Inside the mind of the Christian Right

Chris Hedges, the former New York Times reporter and author of the magisterial War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, is back with a new book, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War On America. He summarized his findings in a recent essay on Alternet. An accelerating “Weimarization of the American working class,” he wrote, has bred a “culture of despair,” which he describes with the same empathy he brought to bear in his writing about soldiers and war correspondents. If the essay is any indication, this sounds like another essential study from one of our few genuine contemporary prophets.

The stories believers such as Learned told me of their lives before they found Christ were heart breaking. These chronicles were about terrible pain, severe financial difficulties, struggles with addictions or 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 these 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, where they would once again be adrift, abandoned and alone.

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 spiraling 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 at hand.

13 Replies to “Inside the mind of the Christian Right”

  1. Their stories sound quite a bit like the stories my stepfather collected when he interviewed American neo-Nazis and KKK members for his book “The Racist Mind”:

    “In that Detroit bunch, there were a lot of very poor white kids who didn’t have a lot in their lives,” he said. “They have no job skills, no future, no grasp of history or social forces. They don’t have any clue as to why their lives are the way they are, and calling themselves Nazis for a while and going to meetings and demonstrating, talking about that big family called the white race, gives them something to imagine they’re part of, something that matters.”
    (-Raphael Ezekiel, from this review)

  2. I agree with you, Chris Hedges is worth listening to. I think his own despair about trends in American life has taken him a little bit over the edge recently, but then, I empathize with that too. We heard him in person once, talking about Palestine, and I was very impressed – he’s a graduate of Yale Divinity School, and that curiosity about religious fervor and search for meaning in others must come from a recognition of the same impulses in himself.

    This and your “dust to dust” post are pretty appropriate for Ash Wednesday – was that coincidental or intentional?

  3. Nathan – Yeah. I think the appeal of fascism is nearly universal, transcending ideology (was the allegedly anti-fascist Stalin much different from Hitler, really?). It’s very seductive to people who crave order and security – which, under certain extreme circumstances, can represent a substantial portion of the population.

    beth – Of course, not having read this book yet, I can’t really comment about Hedges’ thesis in any detail. I did hear an audio recording of a speech by him once, and found his flat, understated tone very moving.

    No, I wasn’t thinking about Ash Wednesday at all. Just a coincidence, I guess.

  4. Just after the last election the local chairman of the Republican Party was complaining about the Christian Facists and how they were trying to take over the local party here in Sioux City Iowa. They actually had 2 seperate campaign offices here about 30 feet apart.

    My cousin Bruce Pauley has written extensively on facists in both English and German. You might find them interesting.

    For another take on facism and fantasy be sure to see Pan’s Labyrinth at your local theatre.

  5. Thanks for those references, Fred. I’m sure your anecdote is not an isolated one. I know someone who quit the conservative Constitution Party out of disgust at an attempted take-over by intolerant fundies.

  6. I wonder if this book will be dismissed by the CR as yet another attempt by the secular, elitist, leftist press (NYT being enemy #1, of course) to destroy religion in the U.S. by finding homegrown extremists that don’t reflect the average member of the Christian Right. In a culture of contempt, it’s brave to write such a book.

    I only recently started reading your blog — bravo on thoughtful content.

  7. Hi Jenn – and welcome! Again, not having seen the book, it’s hard to comment, but I doubt that Hedges intends to change the minds of the already convinced. Rather, it seems from his essay that he’s interested in contributing to a public dicussion of the dangers of Rapture-ready Christians among other Christians, and also among secular or otherwise non-Christian Americans. I believe he considers himself a Christian progressive, and I would put him in the company of other progressive Christian intellectuals like Wendell Berry and Jimmy Carter (Our Endangered Values). And it’s not only progressives: even many conservative Christians are bothered by the manifest intolerance and fanaticism of people like Robertson and Dobson.

  8. I always kind of thought Texas was an alternate universe.

    Well, that could be. Religious right is practically middle-of-the-road around here.

  9. Wow, I’ve met a lot of Christians of various denominational stripes, and I’ve never heard one greet bad news like wars or environmental problems with “Goody! The Rapture is a-comin’!” (Not even James Dobson, and I listened to his radio show for a number of years. Robertson, well, he’s just kooky.)

    (In fact, I’m sure you’ve heard of the smallish but growing “stewardship” movement among evangelicals, with a renewed interest in environmental issues and caring for the earth.)

    Perhaps I’m not far enough to the right or immersed enough in politics to encounter this. But I don’t think the group of people this article talks about is nearly as large as the author thinks it is. They *are* more strident and focused, and so give great quotes and controversial TV interviews. People with more nuanced beliefs have a harder time distilling them into soundbites.

    And, truly? The tone of condescension is so overwhelming. You really think it is empathetic?

  10. Jennifer – Thanks for weighing in. Yeah, I know plenty of conservative Christians — including those in my own extended family, of course :) — but none of the Rapture-ready variety, as far as I know, so I have no idea how large a percentage they really make up. Someone’s watching those Robertson shows! The evangelical stewardship movement is one very hopeful sign, I agree. I don’t find Hedges condescending, no. Obviously that’s pretty subjective one way or the other, and if I were myself a conservative Christian I suppose I’d feel differently.

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