacturing centres such as Ohio, that resemble the developing world, with boarded-up storefronts, dilapidated houses, potholed streets and crumbling schools. The end of the world is no longer an abstraction to many Americans.

Jeniece Learned is typical of many. She was standing, when I met her, amid a crowd of earnest-looking men and women - many with small gold crosses on the lapels of their jackets or around their necks - in a hotel lobby in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. She had an easy smile and a thick mane of black, shoulder-length hair. She was carrying a booklet called Ringing in a Culture of Life. The booklet had the schedule of the two-day event she was attending, which was organised by the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation. The event was "dedicated to the 46 million children who have died from legal abortions since 1973 and the mothers and fathers who mourn their loss".

Recruiting tool

Learned, who had driven five hours from a town outside Youngstown, Ohio, was raised Jewish. She wore a gold Star of David around her neck with a Christian cross inserted in the middle of the design. She stood up in one of the morning sessions, attended by about 300 people, most of them women, when the speaker, Alveda King, niece of Dr Martin Luther King, asked if there were any "post-abortive" women present.

Learned runs a small pregnancy counselling clinic called Pregnancy Services of Western Pennsylvania in the town of Sharon, where she attempts to talk young girls and women, most of them poor, out of abortions.

She speaks at local schools, promoting sexual abstinence, rather than birth control, as the only acceptable form of contraception. She found in the fight against abortion, and in her conversion, a structure, purpose and meaning that previously eluded her. The battle against abortion is one of the Christian right's most effective recruiting tools. It plays on the guilt and shame of women who have had abortions, accusing them of committing murder, and promising redemption and atonement in the "Christian" struggle to make abortion illegal - a fight for life against "the culture of death".

Learned's life before she was saved was, like for many in this mass movement, chaotic and painful. Her childhood was stolen from her. She was sexually abused by a close member of the family. Her mother periodically woke her and her younger sister and two younger brothers in the middle of the night to flee landlords who wanted back rent. The children would be bundled into the car and driven in darkness to a strange apartment in another town. Her mother worked nights and weekends as a bartender. Learned, the eldest, often had to run the home. Her younger sister, who was sexually abused by another family member, eventually committed suicide as an adult, something Learned also considered. As a teenager she had an abortion.

She was taking classes at Pacific Christian College several years later when she saw an anti-abortion film called The Silent Scream. "You see in this movie the baby backing up trying to get away from this suction tube," she said. "And its mouth is open and it is like this baby is screaming.

"I flipped out. It was at that moment that God just took this veil that I had over my eyes for the last eight years. I couldn't breathe. I was hyperventilating. I ran outside. One of the girls followed me. And she said, 'Did you commit your life to Christ?' And I said, 'I did.' And she said, 'Did you ask for your forgiveness of sins?' And I said, 'I did.' And she goes, 'Does that mean all your sins, or does that mean some of them?' And I said, 'I guess it means all of them.' So she said, 'Basically, you are thinking God hasn't forgiven you for your abortion because that is a worse sin than any of your other sins that you have done.'"

The film brought her into the fight to make abortion illegal. Her activism became atonement for her own abortion. She struggled with depression after she gave birth to her daughter Rachel. When she came home from the hospital she was unable to care for her infant. She thought she saw an eight-year-old boy standing next to her bed. It was, she is sure, the image of the son she had murdered.

"I started crying and asking God over and over again to for give me," she says. "I had murdered His child. I asked Him to forgive me over and over again. It was just incredible. I was possessed. 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."

Weimar lesson

In the United States we have turned our backs on the working class, with much of the worst assaults, such as Nafta and welfare reform, pushed though during President Clinton's Democratic administration. We stand passively and watch an equally pernicious assault on the middle class. Anything that can be put on software, from architecture to engineering to finance, will soon be handed to workers overseas who will be paid a third of what their American counterparts receive and who will, like some 45 million Americans, have no access to health insurance or benefits.

There has been, along with the creation of an American oligarchy, a steady Weimarisation of the working class. The top 1 per cent of households in the US have more wealth than the bottom 90 per cent combined. As Plutarch reminded us: "An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics."

The stories that believers such as Learned told me of their lives before they found Christ were heartbreaking. These chronicles were about terrible pain, severe financial diffi culties, struggles with addictions, or with childhood sexual or physical abuse, profound alienation and often thoughts about suicide. They were chronicles without hope. The real world, the world of facts and dispassionate intellectual inquiry, the world where all events, news and information were not filtered through this comforting ideological prism, the world where they were left out to dry, abandoned by a government hostage to corporations and willing to tolerate obscene corporate profits, betrayed them.

They hated this world. And they willingly walked out on this world for the mythical world offered by radical preachers: a world of magic, a world where God had a divine plan for them and intervened on a daily basis to protect them and perform miracles in their lives. The rage many expressed to me towards those who challenge this belief system, to those of us who do not accept that everything in the world came into being during a single week 6,000 years ago because it says so in the Bible, was a rage born of fear, the fear of being plunged back into a reality-based world where these magical props would no longer exist, and where they would once again be adrift.

The danger of this theology of despair is that it says that nothing in the world is worth saving. It rejoices in cataclysmic destruction. It welcomes the frightening advance of global warming, the spiralling wars and violence in the Middle East and the poverty and neglect that have blighted American urban and rural landscapes as encouraging signs that the end of the world is close. Those who cling to this magical belief, which is a bizarre form of spiritual Darwinism, will be raptured upwards while the rest of us will be tormented with horrors by a warrior Christ and finally extinguished. The obsession with apocalyptic violence is an obsession with revenge. It is what the world, and we who still believe it is worth saving, deserve.

Those who lead the movement give their followers moral licence to direct this rage and yearning for violence against all who refuse to submit to the movement, from liberals and "secular humanists", to "nominal Christians", intellectuals, gays and lesbians, to Muslims. The leaders of the Christian right, from James Dobson to Pat Robertson, call for a theocratic state that will, if it comes to pass, bear within it many of the traits of classical fascism.

All radical movements need a crisis or a prolonged period of instability to achieve power. We are not in a period of crisis now. But another catastrophic terrorist attack on American soil, a series of huge environmental disasters or an economic meltdown will hand to these radicals the opening they seek.

Manipulating our fear and anxiety, promising to make us safe and secure, giving us the assurance that they can vanquish the forces that mean to do us harm, these radicals, many of whom have achieved powerful positions in the executive and legislative branches of government, as well as the military, will ask us only to surrender our rights, to pass them the unlimited power they need to battle the forces of darkness. They will have behind them tens of millions of angry, disenfranchised Americans longing for revenge and yearning for a mythical utopia, Americans who embraced a theology of despair because we offered them nothing else.

Chris Hedges, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and Pulitzer Prize-winning ex-foreign correspondent for the New York Times, is the author of "American Fascists: the Christian right and the war on America" (Jonathan Cape, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Climate change

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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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