Why Is There Christian Nationalism?

Orthodox Jews today are more observant and more educated in Torah than Orthodox Jews at any previous time in history. Why? Because in our secular world, it takes far more effort to identify as Orthodox.

I hear that today’s Christian nationalism is a new thing in America. I’m no expert on Christian nationalism, but it seems to me that just as Orthodox Jews have to go to greater efforts to maintain their identity than did their predecessors in America, so too Christians have to go further to maintain their hero-system.

We all live by stories. We make our meaning collectively. When there’s same-sex marriage, that diminishes the meaning of traditional marriage. If we are to hold on to our belief about our special place in the cosmos, we have to go to greater efforts today than we did yesterday.

Christian nationalism is a reality-enhancing device for people who want to hold on to their story. At a different time and place, these people would have no use for Christian nationalism, but now that the Christian story and the Christian hero-system is increasingly disdained by our elites and their institutions, the Christian has to go to greater lengths to protect his understanding of himself (which depends upon his hero-system).

One reason we’re so unhappy these days is that our natural, normal and healthy sense of superiority is reduced by the presence of so many alternative hero-systems in our midst (hero-systems that are frequently privileged over our own) and we see how other groups see themselves as cosmically special and that reduces our ability to believe that we’re special.

Nationalism is a mindset. Who do we think is our in-group? Race matters, but so does culture, geography and religion. The more we have in common with others, the closer we feel to them. Diversity means we have little in common with others. To build a coherent cohesive high-trust society in America requires building up the dominant in-group and one way of doing that is Christian nationalism. Examples of Christian nationalists include Nick Fuentes, Godward Podcast, and Milo Yiannopoulos. They appear disenchanted by America, by Republicans, and by the Alt Right, so instead of building an in-group around something socially stigmatized such as white nationalism, they instead choose to build around Christianity. “Christ is king” is easier to say than “Hitler did nothing wrong.”

I don’t think Christian nationalism in America has much to do with Christianity beyond using it as an agreed-upon story and hero-system for people who don’t have other stronger in-group identities.

Here are some related thoughts by philosopher Rony Guldmann:

* Martha Nussbaum: “What inspires disgust is typically the male thought of the male homosexual, imagined as anally penetrable. The idea of semen and feces mixing together inside the body of a male is one of the most disgusting ideas imaginable—to males, for whom the idea of nonpenetrability is a sacred boundary against stickiness, ooze, and death. The presence of a homosexual male in the neighborhood inspires the thought that one might oneself lose one’s clean safeness, become the receptacle for those animal products. Thus disgust is ultimately disgust at one’s own imagined penetrability and ooziness, and this is why the male homosexual is both regarded with disgust and viewed with fear as a predator who might make everyone else disgusting.”

* Ernest Becker calls hero-systems: “The fact is that this is what society is and always has been: a symbolic action system, a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules of behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism. Each script is somewhat unique, each culture has a different hero system. What the anthropologists call “cultural relativity” is thus really the relativity of hero-systems the world over. But each cultural system cuts out roles for earthly heroics; each system cuts out roles for performances of various degrees of heroism: from the “high” heroism of a Churchill, a Mao, or a Buddha, to the “low” heroism of the coal miner, the peasant, the simple priest, the plain, everyday, earthy heroism wrought by gnarled working hands guiding a family through hunger and disease.

“It doesn’t matter whether the cultural hero-system is frankly magical, religious, and primitive or secular, scientific, and civilized. It is still a mythical hero-system in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning. They earn this feeling by carving out a place in nature, by building an edifice that reflects human value: a temple, a cathedral, a totem pole, a skyscraper, a family that lasts three generations. The hope and belief is that the things that man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay, that man and his products count. When Norman O. Brown said that Western society since Newton, no matter how scientific or secular it claims to be, is still as “religious” as any other, this is what he meant: “civilized” society is a hopeful belief and protest that science, money and goods make man count for more than any other animal. In this sense everything that man does is religious and heroic, and yet in danger of being fictitious and fallible.”

