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date: 03 December 2022

Contextualizing the Proud Boys: Violence, Misogyny, and Religious Nationalismfree

Contextualizing the Proud Boys: Violence, Misogyny, and Religious Nationalismfree

  • Margo KittsMargo KittsProfessor of Humanities and Religious Studies Coordinator, Religious Studies and East-West Classical Studies, Hawaii Pacific University

Summary

One of the most strident voices in the US alt-right scene in the early 21st century belongs to the Proud Boys. Although born only in 2016, the group shares sentiments with older accelerationist groups who seek to return the United States to what they see as its pristine origins. “Alt-right,” “alt-lite,” and “white” are disputed terms among the group’s various chapters, but xenophobia and misogyny are two pervasive themes. Similarly to other voices on the alt-right, the Proud Boys vary in the degree to which they will accommodate racialist Christianity and/or a romanticized Nordic spiritualism. However, to the extent that religion can be made to serve the establishment of a white ethnostate, even the most atheistic among them have come to see religious tolerance as a pragmatic necessity. What is most religious about them, however, can be understood as resembling European metapolitics, which exploits atavistic dreams, mythic symbols, and eschatological values to foster a cultural awakening to nativist dreams. The Proud Boys version of this nativist dream is their aspiration to return to a purported Judeo-Christian ethical foundation for Western civilization, together with a Greco-Roman model of the Republic.

Subjects

  • Religion in America

There is nothing new about harnessing religious rhetoric to promote nationalist interests and xenophobia. Although its voices today are strident, its expressions hark back decades and even centuries. Americanists will remember the religious prose harnessed on both sides in the Civil War; Indologists on the emergence of Hindutva; Eastern Europeanists on the Balkan conflicts; and religious notions have infused the conflicts in Rwanda, Nigeria, and Uganda, as well as in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, not to mention conflicts involving pan-Islamic aspirations.1 Whether religion is the only driver of these conflicts is contestable, but it is arguable nonetheless that religious flags have waved over conflicts not only since European religious wars and the Crusades, but as far back as Iron and Bronze Age war rhetoric, with its royal boasts of gods running in front and sanctifying battles in Hittite, Mesopotamian, and biblical literature.2 It would appear that rarely has there been a conflict which could not be shrouded with religious symbols and rationales, right up to January 6, 2021, when Christian flags, prayers, and crusader slogans in the march on the United States capitol alerted us to the pressing reality of religious nationalist politics in contemporary times.3

Not surprisingly, those who raise these symbols and promote these rationales will not be equally sophisticated regarding their own histories and theologies, which brings us to the subject of the present study. The Proud Boys may not seem worthy of elevation into the educated company of, say, pastors on both sides of the United States Civil War, but they nonetheless do promote their own idea of national salvation and claim to support Judeo-Christian ethics, Western civilization, and the Greco-Roman tradition of the Republic.4 Religious historians might be tempted to dismiss the Proud Boys for their misuses of history and theology, but their truculent displays and flamboyant chauvinism make them worthy of study as one among a dozen or so groups longing to accelerate a political cataclysm to return the United States to what they see as pristine origins. Examining Proud Boy beliefs, rituals, and readiness to come to blows can shed a light on some larger cultural dynamics. After describing the Proud Boys in brief, this article will focus on their origins and goals, their misogyny and violence, their male initiatory rituals, and finally their religious orientations, which combine with their xenophobia to represent one voice in the current social clamor. This voice will be shown to resemble those European intellectual voices which draw on classical texts and ideas to agitate for cultural nativism.

Proud Boys in Brief

Proud Boys are one among a profusion of anti-government, anti-authority, and right-wing extremist groups who call for an acceleration toward civil war and the remaking of western society. The group shot into public awareness when Donald Trump instructed them to “stand back and stand by” during the United States presidential debate on September 29, 2020. After standing by, they indeed stepped up on January 6, 2021 during the siege of the United States capitol, to become one conspicuous face for that siege.5 Many of their vitriolic proclamations have roots in centuries-old racial animus, but the group is notable now for its proneness to violence, its ethnocentrism and xenophobia, and its open misogyny. That last feature of hate groups has been tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center (“SPLC”) only since 2018, although it can be traced back to Nazi and Fascist propaganda, if not long before.6

Proud Boys claim anywhere from six thousand to thirty-five thousand members and reputedly enjoy untold numbers of quiet sympathizers in the United States and abroad, which is one reason the group deserves scrutiny.7 The group’s social features can be deemed eccentric. It boasts its own national anthem (“Proud of Your Boy,” from the musical Aladdin), a fighting wing named the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, or FOAK, explicit sexual taboos (against masturbation and pornography), fluid but nonetheless evident atavistic longings, such as to “Make America Great Again” (MAGA), and an ever-shifting list of enemies, prominent among them “Antifa,” Jews, Muslims, African-Americans, feminists, and white liberals.8 According to the SPLC, their erstwhile leader, provocateur Gavin McInnes, has played a duplicitous rhetorical game in rejecting the labels of white nationalism and alt-right while espousing many tenets associated therewith, as well as contributing to “race-realist” magazines, such as American Renaissance.9

