Religious extremism in not unfamiliar to other faiths but has yet to be named as such among mainstream Christian confessions.
I contend that my subject matter is something of an elephant in our global room, but I should warn that it is equally a thoroughly unhappy one: religiously-inspired, revolutionary political violence. For nearly 20 years now, scarcely a day has gone by without reportage on Islamism. This type of extremism remains present in our global room, and no one can claim it is unseen.
That is of course with good reason: On 9/11, nearly 3,000 people were brutally murdered by violent jihadi Islamists in the worst sub-state terrorist attack in history. But there is something that has long vexed me, in keeping with the New Testament injunction to take the “log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” I have referred to this phenomenon for more than a dozen years but have never had the opportunity to properly delineate what I think is again becoming an urgent subject matter, namely Christianism.
Perversion of Christianity
As I have written earlier, “Whereas religious politics, in a banal sense at least, may be observed wherever clerics become directly involved in politics, the term ‘Christianism’ is intended to denote a more radical, revolutionary approach to secular politics.” Christianism may have Christian connotations and indeed draw upon Christian language but, like Islamism, it is essentially appropriative. It allows an entirely secular Anders Behring Breivik (now known as Fjotolf Hansen) who murdered 77 in Norway on July 22, 2011, to term himself a “cultural Christian” — not on account of any metaphysical belief, but because he believed it was a useful framework with which to attack Muslims and Europe and, using an anti-Semitic dog whistle, “cultural Marxists.”
Christianism, therefore, is a secular doctrine that is different from, alternatively, evangelicalism, political Christianity and fundamentalism. Joas Wagemakers makes a similar claim about the distinction of Islamism from types of religious fundamentalism such as Salafism. This is a political ideology appropriating religion, not the other way around. But I would go further than Wagemakers does in describing Islamism as “a political application of Islam.” Instead, I would suggest that both violent and non-violent forms of Islamism, in their very nature, reject pluralism and advance a doctrine of supremacy that is the hallmark of extremism — whether ethnic, national or religious.
Moreover, it is precisely the political violence exemplified by the horrors unleashed by Breivik that Christianism is intended to denote. In short, this is a distinct, ideological perversion of Christianity that is, at the same time, distinct from older and more familiar forms of Christian nationalism and even from the theologically-based exclusion or persecution that has marred Christianity no less than other monotheistic faiths. One need not be a Christian to be a Christianist, nor is Christianism driven by the same impulse as the regrettably all too familiar instances of tribalism in Christian history.
It scarcely should need saying, but Islamism is an extremist perversion of one of our world’s leading faiths. As a revolutionary ideology born of the 20th century, it can be directly traced from the interwar Muslim Brotherhood under Hasan al-Banna, for example, and the doctrines of Sayyid Qutb in postwar Egypt to the quasi-state terrorism of the Islamist death cult, Daesh. For all of its supposed medievalism, then, Islamism is a product, and not merely a rejection, of modernity.
A similar perspective can be taken on Christianism. So, first, a banal point: Believers have politics, just as do non-believers. For this reason, I am wary of constructions like “political Christianity” or “political Islam” for the same reason I’m only marginally less wary of constructions like “apolitical Christianity” or “apolitical Islam,” though I accept, of course, that different forms of hermeticism stretch across most faith traditions.
Thus, Christianism doesn’t refer to a form of Christian nationalism that is evident in the contemporary US (although not only there). One might observe the heart-breaking scenes in early April of Protestant loyalists rioting in Belfast with the frightening implications for the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, or indeed the conflict acting as the midwife for the long struggle over the six counties, the Great War. Throughout that conflict, scholars have clearly shown that both Protestant and Catholic confessions anointed or, better, armed their nations with justifications of a holy war. Christian churches’ injunctions to fight for God and nation is but one example of Christian nationalism, and there are countless others like it in the Christian tradition as there are in other faith traditions. It is far from new.
This particular sense of Christian nationalism, likewise, has been extensively studied in the American context, with particular focus on white evangelicalism. In the compelling empirical account, “Taking America Back for God,” Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry conclude that “those who embrace Christian nationalism insist that the Christian God formed, favors and sustains the United States over and above the other nations in the world.” It is in this sense that Rogers Brubaker refers to adherents of Christianism in a 2017 article, whereby “Christianity is increasingly seen as their civilizational matrix, and as the matrix of a whole series of more specific ideas, attitudes, and practices, including human rights, tolerance, gender equality, and support for gay rights.”
