Happy May Day. When I think about America’s refusal to deal with the problem of social-class hierarchy, a lot of reasons come to mind. Religion is at the forefront.
I thought this would be a good time to publish, for the first time online, a piece I wrote for The Progressive in 2007. It was a review of two books, David Kuo’s Tempting Faith and Chris Hedges’s American Fascists. I believe the piece offers a close view of the ways and means by which the religious right manipulates its followers.
This is the last version I sent to the editor. As I recall, she made a few small edits before the print version came out. I didn’t do a comparison, so this version is probably a little different from the published one. Think of this as the “writer’s cut.”
Professional Christians (The Progressive, March 2007)
Two recent books analyze the explosive mixture of politics and religion that governs American conservatism. In Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, David Kuo reports his experiences as an evangelical Christian and Bush White House staffer responsible for faith-based charity initiatives. Chris Hedges, a veteran journalist, finds totalitarianism under the banner of faith in American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.
Tempting Faith has received a great deal of attention due to Kuo’s argument that cynicism governs the Bush Administration’s relationship with evangelical Christians. A born-again evangelical, Kuo worked for a number of conservative groups in the 1990s. By the end of that decade, he was growing increasingly uncomfortable with partisan politics and desired a better, more Christian policy for the poor. In 1998, Governor George W. Bush interviewed him for a speechwriting job. The governor spoke so passionately about fighting poverty that Kuo was bowled over like “a 1960s girl who had just seen the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show,” as he puts it.
In 2001, Kuo became an assistant in the White House’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. That’s when nothing happened—except for the staffer’s gradual realization that the other Administration officials never intended to meet candidate Bush’s promise of $8 billion per year in faith-based anti-poverty funding. By Kuo’s second year on the job, less than 0.5 percent of the promised money was forthcoming. The only initiatives that sparked the interest of senior figures in the Administration were “faith-based conferences” with charity groups around the country. Those took place in key Congressional districts and served mainly to improve the GOP’s image and electoral prospects. Kuo finally gave up and resigned in disgust in 2003.
He attended a speech by the President a few months later. Bush announced $1.1 billion in federal money for faith-based organizations, but Kuo points out that the number was the result of an accounting trick. Even at that late date, he had expected better from George W. Bush: “I was surprised by the brazen deception and I was crushed by it, too. That same passion for the poor I first heard in Austin was in [Bush’s] voice and in his eyes.”
Tempting Faith is a useful exposé of the GOP’s deceit, but it illustrates the credulity of the faithful even more clearly, and Kuo himself is the prime example. Even as he criticizes the Bush White House, he desperately searches the upper echelons of the religious right for authentic heroes, who either keep their integrity in the face of Republican manipulation or who at least sincerely believe in a Christian policy toward the poor.
Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition leader, maintains sufficient standing with Kuo to provide advice about the evils of Washington. “Reed once told me that political power both ‘ennobles and corrupts,’” he recalls. Reed must have meant “enriches” rather than “ennobles,” if his lobbying work for Jack Abramoff is any indication. When casino owners in Louisiana wanted to prevent the opening of rival gaming establishments nearby, all they had to do was funnel a few million to Reed, who quickly marched his evangelical followers into an anti-gambling campaign. The casino owners kept their monopoly and Brother Ralph pocketed a nice chunk of their money. It remains unclear what the average evangelical churchgoer got out of the transaction. When it comes to using religious followers for ulterior motives, the Bush Administration has nothing on Reed. Why doesn’t Kuo point that out?
In his search for positive stories about religious conservatives, Kuo performs a sort of ecumenical outreach, portraying some far-right Catholics as upstanding Christian statesmen. “[Rick] Santorum would stand alone as the only Republican senator to support a ‘pro-poor’ agenda.” Why the quotation marks around “pro-poor”? Did Kuo suddenly remember Santorum’s votes for the new bankruptcy law and against raising the minimum wage? Likewise, Kuo’s good friend William Bennett pops up to offer some of his patented deep-sounding homilies, a recurrence that provides the book’s strongest comic moments.
Despite Bush’s duplicity, Kuo remains certain that the President is a sincere Christian. However, Bush offers little proof of religious sincerity besides verbal pieties in public. For a born-again evangelical, he certainly swears a great deal, as in 2002 when he said “Fuck Saddam,” to Condoleezza Rice and a group of senators. More fundamentally, the President’s obvious lies (about Iraq especially) put him at odds with the passage in Proverbs where a “lying tongue” is listed second among things that God views as abominations.
Tempting Faith is structured as a spiritual autobiography of the sort popular among Christian writers since Augustine’s Confessions. Kuo frankly describes instances in which he compromised his beliefs to serve his political masters. His bluntness in detailing his own flaws—and those of the Bush Administration—makes a striking contrast to his reluctance to acknowledge fraud and manipulation in the religious right as a whole. Kuo remains convinced that “conservative Christian faith [does] not mean Christian theocracy.”
Chris Hedges’s American Fascists contradicts that assertion. In his survey of evangelical extremism, Hedges details many instances of bigotry and fleecing of the faithful. He focuses on a doctrine called “dominionism” that is popular among many evangelicals. Based on Genesis 1:26, which states that God gave humans “dominion . . . over all the Earth,” the doctrine holds that the Almighty has commanded his followers to impose godly rule on the rest of society and, ultimately, on the rest of the planet. “Dominionism preaches that Jesus has called on Christians to build the kingdom of God in the here and now,” Hedges writes.
He finds a blueprint for just such a theocracy in the writings of R. J. Rushdoony, whose 1973 book, The Institutes of Biblical Law, calls for a Christian government. Rushdoony prescribes the death penalty for such crimes as blasphemy, homosexuality, and (if the perpetrator is female) “unchastity before marriage.” Those who resist conversion to Christianity are to suffer the same punishment.
