On Contact: American fascists and the Christian Right
On the show this week, Chris Hedges talks to the Rev. Dr. Mel White about the Christian Right, which Hedges describes as “a homegrown fascist movement.” It has been organizing to take political power for decades, he says. During the Trump administration, it seized senior positions in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government – a move violating US Constitutional powers of separation of Church and State. In his book ‘American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America’, Hedges states that there are 70 million evangelical Christians in the United States, representing about 25 percent of the population, and that, between them, they attend more than 200,000 Evangelical churches. Polls indicate that about 40 percent of respondents believe in the Bible as the “actual word of God,” and that it is “to be taken literally, word for word.”
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Rev. Dr. Mel White: Big business loves evangelical Christians because evangelical Christians says "God will regulate capitalism, we don't have to. God will be fair with the money and how it's used." And by the way, if you don't have any money, you should move to a place where you could get a job, or--that's what Rich DeVos told me when I said, "How can these poor people get jobs?" And he said, "They should just move to where they can get jobs." This total lack of perspective on the poor and on the rich comes directly out of the literal Bible.
Chris Hedges: The greatest moral failing of the liberal Christian church was its refusal justified in the name of tolerance and dialogue to denounce the followers of the Christian Right as heretics. By tolerating the intolerant, it seeded religious legitimacy to an array of con-artists, charlatans, and demagogues, and their cultish supporters. It stood by as the core gospel message concerned for the poor and the oppressed, was perverted into a magical world where God and Jesus showered believers with material wealth and power. The White race, especially in the United States, became God's chosen agent, imperialism and war became divine instruments for purging the world of infidels and barbarians, evil itself. Capitalism, because God blessed the righteous with wealth and power, and condemned the immoral to poverty and suffering, became shorn of its inherent cruelty and exploitation. The iconography and symbols of American nationalism became intertwined with the iconography and symbols of the Christian faith, the mega pastors, narcissists, who rule despotic, cult-like fiefdoms, make millions of dollars by using this heretical belief system to prey on the mounting despair and desperation of their congregations, victims of neo-liberalism, and de-industrialization. When I wrote "American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America" I was deadly serious about the term "Fascists." This homegrown fascist movement which has been organizing to take political power for decades has seized senior positions in the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches of government. Joining me to discuss the Christian Right is the Reverend Mel White, author of "Religion Gone Bad: Hidden Dangers from the Christian Right." Mel, let's begin with this iconic moment where President Trump walks out of the White House, clears Lafayette Park quite brutally, to stand in front of a church. I think you correctly highlight that as a far more than a photo-op.
MW: Yes. I love it because I think of Sinclair Lewis saying he--his theology depends totally on the Bible which he never reads, and the Methodist Church which he never attends. It was an ironic thing for him to stand there and say, "I'm shaping this country by the Bible as you ask me." That's what's scary. The literal Bible is--the way they believe in it, we've got to watch it because that literal Bible is dangerous, especially to gay people like kill gay people like me.
CH: And what was he doing? What was the message that he was sending?
MW: He was sending--even if he didn't know it, he was sending a message to these--the fascist fundamentalist Christian evangelicals that it's the literal Bible by which I will reconstruct this nation. You don't have to worry. I'm going to do exactly what the literal Bible says. And that was a signal that was important. It was also important for--to push the protesters aside because that shows the man who reads the literal Bible and follows it, doesn't believe in protest, even dialogue.
CH: This has been a moment that the Christian Right has been building towards for decades going all the way back to the 1970s. They have built their own institutions, Liberty University. I know you knew Jerry Falwell quite well, Patrick Henry Law School, their own very powerful media platforms. They have seized almost 20% of federal judgeships under Trump, including of course now with this latest Supreme Court nomination with Amy Barrett. Talk a little bit about that process, what the Barrett appointment, and these other judicial appointments mean for the Christian Right.
MW: When the Christian Church was terrified by all these liberalism, and so they called together, 90 volumes of what Christianity is, and fundamentalism said that the literal Bible was first. So in 1909, when the evangelicals got defensive, that was the beginning of getting Trump into power. Because little by little people decided that the literal Bible was the only way to get saved and then the little--literal Bible was the only way to save the nation. So following the literal Bible is what these guys did. And, you know, can we talk about Rushdoony just for a minute?
