University of Chicago Professor Rachel Fulton Brown, a devout Christian and self-described “Entish Presby-Catholic medievalist,” has fallen in love with an alt-right demagogue. Fulton Brown sparked a minor campus uproar this winter with her blog post on the Divinity School blog, “Why Milo Scares Students, and Faculty Even More.”
In the piece, published after the riots at Berkeley over Milo Yiannopoulos’s planned speech, and just before a video surfaced in which Yiannopoulos appeared to endorse pedophilia on a radio show, Fulton Brown argues that assaults on free speech today are fundamentally rooted in a loss of religious values in the academy and in America. She claims that the fervor with which students supported the riots shows that, having rejected the traditional Christian underpinnings for free speech and academic freedom, they’ve internalized modern social justice movements as their new religion. As elite schools have sidelined their original explicitly religious intentions, students have lost the ability to think critically about religion, and can react to the serious questions Milo poses about “the definition of community, the role of beauty, [and] access to truth” only with violence. Brown claims that “If students cannot practice these difficult conversations in school, there is nothing to stop them from spilling into the streets.” Over the last year, Fulton Brown’s personal blog, “Fencing Bear at Prayer,” has become almost exclusively an outlet for defenses of Milo, filled with meme-formatted pictures of Milo in various heroic poses.
At first glance, Fulton Brown and Milo make an odd pair. How could a practicing Christian intellectual full-throatedly endorse an alt-right demagogue of Milo’s ilk? Beyond his fame as an object of campus protest, Milo is also known for blackmailing colleagues with supposedly incriminating photographs, for arguing that gay men should “get back in the closet” (he himself is gay), and for having a rather loose approach to contracts,. Most recently, he left his post as a senior editor for Breitbart News, where he had emerged as an aggressive critic of feminism, multiculturalism, and social justice, and lost a book deal after the video of him apparently endorsing pedophilia emerged online. Milo “professes himself a Catholic and wears a pair of gold crosses around his neck,” and Fulton Brown defends him without qualification, going so far as to curse CPAC, in language most Christians wouldn’t endorse, for dropping him after his pedophilia comments. Fulton Brown’s unreserved embrace of such a controversial figure is dumbfounding, but it is indicative of a wider trend in Christian America.
In fact, this embrace of the alt-right is all too common in Christian circles, and is growing ever more prevalent. Mainstream evangelical leaders have espoused support for the authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin, and have largely fallen in line behind Donald Trump. In each of these cases, the “ally” has no real allegiance to “Christendom” beyond lip service and no interest in Christianity other than as a useful tool for consolidating support. Trump invokes “Two Corinthians” at Liberty University and mumbles about punishing women who have abortions, and yet wins over eighty percent of white evangelicals. They overlook his open boasts about cheating on his wives, the many women who tell similar stories about his repulsive behavior toward them over several decades, and his own bragging about sexual assault. Putin passes laws that criminalize “gay propaganda” and gets stellar reviews from evangelical leaders.
Why do evangelicals flock to these characters? First, the religious right has faced severe setbacks in the culture wars. On issues like recreational drug use, gay marriage, euthanasia, and transgender concerns, what seemed like stable consensuses have rapidly morphed over the last decade into what look like landslide victories for the left. This shift has occurred despite Republican gains in state and federal legislatures, which fuels the sense that something more insidious than mere political realignment is occurring. Although this sense that the younger generation is losing its moral grounding has existed since at least the days of Socrates, the particularly rapid movement around social issues in the US has given rise to an especially defensive posture among conservative culture warriors.
Second, the aggressive tactics the left has adopted, often to good short-term effect, have left even Christians who were hitherto uninterested in culture-war debates feeling beleaguered. Both the Hobby Lobby case and the Little Sisters of the Poor case were interpreted as bellwethers by many on the right. In the latter half of the twentieth century and into the Bush administration, cultural debates typically centered on public institutions. Arguments over prayer in schools, abortion, or women in the military were arguments over the direction and purpose of institutions held in common. In contrast, more recent debates have centered on the right of religious individuals and companies to practice their religion in the public square. Left-wing organizations have regularly focused their efforts on individual Christian businesses in targeted, public attempts to force compliance.