Coupled with explicit calls for the mass execution of unbelievers are fantasies of torture and genocide. Hedges discusses the Left Behind books, Timothy LaHaye’s best-selling series of novels, which detail the apocalyptic visions contained in the book of Revelation. LaHaye exults in vivid descriptions of non-Christians being burned alive, covered with boils, and butchered by demonic creatures—and that’s before they even get to hell. Belief in an imminent war of extermination is a touchstone for many of the ministers quoted in the book. Some readers will object to the second word in Hedges’s title, but such examples make it difficult to reject his terminology.
Neither Rushdoony, who died in 2001, nor LaHaye can be dismissed as marginal figures. Rushdoony was a longtime member of the Council for National Policy, a group founded by LaHaye to plan and organize rightwing activism. The council combines corporate bosses such as Joseph Coors and Amway founder Richard DeVos with professional Christians like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. The organization has hosted numerous Republican leaders, including George W. Bush in 1999 and, more recently, Vice-President Dick Cheney and then-Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Unlike Kuo’s Christian charity workers, this group commands the respect of the Bush Administration.
Hedges surveys a religious right agenda—puritanical, anti-labor, and militaristic—that looks all too familiar after six years of the current Presidency. He displays a sharp eye for unfounded conservative shibboleths, quickly dispensing with the myth that the “red” states are less sinful than “blue” ones. Rates of violent crime tend to be higher in red states, Hedges points out.
Using a term coined by William Sloane Coffin, Hedges characterizes Christian rightists as “selective literalists” who fixate on the most bigoted passages in the Bible but ignore other parts of scripture. However, he could push that case farther than he does. The Bible indeed supports hatred of gays and a rigid form of sexual morality, but it is also militantly opposed to the oppression of the poor. Likewise, there is no basis in scripture for evangelicals’ obsession with abortion. The rule of “a life for a life” appears in Exodus 21:23. The verse immediately preceding that one states that a man who attacks a pregnant woman and causes her to have a miscarriage owes financial compensation to the woman’s husband. The passage illustrates the Bible’s cavalier treatment of violence against women, but it also demonstrates that the author(s) of Exodus did not consider a fetus a person. If the fetus were considered a “life,” Exodus would mandate that the woman’s attacker be executed rather than fined.
Given the perverse version of Christianity that lies at the heart of the religious right, how does the movement maintain sway over so many followers? Hedges interviewed rank-and-file members to find out. Their stories reveal desperate people who turned to Christian extremism after succumbing to guilt, and fear that God was punishing them. When Arlene Jacques found Jesus, she was a divorced mom living on welfare in a run-down apartment with two young children. “I had never been a working parent. I was scared to death,” she told Hedges. After watching some televangelist programs, she began praying. “I cried for three hours. I saw a slide show in front of my eyes. It seemed like every single wrong thing I had ever done flashed before my eyes and I was truly sorry.” Soon thereafter, she began donating money to the Trinity Broadcast Network, the home station for a number of dominionist preachers.
Many of the evangelicals interviewed by Hedges cite their financial hardships. Hedges does a good job of using economic statistics to connect their stories to industrial decline—and the dismantling of social services performed by the evangelical movement’s political heroes. He also finds that many poor Christians, even those who have been on government assistance, subscribe to the stereotype that poor people are lazy.
Hedges offers this explanation: “The movement allows marginalized people the pleasure of denouncing others, of condemning those they fear becoming. The condemnations give them the illusion of distance, as if by denouncing the indigent they are protected from becoming indigent.” It is a sharp observation, and that particular dynamic is similar to the racist tactics of conservatives like George Wallace and Ronald Reagan, who managed to turn some poor whites against anti-poverty programs by offering stereotypes of lazy, black welfare recipients. Hedges should have explored that connection further. He highlights ties between dominionist leaders and white-supremacist groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens, but racism and religious fanaticism are more closely fused than he indicates.
Racial and religious extremism also merge in more contemporary settings. For instance, Hedges describes an exhibit at the Creation Museum that depicts a dimly lit street in a poor urban neighborhood. The adjacent sign reads: “A walk through an inner-city alley is the backdrop for a virtual and auditory display of the horrors of a culture that had made man’s opinion the final authority in life.” Hedges cites the display as proof of the unscientific, irrational approach of creationists.
However, it also reveals how far Christian rightists will go to deflect blame for social ills away from racism and the class system. Likewise, for white visitors to the museum, the “inner city” setting of the exhibit is meant to conjure fears of black criminals lurking out of sight. The display combines all the elements of the distorted worldview that the American right sells to its followers.
American Fascists is filled with chilling, powerful stories of religious extremism. However, Hedges relies too much on academic writings about fascism and not enough on his own experience, given his work as a journalist covering religious and ethnic militants in the Balkans and the Middle East. Too often, quotations from scholars become the launching point for a series of strongly worded but vague statements against totalitarianism. Many of the author’s policy prescriptions suffer from a similar vagueness: “Programs to protect or establish community, to direct federal and state assistance to those truly left behind . . . are acts of faith.”
On the other hand, he makes a very useful suggestion when he recommends legal challenges to the tax exemptions of “megachurches that promote ‘Christian’ candidates.” When dealing with a religious movement in which God has long taken a back seat to mammon, it is a good idea to focus on the money.
Despite the two authors’ different approaches, their books both capture the essence of today’s evangelical politics. Kuo (accidentally) and Hedges (deliberately) reveal the cardinal rule of the Christian right: Genuine faith is what distinguishes the followers from the leaders.