Their current leader, Enrique Tarrio, disputes the racist label.10 His group claims to reach across ethnic divisions, and different chapters attract people of diverse backgrounds, pending grievances, and situations. As political scientist Omar Wasow sees it, “white supremacy is not just for white people anymore. You can invite anybody into this ideology and different individuals are motivated by different things.”11 The tension between the old and the new may be seen in the dispute between Kyle Chapman, originator of the Proud Boy fighting wing FOAK, and current Proud Boy leader Enrique Tarrio, who identifies as Afro-Cuban. In 2020 Chapman wanted to retain the anti-Semitic and whites-only identity for the group, rebranding them “Proud Goys”, whereas Tarrio preferred a more ethnically inclusive approach, as long as all Proud Boys agreed to be “Proud Western chauvinists who refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.”12

Tarrio has begun to promote a Christian identity for the group, quoting scripture to his own ends, such as Isaiah 54:17, which the NIV translates: “No weapon forged against you will prevail,/and you will refute every tongue that accuses you./This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord,/and this is their vindication from me,/declares the Lord.” Tarrio construes this as:

You can’t put an idea in chains . . . You can’t sue it . . . You can’t destroy it . . . The only thing that can defeat it . . . Is a better idea . . . So sue me put me in chains or attempt to destroy me. The armor of God protects me.13

When Tarrio was arrested on January 4, 2021 for burning a Black Lives Matter banner at a historically black church in Washington, DC, a Christian crowdfunding site, GiveSendGo, raised more than 90 percent of the $100,000 required for his legal defense.14 The same site hosted a crowdfunding campaign for Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager tried and acquitted for homicide after he opened fire at Black Lives Matter protesters and killed two in Kenosha, Wisconsin in August of 2021. Proud Boy Christian allegiance was further evident when Proud Boys were seen kneeling and praying on January 6, 2021, before they charged into the capitol.15 The entwining of right-wing religious groups and ethnocentric nationalist groups is complicated, as discussed in the section “Contextualizing the Proud Boys.”

Origins and Goals

Although fans of founder Gavin McInnes claim to have been thrilled with his anti-establishment antics and transgressive humor since his years at Vice magazine (1994–2008), he formally launched the Proud Boys in the fall of 2016. Its first meeting took place in Brooklyn in July 2016, but was uneventful aside from a telltale fistfight between two early members.16 The more important meeting on September 11, 2016 was reported by McInnes in the September 15, 2016 issue of Takimag, a far-right magazine published by paleoconservative Taki Theodoracopulos.17 According to McInnes, this second meeting was attended by about fifty men (women are disallowed from joining the group) at the Tribeca bar Gaslight. McInnes introduced the group as “Western chauvinists who refuse to apologize for creating the modern world,” and compared being a proud western chauvinist today to “being a crippled, black, lesbian communist in 1953,” presumably because of the social stigma.18 Ridiculing the politically correct, the group held a veritable boys’ fest, celebrating Donald Trump’s chauvinism and misogyny and concluding by singing “Proud of Your Boy” from the aforementioned Disney film, Aladdin. One goal of the group was the election of Trump, who was at the time a standard bearer. For McInnes the 2016 election was the “greatest night of my life.” At the September 11 meeting he yelled, “If Donny wins,” the Proud Boys would “own America. We’ll just walk into the White House. USA, USA!”, which is eerily reminiscent of what they did on January 6, 2021, after Trump lost his bid for a second term.19

McInnes stepped down as leader of the group in 2018, but his personality can be argued to have imprinted the group’s character. Despite his claims to be “just kidding” with some of his racist and xenophobic pronouncements, his group has been a magnet for far-right thinkers such as Pat Buchanan, Jim Goad, and Roger Stone, the last of whom he calls a good friend. Segments from Buchanan’s Death of the West were read aloud at Proud Boy meetings and Goad’s The Redneck Manifesto was described on the Proud Boy website as “Proud Boy Holy Scripture”.20 McInnes’s contributions to “race-realist” publications such as Takimag, Vdare, and American Renaissance promoted the white supremist reputation of the group, although McInnes claims it is not minorities he detests, but white liberals:

I don’t dislike minorities. I hate white liberals and the good news is, their days are numbered. The myth of “diversity is our strength” is contingent on nobody trying it. When we’re all forced to live side by side, we’ll quickly realize we are incompatible, and agree to disagree. The blind utopians at the New York Times will be crushed and the rest of us realists will be dancing in the streets.21

Then, four days after video emerged showing George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, he said on his YouTube show, “the race war is here.”

Despite his seemingly racist proclamations, McInnes disputes the label of alt-right, preferring instead alt-lite, which is coded in terms of Western chauvinism instead of white supremacy.22 The alt-right is typically characterized as rejecting liberal democracy and allegiance to multicultural America while endorsing instead white racialism and coarse, vitriolic rhetoric, such as “ethnic humor, prejudicial stereotyping, vituperative criticism, and the flaunting of extremist symbols”.23 According to the Anti-Defamation League (“ADL”), the alt-lite may be distinguished from the alt-right by the former’s rejection of overtly white supremacist ideology, but its hateful impact is nonetheless evident in its misogynist and xenophobic bigotry and rhetoric.24 As Samantha Kutner sees it, the group’s creed is laden with cryptofascist symbols and white supremacist imagery, despite McInnes’s disputations.25

In contrast, Enrique Tarrio and his followers have embraced the coinage “multiracial whiteness,” wherein explicit racial identities are rejected as confirming a hierarchy of standing based on the debasement of others. They see the policy of acknowledging racial identity as in itself racist and prefer the freedom of colorblind individualism. Anyone can now join the MAGA movement, and can engage in the wild freedom of unbridled rage and conspiracy theories.26 Not surprisingly, in a group as cavernous as this, there will be diverse pockets within, from neo-Nazis to cultural libertarians.27

Misogyny, Violence, and Xenophobia

Perhaps the most astonishing hate-creed of the Proud Boys is its outright misogyny. McInnes owns the label.

