The rise of religious extremism in Muslim countries is a cause for concern, but much more alarming is the upsurge of Christian fundamentalism in the United States. So powerful and pervasive has this burgeoning evangelical fervor become that it now holds sway over much of the American social, economic, and political systems, as well as the media.
The U.S. may not yet have become the Western equivalent of an Ayotollah-controlled Middle East theocracy, but, with bible-brandishing zealots in the White House and Congress and with 1,600 revivalist broadcasters preaching hell-and-brimstone sermons to an estimated 140 million listeners and viewers every day, how much longer will it take? Already the constitutional separation of church and state in the U.S. has become badly blurred.
In any other Western nation, such a radical religious uprising would be worrisome. In the United States, with its military might and huge nuclear arsenal—and still dominant economic power—it is the stuff of nightmares. One of the core beliefs of these fanatics (who rightly take credit for George W. Bush’s re-election last year) is that the Armageddon foretold in the bible is almost upon us and that it will culminate in a world-destroying showdown between the forces of good and evil. The pure and virtuous true-believers will be spared the gruesome fate of the evildoers by being transported directly up into heaven, where they will sit at God’s side to watch gleefully as their enemies below are annihilated. To those who believe that this hideous biblical scenario is imminent, the precipitation of a nuclear holocaust is to be encouraged, not prevented. (And their most powerful disciple has his finger on the red button.)
The religious right, of course, has always been a force to be reckoned with in the U.S., but, with its acquisition of much greater political and media influence in recent years, it is close to becoming the primary shaper of American policy.
Back in the late 1970s, an extraordinarily prescient professor at Harvard Divinity School, Dr. James Luther Adams, warned his students of the dangerous growth of religious extremism. He predicted that, within 25 or 30 years—early in the 21st century—they would be fighting the “Christian fascists” who would by then have taken control of all major American institutions on the way to transforming the United States into a global Christian empire.
Dr. Adams recalled how American industrialists had flirted with fascism in the 1930s, how they were enamored with Mussolini’s creation of an industrial and business aristocracy (“corporatism”) and Hitler’s persecution of homosexuals and lesbians, and how Fortune magazine had praised these fascist dictators for crushing labour unions.
“Then, as now,” Dr. Adams told his students, “too many liberals failed to understand the power and allure of evil.” He predicted that, when fascism gained ascendancy in the U.S., its adherents would not be wearing swastikas and brown shirts, but instead would “cloak themselves in the language of the bible and come carrying crosses and chanting the Pledge of Allegiance.”
At the time, says one of his students, Chris Hedges, in an essay in a recent issue of Harper’s, it was difficult to take such a prediction seriously, but today, a quarter of a century later, Dr. Adams’s warning has taken on a chilling credibility. The extreme intolerance that now marks the Christian right in the U.S. is having a dire influence on social, economic, and environmental policies. The bible’s most doctrinaire dictums are invoked to condemn any conduct—especially sexual—that deviates from narrow biblical orthodoxy. Conversely, all the vengeful and violent excesses of the Old Testament prophets are cited to endorse U.S. military aggression. (“We must be strong enough to smite our foes!”) And why be concerned about planetary pollution when the planet is going to be obliterated any day now in the Second Coming apocalypse?
Pending this devoutly-to-be-wished-for doomsday, however, the evangelical preachers and their faithful followers are committed to defending and perpetuating God’s divine “free-market” economic system and justifying all its inequities. This is simply carrying on the support of laissez-faire capitalism that has been one of the priorities of the hierarchy for the past 200 years. As Gordon Bigelow reminds us in a recent Harper’s essay, these pious clerics of the early Industrial Revolution era saw the emergence of a capitalist economy as a fulfillment of God’s plan for an orderly world: “The free market, they believed, was a perfectly designed instrument to reward good Christian behaviour and to punish the unrepentant.”
The churchmen saw the trials of hard labour, hunger and poverty inflicted on working people as earthly tests of sinfulness and virtue, and as necessary atonement for Original Sin. “In other words, poor people were poor for a reason [because God wanted them to be poor], and helping them out of poverty would endanger their immortal souls. It was the evangelicals who began to see the business mogul as an heroic figure, his wealth a triumph of righteous will.”
Looking back over the past two centuries, Bigelow concludes, it’s obvious that the harsh and often inhumane effects of capitalism on so many people can only be sustained if it is based on such a “fiery religious conviction.” Otherwise, from any assessment of fairness or common decency, the free-market/free-trade system cannot be justified. But if it has God’s blessing—if God smiles on the world’s billionaires while condoning the poverty and hunger of billions of the men, women and children He purportedly loves—why, then, who are we to question an economic system blessed by the Creator Himself?
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Clearly, then, from every conceivable standpoint, the growth of militant religious fundamentalism is much more of a threat in the U.S. than it is in the Middle East.
(Ed Finn is the CCPA's Senior Editor. He can be reached at ccpa @ policyalternatives.ca.)