As you may know, many young conservatives have left Christianity,” the message begins. “Although I was raised Catholic, I too am leaving Catholicism, as I believe it is no longer a healthy religion.” The young man’s name is Dan, and he explains why he is apostatizing. “The Church has become the number one enemy of Western Civilization. Soon the only people left in Christianity will be third-world immigrants and a handful of self-hating whites.”
In recent months, emails like Dan’s have been sent to several Christian academics and clergy. His name is likely phony, but for a growing number of young men, the sentiments he expresses are real. Their ideological movement is called the “alt-right,” a name coined only eight years ago. The nation was introduced to it in August 2016, when Hillary Clinton devoted a speech in Nevada to deploring its influence on the election. “These are race-baiting ideas. Anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant ideas, anti-woman—all key tenets making up an emerging racist ideology known as the ‘alt-right,’” she charged.
In any previous election season, her speech would have been bizarre. Although the Washington Post estimates its followers in the tens of millions, Clinton could not name a single member of a movement that, she warned, imperiled American democracy. She was not being negligent. The movement exists almost entirely among anonymous users of the Internet. It has no institutions, no money, no political representation, and no traditional media. What it has is arguably more important. It enjoys the close attention of the liberal establishment it seeks to discredit and the conservative movement it intends to displace.
Almost everything written about the “alternative right” in mainstream outlets is wrong in one respect. The alt-right is not stupid. It is deep. Its ideas are not ridiculous. They are serious. To appreciate this fact, one needs to inquire beyond its presence on social media, where its obnoxious use of insult, obscenity, and racism has earned it a reputation for moral idiocy. The reputation is deserved, but do not be deceived. Behind its online tantrums and personal attacks are arguments of genuine power and expanding appeal. As political scientist George Hawley conceded in a recent study, “Everything we have seen over the past year suggests that the alt-right will be around for the foreseeable future.”
To what is the movement committed? The alt-right purports to defend the identity and interests of white people, who it believes are the compliant victims of a century-long swindle by liberal morality. Its goals are not conventionally conservative. It does not so much question as mock standard conservative positions on free trade, abortion, and foreign policy, regarding them as principles that currently abet white dispossession. Its own principles are not so abstract, and do not pretend to neutrality. Its creed, in the words of Richard Spencer, is “Race is real. Race matters. Race is the foundation of identity.” The media take such statements as proof of the alt-right’s commitment to white supremacy. But this is misleading. For the alt-right represents something more nefarious, and frankly more interesting, than white identity politics.
The alt-right is anti-Christian. Not by implication or insinuation, but by confession. Its leading thinkers flaunt their rejection of Christianity and their desire to convert believers away from it. Greg Johnson, an influential theorist with a doctorate in philosophy from Catholic University of America, argues that “Christianity is one of the main causes of white decline” and a “necessary condition of white racial suicide.” Johnson edits a website that publishes footnoted essays on topics that range from H. P. Lovecraft to Martin Heidegger, where a common feature is its subject’s criticisms of Christian doctrine. “Like acid, Christianity burns through ties of kinship and blood,” writes Gregory Hood, one of the website’s most talented essayists. It is “the essential religious step in paving the way for decadent modernity and its toxic creeds.”
Alt-right thinkers are overwhelmingly atheists, but their worldview is not rooted in the secular Enlightenment, nor is it irreligious. Far from it. Read deeply in their sources—and make no mistake, the alt-right has an intellectual tradition—and you will discover a movement that takes Christian thought and culture seriously. It is a conflicted tribute paid to their chief adversary. Against Christianity it makes two related charges. Beginning with the claim that Europe effectively created Christianity—not the other way around—it argues that Christian teachings have become socially and morally poisonous to the West. A major work of alt-right history opens with a widely echoed claim: “The introduction of Christianity has to count as the single greatest ideological catastrophe to ever strike Europe.”
The alt-right turns one hundred this year. Its intellectual birth is marked by the 1918 publication of the first volume of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West. Although his latter-day students would horrify him, Spengler is their teacher. His cultural outlook, philosophical categories, and racial spirituality shape virtually every thinker in the contemporary movement. Spengler is best known for his gloomy account of the West’s present twilight and looming death. Its time of growth and creativity is over, he counseled, and “we have to reckon with the hard cold facts of a late life.”