I’m fine with being perceived as a misogynist. That’s fine. [But] extreme radical hate group . . . that’s nuts . . . Maybe the reason I’m sexist is because women are dumb. No, I’m just kidding, ladies. But you do tend to not thrive in certain areas—like writing.28

In Taki magazine in 2017, he elaborated:

Have you ever been assaulted by a woman? It’s painless. As a feminist, I don’t think it should be a rule to ‘never hit a woman,’ but punching back any more than one time for every twelve she hits you seems unnecessarily cruel. They have no upper-body strength.29

As his proclamations insinuate, one of the Proud Boy goals is a return to pre-feminist 1950s-era gender roles, when, as McInnes says, “girls were girls and men were men.”30 McInnes applauds the stay-at-home housewife: “Ninety-five percent of women would be happier at home.”31 As Noel Kent put it about the Oahu chapter, they long for “a mythical golden age that’s never existed” and “basically want to take us back to the pre-civil rights days and the social hierarchy that existed then.”32

On these atavistic longings, McInnes says that Proud Boys simply want to return to an era when men’s groups played a larger role in American society, to have families, to live in the suburbs, and to love America. In themselves these aspirations may seem unremarkable, except when seen in the light of nostalgic aspirations for a patriarchal past found in Nazi propaganda on the women’s question. As Paula Siber opined back in 1933,

To be a woman means to be a mother, means affirming with the whole conscious force of one’s soul the value of being a mother and making it a law of life . . . the highest calling of the National Socialist woman is not just to bear children, but consciously and out of total devotion to her role and duty as mother to raise children for her people.33

Richard Grunberg points out that the whole of the Nazi women’s question was a dogma of inequality between the sexes as immutable as that between the races.34 On the contemporary connection between these atavistic longings and sexism, Loretta Ross pointed out in 2019 that “The Far Right really does believe that they’re a mythical Aryan race, and so to maintain the purity of their blood, they have to contain the behaviors of their women”.35

Of course, McInnes would retort that he just wants to preserve the family:

I’m still determined to free us all from big government, but I also want to focus on the family. America needs more dads. The left’s obsession with shattering the family and the patriarchy all comes back to daddy issues, and I’m going to reverse that trend. . . I want more young men proposing. I want less spinsters. The patriarchy isn’t a fun idea you oughtta try out; it’s the very foundation of our country.36

Regardless of McInnes’s claims about preserving the family, it is important to acknowledge two misogynist offshoots of the Proud Boys: Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOWs) and Involuntary Celibates (Incels). Both MGTOWs and Incels express their gender animus on what has been called the “manosphere,” blogs dedicated to men’s rights.37 MGTOWs claim they are losers in a gender war and prefer to just stay out of it, as feminists reportedly have ruined the male-female dating scene. Incels advocate a beta male uprising against women and alpha males, since beta males get no sex.38 Famous self-professed beta males Elliot Rodger and Alek Minassian engaged in mass killings to express their rage, in 2014 and 2018 respectively. Before killing six people and wounding fourteen more in Isla Vista, California, Elliot Rodger in his manifesto protested the fact that he was still a virgin, despite being “a supreme gentleman.”39 In 2018 Alek Minassian wrote on Facebook “The Incel Rebellion has already begun” and “All hail Elliot Rodger” before he drove his van into a crowd of people in Toronto, killing ten and injuring fifteen.40 As Tim Wilson sees it, Incels delight in “acts of Nietzschean transgression against standard liberal pieties . . . magnified in their own estimations by the magic lantern show of social media”.41 While their ideas may seem outlandish, the fact that Incel hatreds resulted in the killing and injuring of so many warrants further analysis in terms of Proud Boy atavism and the thrill of transgression.

Rich Lowry analyzes the atavistic impulse of the Proud Boys as right out of the movie Fight Club, in which a violent men’s group revolts against a banal, overly feminized bourgeois society by holding clandestine fistfights.42 In Lowry’s opinion, McInnes’s advocation of fistfighting is a marketable product designed for men disaffected by liberal society and who long to return to a simpler time. In what has been called their “toxic masculinity,” they resemble 19th-century masculinist American writers such as Melville, Thoreau, and Mark Twain, who were eager to reject the controls of a Victorian society they saw as feminine and suffocating.43 At the same time, it is also conceivable that their motives could be more organic. On their infatuation with violence, Lowry compares McInnes and his Proud Boys to British soccer hooligans, as described in Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs. Despite his search for reasons for hooliganism, Buford opined that the mayhem of violence was its own point. “Violence is one of the most intensely lived experiences and, for those capable of giving themselves over to it, is one of the most intense pleasures”.44

