Hedges published his book in the last year of the George Dubya Bush administration, when there was considerable polarization between the Democrat and Republican parties in the USA, with much evidence of a major lurch to the right by the Republicans, the party being infiltrated by religious zealots and very hardline anti-democrats, yearning to convert the USA into a theocracy, with themselves in power, and with major change in the way USA society functions, such as eviction of all women from paid employment and forced return to being home-makers, and widespread massacre of abortion-providers and expulsion of all Muslims.
His book has an introductory essay by Umberto Eco, writer of popular fiction on medieval history, about Ur-Fascism and how to recognize it, Ur-Fascism being the archetypal fascism containing all the basic ingredients likely to be found in local fascist groups in various societies.
Eco proposes 14 characteristics of fascist movements, with some description of how these fit into the general structure of fascist psychology and mass appeal.
1. It begins with The Cult of Tradition. It is the idea that all real wisdom is ancient, so it is anti-modern, offering a myth of a Golden Age of the national culture. Any modern modifications of tradition degrade it. "There can be no advancement of learning. Truth has been spelled out once and for all." So this characterizes all those disparate groups who want to live strictly by their Bible, or by the Tao te ching, or the Analects of Confucius, or who see all wisdom in the sayings of Native American chiefs or gurus of ancient Hinduism, and the oddball worshippers at Stonehenge each summer solstice, who pretend they are reviving Wicca or the Druid culture which contained all wisdom. Eclectic people who search widely and make up a mish-mash of the Tao te ching and Native American sayings and the Upanishads and meld it all into a pseudo-tradition of Ancient Wisdom have the basic ingredients of fascism.
2. A rejection of modernism. This very often takes the form of rejection of the Enlightenment value system that secular humanists value so highly, and glorification of an earlier tribalism and irrationalism, combined with a belief in magic and spirits.
3. There is a cult of action for action’s sake. This should not be considered action, but as impulsive and emotion-driven as possible. It devalues thinking and reason, and expresses a deep distrust of the intellectual world and its "effete snobs" and "eggheads". Its manifestation is often in attacks on the liberal intelligentsia for its betrayal of traditional values.
4. There is a strong emphasis on uncritical acceptance of dogmas, and refusal to accept criticism and dissent.
5. Diversity is loathed, and conformity and uniformity very highly valued. Anybody who is different is to be feared and expelled, denounced and persecuted. There is a deep fear of infiltration by hostile external forces.
6. It derives from widespread social frustration, especially by a thwarted middle class, suffering from political humiliation or economic crisis (as in the 1920s and 1930s in Italy and Germany). It involves fear of lower socio-economic groups, often manifested by anti-trade union propaganda and anti-socialist ideology.
7. It is intensely nationalist, as a way of finding one’s identity – all that matters is one’s ancestors occupied this land, the Fatherland – and all outsiders are seen as threats, potential invaders and subverters, so there is deep anxiety about recent migrants, who are seen as plotting to take over this sacred territory and disenfranchise the traditional occupants, to whom it Belongs. So an important part of the fascist world-view is of a traditional culture ever on the defensive, besieged from within and without by corrupting forces, and needing to act urgently to restore purity and possession of the land by its proper owners. So it is deeply xenophobic, hostile to Jews, or European migrant Communists or underclass foreign workers.
8. The wealth and power of external enemies are seen as humiliating and threatening, powerful forces, loaded with clandestine conspiracies to undermine the purity of the State, but nevertheless capable of being defeated if the defenders are prepared and united. So the enemy are feared for their strength, but also seen as really weak and likely to be defeated by a well-prepared defence.
9. Never-ending struggle is a life-long commitment, as the threatening forces require a determination to resist, so pacifism is seen as treachery. War against these threatening forces will never be securely over, all successes are temporary and eternal vigilance is needed.
10. It is elitist, in that the leaders are needed by the weak, directionless and helpless masses, to show them the correct arrangements for defending against these external and internal threats, so rule tends to be absolute and Opposition is not accepted in any way. One party states are the norm for fascists.
11. There is propaganda to offer every person the chance to be a hero, by denouncing traitors or taking deadly risks to defend the sacred territory.
12. The will-to-power of the leading elite includes sexual expression, so it tends to be strongly sexist, disdaining women as weak and inferior, fiercely intolerant of non-standard sexual behavior, with powerful messages about chastity and against homosexuality.
13. Individual rights do not exist, the "will of the people" is a fiction to justify absolute totalitarian rule by the sole interpreter of the Will, the great leader. Individuals have no say about whether the leader got it right. Parliamentary government is abolished, as opposition and debate are not part of the fascist way.
14. Orwellian Newspeak is widespread, and an impoverished vocabulary,
to limit the complexity of arguments and opportunity for reasoning.
Hedges tries hard to develop his argument around this structure, with successive chapters on the middle classes’ discontents and despair in the Mid-west, the dishonest processes by which evangelists are trained to win converts with false and misleading methods, their culture of male dominance throughout all right-wing churches, with women relegated to minor support roles or passive obedience, the persecution complex he claims is common to methods of rousing mass unity in opposition to threatening external forces, their contempt for evidence-based argument in favour of slogans and "believe whatever you feel like", the manner in which the leadership of the Christian Right melds in with the rampant celebrity and consumerist culture, the warlike terminology in which masses are aroused to enthusiasm by their demagogues…
His argument begins with a long quote from Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies, to the effect that tolerating people who if they were in power would not tolerate the open society as we do, can bring about the end of the Open Society, so we must be very careful about what range of organisations we tolerate.