More important, however, is Spengler’s view of cultural identities, and the West’s unique place in the world. It is essential to understanding the alt-right’s recent success. While the movement is often accused of advocating racial supremacy, its appeal is more often to cultural difference. A generation tired of multicultural pieties, but knowing no others, finds a cunning ally in Spengler, who turns them into intellectual weapons for the radical right. A cultural relativist, Spengler rejects as a “ridiculous distortion” any view that privileges European thought or history. In an opening chapter he states a principle that would find agreement in any ethnic studies department: “Each culture possesses its own standards, the validity of which begins and ends with it.”
Spengler therefore sees the world as divided into fundamentally different cultures, whose identities he interprets in morphological terms. Cultures are like plants: They live through a determined cycle of birth, growth, maturity, and death. During its lifespan, a culture gives expression to the animating “form” in which its identity was originally conceived. “Each culture has its own possibilities of self-expression which arise, ripen, decay and never return,” Spengler explains. “There is not one sculpture, one painting, one mathematics, one physics, but many, each in its deepest essence different from the others, each limited in duration and self-contained, just as each species of plant has its peculiar blossom or fruits.” Spengler had no scholarly expertise in non-Western cultures (his advanced studies were in mathematics), and Decline of the West is frequently nonsense as both history and sociology. But its interpretations of cultural artifacts and their hidden symbolic meanings are often brilliant and have enchanted readers for a century.
All cultures are unique, but some are more unique than others. “We men of the Western culture are an exception,” Spengler claims. At the heart of his book is an interpretation of the culture he named “Faustian,” a term widely used in the intellectual circles of the alt-right. As with all cultures, a single idea permeates the arts and sciences of the West. Its distinctive mark is an intense striving for “infinity.” According to Spengler, our culture has uniquely sought to see all things in relation to the highest or most distant horizons, which, in turn, it seeks to surpass and extend. The vaults of medieval cathedrals, the discovery of perspective in painting, the exploration of the New World, the development of orchestral music, the invention of the telescope and calculus—in Spengler’s story, all express the Faustian drive toward transcendence.
With this idea in place, Spengler made a bold interpretation of Christianity, whose details he hid in the largely unread second volume of Decline. It defends the centrality of the religion to Faustian culture, but it is not a Christian account of the rise of the West. Rather, it is a subtle repudiation of it. Spengler does not argue that there is no Western civilization without Christianity. He argues that there is no Christianity without Western civilization. He arrives at this conclusion by claiming the West begins not with ancient Greece or Rome, but with the high Middle Ages and the birth of scholasticism, Gothic architecture, and polyphony. Here we have the springtime of a “new man and a new world”—and a new religion. Its cultural achievements are not testimonies to faith in God. They are the monuments of Faustian man’s attempt—in speculation, stone, glass, and sound—to propel himself into infinity. Of this aspiration, Spengler maintains, “the Gospels know nothing.”
“It was not Christianity that transformed Faustian man,” he writes in the book’s most important sentence, “but Faustian man who transformed Christianity.” Faustian man had the strength to make Christianity his own, turning a passive and world-rejecting faith into an active and world-transforming doctrine. In the minds and hands of Europeans, Christianity became a religion that affirmed the unceasing expansion of human freedom, power, and knowledge. Hence Spengler is an atheist who regards Christianity as a religion indigenous to Europe. There is no biblical god for Faustian man, but there is high Christian culture, which is a tribute to his identity. Spengler’s cultural mastery is a thing of the past, but his spirit still moves those for whom Christianity is not a creed but a tribal signifier.
If Spengler’s theology is tendentious, his portrait of Western identity is deceptively powerful. To a young man lacking a strong identity he says, “This heroic culture is your inheritance, and yours alone. You stand in a line of men who have attained the highest excellences and freely endured the hardest challenges. Albert the Great, Cortés, Newton, Goethe, the Wright brothers all carry this daring spirit, and so do you.” Spengler believed that Faustian man was nonetheless reaching his winter, and in his 1933 book Hour of Decision, he foresaw the rise of democratic “Caesars” and growing racial animosity. Who will give birth to the next great culture? Not Europeans, he wrote, who must remain standing like an unrelieved Roman soldier at Pompeii. In his last essay before his early death, Spengler predicted the future would belong to the race that had preserved its “strength” in face of the rising “colored menace.”