Whether or not Lowry is right, the Proud Boys have been conspicuous figures in physical brawls, including in Charlottesville (at the Unite the Right rally), Portland, and Berkeley in 2017. Since then, armed Proud Boys have posed as security details for far-right political figures such as Matt Gaetz and Roger Stone.45 On his webcast back in 2016 McInnes plainly incited violence: “Can you call for violence generally? ‘Cause I am.” One of the reasons he was banned from Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter is because of these calls, such as: “Fighting solves everything—we need more violence from the Trump people. Trump supporters: Choke a motherfucker”.46 Although it is difficult to gauge when his taunts are to be taken at face value, the sheer abundance of McInnes’s calls for violence and the violent responses of his Proud Boys do little to support a claim that he was only “joking around” or that these statements continue a practice of “brilliant hipster self-parody,” as the Village Voice once called his stand-up comedy.47 One might expect a more aloha mentality from Hawai`i’s Proud Boys, but Oahu chapter leader Nick Ochs grudgingly admitted: “We’re not averse to breaking your nose, if you attack us,” he said. “People think that’s controversial to say. I don’t find it to be such. I’m not personally itching for a fight. I don’t enjoy fighting . . . But it’s not the worst thing in the world.”48

As for what is religious about this group, their most obvious religious feature is whom they hate. Despite their loyalty to “Judeo-Christian ethics, Western civilization, and the Greco-Roman tradition of the Republic,” they appear to know little about any of those, particularly about Western civilization’s Judeo-Christian foundations, with an emphasis on Judeo. A hallmark of the Proud Boys is their outright anti-Semitism. As Brian Brathovd put it in the podcast The Daily Shoah, if the Proud Boys “were pressed on the issue, I guarantee you that like 90 percent of them would tell you something along the lines of ‘Hitler was right. Gas the Jews.’”49 After a trip to Israel, McInnes was unsurprisingly vulgar: “Hebrew is “spit talk” and “whole language is clearing your throat, it’s like Gaza, they’re launching little tiny missiles from your mouth onto your shirt.” Israelis, he said, have a “whiny paranoid fear of Nazis that’s making them scared of Christians and Trumps who are their greatest allies.”50 As for Islamophobia, McInnes claims the label. “I’m not a fan of Islam. I think it’s fair to call me Islamophobic.” He adds, “Palestinians are stupid. Muslims are stupid. And the only thing they really respect is violence and being tough.”51

Their hatreds are not the only thing religious about this group. As will be shown, their atavism, accelerationist longings, and conspiratorial thinking about an imperiled Western culture are of a piece with the thinking of other right-wing groups, and for that matter share a legacy with some millennial aspirations traceable to well-known apocalyptic literature in the United States.52 Before discussing this, however, we turn to their male-bonding rituals.

Proud Boy Initiations and Ritual Dynamics

In addition to singing “Proud of Your Boy,” the Proud Boys practice rituals of the initiatory variety. These appear meant to build up group identity, and indeed resemble not only college fraternity initiations, but initiation rituals in groups prone to war, as studied by anthropologists.53 That is, they are not only sensational and sophomoric, but apparently succeed in committing members to their goals.

First, one must publicly declare oneself a Proud Boy, “boy” being the operative word. As noted, part of the Proud Boys’ mission is to foster masculine identity; they see themselves as a “pro-West fraternal organization” comprised of men who “refuse to apologize for creating the modern world”.54 Although there is a fledgling Proud Boys’ Girls organization, and there are a few European female members with emerging online personalities, to date the female group’s profile is low.55 McInnes has said that women were not allowed to join Proud Boys because women tended to be lazy and wanted to be downright abused, which is why he had to “stop playing nice with them”.56

Second, a new initiate must allow other members to pummel him with their fists while the initiate shouts out five kinds of breakfast cereal. Why breakfast cereals? Presumably these represent a trope for Americana culture, but according to McInnes the true motive behind enduring physical abuse is “to train for “better ‘adrenaline control’.”

Both physical fighting and arguing require you to maintain your composure and not get petty . . . Defending the West against the people who want to shut it down is like remembering cereals as you’re being bombarded with ten fists.57

Another aspect to this component of endurance is that one must vow to stop masturbating (a policy called “No-Wanks”), and, relatedly, to shun pornography.58 Staring at pornography supports the ostensible “Jewish-owned porn industry,” while masturbation increases one’s sense of solitude and detracts from two goals of the group: (a) the pursuit of ideal relationships with a significant female other and (b) enhancement of one’s sense of belonging to a “pro-West fraternal organization” comprised of men who “refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.”59 Proud Boys claim to approve of heterosexuality, provided that women “know their place”.60 Meanwhile, the fraternal bonds are to replace whatever private pleasure Proud Boys used to take through masturbation.

Third, one must get a Proud Boys tattoo. Although some of these have images of roosters, the primary purpose appears to be to advertise the label Proud Boy on one’s forearm or chest.

Fourth, one must engage in physical violence with antifascist protesters. In Proud Boy thinking, Antifa and Proud Boys inversely define each other. By engaging in physical brawls with the far-left antifascist movement, Proud Boys “serve the cause,” says McInnes.61 Cause or no cause, as noted already, Proud Boys are thrilled with violence, and openly promote it.62 In February of 2017 McInnes argued, “I want violence. I want punching in the face.” And “violence doesn’t feel good, justified violence feels great, and fighting solves everything.”63

One might expect the Proud Boys to outgrow the allure of these violent rituals and belligerent proclamations, that is, to transcend what McInnes called “a sophomoric group of hoodlums promoting politically conservative antics and a lot of beer drinking.” But the facts that McInnes is in his fifties, and that, according to Pape and Ruby, most of the January 6 rioters were in their forties or fifties, do not support the expectation that the Proud Boys are soon to grow out of their enthusiasm for physical violence.64 Consequently, it is worth exploring these dynamics a little further.

