Friday, September 10, 2021

No True Religionist


Painted lacquer basket from an Eastern Han tomb of what was the Chinese Lelang Commandery in what is now North Korea (1st-2nd century B.C.E.), illustrating historical paragons of the virtue of filial piety. Via Wikipedia.

David F. Brooks is shocked-shocked to find that authoritarians have been using religion as a justification for their abusive ways, not only in places with actual dictators like Russia and China, but right here in the United States of America! Luckily, he quickly realizes that the ones in the US and Germany are basically faking it ("When Dictators Find God"):

Even wannabe authoritarians in America and Western Europe are getting in on the game. The international affairs scholar Tobias Cremer has shown that many of the so-called Christian nationalists who populate far-right movements on both sides of the Atlantic are actually not that religious.

They are motivated by nativist and anti-immigrant attitudes and then latch onto Christian symbols to separate “them” from “us.” In Germany, for example, the far-right group that aggressively plays up its Christian identity underperforms among voters who are actually religious.

I don't know how carefully Brooks read the linked thing, but it wasn't actually so much about the far right as the normal conservatives, the Christian Social Union (CSU) of Bavaria, which is partnered with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) of the other 15 states, Chancellor Merkel's party, and which has been known for its  strict adhesion to Roman Catholic social policy (there aren't a lot of Protestants in Bavaria) since its founding in 1945. That's 73 years when the party's faithful Christianity was never questioned, up to the 2018 state legislative election when it found itself threatened by the neofascist Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD):

in the months leading up to the election the CSU had attempted to co-opt some of the AfD’s strategies. In particular, it had copied attempts to politicise Christian symbols as cultural identity markers ... by ordering the display of crucifixes in public buildings “not as religious symbols (…) but (as) a profession of identity and Bavaria’s cultural legacy”, as Minister President Markus Söder put it. While bishops condemned this culturalised (ab-)use of the cross, CSU strategists, haunted by the fear of losing their Catholic constituency, paid little heed to such warnings.

The results of the election showed that their fear was not unfounded: with 37% of the vote the CSU achieved its lowest score since 1950, and of the 530,000 voters who had deserted, 54% said they had done so because “the CSU had given up on its Christian convictions”. However, to the surprise of many observers the majority of these voters had not migrated to the AfD as expected, but had voted for the left-wing liberal, pro-migration Green party.

But the Christian convictions in question seem not to have been about the crosses so much as the opposition of the CSU leader, Horst Seehofer, to Merkel's generous policy on offering asylum to migrants especially from Syria, with which most Germans, even in conservative Bavaria, are in agreement, whether they give specifically Christian reasons (and many certainly do) or not. Seehofer read the room very wrong. It's also worth noting that the non-religious Social Democrats were punished by voters too, who also flocked to the Greens in large numbers, as well as staying home altogether (the source, Frankfurter Allgemeine, provides numbers for nonvoters, a wonderful thing I wish US newspapers would emulate), not over immigration policy but perhaps disaffected by the SPD's long participation in Merkel's conservative national government. 

Brooks's argument, though, is that it's not really religion unless it's good, meaning of course good according to Brooks's own current theological views:

In another Berkley Center essay, Cremer writes that right-wing American extremists “parade Christian crosses at rallies, use Crusader imagery in their memes and might even seek alliances with conservative Christian groups. But such references are not about the living, vibrant, universal and increasingly diverse faith in Jesus Christ that is practiced in the overwhelming majority of America’s churches today. Instead, in white identity, politics Christianity [comma placement by Brooks] is largely turned into a secularized ‘Christianism’: a cultural identity-marker and symbol of whiteness...”

Not so diverse as to include the 75% of white evangelicals who approved of Trump-Miller-Sessions immigration policy in January 2018?