If Spengler is the alt-right’s cultural critic, Julius Evola is its political mystic. Avant-garde painter, occultist, sexologist, alpinist, and unreliable scholar of Eastern religions, Evola is one of the strangest intellectual figures of the twentieth century. Umberto Eco mockingly called him “the magician,” and the future Pope Paul VI condemned his writings in a Vatican newspaper. Evola recently received media attention after being cited in a speech by Steve Bannon, who identified the Italian thinker as an important figure in the “traditionalist” school of philosophy. A major magazine quickly predicted the Trump administration would be a “golden age” for Evola’s thought.
That seems unlikely. Evola is the most right-wing thinker possible in the modern world. There is nobody to his right, nor can there be. His influence on the alt-right is detectable in one of its most controversial features: its rejection of human equality. “We don’t belong to the liberal family,” writes popular blogger Hunter Wallace. “Nothing is less self-evident to us than the notion that all men are created equal.” Here is the movement’s clearest dispute with conventional conservatism and its “paper worship” of the American founding, as one prominent activist describes it. The alt-right denies that constitutional democracy is worthy of principled veneration. For Evola, its popular acceptance is a sign we are living in a spiritual dark age.
Raised in a devout family in Sicily, Evola offers a diagnosis of contemporary life that can sound traditionally Catholic, which it emphatically is not. The basic problem with modernity is “desacralization,” the collapse of spiritual meaning in daily life. Work, family, and citizenship are no longer saturated with spiritual importance, but are understood in functionally secular terms. “Man, like never before, has lost every possibility of contact with metaphysical reality,” Evola complains, because materialism “kills every possibility, deflects every intent, paralyzes every attempt” at living a higher spiritual life. Evola does not, however, call for a return to his ancestral faith. He calls instead for a rediscovery of a more primordial source of spiritual meaning.
Evola translated Decline of the West into Italian in 1957 and included a preface indicating his friendly disagreements with its author. Spengler’s fundamental flaw was that he “lacked any understanding of metaphysics and transcendence,” which led him to conclude that human cultures are irreducibly different. Evola believed more or less the exact opposite, arguing that there are timeless and universal principles that have provided the foundation for every true civilization. He referred to these perennial truths as “Tradition,” and he traced the disorders of modernity to our loss of contact with it. He did not date the fatal break to the Enlightenment or to the Reformation. No, the world had been slouching into spiritual poverty ever since the eighth century b.c., when the world of Tradition began to disappear.
Evola’s books are imaginative attempts to describe the lost world of Tradition and to indicate paths by which it might be reawakened. His most famous work, Revolt Against the Modern World, claimed that these primordial societies—whose existence can be accessed only by way of myth and legend, not critical scholarship—all operated on the same principles. The truths of Tradition are simple and few, varying only in expression. In a traditional culture, every aspect of human life, every social activity, role, and caste, was dedicated to the service of an otherworldly order; indeed, they were ritual pathways into it. “According to Tradition,” Evola imagines, “every authority is fraudulent, every law unjust and barbarous, every institution is vain and ephemeral unless . . . they are derived from above.” In the Republic, Plato argued that the ideal polis imitated “a pattern in heaven,” but Evola’s ideal state is mystical, not philosophical. His key claim is that traditional societies were hierarchically ordered under an absolute ruler, who embodied the sacral order itself.
Evola denied that there is a democratic path to erecting this mystical imperium, and here is where his thought, which is otherwise fantastic, becomes alluring to the alt-right. In his postwar book Men Among the Ruins, he argued that political conservatism is intrinsically impossible in a democratic age. True political order can never come from below; it must always be imposed from above. Evola therefore argued that only a transformative leader could elevate humanity out of its degraded state. Such a leader could not appeal to the masses—this was the mistake of the vulgar fascisms of Mussolini and Hitler—but must inspire submission through lofty contempt for democratic norms and popular tastes. “The presence of superior individuals bestows on a multitude . . . a meaning and a justification they previously lacked,” Evola wrote. “It is the inferior who needs the superior, and not the other way around.”
