In our New Oxford Note “The Last Rhetorical Refuge of an Intellectual Scoundrel” (June), we asked the rhetorical question: “Remember all those insults about the ‘American Taliban’ hurled at religious conservatives in the 2000s?”The foregoing article, "Return of an Imaginary Menace," was originally published in the November 2016 issue of the New Oxford Review and is reproduced here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706.
Kevin D. Williamson remembers, and he takes us back to that time, ten years ago, when Chris Hedges, a “leading moralist of the Left,” as The New Republic called him (Jun. 11, 2014), could author a book titled American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, and that book could earn rave reviews on its way to becoming a New York Times bestseller. Hedges’s book claims, in Williamson’s words, that “a secretive movement of authoritarian Christians organized along the lines of the great totalitarian movements of the 20th century was on the verge of seizing power through violence” (National Review, Sept. 12).
That a Christian cabal bent on recreating America in its own image was poised to ascend to power wasn’t merely the product of Hedges’s fever dreams. Progressive political blogger Markos Moulitsas also entertained the notion. Kos, as he is widely known, might have been the one to popularize the term American Taliban when he posted an incendiary piece bearing that title (www.DailyKos.com, Mar. 11, 2005), in which he argued that “the Taliban/Al Qaida/Hezbollah/Jihadists of the world” are “exactly what we see in the Republican Party as the GOP continues to consolidate power — creeping theocracy, moralizing, us versus them, embrace of torture, the need to constantly declare jihad on someone, hysterics over football-game nipples, control over ‘decency’ on the airwaves, lyrics censorship, hostility to women freedoms [sic], curtaling [sic] of civil liberties, and so on.” Five years later, Kos would capitalize on the concept by releasing his own book on the topic, American Taliban: How War, Sex, Sin, and Power Bind Jihadists and the Radical Right.
In the interim, a kind of cottage industry had spawned, and the term American Taliban — and all that it represented — had taken on a life of its own. Soon, any number of reputable publishers and mainstream organizations, from The New York Times to Oprah Winfrey, were seriously considering the possibility that an influential group of highly placed Christian dominionists was operating behind the scenes of American political and cultural life, forming opinions, influencing policy, and biding its time until it could step out from behind the curtain and impose its beliefs first on a fractured and distracted America and eventually on a bewildered and unsuspecting world.
These “creeping theocrats” allegedly included among their ranks, at various times, such figures as Sen. Rick Santorum, Randall Terry of Operation Rescue, Lt. Gen. William Boykin, political commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, Joseph Scheidler of the Pro-Life Action League, Attorney General John Ashcroft, televangelist Pat Robertson, Gov. Fob James, evangelical James Dobson, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and puppet master of them all, President George W. Bush, who supposedly commanded a legion of cells in various media and government entities that were busily preparing for just the right moment to strike at the heart of democracy and freedom and establish what Simon & Schuster, in its promos for Hedges’s book, called a “global Christian empire” characterized by a “hatred of open society.” (You can read a list of “Quotes from the The [sic] American Taliban” at the website of a group out of the University of California at San Diego that calls itself, evidently with a straight face, Adult Thought. The group’s express aim is to “counter-balance various brutish, childish, intolerant, righteous, selfish, and superstitious forces which are being used to manipulate our society.”)
Not surprisingly, American Catholics found themselves caught up in the controversy, and more than just those listed above. In 2006 Damon Linker released a book titled The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege, in which he fingers Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, his former boss at First Things, as well as Michael Novak and George Weigel, as “freelance propaganda ministers” for Bush’s invasion of Iraq. These men, according to Linker, wanted to impose a theocracy on the U.S., and their “revolutionary religious ideology,” he claimed, “is transforming the political and cultural landscape of our time.” Despite the NOR’s opposition to the invasion, and our disagreement with Neuhaus’s role in attempting to form favorable Catholic opinion toward it (Neuhaus was an advisor to Bush and at times did come across as a propagandist), we weren’t swayed by Linker’s book, which we called “largely a dud” (New Oxford Notes, Dec. 2006).
The problem is that none of these dire warnings of the impending overthrow of American institutions by Christian theocrats ever came close to coming to pass. All such claims were “preposterous,” as Williamson says, “pure conspiracy-theory nonsense,” not merely an exaggeration but an invention. “The widespread movement, the federal agencies larded with covert Christian operatives, the nation on the precipice of civil unrest — none of this actually exists,” Williamson writes, then or now. “Not in the real world.”
