XIII: Fascism and Fundamentalism
Over the past two decades, the most important meeting ground for the broad range of rightist beliefs has been in the field of fundamentalist Christianity. Extremists frequently organize around an arcane brand of fundamentalism like Identity; mainstream conservatism has become increasingly identified with mainstream fundamentalism; and even ostensibly secular conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and George W. Bush pay great obeisance both to its belief system and its political agenda.
When mainstream conservatives, religious ideologues and far-right extremists coalesce, it has consequences. The former has real-world power; the latter have agendas. To the extent that connections are made, the more likely those agendas are to actually be enacted. It becomes especially problematic as extremist elements exert an increasing influence on the broader fundamentalist sector, because this means their influence is extending into mainstream conservatism.
A sort of reciprocal danger arises when someone like George W. Bush makes overt political appeals to the fundamentalist views of his followers -- particularly in portraying himself as receiving divine guidance. This gives him not only a kind of immunity from fault, giving his every step the Lord's imprimatur, but places him in a charismatic position of dual political and religious leadership. It has the effect of leading individual followers to identify their religious beliefs with Bush's political agenda. It also draws the entire fundamentalist bloc behind him politically. This includes the proto-fascist element, whose impact, as we've seen, can far outweigh their numbers. The more we hear talk about Bush leading a national political and religious rebirth, the more we approach the conditions needed for a genuine fascism to arise.
The Manichean dualism -- the cut-and-dried black-and-white worldview -- that is the essence of the totalist mindset is especially evident among fundamentalists. This has the potential to make them, in many ways, ideal footsoldiers for a kind of Christo-fascism, one which backs theocratic impulses and right-wing extremism with actual political power. In the wake of a severe social disturbance like Sept. 11, this kind of dualism's appeal is potent.
I'd earlier discussed totalism as an essential component of the individual mentality underlying right-wing extremism, drawing on the essay "Religious Totalism, Violence and Exemplary Dualism: Beyond the Extrinsic Model," by Dick Anthony and Thomas Robbins, which can be found in the collection Millennialism and Violence (1995), edited by Michael Barkun of Syracuse. But as they explain, the underlying worldview has a much broader audience in the field of mainstream fundamentalism and so-called cults:
- Nine characteristics which appear to us to be shared by authoritarian personalities, fundamentalists and authoritarian cults such as Hare Krishna, the Unification Church, etc.:
(1) Separatism or the heightened sensitivity and tension regarding group boundaries. This usually includes 'Authoritarian Aggression' which entails rejecting and punitive attitudes toward deviants, minorities and outsiders.
(2) Theocratic leanings or willingness to see the state expanded so as to enforce the group's particular moral and ideological preferences at the expense of pluralism or church-state separation.
(3) Authoritarian submission entailing dependency on strong leaders and deferential attitudes toward authorities and hierarchical superiors.
(4) Some form of conventionalism in terms of both belief and practice. Apparent exceptions such as antinomian groups, for example, the Bhagwan movement of Rajneesh or the quasi-Marxist Peoples Temple of Jim Jones …
(6) Evangelism or a focus on proselytization and conversion.
(7) Coercive tendencies in terms of either punitive reactions toward internal dissidence and non-conformity (for example, exile from fellowship, shunning, harsh 'self-criticism,' confessional sessions) or willingness to have non-conformists suppressed or discouraged by the state.
(8) Consequentialism or a tendency to see moral or ideological virtue producing tangible rewards to believers. This may entail belief in a 'just world' in which the good are tangibly rewarded and the wicked undone on the human plane.
(9) Finally, groups whose members tend to score high in authoritarianism or dogmatism tend to have strong beliefs and tend to make doctrinal acceptance a membership criterion. As with 'Moonies' studied by Galanter (among whom strong belief was correlated with feelings of group solidarity and the 'relief effect'), authoritarians and fundamentalists appear to have a strong 'investment' in their beliefs.