In what may have been the most underreported story of 2016, leaked emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta contained mockery of traditional Catholicism and suggestions on how to change Church teachings on gender and authority. This sort of suggestion reads as a difference in kind, not degree, from previous battles. Recent violent protests are read through the same lens. Although spates of ideological campus violence are not a new phenomenon, they no longer seem to be part of a radical counter-culture, but rather an extension of the dominant culture. Christians with no interest in fighting their neighbors have seen the culture wars creep up to their doorsteps.
As more religious conservatives feel under assault, they increasingly immerse themselves in culture-war politics. The “wins” in those spheres are more obvious, concrete, and viscerally satisfying. When the godless heathens seem to be advancing on all sides, religious conservatives face an instinctive urge to back the cultural figures who seem to be having the most success pushing back on liberal orthodoxy. In this climate, characters like Milo, who wraps his vileness in a vaguely impish aesthetic and occasional references to “Christendom,” can seem like useful ideological allies for conservatives.
But as anyone who has watched Milo’s content knows, Christendom has little to do with his shtick, which is primarily intellectual pablum interspersed with insulting one-liners. Milo’s project relies on activist overreach, campus hysteria, and even violence, which he then uses to justify the need for his “Dangerous Faggot” tour of speaking truth to power. It is a symbiotic relationship. So why can’t religious conservatives like Fulton Brown just reject both violent protests and Milo’s defense of pederasty? Why the unadulterated defense?
Underlying this alliance, and deeper than culture-war setbacks and frustration at the left’s tactics, is a creeping sense among religious conservatives that traditional Christian morality just isn’t up to the task of defending itself in the modern era. Only eight years after the presidency of the explicitly born-again George W. Bush, the religious right is losing at every turn in the political sphere. It is in this context that characters who clearly have no intrinsic allegiance to Christian morality gain status as “defenders of the faith.” On the campaign trail, Trump couldn’t explain what communion was, but he regularly hammered home that he was going to “protect Christianity.” Putin has harnessed Orthodox support in Russia by using religious language to discuss Russia’s role in the world as a defender of tradition.
Despite their clear divergence from Christian tenets, these alt-right pseudo-Christians receive support from beleaguered Christians looking for protection. As culture-war issues take precedence over living out Christian morality, it becomes ever more pressing for Christians to support the cultural figures who seem to be on their team. This urge has forced many religious leaders into ridiculous contortions defending the alt-right’s worst abuses. For some on the religious right, this takes the form of lauding Putin even for banning Americans from adopting Russian orphans. In other cases, evangelical leaders have rationalized away Trump’s explicit boasts about sexual assault.
This sort of shameless backing of the cultural or political stars of the week isn’t just counterproductive witness, it also betrays a lack of faith in biblical, Christ-centered Christianity. When Fulton Brown claims that Milo “speaks the truth,” or when evangelicals say the same about Trump, they’re explicitly choosing these messengers. Leaving aside the question of whether Trump and Milo speak truth, why, out of all the available speakers, thinkers, and cultural icons, should evangelicals tie themselves to such vile characters? Even if they do raise good points, are there no more palatable standard-bearers than these? Such Christians must either think that Christ-like figures cannot carry the day in postmodern American discourse, or, as Fulton Brown seems to think, that Milo is actually a godlike figure, “an answer to prayer.”
By this account, Jesus is actually “the master troll,” and every needlessly antagonizing, publicity-seeking, smirking quote Milo drops, and every piece of emotional effluvium Trump tweets, is treated as equivalent to Jesus’ criticisms of the Pharisees. All this is reminiscent of Nietzsche’s most cutting critique of Christian “slave morality”: that Christians don’t actually have outside reasons on which to base their morality, and instead idolize whatever tactics work to bring down the strong.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the evangelical shift toward support of alt-right strongmen is that Christianity proper never promises short-term cultural success. From “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s” to “take heart; for I have overcome the world,” Jesus’s promises to his disciples all suggest that they will face a hostile culture, and that his victory is not of an earthly nature. He doesn’t demand that his followers rack up “wins” against liberal whiners—attempting to be Christ-like isn’t offered as a technique for changing governmental structures, but as the right thing to do in any situation. In this context, G.K. Chesterton’s famous line takes on a new meaning: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” Throwing one’s unabashed support behind characters like Milo, Putin, or Trump is an easy way out that avoids the hard work of promoting the gospel in one’s life and actions, whatever the social cost. As Jesus asks in Mark 8:36: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
If American Christian intellectuals can’t rally around figures who embody the best of religious conservatism, they should expect not only continuing cultural defeats, but also a hollowing out of their faith in service to demagogues who share none of their core values.
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