Riding the Tiger, Riding the Wave: Christian Conservatives and Radical Anti-Modernism
By Benjamin R. TeitelbaumAugust 9, 2017
This parable entered Western politics through the writings of Italian fascist-sympathizer and race theorist Julius Evola. The defeat of Hitler and Mussolini convinced him that nothing could stop the advance of liberal modernity — which he regarded as an anarchic scourge that sought to render natural human difference, moral truths, and tradition meaningless. He resigned himself to life in a postwar West where confrontation with progressive dogmas like equality and liberty was tantamount to political suicide. Resistance for the true anti-liberal consisted instead in secrecy and self-preservation. The tiger of modernity, he wagered, had a limited lifespan, and only those who kept themselves intact would be positioned to strike once the beast began to sigh.
Fear of chaos and of nihilism. Despondency as rallying cry. Withdrawal as political strategy. Hope only in the promise of time’s elapse. Evola would transfer these ideas to future generations, most notably to those utmost outcasts of postwar Western modernity we call white nationalists and ethnic separatists.
I offer this summary of Evola’s beliefs so that no one will be fooled into thinking that the literature coming from conservative Christian America today is especially new or distinctly Christian. I refer, first and foremost, to Strangers in a Strange Land by Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput and The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher, senior editor at The American Conservative. Each of these works proceeds from the same concession: doctrinaire Christians’ struggle for the heart of America is over, and they’ve lost. According to Chaput and Dreher, secular liberalism has breached the innermost ramparts of our society, and mainstream American culture now finds itself in a loathsome state of aimlessness, in which history, place, and even our bodies mean nothing. The authors mobilize to expose this social confusion and guide Christians on a path toward spiritual and cultural survival. This path is one of entrenchment, of waiting out liberalism’s vital phase.
Yes, like the deluge, liberal secularism too shall pass, if only on “God’s time” — as Chaput puts it — rather than our own.
To compare Chaput and Dreher to figures like Julius Evola is not to insinuate that they are closet fascists. Rather, it is to highlight the existence of a broad anti-modernism that now encompasses diverse, even mutually irreconcilable ideologies and agendas. It is an anti-modernism that, for all its cries of feebleness, poses the most serious threat to global liberalism. Strangers in a Strange Land and The Benedict Option are expressions of this phenomenon, and they show it through the grievances they lodge, the reactions they advocate, and the changes they envision.
It is wise to read the texts in tandem, because each has something the other lacks. That is true at the level of writing mechanics: Chaput is an exceptional crafter of sentences, but only Dreher consistently assembles coherent sections and chapters. More importantly, however, each text complements the other in terms of argumentation. Strangers in a Strange Land offers a more cogent reading of history and indictment of modernity, but its concluding chapters and responses to the ostensible malaise of our times are so vague and unimaginative that even a hostile reader is likely to feel let down. The Benedict Option’s strength, on the other hand, rests in the poignancy of its call for a new Christian separatism.
Dreher has hitherto garnered more attention for his book, due in part to his own notoriety and in part to the clarity and (apparent) novelty of his prescriptions for action. But Chaput’s text is arguably more arresting, if only because it marks a stark reversal from his 2008 book Render Unto Caesar, which called for Catholics to increase — rather than decrease — their participation in politics. “Time passes. Times change,” he writes in defending his recent U-turn, and “[w]atersheds happen.”
Indeed, Chaput and Dreher identify the same watershed moment. The United States took an unalterable turn downward, according to both texts, with the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage across the country. Critics have already panned Dreher for regarding this, of all things, as our country’s cardinal sin. Chaput faced similar criticism for his earlier fixation on abortion, and he was poised to defend the privileged place afforded to homosexuality in his latest polemic.
He indicates that his concern centers not on same-sex marriage per se, but rather on what it allegedly represents and perpetuates — namely, a society in which we are no longer able to orient ourselves because one of the most fundamental features of identity, gender, has been stripped of consequence. Any notion that certain features of who we are might be givens, that we could be born into one association or social role but not others, is now anathema. This drive to extinguish collectivizing instincts and practices, Chaput claims, is the logical conclusion of a democracy that lacks principles and ideals other than the absolute sovereignty of individuals. It requires citizens to disassociate from any institution or identity that could come between themselves and the state — be it a religious organization or a family — so that they can function as independent voices in democracy’s market of opinion. Furthermore, it pursues this hyper-individualism with fanatical intolerance of dissent. (So much for the hopes of some conservatives that their opposition to same-sex marriage might be permitted to live on in the wake of Obergefell v. Hodges as a token of “diversity.”)
