Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Rene Girard & The Covington Catholic Boys

Christianity and the advent of the 'other totalitarianism'
Screen Shot 2019-01-27 at 1.34.00 PM

If you want to understand what happened to the Covington Catholic boys at the Lincoln Memorial — and why things like this will continue to happen — you should read the late cultural critic and theorist Rene Girard.

I’m not the first one to say this. Bishop Robert Barron has long been a reader of Girard, and the other day interpreted the event at the Lincoln Memorial in terms of Girard’s theory about the scapegoating mechanism.  Barron wrote, explaining this theory:

Roughly speaking, it unfolds as follows. When tensions arise in a group (as they inevitably do), people commence to cast about for a scapegoat, for someone or some group to blame. Deeply attractive, even addictive, the scapegoating move rapidly attracts a crowd, which in short order becomes a mob. In their common hatred of the victim, the blamers feel an ersatz sense of togetherness. Filled with the excitement born of self-righteousness, the mob then endeavors to isolate and finally eliminate the scapegoat, convinced that this will restore order to their roiled society. At the risk of succumbing to the reductio ad Hitlerum fallacy, nowhere is the Girardian more evident than in the Germany of the 1930s. Hitler ingeniously exploited the scapegoating mechanism to bring his country together—obviously in a profoundly wicked way.

In his 2001 book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard, who was one of the great geniuses of the 20th century, explains his anthropological interpretation of the Bible — the Hebrew Bible, and the Gospels — and why they have the power to reveal and defeat the cycle of murderous violence that is deeply embedded in human nature.

(If you’re the kind of whataboutist whose knee is jerking to say “but Christians commit violence too!”, let me gently suggest that you read something about Girard’s thought. You could start with this recent big piece in the New York Review Of Books, which begins with this: “Not only are his ideas about mimetic desire and human violence as far-reaching as Marx’s theories of political economy or Freud’s claims about the Oedipus complex, but the explosion of social media, the resurgence of populism, and the increasing virulence of reciprocal violence all suggest that the contemporary world is becoming more and more recognizably ‘Girardian’ in its behavior.” If you can’t get through the paywall, try this very brief introduction to Girard’s thought, then explore elsewhere on the Internet. There’s a wealth of resources.)

In I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard writes about how the “concern for victims” is what sets Judaism and Christianity apart from all other archaic religions. This concern for victims has now been virtually universalized, even — paradoxically — as Christianity has begun to decline, at least in the West. You could say — but Girard doesn’t, at least not here — that Communism is a godless absolutizing of the concern for victims. What sets it apart from Nazism is that Nazism was a massive attempt to refute concern for victims as a basis for society. Following Nietzsche, Nazism condemned Christianity as “slave morality” (Nietzsche’s phrase) because it taught people to have compassion for the weak and the unfit. Communism was a pseudo-religion that tried to put a victim class on top, in a utopian push to right historic wrongs, and ended up creating hell on earth.

In a fascinating chapter on Nietzsche, Girard credits the philosopher with understanding the anthropological meaning of Christianity, but faults him for rejecting it. Girard:

He opposes, so he believes, the crowd mentality, but he does not recognize his Dionysian stance as the supreme expression of the mob in its most brutal and its most stupid tendencies.

Christianity does not yield to ulterior motives of resentment in its concern to rehabilitate victims. It is not seduced by a contaminated charity of resentment. What it does is to rectify the illusion of myths; it exposes the lie of the “satanic accusation.”

Since Nietzsche is blind to mimetic rivalry [a key Girardian concept; this is what causes violence] and its contagion, he doesn’t see that the Gospel stance toward victims does not come from prejudice in favor of the weak against the strong but is heroic resistance to violent contagion. Indeed, the Gospels embody the discernment of a small minority that dares to oppose the monstrous mimetic contagion of a Dionysian lynching.

Now, here is where Girard becomes especially interesting, and relevant to our moment. He says that today, “we hear repeated in every way that we no longer have an absolute,” but in fact the concern for victims “is our absolute.” That is, it is the basis for our morality: “it is the concern for victims that determines what is most important.” This is the case because all other sources of absolute value have been lost. More:

The current process of spiritual demagoguery and rhetorical overkill has transformed the concern for victims into a totalitarian command and a permanent inquisition. … We are living through a caricatural “ultra-Christianity” that tries to escape from the Judeo-Christian orbit by “radicalizing” the concern for victims in an anti-Christian manner. … The intellectuals and other cultural elites have promoted Christianity to the role of number one scapegoat.

Girard says we are at the advent of what he calls “the other totalitarianism,” saying that it is

the most cunning and malicious of the two, the one with the greatest future, by all evidence. At present it does not oppose Judeo-Christian aspirations but claims them as its own and questions the concern for victims on the part of Christians (not without a certain semblance of reason at the level of concrete action, given the deficiencies of historical Christianity). The other totalitarianism does not openly oppose Christianity but outflanks it on its left wing.

This is the force of what in the Christian tradition is called Antichrist. You don’t have to believe in a literal Antichrist figure to grasp what Girard is saying here. Girard points out that in the symbolic language of the New Testament, Antichrist opposes Christ by imitating him and seeking to be better than him. More:

The Antichrist boasts of bringing to human beings the peace and tolerance that Christianity promised but has failed to deliver. Actually what the radicalization of contemporary victimology produces is a return to all sorts of pagan practices: abortion euthanasia, sexual undifferentiation, Roman circus games galore but without real victims, etc.

