by Jonathon Van Maren
For decades now, the Left and certain factions on the Right have awaited the downfall of the much-maligned Religious Right. To the Left, this movement was populated by Neanderthals opposed to abortion and gay rights, and to some on the Right, the culture wars were an irritating distraction from the economic agenda they wished to enact. The rise of Donald Trump indicated to many that the influence of the Religious Right was waning as church attendance slumped across the US, and some saw this development as an opportunity to move away from “divisive issues” such as the systematic killing of human beings in the womb.
Perhaps the celebration has come a bit too soon. To paraphrase Ross Douthat in the New York Times in a column last year titled “In Defence of the Religious Right,” if people hated the Religious Right, they’re really going to hate the post-Religious Right:
When religious conservatives were ascendant, the G.O.P. actually tried minority outreach, it sent billions to fight AIDS in Africa, it pursued criminal justice reform in the states. That ascendance crumbled because of the religious right’s own faults (which certain of Trump’s Christian supporters amply display), and because of trends toward secularization and individualism that no politics can master; it cannot and should not be restored. But some kind of religious conservatism must be rebuilt, because without the pull of transcendence, the future of the right promises to be tribal, cruel, and very dark indeed.
“Tribal and cruel” is a perfect description of the rising alt-right movement. Many Christians feared that the Obama years would result in the destruction of conservatism. Instead, we are beginning to discover what post-Christian conservatism might look like.
Many pointed to the role evangelicals played in getting Trump elected, but it turns out the truth is a bit more complicated than that. Peter Beinart in The Atlantic, in an analysis titled “Breaking Faith,” describes how the changing relationship between Americans and Christianity shaped the 2016 election, and his conclusions are concerning, to say the least:
Over the past decade, pollsters charted something remarkable: Americans—long known for their piety—were fleeing organized religion in increasing numbers. The vast majority still believed in God. But the share that rejected any religious affiliation was growing fast, rising from 6 percent in 1992 to 22 percent in 2014. Among Millennials, the figure was 35 percent.
Some observers predicted that this new secularism would ease cultural conflict, as the country settled into a near-consensus on issues such as gay marriage. After Barack Obama took office, a Center for American Progress report declared that “demographic change,” led by secular, tolerant young people, was “undermining the culture wars.” In 2015, the conservative writer David Brooks, noting Americans’ growing detachment from religious institutions, urged social conservatives to “put aside a culture war that has alienated large parts of three generations.”
That was naive. Secularism is indeed correlated with greater tolerance of gay marriage and pot legalization. But it’s also making America’s partisan clashes more brutal. And it has contributed to the rise of both Donald Trump and the so-called alt-right movement, whose members see themselves as proponents of white nationalism. As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.
As an increasingly post-Christian population begins to cut ties with church communities—even though they may still identify themselves to pollsters as “Christian”—we’re beginning to see that their affiliations are not simply vanishing, but shifting. The alt-right—and we will examine this further in a moment—is now providing a very tempting ideology for many of the disenfranchised, an angry message of blood and soil that echoes elements of Christianity, like the primacy of family, while severing it from the love and compassion central to Christianity.
So-called “conservative” commentators like David Brooks, who wished only to conserve civility while rejecting the foundations this civility flows from, failed to realize that doing away with the Religious Right would not necessarily mean it would be replaced by anything desirable. The culture wars Brooks bemoaned surrounding abortion and traditional marriage flowed out of the Christian belief in the sanctity of human life and the essential nature of the family for a flourishing society, not some desire to needlessly alienate the children of the Sexual Revolution.
The alt-right, on the other hand, is entirely disinterested in civility, and for the most part seems to view it as a weakness. Neither do they have qualms about abortion, actually applauding the eugenic effect its spread has had within minority communities. David Brooks may soon have reason to long for voices like Dr. James Dobson as he realizes that secular millennials and post-Christian conservatives have no moral framework robust enough to combat the insidious ideology of rising figures such as neo-Nazi Richard Spencer, the alt-right’s popular poster boy.