He moves on to summarise his own background and value system, which is very distinctly different from those of the demagogues of the Evangelical Right he is analyzing. His father was a Presbyterian preacher and taught that those self-appointed prophets who promised the kingdom of god on Earth were dangerous. The idea that humans understand god’s will is false, one just does one’s best in the face of great unknowns. Every human act is done from a mix of motives, nothing is pure, and all people are tainted by sin, with no exceptions, so there are not pure leaders to worship. The Bible is not the literal word of god, but was written by fallible humans, nor is it a self-help manual that can predict the future, and certainly was no guide in 2006 about how to vote in USA elections. Nobody can confidently divide the world into the saved and the damned, Us and Them, and working out what is right in a complex world is a struggle. "We took the Bible seriously and therefore could not take it literally."
It is a creed free of self-righteousness and arrogance as it avoids the black-and-white oversimplifications that are standard for such people.
Hedges had a homosexual uncle and came to understand the isolation of being homosexual in USA. Hedges for a while worked in a Gay Rights movement, calling for the ordination and the right to marry, for homosexuals.
He describes some issues arising out of the contradictions between different writings included in the Bible, its apparent approval of genocide, mass murder, looting, slavery, suppression of women, its discrimination against the deformed and diseased, the anti-Semitism in the Gospel of John, and the imagery of extreme violence in Revelation which condemns the vast majority of humans to the lake of fire, with birds of prey feasting on their flesh. Its god is a ruthless and destructive deity, consumed with hatred and anger.
He discusses the Evangelical 70 millions in USA, who are divided among themselves by doctrinal differences they take very seriously, and the sub-group he calls Dominionists who are preoccupied with Genesis 1:26 and 1:28 with its grant of dominion to man over everything on Earth, their propagation of a mythic Golden Age in their Garden of Eden and its unachievable happiness, and their view of themselves as infallible interpreters of the will of their god and guide to the masses as to how they can ensure entry to their heaven. The then very recent authority on this movement was Michelle Goldberg, whose book Kingdom Coming: the rise of Christian Nationalism is much used by him. I found a youtube film clip of a talk she gave to a Unitarian group, which is most impressive – just search for her name and look into the video options. It’s stored in 3 parts of about 10 minutes each.
Hedges claims this minority controls six national television networks, all 2,000 religious radio stations in the USA and that they have taken over the Southern Baptist Convention. What do they want? to take political power in the USA and make it a theocracy, with themselves permanently in control.
He also used Robert Paxton’s 2004 Anatomy of Fascism which defines the basic creed as "a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cultures of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion."
Professor John Green’s anthology identifies the Far Right as about one eighth of the adult population. It is Republican, anti-pluralist, totalitarian and wants to rewrite the US constitution and make it a Christian document, with the intention of setting up a theocratic state, deeply intolerant of anybody not belonging to their belief system. They would repress non-believers, use the death penalty far more widely than at present, to dispose of those they disapprove of, make abortion illegal and dismantle all public education as they see it as secular and very hostile to their values.
Hedges every so often discusses where their money comes from. Some is from major corporations, led by Evangelical CEOs or owning families, such as Tyson Foods, Purdue, Walmart, Sam’s Wholesale. This last one has a staff including far right chaplains in every warehouse and factory. Prominent funders of very conservative churches are the DeVos family of the founders of Amway, and the Merillat Foundation, set up by a large-scale furniture manufacturer in Michigan. Both are ardent Republicans.
Hedges claims that Evangelicals have infiltrated the Republican Party and by 2005 controlled the state committees in 18 of the 50 US states. Their journals and media releases publish approval ratings for members of state and federal parliaments. In the 2004 Congressional elections 45 Senators and 186 MHRs received 80-100% approval from three far-right advocacy groups: The Christian Coalition, Eagle Forum, and the Family Resources Council. I found several websites giving insight into the values of these groups. For example, The Christian Coalition campaigns vigorously against reintroduction of the Fairness Doctrine, abolished during Reagan’s presidency, against altering the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman, and against any gun control measures.
Eagle Forum is one of those organisations making a big deal about the "sanctity of life", but apparently that only refers to insiders, as they also campaign against gun control and in favour of sustaining ballistic missile defence, to kill those seen as threats, to whom sanctity of life does not apply.
One Senate candidate of whom they strongly approved called for the death penalty for anybody performing abortions, another wanted to ban single mothers from becoming school-teachers and thus contaminating the minds of children with their unacceptable family situation.
Hedges then diverts into a discussion of manipulation of voter rolls by conservative bureaucrats and party officials. They deliberately understaffed polling booths in non-Republican areas so many voters got discouraged after standing in queues for hours and went home without voting. Reporters were banned from entering polling places so harassment of voters could not be recorded.
He devotes much space to the large-scale shifting of provision of US public social services away from government agencies into the hands of church-based agencies that discriminate in employment practices against homosexuals and non-Christians, shifting the balance between discrimination and non-discrimination markedly in favour of reintroducing employment discrimination. Some counseling "clinics" will only employ "Bible-believing Christians" and require no academic qualifications, as they see them as irrelevant. The sex-education programs they provide are focused entirely on abstinence and chastity. 10% of the social services budget was moved to these church-based entities.
At the same time there are some moves towards dismantling public education, forcing people to attend church-based private schools, as an extra tweak towards making USA a theocratic state.
