American Fascists: the Christian right and the war on America
Chris Hedges Jonathan Cape, 254pp, £12.99
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