Yet here too we may be seeing a case of old wine in new bottles, whereby reactionary and even tribal expressions of a faith — in this case Christianity — which seem to belong to a tradition that, in American terms, stretches from John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” to the televangelists of our day. Even cast in such civilizational terms, these forms of Christian tribalism are of a different stamp than the tradition I’d like to indicate. It is first and foremost ideological and emerged between the two world wars to afflict all three principal confessions in Europe: Protestantism, Catholicism and Orthodoxy.
To take but one example of from each of these confessions, consider first the Romanian Orthodox ideologue, Ion Moţa, a key leader of militant fascist mystics, the Legion of Archangel Michael. Just before he was killed by Republicans in what he understood as a holy war in Civil War Spain, Moţa declared: “No force, no love exists which is higher than that of the race (and can only be realized in the race), except for the force of Christ and love of him. We are defending Christianity in a foreign land, we are defending a force which wells up from the force of our people, and, spurred on by our love for the Cross, we are obeying here in Spain our love for the Romanian people.”
Underscoring that his views were scarcely marginal, a mortuary train carried Moţa’s body from the Spanish battlefield across Europe in winter 1937 into Bucharest, where he was received by hundreds of thousands of devotees, helping to nearly triple the mystical fascist party — the Romanian Iron Guard — membership to 272,000 by the end of that year. No doubt many of these supporters later took part in the earliest massacres during the wartime Holocaust, murdering more than 100,000 Jews in pogroms across Romania in 1940.
This form of sacralized politics was not limited either to the laity or to Orthodox fascists. In Nazi Germany, the regime initially supported the mistitled German Christians as an expression of what was termed “Positive Christianity” in the NSDAP program. Under Reichsbishop Heinrich Müller, the German Christians promoted the Führerprinzip in the country’s Protestant churches, aiming for complete coordination between a totalitarian state and a totalitarian church.
A picture of what this looked like can be glimpsed from these selections of Muller’s 1934 rendering of Christ’s “Sermon on the Mount”. Thus, “Blessed are the meek” becomes “Benevolence to him who bears his suffering manfully,” while “Blessed are the peacemakers” is mongered into “Benevolence to those who maintain peace with the members of the Volk.” Most sacrilegiously, the categorical “turning the other cheek” is turned to the following: “I say to you: it is better, so to live with other members of your Volk that you get along with each other. Volk community is a high and sacred trust for which you must make sacrifice. Therefore come out to meet your opponent as far as you can before you completely fall out with him. If in his excitement your comrade hits you in the face, it is not always correct to hit him back.”
So far did this heresy go that the German Christians even sought the “liberation from the Old Testament with its cheap Jewish morality” by attempting to simply expunge it from the Bible. The genocidal analogue of this attempted erasure was the Holocaust, which was powered by what Saul Friedlander has aptly called “redemptive antisemitism.”
Yet fighting a holy war against socialists in Spain or advocating genocide from the pulpit was not Christianist enough for the Independent State of Croatia, the Catholic wartime ally of Nazi Germany under the rule of the Ustasa, rightly described as “the most brutal and most sanguinary satellite regime in the Axis sphere of influence.” The Ustasa methods of killing were so sadistic that even the Nazi plenipotentiary based in Croatia recoiled. For instance, consider the words of Dionizije Juričev, the head of State Direction for Renewal, from October 22, 1941:
“In this country only Croats may live from now on, because it is a Croatian country. We know precisely what we will do with the people who do not convert. I have purged the whole surrounding area, from babies to seniors. If it is necessary, I will do that here, too, because today it is not a sin to kill even a seven-year-old child, if it is standing in the way of our Ustaša movement … Do not believe that I could not take a machine gun in hand just because I wear priest’s vestments. If it is necessary, I will eradicate everyone who is against the Ustaša.”
These words were targeted not only at the demonized victims of Nazism such as Jews, Roma and Sinti Travelers, but also at the Orthodox Serbs who were the largest victims of the Ustasa “policy of thirds” — kill one-third, expel one-third and forcibly convert one-third of their enemies. This sacrilege culminated in the only extermination center not directly run by the Nazi SS — the Jasenvocac camp, less than 100 miles from the Croatian capital Zagreb.
Jasenovac, where some 100,000 ethnic or religious victims were brutally murdered, was commanded by Miroslav Filipovic-Majstorovic, a serving priest. Though he was later defrocked and ultimately hanged in 1946, both his wartime actions and the escape of so many of his allies on the Catholic “ratline” to South America, including the Ustasa leader, Ante Pavelic — who spent more than a dozen years hidden in Argentina after the war — suggests that, in much the same way that fascism could appeal to seduced conservatives, Christianism could also appeal to Christian tribalists.
