Thursday, January 31, 2013

Fundamentalism = Facism?

Just finished Chris Hedges' American Facists (2007), which I commend to anyone who wants to read about the hucksters, pettifogers, shysters, and spiritual costermongers that populate the fundamentalist American Evangelical scene. Per the book's title, Hedges's purpose is to draw attention to the parallels between the Jerry Falwells, Pat Robertsons, and Tim LaHayes of recent American decades and the Adolf Hilters, Hermann Görings, and Adolf Eichmanns of WWII Germany. There are parallels, yes. Strategies for the use of mass media, obsession with the sexual purification of the community, denial of the right of dissenters to participate in the deliberative political process, valorization of strongmen, etc.--just to name a few.

 The book might be read as a prequel to his attack on atheist fundamentalism When Atheism Becomes Religion, which was published the following. Though it is probably better understood as part of a larger project of exposing the outrages and hypocrisies of fundamentalist outlooks as such. As much as his atheist and religious targets of criticism despise each other, each accords the other the right to exist as a scapegoat, to be driven from the camp, as it were, in order to purge the community. Hedges is not willing to grant even that much. If someone wants to pretend to have plugged themselves directly into the truth of all things, and suppose that they possess a right to dictate terms to everyone else, they don't deserve the time of day.

What's more, Hedges can claim the privileged perspective of an insider--presumably an insider to both perspectives, but I will focus on his arguments against the religious right. Born and raised in upstate New York, a son of a pastor, who went on to study at seminary, before pursuing a career as an investigative journalist, Hedges details a disgusting process of divine domestication pursued by the religious right since the 1970s. This was an is a world of which I am only vaguely aware. A sheltered Canadian existence is relatively insulating. Something, I think, worth thanking God for. (Can I get an amen from my Canadian brothers and sisters? Still can't hear you! I said: CAN I GET AN AMEN?!)

Frank and brutal, the book describes how evangelical leaders have played on people's fears, demanded their obedience as an expression of faith in God, and fleeced their flocks for every last penny. Indeed, American Facists is perhaps too uniform in its portrayal of Evangelicalism not to raise questions. There is a hesitant suggestion that a younger Billy Grahman belonged to a different breed and generation of televangelists than did those listed above early on in the book. For the rest, it is difficult to find any hints of redeeming qualities in the movement.

Which raises questions about whom the book was addressed to? It's difficult to imagine it was written to inform the average Evangelical believer about the depravities of their beliefs. Hedges' target is continually moving. Here a scandal-ridden televangelist, there the legal hi-jinx of a church denomination, and here again the Evangelical movement as a whole. But Mr. or Mrs. Smith, standing on the corner of 1st and Main, in Anyville, Anystate, collecting donations for the food and clothing drive next Saturday? In some sense or other, they always seem to find their way into Hedges' sights: by identifying with the ministry or message of someone like James Dobson, by belonging to that denomination or mega-church, or merely by being Evangelical; but they themselves don't necessarily to figure into his picture. One gets the sense he preaches to the converted: to those who have already escaped the clutches of the same narrow-minded Evangelicalism he exposes. To his credit, he appears to recognize as much.

My difficulty with the book stems for this rather superficial analysis of the Evangelicalism. Moving so quickly from outrage to hypocrisy, from financial to sexual indiscretions, Hedges never gets around to saying more than clergy ought not behave like this.

Elsewhere in his writings Hedges has rather harsh things to say about finance capitalism (presumably he would not object to market capitalism). He ought to have pointed out how the forms of authority in Evangelical churches more and more imitates the forms and trapping of authority in the corporate world--which, unlike a hierarchical Catholic church order, invests in its leadership no real understanding of moral obligation towards others, and unlike a Presbyterian church order, invests no real sense of personal responsibility towards others. The evidence is right in front of his nose; he documents it in great detail. Pastors behaving like CEOs. The Gospel message pitched like a car sale. Outreach success measured in terms of profit margins.

Nor does he gets around to asking why it is we allow business leaders to behave in ways that we despise in our clergy.

No comments: