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Against the New Reaganism - part 2 of 2
Twilight of the verbal idols
“If we believe what we believe, and hold dear what we hold dear, we must only accept victory.” - Jack Butler
In the first part of this series I reviewed John Ehrett’s analysis of the possibility of a neo-pagan or “vitalist” mindset in the present age. Ehrett’s article included a dismissive criticism of Jack Butler’s criticisms of BAP and “vitalism”, to which Butler promptly responded in a National Review article entitled “Against the New Pagans.” Ehrett’s argument suggested to me that he wasn’t so much concerned with Judeo-Christian truth as he was with ensuring that challenges to those truths were not allowed consideration.
In “Against the New Pagans”, Butler first counters Ehrett’s allegation that Butler is just a milquetoast liberal defending the status quo by highlighting his own promotion of a muscular Christianity in other articles. Collectively, Butler’s articles include critical analyses of “vitalism” and proposed alternatives that are supposed to simultaneously address the deficiencies of conservatism that vitalists are exploiting. (Butler’s other NRO article on BAP can be found here; his Daily Beast article on BAP can be found here; I quote from these three articles and another linked below throughout.)
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Ideological fanaticism has been civilized in the United States by its Constitution, the two-party electoral system, and our civil religion. I’ve written in other articles about how this works and will discuss the issue in future articles. What’s important for this article is to understand that Neo-Reaganism is a species of acceptable political ideology in the United States, which means its components have been civilized through various forces like secularization such that any truths they purport to embody are subordinate to the values of adhering to American law and our civil religion, and therefore the goal of maintaining the peaceful status quo.
In this article I’m going to use Butler’s articles to illustrate what Neo-Reaganism is in essence, but I suspect that my illustration can apply to other forms of acceptable political ideology in the United States.
Neo-Reaganism is a form of verbal idol worship which functions to preserve our civil-religious social equilibrium by maintaining social status hierarchies based upon the appearance of moral superiority. Neo-Reaganism operates principally through ongoing and subtle or implicit persuasive definitions of abstract concepts like liberty that carry positive emotional resonance for conservatives.
Ongoing persuasive re-definition of such concepts allows Neo-Reagans to avoid direct confrontation with heterodox ideas and arguments which could threaten social equilibrium while affording them the opportunity to classify proponents of such ideas and arguments as uncouth, low status, and beyond the pale. Critically, this process of social ostracism renders the ideas and arguments unworthy of debate or social legitimacy.
Because Neo-Reaganism performs what amounts to a secular sociological function, Butler’s articles cannot be defenses of Christianity in the manner he claims they are. Butler is not really defending a meaningful (let alone “muscular”) version of conservatism or Christianity but instead policing deviants from the abstract verbal idols of Reaganism. These deviants’ popularity threatens to disrupt the social and political equilibrium maintained by America’s agnostic civil religion.
By his own admission, Butler’s cynical goal is to develop an “American vision” which merely “mollifies young right-wing discontent.” His primary concern is that, while “vitalism” seems to attract “basement-bound castoffs who feel left behind by a modern culture that cares little for the well-being of young males,” it has worryingly attracted “established movers and shakers” as well as “wannabe elites in conservative circles seeking self-promotion and titillation.” Undoubtedly Butler’s primary concern is the Claremont Institute’s engagement with Bronze Age Pervert in a symposium, to which I contributed a low-effort article linking back to my article about assaulted intellectuals.
I will therefore analyze Butler’s analyses of “vitalism” and his “alternatives” not because I believe they’re cogent, incisive, or even made in good faith, but simply because they demonstrate how Neo-Reaganism and other civil religion-approved doctrines cynically exploit the authority of religious terms and concepts to effect what amounts to the policing of a social status hierarchy. Butler’s method is ultimately a higher-effort species of the gossip “philosophy” which I identified in Damon Linker’s review of New Right personalities, and which undergirds the journalistic style that has overtaken political discussion across the political spectrum.
Butler’s articles show that Neo-Reaganism is not about religious conservatism in any meaningful sense but rather about promoting what is universal among men without regard to faith, eliding critical arguments and questions about what it means to be a Christian or conservative, and focusing upon abstract verbal idols with conservative emotional significance to encourage conservatives and Christians to be offended by anyone making such arguments and asking such questions.
