Not Gonna Panic

I do not understand Twitter in all its particulars, and maybe I understand less than that. When I popped the site open this morning I was “informed” that “Satanic Panic” was trending. After poking around a bit, I do not think the concept trended worldwide. Rather, Twitter’s internal gadgets and gizmos has found this is a topic I would be interested in, next to Vince McMahon’s fall from grace at World Wrestling Entertainment and the ongoing war in Ukraine. For those unaware, the initial wave of “Satanic Panic” began in the 1980s and marched onward into the 90s. Largely unsubstantiated claims of satanic ritual abuse sprung forth from the media, pundits, and law enforcement during this time, leading to wasted resources and, worse, the framing of innocent persons. (The case of the so-called West Memphis Three is one of the more popular and egregious examples.) Even this season of the hit Netflix show Stranger Things, set in 1986, refers to this panic as it related to the game Dungeons & Dragons.

Since everything old is new again, I should not be surprised that “Satanic Panic” is back in play. Heaven only knows what really gave rise to the phenomenon in the 1980s, though several sociological theories have been put forth. A number of those who decry this panic as little more than conspiracy mongering seem to enjoy engaging in conspiracy theorizing of their own. One such untested claim is that the “Satanic Panic” was a myth ginned up by Evangelical Christians to seize the reins of power. Another, slightly more plausible, explanation is that the “Satanic Panic” was bound up with “homophobia” which itself saw an uptick in the aftermath of the HIV/AIDS crisis. For my part, I think the “Satanic Panic” was caused by all that sweet heavy metal that came out of that decade, but I digress.

Apparently evil just isn’t intriguing enough without some supernatural/occult-ish twist. Today, heinous and violent crimes, including rape and murder, are explained (away?) by detailed psychological profiles that often attempt to track the emergence of a predator by peering into their past. A systematically abused child who graduates from animal torture to sadistic killing is a lot less interesting than someone possessed by a demon. And should this demon be a figment of the imagination, or an excuse conjured up by the perpetrator, the tale routinely proves more exciting than a “mere” determination that a criminal is mentally and emotionally damaged.

Some may object by noting that even if the “Satanic Panic” was and remains overblown, it does not follow that no criminal acts are carried out with infernal intent. That is true. I believe in the reality of demonic possession just as much as I believe that individuals, psychologically broken or not, can commit evil acts in the name of Satan. As the last century and this one proves, the demonic can mean much more than black clothing, mediocre Latin, and pentagrams. (As for hellfire and brimstone, mankind now has a comparative advantage in that department over the legions of hell.) Indeed, there is an argument to be made that we live in an era of casual demonism, from the way we craft foreign policy to the way we treat our neighbors. Its true power lies in the fact nobody is having a panic over it.

A Banner Day

Hulu’s recent adaption of the John Krakauer true crime/religious history bestseller, Under The Banner of Heaven, generated mixed but overall positive reviews. Opting for a “poetically licensed” examination of the savage murders of Brenda and Erica Lafferty with flashbacks to Mormon history, the television series has come under fire from Mormon faithful. McKay Coppins, a staff writer at The Atlantic who adheres to some form of the Mormon religion, attacked the show for presenting the “idea…that Mormonism is at heart an oppressive and violent religion whose mainstream adherents are ever perched on the brink of radicalization[.]” Further, “the show has managed to offend or at least alienate most of the Latter-day Saints who have given it a chance, including the most sophisticated viewers.” According to Coppins, some unspecified element of his confession now looks at Mormon history with a critical eye. It stands to reason, however, that professing critics of the Mormon religion are few and far between; they do not represent the mainstream.

While Coppins has several complaints about Banner, one of them is exceedingly silly: Mormonism is a persecuted minority religion in America. Sure, there may only be approximately 7-8 million Mormons in America, which places their numbers well north of observant Muslims and Jews. And despite not being a Christian religion, Mormonism in America is six to seven times larger than Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Mormons continue to have a stronghold on Utah society and politics, and Mormon adherents can be found in all walks of political, social, and popular American life. Due to Mormon doctrinal plasticity on issues that have landed them in hot water, including polygamy and overt racism, they have been able to “get by” in the United States despite harbor an array of religious opinions that can be sourced to a charismatic 19th century charlatan named Joseph Smith.

Mormons may be nice people (many are) with a general moral code that broadly adheres to the shared views of many folks until recent times, but one of the unsettling elements of Krakauer’s book (and the Hulu series) is how central polygamy (or, to use the Mormon term, “plural marriage”) was to Mormonism at the outset and remains critical to the religion’s fundamentalist wing. (The mainline Mormon religious institution, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), routinely denounces its estranged fundamentalist brethren as existing outside the LDS church.) Joseph Smith’s centrality to Mormonism has not waned in nearly two centuries. So why is it wrong for Krakauer or a plethora of other writers, scholars, and polemicists to peer into Mormonism’s history to expose not merely that plural marriage was practiced, but was actively promoted as essential for salvation? The LDS church may find all this embarrassing, but it is not wrong.

