Thursday, April 5, 2007

Chris Hedges on American Christian dominionism

This past Friday March 30, I heard author Chris Hedges speak at the 1st Congregational Church in Berkeley, sponsored by an area bookstore (2-store chain), Cody's. His topic was his new book, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War On America (2006).

His prepared presentation was largely derived from the first chapter of his book. Several excerpts/adaptations from the book and related material are available online and I provide links at the end of this post. In his talk, he particilarly described his own religious background and outlook as the son of a liberal-minded Presbyterian minister. Hedges himself holds a degree from Harvard Divinity School, although he never went into the ministry himself. He emphasized, for instance, that faith and doubt were not opposites, as the fundamentalists assume, but rather both are part of a religious outlook that acknowledges the mystery of God but doesn't presume to know with certainly exactly what God's will is for every aspect of human existence.

As the book's title might lead one to guess, he sees the Christian Right as an alarming and dangerous movement, and his book is in part a jeremiad warning people in America to pay attention to the dark side of that movement.

Most of the book, though, consists of detailed reports on the people he met and events he covered during his research for the book. As he said several times during his talk, the stories of many of these people will "break your heart". My guess is that the book will be a favorite sources for other researches on Christian fundamentalism mainly because of the extensive case-study-type material he provides, including long quotations from his subjects.

However, the case study material is not able to carry the weight of the analytical superstructure he perches on top of it. That doesn't mean in itself that the analysis is wrong. On the contrary, I think his view of the theocratic, anti-democracy goals of leaders like James Dobson and Tony Perkins is basically sound, though I would prefer to describe it as "authoritarian" rather than "fascist", for various reasons I won't belabor here.

But some readers will no doubt feel like they're having to make a "leap of faith" to go from the information in the case studies to the broader arguments on the politics and sociology of the movement. For example, as he describes in the Alternet piece linked below, he views the economic dislocations of recent decades that have left large areas of many American cities looking like something from the developing world and the resulting disruptions of community and family life as creating a market for the fundamentalist religious message and institutions. He also talks about how the sameness and dullness of so many cities and "exurbs" generate a sense of emptiness and hoplessness. From the Alternet article:

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 manufacturing jobs, their families and neighborhoods torn apart by neglect and indifference, and who eventually lost hope that America was a place where they had a future.

This despair crosses economic boundaries, of course, enveloping many in the middle class who live trapped in huge, soulless exurbs where, lacking any form of community rituals or centers, 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, fraternite-egalite-liberte, 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 they are protected, loved and worthwhile.
I appreciate the vividness of the concept of "soulless exurb", and it appeals to my inner Amish idealist (or inner hippie or something). But his account is to a large extent impressionistic and anecdotal. Yes, many inner cities have been devastated by economic shifts. But the political strength of the Christian Right comes primarily from smaller towns and the smaller cities, urban megachurches notwithstanding. It not the Chicagos or Seattles or Atlantas that are electing the candidates who back the political and theocratic goals of the Christian dominionists.

And when you drive from one town to the next and see what looks like the same Wal-Mart and MacDonald's and Applebee's in every one of them, it's boring and detracts from the distinctive charm of individual places. But does it drive you to adopt a super-strict version of Christianity vote for Republicans who support torture?

His point about the "soulless exurb" has more to do with the lack of community, diconnectedness and lack of personal support that weighs heavily on many people. Still, I'm not convinced that "despair" is especially useful to explain either the religious or political behavior of the Christian fundis. People being attracted to the structure and support networks provided by many churches is understandable. But what percentage of active fundamentalist churchgoers really fit a picture of despair? Are church deacons and political activists at the church and city levels predominantly people who's personally lives have been shattered by some unusual personal tragedies? And what would we legitimately consider "despair" in this context? Homelessness? A nasty divorce? A personal banruptcy? Disappointment at being passed over for a promotion to senior vice president at your company?