MW: R.J. Rushdoony was one of those evangelicals who went about in the '50s said "The literal Bible says we dominate this country." Dominions began with Rushdoony. And so the rest of them, they say America Christian again, they mean let's dominate this country and make the literal Bible the ultimate source of truth in all fields. So, what they've done, you know, Falwell gets a lot of the credit for it because the Republican operatives came to him when they saw Falwell had this huge television audience and said, "Why do we help you reach more people because you can't reach them without the pagan?" That was the whole--Falwell was so nervous that he couldn't save the world without pagan help. So they said, "Well, find an issue that the pagans like. They don't have to believe in your scriptures, just find an issue, like, abortion." So Falwell branched out into these other areas and began calling the bigger crowd. He had four million regular listeners before his demise, and at least two million funders. He was really doing it to rake money in those days. He wasn't doing much politically. But boy you could--you can point to Falwell as the moment that says that's when Christianity turned fundamentalist, or as you say, turn fascist.
CH: But there was a pivot, Mel, because you had in traditional fundamentalism, I'm going back to the turn of the century. There was a call on believers to remove themselves from the contaminants of secular society, to shun politics, Billy Graham who I know you also knew, supported Richard Nixon, and then deeply regretted it. But that--there was a shift, Rushdoony of course was an important kind of intellectual figure in that shift, Francis Schaeffer and others. But it was about--it became less focused on personal morality, personal piety, and more on building the Christian nation, so that by 1980, you had the seizure of southern, the Methodist seminary, southern--one of the great seminaries. And this began to get big corporate money. Can you talk about that particular shift? Because when we use the word evangelical, and even when we use the word fundamentalist, what we're really talking about or what you call dominionist, we use the old terms but they don't mean what they used to mean.
MW: Isn't it ironic that two ordained Ministers are talking about the church with such fear? I love that idea. When I grew up, my church is interested in Jesus, and in prayer, and in following the will of God. My father was a wonderful Christian. And when he tried to run for Mayor of Santa Cruz, the church dumped on him and said, "If God wants to change Santa Cruz, let God do it." So I remember really when I was young, the church still opposed any kind of cooperation with politics. And then as you watched it change, you--you know, Jerry Falwell, when he was approached, he was approached by a bunch of Republican operatives who look very theological, but were really in fact trying to grab Falwell's huge listing audience to turn that crowd into a fascist Christian. I'm an evangelical now because I still believe there's good news and that Jesus has it. But I am not an evangelical who voted for Trump or who in any way helped him. So I--evangelical, when they say evangelicals put Trump into power, it makes me angry and sad.
CH: Let's talk about Amy Barrett, let's go back because I think this is a really seminal moment. We're not talking about a conservative Catholic here. We're talking about…
CH: …somebody who comes a cultist, comes out of a sec. And she really represents, I think, the outer fringes of this movement. Can you--can you speak about her appointment at the Supreme Court?
MW: When you think about the beginning in the 1900s when we decided to take over the nation, Amy Barrett is a sign they've done it. I really believe that she's the ultimate sign that the fascists Christians have taken over Washington DC and the democracy. This woman is against everything human especially against gay people. And I think that when she got on that Supreme Court, fundamentalist fascists Christians throughout those last hundred years were saying, "We did it." Falwell rose up in his grave and said, "We did it. We've conquered the democracy." And if he gets elected again, there is no hope for us. There's very little hope for us now. I mean, poor Biden, he couldn't possibly change what needs to be changed. But if Trump stays in, the Christian fundamentalist literally rule the nation.
CH: So, I want to talk about literalism because they posit that they have a literal interpretation of the Bible. But in fact, as you know very well and have written, this is a very selective literalism. They pick out those passages that buttress their ideology and chauvinistic world view and then they ignore the ones including the Sermon on the Mount that don't. So talk about, you know, what they mean by literalism.
MW: Exactly what you said. It's selective literalism. When they were looking for some way to condemn gay men like myself, they went through the Bible and said, "Men sleeping together--oh, men sleeping together--oh, men--" And then they took those passages and put them together and say, "See? Jesus doesn't like gay people." And one of the most amazing misuse of the scriptures I've ever seen, because those verses are not only misused they're taken out of their linguistic and historic context to prove the bigotry that came from the religious right from the beginning. And, you know, I've read some of Rushdoony's goals for the literal Bible, and it said, "It must be the test for all truths including philosophies, books, values, actions, plans. And the final measurement of all God wants men to know about law, government economics, business education." This is really the use of the literal Bible to control all the fields, to make what's right, correspond to those selected passages. And so if evangelicals, all evangelicals like me aren't afraid now, they don't know what's going on.