What begins as a conversation about sexuality ends with visions of a society void of structure, a nightmare of order dissolving into chaos. And that narrative, more than any uniquely Christian message, emerges as a common thread in Chaput’s and Dreher’s writing. It receives additional fuel, for example, as both authors turn to lament the irrelevance of place and history in American life. Chaput in particular describes the United States as a nation of transients, where people move frequently and establish no community: “It offers too little sense of a shared history or national purpose; too little reasoned debate; too little civility (despite endless calls for it); too little moral gravity or continuity with the past.” And the rootlessness these authors observe is not confined to the material world of bodies and localities. American thought is similarly unhinged. The core of this problem, according to Chaput, is our disinclination to treat morality as fact. You might think that the claim “All men are created equal” is not the same kind of falsifiable statement as “the temperature outside right now is 86 degrees,” but Chaput begs to differ. The former is as much of a fact as the latter, he claims, and if it is regarded as a non-fact — as an opinion — it is more easily relativized and conditionally dismissed. “Moral disagreements,” he writes, “become rationally irresolvable because no commonly held first principles exist.” Chaput thus operates with a menacing standard for success. Until our society gives moral statements — presumably those he endorses — the status of scientific fact, he will not be satisfied.
Things needn’t have come to such a pass, of course. Both Dreher and Chaput cite the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, who foretold that the United States would need Christianity to survive democracy. If liberal democracy had an inherent drive toward radical materialism and individualism, it could be tamed by religion; de Tocqueville saw Christianity and Enlightenment values as having found an ideal balance in the early America. What threw things out of whack? Social movements like the 1960s sexual revolution, as well as technological advances that separate us from each other. That, and non-Christian immigration.
A lost sense of a common history, purpose, and community; alienation from place due to the free movement of peoples; growing contempt toward the notion that any aspect of identity is inborn. One might be tempted to think these grievances are more at home in the mouths of those defending hereditary rather than ideational collectivities. And it isn’t only Chaput’s and Dreher’s grievances that align them with other anti-modernists, but also their prescribed solutions.
As Dreher writes, “Nobody but the most deluded of the old-school Religious Right believes that this cultural revolution can be turned back. The wave cannot be stopped, only ridden.” The metaphor, mutatis mutandis, should sound familiar. But aside from other references to building an ark, Dreher’s main inspirational visualization for a response to the death of Christian America is that of monastic communities forged in the spirit of Saint Benedict, Patron Saint of Europe, who withdrew into a sheltered life of piety amid the collapse of Roman civilization during the sixth century. Dreher likewise calls for a strategic withdrawal from mass society into localized, historically anchored community life.
The bulk of his text attempts to elucidate what that life might look like. He advocates a more rooted and regimented religious practice, calling for a revival of liturgy. He draws inspiration from Orthodox Jews by imploring Christians to live close together and surveil the convictions of their children’s friends. On that same theme, he asks parents to remove their children from public schools and instead pursue a Western Classical education that conveys “a sense of order, meaning, and continuity,” a kind of education likely to emerge only if parents found such schools themselves. He also challenges readers to embrace manual labor, develop a trade, and restrict their participation in the immaterial world of the internet and digital technology. These are Dreher’s weapons against liberalism, through which will come the “communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation.”
Which brings us back to Evola and his latter-day followers, who likewise defend a bounded community against a totalizing liberalism deemed too strong to face head-on. We ought not get carried away with the analogy: there is little to suggest, for example, that Chaput and Dreher mean “white people” when they say the “Christian West.” Dreher has responded to such accusations, asserting that the population he champions is based on spirituality and culture rather than race. But neither is his the evangelizing Christianity that proclaims itself true for all peoples in all ways and at all times, and which cannot allow itself to retreat from any arena of human society lest it betray its own destiny. Rather, his Christianity is the banner of a tribe — which may not necessarily be racialized, but which yearns for a similar sense of belonging in time and space. It is one of many tribalisms reluctant to participate in pluralistic democracy and to accept the limitations of public influence that come with it. They are the forces of disintegration reshaping our world today, striving, each in its way, to undo the project of the global community.
Christian anti-modernists may be the most tragic participants in the anti-modernist cause, however. Both Chaput and Dreher would do well to ponder more deeply the charges coming from other anti-modernists that their religion is the real driver of globalist liberalism. Some contemporary ethnic separatists — like, for example, Alain de Benoist — name Christianity itself as the enemy of community, identity, and spirituality. Modern liberalism’s claim to universal validity, its disinterest in roots and history, its yearning for a hyper-individualism, its contempt for religion — all of these features are, according to such thinkers, elaborations of a Christian model whereby God’s word is the singular, ultimate, and final revelation, where the past is sin and the future is salvation, where all are deemed equal before God and the divisions humanity has erected within itself are illusions to be transcended. The seeds of public secularism, they would argue — following Nietzsche — were sown by Christianity’s totalizing teleological vision, and by Christ’s edict to render unto Caesar.
These anti-modernists may tolerate their Christian conservative allies for the time being, but fundamentally believe that a revival of Christian faith in American life will lead back to Pride parades, open borders, and godlessness. In the end, the tribes of anti-modernism may devour each other before the tiger of liberalism breathes its last.
Benjamin R. Teitelbaum is assistant professor of Ethnomusicology and Affiliate Faculty in International Affairs at the University of Colorado, Boulder. His first book is Lions of the North: Sounds of the New Nordic Radical Nationalism (Oxford University Press, 2017).
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