* Peter Berger observers, “[I]t may be assumed that a musician in the making in contemporary America must commit himself to music with an emotional intensity that was unnecessary in nineteenth century Vienna, precisely because in the American situation there is powerful competition from what will subjectively appear as the ‘materialistic’ and ‘mass culture’ world of the ‘rat race.’ Similarly, religious training in a pluralistic situation posits the need for ‘artificial’ techniques of reality-accentuation that are unnecessary in a situation dominated by religious monopoly. It is still ‘natural’ to become a Catholic priest in Rome in a way that it is not in America. Consequently, American theological seminaries must cope with the problem of ‘reality-slippage’ and devise techniques for ‘making stick’ the same reality.”

* If reality-accentuation is in order, this is because the meanings which sustain our self-understandings cannot serve this function while being recognized as mere fictions of the human mind, and must rather be upheld as transcendent existences immune to the vagaries of human predilection—forces “to be reckoned with.” The sense that others have a hand in upholding—or in failing to uphold—an order of things upon which we all depend may seem downright mystical. But framed in another way, it becomes commonsensical. Human beings do not merely entertain an understanding of “what individuals may reasonably expect of one another” but also of “what is to be done.” Our relations are mediated, not only by contractual or quasi-contractual understanding, but also by a shared sense of things’ significance which all have a hand in sustaining.

* Our identities presuppose particular social narratives. And others’ failure to satisfactorily play their parts in the story can upend our efforts to play our own. They can cause “reality-slippage” because their decision to go off-script can upset the plausibility of the narrative against which our own identities are plausible. Just like a movie, our identities can continue to engross us only to the degree that their narrative coherence is established and preserved. Whether or not we elect to designate this narrative coherence as “moral order,” we may all be threatened by those whose actions impliedly call into question the basic purposes governing our lives. What Justice Blackmun calls “mere knowledge that other individuals do not adhere to one’s value system” can present such just a threat, not as an isolated piece of information, but as a data point that resists the narrative that sustains our identities. Deviant behavior contaminates the data set, and so impacts the narrative that may be extrapolated from it.

* Ernest Becker: “[o]ne culture is always a potential menace to another because it is a living example that life can go on heroically within a value framework totally alien to one’ own.”

* In revealing the fictional nature of one culture’s answers to these questions, another culture can undermine the necessary precondition of a hero-system, and thereby to reduce its adherents to the status of animals among animals.

* we have all been “cemented” or “harnessed” to a particular way of life. Becker explains why:
“You get a good feeling for what the self “looks like” in its extensions if you imagine the person to be a cylinder with a hollow inside, in which is lodged the self. Out of this cylinder the self overflows and extends into the surroundings, as a kind of huge amoeba, pushing its pseudopods to a wife, a car, a flag, a crushed flower in a secret book. The picture you get is of a huge invisible amoeba spread out over the landscape, with boundaries very far from its own center or home base. Tear and burn the flag, find and destroy the flower in the book, and the amoeba screams with soul-searing pain.
“Usually we extend these pseudopods not only to things we hold dear, but also to silly things; our selves are cluttered up with things we don’t need, artificial things, debilitating ones. For example, if you extend a pseudopod to your house, as most people do, you might also extend it to the inventory of an interior decorating program. And so you get vitally upset by a piece of wallpaper that bulges, a shelf that does not join, a light fixture that “isn’t right.” Often you see the grotesque spectacle of a marvelous human organism breaking into violent arguments, or even crying, over a panel that doesn’t match. Interior decorators confide that many people have somatic symptoms or actual nervous breakdowns when they are redecorating. And I have seen a grown and silver-templed Italian crying in the street in his mother’s arms over a small dent in the bumper of his Ferrari.
We call precisely those people “strong” who can withdraw a pseudopod at will from trifling parts of their identity, or especially from important ones. Someone who can say “it is only a scratch on a Ferrari,” “the uneven wall is not me, the wood crack is not me,” and so on. They disentangle themselves easily and flexibly from the little damages and ravages to their self-extensions….”