Much of Anthony's and Robbins' work builds upon the work of sociologist Robert Lifton and his colleague Charles Strozier, whom they cite extensively:
- Both writers have explicitly linked totalism and fundamentalism. Interestingly, they tend to define fundamentalism in terms very close to descriptions of authoritarianism: for example, fundamentalist childrearing practices -- allegedly strict, repressive, corporally punitive and guilt-inducing -- resemble the familial milieux associated with authoritarian personalities. The emphasis by Lifton and Strozier on fundamentalist scriptural literalism, textual fetishism, obsession with disorder, nostalgia for a strongly ordered golden age less chaotic than the present, and emphasis on restoration keyed to inerrant scriptural texts, appears to evoke classic descriptions of authoritarian personalities.
Of course, it's worth noting that Anthony and Robbins consider the Lifton/Strozier formulation overbroad, and suggest some limits to the connection between totalism and fundamentalism. Nonetheless, the broader connection is otherwise fairly clear.
In the American context, this is significant because experts on fascism, which explicitly relies upon a totalist mindset among its following, have likewise identified religiosity as an important element of any kind of manifestation of it here. Earlier I cited Robert O. Paxton's "The Five Stages of Fascism":
- …[E]ach national variant of fascism draws its legitimacy ... not from some universal scripture but from what it considers the most authentic elements of its own community identity. Religion, for example, would certainly play a much larger role in an authentic fascism in the United States than in the first European fascisms, which were pagan for contingent historical reasons.
While Paxton concludes this mainly by surveying what passes for the "authentic" American experience, there is a historical context that fully substantiates his hypothesis. Earlier forms of fascism in America -- particularly the extremists who formed small but widespread societies built around neo-Nazi philosophies and admiration for Hitler, most notably the Silver Shirts, who were led by the crypto-fascist mystical "philosopher" William Dudley Pelley -- were explicitly "Christian" in nature.
Pelley's legions earned their name by wearing silver uniforms modeled after Hitler's brownshirts and marching through the streets on various occasions. Despite the theater (or perhaps because of it), Pelley drew large numbers of former Klansmen and other white supremacists, particularly those attracted to his anti-Semitic rantings (which included the infamous "Franklin Prophecy" hoax, whose legacy is still with us). Pelley's support was broad enough that he ran for President in 1936, though he only garnered a tiny portion of the vote. Nonetheless, he maintained some impetus through the later 1930s, especially in working-class and rural districts. A Life Magazine spread depicted a gathering of Silver Shirts in Chehalis, Washington, at a local home. The audience and the activity of the meeting resembled nothing so little as a militia meeting in the 1990s.
Karen E. Hoppes, a graduate student at Western Oregon State College, wrote extensively about Pelley in the 1980s, notably her Master's thesis, "An Investigation of the Nazi-Fascist Spectrum in the Pacific Northwest: 1924-1941." Hoppes of course addressed the Christian fundamentalism that was a significant feature of Pelley's "philosophy":
- Finally, the link with fundamental Christianity establishes the uniqueness of American fascism. The majority of fascist groups justified their existence by their desire to change the United States into a Christian society. ... The relationship between the religious identity of these groups and their political demands can be shown by a careful survey of their rhetoric. The Christian fascist does not distinguish between the application of the terms anti-Christ, Jew and Communist. Neither does he distinguish between Gentile and Christian.
Hoppes particularly notes Pelley’s sermons arguing that "Christians of the United States must put the issue of conniving Jewry above all other issues and treat with it drastically. This means a pogrom ... of colossal proportions." Observes Hoppes:
- For the Christian fascist, this up-and-coming war against the Jew would result in the founding of a new moral community -- a Christian America. This community would tie itself to Christian ethics and Christian structure, as interpreted by these Christian fascists. Thus, the link with Christianity provided a unifying element for the membership in American fascist organizations. Members not only prayed with their comrades, but fought the "Christian" battle against the anti-Christ Jew. This gave them a surpassing sense of righteousness. Most of the membership came from the evangelical styled churches, with each Christian fascist group claiming to be under the umbrella of Christian thought and action.
This uniquely American Christo-fascism was not short-lived, even though Pelley was convicted (on dubious grounds) of sedition in 1942, and by the time he emerged from prison in 1950, his Silver Shirts movement had been long since abandoned and dismantled. However, some of his associates kept the flame alive. The most notable of these was Gerald L.K. Smith, who went on to play a central role in taking over the Christian Identity movement in the 1930s and '40s and remaking it into the proudly racist religion it is today. Likewise, the Posse Comitatus movement -- which in turn spawned the Patriot/militia movement of the 1990s -- had its ideological origins in "Christian fascism"; one of its founders, Mike Beach, was a former Silver Shirt.