Evola was less clear about what this sacred authority looked like than what stood in the way of its realization. Beginning with his first book, Heathen Imperialism, his writings featured a running attack on Roman Catholicism. Evola was deeply influenced by René Guénon, a French philosopher and convert to Islam, who was the twentieth century’s leading exponent of “traditionalism,” a school of thought that sought to identify the higher philosophical principles shared by the world’s great spiritual masters and traditions. Guénon held that Catholicism might remain a vehicle through which Tradition could be partially preserved. Evola disagreed and came to blame the Church for the “demonic” inversions of our time. Catholicism is the unhealed wound at the heart of Western life. Its cardinal “heresy,” as Evola termed it, strikes at the very root of Tradition. By distinguishing priestly power from state power, Catholicism makes sovereign authority, and hence political unity, impossible.
Evola’s view should not be mistaken for that of a modern liberal. The problem with the Church is not its interference with the secular state, as Machiavelli, Locke, and Rousseau all worried. The problem is that Catholicism forbids the sacred state. And a state without absolute spiritual unity is no state at all.
Evola’s search for a traditional community took him back before the dawn of civilization. For Alain de Benoist, however, no return is necessary if we simply move beyond Christianity altogether. Evola did not believe in a personal deity, but his criticisms of Christianity were political rather than theological. With Benoist, the alt-right becomes explicitly and confessionally anti-Christian.
Benoist is the leading theorist of the European New Right, an intellectual movement that began in France in the late 1960s and took its inspiration from the failed “conservative revolution” of Weimar Germany. Carl Schmitt, Ernst Jünger, Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, and Spengler were its chief figures. Most of its members, including Spengler, took sides against the Nazi regime, but they also sought a path for the West beyond the twin evils of American democracy and Soviet communism. Benoist comes from this anti-liberal tradition, and his many books, which blend extreme right-wing and left-wing ideas, attempt to envision a post-Christian future for people of European descent.
There is no better introduction to alt-right theory than his 1981 work On Being a Pagan. Its tone is serene, but its message is militant. Benoist argues that the West must choose between two warring visions of human life: biblical monotheism and paganism. Benoist is a modern-day Celsus. Like his second-century predecessor, he writes to reawaken Europeans to their ancient faith. Paganism’s central claim is simple: that the world is holy and eternal. “Far from desacralizing the world,” Benoist tells us, paganism “sacralizes it in the literal sense of the word, since it regards the world as sacred.” Paganism is also a humanism. It recognizes man, the highest expression of nature, as the sole measure of the divine. God does not therefore create men; men make gods, which “exist” as ideal models that their creators strive to equal. “Man shares in the divine every time he surpasses himself,” Benoist writes, “every time he attains the boundaries of his best and strongest aspects.”
Benoist’s case against Christianity is that it forbids the expression of this “Faustian” vitality. It does so by placing the ultimate source of truth outside of humanity, in an otherworldly realm to which we must be subservient. In his Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth notoriously described Christian revelation as the “abolition” of natural religion. Benoist is a Barthian, if selectively. He accuses Christianity of crippling our most noble impulses. Christianity makes us strangers in our own skin, conning us into distrusting our strongest intuitions. We naturally respect beauty, health, and power, Benoist observes, but Christianity teaches us to revere the deformed, sick, and weak instead. “Paganism does not reproach Christianity for defending the weak,” he explains. “It reproaches [Christianity] for exalting them in their weakness and viewing it as a sign of their election and their title to glory.”
Benoist’s theology is in the service of a political warning, and it is this, more than his Nietzschean posturing, that attracts the alt-right. Christianity is unable to protect European peoples and their cultures. Under Christianity, the West lives under a kind of double imprisonment. It exists under the power of a foreign religion and an alien deity. Christianity is not our religion. It thereby foments “nihilism.” The allegation is explosive. Benoist means that Christianity renders Western culture morally lethargic and culturally defenseless. Most perniciously, its universalism poisons our attachments to particular loyalties and ties. “If all men are brothers,” Benoist claims, “then no one can truly be a brother.” Politics depends on the recognition of both outsiders and enemies, yet the Christian Church sees all people as potential members, indeed potential saints.
