Why Bannon's pessimism won't protect the Judeo-Christian tradition

White House strategist Stephen Bannon speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland on Feb. 23. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) White House strategist Stephen Bannon speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland on Feb. 23. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Donald J. Trump may have changed tone Tuesday night in his first joint address to Congress from the sometimes apocalyptic language of recent months to a more conciliatory rhetoric. The speech proved once again that ascribing a consistent political philosophy to Mr. Trump is perhaps impossible. But there is a coherent political theory operating in the White House, and it belongs to the president's chief advisor and strategist, Stephen K. Bannon. If recent analysis like that by Christopher Caldwell in The New York Times is to be believed, Mr. Bannon’s political thought is largely benign. But the wall, the travel ban, the assaults on the media and the hostility toward undocumented immigrants and Muslims all find support in Mr. Bannon’s view of the United States as a civilization in a dark crisis requiring immediate, forceful action.

Until recently, American conservatives often presented themselves as happy warriors. William F. Buckley (a founder of American conservatism) enjoyed befriending his liberal and socialist adversaries; Ronald Reagan fashioned himself as a buoyant optimist; and George W. Bush described his philosophy as “compassionate conservatism,” grounded in a faith that the United States was able to meet its challenges.

By contrast, Mr. Bannon’s vision of pessimistic decline is, in part, imported from Europe’s far right. Intellectual affinities can be found in Friedrich Nietzsche’s fin de siècle fear that Western civilization’s spiritual sources were drying up in “suicidal nihilism” and Oswald Spengler’s interwar claim that the West would die after being held together for a brief final period by authoritarian “Caesarism.” More recently, the French reactionary novelist Michel Houellebecq has imagined Europe succumbing in the near future to cultural conquest by Islam.

Before joining the Trump campaign, Mr. Bannon was a polemicist running the Breitbart News website and making conservative documentaries. In these venues, he often articulated the central theme of his political thought as the existential threat to Western civilization. As he said in a 2014 talk held on the grounds of the Vatican, “I believe the world, and particularly the Judeo-Christian West, is in a crisis.”

The problem, according to Mr. Bannon, is that the United States has lost confidence in its values, turning to secularism and a self-absorbed materialism. In his Vatican talk, Mr. Bannon said there are two “strands” of capitalism, one that is spiritually debased and another that is informed and limited by Judeo-Christian values. When the materially debased form takes over, the result is “crony capitalism” and crass materialism. What is needed instead is the “enlightened capitalism” of the Judeo-Christian West.

Like most cultural pessimists, Mr. Bannon has an imagined Golden Age or Eden. The philosopher Bernard Williams hasobserved that there is a peculiar tendency in the modern world to adopt and radically change the biblical story of the fall into one in which “the Western world” is presented as an integrated, edenic whole suddenly shattered by a cataclysmic event. Depending on one’s proclivities, what constitutes the cataclysm can vary widely; common culprits include World War I, the Industrial Revolution, Galileo, the Reformation and the atom bomb. Highly rarified thinkers like Martin Heidegger have gone back even further to blame things like Platonism and Christianity.

For Mr. Bannon, the chief offending events are found in the 1960s. The American Eden was last complete in the middle of the 20th century, after the “Judeo-Christian West” beat back Nazi and Soviet “atheists” in a “great war” establishing a moralized form of capitalism. This created a “Pax Americana” of middle-class wealth and Judeo-Christian values.

For Mr. Bannon, the American Eden was last complete in the middle of the 20th century.

How did America lose its Eden? Mr. Bannon blames the baby boomers’ and hippies’ turn away from Judeo-Christianity. For their supposed betrayal Bannon has denounced baby boomers as “the most spoiled, most self-centered, most narcissistic generation the country’s ever produced.”

What followed from the move away from Judeo-Christian traditions, according to Mr. Bannon, was a malicious secular pluralism. In this world unmoored from national folkways, a liberal elite emerged that enriched itself through globalization and favored the further dilution of the cultural identity of Middle America. “There are people in New York,” Mr. Bannondeclaims, “that feel closer to people in London and in Berlin than they do to people in Kansas and in Colorado.”