In “Against the New Pagans”, Butler eagerly points out that BAP has ignored his own advice, which he evidently offered in Bronze Age Mindset, that “offending Christians in political movements is stupid.” Giving of offense is of course the core sin of the public ritual of our civil religion known as civility. Someone who habitually gives offense or does so in an extreme and blasphemous manner is to be adjudged deficient in character content. Someone with poor character content is distasteful, low status, and not to be given an audience. Butler’s strategy is to encourage the “muscular Christian” to eschew rational engagement with so-called “vitalist” arguments in favor of being offended by “vitalist” conclusions.
Butler’s “alternative” to vitalism is rooted in a call for a return to saying we believe in abstractions like the American Founding, Morality (including the “morality of free markets”), Liberty, a “vigorous” Liberalism, and Family. In the most reductive form, Butler juxtaposes “cross, flag, and family” against the scourge of neo-Pagan BAPist vitalism. The goal here is to draw incommensurable boundaries between friends and enemies based upon allegiance to verbal idols that carry emotional significance for conservatives.
For Butler, a return to these verbal idols will help conservatism overcome the failures which made vitalism attractive to young conservatives in the first place. Conservatism has failed, according to Butler, because it has allowed: China to become emboldened, a “crisis of masculinity”, an unconstitutionally expansive administrative state, and for “the weaponization of capital and technology against the Right.”
These admissions are supposed to be proof of Butler’s muscular Christian conservatism which isn’t like those other conservatisms that failed so many American men and women. To me they sound like a standard-issue GOP candidate’s electoral platform which admonishes voters that America needs to double down on conservatism because conservatism failed. The last of Butler’s conservative failures is humorous because, as we’ll see below, Butler is himself an enthusiastic participant in the “weaponization of capital against the Right.”
Butler’s philosophical basis for effecting a return to these idols can be found in his tragicomic article on Wilhelm Röpke and Carl Schmitt, which provides a basis for a “vigorous” liberalism against which Butler positions his parade of horribles-style “analyses” of “neo-paganism”.
The next two sections of this article consider each of these elements of Butler’s program in turn, summarizing and critiquing them. The final two sections of the article survey Butler’s character assassination approach to philosophy and expose the self-defeating bankruptcy of Butler’s program as a whole.
Röpke vs Schmitt
Butler’s purposes in the Schmitt-Röpke article are twofold: to prove Röpke was morally superior to Carl Schmitt and therefore more deserving of conservative devotion, and to sketch Röpke’s vision of a muscular Christian liberalism.
The first goal is consistent with the gossip “philosophy” style of punditry today which confuses status-based comparisons of individual personalities with philosophical analyses of the ideas and arguments put forth by the individual personalities.
I’ve written elsewhere that Schmitt shouldn’t be set up as some absolute fascist, Christian, or similar thinker against liberalism or conservatism. While Schmitt harbored views that look like vitalism, he always saw himself as a Christian; and while certain aspects of his work can be used in service to anti-conservative agendas, other aspects cannot. In fact as I’ll explain at the end of this article, Schmitt’s ambiguous Christianity looks similar to Butler’s in one crucial respect.
Butler’s second goal is genuinely philosophical but comes off as completely inadequate and unacceptably vague, especially given Butler’s aggressive assertion that he is promoting a new and muscular Christianity against neo-paganism and the failures of conservatism. At a minimum, Butler’s offering here isn’t going to mollify young right-wing activism.
Butler documents Röpke’s friendship with the Austrian aristocrat and philosopher Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, a name we’ve covered at the Touch Base. One reason I speculate that this friendship is salient for Butler is because of Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s disdain for German National Socialism, which was derivative of Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s disdain for democracy. Hitler’s disgusting program was to “ennoble an entire race”, in Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s words, instead of allowing merit to select for the rule of a few libertarian aristocrats. This is hardly an American sentiment, but I don’t think Butler looked too deeply here.
Butler praises Röpke for denouncing National Socialism in 1930 and cautioning that its pursuit of mysticism, blood, and other “vitalist” values would remove reason from politics and culminate in a brutal ethnochauvinist regime. Röpke’s portentious criticism proved more accurate than those of NSDAP critics like Carl Schmitt, who believed that the ethnochauvinism and extremism of Hitler could be controlled and mitigated.