Although it is doubtful that Proud Boy leaders have studied them, male initiatory rituals involving physical as well as emotional violence have been explored by a number of anthropologists. Harvey Whitehouse, for instance, sees the goal of in-group ritualized violence as promoting personal transformation and collective solidarity. He points out that new awarenesses can be triggered by rare performances of highly arousing, cognitively shocking rituals rooted in pageantry and painful ordeal, as seen in an array of male bonding rituals from traditional warrior cults to paramilitary cells.65 Head-biting, evulsion of fingernails, whipping, burning, mutilation, extreme physical deprivation, and agonizing circumcisions are some of these “rites of terror” designed not only to induce new awarenesses in initiates but also to cement them into exclusive, impregnable communities capable of perpetuating trauma outward onto other groups, occasionally in terroristic forms.66 Similarly, Candace Alcorta and Richard Sosis argue that violent and painful rituals can construct social and religious realities for (adolescent) warrior bands, and can invest cultural symbols, beliefs, and supernatural perceptions with emotional significance.67 These anthropological analyses support the perception-altering effects of traumatic rituals in groups prone to conflict.

While the level of commitment of Proud Boys may not be tantamount to those of initiands into warrior bands or paramilitary cells, it is not hard to grasp the transformative dynamism of rituals such as fistfighting, which seek to break the constraints of polite society and cement together those who collectively impose and receive physical abuse. It should be noted that bonding rituals of various types are found among today’s terrorist bands. We find loyalty oaths, purifications, even animal sacrifices among present-day terroristic groups, from al Qaeda to ISIS to The Base.68 Some readers may argue that the difference between the Proud Boys and these other groups is that Proud Boy fighting rituals can be laughed off as juvenile antics; but, given that most members are middle-aged white men, can they?69 It seems significant that Jason Kessler, who organized the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and jeered when Heather Heyer was run over by car, was thirty-eight years old when he was filmed undergoing the Proud Boy second-degree initiation ritual of being pummeled with fists while shouting out breakfast cereals.70

Contextualizing the Proud Boys in Religious Nationalism and Metapolitics

Religious Nationalism

Proud Boy religious aspirations, insofar as they can be determined at all, are presumably of a piece with the rest of the alt-right, which is to say they comprise a complicated mosaic.71 Broadly speaking, what the alt-right groups all seem to share is an aspiration to accelerate a refashioning of society—hence the label “accelerationists”.72 However, their willingness to accommodate religious commitment varies, as shown by the forthcoming summary.

For some on the alt-right, Christianity is simply an obstacle. Those with this perspective claim to loathe Christianity for its egalitarian exhortations toward universal love, its passivity (turn the other cheek), and its Jewish roots, all of which hinder the establishment of an ethnostate based on white supremacy. Others long to return to the pagan, pre-Christian traditions of Europe, which they adulate as manifesting a vibrant ethnocentricity unique to white people before European religious expression was poisoned by exposure to Judaism and its Christian offshoot.73

While some among this last group romanticize a Volkish or Aryan identity and a nationalist hope for restoring a pure Nordic ethnostate (e.g., in Vinland, the reputed Viking homeland in Newfoundland, per David Lane and his Wotanists), and some imagine founding a glorious new state of Rome in the United States (per Ben Klassen and his Creativity churchmen), not all are so overtly political.74 There are some who crave a religious occult akin to heathenry and the Wiccan worship of old spirits. Still others reject the whole pre-Christian European noble savage romance as a Rousseauesque trope demeaning to indigenous religions, but these do recognize the need to posit something to fill the spiritual vacuum of modernity.

Then there are the racialist Christians, some of whom see the US Constitution as inspired by God for whites only, and others who acknowledge Christianity “not as a corrupter of white brains but as a part of the matrix of Euro-American identity that has helped shape a future Pan-European unity”.75 There are those who claim that they support the best of both pagan and Christian worlds, by embracing “a racialized, traditionalist Christianity that will revive a ‘historical Christianity’ that conserves European pagan elements that had endured and become part of a specifically European Christianity”.76 Yet others embrace two forms of religion for the future white ethnostate: for the masses a quasi-polytheistic form of Christianity which reputedly emerged in the Middle Ages when Christianity met and married the Viking-like northern European indigenous traditions, versus a “pagan agnosticism” for the elite—a dual conception which seems to replicate a model in Plato’s Republic.77

As must be evident from these paragraphs, the marriage of religious nationalism to the alt-right is a huge subject, which can barely be explored here. However, a handful of interesting voices in the alt-right movement can now be sketched.

One voice aligned with the atheistic group is that of Gavin McInnes. Despite the Proud Boy aspiration for a return to “Judeo-Christian ethics, Western civilization, and the Greco-Roman tradition of the Republic,” McInnes in a 2017 interview rejected any approximation of a religious foundation for the Proud Boys.78 He found religious adoration foolish, and compared it to adoring political figures or sports teams. He insisted on the personal, private nature of religion and claimed to resent any form of religious coercion, comparing such coercion to Islam. On religious feeling he claimed personally to ponder the big questions, such as creation at the Big Bang, and said that “something is going on,” perhaps in accommodation to his wife, who practices a form of native American indigenous tradition. But he personally cannot commit to any particular creed, except to insist that abortion and forcing priests to perform gay marriages are wrong.79 While these last statements and the reference to Islamic coercion may be intended to “trigger the libs,” his emphasis on private choice would seem to be a pragmatic move designed to attract rather than to alienate Christian-leaning Proud Boys, such as Enrique Tarrio.