Chasing a naïve globalism, this thinking goes, the secular liberal elite opened the United States to foreigners from outside the national religious traditions—especially Muslims. In his effort to communicate lost religious unity, Mr. Bannon is highly selective in his portrayal of the American past. (For example, the American traditions the “hippies” arguably inherited, like Jeffersonian deism and the transcendentalism of Henry David Thoreau or Ralph Waldo Emerson, are routinely overlooked.) But Mr. Bannon’s story is clear enough in its outlines: Judeo-Christian national folk traditions are betrayed by liberal elites, bringing on moral and economic collapse. For this reason, Mr. Bannon believes that “the central thing that binds” the new global right-wing movement is “really the middle class, the working men and women” who have retained a nationalized form of religion.

Mr. Bannon’s story is clear enough in its outlines: Judeo-Christian national folk traditions are betrayed by liberal elites.

Mr. Bannon also sometimes presents his views of American societal decline through the theories of two amateur historians, William Strauss and Neil Howe, who believed that history repeatedly passes through four fixed generational stages, each lasting about 20 years: “highs,” “awakenings,” “unravelings” and “crisis.” Such deterministic conceptions of history cannot deal with the actual empirical variety or contingency of the human past. But conservative writers like Christopher Caldwellhave argued that this cyclical quality has a moderating effect on Mr. Bannon’s politics—rendering him a figure merely “managing” the inevitable cycles of history.

I believe Mr. Caldwell’s assessment is misguided. Subscribing to a cyclical view of history does not in any way necessitate either political moderation or extremism. What is more politically decisive is Mr. Bannon’s view of a fall from grace requiring powerful restoration.

A false view of Eden

There are at least two questions thoughtful people should ask themselves before adopting a crisis narrative about society (as told by Mr. Bannon or anybody else). The first is: Is society in its current form really catastrophic, or does the secularized story of the fall distort or neglect certain positive features of reality?

One problem with Mr. Bannon’s pessimistic narrative is it asks us to believe that the past few decades in the United States have been all about downward movement. Of course, people from a wide variety of ideological perspectives would each have some merit in criticizing serious flaws and injustices within contemporary American life. To reject cultural pessimism is not to embrace a simple-minded, sunny optimism. But the problem is rendering all of American life with the same pessimistic brush.

Consider the many features of our common life in the past 30 years that represent real forward movement and accomplishment. For example, the United States has helped advance the computer revolution at an astonishing pace; scientists have mapped the human genome and continued to fight back disease; athletes have set new global standards in swimming and women’s sports; artists have continued to make major contributions to film, music and literature.

But more important than these heroics is the way life in the modern democracies has been marked by what the philosopher Charles Taylor has identified as the affirmation of the ordinary. Americans for at least the past half-century have sought and found great joy in their families, friends, pets, food, nature, travel and small acts of charity. Perhaps no period in history has been as marked by the identification of ordinary people and ordinary pursuits as sources of profound value and dignity.

The second question anyone presented with a politicized version of the story of the fall should ask themselves is: Was the Golden Age ever that golden? Mr. Bannon seems to achieve his story of civilizational decline only through continual omissions.

The United States at midcentury was certainly an exciting place with its own accomplishments and dynamism. Yet any serious look at that era makes its designation as Eden problematic. Perhaps the United States’ greatest blemish was that it still upheld an official, codified system of racial apartheid in many of its states (and deeply racist practices in the rest of them). Also injurious was the limiting of opportunities to women, who were still often barred from professions like the law, business and academia. Similar points could be made about the awareness of people with disabilities or other identities that did not fit a preset cultural pattern. In many ways, the United States became a manifestly more Judeo-Christian place through the experience of the 1960s—not in numbers of the officially religious, but in terms of its shared prizing of kindness and respect for the dignity of human conscience.

Mr. Bannon’s Judeo-Christian alliance was solidified by the move toward the greater tolerance that he so derides.