I use the "Christianist" concept myself (and have been doing so at the blog virtually since the start in 2012), but I think it's a big mistake to suggest that it's not a religion, and I think it's a huge mistake to suggest it doesn't exist in America's churches and indeed dominate some of them. Christianism isn't in the least secularized; Christian identitarians like the organizers of the Charlottesville march share their sex-haunted moral code (and conflict over it with the mainline Christians and overwhelming majority of American Jews and Buddhists who don't believe abortions or same-sex copulation are sins or at least not grave ones) and emphasis on spiritual rebirth with Reverend Robertson and Justice Coney Barrett and other officially respectable representatives of conservative denominations. They're much more uncool than Ross Douthat or Rod Dreher, but they see things fundamentally the same way.

The Crusaders who carried the Cross into battle against the wicked Saracens occupying the Holy Sepulcher were certainly practicing a religion, and one with which our modern Christianism has a lot in common: it was authoritarian, not brooking the kinds of questions from the congregation that arose in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation; and it was unsophisticated, innocent of the complex theodicy to account for the existence of evil in a world created by a good God that was being worked out at the time by the doctors in Paris and Oxford. In fact to the Crusaders, good was them, evil was Muslims and Jews, and the Greek Orthodox were confusing and annoying.

I used to define Christianism and Islamism, as opposed to Christianity and Islam, as when people started worshiping the religion instead of practicing it, but I now think there's a different historical dimension: early religion was all about identity, totem ancestors of the tribe, casted totems, household gods and city gods, and the idea of religious practice, especially ethical practice, exploded into the world as a modern thing among the Jews, and in China and India and Greece, all around the same time between two and three millennia ago. In that sense, it's the fetishized tribal religion, the "ism", that comes first, and the ethical religion that follows. 

And ever since, there's always been a kind of religious backwardness up against a kind of religious progressiveness all over Asia and Europe, authoritarian tribalists in conflict with questioning ethicists. The Crusaders were certainly backward in their time, the age of the dialectician Peter Abelard (Abelard's great enemy Bernard of Clairvaux was a violent authoritarian and a huge backer of the Second Crusade, as it happens), and today's Republican cross-bearers are too.


over the last several years something interesting happened: Authoritarians found God. They used religious symbols as nationalist identity markers and rallying cries. They unified the masses behind them by whipping up perpetual culture wars. They reframed the global debate: It was no longer between democracy and dictatorship; it was between the moral decadence of Western elites and traditional values and superior spirituality of the good normal people in their own homelands.

No, this goes back as far as you like, to Generalísimo Franco or Tsar Alexander III or St. Bernard himself. V.V. Putin's embrace of Russian Orthodoxy and presentation of his regime as the "last bastion of Christian values" echoes the 15th-century portrayal of Muscovy as the "third Rome", and Xi Jinping's championing of Confucius and Daoism (alongside Marx and Mao, but in opposition to unruly Christians, Muslims, and to some extent Buddhists) relates to the chaos of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution exactly the way the Confucianist founding of the Han Dynasty at the end of the 3rd century B.C.E. related to the reign of the book-burning, scholar-slaughtering First Emperor Qin Shi Huang.

Or, you know, the efforts of Brooks's mentor, William F. Buckley, Jr., an unquestionably devout Roman Catholic, alongside crypto-Catholic Paul Weyrich and redneck Evangelicals like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, to combat the decadence of the beatnik 1950s and hippie 1960s, efforts in which David Brooks (a kind of Straussian atheist in those days, I think, influenced by Allen Bloom) loyally participated, castigating those of loose morals and disordered lives, unmarried parents and jobless fornicators, the authors of their own poverty and despair, with the insistence that organized religion was what they needed to straighten them out, until he mysteriously acquired some undisclosed kind of liberal religion himself. That "over the last several years" represents the time since then, when he's been disapprovingly noticing the kind of thing he used to do, and thinking it's never been done before. 

Now he thinks his new kind of "living, vibrant, universal and increasingly diverse" religion is the only kind of religion there is, I mean the only kind a true Scotsman could practice, because if people get mean about it, like President Putin or President Xi or the death metal fans who "might even seek alliances with conservative Christian groups", that means they couldn't really be religious, right? Religion makes people nice, like David F. Brooks, am I right? 

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