Tara Isabella Burton’s ‘Strange Rites’ and the Strange Right (Now)

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Egos drone, and pose alone/Like black balloons all banged and blown/On a backwards river/The infidels shiver in the stench of belief

—Beck, “Bottle of Blues”

In any case, what better gift can we hope for than to be insignificant? What greater glory for a God than to be absolved of the world?

—Jorge Luis Borges, “A Defense of Basilides the False”

I’m not sure quite what I expected when I read Josh Hawley’s “Age of Pelagius” on Christianity Today. The tab sat open and unread for weeks on my browser. I am an antifascist organizer with broad tastes and have read many a disturbing reactionary, sometimes even for fun. But more than the other wannabe Trump successors jockeying for position—all the “TCs”: Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, Tucker Carlson— Hawley repulses me. Perhaps this is because all three TCs adhere to recognized archetypes. Ted Cruz is your classic insecure debate nerd, nursing his grudges against the cool kids—think Nixon, but without any pathos. Tucker Carlson represents the idiot-fortunate-son demographic on the right and proved so weak he could be bullied out of his bowtie. Tom Cotton is more disturbing, a blank-eyed xenophobic thug with a bit of polish, a James Ellroy character if the grand old man of American crime fiction gave up halfway through. We know men like these.

But Josh Hawley doesn’t seem to fit into our established politician archetypes. At first glance, he appears to have been cast in a pencil-neck civilian variant on the Tom Cotton mold: dead eyes, naked lust for power, meritocracy credentials. Like Cotton, Madison Cawthorne, Josh Mandel, Brett Kavanaugh, Hawley is another product of the efficient machine Republicans have developed for cranking out right-wing rulers. Watching their rise gives a dispiriting glance at the future, where the right won’t even bother with slapping a Reaganesque smile, Dubya Bush “charm,” or Trump’s odd glamour over their depredations. Want a picture of the Republican future? Imagine a boat shoe stomping on a human face.

Hawley has marked out a political lane—the furthest out on the limb of culture warrior right-populism, even flanking the Democrats on their economic left more than once—but not a personality… unless you happen to pay attention to the topic of millennial-generation religious and spiritual expression. Hawley, born in 1979, does not quite make the chronological cut-off for a Millennial. But generational analysis is a hazy game in any event and many trends thought of as “millennial” markers began with Generation X. Call it the dynamics of spirituality at the End of the End of History. This is where Hawley distinguishes himself. Hawley is a politician, one who just recently turned forty, who has stated in public that the problems in American public life stem from a fifth-century Roman-British heretic named Pelagius. This is, to say the least, a departure.

Hawley unspooled this theory in his 2019 Christianity Today article. In its basic lines, the argument is quite simple: a philosophy of individual freedom without constraint or responsibility dominates contemporary American life, and this philosophy is that of Pelagius, an influential theologian and heretic from late-antique Christianity. Hawley gives us a brief rundown of the facts of Pelagius’s life (all of which can be gleaned from Wikipedia) and his peculiar interpretation of what Pelagianism entails. He then applies this to contemporary American liberal culture and the problems, real and imagined, that follow from it (or don’t, as the case may be). Hawley ends with a call to restore a non-liberal, non-Pelagian culture.

That Hawley bowdlerizes a theological debate that has engaged serious theological and historical scholarship for over a thousand years to make a point (“liberals are rich and bad”) which people have been making at least since the days of the Country Tories shouldn’t surprise anyone. The discursive internet is largely made up of bowdlerization. That Hawley gets his subject wrong—that’s to be expected as well. Pelagius did not encourage the sort of freedom from all restraint that Hawley suggests he did; in fact, Pelagius was quite harsh on sinners, whom he believed capable of better. Gussying up quotidian political point-scoring with learned references is a common enough maneuver on all points of the political compass, a way for grad students to distinguish their think pieces. This concept reflects that obscure nineteenth century political movement, this old writer (generally with a book recently re-released) predicted that trend, etc. You see it all the time.