* We are not strategic agents in actual life because all of our calculations and planning must reckon with a background sense of things’ significance which pre-exists these, delimiting the directions which they can take.

* We do not, in our everyday experience, encounter the world as would a strategic agent, as an enumerable set of “things” each of whose “properties” may or may not be relevant to our ends. Quite the contrary, the significance we sense always inheres in things prior to any reflection on “our” ends.

* [Without a place in the larger order, we are unintelligible to ourselves.] If individuals cannot readily alter social meanings at will, this is because that very will originates from out of those meanings.

* Meaning is first encountered in the world, not in any disembodied interiority…

* Hero-systems are not idle “symbolic” luxuries, intangible “cultural” concerns, but rather a biological necessity.

* As emphatic as some conservatives may be in their warnings that same-sex marriage threatens the basic institution of marriage, they have always been at a loss to explain how precisely this should be. How could the presence of the same-sex couple next door possibly impinge on the stability of one’s own marriage? So the liberal reflex has always been to dismiss the conservative view as just thinly disguised mean-spiritedness, or else as the symptom of some unacknowledged fear or anxiety that is being “taken out” on those who have nothing to do with the conservative’s real problems, which are being disguised in ostensible worries about the preservation of the traditional family. This, after all, is one of the reasons why the benighted must “grow” and become “aware.” But many on the Left have in more sophisticated terms acknowledged that the destruction of the family is precisely their aim, and that same sex-marriage will, beyond extending legal rights to gay and lesbian couples, be tactically useful to this end. Lesbian activist Masha Gessen told a sympathetic audience: “Gay marriage is a lie. Fighting for gay marriage generally involves lying about what we’re going to do with marriage when we get there. It’s a no-brainer that the institution of marriage should not exist. … ‘Marriage equality’ becomes ‘marriage elasticity,’ with the ultimate goal of ‘marriage extinction.’”
She explained that “I have three kids who have five parents, more or less, and I don’t see why they shouldn’t have five parents legally… I met my new partner, and she had just had a baby, and that baby’s biological father is my brother, and my daughter’s biological father is a man who lives in Russia, and my adopted son also considers him his father. So the five parents break down into two groups of three… And really, I would like to live in a legal system that is capable of reflecting that reality, and I don’t think that’s compatible with the institution of marriage.”
If “marriage elasticity” has “marriage extinction” as its ultimate aim, the reason is not that the traditional 1950s-style nuclear family would become somehow criminalized, but that such elasticity would erode the hero-system that has historically underpinned that family, depriving that institution of its traditional social meaning. The “family” being targeted by the “homosexual agenda” is not the bare practices of cohabitation, financial interdependence, and child rearing by legally bound adults, but the hero-system of social conservatives, that thick structure of aspirational roles invoked by talk of traditional family values. And this is exactly what conservatives are referring to in warning that the family is under attack.
The institution of same-sex marriage can carry implications for heterosexual couples insofar as “traditional marriage” thereby becomes but one possible interpretation of a civil institution, rather than its intrinsic and uncontested meaning. It constitutes, not merely an expansion of rights, but also the regulation of social meaning, because it can upset the social plausibility, and therefore the personal resonance, of the traditional interpretation notwithstanding that no one is being physically disabled in their marital activities. To the extent marriage becomes socially understood as just another agreement rather than a sacrament, its value will have to be viewed as residing in individual sentiments rather than in a transcendent dispensation that ratifies these sentiments. Traditionalists are thereby threatened with a different interpretation of themselves, confronted with the possibility that the sacredness which they had imputed to their practices is but the reification of their own idiosyncratic emotions. Nothing prevents them from asserting that whatever the legal status of same-sex marriage may be, it is only marriages like their own that truly count in the eyes of God. But given 1) that this interpretation is now contested and 2) that social meanings are “forces to be reckoned with,” the meaning with which traditionalists would like to imbue their marriages will not necessarily be the meaning that their marriages actually end up carrying for them. Conservatives worries about liberals’ “attack on the family” are therefore more sophisticated than liberals are prepared to acknowledge.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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