Something we have been seeing in Australia, such as with the One Nation phenomenon, is that the enemy of the Far Right churches used to be Jews and Catholics in the 1940s and had by the early 2000s shifted to "secular humanists", which was hilarious as the American Humanists had then a membership of 3,000, of an adult population of 250 millions. Anybody outside their narrow belief system arouses their paranoia – Muslims, Communists, Jews. As they own thousands of radio stations, their talk-back programs are filled with virulent denigration of these external threats, and their greatest fear is that the Fairness Doctrine from 1949, abolished in 1987 by Reagan, may be reintroduced. It required media organisations to balance their "controversial" views with presentation in some way of alternative viewpoints. All these Right-wing churches now campaign vigorously against the Fairness Doctrine.
Hedges sees the "core values" of the New Testament in segments like the Sermon on the Mount rather than in the apocalyptic violence of Revelation, and sees his own views as mainstream, though really he was cherry-picking just as the Right-wing Evangelicals do.
He claims these church movements have "many similarities with other mass movements, from fascism to communism, to the ethnic nationalist parties in the former Yugoslavia. It shares with these movements an inability to cope with ambiguity, doubt and uncertainty. It creates its own "truth". It embraces a world of miracles and signs and removes followers from a rational reality-based world. It condemns self-criticism and debate as apostasy. It places a premium on action and finds its final aesthetic in war and apocalyptic violence." He describes them as "A group of religious utopians, with the sympathy and support of tens of millions of Americans, are slowly dismantling democratic institutions to establish a religious tyranny, the springboard to an American fascism." Though he admits we are still a long way from seeing the fulfillment of their vision.
He moves on to describe a stereotype of the kind of person targeted for recruitment by these churches, people in despair, with seriously damaged lives. He interviewed one at a Pro-Life rally, Jeniece Learned, who followed a dysfunctional childhood with a dissipated and deviant early adulthood as a stripper after a mid-teen pregnancy and abortion. She found Jesus and switched to being an anti-abortion campaigner, unable to cope with the guilt of having destroyed her first fetus. Her favourite reading had become the Left Behind apocalyptic novels of Tim LaHaye, which have sold over 60 million copies.
Hedges suggests that such stories in the decaying rust-belt of the declining industrial Mid-West are typical of the movement’s recruits, people in despair, looking for forgiveness and redemption, moral clarity and acceptance after being harshly abandoned by a cruel capitalist world.
He tries to suggest that similar stories of childhood dysfunction can be found among the super-wealthy, and instances June Hunt, daughter of Howard Hunt by a mistress he later married, who had a very unhappy childhood bullied by a dominant and punitive father, until she became a Christian counselor using the Bible as her basic therapy tool. His case is not very convincing, and he bases very large conclusions on this equivocal evidence.
His next target is what he sees as a very dishonest marketing and salesmanship program of targeting recruits into the Evangelical movement. He attended a training program conducted by D. James Kennedy, of Evangelism Explosion.
Kennedy, who died aged 77 in 2007, not long after Hedges’ book was published, had a PhD, having done a thesis on the church he had founded himself, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. One of his bizarre claims was that Darwin’s evolution theory was the basis for Nazism – his church published a video to that effect, but it also led to communism and to fascism. So evolution led to everything he disapproved of – an amazingly powerful book, that Origin of Species!
Kennedy’s basic theme was that Christianity was under deadly attack by many external enemies, all of them very powerful and ugly, but that of course a united Christian community could effectively defeat these forces – fitting in with Umberto Eco’s point about the message to the masses being to frighten them with powerful bogeymen out to destroy them, but give them hope that they are strong enough to defeat these hostile forces and will ultimately prevail.
Hedges seems to have undergone the Kennedy training program not to become one of his evangelists, but as a fifth-column exercise in learning about the enemy and its techniques. The slick salesmanship methods he describes are certainly dishonest, but one of them is very clever – given that many potential recruits are in loveless lives and desperately seek acceptance and belonging, one major technique is "love-bombing", very clearly described as a widespread cult-recruiting tool in Margaret Singer’s book Cults in our midst.
Deluge the desperate recruit with friendliness and acceptance, overwhelm them with "love", so they feel at home from the first minute. Then make them dependent on it, so they are enticed away from all previous family and acquaintances and the church community becomes indispensable to their self-esteem.
Hedges claims the next step, when dependence has been developed, is to start a system of punishment, and withdrawal of approval, for minor "back-sliding" or rebelliousness or less than total acceptance of the rules of the new community, that goes so far as shunning, depriving the recruit of all contact or conviviality. Any family members who do not follow the recruit into the cult are demonized as contaminants. It exposes the hypocrisy of the church claim to protect and champion "family values", when what they really do is divide and destroy families.
D. James Kennedy’s strategy is to target people in crisis – divorce, grieving following a death, people who have lost their jobs, or are fleeing from abuse or other trauma, and offer them the acceptance and comfort they find nowhere else.
Kennedy began adult life as a Presbyterian minister, but soon left that church as it was too liberal for his liking, founded his own in a small congregation in a new growing suburb of Fort Lauderdale and by brilliant salesmanship grew it to a very large one, started radio broadcasting and grew that to include 744 radio stations by 2004. He set up two lobbying groups.
The Centre for Reclaiming America, which closed down soon after his death in 2007.
And the Centre for Christian Statesmanship, which was still operating in 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, and conducts programs to "educate" members of Congress on how to make a Biblical world-view the basis for their legislative action. One of his heroes was the first Chief Justice, from 1789, John Jay, who once said "God in His providence has given to us a Christian nation, and it behooves us as Christians to prefer and select Christians to rule over us."