Mr. Bannon’s description of Eden is not even an adequate portrait of what faith was like in the United States in the mid-20th century. As the sociologist José Casanova has shown, the United States was marked not so much by a pan-Judeo-Christian culture as by a more narrowly Protestant one. Jews and Catholics were still often kept out of the major positions of leadership in American institutions (as evident in the high suspicion around John F. Kennedy’s bid for the presidency). Indeed, there is a sense in which Jews and Catholics were the Muslims of 19th-century America—a suspicious immigrant “other” that might never assimilate. Mr. Bannon’s Judeo-Christian alliance was itself solidified by the baby boomers and their move toward the greater pluralism and tolerance that he so derides.

At bottom, as political scientist Mark Lilla has argued, grand philosophical narratives of decline are as often about political mythology as actual history. This mythologizing is betrayed in Mr. Bannon’s lack of either understanding or interest in the fact that the “Judeo-Christian West” is not a unitary political project. Rather, there have been rival political projects built and carried out by Christians in Europe and the United States. So, for example, the Christians who believed in the medieval divine right of kings were at violent odds with those who favored a society comprised of individual rights and democratic self-rule. St. Thomas Aquinas and John Locke were not part of the same unified political project.

Yet Mr. Bannon’s rallying narrative of crisis is not without concrete political consequences. Crisis is an extremely effective tool for claiming extraordinary powers, suspending ordinary rules of law and even enacting violence. If the problem is dire enough, then perhaps only strength, authority and war can fix it.

By contrast, the United States has a long tradition of commitment to hopefulness in politics that extends beyond political parties and ideologies—from Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. to Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. This tradition of hopefulness has never simply been reducible to sentimentalism or sunny optimism. Democracy requires trusting that another’s freedom does not spell society’s doom. Liberty and this hopeful trust are ultimately a very different story than that told by Steve Bannon.

 

J Cosgrove
1 month 4 weeks ago

This author has just done the impossible. He made Steve Bannon a hero.

After 8 years of Obama's despair and divisiveness maybe now there is a way forward for real hope and positive change.

The author obviously does not approve of Steve Bannon but read carefully and you will see real hope in the authors flawed and biased article. He does not seem to understand the difference between material progress which he highlights and culturally and spiritual decline which I believe everyone can see in front of their nose..

Lorrine Thompson
1 month 3 weeks ago

I can't even imagine the cultural and spiritual decline of which you speak. Is that the decline from when moral parents used to beat their children with belts because "spare the rod or spoil the child?" (And the police did nothing because that was a "family matter.") Someone in my family did just that to their children. Or is that the moral superiority that had parents kicking their gay or pregnant children out of their houses? (This happened to two people in my family. The religious parents who kicked out their pregnant 17-year-old daughter also refused to EVER let the baby enter their house, even when was a grown and lovely young man.) Hm, I'm trying to think of other examples of the moral superiority of the past. There was less divorce -- because men just abandoned their wives and children and took up with new women without the benefit of divorce (which provided legal recourse for some spousal maintenance and child support for the abandoned family. See "The Way We Never Were," by historian Stephanie Coontz).

I think what the author is saying is that Bannon is cherry-picking bits of history and totally re-writing other bits to make the past look golden and gleaming when it really wasn't. I DO believe there were some good things about that era that we have lost, and I would be happy to bring back in a modern version, but to view things only with those famous rose-colored glasses ignores some real suffering of the past and ignores some real progress over all these decades since (from both conservative and liberal administrations).

Jim Lein
1 month 4 weeks ago

The middle of the 20th Century was a period of high taxation, 90 percent or above on the top bracket for two decades (except for one year when it dipped into the 80s). We invested in people, the GI Bill and building the middle class, and we built the freeway system. We did not cut taxes. Bannon and Trump's way would cut taxes, especially on the wealthy, and would take away or gut programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, TANF, SNAP, WIC and SSDI. To return to the middle of the 20th Century, which Bannon sees as the American Eden, we would need policies the exact opposite of what he proposes.

Beth Nicol
1 month 4 weeks ago

Assuming accuracy of your description of Mr. Bannon's philosophy, is it not terribly ironic (or scary) that he is strategist for someone who meets all of the criteria for those he faults? Older baby boomer, from NY, purveyor of "crony capitalism" and crass materialism.

