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Rise of the Notre Dame Truthers

The tragic fire brought out the worst in the political fringes.
April 19, 2019
Rise of the Notre Dame Truthers
(Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images)

You might have thought that the terrible fire in Notre Dame on Monday was the kind of moment that would transcend politics and our petty political divisions. Then again, this is 2019.

First, people on the right-wing fringe started pushing the claim that the fire was a “jihadist terror attack”—despite zero evidence that the fire was something other than an accident related to renovation work. Rumors of arson were promptly picked by on Twitter by InfoWars “journalist” Paul Joseph Watson (but of course!) and amplified by the Canadian white nationalist Faith Goldy, who claimed that the timing was connected to both Easter Week and revenge for the Christchurch, New Zealand mosque shootings.

Actor James Woods both hinted at arson and lamented Christianity’s presumed erasure from European soil.

It wasn’t just Twitter noise, either. On the unfortunately named Blaze TV, Glenn Beck threw in some baseless speculation about Islamists and cover-ups. Anti-Muslim hawk Frank Gaffney, the think tank head whose reports have been cited by Donald Trump and who is close to National Security Advisor John Bolton, issued a statement which passingly acknowledged that the cause of the fire was undetermined but still tied it to a “Sharia-supremacist assault on Christianity in France.”

On Fox News, Tucker Carlson averred that “we’re not, I want to be clear, speculating about the cause of this fire.” His guest on the show was Mark Steyn, who talked about the Notre Dame fire by saying that “Christendom is in retreat in Europe” and that the French were especially “godless” even for Europeans. Steyn also brought up the horrific murder of a priest by two ISIS-affiliated terrorists in Normandy in 2016 as well as his own visit to the Basilica of Saint Denis, located “in the heart of what is now a Muslim suburb.” That was a fairly typical Notre Dame take from the “fall of Europe” crowd: even if migrants and Muslims didn’t do it, they sort of did it anyway just by being around. Call it passive terrorism by way of osmosis.

This sort of loose talk is especially irresponsible because church attacks in France are a real problem, with nearly 900 incidents were recorded last year. But it’s important to understand the real sources: Ellen Fantini, director of the Vienna-based Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians in Europe, has said that while some perpetrators are Islamists, others are anarchists or radical feminists. Still others are teenage pranksters or vagrants.

Attacks on churches happen in America, too. A 2011 analysis of FBI crime statistics found over 7,000 incidents of “property damage/destruction” at churches or synagogues in 2009; a later study estimated that there are approximately 285 cases of arson a year in America that target religious institutions. Pew reports that over the last 20 years, half of the church fires in America have been arson. The principal culprits do not seem to be Islamists.

Attacks on churches should be a serious concern. They shouldn’t be fodder for conspiracy theories and Clash of Civilizations play-acting.

The left didn’t go in for Notre Dame Trutherism, but there were some pretty bad takes from that side, too—though in fairness, some of the examples held up by right-of-center critics such as reporter Andy Ngo were so obscure they smacked of outrage mining. The tweets in Ngo’s collection proclaiming that the fire was karma for French colonial crimes mainly came not just from Twitter randos but from teenagers.

For a more substantive terrible take, one can always count on Rolling Stone. The magazine’s culture critic E.J Dickson went for a “woke” angle in her article on the Notre Dame rebuilding effort, giving prominent space to scholars who thought that the old cathedral had been too “overburdened” with symbolism—Catholicism, French identity and all that other problematic stuff. According to these experts, the reconstructed version should be “a reflection of the France of today,” not of a “non-secular, white European France.” One, a Harvard architectural historian, went so far as to call the fire “an act of liberation.”

Meanwhile, the progressive outrage brigades descended on Ben Shapiro for tweeting that Notre Dame is “a central monument to Western civilization, which was built on the Judeo-Christian heritage.”

Now, you can take issue with Shapiro’s tweets. The term “Judeo-Christian” can be criticized for papering over the history of anti-Semitism and the persecution of Jews in Christian Europe, including France around the time Notre Dame was built. Interestingly, Notre Dame’s own artwork embodies Christianity’s complicated relationship with Jews and Judaism: It includes a sculptural pair depicting the triumph of Church over Synagogue—but then also dignified statues of ancient Israelite kings and relief scenes depicting the Virgin Mary’s family in distinctive Jewish garb.

In other words, it’s not that simple.

But the Shapiro-bashers on Twitter were not interested in complexities; they just called him a “white supremacist” and ranted about how the concept of “Judeo-Christian culture” promotes racism. Progressive rabbi and author Danya Ruttenberg wrote that the term is “Islamophobic,” since it “positions Jews [and] Christians against Muslims.” Which is, simply as a matter of historical fact, absurd. As Stanford International Studies professor Anna Grzymala-Busse points out, the term “Judeo-Christian” first gained currency in the 1940s in the context of opposition to fascism and Nazism, and was then promoted in the 1950s to stress the contrast between the West and the Communist bloc.

But hey, this is 2019, and history is just a white male construct anyway.

Brooklyn writer Talia Lavin took this to the next level in a column in the Washington Post, claiming that Shapiro’s tweets in praise of Western civilization “evoked the specter of a war between Islam and the West” and were closely related to the rhetoric of Christchurch mosque shooter Brendon Tarrant.

That’s not just a bad take. It’s Mark Steyn, Faith Goldy-grade bad.

In ancient or medieval times, a fire at a major temple or cathedral would have been viewed as a sign from above. For all of our modern sophistication, it’s still in our nature to look for meaning in such events today—especially, perhaps, in times of cultural upheaval.

So in a way, it’s not surprising that a devastating fire engulfing Europe’s most famous religious structure would strike many as symbolic at a time when the numbers of practicing Christians are dwindling across the continent. There is nothing wrong with asking, from either a conservative or a progressive point of view, what a monument to medieval Christendom means in a country where, according to a recent Pew poll, about two-thirds of the population identifies as Christians but fewer than one in five attend church. (For the record, some 9 percent are Muslim.)

But it’s worth remembering that Notre Dame’s cultural significance has always been complicated. Its unique place in modern consciousness comes partly from its place in Catholicism and architectural history but partly also from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel in which the heroine is a pagan gypsy and the villain is an archdeacon torn between religious fanaticism and forbidden sexual passion. (Hugo’s religious views at the time of its writing can be best described as anti-clerically theistic.) The novel, titled Notre Dame de Paris in the original, was responsible for the revival of popular interest in the cathedral within France itself and spurred the renovation effort that included the construction of the now-collapsed spire.

Who knows what the world will look like by the time Hugo’s novel marks its 200th anniversary? For now, the remarkable twist to the story is that, after the initial concern that Notre Dame would be completely destroyed, most of the cathedral made it through the blaze remarkably well, with even the legendary stained-glass windows intact.

If Notre Dame is now a symbol for Western civilization, perhaps there is a message here: Despite all the prophecies of doom from the right and critiques of problematic content from the left, it’s still standing, battered but unbowed—and beloved by people of good will from all walks of life.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.