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.