There is an argument to be made, of course, that fundamentalist Mormons are simply staying true to historic Mormonism, the sort which was allegedly revealed by God to Smith and later prophets before becoming politically inconvenient. Moreover, when following the thread of strict Mormonism to its logically illogical and perverse conclusions, is it surprising to find plural marriage, pedophilia, rape, spousal abuse, and incest running rampant in fundamentalist circles? Whatever good came out of the mainline LDS church condemning these practices does not wash over that it shares a common history with the more extreme or, should I say, strictly observant branches of the religion. The fundamentalists await one “strong and mighty” to restore pure Mormonism. The LDS, for its part, have never produced anyone “strong and mighty” enough to suppress those who represent an arguably more authentic form of Mormon belief.

Against Thanksgiving

Some people won’t like this, but I find no reason to celebrate Thanksgiving. Yes, yes, I know, according to Dale Ahlquist over at Catholic World Report, today is allegedly a “Catholic holiday” because the Patuxet Indian Squanto, who converted to Catholicism after being sold as a slave in Spain, arranged a harvest feast with the Plymouth invaders. From there Thanksgiving was born (or so they say). I imagine more than a few Catholics stormed the Bastille, too, but I see no reason why any should celebrate its commemoration. (I do think Catholics should celebrate Guy Fawkes Day, but I’ll save that matter for another time.) Thanksgiving has also become a day when Catholics (and other Christians) celebrate America’s “proud legacy” of religious freedom despite the fact that no such legacy actually exists. It took Catholics centuries to find pockets of toleration in America and once they thought they found it, what happened? Secularization set in and now bishops, priests, and laity alike gladly surrender to the Zeitgeist in order to prove they are “good citizens.”

An Antiochian Orthodox priest I was once acquainted with was told he had to celebrate the Divine Liturgy on Thanksgiving. Vexed at the idea that he would be inadvertently celebrating a bunch of heretics killing indigenous people and stealing their land, he flipped his parish to the Julian Calendar for one day only so the Thanksgiving Thursday would align with the feast of St. Gregory Palamas. This year’s Julian Calendar feast is of another great saint, John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople. St. John pulled no punches during his lifetime, which in no small part explains why he reposed in exile. He admonished the wealthy of his day to first donate to the poor before buying a golden chalice or other ecclesial ornaments for the church. What, I wonder, would the Golden Mouth have to say to contemporary Christians who gorge themselves on sumptuous meals before passing out drunk in front a football game when thousands upon thousands of Native Americans wallow in squalor on barren reservations “furnished” to them by the Government of the United States?

As for religious freedom, is it not time for us to cease genuflecting before that stripped altar? What toleration is left in this country for authentic Christianity is quickly fading. In a generation or less it won’t exist at all. And then what shall we have to be thankful for? What celebrating will occur then? Hopefully the only celebrations that truly matter: the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass or the Divine Liturgy. Instead of being thankful that we live in a country which legally slaughters babies, denies workers their just wages, and refuses to pay true reparations to the original inhabitants of this land, we can instead give thanks to God for Christ’s salvific death on the Cross and the hope of Eternal Life. Perhaps then we can take what meager material wealth we have left and spend it on bread for the homeless instead of beer for ourselves. Or maybe in lieu of griping about our “loved ones” and rolling our eyes at our in-laws, we can spend that time in prayer, asking our Lord to spare this country the wrath it deserves for its innumerable offenses against its only true head, Christ our King and Redeemer.

Least Amount of Terror, Greatest Amount of Security

In the provocative Preface to the English translation of his Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, Leo Strauss opines that “[t]he controversy between [reason and revelation/philosophy and theology] can easily degenerate into a race in which he wins who offers the smallest amount of security and the greatest terror.” “But,” Strauss continues, “just as an assertion does not become true because it is shown to be comforting, so it does not become true because it is shown to be terrifying.”

Sitting in the background of these remarks, penned three decades after the original German publication of the Spinoza book, is the problem of Heidegger, or more generally, the problem of existentialism—both religious and atheistic. An insecure world, gripped by terror, is what existentialism wishes to both expose and relieve. That relief, however, can only come about “if the highest of which a man knows is absolutely secure,” or so says Strauss. Revelation offers the security of truth, but the terrifying prospect that not even all men who come to knowledge of the truth will be secure in the end. For a philosopher like Heidegger—to turn to Strauss again—“there is no security, no happy ending, no divine shepherd, hope is replaced by thinking, the longing for eternity or belief in anything eternal is understood as stemming from ‘the spirit of revenge,’ from the desire to escape from all passing-away into something that never passes away.”

