St. John the Beloved and the Grounding of Postmillennial Stoicism

News: Commentary
by Church Militant  •  •  August 19, 2020   

The role of charity in Christian theopolitics

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On May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush landed a Lockheed S-3 Viking on the USS Abraham Lincoln. With the phrase "Mission Accomplished" adorning the background, the 43rd president of the United States announced an end to combat operations in Iraq, which had begun just three months earlier on March 20.


Vietnam war soldiers from the 173rd Airborn Brigade in 1966

(Photo: The National Archives at College Park, MD)

As is now known, while large scale "battlefield" operations against the Iraqi army did, in fact, end a host of counter-insurgent movements to an extended guerilla war against United States' occupying forces, shattering the optimism projected by the second member of the Bush family to sit in the Oval Office. The large-scale deaths of both Iraqi and American forces, as well as the tremendous psychological toll taken upon U.S. servicemen and women, carved a deep and bitter wound in the heart of America not unlike that created by the Vietnam War.

Further similar to the Vietnam war, the wound on the American psyche created by the second insurgent phase in Iraq helped to facilitate a political as well as theological sea change in America on both the Left and Right of the political spectrum.

Certainly, in the bloody and dusty fallout of the second Gulf War, progressive anti-war politics received a tremendous boost that would eventually carry Illinois senator Barrack Obama into the White House and reshape the face of American Christianity, providing new support for the post-Evangelical movement as well as a return to progressive Catholicism under the reign of Pope Francis.

The Right's Embrace of 'Conspiriana'

However, the political and religious Right in America underwent a marked change as well.

Many social conservatives, Evangelicals and conservative Catholics who had initially supported the Iraq War as well as the Bush presidency — which itself represented the nadir of conservative Evangelical political power in America — gradually grew disenchanted with the mainline Republican Party, which since the Nixon Era had created a "devil's pact" among social conservatives, laissez-faire capitalists and neoconservative foreign policy advocates.

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This blowback of the Iraq War on the American Right manifested itself in a number of radical and volatile cultural movements.

Conspiracy culture, supported by the emergence of Web 2.0 platforms like YouTube and Facebook, reared its head on the Right, thanks to the ubiquity of information on the internet, in a stronger and more pervasive manner than it ever had done in American history.

9/11 and the Iraq invasion were part of a conspiracy by the Bush and Bin Laden families.

To many wounded veterans, their families and their supporters, the seemingly failed or at least poorly executed War in Iraq, as well as its catalyst in the Sept. 11 attacks, fueled a powerful conspiratorial narrative that seeped into the minds of many politically engaged Americans. According to this narrative, 9/11 and the Iraq invasion were part of a conspiracy by the Bush and Bin Laden families; what president Eisenhower had called in his 1961 farewell address, the "military-industrial complex"; and/or a cabal of European families that practiced ritual satanism to establish a satanic world empire.


Sept. 11, 2001 (9/11) New York City

(Photo: PTI File)

Racialism and anti-Semitism have been part and parcel of "conspiriana" since its modern birth in the 18th and 19th centuries — a phenomenon that Umberto Eco lampoons in his 2010 The Prague Cemetery. But the first wave of this conspiracy culture revival was ignited by 9/11 and further fueled by the 2008 economic collapse, reaching its culmination in the 2012 Republican primary run by Texas congressman and libertarian lightening rod Ron Paul. The principal focus of these conspiracies revolved around economic issues and were often framed in terms of spiritual warfare between the satanic New World Order and the freedom-loving and patriotic men and women of the world.

Conspiracy Begets 'Survivalism'

This boom in YouTube conspiracy videos such as the Clinton-era "The Money Masters" (1996), former Hollywood director-turned conspiracy theorist Aaron Russo's "America: From Freedom to Fascism" (2006), and conspiracy king Alex Jones' "Endgame" (2007) —as well as blogs and the availability of an abundance of small press and self-published books on Amazon — further galvanized what became known as the "survivalist" or "prepping" movement.