More disparaging are the original views of Greg Johnson, founder of the North American New Right, whose publishing house Counter-Currents promotes conspiracies about the genocide of white people and advocates the establishment of a white ethnostate in the United States. Johnson argued in 2010 that Christianity had contributed to the deterioration of white consciousness in the United States by teaching universal brotherhood, altruism, collective guilt, and meekness, and by honoring its Jewish roots. It was therefore detrimental to white consciousness and should be rejected as a weakening influence; it could never offer an ideological foundation for a virile nationalist state. Nevertheless, over time Johnson, similarly to McInnes, has come to realize that religious intolerance is likely to alienate younger white people and that accommodating racialist Christians serves his ultimate goal of establishing a white ethnostate, for Christians and non-Christians alike.80

Richard Spencer, who coined the term alt-right, similarly advocates the establishment of a white ethnostate and warns, through his National Policy Institute, that the majority white culture is endangered by the approaching minority plurality in the United States by 2050 or even by 2031.81 Given his glib use of idioms such as “cucked Christianity” and of memes such as Pepe the Frog, most of his rhetoric on religion comes across as juvenile.82 Yet when pressed by racialist Christian Tim Gionet in 2018, he did describe himself not as a proud atheist but as a tragic one. Having lost the Episcopalian faith of his upbringing, he claimed that Christianity had become “an aesthetic, ceremonial experience . . . a goofball, Walmart experience” devoid of any serious positive content or force in society. Nonetheless, Spencer praised the Christianity of the Middle Ages, when Christianity contributed cohesion to society by establishing common traditions, before Christianity became the consumerist and vacuous universal faith it is today. He does not advocate a return to traditionalist Christianity or even to paganism but does lament the loss of the Durkheimian glue that once held society together under Christian traditions. He attributes the weakening of white consciousness for modern Europeans in part to a loss of a strong common faith.83

Pagan and Volkish voices in nationalist matters extend back most conspicuously to the 1930s. According to Jeffrey Kaplan, racialist Odinists began as wandering bands of disaffected German youths who reputedly made sacrifices to Wotan (aka Odin) and were, at least in some cases, absorbed into the dream of a Third Reich. The personalities who built up the movement thereafter were various, but it is fair to say that paganism today is seen by racialist Odinists, as opposed to nonracialist Odinists, as a romantic and true European religious heritage conferred, at least according to some, through biological inheritance.84 A popular nostalgia for Norse gods and a Viking ethos can be traced from the 1960s, with Else Christensen, to 2018, with Carolyn Emerick. Else Christensen pushed a far-right supremist platform, emphasizing a warrior ethos and a militant desire to strike back against the dominant culture for its injustices to white Europeans, whereas Carolyn Emerick was more restrained, insisting on a return to European history and pagan culture as a foundation for recovering a waning pan-European white identity.85 An alternative voice in this romantic view of European heritage is that of YouTube personality Reinhold Wolf. In 2017 he argued that a great civilization needs a uniting mythos, such as that possessed by Europeans when invading Indo-Europeans brought with them their “virile, action-oriented form of polytheism”.86 But this was replaced by Christianity, which, although it has Semitic origins, was eventually Germanized, and so the European conversion was dual, from Christian to a virile German paganism, as well as the reverse.87

Strains of racialist Christian thinking can be traced back to the early days of Revilo Oliver (1908–1994), once an active member of the John Birch Society. Oliver initially saw in Christianity a tradition adapted by and for Aryans, not Jews, and embodying “the moral instincts of the white race”.88 Equating historical Christianity with European Christianity Aryanized, he feared its loss as precipitating a catastrophic spiritual vacuum, whose roots he saw already in the liberal thinking of 18th-century philosophers such as Rousseau. Although initially enthralled with the bellicose potential of Christianity to defend the West, by 1978 Oliver came to lose all faith in its reinvigorating potential, rejecting specifically its claims to universal brotherhood and its democratizing instincts, which he associated with miscegenation and racial suicide.89 A polymath and professor of philosophy, he quoted everything from Babylonian epics to the principles of eugenics to advocate racial nationalism.90

Christian Identity is perhaps the loudest voice in this discussion, and one cannot help but wonder whether Enrique Tarrio, with his Christian comments, has come under its spell. Deriving from British Israelism, Christian Identity was adapted for US tastes in the late 19th century, when the Dominionist doctrine of US Christians as a people chosen by God was amalgamated with the Israelism scheme concerning ten purported lost tribes of Israel who came to inhabit Britain. One tribe (that of Manassah) came over from Britain with the Mayflower, argued Joseph Wild. Wild’s voice, plus a plethora of others enthralled with racialist eugenics, promoted a kind of pan-Saxonic vision of authentic Christianity shorn of its Jewish tribal roots.91 Although its religious tenets were and are diverse, Christian Identity has become known primarily for its distinctive racist and anti-Semitic doctrines. For instance, as opposed to the Christian dispensationalist anticipation of the tribulation and rapture of the faithful at the end of time, Christian Identity anticipates instead an earthly conflagration, an apocalyptic battle between Aryans and Jews, for which Identity followers are urged to be prepared (hence the Identity militia, the Covenant, Sword, and Arm of the Lord). If there is to be any Rapture, God will protect Identity followers through it right here on earth.92