While Schmitt was himself a Weimar-era critic of the NSDAP, he ultimately chose to toady up to Hitler after 1933 even though, according to Schmitt’s own biographer, Schmitt had no need to do so. For this reason, Butler, using the rhetoric of moral supremacy, labels Schmitt a “shameful contemporary counterexample” to Röpke. I’ll note here that Schmitt’s subsequent philosophical engagements with National Socialism were still insufficiently radical for the Nazis, ultimately earning him an SS surveillance jacket and a ticket to a concentration camp that was cancelled by Goering. (Schmitt’s hapless adventure might be another useful addition to Neven Sesardic’s analysis of the political stupidity of philosophers.)
With that being said, I’ll concede Butler’s hierarchical conclusion that “it is clear who comes out ahead in a contest between Röpke and Schmitt”, provided that this isn’t understood as a conclusion that Röpke somehow defeated all of Schmitt’s legal and philosophical arguments by being more principled and thorough in his opposition to National Socialism. It’s bizarre that I have to say this but the journalistic style is so unphilosophical that it often confusingly interprets politics in terms of personalities and gurus that you have to ally with and endorse as some sort of earthly god.
(As an aside: for connoisseurs of the Butlerian personality-based approach to philosophy which understands the conflict of political ideas like a social role-playing game, diary entries can be useful for assuaging concerns about whether a famous personality is on the side of modern taste. In this spirit I offer Schmitt’s diary entry for the day after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor:
“‘Cancelled my lecture. Couldn’t work. Ridiculous circumstances. Read the newspaper. Upset, fits of temper, that’s how the day went.’’
Now maybe this was an excuse to cancel the lecture, but this diary entry sounds a lot like the progressive fragility we witnessed upon Trump’s election.)
In addition to being morally superior to Schmitt, Röpke supposedly offers a path toward Butler’s muscular Christianity. However, the approach Butler describes isn’t necessarily Christian but rather liberal and secular, or perhaps civil-religious. Butler explains that Röpke’s
“liberalism served in Röpke’s [thought] as a synonym for the integration of Greco-Roman, Jewish and Christian, and Enlightenment ideas, culture, and institutions, he believed, constituted the civilization of the West”
This sounds like the secular civil religion I’ve documented across several posts on this blog and not at all like a “muscular Christian faith.” Indeed, the most Christian element of Röpke’s thought Butler advances resembles the a priorist and discourse ethics you find in Austrian economists like Hans-Hermann Hoppe and followers of the Frankfurt School Marxist Jurgen Habermas. These authors argue that the moral obligation to tolerate the other is somehow baked into discursive political competition, which means for Röpke a “respect of human dignity” is inherent to a political regime based upon “reason.”
Butler asserts that this represents a “broader and more vigorous liberalism” because it prevents people from reducing political disputes to existential conflicts between friends and enemies. This is evidently supposed to be a criticism of Schmitt. Butler quotes a Röpke scholar:
“A coherent conception of tolerance itself was impossible, [Röpke] noted, without an in-principle affirmation of every individual’s inherent dignity – not least because it ruled out treating one’s political opponents as “enemies” who belonged to a different group, and who would ultimate have to be reduced to the status of non-citizens or expelled from the body-politic altogether.”
However, Schmitt himself criticized liberalism precisely because it purported to do away with such conflicts without actually doing away with them, resulting in more intense forms of total violence where the abstract friend “humanity” was positioned against the abstract enemy of the “unhuman.” In other words, appealing to a common humanity among political contestants – a common human dignity – was not a magical verbal means for avoiding violence, and could in fact provide a conceptual justification for more extreme and total types of violence.
The following famous quote from Schmitt’s 1927 lecture The Concept of the Political has become a favorite of humanitarian progressives, and is unquestionably compatible with Röpke’s position in a limited sense:
“The concept of humanity is an especially useful ideological instrument of imperialist expansion, and in its ethical-humanitarian form it is a specific vehicle of economic imperialism. Here one is reminded of a somewhat modified expression of Proudhon’s: whoever invokes humanity wants to cheat. To confiscate the word humanity, to invoke and monopolize such a term probably has certain incalculable effects, such as denying the enemy the quality of being human and declaring him to be an outlaw of humanity; and a war can thereby be driven to the most extreme inhumanity.”
Indeed, what looks like a “vitalist” belief in the primacy of man’s animal nature in Schmitt can also be found in the counter-revolutionary Catholic philosophies of writers like Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald, and Donoso Cortes, all of which critically and explicitly informed Schmitt’s philosophy. Almost any appeal to man’s fallenness can end up looking exactly like neo-Pagan “vitalism.”
