Steve Bannon’s dubious crusade
Europe is sick. Despite its apparent material success, a spiritual sickness pervades it that politics will not cure.
Pope Francis shares this view. In the United States, the pope may be known as a sharp critic of President Trump, but he has also been vocal about the trends that have led to populist backlashes in the Americas and in Europe. In 2014, for instance, Francis said: “Europe is tired. We have to help rejuvenate it, to find its roots. It’s true: It has disowned its roots.”
A bastardized form of Christianity may, in fact, hasten Europe’s decline.
Even for some non-Christians, Christianity offers a grounding for European culture that has become dangerously depleted. The famously secular German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has admitted that the West, especially liberal democracy, depends upon Christians as a creative minority for key values of conscience and human rights. Mr. Habermas argues: “To this day, we have no other options. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.”
But a bastardized form of Christianity cannot provide this nourishment and may, in fact, hasten Europe’s decline. This is the risk posed by Stephen K. Bannon, a former adviser to the Trump administration, who has embarked on his own project to rejuvenate Europe. The politics he offers has only a veneer of Christianity, intended to justify his political aims. And his notion of Europe is perhaps just as shallow, ignoring the profound spiritual and intellectual challenges that predate the continent’s latest demographic changes.
Inclusion and civility are often dismissed as pieties of procedural liberalism. But ut unum sint (“that they may be one”) is the message of Christianity. A politics that divides is not good politics. And it is not good for Chrisitanity.
Bannon’s ‘Gladiator School’ Takes Shape
Mr. Bannon has caused a stir with his plans to found near Rome what he calls the Academy for the Judeo-Christian West. The imagination has run wild as many speculate about a “gladiator school” for neopopulist ideologues, even after the Italian government blocked plans to site the school at an ancient Carthusian monastery.
The political strategist is not starting from scratch. He is building upon the work of the English political activist Benjamin Harnwell, who founded and runs the Dignitatis Humanae Institute. Mr. Harnwell has advocated for Christian politics for several years in the European Parliament, including drafting a “Universal Declaration of Human Dignity.” The D.H.I. presents the imago Dei as the center of Christian politics and has promoted it by organizing members of the European Parliament and now by founding a school. (It is unclear how the academy would relate to “The Movement,” Mr. Bannon’s umbrella organization in Brussels for Euro-skeptic parties in the European Parliament.)
Mr. Bannon’s proposed school is described by the D.H.I. website as “an initiative defending the Judaeo-Christian foundations of Western Civilisation based on the recognition that every single person without exception is made in the image and likeness of God.”
That initiative, the D.H.I. website notes, “is a direct response to a growing secularist intolerance to Christians of all confessions that has led to a myriad of attacks on human dignity.” The D.H.I. cites many examples of “intolerance” and “attacks,” including the legalization of euthanasia and abortion, the “redefinition” of marriage, and “a growing reliance on the state for welfare, entitlements and other assistance,” which “is undermining human dignity by removing a person’s own sense of duty and personal responsibility.”
More specifically, many observers, and the D.H.I. itself in its literature, link the foundation of the D.H.I. in 2008 to Italy’s withdrawal of Rocco Buttiglione as a candidate for the European Commission in 2004. Mr. Buttiglione, a Catholic political scientist and politician who was close to St. John Paul II, came under attack because of his statements about homosexuality (“an indicator of a moral disorder”) and women. “The family exists in order to allow women to have children and to have the protection of a male who takes care of them,” he said at his confirmation hearing.
His nomination sparked debate about the role of Christianity in European politics and culture, with many arguing that the reluctance of the European Parliament to confirm Mr. Buttiglione’s appointment underlined a new intolerance of Christians. As Mr. Harnwell told the Catholic news site Zenit in 2011, “For the first time, I appreciated the extent to which a requirement was being placed on public figures to divest themselves of their Christianity in order to be acceptable to a militant secular environment.”
The D.H.I. says it is fighting “a growing secularist intolerance to Christians of all confessions that has led to a myriad of attacks on human dignity.”
This sort of debate over Christian public witness has trans-Atlantic resonance, and U.S. interest in the D.H.I. increased considerably when two Americans became associated with the institute. Cardinal Raymond L. Burke assumed the presidency of the D.H.I. advisory board in early 2019. This caused a flurry of speculation not only about an unholy alliance between the Catholic political right and members of the church hierarchy, but also between European Christian democracy and Trump-style populists, who together would import American-style culture wars to Europe.
But then Cardinal Burke resigned from the D.H.I. in a dramatic letter in June 2019. With his letter, Cardinal Burke has not only dispelled suspicions of an alliance with Mr. Bannon, but questioned the Catholicity of Mr. Bannon’s project. In his letter of resignation, Cardinal Burke argued that “the Institute has become more and more identified with the political program of Mr. Bannon.” (The cardinal also objected to Mr. Bannon’s endorsement of Frédéric Martel’s book In the Closet of the Vatican, which alleges the presence of an extensive “gay lobby” in the Vatican, and to Mr. Bannon’s “calling into question” of clerical celibacy.)
