Christianity’s Postliberal Critics

‘A World after Liberalism’
Oswald Spengler, 1922 (Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy Stock Photo)

In the past few years, several murderous racists have shown a strange interest in demarcating their complicated relationship with Christianity. Payton S. Gendron, who was arrested for shooting ten Black people at a Tops Friendly Markets store in Buffalo in May, raised the issue in his heavily plagiarized manifesto. In a “questions and answers” section, he takes up the question “Are you a Christian?” According to Gendron, “No, I do not ask God for salvation by faith, nor do I confess my sins to Him. I personally believe there is no afterlife. I do however believe in and practice many Christian values.” It’s the issue of “Christian values” that makes Gendron’s affiliation with Christianity more complex. For the manifesto makes clear that Gendron’s racism includes the belief that “Christian values” are a significant component of “White culture.” He also accuses Jews of being demonic.

Gendron lists an array of other killers as his inspiration. They include Brenton Tarrant, who killed fifty-one Muslims in New Zealand in 2019, and Anders Breivik, who killed seventy-seven people, mostly teenagers, in Norway in 2011. Both men also defined themselves as unbelievers but cultural Christians, acting to defend the faith against secular and infidel (largely Islamic) foes. In his manifesto, Breivik told his followers that they “don’t need to have a personal relationship with God or Jesus to fight for our Christian cultural heritage.”

These three murderers are a new breed of crusaders: political Christians who kill on behalf of a faith whose tenets they don’t believe in. They are the most extreme and violent manifestations of an upsurge in white Christian identitarian politics throughout the lands formerly known as Christendom. Their savagery shouldn’t disguise the fact that they share a set of concerns with a broader radical Right that is worried about declining white fertility rates, mass immigration from the Global South, and the weakening hegemony of cultural Christianity in the West. Anxiety about demographic change is a staple of the rhetoric of politicians like Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán, and of pundits like Tucker Carlson and Ann Coulter. 

It’s one of the many merits of Matthew Rose’s A World after Liberalism: Philosophers of the Radical Right that it helps answer the question of how a figure like Breivik could both disavow Christian belief and claim to kill on behalf of “our Christian cultural heritage.” Rose is concerned with thinkers rather than killers, but these are intellectuals who anticipated and shaped the broader shifts on the Right that gave us not only Trump and Carlson but also Gendron and Breivik.

A frequent contributor to First Things, where earlier versions of some of this book’s chapters originally appeared as essays, Rose is familiar with the many sides of American Christian conservatism, which in recent years has been a house divided against itself, as the older postwar conservative synthesis has been challenged by an insurgent radical Right. For many decades, the religious Right was part of the coalition of fusionism, a conservative synthesis developed in the 1950s by National Review editors such as Frank Meyer and William F. Buckley Jr. Nominally, fusionism was a common ground where Christian traditionalists, free-marketeers, and foreign-policy hawks could all rally behind a program of domestic anti-statism and global anti-communism. But in practice, fusionism often meant that traditionalists got the short end of the stick, receiving only rhetorical support from the conservative movement while the business elite got rich from tax cuts and militarists enjoyed unquestioning support for endless wars. In essence, fusionism was always just right-wing liberalism, with a few words about family values thrown in as sop to the theocrats. 

In essence, fusionism was always just right-wing liberalism, with a few words about family values thrown in as sop to the theocrats.

Fusionism was already in crisis with the end of the Cold War, challenged by paleo-conservatives who complained that popular right-wing agitation had been exploited and co-opted by the Washington elite. The slow disintegration of fusionism quickened with events at the turn of the century: George W. Bush’s failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan discredited the neo-conservative program of a global crusade for democracy imposed at gunpoint, the economic crisis of 2008 made unvarnished capitalism unappealing even to many on the Right, and the election of Barack Obama intensified racist and xenophobic fears that the dominance of white Christian America was coming to an end. 

With the fusionist synthesis in disrepute, activists on the Right started looking for answers among strange new gods. Concluding that fusionism was in theory nothing more than nineteenth-century liberalism and in practice often compromised by alliances with twentieth-century liberalism, young right-wingers started looking for solutions outside the stifling confines of respectable ideas and wandered into the realm Rose calls postliberalism. Rose offers an informed picture, obviously based on firsthand knowledge, of this new cohort of postliberal activists, noting that they want “a political right prepared to dismantle liberal institutions, not simply manage their decline.” Further, “they foresee a revolution in conservative thinking. National solidarity and cultural identity, not individual liberty, will be its principal themes—a conservatism focused on public goods, not private interests.”

The list of contemporary postliberal thinkers that Rose provides makes for dizzying and confusing reading since they have such varied commitments, ranging from Curtis Yarvin (an anti-democrat who has professed a kind of monarchism) to Peter Thiel (the libertarian plutocrat) to Adrian Vermeule (a Catholic theocrat) to Steve Sailer (a “scientific racist” of the Charles Murray school). Do these thinkers have anything in common aside from a hatred of modern liberal democracy?

