Stephen Bannon is the true ideological force of the Trump administration. And his ideology is alarming.
It’s becoming clearer every day that Stephen Bannon is the true ideological force behind the Trump administration — and clearer still that the ideology he's pushing is wrapped up with some very radical ideas about the West, Christianity, and Islam.
As a pair of recent stories in The New York Times explain, Bannon has made common cause with traditionalist Catholic critics of Pope Francis, especially U.S. cardinal Raymond Burke. At a meeting in the Vatican in 2014, the two men "bonded over their shared worldview," which includes a vision of Islam "threatening to overrun a prostrate West weakened by the erosion of traditional Christian values." This vision also informs an eight-page screenplay draft that Bannon produced several years ago about a United States that's been transformed into the "Islamic States of America" with the help of "enablers among us," including "the media, the Jewish community, and government agencies."
Now, right-wing Catholics looking to forge a governing ideology for a Republican president is hardly new. Indeed, I wrote a 2006 book — The Theocons — about the late Richard John Neuhaus and the circle of writers around his magazine First Things (which I used to edit), tracing their many intellectual and personal ties to the administration of George W. Bush. These "theoconservatives" sought to inject into American politics ideas, arguments, and policy positions derived from the social encyclicals (teaching documents) of Pope John Paul II. Their hope was to use these ideas to construct an interdenominational social conservative ideology that could unify morally traditionalist Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and Jews, forming a stable and potent electoral coalition for the religious right.
Is Bannon a "theocon" in this sense, just picking up Neuhaus' project eight years after it was driven into the wilderness by Barack Obama's triumph in the 2008 presidential election? Not really — or not simply. There are important, revealing continuities between the theocons of the Bush administration and President Trump's ideological guru. But there are also crucial differences — and it is those differences that should inspire the greatest concern.
The theoconservatives themselves are split on whether Trump's agenda is compatible with their own. First Things' top two editors (R.R. Reno and Mark Bauerlein) are both Trump supporters, as is Hadley Arkes, one of the original theocons and a member of the magazine's advisory council. (Reno is also a member of the advisory board of a new pro-Trump quarterly journal, American Affairs, that will be launching in the next couple of weeks.) But Robert P. George of Princeton University and George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, both leading theocons during the Bush years, have been consistent Trump critics.
That ambivalence is, in part, a function of Trump's erratic temperament. But it's also a product of differences between the original conception of theocon ideas and the version of Catholic ideological engagement that Bannon advocates. In a word, Bannon's ideology is a far more radically illiberal than the one that Neuhaus and his allies espoused.
Bannon and the intellectuals Neuhaus regularly published in First Things share the conviction that, at a fundamental level, the United States is a Christian nation — not just in the sense that an overwhelming majority of Americans describe themselves as Christians, but also in the sense that the country's highest ideals and convictions (above all, about individual rights and innate human dignity) derive from a Catholic-Christian inheritance the vitality of which must be actively fostered and promoted by the culture. The two groups also tend to view the threat posed by Islamic terrorism in terms of a civilizational clash between Islam and the Judeo-Christian West (or "Christendom").
But that's where the continuities end.
At their best, the original theocons followed a tradition of Christian political reflection that insisted on placing the nation under the guidance and judgment of a transcendent God (and his extra-political Church) that stands apart from all this-worldly communities. That was in fact the theme of Neuhaus' final book, published shortly after his death from cancer in early 2009.
Bannon, by contrast, tends to treat religious affiliation wholly as a function of ethno-national identity: "We" in the West must affirm our Christian identity or we will be overrun by dangerous outsiders (Islamists) who will impose a different identity upon us. In this respect, Bannon's position is closer to Eastern Orthodoxy (and Russian Orthodoxy in particular), with its sanctioning of an official ethno-national church that mediates between individual believers and the Godhead.
The original theocons also endorsed the long-standing civil religion of American exceptionalism, along with its Cold War variant of liberal internationalism, and sought to Christianize it with a strong dose of Catholic theology. That made theoconservatism a theologically informed variation on neoconservatism, which originally saw itself as continuous with the tradition of postwar liberalism. It also made George W. Bush's second inaugural address, with its proclamation of a God-given duty for the United States to bring about the end of "tyranny in our world," the moment of maximal theocon influence.
Bannon's alternative vision of theological politics has no place for militarized democratization missions. But that doesn't mean he favors American withdrawal from the world. Quite the contrary. Bannon appears to believe, instead, that the United States is on the verge of a zero-sum battle with Islam and/or China that is likely to culminate in a third world war on a scale that rivals or surpasses the global conflagration of World War II. Suffice it to say that Neuhaus and his ideological compatriots tended not to think about geopolitical issues in such apocalyptic terms.
Finally, there's the question of mood.
The original theocons tended toward optimism about the nation and its future. But not always. At times when the country appeared to turn away from the theocon agenda — at points throughout Bill Clinton's presidency, for example — they could succumb to theologically inspired anger and despair, hurling denunciations at the nation, its leaders, its people, and even going so far as to declare that the United States was on the verge of totalitarianism, civil war, justified revolution, or perhaps all three at once.
Although Bannon enjoys much greater proximity to power than the original theocons ever attained, the mood of his political and religious pronouncements is much closer to the existential gloom (and political extremism) that has (so far) gripped First Things only at its bleakest, most unhinged moments. It's the same gloom that once permeated the Catholic Church, back in the late 19th century, when it considered itself under siege by and locked in a death-struggle with democracy, liberalism, and modernity.
All of that makes Bannon's outlook far more militant than anything the original theocons proposed. If Richard John Neuhaus' greatest political hope and ambition was to Catholicize American liberalism, Stephen Bannon appears to aim at something more like its thoroughgoing overthrow and repudiation in the name of something much darker that as yet has no name.
Theofascism might be more accurate.