In 2007, the journalist Chris Hedges published his fourth book, American Fascists: the Christian Right and War on America. Although much of the book is alarmist and differs quite sharply with my own experience as a youth and young adult in evangelicalism, his critiques are worthy of consideration. The final chapter “Apocalyptic Violence” is easily the strongest writing and argumentation of the work.
He reflected on the lessons that his Harvard Divinity ethics professor, James Adams, who was an ally of Bonhoeffer, taught him. Touching on the sources and motivations for a particularly American conception of fascism, Hedges points to many of the same features that spurred the Trump campaign: financial insecurity, promises of Utopia, and conspiratorial finger-pointing. The section is worth quoting at length:
[Harvard professor of ethics Dr. James Luther] Adams was not a man to use the word ‘fascist’ lightly. He was in Germany in 1935 and 1936 and worked with the underground anti-Nazi church, known as the Confessing Church, with dissidents such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Adams was eventually detained and interrogated by the Gestapo, who suggested he might want to consider returning to the United States. It was a suggestion he followed. He left on a night train with framed portraits of Adolf Hitler placed over the contents inside his suitcase to hide the rolls of home movie film he took of the so-called German Christian Church, which was pro-Nazi, and the few individuals who defied them, including the theologians Karl Barth and Albert Schweitzer. The ruse worked. The border police lifted the tops of the suitcases, saw the portraits of the Fuhrer and closed them up again. I watched hours of the grainy black-and-white films as he narrated in his apartment in Cambridge.
He saw in the Christian Right, long before we did, disturbing similarities with the German Christian Church and the Nazi Party, similarities, he said that would, in the event of prolonged social instability, catastrophe or national crisis, see American fascists, under the guise of Christianity, rise to dismantle the open society. He despaired of liberals, who he said, as in Nazi Germany, mouthed empty platitudes about dialogue and inclusiveness that made them ineffectual and impotent. Liberals, he said, did not understand the power and allure of evil or the cold reality of how the world worked. His long discussions with church leaders and theologians in Nazi Germany—some of whom collaborated with the regime, some of whom resisted and most of whom remained silent—were the defining experiences of his life. He was preoccupied with how liberal democracies, which could never hope to compete with the fantastic, utopian promises of personal and collective salvation offered by totalitarian movements, could resist. Adams was a close friend of the theologian Paul Tillich, a vocal opponent of the Nazis who in 1933 became the first non-Jewish professor barred from German universities and soon went into exile. Tillich, he reminded us, taught that the role of the church was in society, that the depth of its commitment and faith were measured by its engagement with politics and culture. It was this engagement that alone gave faith its vibrancy and worth. Tillich did not retreat from the looming crisis around him. He spoke out against the intolerance and hatred preached by the Nazis before they came to power. And Tillich angrily chastised those in the church who, preoccupied with narrow Christian piety, were passive. He thundered against this complacency and begged Christians to begin to ‘take time seriously.’
Adams had seen how the mask of religion hides irreligion. He reminded us that ‘our world is full to bursting with faiths, each contending for allegiance.’ He told us that Hitler claimed to teach the meaning of faith. Mussolini used to shout, ‘Believe, follow, and act,’ and told his followers that fascism, before being a party, had been a religion. Human history is not the struggle between religion and irreligion, Adams said. ‘It is veritably a battle of faiths, a battle of the gods who claim human allegiance.’
Democracy is not, as these Christo-fascists claim, the enemy of faith. Democracy keeps religious faith in the private sphere, ensuring that all believers have an equal measure of protection and practice mutual tolerance. Democracy sets no religious ideal. It simply ensures coexistence. It permits the individual to avoid being subsumed by the crowd—the chief goal of totalitarianism, which seeks to tell all citizens what to believe, how to behave and how to speak. The call to obliterate the public and the private wall that keeps faith the prerogative of the individual means the obliteration of democracy. Once this wall between church and state, or party and state, is torn down, there is an open and subtle warfare against love, which in an open society is another exclusive prerogative of the individual. In the totalitarian world, there are those worthy of love and those unworthy of it. In the totalitarian world, the private sphere becomes the concern of the state. This final restriction of the freedom to love—the freedom of a Christian to love a Muslim or the freedom to love those branded by the state as the enemy—heralds the death of the open society. The promises of Christian harmony, unity, happiness—in short a utopia—held forth by the dominionists have a seductive quality that will never be countered by the tepid offerings of democrats, who at best can offer citizens the opportunity to seek their own happiness and construct their own meaning.