In considering the state of religion today (particularly Christianity), somewhat removed from the more poignant existential concerns of early 20th century Teutonic philosophers and theologians, it is possible to say that it has come around to the idea that best way to touch men’s souls is to offer the least amount of terror and the greatest degree of security (at least as concerns his final end). This shift, which among “magisterial” Christian confessions, is in noticeable tension with their respective traditions of promoting insecurity and terror as a sure (though perhaps not the surest) path to virtue (and onward to salvation), is often castigated as “liberal,” with “liberal” too often meaning little more than “not conservative” or, rather, “not traditional.” From a certain point of view, this trend does appear to start from the reality of insecurity in this world to a hope for security in the next; terror today does not mean terror for eternity; and the God who made all things good will not tolerate His creation to be lost to sin.

There is something paralyzing about this view, at least as it concerns the time that remains before the end of all things. Granted, under conditions of radically reduced terror and unprecedentedly amplified security, the temporal plane becomes a blank canvass onto which man can lightly sketch or intricately detail his greatest hopes and fears; his basest desires and noblest instincts; and so on, and so forth. There is, broadly speaking, a “background” or “source” to which he can repair to for guidance, namely a holy book with an ostensibly inspired but contested canon that fails to provide its own proper hermeneutic, though except for those who are typically castigated as “fundamentalist,” this need not be the only source. Convention rather than nature becomes the measuring stick, with too little scrutiny being given as to where and when those conventions emerged or why. If “why” is explored at all, it is explored in a “scientific” manner, that is the manner which sociology and psychology and anthropology deem appropriate; man’s movement from cannibalism and rape to agriculture and marriage has a survival component and nothing to do with the illumination of his faculties, either from within or above.

Whether or not this all seems personally quite horrific is secondary to the truth that there are those who do indeed see it as quite horrific. Against the narrative of greatest security and least terror comes a flurry of reminders in the opposite direction, rooted—again—not in existentialist concerns per se, but a nagging sense that physical and psychic hardships of an earlier age pointed toward the truth that without the transcendent, man’s position in this world amounted to nothing. It would have been better to have never been born into a world riddled with war, famine, and pestilence if death could not bring anything except a cessation of the misery without the promise of redemption. But since not all men have an equal participation in these miseries, and by a sheer act of the will, choose to bring new miseries down upon others for their own gain, death alone cannot be the answer—it should not be the answer. This belief, rooted in what seems to be a certain “natural” instinct for justice, should be a relic of bygone ages; it seems look an entirely inappropriate basis for conversion, repentance, and (possible) salvation.

Trump, Syria, and Buyer’s Remorse

Many a man, particularly Christian ones, are suffering from buyer’s remorse today after news broke last night that President Donald Trump authorized missile strikes against Syria in retaliation for an alleged chemical weapons attack carried out by the Assad regime. There were concerns leading up to the 2016 Presidential Election that Hillary Clinton, had she won, would needlessly involve the United States in a military conflict by enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria. That move would have likely upset Russia, which has actively supported Assad’s campaign against rebel fighters (including the Islamic State) in the country. Trump, many believed, would be less hawkish than many mainline Republicans and find a way to build stronger ties with Russia as part of a united front against terrorism. Granted, last night’s “demonstration” was rather modest, and no one yet knows if Trump will authorize any further military action. However, as things currently stand, it appears that Trump’s foreign policy won’t cut along strictly anti-interventionist lines.

The situation in Syria is unique insofar as Assad’s regime remains one of the truly last secular governments in a Muslim-majority country in the Middle East. Moreover, Syria has failed to “play by the rules” of globalism over the years by maintaining a state-owned central bank; refusing to submit itself to the International Monetary Fund by taking out condition-heavy loans; and maintaining deep oil and gas reserves. Assad in particular balked at the idea of an “Arab Spring,” no doubt realizing that any attempt to bring democracy to the Middle East results in religious conflict, ethnic cleansing, and mass destabilization. Of course, none of this is to say that Assad is a “good man” by contemporary lights; the tactics of his military operation have been quite brutal, and it’s certainly not beyond the pale to suspect his regime of committing war crimes. However, the recent charge of using chemical weapons does ring strange considering that Assad had little-to-no reason to deploy them in the midst of a campaign his army was finally winning and that using such weapons opened the door wide for “justified” Western retaliation.

Or is this all a show? Some opine that Trump, Assad, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin are all “in on it” with regard to last night’s attack. If the stories are true, the missile strike did almost no damage to Syria’s military and only served to bolster Trump’s national standing by appearing to “look tough” on an “evil regime.” Putin, for his part, gets to posture with moral outrage at the “illegal” American attack, thus currying favor with his own constituents while avoiding any direct confrontation with the United States. This theory will take on greater plausibility in the coming days and weeks if Trump avoids getting America further involved in the intra-Syrian conflict.

Regardless, Trump has shown himself as a leader not to be trusted—something both liberals and conservatives warned about over the past year. The worry is that, as in business, Trump will prove himself to be an opportunist in politics, making decisions not in line with campaign promises or a coherent policy framework, but rather in accordance with naked self-interest. This would not make Trump unique in recent political history, mind you. Remember that in the midst of a very public sex scandal and subsequent criminal investigation, Bill Clinton authorized air strikes against Iraq in order to improve his image, distract from the affair, or both. Trump, who has been on the ropes since taking office due to constant pushbacks from the judiciary, media, and within his own party, is staring down the barrel of ongoing accusations of colluding with the Russians in the run-up to his election. What better way to get some of the heat off his back than appearing to clash with Russian interests?