And here we reach Benoist’s remarkable conclusion. The decadent West has never been more Christian. Christianity imparted to our culture an ethics that has mutated into what the alt-right calls “pathological altruism.” Its self-distrust, concern for victims, and fear of excluding outsiders—such values swindle Western peoples out of a preferential love for their own. Benoist’s ideas have reached the margins of American conservatism, perhaps no more noticeably than in the writings of the late Sam Francis. A former contributor to leading conservative publications, his thinking took a late turn toward what we would now call the alt-right. “Christianity today is the enemy of the West and the race that created it,” he announced in an influential 2001 article. Francis’s essay was a lament as much as a protest (he was received into the Church on his deathbed), but his work is receiving a new hearing.
The temptation to dismiss the alt-right should be resisted. Like Christians in late antiquity, we ought to see ourselves through the eyes of our pagan critics and their growing ranks of online popularizers. They distort many truths, through both malice and ignorance, and lead young men into espousing views and defending authors they scarcely understand. Yet we can learn from their distortions, and in doing so show how Christian theology, whose failings have contributed to the movement’s rise, might also be its remedy.
The alt-right’s understanding of human identity is reductive, and its rejection of Christian solidarity premature. “Christianity provides an identity that is above or before racial and ethnic identity,” Richard Spencer complains. “It’s not like other religions that come out of a folk spirit.” Spencer is right that the baptismal covenant transcends our local loyalties and identities. It does not, however, eradicate them.
The alt-right seeks an account of what we are meant to be and serve as a people, invoking race as an emergency replacement for our fraying civic bonds. It is not alone; identity politics on the left is a response to the same erosion of belonging. But race is a modern category, and lacks theological roots. Nation, however, is biblical. In the Book of Acts, St. Paul tells his Gentile listeners, “God has made all the nations [ethnos].” The Bible speaks often of God’s creation, judgment, and redemption of the nations. In Christ there is no Gentile or Jew, yet God calls us into his life not only as individuals but as members of communities for which we are responsible.
Today there are bespoke theologies for most every identity in American life. Meanwhile, we lack a compelling civic theology for the twenty-first century—a theology of the nation, not for the nation. In its absence the alt-right will continue to grow. Young men like Dan need the gospel. But they also need an account of nationhood that teaches them about their past, without making them fear the future; an account of civic life that opens them to transcendence, rather than closing them to their neighbors. In his last book, Memory and Identity, John Paul II reflected movingly on the Christian meaning of our earthly homelands. He denied that Christians have no “native land” in this life and defended the nation as a natural community. Against those seeking a post-national world, he urged Western nations to preserve their languages, histories, and religious traditions. The “spiritual self-defense” of our homelands, he wrote, is part of our moral obligation, commanded by God, to honor our fathers and mothers.
A nation will become an idol, however, if its cultural inheritance is not oriented toward, and inwardly transformed by, a divine inheritance. “The inheritance we receive from Christ,” the late pope argued, “orients the patrimony of human native lands and cultures toward an eternal home land.” The Church midwifed many nations into existence, and it can renew their cultures still. For now it must suffice to say the alt-right cannot. It speaks of tradition, while transmitting no traditions. It guards a false patrimony, while destroying real ones. Its mistake is fundamental and tragic. Race offers no inheritance, and its mere preservation reflects no human achievement. Our stories, art, music, institutions, and religious traditions—unlike race—are transmitted only through special efforts of human intelligence and love. They are a bequest of the spirit, not blood.
The alt-right speaks a seductive language. Where liberalism offers security and comfort, the alt-right promises sacrifice and conflict. Although the struggle its intellectuals and activists envision is imaginary, it does not matter: Theirs is a sounder view of human needs. Human beings desire more than small pleasures in the routines of life. We also seek great challenges in the face of death. And here Christianity speaks another, more necessary, and no less demanding language. “When Christ calls a man,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “he bids him come and die,” and in dying, to receive true life. For Christians, the problem with Faustian man is not the vaunting heroism of his aims. It is the pitiable smallness of his goals. We are not meant to merely aspire to the infinite. We are called to participate in it—to be, in a word, deified. Faust could not overcome death. Through Christ, Christians already have.
Matthew Rose is director and senior fellow at the Berkeley Institute.