Since the entire (or at least most) of the world was run by a cabal of generational satanists laboring to enslave the world's population, good Christian families must prepare or prep for a coming apocalypse by stockpiling food and ammunition and, if possible, move to a "strategic location" in the Western United States.

Fueled by books such as Cormac McCarthy's The Road, movies such as The Book of Eli and TV series like The Walking Dead — as well as video game series such as Fallout and Half Life — this survivalist movement represented a return to the perennial American trope of the "rugged individual" or the Little House on the Prairie — either an individual or a family or perhaps a small group of families forced to fend for themselves in a hostile and alien world.

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While times have gotten tougher indeed for Americans and many throughout the world, there was not a "day the dollar died" scenario, a nuclear war or a bombardment of the earth by asteroids or some other natural disaster. Thus, many postmillennial preppers, as others who embraced survivalism, did during the much smaller Y2K post-Clinton '90s panic, abandon their seemingly quixotic quest.

Postmillennial Stoicism Rises

At the same time as this disenchantment with conspiracy culture began to sweep the Right, the 2016 presidential election gave hope to many on the post-Evangelical Right as New York real estate mogul Donald Trump was elected to the presidency.

No longer was it necessary to retreat into the wilds to escape the New World Order; rather, the globalists themselves would be thrown out of Washington as President Trump "drained the swamp."

President Trump's election was representative of many things, but one of the most pronounced sociological phenomena that his election signaled was the transformation of the American Right during the 21st century.

Shaken by the traumatic terrorist and military events of the first decade of the 21st century, disenchanted with conspiracy culture, but refusing to embrace racialism of the simultaneously emergent alt-right, a contemporary cultural phenomenon was born, which might usefully be called "postmillennial stoicism."

A Secular Age was an Enlightenment movement that sought to discipline the wild and seemingly irrational character of the Christian Middle Ages.

This movement is of special interest to Christians because it simultaneously represents a new and radical shaping of conservative theology and metapolitics in the 21st century while, at the same time, echoes a distinct intellectual tradition that has always been ungirding the American Right — and has proved to be one of the strongest barriers to the permeation of the gospel message in the United States.

Stoicism has a long pedigree in the West. Drawing its source from ancient Greece, stoicism famously was the intellectual undergirding of the late republican and early imperial periods of the Roman Empire. "Neo-stoicism," as Charles Taylor documents in his 2007, A Secular Age, was an Enlightenment movement that sought to discipline the wild and seemingly irrational character of the Christian Middle Ages. Postmillennial stoicism likewise serves as an antidote to the seeming dissolution of America and the wide Western culture, as well as the collapse of the surge of Evangelical Protestantism as well as conservative Catholicism during the late Clinton and early George W. Bush era.

This postmillennial stoicism showcases figures such as podcaster Joe Rogan; former Navy SEAL and fellow podcaster, Jocko Willink; and websites such as The Art of Manliness run by Brett McKay; as well as the work of University of Toronto psychologist Jordan Peterson, among others.

While some of the figures involved identify as Christian — The Art of Manliness' Brett McKay identifies as a Mormon and Christian — the principal focus of the figures in this movement is self-improvement through exercise, lifestyle changes and a disciplined and rigorous psychological and spiritual asceticism. John Gretton "Jocko" Willink, coiner of the phrase "extreme ownership," regularly posts on Twitter the aftermath his 4:30 a.m. workout, along with a photo of his Timex watch broadcasting the time, known in the military as "zero dark thirty."

Brett McKay (The Art of Manliness)

The intellectual wellsprings of the (albeit diverse and often contradictory) messages of this movement are manifold. But they can be found in such postmodern thinkers as Friedrich Nietzsche and Carl Jung, as well as thinkers from antiquity such as Cicero, Aristotle and Homer, in addition to the requisite panoply of Founding Fathers as well as roguish and masculine intellectuals such as Ernest Hemingway and Theodore Roosevelt.

While such a collection of (largely male and predominately European and American) thinkers — and their emphasis on order, discipline and hierarchy — rings of the "Ur-Fascism" of Umberto Eco's 1995 New York Review of Books article, the bulk of the postmillennial stoics eschew racism and anti-Semitism and include a host of ethnically diverse guests and partners in their repertoire of podcasts and interviews.

