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The Growing Religious/Secular Rift on the Illiberal Right

Christianity’s emphasis on forgiveness, suffering, the meek and poor runs totally counter to the tendencies of the New Right and National Conservatism.
November 22, 2022
The Growing Religious/Secular Rift on the Illiberal Right
A stained-glass window is seen through a broken window at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Jurupa Valley after the church was vandalized (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda/MediaNews Group/The Press-Enterprise via Getty Images)

On the illiberal right, there’s a divide between religiously motivated conservatives and their secular allies. This divide will likely grow, and be felt at both the elite and popular levels. In one sense, this is not new: There has long been a religious/secular fault line in the conservative coalition. But as hypocritical as the religious right can be, religious—generally Christian—impulses have at times tempered American conservatism. Now, however, we already see signs of a cynical irreligious right and how its ideas and attitudes have infected politically minded believers.

Within National Conservative circles, there are two competing narratives about the status of religion—even state-sponsored religion. To hear conservative Christians at the National Conservatism III convention earlier this year, they represent the vanguard of nationalist politics. If “conservatism as a movement has a future, it is a future that is going to be increasingly tied to explicit theological claims and confession—or there will be nothing left to conserve,” declared one keynote speaker, Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s flagship university. Fr. Benedict Kiely claimed “conservatives are social conservatives or they are not conservative.” William Wolfe, a Trump administration official, wraps Trumpism in Protestant garb and claims Christians should “demand” an America First agenda. Meanwhile, claiming that secular types “are a small minority” among the NatCons, R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things, told the Dispatch that “it’s the religious people that are the forefront of actually speaking out” against the progressive left. Rev. Uri Brito, a biblical theocrat and cleric associated with the convention, noted he wouldn’t “want to be a part of a movement where atheists are guiding that movement.”

National Conservatism’s Statement of Principles declares that “Where a Christian majority exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honored by the state and other institutions both public and private.” In policy terms, this implies a revival of the sort of social conservative agenda the conservative movement had gradually let go over the past five decades. The reinstitution of school prayer, for instance, is a recurrent suggestion. Reno declared that the “reversal . . . of anti-religious Supreme Court decisions about matters such as school prayer is long overdue.” Newsweek’s resident NatCon, Josh Hammer, said, “We must get the Bibles back in schools, God back in the public square, and the liberal misnomer of so-called separation of church and state back where it belongs: the ash heap of history.” And Mohler described a theologically informed and comprehensive social conservative agenda:

A conservative movement that does not conserve what it means for God to make human beings male and female in His image, that does not conserve marriage as the lifelong covenant union of a man and a woman, that does not define the natural family as the essential heart of human society, that does not protect life in the womb and life in the family, that does not acknowledge the theological roots of our political life as a nation is by no means conservative, and can never be.

The combative Hammer pushed the agenda most explicitly. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, Hammer said, Congress “should legislate a national protection for unborn life, embracing a morally imbued reading of its Fourteenth Amendment.” But long-term, Hammer counsels judicial offense. To do so, he said, “we must reject illusory neutrality, embrace our moralistic impulses, and render judgments accordingly.”

Coming as it did between the Dobbs ruling in June and the midterms in November, the National Conservatism III conference in September (along with the Catholic-led Restoring a Nation conference in October) may be the high-water mark of the specifically religiously informed nationalism. Even then, it seemed that Mohler, Reno, and Kiely were insisting a little too much how vital social conservatives are to the NatCons. Their remarks sometimes verged on wishcasting.

Meanwhile, another narrative about the New Right has been taking hold, advanced most provocatively by Nate Hochman—a self-declared conservative “insider”—who has already begun eulogizing the religious right. Citing the decline in church attendance and membership nationally, but also within the GOP, and the growth of “Nones” to 29 percent of Americans in 2021, Hochman argues that “the conservative political project is no longer specifically Christian.” Overturning Roe is “more of a last gasp than a sign of strength.”

Hochman probably over-eggs the numbers; something like 80 percent of Republican voters and leaners believe in God, and 61 percent say religion is very important in their life. But Hochman gets something right: The hardening of the right-wing discourse and agenda and a parallel decline in orthodox religiosity. He cites Ron DeSantis, Christopher Rufo, and Tucker Carlson as right-wing elites who, while not necessarily secular, don’t bear the marks of a deep faith tradition. Infamously, among primary voters, Trump was the candidate of voters with a “folk religion” rather than dedicated churchgoers.

