Debating Christian ‘fascism’

By  Peter Kavanagh, Catholic Register Special
  • February 19, 2007

Conventional wisdom can only take you so far. Take the notion that talk is better than fighting. On the surface it seems obvious. With experience you learn that it all depends on the nature of the talk and the people doing the talking. The perfect lesson for this took place at Innis Hall at the University of Toronto on Feb. 6.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a debate (noun) as “…contention in argument; dispute, controversy; discussion” and that’s how the event was advertised. Chris Hedges (Pulitzer prize winning American journalist and author) and Charles McVety (president of Canada Christian College) were brought together to square off over Hedges’ new book, American Fascists: The Radical Christian Right’s War on America. At first blush it is the perfect pairing.

Hedges argues that the radical Christian right; by which he means not Evangelicals or fundamentalists but Dominionists, Christians who wish to see the establishment of a Christian nation, especially in the United States, is poised to be the next great fascist movement and a clear and present danger to all who do not subscribe to their agenda. McVety is a major player on the Christian right in Canada and someone who sees little or no difference between himself and many of the targets of Hedges’ polemic. Two more opposite worldviews cannot be imagined. And the brutal reality is that when polar opposites square off there is literally no middle ground.

OED defines debate (verb) as “…to contest, dispute; to contend for” and contesting, disputing and contending is exactly what Hedges and McVety didn’t do. Instead they talked past, over and around each other. Hedges, the divinity school trained scholar delivered concise lecture points: “Dominionists share all the attributes of past Fascist movements.” “The battle for the teaching of creationism in schools is a flight from the world of reason and science in favour of a world of angels and magi.”

McVety adopted the style of the skilled sermonizer: “He’s come here from Harvard to slander an entire group of people.” “His work smacks of the odious forgery of the Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion.”

Neither speaker could or would wrestle with the ideas of the other, they were too dismissive of the others’ views. The “debate” got off to a very bad start when McVety decided to ignore Hedges’ claim that “unlike Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, he came to this issue from faith, as a believer, as someone who believes the message of the Dominionists was not about Christianity but about power.” Instead McVety disparaged Hedges’ understanding of the Bible, his ignorance of Canada and his wilful denigration of all Christians. The gloves were off and sarcasm and vitriol were the weapons of choice.

The divisions in the full-house audience aided each speaker. One third of the audience would applaud everything McVety said and laugh at every attempt at humour. One third of the audience would do the same for Hedges. But I found the last third of the audience the most intriguing; they would sometimes applaud Hedges and sometimes McVety.

In a very important way it is this last third who are key to this intensifying argument about the role of religion in the public square. In Hedges’ book, which he acknowledges is filled with anger, there is much to dispute. He sees a grave threat of fascism facing his nation; he is accordingly exorcised with the problem and the solutions. What is clear evidence to him often reads as hyperbole and hyperbole should sit wrong with the reader. But the truth is that he and his enemies understand each other all too well and it is easy for each to demonize the other. What is most demanding in his book is the charge and challenge he levels against the mainstream churches.

Hedges argues that the “selective literalists,” his term for people who assert the literal truth of parts of the Bible but not other parts, the creationists and the Dominionists get away with what they do because the older churches let them. The Roman Catholics, the Presbyterians, the Anglicans remain silent while distortions, misreadings and even lies are spread about as the Word of God. Hedges is calling for, demanding that within the world of faith, the faithful are required to dispute, argue and root out heresy. The failure to do so, he believes, is aiding and abetting the threat of and rise of “Christian Fascism” not to mention corrupting the Christian reality. It is a strong charge, one that needs to be responded to, wrestled with.

There could be a number of possible reasons why the charge hasn’t been taken up. Marketers and the media believe that extreme positions make for better spectacle. Hedges suspects that the reason the mainstream churches don’t take up the call is simple. He argues that they of the emptying pews are so concerned with holding in their declining members that any potentially divisive issue needs be avoided. He might have a point; there are Catholics who don’t want evolution taught in the schools regardless of the Vatican’s position on evolution.

But I suspect the real reason has more to do with the nature of ecumenical thought and the notion of tolerance. Churches make concessions in the world of tolerance: I won’t call you a heretic if you don’t call me a pagan. The controversy around the comments made by Pope Benedict XVI might be seen by many as a cautionary tale about what happens when faiths speak of one another.

Yet, this is the debate that the “non-partisan” third of the audience seems to want. This is the more challenging aspect to Hedges book. This is the debate that didn’t take place in Innis Hall.

(Kavanagh is a senior producer with CBC Radio in Toronto.)

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