Springtime for Pat Robertson? Maybe, maybe not

Review Religion and politics

January 14, 2007|By Jon Wiener | Jon Wiener,Los Angeles Times

American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America

Chris Hedges

Free Press / 256 pages / $25

President Eisenhower famously said, "Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what that faith is." The people Chris Hedges writes about in his new book have a different view: They care a lot about the religion on which our government is based and they think it should be Christianity - their version, of course. American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America is a call to arms against what Hedges sees as the efforts of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and the operators of Trinity Broadcasting Network, among others, to turn the United States into a Christian nation.

Hedges is not your average secular humanist. He knows his Bible. He's the son of a Presbyterian minister and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School. He's also a Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent for The New York Times who has reported from more than 50 countries over the past 20 years.

In American Fascists, Hedges reports in fascinating detail what goes on inside the churches, conventions and meeting halls of the Christian right. He attends a "Love Won Out" conference in Boston, sponsored by James Dobson's Focus on the Family, held to "cure" those who are afflicted by "same-sex attraction." He visits the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., where he finds a display describing evolution as the "big lie."

Hedges also goes to the National Religious Broadcasters' annual convention, where 5,500 Christian TV and radio folk gather in Anaheim. And he joins a five-day "Evangelism Explosion" seminar in Florida to learn tactics for converting people to the Christian right's version of Christ. That conference is run by D. James Kennedy, whose The Coral Ridge Hour is seen weekly on more than 600 TV stations. There, he and 60 other people learn the sales pitch and how to fake friendship for the potential convert. Then they talk about sin. The aspiring evangelists also are told that "eternal life cannot be achieved through good deeds or even a good life," that there is no escape from sin, that belief in Jesus is the only way to eternal life.

But the key message Hedges and the others are taught to deliver is that conversion obliterates "our fear of death, not only for ourselves, but the fear we have of losing those we love" - for example, children or spouses fighting in Iraq. This, Hedges argues, is "not only dishonest but cruel," because the fear of death cannot be banished.

This message is also dangerous, Hedges writes, because the goal of the Christian right is "not simply conversion but also eventual recruitment into a political movement to create a Christian nation," where constitutional freedoms would be replaced by biblical law, as interpreted by evangelical leaders. Kennedy has been clear about this goal: "As the vice regents of God," the Florida-based minister has written, "we are to exercise godly dominion and influence over our neighborhoods, our schools, our government," as well as "our entertainment media, our news media, our scientific endeavors. ... "

If the conservative Christians come to power, Hedges asserts, evangelical leaders such as Kennedy, Falwell and Robertson could be "calling for the punishment, detention and quarantining of gays and lesbians - as well as abortionists, Muslims and other nonbelievers." Thus, Hedges concludes, the United States today faces an internal threat analogous to that posed by the Nazis in Weimar Germany.

There are problems with this analogy. First, democracy in America is much stronger than it was in Weimar Germany in 1933. Nor is the Christian right as widespread or powerful as Hedges suggests. And it isn't as if conservative Christians are the only obstacle to gay marriage: Yes, 85 percent of white evangelicals oppose gay marriage, but in the general population the figure is 61 percent.

Nevertheless, Hedges concludes that the Christian right "should no longer be tolerated," because it "would destroy the tolerance that makes an open society possible." What does he think should be done? He endorses the view that "any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law," and therefore we should treat "incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal." Thus he rejects the First Amendment protections for freedom of speech and religion, and court rulings that permit prosecution for speech only if there is an imminent threat to particular individuals.

Hedges advocates passage of federal hate-crimes legislation prohibiting intolerance, but he doesn't really explain how it would work. Many countries do prohibit "hate speech." Holocaust denial, for example, is a crime in Germany, Austria and several other European countries. But does this mean that Hedges favors prosecuting Christian fundamentalists for declaring, for example, that abortion providers are murderers or that secular humanists are agents of Satan? He doesn't say.

Prosecuting Pat Robertson for his preaching is likely to win him more sympathy and support, not less. There is a stronger answer to those who want to prohibit speech they consider wrong and dangerous: The solution is not less speech but more. Argue back. Debate your opponents. Fight arguments with better ones. Challenge them in elections with strong candidates. That's the way to preserve the tolerance that Hedges values. And as the November midterm elections seemed to show, it works.

Jon Wiener, a history professor at the University of California, Irvine, is the author, most recently, of "Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud and Politics in the Ivory Tower." A longer version of this review appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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