Despite this setback, Mr. Bannon has attracted a great deal of attention to a project that has not even happened yet. The question is: Can it offer what it claims to?
I argue that it cannot. The project, like much of current European populism, seems to have a shallow understanding of both Europe and Christianity. This is particularly troubling in the case of Christianity.
Many political ideologies designate ingroups and outgroups for the benefit of “us versus them” politics. In the United States, the language of exclusion often involves race and ethnicity. For European populism, identity has more often been about religion, and especially an opposition to Islam.
While any identity can become pathological in the service of politics, such tribalism violates the core message of Christianity: the universality of the Gospel. Again, ut unum sint.
The D.H.I. presumably wishes not to engage in such politics, but rather to promote the heart of the Gospel. But Cardinal Burke’s resignation only underlines the urgency of this question: If the D.H.I. desires to promote the imago Dei, why would it work with Mr. Bannon, a man who is now at loggerheads with church officials from Pope Francis to Cardinal Burke?
A West That Belongs Without Believing
Most Christian intellectuals and theologians agree with Mr. Bannon that Christianity played an important role in the foundation of what we call the Western world, one that continues to matter today. It particularly matters in accounts of how the West can revive itself.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has argued that Europe—as not merely a geographic designation but a spiritual entity—is in a crisis because of the loss of its spiritual roots. This crisis is reflected in everything from declining birth rates among Christians to the controversial decision to omit any reference to God in the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty, the 2007 text that amended the E.U.’s constitutional structure. Since the Enlightenment, Europe has increasingly adopted a politics of technical reason, one defined against a narrative of the inherent violence of religion but also by the false promise that economic progress can secure eternal peace. This politics has become antipolitical, failing to see that the challenge of politics is the profoundly moral one of attaining peace and justice. Christianity, in its vision of the dignity and rights of humankind, can help Europe reclaim that latter vision of politics and thereby guide the world.
Pope Francis has continued that argument, warning that Europe “will wither” if it does not recover “its own identity, its own unity.” Francis particularly sees Europe’s crisis in its unwillingness to welcome strangers—in other words, to offer charity and also to assimilate new peoples as it has historically done for millennia.
Francis sees Europe’s crisis in its unwillingness to assimilate new peoples as it has done for millennia.
Both popes see Europe’s challenge as not merely one of identity but as a crisis of faith and reason that goes to the core of human existence. Part of Benedict’s proposed solution is the “mutual purification” of faith and reason, whereby reason can help faith realize its public nature, and, as he said in “God Is Love” (“Deus Caritas Est”), “faith liberates reason from its blind spots and therefore helps it to be ever more fully itself.”
Needless to say, Benedict is calling for Europe to do a great deal more than reclaim the superficial identity of “Christian.” That is because Benedict sees Europe as more than the protector of a religious identity. It is also the protector of a way of life that cultivates the harmony of faith and reason.
Seeing Europe, or the larger West, as merely grappling with identity fails to see the profound spiritual and intellectual challenges that have been building for centuries. And without an accurate diagnosis, how will we find a cure?
The West Against the Rest
Articulating intellectual challenges does not always make for good politics. It is more profitable to scapegoat enemies. Mr. Bannon and others like to see the West as a mere identity because it allows them to focus on who is not Western. But if Christian and Western merely mean “not Muslim,” then Mr. Bannon and his supporters have not found the true meaning of the West, much less of the Gospel.
The Dutch populist Geert Wilders has said that “our Judeo-Christian culture is far superior to the Islamic one.... I can give you a million reasons.” Many of his supporters were so gleeful at this statement that they missed the obvious: Mr. Wilders is celebrating “Judeo-Christian culture” rather than religion.
Can Christianity be restricted to one culture? Not according to St. Paul, who told the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” And not according to Jesus, who proclaimed himself the bringer of good news to the captive.
Indeed, Christianity spread in its early days because it was as universal as the Roman Empire—much more so, as it turned out. But Christianity’s striking universality has been erased from Mr. Bannon’s understanding of it. It is no longer a lumen gentium (light of nations). Practically, this Christianity no longer feels the imperative to welcome the stranger, to serve as the good Samaritan.
It is not even clear that such a Christianity could survive. A key dynamism of Christianity has been its claim that it transcends any regime and, indeed, the world itself. What is Christianity without transcendence?
Christianity is bigger than the West. Yes, Christianity has important roots in the West that cannot be easily dismissed. But the good news of the Gospel is meant to be a light to all nations.
The great irony in Mr. Bannon’s project is that to strengthen populism, he is invoking a Christianity that is itself weakened. He speaks as though the “Judeo-Christian” religion does not need to revitalize itself but rather faces only external threats.
Mr. Bannon is moving against the current of the spiritual giants of our time, all of whom see the need for Christianity to renew its universalism.