CH: What was interesting when I was writing my book "American Fascists." so I spent, as you know, two years in mega-churches, and pro-life weekends, and creation of seminars. And I was always upfront about who I was and my background. Growing up in the church, my father was a Presbyterian minister. My mother was a seminary graduate, although she went on to become a college professor. I graduated from Harvard Divinity School. And as soon as they knew that I came out of a biblical tradition, a very serious one, what was interesting is that they never wanted to talk about the Bible with me. Ever. And it was my supposition, I don't know what you think, is that that's because they don't really know the Bible, they know only those selected passages they are fed. Would that be fair?
MW: Absolutely fair. They read the Bible superficially to find those things which support their bigotry. I have not met a person yet who could say the Bible says gay people are--and prove it from the Bible. They can't even look at those verses in terms of their linguistic context. No. I don't think evangelicals read the Bible, they just quote it.
CH: Great. When we come back we'll continue our conversation about the growing political dominance of the Christian Right with the Reverend Mel White. Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our conversation about the rising power of the Christian Right with the Reverend Mel White. So Mel, this was quite a methodical effort on the part of the Christian Right, they understood that they had to build alternative institutions, educational institutions in order to seize political power and I think they've been quite successful at it, they've been very well funded by perhaps the most retrograde forces in American capitalism, Perdue, Tyson, because coupled with this ideology and I want you to discuss this, is this embrace of what we call free market capitalism, somehow the idea that God blesses true Christians with wealth and power, and that if you don't have that, you deserve what you get, Rushdoony for instance which I've also read as you have, talks about how we won't need prisons because we'll use capital punishment to get rid of habitual offenders but I think that this is an important component and one of the reasons why millions of dollars went in from corporate America to support the Barrett nomination not because corporate America cares about abortion, or marriage between a man and a woman, or anything else, but because they recognized this aspect of the ideology. Can you speak about that?
MW: Very personally, I was on the 50,000 Watt station in Seattle and the person against me said have you ever read Leviticus 20? And I said, yeah. What does it mean to you? He says you're an abomination and you should be killed, that's what it means. And I said well who should do the killing? You church people? He said, no, no, that's why we need to get more men of God elected in the government so they can kill you. This was on a 50,000 Watt radio station. This is how committed they are to the literal Bible and how the industry has gotten behind that is interesting, big business loves evangelical Christians because evangelical Christians says "God will regulate capitalism, we don't have to. God will be fair with the money and how it's used." And by the way, if you don't have any money, you should move to a place where you could get a job, or--that's what Rich DeVos told me when I said, "How can these poor people get jobs?" And he said, "They should just move to where they can get jobs." This total lack of perspective on the poor and on the rich comes directly out of the literal Bible.
CH: Right. And this is a whole, I think, push behind Barrett because most cases that go to Supreme Court don't deal with the societal issues. They are either brought by corporations or brought against corporations. And we know from her time as a circuit court judge, in which corporate cases were involved, I think there were about 55 of them, in over 75% of the ruling, she sided with corporations. This is I think is a very important element of the Christian Right which you understand, which I think the--is hidden behind the constant debate about abortion, and same sex, and all that kind of stuff, not that of course, their chauvinism and bigotry isn't dangerous.
MW: You know, they even organized a council for political--what is it? Council for policy, these big billionaires get together with these mega church preachers and they lay it all out together, I'm the--I'm into conspiracy, I think they have conspired to take over and they've done it, business loves it because we're not going to criticize them, but African-Americans, and Native Americans, every--this is so racist beneath the surface, racist, and sexist, and homophobic, they won't admit to any of that but when you look at the literal Bible, you can use it to prove all of those things, so corporate America when they saw her get on, I felt sick, because her mind is literal Bible and now as a major vote on that court, we have a fundamentalist, fascist on the Supreme Court, maybe more but she is that and the business is celebrating, the fundamentalists are celebrating, and I'm under the closet.
CH: Well this is--H. Richard Niebuhr said that, you know, the Bible is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people. I want to talk a little bit about the leaders of this movement.
CH: Because you had a--you were inside the movement for what, 30 years or something before you broke with it and so you knew people like Betsy DeVos, Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, and most of us don't. Talk a little bit about the people who run it, I don't know if you know James Dobson, I was in a room with him who kind of struck me like Darth Vader but talk a little bit about the people who run the movement.