In one sense, it's not fair to criticize Hedges for not doing a full-blown sociological study when that's not what he set out to do. And the reporting his does do on his topic provides us informative material, as the links below will show. It's just that I think a more average profile of someone who supports Christian Right theocratic ideas and votes that way would look less like a single mother who was orphaned as a child and beaten by her two husbands than like a white man or woman from a small town or city who came from a religious background, prefers "traditional" sex roles in the family where the wife defers to her husband, and is particularly committed for whatever reason to a conventional conception of sex in general. I doubt that their level of "desperation" in any objective sense is greater than the average, probably less so.

Hedges doesn't deal extensively with the racial attitudes of Christian fundis. But his research does show some strong continuities between far-right ideas and groups like the John Birch Society and some of the more inflammatory ideas of Christian Right advocates. And he also calls attention to the network of private schools and the Christian homeschooling movement, which owe a great deal to Southern whites trying to create a white alternative to the public schools when racial integration was finally implemented throughout the South.

For an intentionally comic example highlighting how lilly-white so much of the Christian theocratic conservative movement is, see this post by Mark Dever,
White Presumptive Together for the Gospel blog 03/24/07, as he awkwardly explains he viewpoint as an "other than African American", i.e., a white guy.

Hedges also talked a bit about his own political perpsective, which at least clarified for me why his arguments about the Christian Right come off sometimes as fatalistic. He seems to be a Green in his political outlook, or at least a Ralph Nader fan. (See his column,
Pariah or Prophet? 02/26/07). So he was particularly emphatic in saying that the Democrats were totally inadequate in their willingness to fight the Christian Right.

He also emphasized that to counter the appeal of the Christian Right, what was needed was a politics that challenged the "corporate state", the extreme domination of the government by the wealthy. And I'm for that as a general concept, too. But I'm not sure it will diminish the particular political appeal of the Christian Right. It seems to me that to do that means reducing the general level of fear, a critical part of which is providing better economic opportunities.

But here's where the demographic assumptions become important. I'm not convinced that people who experience the worst results from outsourcing and de-industrialization are actually the people who are bolstering the Christian Right as a political force. This excerpt from his article on Nader lined above shows his argument about how economic globalization is driving recruits to the Christian Right, and also shows how his gloom-and-doom about that movement fits into his third-party political pitch:

I spent the last two years reporting and writing “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.” The rise of the Christian right - the most dangerous mass movement in American history - can be traced directly to the corporate rape of America. This movement, which calls for the eradication of real and imagined enemies, all branded as “satanic,” at home and abroad, is an expression of rage. This rage rises out of the deep distortions and dislocations that have beset tens of millions of Americans shunted aside in the new global marketplace. The massive flight of manufacturing and professional jobs overseas, the ruthless slashing of state and federal assistance and the rise of an unchecked American oligarchy have plunged many Americans into deep economic and personal despair. They have turned, because of this despair, to “Christian” demagogues who promise magic, miracles, angels, the gospel of prosperity and a fantastic Christian utopia. And the Republicans and the Democrats are equally culpable for this assault.

There are only two solutions left. We must organize to fight the corporate state, to redirect our national wealth and resources to fund a massive antipoverty campaign and curb the cycle of perpetual war that enriches the military-industrial complex and by extension the two political parties that dominate Washington, or we must accept an inevitable Christo-fascism backed by these corporations. Don’t expect glib Democratic politicians such as John Edwards, Sen. Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama to address these issues. They are, as Nader understands, hostage to corporate money.
Hedges' research on and insight to the Christian dominionist movement are valuable. But I'm not ready to accept that the only alternatives are a victorious Naderite third party or an impending theocracy. Here's another area where there are varying degrees of despair. And I don't see that matters are that desperate at this point.

America’s Holy Warriors 12/31/06

The Radical Christian Right Is Built on Suburban Despair 01/19/07

Christianists on the March 01/28/07

When They Came for the Homosexuals... 03/11/07

A World Where Lies Are True 03/26/07

The Christian Right and the Rise of American Fascism Theocracy Watch 11/15/04

The holy blitz rolls on by Michelle Goldberg (interview with Chris Hedges) Salon 01/08/07

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