One of the Kennedy techniques of conversion is to make sin into a book-keeping concept, in which each sin constitutes an entry in a ledger. He puts out the idea that even very good people commit at least 3 sins a day, or over 1,080 each year, and over a 70-year life probably 80,000 sins, and are in deep trouble for their afterlife prospects. Their concept of what actions or thoughts constitute sins is very eccentric, with a very strong focus on sexual sins, especially abortion and homosexuality.
All this is most interesting but has little to do with developing a case that these sects are fascist – they are probably, as he claims, dishonest and devious, but that is not the same thing as being fascists. He often inserts his own views between factual accounts of interviews and case studies but there is little to connect his analysis with the evidence he presents.
Hedges likes mixing his analysis with personal stories, that include one about his claim that the Christian Right churches are all male-dominated, and constitute a "cult of masculinity". He interviewed Roberta Pughe who got involved in an Evangelical church when she took up with a boyfriend who was in its congregation, and was gradually weaned away from her earlier life of modeling, and from attendance at a secular public school. She became involved in training evangelists, entered a contest for Miss Michigan as a Christian candidate, raising money for church charities, and using her piano skills to entertain. She suddenly lost enthusiasm for it, and drifted away into becoming a family counselor in her own business, Embodied Enlightenment (you can watch a film clip of her marketing this service on youtube, which shows she still believes in body and spirit as two separable entities). She married, had children, and left the church. Hedges builds into this story a theme of Pughe objecting to the male-dominated culture of the Evangelical churches, but really until very recently all churches were male-dominated and the ordination of women is a very recent phenomenon, with most churches having male leaders and largely female congregations.
Next he introduces James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, a very conservative church movement. Dobson vigorously advocates for retention of "traditional" gender roles, he is anti-abortion, anti-gay, favours sex education focused entirely around abstinence, wants prayer in primary schools restored, supports execution of abortion-providers, is keen to abolish stem-cell research and wants all parents to remove their children from public schools. Women, he wrote, are "made for love" and should be submissive to their natural leaders, men.
Then Hedges hedges and says that "in the mega-churches, the pastor is nearly always male." The use of "nearly" is a bit of a give-away and suggests that at least in some of them women have risen to be leaders. He introduces Danuta Pfeiffer, a woman who rose to be a public speaker in the Evangelical church, almost alone among its women, but eventually left, disillusioned after years of being a co-host of Pat Robertson’s weekly radio program, The 700 Club. He follows this up by an interview with Karen Santorum, the stay-at-home wife of Senator Rick Santorum, an Evangelical conservative from Pennsylvania. Her clearly expressed conflict about the role dictated for her of no public involvement outside the home brings out the suppression of female talent and ambition that definitely characterizes many of the churches, including the Evangelical variety.
Hedges in this part of his thesis shows convincingly that the Evangelical churches are male-dominated, as were most churches until recently but presenting that as some peculiarity of the Evangelicals, and describing it as a "cult of masculinity" is markedly overstating his case.
Hedges describes a conflict in Massachusetts, the first state to legalise homosexual marriage, vigorously opposed by Dobson’s Focus on the Family, that set up a sub-program called Love Won Out, staffed supposedly by ex-homosexuals, cured of their deviance, keen to persuade people it was a curable illness and they had all been cured. Their rallies were aimed at the faithful and strove to shut out the secular media by having bag-searches to ensure tape recorders and cameras were not brought in, and having marshals patrolling the aisles constantly to search for people wielding these contraband items. Hedges mentions a public meeting in Worcester, Massachusetts, where protesters illegally harassed the crowd inside who came to listen to Tom Crouse, a name we will come across again.
The general theme was that homosexuals were a minority group keen to expand their empire, with the ambition of taking over all public schools and eventually assassinating all heterosexuals, to make USA a homosexual nation. "They’re rabid and they’re active, and they have no problem telling you they’re going to kill you, no problem telling you they’re going to burn you to death, no problem telling you anything, all in the name of tolerance" said Crouse. Protesters outside objected to "hate speech". Was Crouse uttering hate speech? You decide.
Dobson published a book, Marriage Under Fire, filled with hysterical anti-homosexual propaganda. "Sanctioning gay marriage is the first salvo by the gay movement to destroy the American family."
"This is an issue America has got to wake up to. The homosexual agenda is a beast. It wants our kids."
"How about group marriage? Or marriage between daddies and little girls? How about marriage between a man and his donkey?"
So Hedges has convinced me that the virulence of the anti-homosexual Evangelicals is very nasty, and quite extreme. There is no doubt that if these people acquired significant political power they would try to do some very ugly things.
Their message to their followers, who form almost a third of the adult population of USA is that they are a persecuted minority, under threat of dreadful treatment by vicious external enemies. Hedges is quite correct that they are deeply hostile to a pluralist democratic Open Society. And their infiltration of the Republican Party at all levels has damaged and polarised USA politics for decades.
But these sorts of hysterical outbursts from disenfranchised minorities have been widespread and common in USA for centuries and in our lifetime have been in significant retreat.
Incidentally, Love Won Out, Dobson’s attempt to set up an entity to cure homosexuals of their deviance and reclaim them as heterosexuals has struck some serious snags as some of their leading public presenters have reverted to being publicly homosexual and now denigrate the movement, and themselves, as dishonest. John Paulk for example.