There’s no need to follow this tangent further as Butler doesn’t provide more substance to his endorsement of Röpke’s ethics. What’s salient is that Butler, who advocates a more “muscular Christian faith”, finds Röpke’s discourse ethics to be a just strategy in his crusade, despite Röpke’s ethics being agnostic and counseling against the kinds of friend-enemy distinctions Butler himself tries to establish between Christians and “vitalists” or “Neo-Pagans”.
Butler explains that a renewed conservative American liberalism must be one that is
“backed with the inheritance of Western civilization; infused with pre-liberal virtue, possessed of an understanding (to quote Reinsch once more) “of the human person who must live a life in common with others, but who, most significantly, is a being of eternal significance and cannot be defined by the state”; and channeled into the right institutions and frameworks (specifically, those bequeathed by the American Founding), a more-muscular, decidedly not-neutral liberalism can succeed where its predecessor failed.”
To the extent this is coherent, it sounds to me like another version of the meaningless canard that liberals must tolerate equals and not tolerate unequals, with the unequals here being those who might deny that all humans are beings of “eternal significance,” which ultimately means liberals shouldn’t tolerate Nazis.
Good people are supposed to suspend the liberal constitution of tolerance and civility whenever a human dignity disrespecter like a Nazi opens his mouth. In doing this, they affirm a vigorous liberalism against a purely formal liberalism of the kind espoused by Neo-Kantians like Hans Kelsen. This sounds good in theory but seems completely different from Butler’s demand that Christians take their truths seriously and muscularly.
What Butler offers as a Christian alternative is really a vigorous liberalism which stands opposed to a parade of BAPist horribles, and which justifies conservatives in ostracizing BAP and ignoring his ideas.
The Parade of Horribles
Butler’s articles mostly surround BAP’s vision of “justice” in his book, where BAP dreams of a future where zoos are opened and wild animals are allowed to chimp out and destroy bugmen and cities. Butler supplements this quote with BAP’s criticism of the “American Founding” (a term pregnant with West Coast-Straussian meaning), Christianity, immigrants, and women, as well as BAP’s encouragement for men to descend into vice.
Butler then moves in certain cases to criticizing the implications of these statements, lamenting for example that BAP’s statements about the Bible are offensive to Jews and Christians, or that his twitter parroting of Schopenhauer’s essay “On Women” leads to spiritual onanism and disrespect of women. In most cases, however, he simply presents a BAP statement as prima facie proof of BAP’s unacceptable opposition to good things like endless mass immigration and high Black birth rates.
In every case Butler fails to offer an analysis or refutation of the underlying propositional content that BAP offers as persuasive reasons for his positions. Indeed, despite being advertised as a pure “exhortation,” BAP’s book contains a fair amount of analytical content.
For instance, while Butler tells the NRO audience that BAP saying men shouldn’t have families is bad because “Family” is a pillar of the “Christian” virtue Butler intends to resurrect, Butler doesn’t address BAP’s arguments for why having a family isn’t an intrinsically political act, and certainly doesn’t acknowledge that BAP doesn’t actually tell men they shouldn’t have families. If Butler is interested, BAP specifically says, “So by all means have a girlfriend and a family,” but warns that “the necessities of caring for a family, and the emotional demands…usually blind” a man “to anything higher.”
“Higher” here could of course mean the demands of a real and vital Christian faith, as BAP’s “vitalism” explicitly remains agnostic on the content of an ideology or faith so long as it affirms “higher life”. If someone argues that the preconditions for a higher moral life are gone, it’s not helpful to just agonize over that person’s conclusions without addressing their argument. We know for example that certain Christian movements in America similarly endorse celibacy and lifelong bachelorhood. It seems reasonable to a lot of men today that the zero-sum compromises required by family life in modern America are inimical to the realization of higher ideals.
So why is BAP wrong? You won’t find an answer by reading Butler, and I suspect that’s by design. The Neo-Reagan doesn’t want you poking around the verbal idol “Family” and asking what it means or whether it’s possible in the way BAP does. He just wants you to be mad that BAP said something negative about the idol.
Butler makes similar errors when talking about the “American Founding.” In his book BAP states that he disagrees with the principles of America’s founding, claiming for example that the rights for which the Framers and Founders petitioned had little to do with America’s long-term success and in any case didn’t last the lifetimes of the Framers and Founders themselves, meaning in other words that the formal norms and ideals attached to the American Founding had little influence upon America’s success. Instead of disputing these claims, Butler explains that BAP’s conclusion is bad because Butler agrees with the Claremont Institute and Harry Jaffa that the “American Founding” is essential to conservatism.