Neo-paganism would like to turn the Ten Commandments and all of Judeo-Christian morality into some alleged intolerable violence, and indeed its primary objective is their complete abolition. Faithful observance of the moral law is perceived s complicity with the forces of persecution that are essentially religious. Since the Christian denominations have become only tardily aware of their failings in charity, their connivance with established political orders in the past and present world that are always “sacrificial,” they are particularly vulnerable to the ongoing blackmail of contemporary neo-paganism.

Neo-paganism locates happiness in the unlimited satisfaction of desires, which means the suppression of all prohibitions. This idea acquires a semblance of credibility in the limited domain of consumer goods, who prodigious multiplication, thanks to technological progress, weakens certain mimetic rivalries. The weakening of mimetic rivalries confers an appearance of plausibility, but only that, on the stance that turns the moral law into an instrument of repression and persecution.

And what happens when, having cut down all the moral laws to build a Brave New World of unlimited satisfaction, the money runs out, and the economy collapses?

In his final chapter, Girard praises the “heroism” of the scattered disciples in the wake of Jesus’s resurrection. They had no power, and in fact, knew that they had participated in “the violent contagion that murdered their master” (e.g., Peter’s denial). What they had was the power of their belief, and their ability to communicate what they had seen and experienced. And this ultimately subverted the dominant paradigm of the ancient world, which believed that scapegoats were real and necessary.

Girard believes that only genuine divine power gave them the strength to do this. He believes that it is impossible to break the spell that drives humanity to scapegoating violence without believe in “a power superior to violent contagion.” In other words, the God of the Bible.

Girard, by the way, was an atheist who came to accept his baptismal religion, Christianity, through his literary and anthropological studies. He came to believe that the Gospels were anthropologically true. His story is absolutely fascinating. In I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning (the title is a quote from Jesus), Girard explains that, in his view,

The Bible is unique in its disclosure of the standpoint of the victims, which means that form the standpoint of the narratives, God takes the side of the victim. Not all narratives do this, but a new perspective emerges in Israel. What the people or crowd want is to justify itself and its past, and they do this by blaming someone for all their troubles. In moments of crisis caused by deep-seated rivalries a person is unjustly accused of some offense or crime. … So from a purely anthropological viewpoint, the Bible unveils the victim mechanism that lies behind polytheism and mythology, but not only behind polytheism and mythology, for its full expression underlies everything we know as human culture. The Bible recognizes this in the story of Cain and Abel. Because Cain murders his brother, God bans him form the soil, making him a wanderer on the earth, and God puts a mark on him, a sign to protect him from suffering what he made Abel suffer. Then Cain builds the first city, and so civilization begins. The story in Genesis 4 tells us, in effect, that the sign of Cain is the sign of civilization. The cross of Christ is the sign of salvation, which is revealed as the overcoming of mimetic desire and violence through the nonviolence of love and forgiveness.

Now, what does this have to do with us, in particular, us orthodox Christians?

Girard wrote these lines around the turn of the century. Since then, the “radicalization of contemporary victimology” has produced even more of exactly the effects he said they would produce. And orthodox Christianity has become even more marginalized and despised, precisely because the post-Christian left needs a scapegoat upon which to blame the sins of the world. It is hard to come up with a more perfect scapegoat for this pseudo-religion of radical victimology than a group of white male pro-life Catholics from the South, wearing MAGA hats.

Understand what I’m saying here: the actual guilt of those boys was completely beside the point in the minds of the mob. It’s not about what those boys did, or didn’t do. It’s about who they are. Their identity as white male Christian supporters of Donald Trump was the only thing that mattered to their accusers.

Similarly, the fact that Nathan Phillips, the elderly Native American, flat-out lied about the boys did not matter, nor did the fact that the Black Israelites, a hysterical hate-mongering sect, had been taunting both the white boys and the Indians with racial and sexual slurs prior to the confrontation. Those instigators were non-white, which, in the eyes of the accusing mob, made them innocent, or at least not guilty.

This is our social reality now. If you are the kind of person who thinks that if only you reject Trump and MAGA hats, you’ll be counted among the Elect, you had better wake up. Today it’s MAGA hats. One of these days, it’s going to be crosses.

Here is an apt symbol of the world that has ended, and the world that is now here. The photo on the right is the new World Trade Center lit up pink on the order of the barbaric New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, to celebrate the state legislature having affirmed legal abortion up until the point of birth:


It’s going to get worse — a lot worse. Christians, and conservatives, need to be prepared for it. This is why I wrote The Benedict Option, and now it’s becoming ever more difficult to deny its diagnosis. Girard is right: the abolition of what we believe in is the long-term goal. This is what #ExposeChristianSchools is about: scapegoating, straight up, with the aim of marginalizing and ultimately eliminating any public manifestation of orthodox Christianity.

One immense challenge to Christians is to find a way to fight this scapegoating, and to endure it when it can’t be fought, without returning hatred for hatred. I can imagine that it would be easy for those Covington boys to be tempted by far-right white nationalism, especially given the disgraceful spectacle of some of their own woke Catholic bishops throwing them under the bus. (This is what Girard meant when he talked about churches today being “vulnerable to the ongoing blackmail of contemporary neo-paganism.”) But that would be morally wrong, and even a betrayal of the Gospel. When we lose sight of the fact that we ourselves can be part of the mob, and start to see ourselves as innocent by virtue of our identity (racial, sexual, religious, etc.), then we fall into the same scapegoating mechanism that has captured those who hate us.

I don’t know how we’re going to do this. But I know we had better get busy figuring it out. What is happening now in our civilization is not primarily political, and it won’t be solved through better politics. Read Girard. This is something happening at the most fundamental level of social psychology and cultural anthropology, and it has been building for a very long time. This is what Girard calls the “other totalitarianism.” If you’re a Christian believer, your faith tradition should have prepared you to read these particular signs of the times. Let the reader understand.



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now