About a year ago, I wrote here about a message I had received from a reader of this blog, a Christian high school senior who was deeply concerned about the appeal of the alt-right among his male classmates. I had several exchanges with the kid, who speculated that the alt-right appealed to the young men — all of whom are white, conservative, and Evangelical — because it’s daring, and because the spirituality of megachurch Evangelicalism (in the kid’s view) is insipid. There was nothing much to inspire or to hold them. The alt-right fake “gospel” offered them an easy explanation of why they felt alienated and powerless, provided them with an enemy, and stoked their rage.
All that came to mind with Matthew Rose’s must-read First Things essay on why Christians should take the alt-right seriously. Whatever your theological or political orientation, you need to read this essay. People who write the alt-right off as nothing but a bunch of losers and haters are making a big mistake, as Rose shows. It is anti-Christian, and it has strong arguments to make — not “strong” in the sense of “persuasive” (Rose is very much against the alt-right), but not arguments that can be easily dismissed with cries of “bigotbigotbigot!” Excerpts:
Almost everything written about the “alternative right” in mainstream outlets is wrong in one respect. The alt-right is not stupid. It is deep. Its ideas are not ridiculous. They are serious. To appreciate this fact, one needs to inquire beyond its presence on social media, where its obnoxious use of insult, obscenity, and racism has earned it a reputation for moral idiocy. The reputation is deserved, but do not be deceived. Behind its online tantrums and personal attacks are arguments of genuine power and expanding appeal. As political scientist George Hawley conceded in a recent study, “Everything we have seen over the past year suggests that the alt-right will be around for the foreseeable future.”
The alt-right is anti-Christian. Not by implication or insinuation, but by confession. Its leading thinkers flaunt their rejection of Christianity and their desire to convert believers away from it. Greg Johnson, an influential theorist with a doctorate in philosophy from Catholic University of America, argues that “Christianity is one of the main causes of white decline” and a “necessary condition of white racial suicide.” Johnson edits a website that publishes footnoted essays on topics that range from H. P. Lovecraft to Martin Heidegger, where a common feature is its subject’s criticisms of Christian doctrine. “Like acid, Christianity burns through ties of kinship and blood,” writes Gregory Hood, one of the website’s most talented essayists. It is “the essential religious step in paving the way for decadent modernity and its toxic creeds.”
Alt-right thinkers are overwhelmingly atheists, but their worldview is not rooted in the secular Enlightenment, nor is it irreligious. Far from it. Read deeply in their sources—and make no mistake, the alt-right has an intellectual tradition—and you will discover a movement that takes Christian thought and culture seriously. It is a conflicted tribute paid to their chief adversary. Against Christianity it makes two related charges. Beginning with the claim that Europe effectively created Christianity—not the other way around—it argues that Christian teachings have become socially and morally poisonous to the West. A major work of alt-right history opens with a widely echoed claim: “The introduction of Christianity has to count as the single greatest ideological catastrophe to ever strike Europe.”
Nietzsche got there first, of course — and he was not wrong about Christianity being a religion that exalts the meek.
Rose talks about Oswald Spengler’s Decline Of The West as a foundational text of the alt-right:
If Spengler’s theology is tendentious, his portrait of Western identity is deceptively powerful. To a young man lacking a strong identity he says, “This heroic culture is your inheritance, and yours alone. You stand in a line of men who have attained the highest excellences and freely endured the hardest challenges. Albert the Great, Cortés, Newton, Goethe, the Wright brothers all carry this daring spirit, and so do you.”
Interesting. Many years ago, I saw an obese, slovenly black woman in a flea market, wearing a t-shirt sporting an image of a Pharaoh, with the slogan, “My ancestors were kings and queens.” The juxtaposition was comic, just as it is comic to think about an obese, slovenly white guy vaping in front of his TV wearing a t-shirt sporting an image of, I dunno, Charlemagne, and a slogan claiming to be part of his lineage. But what snickerers like me don’t understand is why someone who is poor and at the bottom of the social hierarchy would find it consoling to identify with a hero — specifically, a racialized hero, as is the case in both these instances (the real one and the hypothetical one).
One more quote from Rose:
There is no better introduction to alt-right theory than [Alain de Benoist’s] 1981 work On Being a Pagan. Its tone is serene, but its message is militant. Benoist argues that the West must choose between two warring visions of human life: biblical monotheism and paganism. Benoist is a modern-day Celsus. Like his second-century predecessor, he writes to reawaken Europeans to their ancient faith. Paganism’s central claim is simple: that the world is holy and eternal. “Far from desacralizing the world,” Benoist tells us, paganism “sacralizes it in the literal sense of the word, since it regards the world as sacred.” Paganism is also a humanism. It recognizes man, the highest expression of nature, as the sole measure of the divine. God does not therefore create men; men make gods, which “exist” as ideal models that their creators strive to equal. “Man shares in the divine every time he surpasses himself,” Benoist writes, “every time he attains the boundaries of his best and strongest aspects.”
Benoist’s case against Christianity is that it forbids the expression of this “Faustian” vitality. It does so by placing the ultimate source of truth outside of humanity, in an otherworldly realm to which we must be subservient. In his Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth notoriously described Christian revelation as the “abolition” of natural religion. Benoist is a Barthian, if selectively. He accuses Christianity of crippling our most noble impulses. Christianity makes us strangers in our own skin, conning us into distrusting our strongest intuitions. We naturally respect beauty, health, and power, Benoist observes, but Christianity teaches us to revere the deformed, sick, and weak instead. “Paganism does not reproach Christianity for defending the weak,” he explains. “It reproaches [Christianity] for exalting them in their weakness and viewing it as a sign of their election and their title to glory.”