MW: Every one of those names including Dobson and D. James Kennedy, I knew them all and the problem is they wouldn't recognize your introduction, painted them as they really are because they're such nice guys, and generous guys on the surface, when I told gay friends that I like Jerry Falwell, they said get out of my life. The fact is Falwell was fun to be around, he never felt messianic like that Robertson and the others. But that's the problem because when you see nice guys talking about making America great again and you're not thinking that they're saying make America Christian again and that they're dominating the whole policy country, that is so scary to me because Christians can't see through these nice guys, by the way, they believe a lot of the stuff they're saying that we don't believe. Falwell really believed that homosexuals were a threat to the nation or he wouldn't have done that stuff but when he did that stuff, he was also making a lot of money off of it. They stopped believing that, I think Falwell did just before his death, they started getting friends with him, Billy Graham was not one of them at all. Billy Graham was friendly to gay people and on the--on the front lines of helping the poor. With his handlers, he wouldn't let him preach that sermon. So don't mistake Billy for the rest of them, I knew them all and Billy was a man of integrity. What were we talking about?
CH: Well, just about what the leaders were like, I mean, Falwell always struck me as a kind of PT Barnum type figure. You know, as a--as--not like James Dobson who I think is a very dark and malevolent figure, I think they're different personalities but they all know what's good for them.
MW: Yeah. Falwell was just below the surface as a barker, he knew how to get the crowds together, he knew how to bring the choirs and the flags. Robertson is to me was far more dangerous even than Dobson because Robertson believed he should be president, he believed God had chosen him for a high office, he was messianic from the moment I met him. Dobson was just a nasty man, he was an angry, angry evangelical, we live blocks away from him, my daughter cheerleaded his son's football team. We were close but Dobson wanted me in jail more than anything in the world and when we started really taking seriously his headquarters in Colorado Springs, he threw me in jail for the very purpose. Kennedy, Kennedy was crazy, and D. James Kennedy is one we got to remember, he brought dominionism into the evangelical fold, had major pastor signed the contract, that they would only be loyal to the literal Bible, so that you got this full range of various personalities, some of them funny, some of them grim, some of them nasty, some of them polite, but they were all aimed in the same direction and I think they got there.
CH: I mean, how much of it is just about self-interest and careerism, is that--would you say the driving force?
MW: I think that's what you would say is the driving force because you're a prophet. I'm a non-prophet. I think the driving force for most of them was to make America Christian again.
MW: I don't think that--I've lived in their houses, I've flown--these guys did not bring in the massive money for themselves, now people like Dollar on television now, these guys are talking about the, you name it we'll claim it, those guys are crooked but Falwell was not a crook, he just used us. Robertson closer to being a crook because he--I've seen him mishandle and lie, Dobson he lived in a little house, he still lives in a little house, so--and Kennedy, he's dead. But I don't believe any of them really--number one reason would be money but they used the cause and made a lot of money doing it, to build these universities Falwell had to use every dollar to build Liberty, he did not make money for himself, he just channeled it all into those universities and Regent College, Robertson's desperately trying to promote that. So I'm the opposite, I say they were wrong but a lot of it was serious to them, a lot if it was true to them.
CH: I want to talk about indoctrination, they're very effective, both within the mega churches, they monopolize so much time, also within their media platforms which people should watch, I watched it, you've watched--you know it, it's horrifying, and also in the so-called Christian schools, Betsy DeVos is now diverting massive federal dollars into the hands of "Christian schools" talk about that indoctrination and what it does.
MW: It's interesting when you mentioned Betty--Betsy DeVos, I was ghostwriting DeVos' book Compassionate Capitalism. When I finally gave up and said capitalism had a compassionate side but you don't represent it. So one day I rode with Betsy DeVos on their stretch 2727 all the way to Japan, we--Betsy DeVos and me, and I tell you, she and her brothers and sisters had never seen a public transport and I think part of indoctrination is not being able to see anything like that, they have their own private airport, and airplanes in different sizes, that--that's DeVos, and so when you--when you grow up, not knowing anything, if you only watched Fox Television, you get a brain that's all full of lies, same way when you--when you only watch religious television but worse if you grew up in the religious context and you're surrounded by lies, 24, 24, 24 you have no choice. Poor Betsy, she doesn't know anything about education, she just knows about the indoctrination and that's her goal.
CH: So Biden won the election. What does that mean for the Christian Right?
MW: Well, first of all, they don't have Tony in the White House, they don't have someone they can boss around. Biden is going to at least try to clean up some of the messes they have made. So Biden is going to be a real enemy to the religious right. In terms of trying to get the Supreme Court stacked and get some more wise people on, and get these federal judgeships changed. I think Biden is so much more a hope for saving our democracy at the same time, Chris, I've heard you say over, and over, and over again, it's way too late to save this democracy. There's just too much money behind everything, and so now that Biden is president, I don't know. I don't think he can do much but I'm sure hoping that he can.
CH: Well my fear is that Biden seeds the ground for a competent Christian fascist that's my fear. That was the Reverend Mel White speaking to us about the dangers from the Christian Right.