The primary cause for concern in Syria should remain the status of its ever-dwindling Christian population. Catholics and Orthodox alike have suffered terribly during the country’s civil war, and they will continue to suffer if the forces of militant Islam are not put down once and for all. Assad’s regime is their katechon, a restrainer holding back the lawlessness that would leave a river of Christian blood running through the country. To the extent that Trump and his allies take action that places Syria’s Christians further in harm’s way, they must be rejected, and rejected forcefully by American Catholics. Moral indecency does not get a free pass simply because it is carried out by one’s preferred candidate. While it is heartening to see some Christian supporters of Trump come around to this reality, it may take more than one betrayal for many others to realize that Trump’s ascendency is and will always be a “lesser of two evils,” but an evil nonetheless.

My Last Word on this “Benedict Option” Business

The cottage industry that sprung up around Rod Dreher’s proposal for a “Benedict Option” has exploded into a veritable industry now that his book with the same name has been published. Although there are many praising Dreher’s efforts, there seems to be just as many (if not more) criticizing them, sometimes thoughtlessly. Calvin College professor James K.A. Smith, for instance, pulled the race card on Dreher in the pages of The Washington Post; others soon followed. A more compelling critique of Dreher concerns his apparent blindness to class. Is the “Benedict Option” only available to a privileged few?

My main concern with Dreher’s proposal, aside from the fact that it’s gimmicky and seems to ignore the fact that there have been serious and intentional Christian communities at work for decades, is that it has less to do with saving Western (Christian) civilization and more to do with preserving a certain lifestyle that is only available to those who have bought into a late-capitalist idea of what “success” and “happiness” looks like. And then there is the a-confessional nature of Dreher’s work. Despite one time being a professed Catholic, Dreher turned to Eastern Orthodoxy in the wake of the Catholic sex-abuse scandal and yet rarely seems to take his own confession seriously when it comes to confronting secularism, liberalism, and capitalism. In many respects, Dreher remains a Catholic intellectually, and seems to wish for Catholics to join him in standing up against (post)modernity. But to what end? Why should Catholics, if they are serious and intentional about their faith, work toward providing a living space for Dreher, someone who has generated attention for himself by attacking Catholicism uncharitably despite clinging so strongly to the Catholic intellectual tradition?

Only Dreher can answer these questions, and I doubt he ever will. He knows as well as anyone that Eastern Orthodoxy in the West is little more than a backwater with an occasionally overinflated sense of its importance due to the willingness of both Catholics and Protestants to give them a prime seat at the discussion table. He likely realizes by now that there will be no serious and intentional Orthodox response to the problems plaguing America, not when the Orthodox have so many other things on their plate like recognizing each other’s sacraments and squabbling over who gets to claim Qatar’s remnant Christian population as part of their jurisdictional fold. That’s not to say I don’t wish things were otherwise. As heirs of Byzantine Christianity with a rich liturgical, spiritual, and theological patrimony, the Orthodox should be as well-poised as any Christian confession to both comprehend and respond to the contemporary world; but for a laundry list of historical and culture reasons I need not go into here, Orthodoxy, both in the United States and across the globe, remains beholden to an unsettling backwardness which stymies its growth and largely renders it incapable of achieving any higher “status” than being a handmaid of largely secularized states. On the imminent plane at least, Dreher knows Orthodoxy cannot save us.

Not that Catholicism is doing a much better job. While serious and intentional Catholic communities (and movements) certainly exist, Catholicism writ large has been wandering in the darkness of liberalism for more than half-a-century now with no immediate end in sight. These communities, it should be noted, are not the byproduct of a certain strand of academic posturing favored by certain “illiberal Catholic” types, but rather the outgrowth of authentic missionary work carried out by (a handful of) bishops, priests, and religious in concert with a growing body of laity who realize that they have been cutoff unjustly from their own heritage. Perhaps the biggest obstacle lying in the way of these Catholics fully realizing intentional and serious communities is economics. For while there are many critiques of capitalism available, the sad reality is that even so-called traditionalist Catholics are still beholden to the assumptions and benefits of capitalism. They associate, wrongly, a “free market” with the sort of prosperity envisioned by the Church, ignoring along the way the magisterial pronouncements of the Church on just wages, subsidiarity, solidarity, and so forth. In the end, they cannot avoid compromising with the world.