The fact is, the “evangelicals elected Trump” storyline is partially true, but brushes over a fascinating trend lurking beneath the surface. J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, which describes his life growing up in an increasingly stereotypical but deeply dysfunctional family in the Midwest, explains that many people now describe themselves as Christian to pollsters because they are either too embarrassed to admit they no longer attend church, or because “Christian” has now become more of a cultural identification than a description of a lifestyle. Thus, poll numbers describing hordes of pro-Trump evangelicals need to be parsed more carefully.
Beinart highlights the truth behind the statistics:
During the campaign, commentators had a hard time reconciling Trump’s apparent ignorance of Christianity and his history of pro-choice and pro-gay-rights statements with his support from evangelicals. But as Notre Dame’s Geoffrey Layman noted, “Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.” A Pew Research Center poll last March found that Trump trailed Ted Cruz by 15 points among Republicans who attended religious services every week. But he led Cruz by a whopping 27 points among those who did not.
Further to this, Beinart notes that Christians who actually did attend church were far less likely to be racist, prejudiced, and pessimistic than those who did not. Christians who regularly attended church are thus far less susceptible to the ideology of the alt-right, as their allegiance is to Christianity, which is fundamentally hostile to identification with a racial group and transcends such identification.
Those voters who still identify as Christian but are indifferent to traditional Religious Right issues like gay ‘marriage’ are not making up the new, tolerant vanguard of post-Christian conservatism that commentators like Brooks had hoped for, but are rather driving the rise of movements like the alt-right as they seek to place their loyalties elsewhere. After all, nature abhors a vacuum.
A similar trend is taking place on the Left. While campus riots and other forms of violence have always been a mainstay of revolutionary ideologies, this shift is most notable in the African American community:
The decline of traditional religious authority is contributing to a more revolutionary mood within black politics as well. Although African Americans remain more likely than whites to attend church, religious disengagement is growing in the black community. African Americans under the age of 30 are three times as likely to eschew a religious affiliation as African Americans over 50. This shift is crucial to understanding Black Lives Matter, a Millennial-led protest movement whose activists often take a jaundiced view of established African American religious leaders. Brittney Cooper, who teaches women’s and gender studies as well as Africana studies at Rutgers, writes that the black Church “has been abandoned as the leadership model for this generation.” As Jamal Bryant, a minister at an AME church in Baltimore, told The Atlantic’s Emma Green, “The difference between the Black Lives Matter movement and the civil-rights movement is that the civil-rights movement, by and large, was first out of the Church.”
This encapsulates the radicalization of the two fringes. The Civil Rights Movement of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Christian movement, flowing out of the churches and relying on specifically Christian rhetoric. Black Lives Matter, which lists the “destruction of the nuclear family” as one of its goals, is not a social reform movement but a destructive revolutionary movement. Like the alt-right, they are disinterested in engagement and compromise, and have extricated themselves from a Christian framework and rejected the Christian values that drove much of the battle against segregation. The fringes of both the Right and the Left have rejected all notion of authority, and the ever-shrinking center enables these movements at their peril.
The defeat of Hillary Clinton, which granted Christians a welcome reprieve from a nearly decade-long onslaught on their values, came as a great relief. But as I mentioned earlier, Christians hopeful that the progressive project may at last be destroyed should also be paying very close attention to what it is being replaced with. Post-Christian conservatism is allowing grotesque imitators to creep in, often utilizing familiar language and making promises that the disenfranchised of our broken culture are hungry to hear. This is the key to the appeal of the alt-right, which has been growing rapidly with help from conservative news organizations like Breitbart that erroneously see them as co-belligerents in the fight against the radical Left.