The case of such priests during the fascist era led to the useful term “clerical fascism,” characterized as a hybrid between the Christian faith and fascism. Yet in a manner inverse to Christian nationalism, which can be entirely secular, clerical fascism suggests a phenomenon from, and within, Christian churches. With respect to Christianism in our (arguably) secularizing world, this would exclude self-described “cultural Christians” like Anders Breivik, whose 775,000-word manifesto is clear on his secular appropriation of Christianity for the purposes of attacking cultural Marxism.
So too with the civilizational frame adopted by conspiracist proponents of the “great replacement,” which alleges a Muslim plot to destroy Christian civilizations from within. The convicted terrorist Brenton Tarrant, the murderer of 51 Muslim worshippers at Friday prayers in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15, 2019, was aimed at countering this so-called “white genocide,” itself a neo-Nazi term coined by the convicted race murderer David Lane (also notorious for popularizing the “14 words”: “we must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children”). Like Breivik, Tarrant’s 74-page manifesto, “The Great Replacement,” specifically addresses itself to Christians:
“Let the fire of our repentance raise up the Holy War and the love of our brethren lead us into combat. Let our lives be stronger than
death to fight against the enemies of the Christian people.
ASK YOURSELF, WHAT WOULD POPE URBAN II DO?”
Pope Urban declared the First Crusade in 1095, opening one of the darkest chapters in Christian history.
Although modern and revolutionary, Christianism need not be defined as a theological stance. One can be agnostic on the issue of faith and still be a Christianist. More important is the Durkheimian religious behavior toward the sacred and the profane, which closely links clerical fascists with cultural Christians of Tarrant and Breivik’s stripe. This leads to the definition of Christianism as a modern, ideological appropriation of Christianity based upon a secular vision of redemption through political violence against perceived enemies.
While it might be tempting to think that the era of fascism has left Christianism in our bloody past, this construction feels relevant again in the wake of the Capitol Hill insurrection earlier this year in Washington, DC. True, Identity Christians, the Army of God and many similar groups emerged after 1945, but these were tiny and fringe extremist movements. By contrast, what makes Christianism today the elephant in the room is precisely how widespread it appears to be developing in a new guise — and radicalizing.
In the US, for instance, according to recent polling reported by The New York Times, nearly “15 percent of Americans say they think that the levers of power are controlled by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles, a core belief of QAnon supporters.” That equates to some 50 million Americans. That this ideological crusade is “infecting” Christian churches, indeed conquering them, is borne out by a similar Axios report indicating that this virus stretches across confessions: “Hispanic Protestants (26%) and white evangelical Protestants (25%) were more likely to agree with the QAnon philosophies than other groups. (Black Protestants were 15%, white Catholics were 11% and white mainline Protestants were 10%.)
We should not delude ourselves that this is, or will always be, a non-violent movement. Already, nearly 80 “conspiracy-motivated crimes” can be laid at the QAnon Christianists’ door — and that’s before ascribing to them a key role in the January 6 insurrection, also partly fomented by then-President Donald Trump. The fusion of QAnon with Christianity — an exemplary case of Christianism — is chillingly evidenced by a professionally shot video released this New Year’s Day, just days before the attempted coup in Washington. Even if this ideological call to battle ends with the canonical Lord’s Prayer familiar to Christians, salvation is emphatically this-worldly and focused on a “reborn” US in a manner quite familiar to scholars of fascism.
It is for this reason that Christianism is very much the elephant in the room. As such, it needs to be confronted and rejected both politically and theologically — first and foremost by Christians themselves. This repudiation would not simply be for the sake of the self-preservation of the faith in the face of its heretic form and not just for the protection of life that will be an increasing concern in the months and years to come. It is necessary because this is a syndrome not unfamiliar to other faiths but has yet to be named as such among mainstream Christian confessions.
We must not look away from this. Let us not go back to the genocidal years of clerical fascism in Europe, spawned by ideology and bloodlust, and let us stand tall against what is so obviously sacrilege. Both faith and civic duty command it. That is because, put in more familiar terms in William Faulkner’s “Requiem for a Nun,” “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Professor Matthew Feldman is the Director of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right. His specialist research areas include fascist ideology and practice since 1918, the Holocaust and Holocaust denial, neo-Nazi and ‘lone wolf’ terrorism, radical right movements and ideologues. See his full profile here.
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