Through most of the intervening years, these extremists were relegated entirely to the fringe. It was easy to distinguish between mainstream conservatives and the participants in the Identity and Posse movements, and only at the edges of both sectors (see, for example, the colorful career of former Rep. George Hansen, R-Idaho) was there much exchange of ideas and agendas. Likewise, there was a tremendous gulf between mainstream Christianity, even the fundamentalist variety, and the Christian fascists.
That began to change in the 1990s, thanks to the confluence of two forces: the emergence of the Patriot movement and the growing revolutionary fervor of conservatives in their drive to dominate the halls of power. The proto-fascist Patriots represented the efforts of Christian fascism to mainstream itself, and their relative success, though fleeting, gave a surprising indication of the presence of a totalist mindset in America, particularly among conservative fundamentalists. Conservatives, looking to broaden their appeal and undercut mainstream liberalism, began adopting more ideas and memes that had their origins in the Patriot movement, thereby blurring the barriers that had once clearly delineated the mainstream and extremist right.
Fundamentalism was particularly ripe territory for this, especially since so many of the issues that attract both mainstream conservatives and extremists -- abortion, education, gay rights, taxes -- revolve significantly around organizing by conservative Christians. And as we have seen, fundamentalism is particularly hospitable anyway to a totalist worldview. In this kind of crucible, the barriers all but dissolved. The trend has continued into this decade, even as the former footsoldiers of the Patriot movement have returned to the GOP fold, which has further blurred the lines.
It became apparent, for instance, after the recent arrest of right-wing terrorist Eric Rudolph, the man who bombed the Atlanta Olympics as well as a string of abortion clinics and gay bars in the 1990s. A story in the New York Times pondered whether Rudolph should properly be called a "Christian terrorist." It included an interview with one of Rudolph's local sympathizers:
- "He's a Christian and I'm a Christian and he dedicated his life to fighting abortion," said Mrs. Davis, 25, mother of four. "Those are our values. And I don't see what he did as a terrorist act."
Both Mrs. Davis and the reporter's basic question eliminated the distinction between Identity and Christianity -- something that has become increasingly easy to do as Identity rhetoric attunes itself to the mainstream, and conservatism itself becomes increasingly bellicose and intolerant. These lines blurred even further as other media reports picked up the "Christian terrorist" idea and played with it.
The more Identity and similar extremist beliefs are identified with fundamentalist Christianity, the greater becomes their ability to influence the agenda of mainstream conservatism. This is why maintaining the delineation is important in terms of containing the forces of fascism that are abroad today.
This point was suggested in a Washington Post piece ("Is Terrorism Tied to Christian Sect"? by Alan Cooperman, June 23) that tackled the same question:
- Another expert on such groups, Idaho State University sociology professor James A. Aho, said he is reluctant to use the phrase "Christian terrorist," because it is "sort of an oxymoron."
"I would prefer to say that Rudolph is a religiously inspired terrorist, because most mainstream Christians consider Christian Identity to be a heresy," Aho said. If Christians take umbrage at the juxtaposition of the words "Christian" and "terrorist," he added, "that may give them some idea of how Muslims feel" when they constantly hear the term "Islamic terrorism," especially since the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Religiously inspired terrorism is a worldwide phenomenon, and every major world religion has people who have appropriated the label of their religion in order to legitimize their violence," Aho said.
Uniformly, those who do this name-claiming are in fact radical fundamentalists. Indeed, it is plain now that Democratic societies around the world are up against all the many faces of such extremists. Fundamentalism is, after all, an explicitly anti-modern movement. Religious scholars such as Karen Armstrong in her excellent The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism, like to point out that the movement arose specifically as a reaction to modernism, or more specifically, as a reaction against the many failures of modern society.
Both Islamic and Christian fundamentalism have been gaining considerable momentum over the past generation, but the ascendance of the radical segment which all fundamentalist movements host has become much more pronounced in Islam. These are popularly referred to as the "Islamofascists," the factions that would weld a Muslim theocratic worldview to state and corporate power around the world.
