Connor Grubaugh is a graduate student in political theory at the University of Notre Dame. His primary interests are in religion and politics, philosophy of social science, philosophy of history, and the history of political thought.
In a country long noted for its exceptional religiosity, at least among the secularized nations of the West today, how did a movement with an openly anti-Christian contingent come to captivate the public mind at a decisive moment in its history? Few beyond the alt-right itself have welcomed the prospect, and even among their own numbers, Christianity remains an object of debate. Pundits in this charged climate have found it easier to blame their political enemies for the unwelcome intrusion than to pay any attention to what the alt-right actually says. If they did, they would be discomforted to find that the alt-right has struck a deep chord in American religious consciousness that transcends political divisions.
Christianity is a recurring topic in alt-right forums because it divides the movement. Most leading alt-right thinkers, such as Richard Spencer and Greg Johnson, are staunchly atheist. As Matthew Rose has written, they draw on powerful, premodernist critiques of Christianity that we dismiss at our peril. But many less significant figures in the alt-right, and those hovering on the edge of the movement, are unconvinced. Some have purely pragmatic concerns about reaching a wider American audience. But others have more principled objections, reflective of beliefs about the relationship between Christianity and culture that chronically reappear in American history. They are strict compatibilists about Christianity and racialist ideology. If the alt-right is to gain a serious foothold in American life, it will need their support.
Yet professed “Alt-Right Christians” do not fit either fundamentalist or progressive religious stereotypes. Rather, they seem to understand religion in the terms of liberal theologians. Although its original purpose was to accommodate the Enlightenment within early modern Protestantism, liberal theology is not identical with political liberalism or any other political doctrine. Fundamentally, as Gary Dorrien and David Hollinger have written, it seeks to free “genuine” Christian faith from the fetters of traditional authority and open it to accommodation with new forms of knowledge or practical activity. This in turn requires redrawing the boundary between essentials and inessentials, or fundamenta and adiaphora. It follows that all liberal theology must accept some form of discontinuity in the history of Christian doctrine and identify the present more closely than the past with true doctrine, if such a thing exists at all.
Thus, “Alt-Right Christians” attempt to win the sympathy of their atheist peers with assurances that Christianity can accommodate racialist ideology, just as it once accommodated the Enlightenment, because it can accommodate anything. Their vision is of a purely personal religion almost devoid of substantive content, corroborated by its alleged historical inconsistencies on moral and political subjects like slavery, patriarchy, abortion, divorce, and homosexuality. Blogger Hunter Wallace proclaims that “The churches accommodate and echo whatever is the political mainstream” and “The Alt-Right shouldn’t get hung up on being anti-Christian because Christianity is infinitely malleable.” He means this as a compliment. For some such as Andrew Fraser, this makes white Protestant congregations into alt-right mission territory: if the alt-right can strike up an “informal alliance with church-goers” and even “become a religious movement,” it might “set the mainstream Anglo-Protestant imagination alight.” For others, the faith begins to smack of a civil religion. One contributor to Richard Spencer’s AltRight.com writes, “Believe in Christianity or don’t, what matters is that you bring your family to Church on Sunday.”
This thinking may seem peculiar, but it shouldn’t. “Alt-Right Christians” invoke the same logic of accommodation that has always appeared when Christianity comes into conflict with cultural movements in American history. Beliefs previously considered contrary to the gospel are smuggled into theological consensus under the pretense of purging prejudices internalized by historical accident and returning to authentic spirituality. Some of the faithful fall away, some persist in practice only, and some remain. “Alt-Right Christians” share with liberal Protestants the theological premises that make this phenomenon possible and are now appropriating them to advance a racialist agenda.
Those with even a limited grasp of the concept of orthodoxy will appreciate the gravity of liberal theology’s many coups in American history. If Christianity has contradicted itself, it is bankrupt and should be discarded. But it is hard to deny the alt-right reading of recent religious history given the resources of American Protestantism alone. Is the alt-right’s accommodationist project a winning one? Effectually opposing the alt-right will depend in large part on Christians’ capacity to give an account of their faith and its history that is perfectly consistent about what is essential and what is not, while remaining wholly unaccommodating of intrusions on the former and serenely tolerant of innovation in the latter. But this is not an account American Protestantism has yet given.