As a teenager Paulk was aware of strong homosexual attraction to school mates and fellow sports players. But he was a sincere Christian and tried to "cure" himself. He joined Dobson’s Love Won Out campaign as one of its leading presenters, recruiting young homosexuals to its therapy and support groups, trying to persuade them they too could be cured and become normal heterosexuals. But at the age of 50 he became disgusted by his own dishonesty, left the movement and returned to living openly as a homosexual, just as Hedges was writing his book. Paulk now accepts that his homosexuality is not a pathology and not "curable" by finding Jesus and undergoing Christian therapy.
The war on truth
Still following Umberto Eco’s structure, Hedges tries to develop a case that the Christian right promotes a relentless war on truth, putting out the message that you can believe whatever you want to believe and inconvenient facts are just opinions to be discarded. His entire case rests on the creationist museums set up by Ken Ham and his organization. The first was in Kentucky, and displays Adam and Eve living among dinosaurs and a huge display of a "reconstruction" of Noah’s ark, following the Genesis description of its dimensions, and filled with extinct mammals and juvenile dinosaurs, alongside models of Noah and his family managing the accounts in their office. Noah appears to be writing on paper with a nib pen, not invented for millennia after the 2nd millennium BCE when these stories were first circulated in the Gilgamesh epic story of Utnapishtim. Since then several more creation museums have opened up, Hedges mentioning they were then in the planning stages – in Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee, Texas – all states from the 1860s Confederate period.
Again, the response to the realities of our world is quite hysterical, from Christian high school biology texts still using the argument from design to deny the reality of evolution, to claims that Darwin’s argument led directly to Nazism and the Holocaust, Communism, and to Pol Pot, peddled by Raymond Hall in Creation magazine in 2005, and even to claims that the chronic vomiting illness Darwin experienced for decades was a sign of divine wrath.
The dishonesty of the Evangelical approach to life extends into sex education as their obsession with chastity and abstinence leads them to tell lies about the effectiveness of contraceptive techniques, as with McIlhaney’s leaflet about condoms.
McIlhaney is a medical doctor whose main practice focuses on gynaecology, especially dealing with the issues of infertile couples. In 1982 he founded the Medical Institute for Sexual Health to promote the idea that abstinence and chastity are the only ways to remain healthy for adolescents. He now seems to have produced a series of DVDs to educate young adults about the dangers of any kind of contraception other than abstinence.
Hedges draws a very long bow in interpreting all this very familiar material from Christian conservatives, claiming that "the paraprofessional organisations formed by the Christian Right – organisations of teachers, journalists, doctors, lawyers and scientists – mimic the activities of traditional professional groups …They seek to challenge the legitimacy and power of these traditional organisations" and that this is a typical totalitarian technique for displacing proper professional organisations with pseudo-imitations that offer the official totalitarian line as official propaganda.
Unfortunately he does not develop a one-line statement near the end
of this section of his book, that "there are Christian scientists who challenge
research regarding global warming, AIDS, and pregnancy prevention." Chris
Mooney’s book, The Republican War on Science did it far better.
The new class
The scene shifts to Anaheim in California – the suburb where Disneyland is located. There Hedges attended the annual convention of 5,500 National Religious Broadcasters at the Hilton and interviewed several people for his book.
One was Dee Simmons, then aged 64, survivor of breast cancer, putting a very large effort into being a glamorous 60+, and marketer of her Ultimate Living heath products to celebrities. The conversation involved much name-dropping of celebrities who use her products and help market them for her, and much more about the extravagant consumerist lifestyle she lives, boasting of the obscene opulence of her daughter’s wedding. Hedges comment on what he experienced is about the "Strange fusion between the flamboyant gospel of prosperity and American’s celebrity-driven culture". Hollywood celebrities are seen as having something important to say about religious belief and the nature of the universe. Hedges is very unimpressed with the way these people have twisted the message of Jesus, who is believed to have mainly mixed with the poor and disadvantaged.
The Broadcasters’ convention had booths advertising opposition to "activist judges" (read Democrat appointees in favour of liberal interpretation of the constitution), anti-abortion messages (generally with women speakers who it turns out had multiple abortions before discovering Jesus) and anti-homosexual propaganda and also promoting restrictions on secular media, which unfortunately he does not elucidate further, just referring to a report by a group called Accuracy in Media.
So I looked them up – the Wikipedia entry is very good. It was founded in 1969 by Reed Irvine as a watchdog to combat biased reporting in main-stream media. It has always favoured conservative causes. For example, when the US government was involved in a local conflict in El Salvador in the 1980s, a massacre by right-wing death squads was reported by the networks. AIM claimed it wasall the bias of left-wing journalists, but when the skeletons were exhumed in the 1990s the original report was vindicated.
One of its "journalists", Cliff Kincaid, attacks any media reporting about global warming as biased, and is much into conspiracy-theories about clandestine relations between Bill Clinton and Rupert Murdoch as the origin of these biased media stories. Much of AIM’s funding was from oil companies in the 1980s, and several billionaires.
One speaker at the convention talked about the Council for National Policy, an entity for conservative politicians, with wealthy funders, including DeVos (of Amway) and Coors (a brewing multi-millionaire). I have picked out a few issues that currently concern this group – all very predictable, including the threat of secret conspiracies against their value system.
At one of its meetings George W. Bush, then campaigning for the presidency, spoke to a large crowd, promising when elected to appoint only anti-abortion judges to the Supreme Court and insisting his speech not be made public. Cheney and Rumsfeld also addressed meetings of this group.