Sadly, Dreher’s “Benedict Option” is unlikely to set in motion the sort of soul searching necessary for Christians of any stripe to find a true horizon beyond liberalism. Even those who do not care for what Dreher has to say are, more often than not, looking to preserve their liberal-oriented way of life which they like to think of us “authentically Christian.” And for that reason perhaps above all others, Dreher won’t win himself many friends. He may be off the mark in some critical respects, but trying to do anything which may upset conventions, even the conventions of those who like to see themselves as heroically “on the margins,” is a perilous task. However, this may not bother Dreher that much in the long run. As the great sage and paragon of virtue, Eric Bischoff, says, “Controversy creates cash.”

Rod Dreher’s Striking Omission

Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” (BenOp) is not novel, and the somewhat anticipated book-turned-bestseller regurgitating what Dreher has said on the BenOp over at his American Conservative web-log further confirms this truth. Ostensibly drawn from the closing section of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, the BenOp has been castigated as being everything from class-based posturing to heartless retreatism. Given the confusion circulating in both the positive and negative receptions of the book, it’s clear that Dreher has not penned a manual for Christian action so much as a hastily gathered collection of negative observations on contemporary American society coupled with broad, but ill-defined, calls for Christians to form intentional communities to preserve Western civilization. While Dreher is often generally correct in many of his negative assessments, the Eastern Catholic theologian and blogger Adam DeVille is uncomfortable with Dreher “fixat[ing] on same-sex marriage and gender issues to an unhealthy and unhelpful degree.” DeVille also joins a number of other critics in castigating Dreher for being tone-deaf to economic realities. Unlike Dreher, who lives comfortably off of popularizing derivative ideas, most Christians cannot afford to uproot and move to a paradisiacal Nowhere while planning their next oyster-and-wine vacation abroad.

Whatever one makes of these (and other) criticisms, the more constructive aspects of Dreher’s book sound remarkably similar to what the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), the traditional priestly fraternity founded by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, has been doing for nearly five decades. As noted, Dreher is calling for the establishment of serious and intentional Christian communities—which is exactly what the Society has been doing for decades. Locales such as Phoenix, Arizona, Post Falls, Idaho, and—perhaps most famously—St. Marys, Kansas are home to churches and educational institutions run by the SSPX which seek to preserve the Latin Catholic Church’s traditional doctrinal, theological, and liturgical patrimony. By being champions of the anti-liberal doctrines promulgated by the likes of Popes Pius IX (Syllabus Errorum), Leo XIII (Immortale Dei), and St. Pius X (E Supremi), the Society has never shied away from confronting the errors of liberalism, both within the Church and larger society. In relying on the time-honored wisdom of the Church, Archbishop Lefebvre and his fraternity foresaw the implosion of morals brought on by the banishment of Christ the King from public life and the persecutions that would befall Christians at the hands of secularists and Islamists alike. Rather than despair, Lefebvre and his spiritual children opted to fight. Despite repeated and unjustified sanctions by officials in Rome, not to mention an unyielding smear campaign kept up by liberal and so-called “conservative” Catholic writers, the SSPX continues to grow. Last fall, in rural Virginia, the Society opened a brand new seminary to house the influx of vocations pouring in—something which no Catholic diocese in America has been able to boast of in decades.

Beyond the aforementioned SSPX “strongholds,” the organization maintains a chain of chapels and schools across the United States (and, on a grander scale, around the world) that continue to thrive and expand by being serious and intentional Christian communities. More than serving as “Mass centers” for those tired of the banality of the Novus Ordo Missae, these foundations seek to instill true Catholic values in their attendees—values which the faithful are then expected to take out into the world with them. While the heart of the Society will always be the traditional Mass and full understanding of the sacramental priesthood, it is a heart that pumps the unadulterated Faith to an ever-expanding number of Catholics burnt-out on the false promises of liberalism. Even if some who regularly attend Society chapels may wish to maintain problematic fidelity to certain liberal outgrowths, there can be no denying that the message and mission of the SSPX points to an authentic horizon beyond liberalism, one where Christ the King reigns supreme and the final end of man is not earthly satisfaction but rather eternal beatitude with God.

Perhaps one reason Dreher omits discussing the SSPX in detail and acknowledging at length that it has long carried out the very thing he is proposing is because of the unfortunate (and ironic) anti-Catholic bias that Dreher still clings to. Dreher may have toned down the anti-Catholic polemics he became known for after defecting to Eastern Orthodoxy some years ago, but he rarely misses an opportunity to openly discuss some Catholic scandal or another while sidestepping those which exist within his own communion. The irony of this lies in the fact that Dreher depends so havily on Catholic thinkers, institutions, and publications for his ideas, audience, and—well—paycheck. It is doubtful that the BenOp book would have generated as much attention as it has had Catholic outlets such as First Things not given Dreher several forums to air his thoughts and generate hype. And it is hype that Dreher seems to want more than anything else given how proud he was that a secular, liberal outlet like the New York Times chose to place his book high on their Nonfiction Bestsellers List.