We must, Adams also told us, watch closely what these new fascists accused their opponents of planning. For radical movements expose their own intentions and goals by tarring their enemies with their own nefarious motives. These movements assume that those they attack are, like themselves, also hiding their true agenda, also plotting to silence and eradicate opponents. This common form of ‘projection’ was, on a smaller scale, on display during the Florida recount in 2000. The Republicans accused Al Gore of attempting to steal the election through court fiat, the very theft being secretly orchestrated by the Republicans. Richard Hofstadter was one of the first to grasp the role of projection in ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’:
It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry. Secret organizations set up to combat secret organizations give the same flattery. The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through ‘front’ groups and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy. Spokesmen of the various fundamentalist anti-Communist ‘crusades’ openly express their admiration for the dedication and discipline the Communist cause calls forth.
Adams, like Bonhoeffer did not believe that those who would fight effectively in coming times of turmoil, a fight that for him was an integral part of the biblical message, would arise from the institutional church or the liberal, secular elite. His critique of the prominent research universities—self-absorbed, compromised by their close relationship with government and corporations, given enough of the pie to be complacent—were unwilling to deal with the fundamental moral questions and inequities of the age. They had no stomach for the battle that might cost them their prestige and comfort. He saw how easily the German universities had been Nazified. He told me, I suspect only half in jest, that if the Nazis took over America, ‘60 percent of the Harvard faculty would begin their lectures with the Nazi salute.’ He had seen academics at the University of Heidelberg, including the philosopher Martin Heidegger, raise their arms stiffly to students before class. Adams also reminded us that American intellectuals and industrialists openly flirted with fascism in the 1930s. Mussolini’s ‘corporatism,’ which created an unchecked industrial and business aristocracy, appealed to many American industrialists at the time, who saw it as an effective counterweight to Roosevelt’s New Deal. In July 1934, Fortune magazine lavished praise on the Italian dictator for his defanging of labor unions and his empowerment of industrialists at the expense of workers. And Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here told the story of a conservative politician, ‘Buzz’ Windrip, backed by a nationally syndicated radio host, Bishop Peter Paul Prang, who is elected president and becomes a dictator to save the nation from welfare cheats, sex, crime and a liberal press.
The New York Times in 1944 asked Vice President Henry Wallace to answer the questions: What is a fascist? How many fascists have we? How dangerous are they? The Vice President’s answers were published on April 9, 1944, as the war against the Axis Powers and Japan was drawing to a close. He wrote:
The really dangerous American fascists . . . is the man who wants to do in the United States in an American way what Hitler did in Germany in a Prussian way. The American fascist would prefer not to use violence. His method is to poison the channels of public information. With a fascist the problem is never how best to present the truth to the public but how best to use the news to deceive the public into giving the fascist and his group more money or more power.
They claim to be superpatriots, but they would destroy every liberty guaranteed by the Constitution. They demand free enterprise but are the spokesmen for monopoly and vested interest. Their final objective toward which all their deceit is directed is to capture political power so that, using the power of the state and the power of the market simultaneously, they may keep the common man in eternal subjugation.
Adams knew that resentments and bigotry lurk below the surface of all democratic societies and can be roused, under the right conditions, to promote a creed that calls for the destruction of democracy. What is evil about these systems of intolerance and persecution is not the foot soldiers who carry out the crimes, but the organization that mobilizes and unleashes these dark passions. He worried that such a movement was, late in his life, again on the march. It was more sophisticated than in the past, more cleverly packaged, and this time without serious opposition. The hatreds were again being stoked. The labor unions and progressives who had been able to battle back in the 1930s were spent forces. The despair of tens of millions of Americans, unable to find manufacturing jobs or work that offered fair wages and benefits, would lead them, he knew, into the arms of these fanatical preachers. The rage of those abandoned by the economy, the fears and concerns of a beleaguered and insecure middle class, and the numbing isolation that comes with the loss of community, would be the kindling for a dangerous mass movement. If these dispossessed were not reincorporated into mainstream society, if they eventually lost all hope of finding good, stable jobs and opportunities for themselves and their children—in short, the promise of a brighter future—the specter of American fascism would beset the nation. This despair, this loss of hope, this denial of a future, led the desperate into the arms of those who promised miracles and dreams of apocalyptic glory. Adams had seen it once. He knew what it looked like. He feared it was coming again.
While I would disagree with Hedges’ notion that Christianity can or should serve as a grounding for modern liberal democracy, his critiques of fascism and the church’s complicity thereof are important in light of our most recent election.
P. 194 – 200. Paragraphs in italics are block paragraphs from other authors quoted in the original material.