This aversion to ethnic tribalism is rooted in the postmillennial stoics' emphasis on the concept of "nature" or even "God" or "higher power," which like the God or logos of classical stoicism is the creator or at least supervisor of all of humanity, not simply the members of one's own tribe or nation.

Indeed, while Darwinist, Neo-Darwinist, and even Social Darwinist thought pervades the postmillennial stoics' discussion of human social formation and community bonds, the postmillennial stoics at the same time temper their views with a post-Christian humanism that largely shuns the fetishization of violence and cruelty that are the marks of authentic fascism.

Lacking a Key Christian Root

Nonetheless, postmillennial stoicism, while recognizing positive elements of historical Christianity as well as the gospels and Bible as whole, is not a recognizably Christian movement.

Social conservative variant in the United States has been allied with a specific type of Republican Party post-World War II culture.

There are many reasons why the postmillennial stoics have dismissed or at least muted Christianity in their works. However, the foremost reason appears to be a disenchantment with establishment or mainstream Christianity, which in its social conservative variant in the United States has been allied with a specific type of Republican Party, post-World War II culture.

Due to the advent of the social changes in the 21st century that have shaken and remodeled the political Right in America, such a religious culture no longer appears appealing to many American males (and many females who have embraced the post-feminism of the postmillennial American Right).

Rather, the argument given by postmillennial stoics is that institutional Christianity is simultaneously effeminate as well as too constrictive and oppressive. Christianity, they argue, is further buttressed by an outmoded and superstitious intellectual framework that has been discredited by contemporary science and historiography — in this sense, despite the intellectual Right's conflicts with the New Atheists, they nonetheless embrace the revamped hermeneutics of suspicion toward Christianity and the Bible that thinkers such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens "memed" into 21st century Western consciousness.

Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens

There are, of course, well-reasoned Christian responses to the New Atheists. But the postmillennial stoics' critique of Christianity's understanding of masculinity — as well as the senses in which Scripture can be understood and the relationship between what the late St. Pope John Paul II famously referred to in his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio (or faith and reason) — are needed from Christian writers and scholars.

However, one of the key points obscured by the postmillennial stoics is a point that was often (but not always) forgotten by the social conservatism that the postmillennial stoics have rejected. This point further has often been forgotten by progressive Christians in the Trump era who have responded to a climate of increased ethnic tension and an erosion of social bonds, often with hatred and violence.

This point is the central message of the teaching of Jesus Christ and the mark of a true Christian: It is what Christians have traditionally called the theological virtue of charity.

Charity in Christian Theopolitics

In his First Letter, St. John, the beloved disciple, writes a powerful and rich testament to the centrality of charity in the Christian life.

St. John the Apostle

In the third chapter of John's letter, the close friend of Christ, who rested his head on the Savior's Sacred Heart, emphasizes the importance of love of the Triune God: "Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God" (1 John 3:7). Love of God is further manifested in chapter 5 in obedience to God's Commandments, which, we are told, "are not burdensome" (1 John 5:3). This love serves as the mark of God's presence among Christians: "If we love one another, God remains in us, and love is brought to perfection in us" (1 John 4:12).

It is this charity or love that is the foundation of Christianity and serves as the true "metapolitical" basis of Christian theopolitics.

It is precisely because Christians (in the United States and elsewhere) have abandoned charity as the foundation of their political engagement that so many variant forms of theological and philosophical political engagement have permeated the West in the 21st century.

This charity should be the animating principle of Christian discourse on economics, foreign policy, immigration, police enforcement, and, in fact, all of the ideological discussions that affect us in the contemporary political arena.

This true Christian witness of charity will banish the spirits of discord and hatred that infect much political and metapolitical discussion, including intellectually rich but rough-edged postmillennial stoicism.

Finally, it will banish the spirit of fear that so often animates hatred because as St. John so beautifully states, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear ... " (1 John 4.18).

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