What is the essence of the American Founding? Don’t ask, just be incensed. Jaffa himself seems to have waffled on this very question himself and was not convinced that the Christian component was essential, but that’s not important! What’s important is that BAP offered an alternative explanation for American greatness that besmirched the American Founding.
Perhaps the most striking illustration of the poverty of Butler’s approach can be found in “Against the New Pagans” where he recounts a twitter dust-up over abortion. In advocating for a “forceful reinvigoration of Christianity”, Butler raises the civil religion-approved, never-ending legal battle over abortion. This is the civilized front upon which the American Christian can act out the Biblical crusade against child sacrifice, which Butler obliquely invokes by reference to “Canaan”.
This is where the Neo-Reagan comes into their impotent element. Knowing that abortion cannot rise to the level of political conflict, because the civil religion and American Constitution do not treat abortion so seriously as to allow people to divide into friends and enemies over it, and knowing that the issue of abortion is deeply invested with polarizing emotional content, Butler can fall back upon the civil-religious pressure release valve of moral condemnation to pit “Christian” against “neo-pagan.”
Abortion is no doubt a critical issue for Christians. However, every participant in the American struggle seems to accept that its outcome can never be holy war and that their opponents deserve equal treatment under the law as citizens. Thus, opposition to abortion is a Christian principle that is safe for Butler to highlight in his efforts to convince influential people that BAP is morally inferior to them and that the ideas associated with him are not deserving of consideration.
Butler specifically quotes Zero HP Lovecraft’s tweet to “Catholic bros” asking whether they really wanted Roe v. Wade overturned, given that it implied the multiplication of Black people on earth. Butler then surveys a BAP twitter tirade about “religioncucks” and the “Pharisee faction”, which tirade concludes that the real right-wing awakening of the last decade was scientific, nonreligious, and aware of the “danger” posed by the “Global South.” Butler takes this danger to mean the “supposed” threat of overpopulation, but I’m not sure that’s a correct interpretation. In any case, BAP says that conservatives aren’t prepared to deal with the problem of the Global South because they believe “all life is holy,” which is to be contrasted with BAP’s Greek ideal that paid “attention to citizen quality not quantity.”
Butler fixates upon this primitive religious divide instead of considering whether conservatives really are prepared for the inevitable invasion. Butler also fails to even consider the statement about scientific conservatism and offers very little argumentation here beyond claiming BAP is an evil racist eugenicist who wants to promote what the Snake offered in the Garden of Eden: for man to become a god. BAP has also tweeted in favor of Nietzsche’s infamous assertion that scientists were the worst priestly caste, but that sort of nuance isn’t worth considering for Neo-Reagans.
In every case Butler simply juxtaposes contemporary pieties or high-level Christian pieties against BAP’s statements, taking the juxtaposition as self-explanatory and pivoting to a call for Christians to not be as charitable with BAP as Paul was toward gentile pagans.
The Empty Religious Conservatism of Neo-Reaganism
In Butler’s response to Ehrett’s call for Butler to inhabit the Bronze Age Mindset and critique it from within, Butler asserts that it’s impossible to do this as a Christian. In other words, incommensurability between his worldview and vitalism prevents Butler from discursively engaging vitalists as fellow humans in the Röpkean Republic of Reason.
In addition to the horribles listed above, Butler especially condemns BAP for advancing a vision of the world where “certain lives are inherently better than others.” We might therefore infer from Butler’s own statements that Butler’s morality bars him from deeming neo-pagans a lower stratum of humanity and further that he is prevented from engaging in violence against them.
Is this position consistent with a “muscular Christian faith”? I’m not sure it is. It certainly leaves a lot of questions open for young right-wingers in need of mollification.
We know for example that Christian faiths espoused by far more devout societies, such as the medieval Church and aristocracies or early American Puritans, have found religious justifications for defining other groups as insignificant or less valuable in the same way as the Nazis, subjugating and annihilating European, American Indian and African pagans, and erecting caste systems for Muslims, Jews, and minority Christian denominations. Jews also participated in and profited from various slave trades throughout history, including the racist New World variant.