Its second-in-command was then Tony Perkins, who was known to have made significant money donations to the Ku Klux Klan, and had spoken at gatherings of the Council of Conservative Citizens, which Hedges claims was a white nationalist group, pro-Confederacy, pro-segregation, racist, and the usual suite of ugly values. They are still very active, always waving Confederate flags and seemingly with an all-white membership, living in a fantasy world in which the South did not lose the 1860-1865 civil war and the Old South values could still be viable.
One of Hedges’ major themes is the prevailing habit of focusing strongly on legislation rather than on managing church communities and providing services to them. For example, the National Religious Broadcasters organization was led by Brandt Gustavson in the 1990s. He died in 2001, and was succeeded by Wayne Pederson, who tried to shift the organization away from their focus on politics and legislation and "was quickly removed, replaced by Frank Wright, who issued a media release to the effect that "Calls for diversity and multiculturalism are thinly veiled attacks on anyone who is willing to proclaim Christian truth." The group lobbies vigorously in Congress against the sort of hate-crime legislation encoded in our Anti-Discrimination Act, Section 18C, proclaiming that it would be "step one to defining what you do as against the law." Which is probably true, as their anti-Muslim and anti-abortionist public statements do amount to "hate crime".
He has an amusing diversion into the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, which had a booth and hosted a breakfast at the convention. The Christian Right ideology includes a claim that all Jews who have not converted to the Christian Right at the End Times will be sent to the lake of fire and burn there forever. But the Ministry of Tourism nevertheless actively promotes travel to Israel by members of these groups. Hedges chatted with one of the women staffing the Israeli booth, Marina, and asked her about this anomaly. She said she was embarrassed to be at the convention.
"These people are anti-Semitic." She was unhappy at the conventioneers’ bigotry towards Muslims. When Hedges asked her why the Ministry set up their booth at such a convention, she answered curtly "Money. No-one else visits Israel", she said.
Hedges moves on to the concept of the Evangelicals conducting a crusade against their many external enemies and threats, which they see as a military venture. His example is Pastor Russell Johnson in Ohio, who speaks with a backdrop of a USA stars-and-stripes flag with a Christian cross painted over it. Johnson was a demagogue, and used much war imagery in his fire-and-brimstone speeches. The enemy of course is secular humanism, and it is time for all good Christians to arm themselves and prepare for battle. Much of his work in 2005-6 involved campaigning for J. Kenneth Blackwell, a black very conservative candidate for the state governorship (he lost with just 37% of the vote).
Blackwell had been mayor of Cincinnati, Ohio state treasurer, and secretary of state and of course was a Republican. He was a Senior Fellow of the Family Research Council and on the advisory board for the National Rifle Association.
The speech by Johnson that Hedges witnessed was delivered at a gathering of a group founded by Johnson, Patriot Pastors, 2000 of them: tying Christianity to intense nationalism – which in Hedges’ view was the link to fascism – not quite National Socialism, but definitely National Religious Autocracy.
Much of Johnson’s call was about voter registration – in USA voting is optional, and a large fraction of the adult population never votes. The images displayed were a mix of Christian symbols and USA armed forces in Afghanistan. Johnson claimed that Hitler was "an avid evolutionist", implying of course that being an evolutionist leads inevitably to being a Nazi war-monger. The creation of anxiety was a major focus of his speech: "the enemy lives in your neighbourhood, teaches in your schools, works in your office". He presented secular humanists as some kind of armed militia waiting for a signal to massacre all Christians. The enemy includes all liberal Christians, who are traitors to the proper belief system. The mantra of "love your neighbor" does not apply to the enemy. Those who do not conform to Johnson’s brand of religion have no possibility of goodness in them and the only way to be safe from them is to kill them all.
At this point Hedges inserts a homily about the importance of recognizing that the evil can be within oneself, and some goodness may be found in one’s enemies. The fervent believer’s view is that all goodness is in himself and his comrades and all evil in the other people. One of the problems Hedges raises is whether these people should be tolerated as they don’t really mean it and are underneath fundamentally decent people. He suggests it is not so, they are very dangerous and should be stopped. Tolerance is misguided for such people, along the lines of Popper’s introductory statement, an indulgence in "the pleasant fiction that these radicals are fundamentally decent, that they do not mean what they say, that they will never actually persecute homosexuals or nonbelievers or execute abortion providers. Such passivity only accelerates the probability of evil." "The movement is creating a parallel system, complete with parallel Christian organisations, to replace the old one. It is a slow and often imperceptible process, but Johnson’s Ohio rally is the outward expression of vast subterranean shifts that are methodically reorienting the lives of literalist Christians and the country."
School texts published by the Evangelicals denigrate all African religions along with Hinduism and other Asian religions. Being extreme Protestants they of course also radically denigrate the Catholic church, and, not surprisingly, Johnson defended the reign of Senator Joe McCarthy as an American patriot.
Hedges provides some interesting statistics, to the effect that 15% of all school enrolments in 2005 were in Evangelical schools, and the 1.1 million home-schoolers were largely extracted from schools so parents could control their religious values. They are interesting numbers but not really a demonstration that the 1.1 million being home-schooled are budding fascists.
USA has a strongly individualistic culture, and of course communitarian groups find this a threat, so Blackwell in his speech spoke out strongly against it – conformity and obedience are what he valued. The totalitarian twist to his value system is that he wanted all his congregation to keep an eye on each other and search out failure to conform and obey, and report these lapses to the leaders so the lapsed could be interrogated. Right out of Orwell’s nightmare story.
