Is There Conservatism Beyond Christianity? (or how to book a mental vacation in Athens or Valhalla)

Christians on the right are used to witnessing attacks on their faith from atheistic leftists. Ever since the highly influential “cultural Marxists” of the Frankfurt School emigrated to America and proceeded to spew their venom onto bourgeois Christianity from the 1950s onwards (as Paul Gottfried has documented in The Strange Death Of Marxism), it has become de rigeur for the chattering classes in the media and academe to tear down the historic faith of Western civilization. What often goes unnoticed among conservative Christians is that large elements of the Right often despises Christianity as well. Protestant Christianity in particular has far too often been the flavor of the month for many decades.

 

The right-wing attack on Christianity has become a cultural phenomenon on its own, and a lucrative one at that. One need only visit a New Age bookstore in a major North American city to find rightist polemics against the faith. “Paganism,” which was traditionally understood to refer to a person who lived in the countryside (paganus), is now marketed as the last, best hope of the West against Christianity. While most new ageist ideology is warmed over mush at the best of times, the anti-Christian overtones of this movement are not always benign. The self-styled “neo-pagans” of the movement—who presumably desire a return to pre-biblical civilization—fault Christians for destroying nature, emptying the sacred groves of the gods, wiping out indigenous earth-friendly cultures, and depriving cows of the power to produce milk. This brand of polemicizing often has a leftist bent—in Facing West, for instance, Left academic Richard Drinnon celebrates the peaceable Amerindians who lovingly occupied the Americas before the genocidal palefaces appeared—but many rightists, too, eat up such accusations.

Since the late 1960s, the movement known as GRECE (Groupement de Recherche et d’Etudes pour la Civilisation Européenne) has called for the overthrow of Christian civilization in Europe. Its founder, Alain de Benoist, a well-known French journalist and author, and his largely intellectual following have blasted Christianity as an anti-European atrocity which has extirpated the indigenously pagan cultures of the continent in favor of a coldly instrumentalist and bourgeois faith.  Amoral individualism has replaced virtuous community.  The age of the noble hero of Valhalla has yielded to the time of the cowardly consumer of Wal-Mart.  Christianity, particularly in its Protestant and American forms, has presumably encouraged the primary forces of modernity—capitalism and technological progress—which have led to the near death of the West, although Benoist and his followers dream of replanting the sacred groves one day.  With the spirit of Nietzsche at their side, they look forward to waging war against the slavish Christian masses.

One can easily dismiss the posturing of GRECE.  Its impact on Europe’s elites has been absolutely nil. It also has no major following in America (one exception was the far rightist Revilo Oliver who once wrote respectable essays for Modern Age and National Review but later turned violently against Christianity in favor of a pagan revival.)  Moreover, the romanticism of the Gréciste ideology is too laughable to take seriously.  Their image of Nietzsche as an anti-Christian thinker is bad enough since, as Karl Jaspers has argued, Nietzsche’s “anti-Christ” posturing is thoroughly dependent on Christian ideas of creation, will, and history.  Their stereotyping of Christianity is flagrantly defiant of all historical evidence, as Michael O’Meara persuasively argues in his history of right-wing neo-paganism, New Culture, New Right. In portraying Christianity as an oppressively monotheistic and anti-intellectual force, Benoist and other neo-pagans (like the Italian political mystic and fascist fellow traveler Julius Evola) have had to portray by contrast Greco-Roman civilization as a tolerant, polytheistic, and enlightened period, a time when philosophers and poets freely exchanged ideas in bountiful gardens of letters. This romanticism—which has deep roots in the anti-Enlightenment of the early 1800s in Germany—ignores the authoritarian elements of the glory that was Greece and Rome. It’s hard to believe that the Grécistes have learned much from the fate of Socrates, who was put to death by the freest regime of the ancient pagan world for speaking against the gods of the state.  And if Socratic Athens was the highpoint of antiquity in the West, what can one say about the brutality of Sparta or Caesarist Rome?  As Fustel de Coulanges famously argued over 150 years ago, pagan societies were closed regimes with little time or patience for subversives of any kind.

 

Since there’s nothing new about moderns using “pagan” ideas for totally modern purposes, as Jennifer Roberts has argued in Athens On Trial, it might be safe to dismiss this romanticist critique of the modern Christian West. Unfortunately, neo-pagan thought in our time can show up closer to home, and enjoy significantly more influence. Leo Strauss and his many students in the United States have argued for over two generations that the truly universalistic tradition of the West is pagan, not Christian. The Straussian hermeneutic (which has often been a subject of debate on takimag) is now famous for teaching that the “natural right” tradition of Greek political philosophy is the quintessential tradition of the West. The choice is between Athens and Jerusalem. Absent in the writings of Allan Bloom, Michael Zuckert, or James Ceaser is any appreciation of the contribution which Christianity has made to American political thought, or the political philosophy of the West in general. The fact that most Americans thought and acted in Protestant terms at the time of the American founding (as Barry Shain has shown) does not bother the “natural rightists” who claim that Greek pagan thought is the most important and liberating tradition of the United States.  Unlike bad old exclusivistic and monotheistic Christianity, presumably Plato and Aristotle taught that the nature of all human beings is to desire liberal democracy (the Greek defense of slavery is conveniently omitted). Even Straussians who are willing to mention Christianity in positive tones, like the Lincoln scholar Harry Jaffa (it is hard to write about Honest Abe without mentioning Christianity, after all), tend to dismiss the New Testament as devoid of real political importance. The fact that pagan regimes were, once again, notoriously cruel towards strangers and subversives—an attitude which Plato counsels as a mark of prudence in his Republic—does not bother the Straussians in the least (except perhaps Strauss, who, being smarter than his acolytes, recognized the “heartless” nature of Greek political thought).