We also know that some sects within these groups, as well as Jews, believe that there are different significances ascribed to humans and groups by God, with some corporate entities being Chosen and some individuals being “predestined”, with the rest of humanity being relegated to an indeterminate lower status on earth and in the metaphysical realm.
Applying Butler’s confused Röpkean analysis, does this mean that peaceful, egalitarian and law-abiding pagans like the “witches against patriarchy” on reddit are morally superior to these Christians and Jews?
We certainly don’t see any calls in the National Review for righteous confrontation among Jews or competing Christian denominations. We don’t see the National Review publishing evangelical articles about the satanic Catholic distortions of the gospel or polemical Catholic articles about the Mormon belief that every man can become a god. Nor does the National Review promote the shocking Christophobia exhibited by important rabbinical prayers and the Kabbalah. Will the Daily Beast publish an article from Butler on Jewish religious ambivalence toward abortion? Isn’t this what the muscular “religious conservatism” of Neo-Reaganism should look like?
Indeed, Butler’s muscular Christianity invites the question of why he doesn’t even endorse a specific reading of the Gospel or, for instance, renew the Mission to the Jews, just as he calls for the removal of the unhuman neo-Pagan. Butler aggressively juxtaposes BAP’s self-worship with “faith in God” as some sort of critical destruction of vitalism, but the conservative audience he’s targeting doesn’t even known what Butler means by “faith in God” or a “forceful reinvigoration of Christianity.”
Does Butler believe in the Trinity? Should the U.S. government legislate the first commandment? Is theonomy the goal? Is an individual or group identity other than Christian a form of idolatry? Should the Pope control domestic policy? Does the Great Commission require the United States to bring the gospel and baptism to the State of Israel? Do we have to give the benefit of the doubt to any leader who utters the verbal formula “Christ is king”? Does the Biblical proposition “there is neither Greek nor Jew” mean that you’re not entitled to control who chooses to live in your community and attend school with your children? Evidently Butlerian Christians would never deign to address such trivial and uncouth questions when the pressing issue of human dignity has been called into question by neo-pagans!
Relatedly, does Roepkean human dignity ethics have anything to say about knowingly permitting people to die of forces not wholly under their own agency, like starvation or drug addiction? We know that Neo-Reagan National Review contributors like Bill Kristol and Kevin Williamson believe that “downscale” white communities deserve to die out, as they have under the opioid epidemic. Should Christians allow the “Global South” to suffer under its corrupt leaders and die out? Are Christians obligated to subsidize population growth in Africa in perpetuity, ensuring that the Global South never develops the internal resources necessary to survive? Are Christians required to invite millions of people into their communities, ensuring that Christians are never afforded the opportunity to accumulate multi-generational social and economic capital for their communities? Is it Christian to subsidize the decline of people who can care for the meek while simultaneously subsidizing the exponential growth of the meek? Which Global South Christians are the good ones?
When Butler tells you to join him under “cross”, “family”, and “flag”, or even “human dignity”, what is he asking? He doesn’t want you to look behind the lustrous and emotionally satisfying veneer conveyed by these verbal idols.
I suspect that Butler senses that his alternative isn’t meaningful and that it doesn’t provide any new answers to such questions, which his target audience of young right-wingers are always asking. The emptiness of his human dignity liberalism disguised as “muscular” Christianity, his encomiums to the “morality of the free market”, his China baiting, and his invocation of abstract verbal idols with emotional significance suggest to me that Butler is defending the American civil religion and not Christian faith. The fact that the primary goal of his articles seems to be character assassination confirms my intuition.
Civil Religion and Doxxing
The civil religious style seeks to sustain the status quo equilibrium through moral condemnation and social ostracism. The civil religion is not focused upon refuting the arguments and beliefs of Americans. Butler’s crude analyses of the threat of neo-paganism and his meaningless alternatives that uphold the status quo are just window dressing for what looks like a standard journalistic character assassination against BAP.
That each of Butler’s BAP articles begins by announcing BAP’s putative dox is interesting to me because its inclusion never adds content to Butler’s analysis. We know journalists and publications need juicy information to publish for a variety of reasons, but a muscular Christian conservative who is concerned about the “weaponization of capital and technology against the right” should be cognizant of how the left used its mass media monopoly to abuse the FISA warrant system against Trump supporters. He should further be aware of the left’s taste for censorship and how journalism works to shut down dissent.