He finishes up with an account of another widely followed preacher, Rod Parsley, 45% of whose congregation are African-Americans. Secular media reps were ordered to leave before he started speaking – they could be relied on to not report favourably on what he had to offer – anti-homosexual, anti-Islam – the Muslims are out to conquer the world by violence and Christian America is mandated by his god to usher in the reign of Jesus.
Parsley apparently lives a very opulent lifestyle, funded by tithing all his congregation, no matter how poor, and making the usual promise that all gifts "will be returned tenfold", so it is really an investment. Parsley has a long record of resisting transparency about church finances and how they are spent, the suspicion being that his opulent mansion was paid for from the tithes of the poor, rather like Aimee Semple McPherson in the 1920s. There have been many claims by disaffected employees that Parsley misappropriated church funds, as published by Sarah Posner in American Prospect. She exposed a partnership with an attorney whose claim to fame was he defended church funds against transparency and accountability.
Another of Hedges’ references comes from Personal Freedom Outreach, a non-profit devoted to exposing cults. One issue of their Quarterly Journal had an attack on Rod Parsley, by their lead writer, Richard Fisher. The quote about wanting the money of his listeners was copied verbatim into Hedges’ book.
God, the commercial
Hedges tells a story of Arthur Blessit, who claims to have walked the roads of every country on Earth, 305 of them, some 60,000 km, carrying a large wooden cross the entire distance, between 1969 and 2005 and gained an entry in the Guinness Book of Records for his trouble.
"By the grace of god, I’ve walked through 50 countries at war, I’ve been in jail 24 times…"
He has his own website, and published a book about his adventures with his wife Denise.
In 2004 he appeared on Trinity Broadcasting Network television station’s regular hourly program "Praise the Lord" with Paul and Jan Crouch, who cooked up a miracle story of Blessit somewhere in South America suddenly surrounded by machine-gun wielding bandits who were within seconds of gunning down him and his wife, when the Crouch pair had a revelation that Blessit was in trouble and prayed intensely and there was a flash of light. When it faded, all the bandits were flat on the ground, then they got up and fled, and left the Blessits unharmed. A miracle!
This is followed by a message that viewers can call a "prayer counselor" on a toll-free number on the screen, which is always followed by invitation to make a "love gift" to TBN. Each week the story is of the Crouch couple’s capacity through their prayer-power to perform miracles. On the strength of all this they live an extreme opulent lifestyle, with multiple mansions, their own jet, luxury cars and all their life expenses booked to TBN via corporate credit cards.
He contrasts this with the story of Arlene Jacques, a middle-aged woman with two adult daughters, coming from a dysfunctional childhood experience, to teenage marriage and then divorce, poverty and despair. Her mother was a fanatical rescuer of the homeless, and Arlene absorbed her mother’s intense belief, became an avid watcher of TBN programs and contributed her mite in welfare stamps to its funding, believing in miracles and the power of prayer.
Hedges sees all this as not just the exploitation of the gullible by the rapacious and manipulative celebrities of the religious broadcasters, but as undermining people’s understanding of the need for secular agencies to look after their needs, weakening the defence of the only restriction on unfettered capitalism.
He also pops in another contribution to the War on Truth theme, quoting from a popular textbook America’s Providential History, which has paragraphs on the dominion clauses in Genesis 1, "as evidence that the Bible calls for ‘Bible-believing Christians’ to take dominion of America and the world." "The book fuses the Christian message with the celebration of unrestricted capitalism. It denounces income tax as ‘idolatry’, and property tax as ‘theft’ and…calls for the abolishment of inheritance taxes."
He sees all this as part of a subtle campaign to weaken the institutions which preserve democracy, as the Evangelicals have no love for democracy. "We really do not want representatives who are swayed by majorities, but rather by correct principles."
The book also "belittles secular environmentalists who see natural resources as fragile and limited, and says of those who hold these concerns that they ‘lack faith in god’s providence and consequently man will find fewer natural resources."
As David Roberts wrote in his review for Grist, "Many Christian fundamentalists feel that concern for the future of our planet is irrelevant, because it has no future. They believe we are living in the End Time… they may also believe…that environmental destruction is not only to be disregarded but actually welcomed – even hastened – as a sign of the coming Apocalypse."
Hedges worries that when all the institutions needed to preserve democracy are weakened and the defenceless are really without defending institutions, "tyranny follows."
Hedges finishes up with a long chapter on Apocalyptic Violence, focusing on the Gilead Baptist church near Detroit, where Gary Frazier, founder of Discovery Missions, conducted a conference around the theme of End Times, one of many he leads around the USA. They are largely marketing exercises for his and others’ books and DVDs. His guest at the conference Hedges attended was Timothy LaHaye, co-author of the Left Behind books. He draws a bleak picture of the industrial belt in long-term decline, rusting old factories, and disintegrating community life full of family violence, divorce and alcohol.
LaHaye was there with his wife Beverly, also author of several books and like many such conventions this was a great opportunity to sell some and do book-signings for their fan club. Beverley founded Concerned Women for America, a very conservative group, with apparently over 500,000 members, and a program of lobbying for legislation that favours their point of view.
She seems to be just a contributor to a conservative part of the nation, selling books etc. But the CWA program is really interesting. It is totally devoted to getting legislation through Congress and State legislatures, on the seven issue-clusters they decided to focus on, which are the standard fare of conservatives.
There has been much controversy about Obamacare, of which we pick up snippets in Australia, mainly about its first-time inclusion of many hitherto uninsured poor people. But for conservatives that is not the issue, it is about being compelled to pay taxes to support a compulsory insurance scheme that funds abortions and contraceptives.