But as Rudolph and others (like Tim McVeigh) illustrate, the Christo-fascists are equally eager to bring down democratic society and replace it with theocratic authoritarianism. And while they trail the Islamofascists in influence, their impact on American society has been substantial, if unnoticed by the media.
Annually, right-wing extremists within our borders are responsible for a sizeable number of crimes. These range, as Mark Pitcavage of the ADL points out, from "bombings and bombing plots to assassination plots and murders to weapons and explosives violations to hate crimes to massive frauds and scams (amounting in some cases in the hundreds of millions of dollars) to the myriad of lesser crimes." Even if you totaled up several years' worth of criminal activity related to Islamic extremism, it would fail to come close to the levels produced by our own homegrown terrorists.
It's important to recall, too, that the still-unsolved anthrax attacks of October-November 2001 may well have been the work of a right-wing extremist -- perhaps not someone with any organizational connection, perhaps even an idiosyncratic type, but nonetheless with largely right-wing beliefs.
Indeed, leaders of extremist factions have been fairly explicit in advocating "piggyback" terrorism that seeks to increase the levels of chaos in conjunction with international terrorism -- creating an echo effect that exponentially enhances the psychological damage inflicted by a Sept. 11-type event. Consider, for instance, a couple of post-Sept. 11 (and post-anthrax attacks) remarks by William Pierce, the late leader of the neo-Nazi National Alliance.
From a radio address: "Things are a bit brittle now. A few dozen more anthrax cases, another truck bomb in a well chosen location, and substantial changes could take place in a hurry: a stock market panic, martial law measures by the Bush government, and a sharpening of the debate as to how we got ourselves into this mess in the first place."
On his Web site, Pierce declared that "terrorism is not the problem," adding that the current threat is "the price for letting ourselves, our nation, be used by an alien minority to advance their own interests at the expense of ours" -- meaning, of course, Jews.
And when you consider that right-wing extremists have in fact been arrested for the anthrax hoax letters sent to abortion clinics in the same time period -- a clear-cut case of "piggybacking" -- I think it becomes clear that these extremists have not only the means but probably also the clear intention of amplifying any kind of terrorist attacks perpetrated by Al Qaeda. For that reason alone, they remain a very serious threat indeed.
It is also important to keep in mind exactly what the long-term strategy of the extremist right is: To undermine the existing government and democratic institutions to as great a degree as possible by creating as much social chaos as possible. Terrorism is central to this strategy, because through terrorist acts like Oklahoma City, they intend to make the public come to believe that their government can no longer keep them safe. They then intend to present themselves as the "strong" alternative that will make us secure again -- and although swelling their own ranks is key to this strategy, they do not worry about such niceties as seizing power by democratic means.
It boils down to this: The War on Terror, if it is to take on all forms of terrorism that genuinely threaten both American lives and our democratic institutions, is not a war against Islam. It is not even necessarily a war against fundamentalism. Rather, it is against the religious fascism that has embedded itself within the broader fundamentalist sectors of both Christian and Muslim societies.
Call it fascimentalism: a political movement that claims to represent a Phoenix-like resurrection of a true national spiritual identity, focused on building a theocratic state that receives its imprimatur from God, ultimately adopting a rule based on scriptural inerrancy, and intent on dominating and imposing its will upon the rest of the world.
In the Islamic world, this movement has manifested itself in the growth of Al Qaeda and the ascendance of such radicals as Abdullah Azzam and Omar Abdul Rahman as major influences in Islamism, as well as the entrenchment of Wahabbism as the chief political power in such states as Saudi Arabia. The consequences of this trend have become obvious to all the world since Sept. 11.
In the Christian world, the trend is much less pronounced but still present. It exists in the increasing identification of mainstream fundamentalism with its more radical components, particularly the anti-abortion and anti-gay rights extremists. It is latent in the openly theocratic approach to governance propounded by Christian Reconstructionists and conservative moralists like Antonin Scalia.
And it has gained a popular voice in the violently eliminationist rhetoric increasingly aimed at liberals, particularly those opposed to President Bush's war policies, much of it inflamed by conservative propagandists on talk radio like Rush Limbaugh. This kind of inchoate rage has always needed someone to scapegoat. This time around, it's liberals.
Next: The War on Liberals