Stuart Meisenzahl
1 month 4 weeks ago

An interesting analysis that certainly seems to conflict with numerous other articles in AMERICA that excoriate the Trumpian Bannon Capitalism as lacking any moral compass.
Mr Blakely quotes and paraphrases Mr Bannon as saying that the US has "turned to secularism and self absorbed materialism" and that this has bred "spiritually debased capitalism" ......"crony capitalism" and "crass materialism" rather than a form of "capitalism limited and informed by Judeo-Christian values" to which Mr Bannon wishes to return. I believe that Mr Bannon's position reflects Pope Francis' position on capitalism as well as that of multiple Jesuit scribes in these pages.

What apparently sticks in Mr Blakely's craw seems to be Mr Bannon's position that this current amoral state of capitalism is a consequence of the thoughts, actions and goals of liberal elites. That exalted group includes college professors and other thoughtful people who inhabit and are bred by the university system of which Mr Blakely is a member. Consequently Mr Blakely's assault on Mr Bannon consists of a vigorous defense of the current components of this "elite" group. He certainly does not defeat or even tackle the foundational observation of Mr Bannon that the US has lurched into an amoral form of capitalism that needs fixing.

Mr Blakely's final reduction of Mr Bannon's view as "dark" and "pessimistic" and therefore unworthy is a rather big non-sequitor.
I doubt that AMERICA would have published this article if the author had said the same of Pope Francis who has made almost exactly the same observation on the current flaws in capitalism as Mr Bannon. Indeed the Pope himself has indicated that this is a crisis.
.

Tom Fields
1 month 4 weeks ago

When did the Jesuits/"America"become a new Left wing political party? Did you comment on Hillary's likely increasing late-term abortions. Let the Church open the Vatican coffers to the causes you support.

Henry George
1 month 4 weeks ago

Having lived through the era under discussion, I can say that life was better in the 1950/60's.

I attended a Segregated School for two years and received an excellent education, the "Negro" Teachers cared deeply and were very well educated and held us to the highest standards.

Correct me if I am wrong, are not America's Public Schools more segregated now than in the 1950's. Does not Manhattan have the most
segregated schools in the Country along with Washington D.C., sadly the fine, fine teachers I had are not longer teaching and discipline has gone
out the window.

Yes, Minorities have been given the vote, but for a vast majority of them
life in the 2010's is more dangerous and difficult than it was in the
1950's. The number of babies born out of wedlock is astronomical compared to then.

Families seems to border on extinction, how many kids are raised by one parent or their parents have divorced.

I don't care if athletes set new records or not, what in the world has that
got to do with Progress. As for Computers, well I think they are the
'Spawn of the Devil' and bring more trouble than they are worth and allow
Speculators on Wall Street and even faster way to take all of our money.

The Sexual Revolution has destroyed whatever notion of Marriage we once had and the wonder and mystery of only 'knowing' your spouse in this life.

No Sir, give me a 1961 Chrysler Imperial and Andy Griffith any day of the week.

J Cosgrove
1 month 4 weeks ago

Apparently California is the most segregated state in the country for education. I would bet you that this author who is from California hasn't a clue about this. It is supposed to be our most enlightened progressive state.

Lisa Weber
1 month 4 weeks ago

The 1950's prompted the social revolution of the 1960's. The 1950's might have been fine for old white men like Stephen Bannon, but they weren't so great for women or minorities. In 1950, women had been able to vote for only 30 years - hardly time to exert a lot of influence.

Stephen Bannon ties his dark vision to some ideal of Judeo-Christian greatness that existed in the past. It is little more than cynical manipulation to persuade people that he has some concept of morality and desires good for the country. He would be happy to let people die without healthcare, refugees die in political unrest, and give all of the public money to billionaires. His idea of greatness is something I would call the collapse of civilization and the beginning of the dark ages.

