Did James Luther Adams really predict 'Christian fascists'?

Did James Luther Adams really predict 'Christian fascists'?

Chris Hedges invokes UU theologian James Luther Adams in his new book, 'American Fascists,' but gets Adams only half-right.


The dust jacket of Chris Hedges’s American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America leads with a book excerpt that will catch Unitarian Universalists’ attention: “Dr. James Luther Adams, my ethics professor at Harvard Divinity School, told us that when we were his age—he was then close to 80—we would all be fighting the ‘Christian fascists.’”

As one of Adams’s students and the author of a book about his theology, I remember Adams’s warning differently. Adams, the most prominent Unitarian Universalist theologian of the twentieth century, did see neo-fascism as an American possibility, but my recollection of his prophetic warning goes something like this: When the enemies of freedom come to “rescue” us from the regnant social chaos, they will not be wearing brown shirts and hailing der Führer; they will come waving the flag and clutching the Bible—seemingly innocent symbols of American culture.

Hedges asserts that Adams’s warning, as he remembers it, is now coming true and devotes his new book to demonstrating the thesis. Chapter titles reflect the tenor and the tendentiousness of his argument: “The Culture of Despair,” “Conversion,” “The Cult of Masculinity,” “Persecution,” “The War on Truth,” “The New Class,” “The Crusade,” “God: The Commercial,” and “Apocalyptic Violence.” A first chapter, on “Faith,” begins with a personal religious statement and mentions his studies at Harvard Divinity School: He graduated, he tells us, but was not ordained. He tells us his father was a Presbyterian minister with outspokenly liberal political leanings, but reveals no church affiliation of his own. Hedges is a journalist, formerly a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, who with others won a Pulitzer Prize for war-zone reportage. An earlier book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, reflects on the personal impact of his professional experience; its title expresses a troubling idea, the more you think about it.

Adams’s words, recalled 25 years later, have kindled Hedges’s alarm about the power and intentions of an increasingly politicized “Christian right” today. Many UUs have a predilection to share the alarm; I find it blown out of proportion. Hedges provides much interpretive rhetoric but little concrete evidence for his most extreme claims.

Hedges discusses Adams in the concluding chapter, “Apocalyptic Violence,” but nowhere identifies Adams as a Unitarian Universalist. Does it matter? In one sense, no. Adams taught at three theological schools over the course of four decades and worked tirelessly with many social action groups, and so does not belong to us but to the wider world of religious thought and social action. Far from being a narrow sectarian, he was our most ecumenically known and respected representative. But in another sense his institutional identity matters profoundly. It goes to the core of what Adams stood for: “By their groups you shall know them.” In a recent lecture, Harvard theologian Harvey Cox, one of Adams’s students, cited these words as his most characteristic teaching. And the Unitarian Universalist community was his Group with a capital G. He was a Unitarian minister before he became a professor at Meadville Lombard Theological School. Even in his 80s—when Hedges knew him—he proudly held the title Minister of Adult Education in his local congregation, Boston’s Arlington Street Church. You could say he believed in an unpopular thing, “organized religion.”

At the same time he was its severest critic. Adams held that an authentic religion is by definition “a self-critical religion,” and authentic faith is by definition an “examined faith.” This is what makes us liberals in religion, and just this is what Adams practiced in his teaching: The problem is often not the power of our “enemies” (those who seem to threaten us) but our own weakness, our liberal laxity. “The trouble with being a Unitarian,” he once said, “is you can’t flunk.” How, then, are religious liberals to respond to the hydra-headed “Christian right” evoked by Chris Hedges? We shall need to demonstrate a definite character as a community, even (in Adams’s phrase) “a discipline and a doctrine.” If we are only liberal-minded secularists with a sprinkling of spirituality who are alarmed by Pat Robertson and Co., we will fade into ineffectuality.

This is the core of Adams’s analysis, underlying his warning about “Christian fascists”: Liberalism itself must be transformed. A good example is the idea of “conversion,” attacked by Hedges as a staple of evangelicalism. For Adams, conversion was the sine qua non of commitment. He knew that conversion can be manipulated and thus perverted, but Hedges presents only the manipulative, perverted version. Adams decried the weakness of liberal institutions; during extended visits to Germany in the 1930s, Adams saw that both church and university were vulnerable to the rise of Nazism, and tried to understand the roots of this weakness and find ways to strengthen liberal groups in response. Hedges mentions Adams’s concern for addressing the weakness of liberal institutions, but for his own part dwells on the dangers and stupidities of the “Christian right.” The Christian left, an evangelical party in which Adams was a fellow traveler, makes no appearance in Hedges’s book.

Adams’s genius seems largely to have escaped Hedges. Adams preached not to “the choir,” but to the prejudiced, unreflective, and often self-righteous public of his own time and place. We see this in the only extended quotation from Adams’s writings that Hedges offers. It is from his account of a lecture he gave to U.S. Army officers preparing for occupational duty in Germany directly after World War II. Hedges describes how Adams encountered, in his own words, “an orgy of self-righteousness” from his audience. Rather than congratulate the soldiers as the virtuous American conquerors of the evil, now-vanquished Nazis, he challenged them to examine their own racism and anti-Semitism. Curiously, these two sins do not figure in Hedges’s account of the dangers of the Christian right. Homophobia does—and he goes on to say that Adams also spoke of the Nazi repression of gays and lesbians: “Adams said that homosexuals would also be the first ‘social deviants’ singled out and disempowered by the Christian Right. We would be the next.” The “we” is left unspecified, and no direct quotation is supplied.

Hedges cites Adams’s words from conversations during the time when Adams, although long since retired from teaching, maintained a salon for students and friends at his Cambridge home: “He saw how easily the German universities had been Nazified. He told me, I suspect only half in jest, that if the Nazis took over America, ‘60 percent of Harvard faculty would begin their lectures with the Nazi salute.’” I cannot imagine Adams saying the Nazi takeover of German universities was “easy,” but I can imagine the “60 percent” crack. Whether or not he said it in jest, he had a way of making us think. While I never heard him say that one, I did once hear him name a colleague who, he said, would be at the driver’s seat when the secret police came to take political dissidents away. But not in print. Adams could be sweet as honey and sharp as an adder’s tooth.

Hedges provides useful information about far-right-wing Christian groups and their demagogic leaders (“dominionists,” the Left Behind series, etc.), but unfortunately his alternative looks pallid: “Democracy is not, as the Christo-fascists claim, the enemy of faith. Democracy keeps religious faith in the private sphere, ensuring that all believers have an equal measure of protection and practice mutual tolerance. . . . The call to obliterate the public and the private wall that keeps faith the prerogative of the individual means the obliteration of democracy.”

Everything Adams said stood against the relegation of religion to individual spirituality. The test of religious authenticity, he said, lay in the implications of one’s faith for public policy. (He once challenged Billy Graham on a public platform to say how his belief in Jesus affected his attitude toward labor unions. He got a blank stare in reply.) Adams was a powerful advocate of church-state separation—the legacy, he taught, of the free church tradition and contrary to the restriction of religion to “the private sphere.” Freedom of religion means precisely the freedom to organize, influence, and act in the public sphere—for Unitarian Universalists and for Pat Robertson alike.

The third of Adams’s “three tenets of a free person’s faith” is this: “The achievement of freedom in community requires the power of organization and the organization of power.” For Adams freedom is a communal achievement, because only the community can ensure real freedom to the individual. We religious liberals all could go back to class with Adams, because you can flunk.

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