Overall, the purpose of political journalism today is to create the impression of negative and potentially illegal associations with a targeted individual, for the purposes of isolating, shaming, and exposing them to civil liability or criminal prosecution. In certain cases, some observers have even suggested that these tactics are used for parallel construction by uncouth law enforcement who disrespect our Constitution.
It goes without saying, then, that Reagan would not have found participation in this incestuous gossip swamp becoming of a proper conservative. Yet it seems obvious that Butler is trying to justify or encourage something by associating the name of a natural person with curated excerpts from a book which potentially praises subversive activity. That the passive-aggressive something turns out to be the full statement of Butler’s call for muscular Christianity should be a major red flag to conservatives and genuinely muscular Christians. Somebody should do something to these intolerable neo-pagans who don’t acknowledge human dignity.
To the extent Butler’s arguments are even Christian, they are non-denominational and essentially cultural. This places his efforts firmly within the Schmitt camp, no doubt much to Butler’s disgust.
Carl Schmitt lauded the emergence of an independent and neutral jurisprudence, along with the jus publicum Europaeum of absolute European monarchs, as a non-denominational Christian achievement which preserved peace. While Röpke would not have approved of the jus publicum Europeaum because it allowed wars of aggression, Carl Schmitt endorsed the order because it recognized that humans had an intrinsic property that made the murderous annihilation and torture of total war unacceptable even to monarchs who otherwise retained a right to initiate bracketed wars or national duels. Thus Schmitt, like Butler, was a proponent of a nebulous form of Systemic Christianity.
But Butler can’t acknowledge this kind of nuance because his project is about suppressing heterodox ideas and arguments through character assassination. Schmitt acted immorally by participating in Nazi Germany and is therefore a shameful thinker whose works should be dismissed.
Similarly, BAP and vitalists have said things that, taken in isolation, seem to be incommensurable with abstract verbal idols like Family, Morality, Cross, and Flag, which carry positive emotional resonance for conservatives. Therefore, BAP and vitalists should be ignored and ostracized. Under no circumstances should conservatives or Christians countenance nuanced engagements with the details of their ideas. Above all, Christians and conservatives should refrain from asking Butler what he means when he uses these verbal idols and just accept their sacredness.
But don’t take my word on these matters. Let’s ask Röpke himself by looking to a 1964 article of his entitled “South Africa: An Attempt at a Positive Appraisal.”
Röpke and Schmitt once more
Röpke begins his article by asserting that abstract verbal idols like “humanism” can conceal cynical partisan motivations that betray principles supposedly associated with humanism, like fidelity to the “loftiest ethical value” of truth. Röpke calls misleading appeals to idols like this a “cheap way to emphasize abstract idealism and the emotional mass mind through rhetoric.” Such appeals form the rhetorical toolkit of pundits who like to “congratulate themselves on how noble-minded they are.”
So true, Wilhelm!
Röpke goes on to explain that western respect for the Boer’s Christlike struggle against British colonialism, and the Boer’s subsequent creation of a “rustic” and principled state, somehow was replaced by a primitive progressive crusade over what amounted to an internal political problem for South African voters, which for Röpke reflected “gigantic anthropological problems.”
Uh oh, I think I know where this is going!
Röpke goes on to explain his experiences working in South Africa, emphasizing the “extraordinary qualities of its white population,” which include its “pioneering spirit that can be compared only with that found in the United States.” This sounds to me like Röpke and South African whites were Puritans!
Röpke praises the Dutch, Flemish, French, English, Germans, and Jews who constitute this extraordinary white population. It was their centuries of hard work, Röpke contends, that turned South Africa into a country of the west.
Röpke then laments that the ethnic problem in South Africa has been exacerbated by immigration, specifically by “the flooding of the cities by the Bantu.” The need for cheap labor, Röpke writes, so essential to the Neo-Reagan’s cynical “morality of free markets”, created the problem of Apartheid. Röpke qualifies that the situation of the Bantu has been significantly improved by Apartheid, asserting that “[j]ustice demands refutation of the idea that South Africa’s Bantu, as a whole, are a persecuted and unhappy mass of people.”
In addressing this question, Röpke asserts, much like modern day Zionists and Christians about Israeli Jews, that the “[w]hites of South Africa have not merely a doubtful right to the land which they have settled and brought to the highest prosperity, but, rather, they are completely justified in owning and controlling it.” This is true because when whites came to the cape, it was “practically empty,” but also because the Bantu “is not only a man of an utterly different race but, at the same time…[of] a completely different type and level of civilization.”