Stuart Meisenzahl
1 month 3 weeks ago

Lisa
Were you around in the 1950s?.....
If you weren't, you probably don't have much of a basis for comparison.
You attribute to Mr Bannon ..."a dark vision" . Mr Blakely clearly points out that at the Vatican Mr Bannon stated that capitalism as practiced is debased by a lack of moral framework, and is self absorbed and materialistic; and that reform by reference to Judeo-Christian values is needed.
Mr Blakely quotes Mr Bannon on this and notes that it is the basis of Bannon's world view.
As I noted above, Mr Bannon's position is the position of Pope Francis. Are you suggesting that the Pope also has "a dark vision", and is "engaged in cynical manipulation"?
Does your celebration of change from the 50s include the development of "Pro Choice" and the subsequent 53,000,000 abortions? Can you think of a "darker vision" than one that celebrates that number?
As for your suggestion that things have improved for minorities since the 50s I think you need to talk to members of the minorities who lived back then (see comment above from Henry George).

Lorrine Thompson
1 month 3 weeks ago

I agree with you, Lisa. I'm old enough to have been born in the 50s and certainly old enough to remember the 60s and afterward. Any idea that we were "golden" in those years and are declining now is preposterous and can only come from old white straight Christian men who were the kings of everything in that era. The catalog of inhumanity and bigotry and lack of equality for anyone "other" than that category is long and ugly. I remember the days of only running half the length of the gym because I was "girl" and supposedly not strong enough to do more (certainly never even considered that girl sports were just as important as boy sports). I remember all the n** jokes (SO disgusted now whereas at that time... it was freaking 'normal.'). I remember the horrific treatment of anyone even thought to be gay in our school (I'm so ashamed of that now). And that's just your normal stuff -- let's look back at all the lynching photos, and the vast volume of unjust court cases with all white juries, and the police who never even came to domestic violence calls because it was a "family matter" (i.e., it's OK for a husband to beat his wife). Want to talk about how rape cases went in courts? Want to talk about "funny uncles" because no one ever talked about child molestation and the heart-breaking impacts of that?
If Mr. Bannon wants there to be more ethics in capitalism and business, I don't have a problem with that -- there need to be plenty of ethics in all areas. But if that's just his spin to cover that what he REALLY wants is a return to white male Christian domination over our society -- which of course, it is -- then he is himself the harbinger of the fall of our society back into the dark ages.

Eugene Fisher
1 month 4 weeks ago

This is an excellent article. As on involved in the Catholic-Jewish dialogue at the national and international levels for over forty years, I have one small correction. It is not proper to use the term "Judeo-Christian." This renders Judaism a mere adjective to Christianity and so, if subtly, perpetuates the ancient Christian teaching of contempt and supersessionist theology that the Church officially rejected in the Second Vatican Council's Nostra Aetate. One should, today, use Jewish-Christian or Christian-Jewish.
Dr. Eugene J. Fisher, Distinguished Professor of Theology, Saint Leo University

Lorrine Thompson
1 month 3 weeks ago

Thank you for that clarification, Dr. Fisher. I've often wondered about that phrase and now I know how to speak correctly.

Lorrine Thompson
1 month 3 weeks ago

Wow. This is fascinating and explains so much. Thank you!!

Emmett Burke
1 month 3 weeks ago

I found this a great article and appreciate the insights into Bannon's thought. There certainly are some things with which to agree. The idea that somehow people are less religious or identify with religion than the glory days of the 60's. Yet, an interesting thing is that some secular people live lives that are more christian than what some christians live. Or secular jews live lives that are more hebrew than the ultra orthodox jews who champion for example the taking of land from the muslim Palestinians. What Bannon seems to miss is that secular Europe in its social policies is in many ways more holy than the current US social policies. Think for example health care and unemployment support along with retirement benefits. Why is it that so many Catholics view their religion as focusing on abortion and contraception and not on the more inclusive picture of total personal support of each other. Certainly supporting the unborn is very important and we need to do more to save the unborn. (Hillary in the last debate simply said whatever a woman wants whenever.) Yet what does Cardinal Raymond Burke have to say about helping women who cant afford, in whatever way, their child while he fosters a relationship with Bannon. That type of moral leadership just creates a we vs them mentality. Pope Francis reaches out to all people and tries to bring Christ into their lives through acts of love and caring.

The idea of helping others seems to be missing from Bannon's thought.