In remarks delivered to a 2014 conference on poverty held in the Vatican, for instance, he said, “We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict” and that people of faith must fight “against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.” Mr. Bannon attacked not only “a capitalism that really looks to make people commodities and to objectify people” (which is not too far off from Pope Francis’ “throwaway culture” critiques) but also said that the “Judeo-Christian West” is under threat from both “immense secularization” and “jihadist Islamic fascism.”
Other observers say the most honest approach for the church is to look within.
Christianity has weathered the Great Schism, the Reformation, the rise of capitalism, the Enlightenment and the malaise of late modernity, but not without a few wounds. Recent popes have seen the need to nurture the heart of Christianity.
St. John Paul II famously called for a “new evangelization,” particularly within those lands that were once at the heart of Christendom. Benedict XVI called for the world to see faith as an encounter with a person. Pope Francis both teaches and exemplifies the name of God: mercy. But all three have urged Christians to see faith in Christ as transcending any particular time and place.
Mr. Bannon proposes the opposite, linking Christianity to a specific culture. But he is tying the fortunes of Christianity to a culture that has largely already rejected it. He is also setting it against other cultures, presenting Christianity to much of the world as an enemy.
In all of these ways, Mr. Bannon is moving against the current of the spiritual giants of our time, all of whom see the need for Christianity to renew its universalism.
This should give D.H.I, Mr. Harnwell and others pause. Does Mr. Bannon’s plan to salvage the West only hasten Christianity’s demise?
The Polyhedron and Pentecost
The problem with fear-mongering is not just that it is wrong. It is that critics of fear-mongering often prefer to believe that there are no real problems at play. But Mr. Bannon’s populism has found a market in part because liberal democracy is indeed beset by difficulties it cannot solve. And if Mr. Bannon has no real solutions, neither does anyone else.
How are Catholics to respond to liberalism’s difficulties? Inevitably, Catholics from different political traditions will respond to this challenge in different ways.
In the United States, many politically conservative Catholics have grown weary of their subordinate status in the Republican Party. As the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat explains, many feel betrayed by the coalition supporting the Republican Party and believe that “something else is needed in American society besides just classical-liberal, limited-government commitments.” Such conservatives, including Mr. Douthat himself, want a “philosophical reconsideration of where the liberal order has ended up” and a political movement that does more than pay “lip service to traditional values.” They also seek, however, to learn from the electoral success of Mr. Trump, and seek particularly to cultivate a virtuous nationalism free of American exceptionalism. Given the fragmented nature of U.S. conservatism, it is hard to predict where this movement will go. But Catholics will almost certainly be an important part of the conversation.
On the left, economic inequality, climate change and questions of race and sexuality have led to rifts within the party over what constitutes social justice, with many Catholic Democrats often caught in the middle. If President Trump is re-elected in 2020, then the next four years will be of crucial importance for how Catholics do and do not fit within the post-Trump Democratic party.
Whether left or right, however, all Catholics must beware of any party or ideology that sacrifices the universal mission of Christianity in the name of politics.
All Catholics must beware any party or ideology that sacrifices the universal mission of Christianity in the name of politics.
Everyone says this, and yet no one seems to know how to do it. In part this is because this task is at least as spiritual as it is political.
Appeals to the common good ring hollow in our time, as it is the very notion of “common” that is under dispute. Pope Francis, however, has spoken of a “reconciled diversity.” The Holy Spirit brings about communion and unity despite all the manifold differences among humans. The Spirit brings about “harmonic unity in diversity.”
This communion is a gift of the Spirit, but Christians can and need to cooperate with the Spirit. This unity takes real work, beginning with the acknowledgement of differences. That acknowledgement in turn will require both cooling heated passions and articulating differences that are often as poorly understood as they are divisive.
Ideologues will claim to offer such unity, usually by redefining who gets to be included in that unity. But this unity does not come on the cheap.
Pope Francis favors the model of a many-sided polyhedron rather than a sphere because it shows how the world can be integrated while remaining particular, how we can achieve a world where “all cultures are respected, but all are united.” This is the genius of Catholicism: holding in tension the universal and particular. It is also an image of the common good we desperately need in our time.
By refusing to give in to the temptation to reap immediate, short-lived gains in politics, the ideological shortcuts that promise the success of some at the expense of others, and rather training our sights of the unity of all in God, we can work toward the development of all peoples.
This is easier said than done, especially as our society makes it difficult to cultivate this desire for community. Perhaps that is something parishes can embrace around the Eucharist.
Further, the resolve of Christians for unity will always be tested by polemical issues. As the affair surrounding Mr. Martel (as well as recent controversies concerning teachers in Catholic schools in civilly recognized same-sex marriages) reveals, sexuality will be a flashpoint of contention. Catholics will have to see sexuality as not merely a tool of the culture wars, but a place of genuine reconciliation. Rejecting division and cheap unity, that reconciliation will be key to presenting an image of true unity to a world that so desperately longs for wholeness and integrity.
Yes, deep divisions mar our world. But the solution to those divisions can never be to bring those divisions into the heart of the church.