Benoist’s theology is in the service of a political warning, and it is this, more than his Nietzschean posturing, that attracts the alt-right. Christianity is unable to protect European peoples and their cultures. Under Christianity, the West lives under a kind of double imprisonment. It exists under the power of a foreign religion and an alien deity. Christianity is not our religion. It thereby foments “nihilism.” The allegation is explosive. Benoist means that Christianity renders Western culture morally lethargic and culturally defenseless. Most perniciously, its universalism poisons our attachments to particular loyalties and ties. “If all men are brothers,” Benoist claims, “then no one can truly be a brother.” Politics depends on the recognition of both outsiders and enemies, yet the Christian Church sees all people as potential members, indeed potential saints.
And here we reach Benoist’s remarkable conclusion. The decadent West has never been more Christian. Christianity imparted to our culture an ethics that has mutated into what the alt-right calls “pathological altruism.” Its self-distrust, concern for victims, and fear of excluding outsiders—such values swindle Western peoples out of a preferential love for their own. Benoist’s ideas have reached the margins of American conservatism, perhaps no more noticeably than in the writings of the late Sam Francis. A former contributor to leading conservative publications, his thinking took a late turn toward what we would now call the alt-right. “Christianity today is the enemy of the West and the race that created it,” he announced in an influential 2001 article. Francis’s essay was a lament as much as a protest (he was received into the Church on his deathbed), but his work is receiving a new hearing.
Read the whole thing. It’s important. Rose adds:
The alt-right’s understanding of human identity is reductive, and its rejection of Christian solidarity premature. “Christianity provides an identity that is above or before racial and ethnic identity,” Richard Spencer complains. “It’s not like other religions that come out of a folk spirit.” Spencer is right that the baptismal covenant transcends our local loyalties and identities. It does not, however, eradicate them.
The alt-right seeks an account of what we are meant to be and serve as a people, invoking race as an emergency replacement for our fraying civic bonds. It is not alone; identity politics on the left is a response to the same erosion of belonging. But race is a modern category, and lacks theological roots. Nation, however, is biblical. In the Book of Acts, St. Paul tells his Gentile listeners, “God has made all the nations [ethnos].” The Bible speaks often of God’s creation, judgment, and redemption of the nations. In Christ there is no Gentile or Jew, yet God calls us into his life not only as individuals but as members of communities for which we are responsible.
Rose is getting at something crucial here: that there is enough truth mixed into the alt-right philosophy to prevent it from being easily dismissed — something we ignore at our peril. I read some Julius Evola once — he’s one of the thinkers Rose covers — to see why his name keeps popping up. I found it entrancing, on a certain level. There were deep insights in his book, but he is also batshit crazy. (I felt the same way reading the Islamist theorist Sayyid Qutb.) If you don’t grapple with the deeply insightful part, you cannot understand why people who ought to know better accept the batshit crazy part.
The alt-right is anti-Christian. But you cannot effectively fight the alt-right with progressive pieties and outrage. Nor can you effectively resist it with conventional conservative pieties, ones that do not address the crises that the alt-right is responding to. They may have the wrong answers — I believe that they do — but the best of them are quite intelligent. The challenges they pose to the liberal order and way of understanding the world are potent, and cannot be adequately met, by Christians or anybody else, with shrill theatrics and weak-tea theology. Richard Spencer is evil, but he is not stupid.
I’m going to try to write about this particular aspect in a separate post, once I get a different task out of the way today, but I want to mention it here: Andrew Sullivan’s must-read column today about Social Justice Warriors on campus. Sullivan begins:
Over the last year, the most common rebuttal to my intermittent coverage of campus culture has been: Why does it matter? These are students, after all. They’ll grow up once they leave their cloistered, neo-Marxist safe spaces. The real world isn’t like that. You’re exaggerating anyway. And so on. I certainly see the point. In the world beyond campus, few people use the term microaggressions without irony or an eye roll; claims of “white supremacy,” “rape culture,” or “white privilege” can seem like mere rhetorical flourishes; racial and gender segregation hasn’t been perpetuated in the workplace yet; the campus Title IX sex tribunals where, under the Obama administration, the “preponderance of evidence” rather than the absence of a “reasonable doubt” could ruin a young man’s life and future are just a product of a hothouse environment. And I can sometimes get carried away.
The reason I don’t agree with this is because I believe ideas matter. When elite universities shift their entire worldview away from liberal education as we have long known it toward the imperatives of an identity-based “social justice” movement, the broader culture is in danger of drifting away from liberal democracy as well. If elites believe that the core truth of our society is a system of interlocking and oppressive power structures based around immutable characteristics like race or sex or sexual orientation, then sooner rather than later, this will be reflected in our culture at large. What matters most of all in these colleges — your membership in a group that is embedded in a hierarchy of oppression — will soon enough be what matters in the society as a whole.
Sullivan goes on to cite numerous instances of campus SJW thought and practice expanding throughout the larger society. Read the whole thing. Conventional conservatism is doing nothing, or nothing effective, to resist this tyranny. Do you know who does stand up to it, unapologetically? The alt-right. Andrew Sullivan’s piece is not about the alt-right, but I see both him and Matthew Rose sounding a very similar alarm. Pay attention; this is serious.
You too, conventional liberals: your own acceptance and promotion of illiberal, racialist ideology under the guise of “social justice” is calling up these demons on the Right. The best way you can fight the alt-right is to fight the SJWs, whose militancy, and whose effective militancy, can only make the alt-right stronger.