Their education policy is about sustaining parental authority over what their children are presented with in school, objecting to "godless philosophies" whatever that means, to the teaching of evolution and sex education (homosexuals, abortion and contraception again). And about the "unbalanced presentation of the founding of America", which they see as the deliberate creation by its Christian founders as the setting up of a Christian state, since corrupted by secular humanists and now far from their heart’s desire.
Their objection to hate crime – a very similar issue for conservatives to the 18C controversy in Australia, is about controls over their freedom to say ugly things about homosexuality, "punishing people for their Biblical views on sexuality." Except of course they are not Biblical views – there is nothing in the bible about contraception or about abortion – these are all very modern concerns.
Her website’s home page is very revealing with a rear view of Trump apparently addressing a group of conservative Christians – our man is now in the Oval Office and we’ll get the legislation we have wanted so long. It’s sort-of a Last Supper layout, which traditionally always has Jesus at the centre, surrounded by his disciples.
Fascinating that it refers to the election of Trump as "our Esther moment". Esther, in the book named after her, was married to the Persian king, Ahasuerus, arranged by her father. She persuaded the king that his chief minister, Haman, was plotting to exterminate the Jews within his kingdom, including herself. Ahasuerus had Haman hanged, and the Jews went on a rampage, described in the 9th chapter of the book of Esther, massacring 75,000 Persians who were their external threat, following it up with a festival of gladness. So an "Esther moment" is really a sign of something extremely nasty.
At the convention, LaHaye’s speech is full of grisly and gory imagery of the fate of the unbelievers, and an urge to "get right with god as fast as possible as there’s little time left". He has graphic descriptions, all from his own imagination, of the Armageddon battle (supposedly to occur on the hill of Megiddo in southern Israel – the writer of Revelation was very parochial and didn’t know about Easter Island or New Guinea).
The forces aligned with the Antichrist are of course the United Nations, the European Union, Russia, Iraq, all Muslims, the media, liberals, freethinkers, the ever-reliable "international bankers" and, behind it all, the homosexuals and lesbians and their secret conspiracy to take over the world. What a hodge-podge of disparate groups to suddenly find they have something in common, which is hostility to the Evangelical hordes!
Frazier used the standard Evangelical imagery from Daniel to fit his prophecies into the fourfold world empire sequence, though looking back from the 21st century, the concept of Babylon as a "world empire" seems rather exaggerated, as are the Greek and Roman empires, and the idea that the EU is just a resurfaced Roman Empire which never really declined and fell, so Gibbon got it all wrong, is just hilarious.
He makes very amusing generalisations – no rapture in Europe as there are hardly any "Bible-believing Christians" there any more, as the USA is the last bastion of Christianity (the lost ten tribes found their way there perhaps), so USA will be substantially depopulated at the Rapture and revert to a 3rd-world country.
Frazier carries on about the End Times having started unfurling in 1948 with the formation of the modern state of Israel, and that the real enemy within the USA is the Muslims, as all terrorists up to 2005 have been Muslims. Theirs is a satanic religion, and its followers seek world domination, waiting patiently in sleeper cells – sounds much like the hysteria of the 1940s when Reds under the bed were the current fashionable bogeymen. He anticipates the rebuilding of Solomon’s temple to usher in the reign of the Antichrist, and the final battles from which the tiny minority of true Christians will end up in heaven and all others in the lake of fire after long periods of torture and scattering of body parts.
Hedges concludes by reviving memories of his ethics professor at Harvard Divinity School, Dr. James Luther Adams, who spent his early adulthood leading a church in then newly Nazified Germany, until he left to escape the persecutions there. But first he observed closely the German Christian Church, which was just a front organization for the Nazi party, anti-Christian in essence and deeply hostile to the Open Society. Many church leaders in Germany remained silent, and some were collaborators. Adams was a friend of Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, switched allegiances between sects several times and finished up for decades in the Unitarian Universalist Church.
Hedges remembers a warning from Adams, then retired and in his 80s, that when fascism came to America it would not be people with swastikas but with the American flag and the Bible. He was vigorously critical of the weakness of tolerant liberals who were not capable of responding to the developing menace of organized evil other than with banalities and affable impotence.
Which is pretty much what Hedges does in his conclusion, suggesting that keeping a strict separation of church and state is fundamental to the Open Society and the preservation of the individual, so it is not subsumed by the crowd "the chief goal of totalitarianism". Hedges is very concerned about the move to insecure and intermittent employment, to the bleakness of consumer society, the loss of trust that the economy will deliver the good life to its citizens and the destruction of community in the mobile society, and saw these as the background for a move towards a more totalitarian society, with the Christian fundamentalists in the lead, definitely out to destroy democracy which is incompatible with their vision of the Good Society.
Despite the many weaknesses in his structure, I have found it a most interesting argument and searching his many sources and the conservative lobby groups he refers to a fascinating adventure.
To finish up I searched for material about James Luther Adams and found a vigorous debate about his ideas on the Unitarian Universalist church website, uuworld.org, including a long and thoughtful essay by Adams’ biographer, Keach, which led me to another one by Charles Derber, a Professor of Sociology, on the big debate about whether fascism is on the rise in USA. He interviewed Loehr, who has a doctorate in theology, on fascism and political fundamentalism, and got an interesting response that fits in very well with Hedges’ theme.
The uuworld.org community seems very intellectually vibrant.
Presented to the Atheist Society,
13 March 2018