Any intelligent, substantive response to the Alt-Right must come from those who themselves stand cheerfully outside the bounds of respectable establishment discourse…
Well before Hillary Clinton put a national spotlight on the Alt-Right with her “deplorables” speech, I was addressing the then-obscure movement and what it signifies for modern society. In August 2010, Chronicles published “Where The Demons Dwell: The Antichrist Right,” an essay wherein I considered the Alt-Right’s Nietzschean side. A later issue of the same journal featured “After Strange Gods,” my commentary upon Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán’s decision to jail and deport Alt-Right leader Richard Spencer. As the aforementioned titles suggest, my main concern regarding the Alt-Right has always been the group’s ambivalence, if not hostility, toward the West’s Christian heritage, for to my mind this rejection of the Faith seems the source of whatever other problems may be found within the movement.
It goes without saying that the Alt-Right’s alienation from Christendom was hardly the focus of Mrs. Clinton’s speech. Nor does this alienation have much to do with media’s hysteria surrounding the group and its agenda. The globalist elite and their advocates are themselves anti-Christian, as well as utterly impervious to any serious spiritual thought—Christian or otherwise—so many essays about the Alt-Right have amounted to little more than exercises in left-wing orthodoxy-enforcement. Any intelligent, substantive response to the Alt-Right must come from those who themselves stand cheerfully outside the bounds of respectable establishment discourse.
Such a response would be directed not at the street theater and internet trolling carried out by the most flamboyant Alt-Righters, but instead toward writers like French political theorist Alain de Benoist. Although the Alt-Right is a distinctly American phenomenon, Mr. Benoist’s work has been published and cited repeatedly on preeminent Alt-Right websites, and his influence upon the movement is undeniable. In 2013, for instance, he spoke at a conference hosted by the National Policy Institute, an Alt-Right think-tank based in Colorado.
The following excerpt from Mr. Benoist’s Manifesto de la Nouvelle Droite (“Manifesto of the New Right”) summarizes the man’s motivating concerns:
[M]odernity has given birth to the most empty civilization mankind has ever known: the language of advertising has become the paradigm of all social discourse; the primacy of money has imposed the omnipresence of commodities; man has been transformed into an object of exchange in a world replete with delinquency, violence, and incivility, in which man is at war with himself and against all, i.e., an unreal world of drugs, virtual reality and media-hyped sports, in which the countryside is abandoned for unlivable suburbs and monstrous megalopolises, and where the solitary individual merges into an anonymous and hostile crowd, while traditional social, political, cultural or religious mediations become increasingly uncertain and undifferentiated.*
Similar sentiments are found in another essay, “Confronting Globalization,” wherein Mr. Benoist argues that globalism follows Communism in seeking to create a “new man,” with the ideal being “no longer the worker or the citizen but the ‘plugged in’ consumer who shares the common destiny of an undifferentiated humanity connected only by the Internet or the supermarket.”
Mr. Benoist’s writings are tied together by an interest in a phenomenon philosophers call “disenchantment,” or “desacralization.” Ever since the Enlightenment, man has seemed especially bent upon trampling the sacred in the name of progress, and according to Mr. Benoist, the seeds of this desacralization were sown by Christian apostles. By exorcising from nature the sacred spirits worshiped by pagans and transferring reverence to a transcendent monotheistic Creator, he argues, the apostles set men free at the price of purging earthly life of all glory and sanctity. Thanks to the ascendancy over Europe of an austere, stark monotheism from the Middle East “man’s value as an individual was affirmed, and by comparison, the world was necessarily degraded or devalued.” Thus he recommends a revival of paganism as a remedy for the ills of modernity.
Although it is hardly difficult to imagine a rebuttal of the anti-Christian elements of Mr. Benoist’s work, a too-often kitschy liturgy and ill-advised papal Tweeting do make the neopagans’ case look stronger than it is. So too does the fact that Mr. Benoist’s condemnation of contemporary superficiality, narcissism, and utopianism contains some truth. Readers who deem an attempt to revive the explicit worship of pagan idols too silly to bother with should remember that Western elites are now embracing the idea that men who think themselves women have an inalienable right to use the ladies’ room. Hence, it is hardly overreacting to insist that a rebuttal to the neopagans’ attack actually be fielded, before more lost and searching youths get drawn too far into Mr. Benoist’s project.
The first point to emphasize is that Mr. Benoist is not some heathen genius who is alone in noting the desacralization problem. To the contrary, Catholics like Josef Pieper and Thomas Molnar have treated desacralization at length; so too have Protestants from C.S. Lewis to Roger Scruton, and Orthodox like Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn. So from the outset, we can dispense with the misconception that what we are talking about is somehow a neopagan issue. Indeed, it would be most lamentable if ineptitude on the part of Christian leadership enabled neopagans to appropriate the desacralization question in the same way that socialists have appropriated issues like ecological stewardship and just treatment for laborers.
It is also worth scrutinizing Mr. Benoit’s critique of monotheistic religion, which in his lexicon signifies a religion devoted to a remote and impersonal divine singularity. In fact, Christianity is not “monotheistic” in the sense Mr. Benoist uses the expression, and if his attacks force us all to recollect, consider, and better appreciate the too-often overlooked teaching of the Trinity, he will have inadvertently done us some good. Non in uníus singularitáte persónæ, sed in uníus Trinitáte substántiæ is not some minor quirk to be glossed over when comparing Christianity to the other two of “the world’s great monotheist religions”—i.e., Islam and Judaism. It is, rather, an essential doctrine and a profound mystery. Far from implying radical individualism, the Catholic faith teaches that relationships between persons are metaphysically fundamental, that consideration of relationships is critical for achieving a better understanding of God himself.
I would add that not only are there deep flaws in Mr. Benoist’s assessment of Christianity, but that his own “pagan” vision falls far short even on its own terms. To point out what seems to me a self-refuting note in the Manifesto, for instance, Mr. Benoist upholds what he calls “differentialist feminism,” which is to say “specifically feminine rights (the right to virginity, to maternity, to abortion).” It is hard to see how Mr. Benoist’s attitude differs all that much from that of the mainstream feminists whom he critiques, for they would certainly agree with him that each woman is entitled to choose between virginity, motherhood, and the killing of those unborn children who prove incompatible with her career and lifestyle choices. Also revealing is a stray remark in the introduction to Beyond Human Rights, Mr. Benoist’s recent study of liberalism: “Like every religion, the discussion of human rights seeks to pass off its dogmas as so absolute that one could not discuss them without being extremely stupid, dishonest, or wicked.” (Emphasis added.) Given such a categorically negative judgment about religion as such, Mr. Benoist’s professed interest in reviving traditional pagan religiosity looks somewhat disingenuous.
The neopagan movement could actually be used to advance the cause of the Church, if Catholics responding to said movement remember and emphasize how the Church and her sons have always approached what is best and noblest in ancient pagan culture. The post-sixties purge of classical heritage from Catholic consciousness has proven a great disaster, and when we note how important that heritage has been to the growth and unfolding of the Christian faith it is easy to see why. Dante frequently turned to Virgil; Thomist philosophy is in part a dialogue with Aristotle; Church Fathers like Augustine drew inspiring insights and images from Homer and Cicero and Neo-Platonism; the Apostle Paul himself had more than a passing familiarity with the Greek poets. All this suggests that those who would put a revived “paganism” in opposition to the Christian tradition are, for all their learning, still just misguided postmodern existentialists. Insofar as the pagan legacy expresses something of the true, the good, and the beautiful, it belongs to the Body of Christ.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Crisis Magazine (May 2017). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
*See Mr. Benoist’s Manifesto de la Nouvelle Droite here.