This article was really great and I much appreciate America Magazine for bringing it to us , but there is the additional question of just what is it that Trump sees in Bannon's thought. Certainly it could be argued that Trump is worse than the hippies that Bannon deprecates. He finds greater connection to Putin than Obama, in reference to Bannon's quote indicating that the elite feel closer to people in Berlin or London than those down the street.

Joseph Ciliberto
1 month 3 weeks ago

Judeo-Christian... What does the term mean, stand for and most importantly demonstrate? It's lost on me. Maybe it's one of the many relative terms, universal its applicability to universal applicability; meaningless. It is easy to say, easy to use, and easy to defend. It is easy to hide behind too. It's easy to lie about, and easy to use to strike at something - to knock it down. One can use to pick oneself up, dust-one self off and reassure oneself, that one is impervious to fault. It's an easy bromide to justify something, like doing something wrong, something immoral, conversely to do something beautify, and heroic. How universal! Like a weapon of mass destruction, dropped on a large city, it effects everyone differently, but effects everyone for sure, except the pilot and bombardier. I enjoyed the article if just to take in someone else's thoughts about a subject and person who has become very important to us all. It was a nice piece from Mr. Blakely. If many of the meanings, beliefs, of actions I see coming from the new administration are Judeo-Christian, I choose instead to be a Hebrew/Catholic; a River Jordan apart from Mr. Bannon. I want to be on the Jesus side, not with the Pharisees. Sure it is true what has been said, there is nothing new under the sun, journeys on the road to Jericho, the road to Stalingrad, across the Rubicon, or to a sanctuary city or to Golgotha, all are paved by the great deceiver, with misjudgment, misery, suffering, the sin of abandonment and scorn. Whose values are they then, that bring mercy and redemption at end of the journey? I see a rider ahead, bringing great darkness. How many of us will keep our lamps trimmed and burning?

Vincent Gaglione
1 month 3 weeks ago

When I read about Steve Bannon’s world view, I am reminded of pictures that I have seen of Catholic Bishops, priests and prominent laity giving the Nazi salute during the Hitler regime. Their behaviors provided the example that politically supporting the Hitler regime was a moral option.

I attend a church where the USA flag is displayed on the altar. But Catholicism is not a USA product. If anything it is a belief system imposed when the first Catholics settled in the nation in spite of great opposition from a nation that purported to enshrine religious freedom in its Constitution and not establish any religion as part of its government. Yet over a century of nativism and anti-Catholic prejudices somehow gets forgotten or isn’t taught these days. Now the flags on the altars belie both history and belief.

Mr. Bannon’s world view would have us become as insular, as nationalistic, and as brainwashed as were those Catholics who abandoned their faith to believe in and support the Nazi philosophy. While the rhetoric of the President and his chief political advisors repudiate “globalism” but never define themselves using its opposite, “nationalism”, there is an amazing deference to and appreciation of them given by some USA Catholics. The rhetoric is an atavistic view of Catholicism in the throes of elimination by the hordes of Islam, when in fact Muslims represent an infinitesimally small percentage of USA citizens.

On the other hand we have a Pope who defies those attitudes by telling us that all human beings are God’s children, that our caring extends beyond our borders and to the whole world and that we have an obligation to all who suffer and are persecuted in spite of their personal beliefs.

As to who defines my religion and beliefs, I’ll stand with the Pope, one who is not afraid to speak truth to the powers that be, including some of our own members.

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

U.S. President Donald Trump talks to journalists in the Oval Office at the White House on March 24 after the American Health Care Act was pulled before a vote. (CNS photo/Carlos Barria, Reuters)
Predictably Mr. Trump has also clashed with the Catholic Church and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on many of the policies he has promoted during his first 100 days.
Kevin ClarkeApril 28, 2017
This is not TV viewing for the faint of heart or any other parts of the soul for that matter.
Jake MartinApril 28, 2017
Forty years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, schoolchildren in China are once again being mobilized for an anti-espionage drive reminiscent of the Mao era.
Verna YuApril 28, 2017
Pope Francis shakes hands with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi, in Cairo, April 28 (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia).
The pope emphasized that Egypt, because of its history and geographical position, “occupies a unique role in the Middle East.
Gerard O'ConnellApril 28, 2017