Another reason is that the SSPX is perhaps “too hot” for Dreher, a writer who claims to critique contemporary liberal culture while remaining deeply embedded within it. His primary forum, The American Conservative, is, more often than not, a paleoconservative outlet of mixed value that still clings to American democratic principles (“rightly understood”) as the solution to our collective malaise. Where Dreher wishes to curry favor with media elites who will draw attention to his book or give him free airtime, the SSPX is concerned with the highest law of the Church, namely the salvation of souls. While Dreher pays lipservice to monasticism, asceticism, and prayer, the Society’s priests, with few belongings, zigzag the country weekly in an attempt to meet the expanding demand for—you guessed it—serious and intentional Christianity, the sort sustained by the Church’s sacraments and sound catechesis. That should be the sort of serious and intentional Christianity Dreher wants, not the secularized and part-time Christianity found throughout large swathes of both American Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Given how good the SSPX has been about anticipating and fulfilling Dreher’s serious and intentional vision decades before he ever proposed it, perhaps the Society has grounds to sue him for copyright infringement.

In closing, I have every expectation that the buzz Dreher has generated by the BenOp will steadily fade as the conversation around it grows dull and Dreher moves onto another money-making project to pay for those sumptuous meals he photographs for his web-log. The SSPX, along with a handful of other serious and intentional Catholic institutions and orders, will carry on the work “to restore all things in Christ” without seeking to profit from sloganeering. At the same time, the situation in America will grow even more dire. Few of those celebrating the relative reprieve offered by the ascendency of Donald Trump to the Oval Office will do anything to build-up fresh bulwarks against liberalism, and certainly nothing short of a spiritual revolution will defeat the culture of relativism, hedonism, and death that reigns over men in the place of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Truly, only God can save us.

The Spiritual Emptiness of the New Nationalists

Michael Brendan Dougherty has penned a thoughtful piece for The Week on those he calls the “new nationalists.” It’s a broad category that presumably encompasses not just nationalists in the United States and Europe, but also that loose confederation of reactionary, racists, and Internet trolls known as the alt-right. If anything unifies the new nationalists, according to Dougherty, it is their “biting critique of globalism,” that is, those “elites…[who are] committed to the ever-freer movement of goods, capital, and people” while also being for the further integration of a global political class.” One of the core problems the new nationalists have with the globalists is that the latter’s “goals are all promoted in an anti-democratic spirit.” However, when compared to the globalists, Dougherty finds “the new nationalists’ ambitions more inscrutable”; they “lack…a forward-driving vision[.]”

Maybe, or perhaps the simple truth is that the new nationalists neither desire nor need a unified ideology. They thrive on disaffection and any attempt to unify them under a single banner or set of transnational policy goals would erode the heterogeneity they strive for. Keeping democratic legitimacy alive is secondary to preserving national and cultural identity; the pushback against homogenizing trade deals and other international agreements emanates from the perennial desire to preserve “one’s way of life,” whatever that happens to be. The new nationalists, by and large, do not subscribe to the progressive view of history that animated the so-called “Washington Consensus” after 1989—the belief that integrated markets and legal cultures was the only way to go in a post-communist world. Sure, many believe in particular national progress, which may or may not come at the expense of others. But the idea of a glorious future shared-in all by all peoples in all places and for all time going forward is anathema.

In the end, Dougherty is concerned that he doesn’t see where the new nationalists are going, and maybe the new nationalists don’t even know themselves. That is probably true at the international level, but the international level really isn’t the focus of the new nationalists. The new nationalists may cheer each other on, but only because nationalist victories in the United Kingdom, then the United States, and maybe next in France, etc. are bad for globalism. This isn’t to say that the new nationalists don’t pick-and-choose favorites. Witness, for example, the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. The clash between “European” Ukraine and “Eurasian” Russia is a clash of competing and mutually exclusive nationalist visions. A victory for Ukraine is a loss for Russia and vice versa. When the Maidan broke out, perhaps there was some hope that the globalists would step-in to save Ukraine; perhaps that is why so many Western media sources are alarmed to find powerful nationalist (right wring) forces at the forefront of Ukraine’s battle against Russia. It’s “not supposed to be that way” in the globalist narrative peace, love, and internationally managed “self-determination.”

The critical problem with the new nationalists has little to do with the future and almost everything to do with the new-absence of an authentic spiritual center. In the U.S. and Europe, conservative Christians have rallied behind the new nationalists in the hopes of achieving certain concrete policy goals, but there is little evidence that most new nationalist organizations, political platforms, and candidates are meaningfully Christian. Catholics (and, to a lesser extent, Eastern Orthodox) have some say in the direction of certain right-wing political groups across the pond, particularly when it comes to social matters and remembering Europe’s Christian identity, but the ongoing crisis in the Catholic Church prevents it from filling the moral void at the center of contemporary popular politics. In the U.S., which has never been Catholic, the Church has next-to-nothing to say except, embarrassingly, repeating a handful of mainly globalist platitudes dressed up with passages lifting from the Bible.