A consideration of how our political and cultural landscape actually transformed over the past ten years reveals the abject absurdity of all that alarmism: Same-sex marriage is now legal; state courts are forcing Christian bakers, florists, and photographers out of business for refusing to serve same-sex weddings; a Kentucky county clerk was thrown in jail for refusing to issue same-sex-marriage licenses; certain kinds of counseling for homosexuals who want to leave the “lifestyle” are now illegal; laws prohibiting “discrimination” based on sexual orientation and “gender identity” are sweeping the nation; the U.S. Department of Education has threatened to pull federal funding from schools that don’t allow transgender students to use the restrooms of their choice; and the Little Sisters of the Poor had to resort to filing a lawsuit against the federal government in order to protect their religious freedom.
Does any of this sound like a Christian theocracy in action?
“There is very little evidence,” Williamson writes, “that the so-called Christian Right…has much meaningful influence on public policy.”
But that hasn’t prevented liberal pundits from resurrecting the specter of an aggressive American Taliban that’s out to undermine all that the Left holds as good and true. Little more than two years ago, progressive radio talk-show host Thom Hartmann wrote, “We have our very own ISIS and very own Taliban right here in the United States. It’s called the Christian hard-right, it’s been in America for a very long time, and it’s pushing beliefs that share a worldview and a face with those of ISIS and the Taliban” (www.ThomHartmann.com, Jul. 24, 2014). Christian “extremists” represent “a very real threat right here and right now in the U.S.,” Hartmann warns, and if they “are allowed to get in positions of power,” the results would be “pretty ugly.”
Hartmann isn’t alone in trying to reconstruct the right-wing strawman of yesteryear. A matter of months before he echoed and updated Kos’s decade-old blogpost (we now have an “American ISIS”), the aforementioned Chris Hedges similarly warned, in his weekly column (www.TruthDig.com, Oct. 6, 2013), that the “radical Christian right” is maneuvering itself into a position to “destroy the intellectual and scientific rigor of the Enlightenment, radically diminish the role of government to create a theocratic state based on ‘biblical law,’ and force a recalcitrant world to bend to the will of an imperial and ‘Christian’ America.”
This nefarious American Christian force is allegedly as opportunistic as it is obdurate. “The Christian right needs only a spark to set it ablaze,” Hedges predicts. “Another catastrophic act of domestic terrorism, hyperinflation, a series of devastating droughts, floods, hurricanes or massive wildfires or another financial meltdown will be the trigger. Then what is left of our anemic open society will disintegrate.”
Any coolheaded customer won’t fail to notice that we’ve already witnessed the occurrence of apocalyptic “triggering” events such as those Hedges warns of — e.g., the domestic terrorist attacks in Orlando, San Bernardino, New York City, and St. Cloud, Minnesota; the ongoing drought in California; flooding in Texas and Louisiana — without any ensuing Christian theocratic revolutionary activity. Still, this hasn’t translated into a tempering of their rhetoric; instead, their rhetoric has become increasingly delusory and shrill.
This July, Hartmann repeated on his Sirius XM radio show that a “Christian Taliban” has taken over the Republican Party — a party that, as Williamson observes, was “on the cusp of nominating the thrice-married, socially liberal, pro-gay, pro-abortion-until-five-minutes-ago Donald Trump as its standard-bearer.” In fact, Williamson notes, polls have “consistently found that churchgoing Evangelicals supported Trump at half the levels of unchurched voters.” How can a man who was overwhelmingly rejected by evangelical Christians have been tapped to represent a Republican Party that Hartmann claims is controlled by a “Christian Taliban”? It makes no sense.
The question must be asked: Why do progressives continue to shriek into the night about a bogeyman that recent history and current events have shown to be nothing more than a figment of their over-exercised imaginations? Again Williamson: “The Left is selling an odd and ambitious agenda: turning the United States into…one big public utility administered by one big DMV in Washington” — where it currently enjoys the pleasures of power (and will continue to do so pending the outcome of this month’s presidential election). “That’s a tough sell, and tough sells need enemies. Choosing to make an unpopular religious minority the face of all that is wrong with a society isn’t exactly unprecedented.” Demonizing a religious group is, in fact, a timeworn political strategy: Christians had that honor in the Roman Empire, as did Jews in Nazi Germany, Kulaks in Soviet Russia, and Sunni Muslims in Iran.
Of course, these were actual, extant religious groups that were easily identifiable and, therefore, easy targets for persecution. Today’s target group, the trumped-up American Taliban, is nothing more than a phantom menace, the stuff of (bad) cinematic fiction.
The lesson for movements that define themselves by their opposition is that if a suitable enemy doesn’t exist, it is necessary to invent one.