In the New Right coalition, Hochman argues, the religious right are “partners, rather than leaders.” Drawing on the late dissident—and disowned—right-wing thinker Samuel Francis, Hochman argues that from here out, social conservatism will mean “race relations, identity politics, immigration and the teaching of American history.” Issues like “school prayer, no-fault divorce and homosexuality” are nonstarters, with apologies to the theological arguments put forth by Mohler. Critically, the New Right won’t “restore” Christians “to their pre-eminent place in public life.” “But it may have an actual chance at winning,” Hochman concludes. Given the poor performance of ballot measures aiming at restricting abortion this November, Republican strategists are probably learning this lesson right now.

Each of the social issues Hochman highlights as key for the secular social conservatism has pretty clear parallels in the conservative past. The brouhaha over critical race theory is on a continuum with school busing, affirmative action, and desegregation, and even the “canon wars” of the 1990s. Homosexuality and no-fault divorce might be closed questions, but the term “woke” clearly encompasses feminism, deconstructions of gender identity, and queer, especially trans, rights. Far from new topics, these issues have long histories on the right.

In other words, what Hochman actually appears to have struck upon is the longstanding marginal status of explicitly religious conservatives. Like most of the illiberal right, what Hochman is dismissing is the George W. Bush era of conservatism—the heyday of religiously informed conservatism.

There are, I think, at least two causes of this fissure in the New Right. The first is, as Hochman identifies, a tension between conservatives for whom religion is the most important thing in their lives and voters and writers for whom it is not. Once again, this divide within the conservative movement isn’t exactly new; it’s an ever-present undercurrent in the intellectual history of the American right. The Communist-turned-libertarian Max Eastman, for example, quit National Review in 1958 with the remark that it was an error to think he could collaborate with “a publication whose basic view of life and the universe I regard as primitive and superstitious.” Or in 1981, the conservative icon Barry Goldwater claimed “the religious issues of these groups have little or nothing to do with conservative or liberal politics.” “Sick and tired” of political preachers, Goldwater said he would “fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of ‘conservatism.’”

Explicitly religious conservatives—be they National Conservatives, biblical theocrats, Christian nationalists, or Catholic integralists—face the reality that for many Americans, religion is a personalized phenomenon. A recent survey of the theological beliefs of American adults found that among self-described evangelicals, 44 percent of the respondents agreed with the statement “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God,” while 56 percent said they think worshipping alone or with family “is a valid replacement for regularly attending church.” In some places, as it is intermingled with Trumpian politics, cultural evangelicalism is right-wing Sheilaism.

More broadly, this self-determined theology marries neatly with American folk libertarianism: the deeply ingrained political culture that rejects the overweening authority of both the state and scolds. It’s this folk libertarian spirit that people like Hochman and Compact’s Matthew Schmitz look to as the basis of a big-tent coalition for the New Right. Schmitz envisages the political landscape divided between social progressives and social traditionalists, with winnable normies—usually male, and represented by Joe Rogan, Dave Chappelle, the remnants of the New Atheists, and Barstool Sports—in the middle. Forming an anti-woke alliance of the “skeptical and the religious, the nones and the trads, will not be easy. But it may prove necessary,” Schmitz wrote in 2020. It’s hard to imagine that religious conservatives’ eternal commitments and their genuine belief in sin will allow for any sort of long-term alliance. As soon as Christians are perceived as a more censorious threat, the folk-libertarian impulse of this cohort will swing left, as we saw in the mid-terms.

But a second cause centers on the growing influence of secular, even pagan, ideas in right-wing activist and intellectual circles. There has been a marked increase in right-wing interest in the anti-liberal criticism of irreligious thinkers, such as the materialist Samuel Francis, the Catholic apostate Carl Schmitt, or the neoreactionary first mover, Curtis Yarvin, among leading right-wing politicians and thinkers. A second-order example of this trend is the career of the internet personality Bronze Age Pervert (BAP). In 2018, BAP self-published Bronze Age Mindset, a 200-page celebration of Übermenschen filtered through deep-fried memes. Michael Anton reviewed Bronze Age Mindset in the Claremont Review of Books. Our Dante of the secular right, Nate Hochman, told the New York Times that “many of his peers who read Bronze Age Pervert ‘ended up reading Anton’s review of it, and then ended up doing [Claremont fellowships].” “There was something there that was clearly attractive to young conservative elites,” he added.

The perceptive analyst of the far-right Matthew Rose describes a young man writing him to say, “Many young conservatives have left Christianity.” Why? “The Church has become the number one enemy of Western Civilization. Soon the only people left in Christianity will be third-world immigrants and a handful of self-hating whites.” A few data points doesn’t mean the next generation of right-wing activists will be anti-Christian Nietzscheans. But Christianity’s emphasis on forgiveness, suffering, the meek and poor runs totally counter to the tendencies of the New Right and National Conservative movements. The right’s palpable rage at their political opponents, the celebration of wielding state power to punish foes, the dangerous efforts to cling to earthly power, the political culture that celebrates fighters—all of this should give believers in a suffering God reason to pause. If the choice is between a candidate who fights and a candidate who turns the other cheek, I’m not sure where the base and the activist class go—or their professional Christian allies.