This does not mean that the new nationalists ought to remain walled-off from the tried and true social, political, and economic principles of the Catholic Church. Trade deals, and indeed economic policy as a whole, should be scrutinized in the light of what Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI taught. It is not enough to speak about the family being the foundation of any healthy society; policies must be enacted to ensure that a husband can support his wife and children; that corporations do not dictate the timing and nature of holidays; and that social structures are put in place to assist the least well-off. Dismantling international agreements and institutions that are deleterious to national life is only the first step toward orienting that life toward the common good. The new nationalists needn’t adopt a wholly uniform vision as applicable in the U.S. as it is in Ukraine, but they cannot be exempted from adhering to the Kingship of Christ. That the new nationalists may, in some parts of the world, be closer to abiding by that kingship than the globalists is certainly true; that does not justify, however, accepting half-measures.

Love and Activism

To call the works of Fr. Alexander Schmemann “challenging” would be a gross understatement. In his brief but profound meditation on the upcoming liturgical season, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1969), pp. 25-26, Schmemann sets forth a powerful distinction between social activism and authentic Christian love.

In this respect, Christian love is sometimes the opposite of “social activism” with which one so often identifies Christianity today. To a “social activist” the object of love is not ‘person’ but man, an abstract unit of a not less abstract “humanity.” But for Christianity, man is ‘lovable’ because he is person. There person is reduced to man; here man is seen only as person. The “social activist” has no interest for the personal, and easily sacrifices it to the “common interest.” Christianity may seem to be, and in some ways actually is, rather skeptical about that abstract “humanity,” but it commits a mortal sin against itself each time it gives up its concern and love for the person. Social activism is always “futuristic” in is approach; it always acts in the name of justice, order, happiness to come, to be achieved. Christianity cares little about that problematic future but puts the whole emphasis on the now—the only decisive time for love. The two attitudes are not mutually exclusive, but they must not be confused. Christians, to be sure, have responsibilities toward “this world” and they must fulfill them. This is the area of “social activism” which belongs entirely to “this world.” Christian love, however, aims beyond “this world.” It is itself a ray, a manifestation of the Kingdom of God; it transcends and overcomes all limitations, all “conditions” of this world because its motivations as well as its goals and consummation is in God. And we know that even in this world, which “lies in evil,” the only lasting and transforming victories are those of love. To remind man of this personal love and vocation, to fill the sinful world with this love—this is the true mission of the Church.

The parable of the Last Judgement is about Christian love. Not all of us are called to work for “humanity,” yet each one of us has received the gift and the grace of Christ’s love. We know that all men ultimately need this personal love—the recognition in them of their unique soul in which the beauty of the whole creation is reflected in a unique way. We also know that men are in prison and are sick and thirsty and hungry because that personal love has been denied them. And, finally, we know that however narrow and limited the framework of our personal existence, each one of us has been made responsible for a tiny part of the Kingdom of God, made responsible by that very gift of Christ’s love. Thus, on whether or not we have accepted this responsibility, on whether we have loved or refused to love, shall we be judged. For “inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, you have done it unto Me….”

Before proceeding, it is worth stressing Schmemann’s observation that social activism and Christian love “are not mutually exclusive, but they must not be confused.” For today it is just as much a temptation to conflate activism and love as it is to privilege the latter at the almost complete expense of the former. Eyeing with suspicion any form of activism in this world, a growing number of Christians who feel disenfranchised or alienated by this world are starting to call for a retreat from this world. They look neither to the present nor the future, but rather inwardly at themselves, confusing love not with activism, but with cowardice. They no longer want to be a part of a world that treats them so poorly compared to yesteryear, and in a rather twisted fashion they cite Christians from earlier ages, including monastics, as their shining examples. Little do they seem to realize that when Christians would leave the world for the (literal or figurative) desert, they do so not to escape the responsibility for being “in the world but not of it,” but rather to draw closer to God while facing down the demons that constantly seek to ensnare men’s souls. Sóbrii estóte, et vigiláte: quia adversárius vester diábolus tamquam leo rúgiens círcuit, quærens quem dévoret: cui resístite fortes in fide.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who appear to have abandoned nearly every trace of authentic Christian love in favor of social activism. Romanticizing as they do ideologies and categories of thought long condemned as antithetical to Christianity, they strike a posture which they believe is amicable to a certain sector of secular politics. They are the heirs of a deeply embarrassing period in modern Christian history when the Gospel was distorted into a program for socio-political reform and Jesus lost his status as the Son of God and became a mere “revolutionary” in the most mundane sense of the word. These men do not love, for their treat their treat their enemies with nothing less than disdain, issuing calumnies as they see fit and replacing learned disputation with hyperbole, name-calling, and trolling. Whatever “good” they seek to advance is diminished by their self-conscious lack of character, and even if some of their ranks have their instincts in the right place, their refusal to sit in silence and listen to what Christ and His Holy Church teaches renders their witness empty.