The rise of the alt-right illustrates the very short jump between nationalism, which has always been popular on the Right, and ethno-nationalism, an ideology based not on patriotism but on race-loyalty. The more the Left condemned America as a murderous and imperialist empire abroad and a sexist, racist, and homophobic nation at home, the more patriotism on the Right surged in response. The alt-right, which seemed simply a movement of nationalists to many at first glance, are actually ethno-nationalist, a mutated form of nationalism where “nation” is defined purely by ethnicity rather than geography and a shared culture. The alt-right’s vision of America is a post-Christian White America defined by loyalty to members of the so-called white tribe. With that in mind, it’s easy to see why conservative concerns about unchecked illegal immigration and Black Lives Matter could be hijacked by the alt-right, a movement fueled by ugly aspirations of a white America.
The alt-right has also been eagerly taking advantage of organized religion’s collapse. The Religious Right fueled a decades-long national conversation on the fundamental cultural necessity of the family. As Christianity is increasingly abandoned, the alt-right is filling the vacuum with appeals that sound similar, but with insidious differences. Richard Spencer, the neo-Nazi pseudo-intellectual who runs AltRight.com articulated this in a recent video on why the alt-right should not oppose abortion:
We should recognize that the pro-life movement—this is not the alt-right, this has nothing in common with identitarians, and I think we should be genuinely suspicious of people who think in terms of human rights and who are interested in adopting African children and bringing them to this country and who get caught up on this issue. We want to be a movement about families, about life in a deep sense, not just “rights” but truly great life, and greatness, and beautiful, flourishing, productive families. We want to be eugenic in the deepest sense of the word. Pro-lifers want to be radically dysgenic, egalitarian, multi-racial human rights thumpers—and they’re not us.
I’ve noticed that many of the young males who are attracted to the alt-right are the children of broken families. An entire generation has been robbed of the opportunity to grow up in stable, two-parent households, and many of them are attracted to Spencer’s descriptions of the “beautiful, flourishing, productive families” that they were robbed of—but of course, Spencer is referring to white families, to the exclusion of all others.
Additionally, the alt-right is very cleverly utilizing gang mentality to recruit. Sociologists have long pointed out that children from broken families are particularly susceptible to recruitment by gangs, due to their innate need to identify with a tribe. The alt-right is explicitly offering identification with a tribe, loyal only to those who are members of the same racial group, and banded together against the hordes that threaten the integrity of the ethno-nation conjured up in their imagination. All the old right-wing demons thus come creeping back: Racism, anti-Semitism, and a dangerous willingness to stoke the flames of hatred and division that consumed Europe within the realm of living memory.
It is imperative that Christians recognize the danger the alt-right poses. The alt-right attracts some disillusioned conservatives for supposedly being “anti-feminism,” but a closer look at the ugly online misogyny disseminated by alt-right trolls actually reveals them to be anti-feminine. The alt-right claims to stand for the primacy of the family, but they actually advocate a perversion of the family that precludes the fundamentally Christian idea of adoption. The alt-right utilizes nostalgia for Christendom, but their vision is of an explicitly post-Christian culture. The alt-right taps into conservative patriotism with calls for nationalism, but theirs is a racist ethno-nationalism that poses an enormous threat to the non-whites and Jewish people explicitly excluded from the alt-right’s vision of a white utopia. The alt-right bemoans the loss of virtue, but theirs is not the personal virtue of Christianity, but the collective virtue of defending one’s tribe from the “other” at all costs.
The secular progressive movement has done incalculable cultural damage across the West, and Christians cannot be blamed for their relief that the backlash against the social engineering and war on the family seems to be finally here. But conservatism has not survived the populist uprisings unscathed, either, and eagerness to ally ourselves with anyone willing to do battle against the Left could destroy conservatism where the Left failed. The ideology of the alt-right is poisonous, and a post-Christian conservatism that desperately needs Christianity again is now vulnerable to hijacking by new ideologues intent on creating a culture that is not only post-Christian, but anti-Christian.
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