The most curious of Identity doctrines is the two-seeds doctrine, holding that only whites are of the seed of Adam (supposedly deduced from Genesis 2:5–7). Infused with the divine spirit of God, they must be kept apart from Babylonian contaminants and above all from biracial marriage, a capital crime. Colored races are both pre- and post-Adamic. Based on the sequence of creation in Genesis, the animals created for Adam to name constitute non-white two-legged as well as the variety of four-legged races over which Adam and his descendants were to have dominion. The post-Adamic seed, called the serpent race, is the Jews, deemed the offspring of Satan and Eve who together produced Cain. Miscegenation, as seen in this pairing, as well as in Cain’s pairing with a pre-Adamic wife (who else was there for him to marry?), constituted the original sin. This fear of miscegenation is just one eccentric reflection of the fear of ZOG, the Zionist Occupational Government, an evil cabal of enemies which must be overthrown to preserve the white race.93 There are other conspiracies as well, such as those concerning the blood of fallen angels among Jews, and the Turko-Mongol origins of Ashkenazic Jews.94 These may seem outlandish doctrines which no one could possibly believe, but let us recall that Timothy McVeigh and Anders Breivik, both mass murderers, embraced the Christian Identity doctrine. To be sure, they also disparaged mainstream Christianity as mere Christendom, for its betrayal of the white nationalist Christianity they saw as more authentic.95

But of course not all rightist voices are quite so exotic. Some are downright mainstream, such as the voices of those Christians who fear becoming a beleaguered minority in the United States. The loss of Christian purity and invasion by unsavory foreigners is a persistent theme in nationalist discourse, whose advocates quote, for instance, Biblical precedent in support of a border wall on the Mexican–US border to keep out immigrants. These precedents extend from wall-building tales in the book of Nehemiah to the walls built around Jerusalem and also, apparently, heaven.96 This fear of contamination and loss of purity extends back to well-known conspiratorial literature, from the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion through the Clansman and the John Franklin Letters to William Pierce’s Turner Diaries and Hunter.97 The last two plainly enjoin an apocalyptic race war which will eventuate a millennial peace and a “terrestrial perfection” wherein the nation is cleansed.98 As Bellah, Gorski, and others have pointed out, the notion of Americans as the biblically elect (chosen by God) and anticipation of an end-times conflagration have combined to shape strains of American civil religion since the days of the Puritans, and those strains persist today.99

Metapolitics and Ethnopluralism

All of these voices of the alt-right are fairly explicit in their racial politics, but a more subtle and conceivably more malign dimension of religious nationalism is coded in terms of metapolitics. Since the 1930s, metapolitics has differed from straightforward politics in that, rather than highlighting explicit political grievances, it exploits atavistic dreams, mythic symbols, and eschatological values to foster a cultural awakening to what can be perceived as an ethnic mission. These dreams, symbols, and values can be made to integrate with religious aspirations, if in subtle ways. Metapolitics is defined by Bosteels as:

the study of the ultimate founding ideas, myths, and values behind all concrete forms of political practice. It signals both a movement by which political science becomes increasingly self-reflexive and the possibility of rooting the empirical and mundane in transcendent or transcendental—frequently divine or eschatological—principles. As such, the term frequently acquires a pejorative connotation, for example, in Peter Viereck’s study into the dark cultural and spiritual roots of Nazism.100

After World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust, simple biological racism was replaced by metapolitical ideas among some European intellectuals, particularly those associated with the French New Right. Given its emphasis on founding ideas, myths, transcendent principles, and eschatological hopes, metapolitics was appealing to European conservatives who lamented the loss of European self-awareness and cultural heritage. Forty of them formed the French think tank GRECE (Groupement de Recherche et d’Étude pour la Civilization Européenne) in 1968, to combat cultural erosion and to extol Hellenic origins and European pride.101 Cultural power was seen as a necessary prelude to political power and therefore the GRECE elite strove to promote classical philosophies (e.g., Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas) and literature, both to reinvigorate European self-awareness and to discourage any leanings toward cultural egalitarianism.

This “cultural turn” away from biological or “scientific” racism highlighted ethnic identity and nativism, and gave rise to ethnopluralism, which allowed that each ethnic group has its own unique genius. The understanding is that each ethnic group should be preserved and respected apart from the others, leading even, in the 1950s, to the notion of repatriating immigrants from Europe as “a form of benevolent and pluralist decolonization”.102 In effect, racial essentialism gave way to ethnic essentialism, which was not identical to racism but could “provide new ways to rationalize ethnic stigmatization and discriminatory policies against non-European immigrants”.103 Ethnopluralism continues the nativist and ethnic aspirations of the far right in culturalist language, but, as de Benoist saw it, it denied any link with Mussolini-styled fascism, which was seen as an exacerbated, dictatorial form of nationalism.

