During graduate school, Chris Hedges took ethics classes with James Luther Adams, an American theologian who spent time in Germany during Nazi reign and who worked alongside the “confessing-church” in resistance to Nazism. In American Fascists, Hedges writes about Adams, who was around 80 when Hedges took his course, told the students that by the time they reached his age that they “would all be fighting ‘Christian fascism.’” After reading works such as Robert Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism, Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works, Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny, Elizabeth McRae’s Mothers of Massive Resistance, Kristin Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne, Anthea Butler’s White Evangelical Racism, Candida Moss’ The Myth of Persecution, and countless other texts and podcasts, I’ve come to use the term Christian fascism to describe much of the rhetoric and positions of evangelical Christianity.
I did not come to using this term lightly. For the longest time, I stuck with Christian nationalism because Christian fascism carries with it a myriad of connotations that individuals don’t want to confront. As Americans, when we use the term fascism, we use it in relation to specific historical regimes and moments, notably Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany, two of the Axis nations during World War II. We view ourselves as the saviors of the free world and the promoters of democracy because we defeated fascism. We prop ourselves up, ignoring the fact that Russia, Polish resistance, French resistance, and countless others fought together to defeat the fascists regimes. We prop ourselves up forgetting multiple parts of our domestic history, like the German American Bund, denying refugees entry into the nation, placing American citizens and immigrants in concentration camps, and more.
At the time of the course, Hedges and his classmates saw Adams’ warning as something in the distant future, something that couldn’t possibly happen. Adams, for his part, warned them against their “intellectual snobbery” that would say, “It can’t happen here.” He pointed out that those who inherited Nazi fascism in America “found a mask for fascism in patriotism and the pages of the bible.” I remember vividly church services that would praise the military, praise our service members, praise America. I remember patriotic services, solely to glorify the nation. When I think of Christian nationalism, this is what I think about, the intermingling of Christian and American imagery and symbols, so wrapped together that they influence each other at every turn. This conflation leads to blindness. Paul Tillich, in Dynamics of Faith(1956), writes, “If a national group makes the life and growth of a nation its ultimate concern, it demands that all other concerns, economic wellbeing, health and life, family, aesthetic and cognitive truth, justice & humanity, be sacrificed.”
Tillich, Adams, and countless other pastors, theologians, congregants, scholars, and more resisted the Protestant German church’s complicity and acquiescence to Nazi policy. Instead of pushing back and working towards equity, health, and life for all, the churches that went along with the Nazi regime pushed those issues to the side, focusing on nation and their own self interest. Adams reminded Hedges and the other students that “Tillich . . . taught that the role of the church was in society, that the depth of its commitment and faith were measured by its engagement with politics and culture.” This may sound like Christian nationalism, but what Tillich meant was that one cannot disentangle one faith’s from one’s politics and the culture that informs it. It does not mean that one wraps their religion in the pomp and circumstance of patriotism, using the church to forward political policies that marginalize others. That runs counter to democracy. He does mean, though, that one should speak up and stand up in the face of unchristian policies because one’s faith demands it.
Adams saw the rise of evangelical Christianity as a threat to democracy because they see the separation or church and state as “the enemy of faith.” However, as Hedges points out, “Democracy keeps religious faith in the private sphere, ensuring that all believers have an equal measure of protection and practice mutual tolerance. Democracy sets no religious ideal.” When Christian fascists create legislation to have phrases such as “In God we trust” displayed in schools, they seek to set a “religious ideal.” When Christian fascists seek to ban books because they do not adhere to their beliefs, they seek to set a “religious ideal.” When Christian fascists deny someone their rights because that person does not believe the same things, they seek to set a “religious ideal.”
Adams saw this rise with the Moral Majority and the Christian Right. He forewarned Hedges and others that “in the event of prolonged social instability, catastrophe or national crisis, see American fascists, under the guise of Christianity, rise to dismantle the open society.” We see this. Lauren Boebert called for a removal of the separation of church and state. Marjorie Taylor Greene claimed that Republicans needed to be the party of Christian nationalism, embracing the term wholeheartedly, because it would solve a myriad of issues from school shootings to “sexual immorality.” Boebert and Greene aren’t alone in this, staunchly intertwining patriotism and Christianity, pulling from the fascist playbook of disinformation, fear, bullying, violence, and more.
Near the end of World War II, Adams spoke to a group of U.S. Army officers bout “the Nazi faith.” These officers would be part of the occupation force in Germany following the war. He described the officers’ views at the meeting as “an orgy of self-righteousness,” turning around the fact that the United States helped to defeat fascists during the war. This caused them to inflate their ego, feeling superior to the powers they just defeated, condescendingly looking down on them. Writing about this lecture, Adams says that he tried to check their “self-righteousness” because if he didn’t he would “succeed only in strengthening the morale of a bumptious hundred-percent ‘Americanism.’” Adams saw first hand the fervent nationalism in Germany and the violence that ensued. He also saw the striking similarities at home.
He reminded the officers that “similar attitudes” that existed in Nazi Germany exist in America, “not only among lunatic and subversive groups but also among respectable Americans in the army of democracy.” He asked them if their attitude towards African Americans and Jews differed any from Nazi views, “not a difference in brutality but a difference in basic philosophy.” If an essential difference didn’t exist, they he asked them, “What are you fighting for?” Adams wanted the officers to realize that they were not immune to racism, xenophobia, and oppression.
In response, a lot of the officers asked him questions such as: “Do you think we should marry a n*****?” “Aren’t Negroes a naturally indolent and dirty race?” “Haven’t you been in business, and don’t you know that every Jew is a k***?” They asked him these types of questions for over an hour, denying any similarity to Nazi Germany while at the same time expressing that similarity full throatily. He would simply ask the question again: “How do you distinguish between yourself and a Nazi?” This is a powerful and damning question, on so many levels, but it is one I think about when I think about Christian fascism.
Adams concludes by noting that a majority of the “Americans who could not distinguish between themselves and Nazis came from ‘religious’ homes, or they claimed to be representatives (or even leaders) of the American faith.” They saw themselves as righteous, as good, as faithful Christians. They did not see their views as evil and discriminatory. They did not see them as destroying democracy. Their faith, according to Adams, “was a trust in white, gentile supremacy — faith in the blood.” They clung to nation, patriotism, and white supremacy, under the guise of Christianity.
The language to Make American Great Again and to return the nation to a “Christian” nation drips with fascism. It hinges on a nonexistent past, a mythmaking that is integral to fascism. When one buys into this utopian fever dream, violence, suffering, and pain ensue because any who appears to be against the dream must perish. As Hedges puts it, “The worst suffering in human history has been carried out by those who preach such grand, utopian visions, those who see to implant by force their narrow, particular version of goodness.” That is why I use the term Christian fascist now because when we look around, that is what we see.