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The new Christo-elitism

On the dangers of intra-religious alienation

Artillery Row

The theologian Dorothy Sölle coined the term “Christofascism” in 1990. The word threatens to become increasingly serviceable for those alleging that Christian opponents are fascists for having conservative religious views. Looking at recent usage of this term, it denigrates those with merely conservative beliefs as people inferior to more enlightened believers, in a way that seems (at best) rather unchristian. 

Locating genuine “Christofascism” in history would be a long and complex task, but surely the most obvious example is the Deutsche Christen movement of the Third Reich. This strange and disturbing episode from history involved a minority of devotees in German protestant churches ascribing to an ideologised version of the faith, a Nazified “Christianity”. It was replete with attempts to downgrade or delete the Old Testament from the Bible, Swastikas hanging on altars and a whole panoply of bizarre ideas, even the notion that Jesus himself was descended from an “Aryan” Virgin Mary.

Christians tending to the right of the Overton Window suddenly veer out of frame

One needn’t dwell on why this is absurd. It suffices to say that Christianity is a faith for which the universality of human nature is central to a narrative of redemption available to all human beings, who are made in the image of God. 

Perhaps surprisingly, Sölle’s original use of “Christofascism” wasn’t focused on transgressing universal human dignity by classing other peoples as inferior (Untermenschen). Her concern was more with particular tactics she saw in the politicisation of evangelical Christianity during the Reagan era. She claimed that far-right forces would cynically whip-up moral panics about things like pornography, precisely to galvanise Christians for their cause. She was also suspicious of the mass media platforms which could stimulate Bible Belt Christians into adopting hateful attitudes. 

This is discussed in the Sojourner’s article linked above, which connects “Christofascism” with a bill the Missouri state government passed last year, the “Missouri Save Adolescents from Experimentation (SAFE) Act”. (The article also features one of the heaviest working subclauses in the history of the English language: “to force fascist ideas, like denying children life-saving healthcare, on Christians”.

The act forbids state-owned facilities and state-employees from enacting gender transition procedures on people under the age of 18. The author connects Christian legislators who support the bill with “Christian nationalism”, meaning people who “claim the U.S. is founded upon Christian ideas and that the country’s current laws ought to reflect those beliefs”. We read, however, that Christian nationalism doesn’t do justice to the moral severity of Christian support for the Missouri legislation — it is actually “Christofascism”, precisely because those supporters have been swept-up by the tactics Sölle warned about. 

To argue that Christian nationalism is synonymous with “Christofascism” has an obvious outcome: Christians tending to the right of the Overton Window suddenly veer out of frame, at high speed. It’s not that the views espoused by Christians who do not support gender corrective procedures for people under 18 are wrong — that’s just a given. The claim is rather that there is a depth of wrongness which is shared with some of the worst atrocities recorded in the history books.

I haven’t read Matthew Goodwin’s forthcoming book, Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics, yet — but on Brendan O’Neill’s podcast he discussed some of its ideas, one of which can be connected with the resurfacing of the term “Christofascism”. Goodwin considers there to have been three episodes in Britain’s populist “revolt”: pre-2016 UKIP election victories, then Brexit and finally the great realignment of December 2019. Before anyone starts scoffing about what’s happened to that great realignment, bear in mind Goodwin’s argument that the conditions which provoked the realignment haven’t gone away, even if its electoral consequences have disappeared. He claims the current disappearance is therefore just a “pause”. 

Goodwin argues that the Thatcherite and Blairite revolutions combined to ensconce a “new elite that controls all institutions in society”. It is fundamentally opposed to the views of a majority or near-majority of the British people. In other words, the adults won’t be back in the room forever, because the disgruntled masses haven’t gone anywhere. 80 per cent of the British population disagree with things like calling pregnant women “pregnant persons”, says Goodwin, and recent research shows that the number of Brits subscribing to radical progressivist ideology is around 15 per cent. As long as that 15 per cent dominate the “House of Commons, the BBC, cultural institutions and universities”, the frustration of the rest of the population is bound to recoil. 

The elite’s railing against the resistant masses has taken on an unpleasant character

Moreover, says Goodwin, research shows the new elite has a defined worldview which clearly separates it from the rest of the population. The distinction is not just about the well-known flashpoints, but underlying and enduring commitments: a cosmopolitan outlook, a commitment to hyperglobalisation and mass migration, a fondness for technocratic governance and so on. This differentiates it from the old elite, with its instinctive cultural conservatism. They aremuch less wedded to links to the group identity that the old elite used to cherish and used to preserve; they are openly counter cultural, if not cynical, of established ways of life, or institutions, or group identities” and take “much less pride in the nation”. 

A rapprochement between the two sides seems impossible, moreover, because of the attitude the new elite take toward the others. Goodwin points out that the free speech flashpoint belies a markedly pernicious attitude to people who do not share the radical progressives’ convictions. That is, they are stupid, uneducated, unenlightened and therefore easily manipulable.

This reveals Goodwin’s motivations for the book — his frustration with the “inadequacy” of the elite narratives as to why Brexit, particularly, happened. “Much of our political and media class have fundamentally failed” to make sense of why so many people reacted as they did, and “we’ve been given a long list” of explanations: “Russia, Cambridge Analytica, Social Media, what was written on the side of a bus”, etc. These narratives ignore the underlying reason, which is the demographic reordering of society with the new elite in control.

Returning to Christianity, Goodwin’s account of British populism involves exactly those tactics which Sölle used to define “Christofascism”. Sinister far-right operators (Putin, the ERG) take advantage of a sizable mass of the unlettered population, by way of mass media technologies (Cambridge Analytica). 

This links to his observation that the elite’s railing against the resistant masses has taken on a particularly unpleasant character. It’s not surprising to hear that those committed to hyperglobalisation, cosmopolitanism and technocracy, look down on all those who do not share those commitments. Yet it is striking to hear that disdain described as seeing those people as prohibited from virtue (hence “virtue” in the book’s title). That is, such people are seen as morally inferior. By extension, this means they are somehow separated from the innate dignity Christianity ascribes to all people. In O’Neill’s words, the new elite treat them as “an inferior race”, which, applied to churches, is exactly what we might have expected to be meant by the term “Christofascism”.

Sölle’s work obviously predates what Goodwin considers the great realignment of British politics. It would be interesting, nonetheless, to ask what a statistical analysis like Goodwin’s would look like in Christian churches. The fact two thirds of Anglicans voted for Brexit, when the Church of England’s leaders were committed remainers, is perhaps a case in point. The general opinion amongst believers in my echo chamber, unsurprisingly, is that a Christianity aligned to radical progressivism soon haemorrhages large numbers of the faithful. Then the faithful are condemned as unable to grasp a sufficiently nuanced interpretation of the Gospels, and easily manipulable by sinister operators. If this is the dominant narrative about what’s happening in churches, then the phenomenon at stake isn’t “Christofascism” at all, but rather a new Christo-elitism. 

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