The concept of postliberalism gains clarity in Rose’s profiles of five major thinkers from the last century. Again, it’s a seemingly heterogenous crew: Oswald Spengler (1880–1936), the German cultural morphologist who prophesized the crisis of Western “Faustian” civilization as it confronted challenges from the rising non-white world; Julius Evola (1898–1974) the Italian fascist artist and philosopher who maintained that the esoteric code of anti-egalitarian and irrational traditionalism was superior to liberal modernity; Francis Parker Yockey (1917–1960), the American fascist adventurer who lived a strange furtive existence and came to conclude that the United States was so dominated by Jews that the only hope for European rightists was an alliance with a post-communist Russia; Alain de Benoist (born 1943), a French theorist who deployed post-structuralist celebrations of difference in order to shore up the idea of a European identity that needs to be preserved from immigration and globalization; and Samuel T. Francis (1947–2005), an American pundit who argued for a radical Right that would break with traditional conservatism by harnessing the anger of middle-American whites against a managerial elite. 

The heterogeneity of this group makes it hard, at first, to see them as forming any kind of shared pantheon. Part of Rose’s achievement is that his deft series of profiles makes clear the common threads linking the members of this motley crew. Spengler, the only truly original and important thinker among them, is the ur-father. In his book The Hour of Decision (published in German in the fateful year 1933), Spengler saw beyond the political crisis of his native land to a wider problem he feared would alter the world. As Rose summarizes,

Near the turn of the millennium, the West would confront the “colored world-revolution,” the rise of “colored” nations into positions of increasing parity with the “white world.” The revolution will not arrive by force of arms, he cautioned. It will arrive as Asian, African, Latin American, and Middle Eastern peoples, equipped with Western science and technology, realize that the era of global white supremacy is over.

With the rise of the non-white world, Rose observes, “Spengler feared an outcome more deadly than military defeat, economic loss, or demographic decline; he feared a fatal crisis of identity.”

The old adage remains true: for the privileged, equality feels like persecution. What these thinkers of the postliberal Right have in common is that they experience the prospect of equality with the non-white world as a terrifying destruction of their core identity. In response, they indulge in a variety of fantasies: Spengler conjures up dark visions of a declining West receiving only a temporary reprise from new Caesars; Julius Evola takes refuge in mysticism; Francis Parker Yockey loses himself in political conspiracies that brought him into contact with both the fascist underground of post-war Europe and communist intelligence agencies; Alain de Benoist hallucinates about Europe recovering its core “pagan” identity; Samuel Francis works to stir up a new class war aimed at overthrowing managerial capitalism and restoring white dominance.

The white “identity” that the postliberals wish to defend has an uneasy relationship with Christianity. On the one hand, postliberals acknowledge that Christianity has been an essential formative influence on European civilization. As Rose notes, “Spengler regarded Christianity as the finest creation of the European soul.” Spengler and subsequent postliberals, however, were also troubled by the fact that Christianity birthed the very egalitarianism and universalism they saw as destructive of white identity. According to the radical Right, in Rose’s gloss, “Liberalism is a secular expression of the Christian teaching that the individual is sacred and deserving of protection. Socialism is a secular expression of Christian concern for the poor and downtrodden.” 

If Christian faith generates liberalism and socialism, what path remains open for the radical Right but a recasting of Christianity away from faith into a tribal identity marked by historical, rather than transcendental, allegiances? We see this Christian nationalism in its most vile form in the manifestos and actions of an Anders Breivik. But a more common version can be seen in the way many American Christians have formed an idolatrous cult around Donald Trump, surely the most profane and Biblically illiterate of all American presidents. Trump is the leader of the Religious Right you get when Christianity ceases to be a religious creed and instead becomes only a tribal identity.

Trump is the leader of the Religious Right you get when Christianity ceases to be a religious creed and instead becomes only a tribal identity.

As a Christian conservative, Rose has written his book as a warning against the temptation of Christian nationalism. It’s an exceptionally smart map of an important and understudied intellectual tradition. Crisply written and well researched, it is also fair—perhaps too fair—to its subjects. If the book has a fault, it’s that it often gives postliberals too much credit. Much of the anti-liberalism of these thinkers seems crude and unmoored from reality. Only Spengler counts as a thinker of real rank; the rest are publicists, agitators, and popularizers. The “new conservatives” who emerged in Germany after World War I, including Spengler, were more compromised by Nazism than Rose allows. Even if they disliked some aspects of National Socialism, they helped pave the way for Hitlerism. Of Yockey, Rose writes, “But if he is guilty of bigotry and worse, Yockey is innocent of shallowness.” Rose adds, “Yockey was an anti-Semite of a particularly virulent and innovative kind.” In fact, Yockey’s views about Jews were simply a rehearsal of the familiar myth of Judeo-Bolshevism. There’s little or nothing in his anti-Semitism that couldn’t be found in earlier writers such as Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Even Yockey’s turn toward Russia was anticipated by Spengler.

Rose also tends to overemphasize the distinction between respectable conservatism (of the National Review variety) and postliberalism. Spenglerian themes echoed in the pages of National Review, which in its early days often gave space to figures like Revilo Oliver, a Holocaust denier and cofounder of the John Birch Society. Samuel Francis’s racism owes much to the work of respectable right-wingers like Willmoore Kendall and James Burnham. 

In trying to fend off the appeal of Christian nationalism, Rose concludes his book with a strange chapter trying to deny that Christianity is deracinating. Drawing on early Christian thinkers, he advances the idea of a “Christian race.” This seems a wholly unnecessary concession to a repugnant faction. The fact that Christianity challenges and undermines all earthly allegiances and identities is nothing to apologize for; it is truly one of the glories of the faith. There is nothing in the thought of postliberals that should cause a believing Christian to alter her commitments by one iota.

Published in the July/August 2022 issue: 

Jeet Heer is a national-affairs correspondent for the Nation and the author of In Love with Art: Françoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays & Profiles (2014).

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