The Straussian dismissal of Christianity as an influence in the American tradition (which Clark Merrill, Frederick Wilhelmsen, and Barry Shain have written about) has become a more serious challenge than anything the Grécistes have ever hoped to accomplish across the pond. Along with their neoconservative allies, Straussians have managed to persuade many Americans in the most prestigious universities that the founding was a purely secular affair. Even if Strauss, a German-Jewish intellectual, did not intend to approve of such a radically secular view of the American regime (Strauss was a critic of Locke, after all), his scores of American students have done their best to read Christianity out of the tradition. Catholic admirers of Strauss often forget that he was dismissive of any claim to a distinctively Christian political thought, Thomism included.  As a result, Catholic Straussians often refrain from opposing the general Straussian marginalization of Christianity in America, since they are confident that the real target is Protestantism, not the entire Christian tradition.

It is not hard to read into this rewriting of history a political agenda which fits well with the thinking of cosmopolitan elites in the post-war era.  It is tricky to justify the idea of a republic with a universal mission to save the world from tyranny if one is always reminded of the parochial religious roots of the nation.  For this reason, the Straussian scholar Clifford Orwin has praised the foreign policy of President Bush for downplaying the Protestant heritage of American democracy, and thus holding out the hope that every Hindu, Moslem, Wiccan, or atheist can become a good republican individualist (of course, Iraq has blown this idea to bits).  However implausible it is to claim that Plato and Aristotle would have called for the democratization of the world, the natural rightists have been extremely successful in getting across their message of universalism to secular elites who govern America.

One irony which is always lost on both neo-pagans and natural rightists, however, is just how dependent they are on Christian thought, especially the Protestantism which they tend to despise. Thomists are also prone to using pagan ideas of “natural hierarchy” to hammer the alleged libertinism of Protestantism, even as they enjoy the freedom which the Protestant separation of church and state made possible. As Thomas Molnar and Eric Voegelin have argued, the “pagan temptation” only makes sense as a reaction to the effects of a long-established Christian civilization. (As I have argued on this site, the neoconservatives are far more dependent on Protestant usages of “chosenness” than they care to admit.) While Benoist and Zuckert portray Protestants as theocratic tyrants, they conveniently ignore that the individual freedom which they employ in order to critique the Reformation is largely the product of that tradition.  Although Luther and Calvin were far from being liberal democrats,  it is undeniable that the Protestant valorization of the individual conscience blazed the trail for the protection of the individual’s liberties from the deadening hand of the state (as the historian Ernst Troeltsch argued). The defeat of Aristotelian scholasticism at the hands of the Reformers was crucial in the struggle to secure religious freedom and equality before the law (neither of which Aristotle supported).  To be sure, there have been Catholics who supported the right to individual conscience—like Blaise Pascal and William of Occam—but, as my Thomistic friends remind me, with Catholics like these you might as well have Protestants.

More than any other faith tradition in Western Christendom, Protestants have fought for individual rights and freedoms, for the separation of church and state, and for the protection of individuals under the law. Protestant thinkers had to invoke the biblical ethic of charity in order to demonstrate the truth of their belief that true Christian love requires the extension of individual liberty to all human beings, an achievement of American Protestantism which impressed Tocqueville. I challenge anyone to find the same notion of love (as charity) in the texts of Plato and Aristotle, for whom love of the stranger or enemy is unthinkable. Yet the Straussians and Thomists, who are far more egalitarian than the Grécistes, give no credit to Protestantism for strengthening the cause of equality before the law in the West.

 

There will always be factions on the right who yearn for the restoration of the lost golden age Protestant modernity presumably demolished.  One interesting factor which unites an otherwise disparate collection of “neo-pagans”—whether Straussian or Gréciste—is their shared belief that it takes specially enlightened elites to teach virtues to the masses.  The Protestants presumably have unleashed so much freedom onto the West that everybody has become a libertine relativist.  Therefore, despite their love of intellectual freedom—which they correctly believe to be under threat by the modern secularist state—they also seek out a virtuous elite which will govern the ignorant masses back to the age of Delphi, Rome, or Valhalla.  This mixed message, to say the least, will not likely win much political support in our time.

These romanticist tendencies on the neo-pagan right will not put a dent into the leftist managerial state which now dominates all western democracies.  Sadly, Protestants in the West are watching their achievement in the area of church/state separation being steadily eroded by the apparatchiks who have created anti-hate speech laws and human rights tribunals.  Indeed, the Gréciste and neoconservative support for multiculturalism (which at times has favored a stronger Islamic influence in Europe) tends to further the decline of the Protestant West in favor of enforced tolerance and pluralism (which of course excludes Christianity).  Most Protestants, who are all too ignorant of their own civilization, willingly go along with these policies (as Paul Gottfried has documented). If the only thing which right-wing neo-pagans offer as an alternative to a decayed Protestantism is the quixotic hope for a long, lost age of noble heroes and virtuous hierarchies, they are only helping their enemies who run the ministries of truth in leftist managerial states.

Dr. Grant Havers teaches philosophy and politics at Trinity Western University (Canada).

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