To embrace love rather than activism requires a self-emptying modeled on that of our Lord Himself. Without abandoning the future (and surely not the “Kingdom which is to come”), Christians must do the “dirty work” of visiting the prisoners, tending to the sick, and feeding the hungry—those to whom “personal love has been denied.” This personal love, this Christian love, is immediate; it cannot be replaced or—Heaven forbid—“elevated” by a well-designed distributional scheme operated by bureaucrats. This truth is a hard challenge to those well-meaning Christians who, through the wisdom of the Church, are cognizant of the gross injustices of this world and know the true principles of the right social order which have been eroded by liberalism, consumerism, materialism, relativism, and indifferentism. As important as it is to combat the lies of this age, the sort that seek to make Christians feel at home with secular democracy and capitalism, it is exponentially more important to embrace those children of God who have not simply been left “on the margins” in a purely sociological sense, but in an eschatological sense. Christian love does not tend only to their temporal needs, but their eternal one as well.

Critical and Unclear

Critical theory is a fun little tool that will get you published, maybe even laid on a college campus, but not much else. Pick whatever you wish off the shelves of any Left-leaning library and run with it. If you should be endowed with better-than-average literary chops, you might even be able to secure tenure, or the next best thing: a well-trafficked web-log. Although it stands to reason that there have been critical theorists over the past century who genuinely believed that their largely masturbatory pet projects were actually in the service of “human liberation” (whatever that means), the harsh reality is that most of what emerged from, and following, the so-called “Frankfurt School” remains a niche academic interest for graduate students who don’t really understand life and undergraduates who understand neither life nor the theories that ostensibly elucidate it. Rather, under the critical gaze, all of life is reduced to a series of power struggles, deceptions, interpersonal conflicts, and epistemological anarchy and communication becomes little more than an empty exchange of jargon-filled platitudes parading as insights.

Had I, more than a decade ago upon leaving undergrad, thought that I would still be running across the critical-theory crowd, I might have been inclined to go live in a shack in Montana. It had been my assumption that children’s things would no longer be relevant once I entered the “real world,” and for a time my “real world” was legal academia as both a student and faculty fellow. Sure, legal studies, like most disciplines at one time or another, flirted with critical theory, but by the time I was hard at study that movement had been suffocated by the equally noxious “Law & Economics” movement (one, which I am sorry to say, I actually got behind). Penning law-review pieces that quoted Marx, Horkheimer, Barthes, Habermas, etc. stopped being “edgy” 25 years ago. Sure, for obvious reasons there was still room for some Foucault, but who today wants to admit they spend serious time with the likes of Catharine McKinnon, Duncan Kennedy, and Roberto Unger?

I write this despite the fact several acquaintances of mine believe that what we need now more than ever is a refresher on critical theory, specifically its roots and the social movements some believe it inspired. I imagine this sentiment has emerged out of a general frustration with the contemporary Left, specifically the contemporary young Left and its obsession with the pettiest form of identity politics and melodramatic declarations of oppression. Although less visible, and probably not front-and-center in the mind of any Leftist, is the small but apparently growing body of Christian Leftists who, in an often confused and contradictory manner, adopt what they think is a Leftist posture in order to make themselves appear relevant in a cultural milieu that really has no interest whatsoever in what “Jesus Kids” have to say about poverty, racism, war, and so forth. Might it not be possible, some hope, for the Left to be reinvigorated by a return to a more serious time, a period when critically engaging the world and its power structures meant more than sending out Tweets and discussing “polity” with your fellow white, Ivy League graduates?

Maybe, but it seems to me that a return to seriousness is a return to the days when men would kiss their wives, hug their children, and take to the streets, mountainsides, or forests with knives, guns, and Molotov cocktails to not simply “make a point” but literally take apart the machinery of their misery. Not that I endorse such a course of action, mind you, at least not for all of the purposes and interests that often motivated such otherwise well-meaning men, but there is a great deal to be said for having, as they say, “skin in the game.” For nearly a century, a good number of anarchists, communists, and socialists of all shapes and sizes had a great deal of “skin in the game”; if you don’t believe me, just spend a bit of time perusing the history of Western Europe and the United States from the 19th Century onward. Tales of government-backed manipulation, maiming, and murder—all in the name of upholding the fruits of liberalism—fill the history books or, rather, ought to. Actually, what fills the history books even to this day is one long lie about the “progress” of human history and our arrival at its “absolute moment,” an era of unfettered access to porn, booze, and reality television.

During long stretches of highway driving, or even in just a quiet moment of personal reflection taken while in line to buy cigarettes, I have found myself wondering that if/when the “revolution” comes, who will be lined up against a wall and shot first: Me or the coffee-shop commie kid? I jest. There is no revolution coming, at least not from the Left. The steady erosion of life—its meaning and transcendence—that is and has always been part of the liberal project will likely continue unabated during my sojourn on this earth. To hope for anything else seems unreasonable, and yet it is terrifically easy to imagine three or four moves on the global chessboard that could quickly turn the relative passivity of Western (post)modern existence into a bloodbath. Perhaps that’s already happening and for reasons which are still unclear to me, I don’t want to see it.