January 14, 2007
by Chris HedgesExtremism: Radical preachers offer a magical world for battered believers.
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, fraternité-egalité-liberté, 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.
During the last 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 whether I was in Detroit or Kansas City or Cleveland. There are parts of the United States, including whole sections of former manufacturing centers 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.
We as a nation have turned our backs on the working class, with much of the worst assaults, such as NAFTA and welfare reform, pushed through 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 what their American counterparts receive and who will, like 45 million Americans, have no access to health insurance or benefits. There has been, along with the creation of an American oligarchy, a steady Weimarization of the American working class. And such distortions, as Plutarch reminded us, have grave political consequences for democracies. The top 1 percent of American households have more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined. This figure alone should terrify all who care about our democracy.
The stories believers told me of their lives before they found Christ were heartbreaking. 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 in which news and information were not filtered through the comforting ideological prism of radical religion, 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 daily to protect them and perform miracles in their lives. The rage many expressed to me toward 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.
Believers, of course, clinging to this magical belief, which is a bizarre form of spiritual Darwinism, will be "raptured" upward, while the rest of us will be tormented with horrors by a warrior Christ and finally extinguished. This 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 a moral license to direct this rage and yearning for violence against all those who refuse to submit to the movement, from liberals, to "secular humanists," to "nominal Christians," to intellectuals, to gays and lesbians, to Muslims. These radicals, 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. And 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 give 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' new book is "American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America."