But we will have a king over us; that we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.
–1 Samuel 8:19-20

The religious/secular fault line may ramify in many directions. As we may already be seeing, efforts to reinstitute Christianity as a semi-established religion will run aground on Americans’ right not to be preached at by self-appointed moralists. It could split the coalition, helping the right blow more elections.

Or perhaps Hochman is right, and a secular right will become ascendant politically and intellectually. But an American right wing that jettisons serious Christianity is a frightening proposition. Although Christianity can, when it intersects with politics, veer toward self-righteousness and exclusiveness, orthodox Christianity also foregrounds forgiveness, charity, and hope. These virtues are essential to democracy. In 1969, the mystical theocrat Brent Bozell observed the American conservative movement and predicted it would either join the establishment, be irrelevant, or “swell the ranks of a proto-fascist reaction to the collapse of secular liberalism.” Ross Douthat put this more memorably and succinctly in a 2016 tweet:

Matthew Rose has gazed into the abyss of secular right-wing illiberal intellectuals. He warns that a secular right will

give defiant expression to primordial passions, once disciplined by religion, that liberalism tried to repress—about preserving cultural differences, punishing enemies, and deposing disloyal elites. It will lack a way of describing the solidarity that it seeks, and it will thrive on naming the dangers it claims to expose.

One need only to listen to Hillsdale College’s David Azerrad, or nearly any of the speeches at NatCon III, to see this play out in real time. Of more concern, even public Christians have begun think and speak of politics in terms of “enemies.”

Mohler, in his NatCon III remarks, spoke at length about the danger of the secular state. As religious beings, he said, we are drawn to systems of belief to order ourselves around. Mohler tells a very familiar conservative story, that the progressive secularist and liberationist project did not free humanity. It created space for new religions, and worship of the state. In assuming all conservatives are as serious about their faith as he is, Mohler doesn’t seem to realize that this critique also applies to the right. The right’s new religions might include America First, MAGA, and a burgeoning cult of the state. And if Mohler thinks the “liberal secular state” can’t philosophically support the liberties and human rights it proclaims, he’d better believe this is also true for the burgeoning secular right.

Where is this heading? The most likely outcome is not a breakdown of the New Right coalition that has formed over the last few years but rather its transformation into an America First nationalism garbed in superficial Christian symbolism. As a political outlook, illiberalism searches for post-post-modern commitments to ground its attacks on liberalism. In America, it makes sense that one of these commitments would be cultural Christianity—faith in faith—rather than a specific confession.

In practice, this will mean a near-obsessive focus on demonizing progressives and identifying “woke” extremism. Perhaps the “trad” and “none” alliance will come together in the face of progressive overreach. Yet fighting “wokeism,” a ubiquitous term in NatCon speeches, is a thin gruel. It offers symbolic enemies to fight, but little realistic policy for rejuvenation. This has been a recurring problem for the conservative movement. But compare NatCon intellectuals with men like Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Gerson. Whatever their shortcomings, each made genuine policy contributions informed by their faith.

In this muddle-through arrangement, the Christian right will be the losers. The tragedy of social conservatives is that maintaining or restoring norms that are already out the door is virtually impossible. And so, as has so often been the case, voters motivated by social issues will primarily end up carrying water for other policy aims. Reaganism was once summed up as “Fight Communism; cut taxes; the pieties”—and pieties was a far distant third. The caveat to this, of course, is Roe v. Wade. Its overturning is a victory for Christian conservatives, the culmination of fifty years of organization and work.

But after Dobbs, what are Christian conservatives to support? To the extent that they sincerely believe progressives oppose their faith, perhaps Christian conservatives would take as their goal a state they don’t see as actively hostile. This impulse is understandable, but it’s also overstated and counterproductive. In particular, the bargain that evangelicals struck with Trump has done enormous damage to their public perception. What does it tell skeptics when evangelicals throw in their lot with a cruel, venal, and unrepentant man like Trump? Or that leading Southern Baptists associate with movements inspired by the Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán? Christians must avoid the temptation to empire. They should quit wishcasting, stop calling for Barabbas, consider their witness, and ask themselves, What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain a nation, and lose his own soul?

Joshua Tait

Joshua Tait is a historian of American conservatism. He has a Ph.D. in U.S. History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Twitter: @Joshua_A_Tait.