Like BAP in his account of American greatness, which Butler holds out as a great crime against the verbal idol of the “American Founding”, Roepke worries that “few seem to ask themselves if it is at all possible to weld a nation worthy of the name out of such utterly different ethnic-cultural groups and, on top of that, to organize it politically as a democracy.”
I won’t summarize more here, and only suggest that National Review readers heed Butler’s advice and read Röpke, especially his comments on the comparisons between the American Negro question and the issue of South African ethnic conflict.
To my knowledge, Schmitt never published anything racially inflammatory after World War 2, while Röpke endorsed not just South African apartheid but also the white racial state of Rhodesia, during the 1960s! Does this mean that Schmitt learned a moral lesson while Röpke forgot his own? Does this mean that Schmitt actually came out on top in Butler’s philosophically and theologically meaningless status hierarchy? Does this mean that we can dismiss Röpke’s body of work by juxtaposing his statements about the Bantu to the sacred verbal formula that there is neither Greek nor Jew?
Therefore, as with Ehrett, Butler’s own personality-level approach to defending Christian truths against “neo-paganism” is ultimately self-defeating.
This brings us back to the civil religion itself. Civil religions emerge and are sustained because of their sociopolitical utility and not because of their truth. We know each of the Hellenistic, Christian, and Muslim empires had similar civil religions of compromise. Each empire used tolerant civil religions to secularize, neutralize, and suppress organic and excessively muscular religious faiths.
American Christians, like other religions, have similarly been neutralized. The Great Commission has been reduced to private vacations to proselytize uncontacted tropical tribes, the fight against child sacrifice has been civilized into legal battles over abortion, and defense of the faith has been reduced to shouting Christ is king at an imaginary or powerless “neo-pagan” right.
The American military and the enormous government which controls it do not submit to Christ the king. Christians cannot use the government’s resources to spread the faith and implement the morality found in the Bible. Its lawmakers are not obligated to legislate in accordance with Biblical morality. Is this okay for muscular Christians?
Butler absolutely does not want Christians asking such questions. He wants Christians to worship verbal idols filled with shifting and often deceptive content that National Review authors are free to redefine, so that he can manipulate Christians into engaging in absolute cultural disputes with people who espouse ideas that threaten the secular status quo.
Butler concludes his article with a stirring quote from Senator Josh Hawley on the response of Alexandrian Christians to Emperor Julian the Apostate’s attempt to re-establish paganism as a state religion. Alexandrian Christians had gathered in a pagan temple to test a pagan religious tradition holding that damaging the god idol in the temple would “return the universe to primordial chaos.” Senator Hawley explains what happens:
“One soldier stepped forward carrying an axe. All we really know about him is what the historian Rufinus tells us, that “he was better protected by faith than he was by his weapon.” But at that moment, this man made a choice to challenge the powers and principalities of his age….He climbed a ladder to the top of the statue, lifted his battle-ax, and with all his might, drove it home. Onlookers reported that as the blow fell, the god’s jaw broke away, and as it did thousands of rats came surging out of its rotten insides.
Today Butler would have conservatives unquestioningly genuflect before verbal idols so that he can exploit their devotion to strengthen a civil religion that has emasculated religious faith and subjugated it to the worldly goal of imperial equilibrium.
It turns out that big, abstract, and omnipotent concepts can contain far worse things than rats and rot, which idolaters conceal not with paint and gold but with poetry, philosophy, and moral rhetoric. Conservatives, Christian or otherwise, should embody in their approach toward such verbal idols the atheistic courage of the Alexandrian Christians, and more relevantly, the atheism of Isaiah in his skeptical deconstruction of pagan idols.
Important here is that it is possible that a pagan leader like Cyrus (or perhaps Xerxes, depending upon your form of Christian faith) was the first to show the falseness of wooden idols to Judaeans when he destroyed those of his enemies in Babylonia. For Isaiah, God had used the pagan leader to smash the idols. What do Christians say about the Providential use of barbarians? Sometimes they’re chosen to cut the sophist’s thread with their swords.
Christians should of course be scandalized by statements they find abhorrent. They should not, however, confuse that abhorrence with an absolute excuse for shirking the obligation to charitably engage in competitive discourse with people who make such statements. Further, Christians should not feel as though their truths are being represented by an author just because he positively invokes the words for concepts that Christians cherish.
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