Alain de Benoist is certainly the most erudite spokesperson for this ethnopluralist turn today and, not surprisingly, the US alt-right has taken notice. Having broken with the extreme right, he claimed in 2016 to have grown

tired of the ready-made ideas that they worked with. Instead, he wanted to ‘systematically inventory all the domains of knowledge in order to lead to the development of a new conception of the world capable of clarifying the historical moment we live in’.104

As with other ethnopluralists, de Benoist objects to universalizing conceptions, such as of individual human rights, and strives instead for the recognition of ethnically unique states within a multi-polar world. On the religion question, de Benoist rejects anything like a centralizing monotheism, claiming that “monotheism sanctifies intolerance while laying the foundations for universalism,” which ends up eliminating cultural difference, something ethnopluralists just cannot abide.105 Despite polytheism’s more hospitable attitudes toward other gods, he does not now advocate restoring a polytheistic or pagan society either, noting that in antiquity pagan gods were presumed, whereas neo-pagans today seem to have reinterpreted their gods in terms of values or symbols. He instead advocates that Europeans should turn their attention to classical texts, both Western and Asian, which have enchanted us for centuries and from whose voices we presumably may learn about the various “rooted” cultures.106

Among his many ideas in favor of preserving rooted cultures is a shift away from Western-style capitalism and individualism, which are said to flatten cultural difference by promoting commercial rather than political passions and to reduce society to an atomistic bundle of free and rational individuals floating above any cultural roots. America itself is said to be a “purely commercial civilization” (Ezra Pound’s coinage), and the global capitalism it promotes “tends to eradicate all rooted cultures in the hope of transforming the planet into a vast homogenous market”.107 To combat this American cultural flattening, de Benoist, along with Russian ultranationalist Aleksandr Dugin and now with Patriarch Cyril of the Russian Orthodox Church, has flirted with the idea of a geo-political competitor to the West, that is, a united and spiritually regenerated Eurasia—the largest continent of telluric power.108 For Dugin, in this Eurasian geo-political power “Russia would be an essential part and make alliances with Shia Islam against western liberalism, the United States, Jews and ‘the cosmopolitan financial elites.’”109 While Dugin may sound as if he is advocating a multicultural empire against the West, he emphasizes that a degree of “ethnic hygiene” and droit à la difference will need to be preserved in an ethnopluralist world.110 Curiously, de Benoist seems to support this Eurasian cosmopolitan entity, as proof that ethnopluralism does not in itself presume elements of racism and xenophobia. However, it is hard to imagine that a system recognizing an ethnopluralistic polity with different codes of “ethnic hygiene” for its respective members would not end in “a renewal of far-right alterophobia towards other groups and autophilia towards one’s own ethnie.”111

Notably, de Benoist spoke at Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute in 2013, which suggests that the alt-right in the United States may be open to reorienting toward ethnopluralism rather than rank xenophobia and “race realist” white supremacy. It is yet to be determined if Spencer and his National Policy Institute followers will oppose those capitalistic influences which arguably spur the eradication of rooted identities, as de Benoist would argue; de Benoist’s entire ideology may be too radical for consumption by the US alt-right, and indeed has parallels to the old French Situationists of 1968.112 Of course Proud Boys too are against globalization: not because of capitalism’s levelling effects, though, but primarily because it thrusts western chauvinists into conversation with proponents of multiculturalism.113 Despite all this, it seems undeniable that de Benoist’s metapolitical ideas could inject a semblance of ideological respectability into the Alt-Right, in one part because he emphasizes classical foundations for rooted ethnic nationalisms and in another because “race realism” surely has lost popular appeal since the Black Lives Matter movement took root in 2013.114 To the extent that the European New Right promotes Western classics and foundational ideas concerned with the dream of a culturally rooted ethnostate, it would seem to coincide with the Proud Boy aspiration to establish “Judeo-Christian ethics, Western civilization, and the Greco-Roman tradition of the Republic” in the United States, even if most Proud Boys are not sophisticated enough to grasp the shared legacy.

Conclusion

We tend to think of the January 6, 2021 siege on the US capitol as conducted by separatist militias set mainly on tearing down established governmental institutions and overturning the results of the 2020 election. However, that their ideologies were richer may be ascertained by their flags representing Christian, Confederate, and Nordic loyalties, and, once they were inside the capitol, their anachronistic Crusader chants “Kill the infidel!” “Storm the castle!”115 While computer games may be partly responsible for these chants, they also suggest intoxication with a dream of heroic white men set on recapturing a lost world. This dream, if less than classically informed, is romantic and tinged with apocalypticism, as Gardell notes about white racist religions in the United States:

Knightly values such as courage, strength, honesty, honor, and valiance are hailed as primary Aryan virtues. . . . they can rise above the trivialities of the everyday commoner and emerge in shining armor at the battleground for the final conflict, lifting their swords for race, nation, blood, and honor.116

Insofar as these dreams of knightly values and Aryan virtues might be associated with restoring a pristine state and even with an apocalyptic race war, religious notions will intertwine with them. We have touched on Gorski’s analyses of US religious nationalism as penetrated by biblical themes, such as white Americans as a race chosen by God and anticipation of a purifying end-times conflagration.117 We have seen how Kaplan and others have analyzed certain American literary works as promoting eschatological self-understandings relating to an eventual apocalypse and millenarian age.118 And we have explored some European metapolitical aspirations which highlight atavistic dreams, mythic symbols, and eschatological values to service the eventual construction of a European ethnostate.119 It is not difficult to see how Proud Boys and others of their ilk might be drawn into these heroic self-understandings, even if they fail to appreciate the extent to which religious notions ground them.

Further Reading

Notes