It’s a fun enough game, “Highlights Magazine for the overeducated,” to paraphrase John Dolan. Most online scribblers, perhaps having taken aboard the caution endemic in humanities grad programs, don’t come out and directly say that this-or-that trend or person or movement said or did so and so directly because of X, Y, or Z’s obscure influence. But perhaps this rhetorical hesitancy doesn’t fly at Yale Law; none of it can be found in Hawley’s article. One of the few good things about the piece, in fact, is its lack of hedging. Here he is unequivocally declaring Pelagius the ideological wellspring of our current epoch: “So thoroughly have his teachings informed our recent past and precipitated our present crisis that we might refer to this era as the Age of Pelagius.” Hawley does not walk this back anywhere in the article. Nothing, in Hawley’s telling, in the intervening sixteen centuries possesses the explanatory power for our current predicament that the teachings of Pelagius have. This despite the fact that even most of our GRE-taking elite, who supposedly learned it all from Pelagius, would have trouble picking him out of a lineup of similarly bearded late-antique opinion-mongers. “He’s not on the syllabus,” they’d complain, and for once the little grade-grubbers would be right.

“Stupid, crazy, or lying?” is often the question with contemporary right-wing ideologues, and the question imposes itself here. Does Josh Hawley just genuinely not get that even if one accepts a cultural argument for why liberal elites have abandoned the working class, there’s a galaxy of more proximate explanations than Pelagius? Having graded my fair share of history papers from future law students, it wouldn’t entirely surprise me, but you’d figure law school would at least get across the value of parsimony in argument. Could Josh Hawley grasp that value but genuinely believe our culture is moved by obscure heretics—that is, is he insane? Also not impossible, given the way groups like the Federalist Society (Hawley was a student group leader) select for and train future right-wing elites. Could this just be a tossed-off article that Josh Hawley doesn’t really believe, written after an over-drinks conversation with some right-wing pedant and thrown as red meat for online “trad-cath” types? That seems the most likely of the three.

But before we can self-soothe by patting ourselves on the back for our superior intellectual virtue or for the blazing insight that politicians often lie, we should address some lingering questions. Why did Josh Hawley choose to lie (or just talk out of his ass) the way he did, where he did, when he did? Are there enough extremely online Christian reactionaries to make it worth Hawley’s time to court them, especially in the pages of a relatively staid Christian publication like Christianity Today? Can we separate lie and truth so easily in the case of politicians and ideologues, or anyone, really? And really—why Pelagius? Why such an obscure figure? Why any of this?

In the field of intellectual history, the best definitional term that scholars have developed for our historical epoch—and it sits like a smug bird on a branch under a crowd of cats, so who knows how long it’ll be this way—is historian Daniel Rodgers’s notion of the “age of fracture.” Somewhere between the seventies and the turn of millennium, the certainties of the Cold War era split apart, replaced by a “contagion of metaphors,” as Rodgers puts it. One area that shattered more spectacularly than most was shared religious life. Mainline Protestantism went into steep decline, evangelicalism and fundamentalism soared into prominence, Catholicism faced numerous changes and challenges, “new” (sometimes new, sometimes very old) faiths made their way onto the American scene. That much can be established through demographic surveys. Figuring out what it all means—and what living with generations of fracture means for those born after these changes—is the project Tara Isabella Burton undertakes in her new book on millennial spiritual and religious practice, Strange Rites. This is also the context for Josh Hawley’s decision to fire up a debate around Pelagius (and for the Senator’s political brand more broadly).

Burton, a journalist with a theology background (who is, for what it’s worth, a millennial herself) duly notes the stats and figures on the decline of conventional religion—the more “conventional,” i.e. mainline Protestant, the bigger the decline—and the rise of “Nones,” that is, people with no stated religion. One wonders how much polling data (not Census data, which doesn’t ask about religion, not that Census data always paints a complete picture) really reflects something as subtle as religious belief, but the conclusions Burton draws from it seem accurate enough. So, too, does her disagreement with the idea that our society has grown more secular as a result. Churchgoing may be down, but belief in God, angels, and supernatural things of all sorts is not. In fact, it seems to be thriving. Moreover, even the beliefs of the avowedly secular show strands of religious structure: transcendent moral imperatives, doctrinal disputes, community-building. Anyone who has spent time with “new atheists” or certain kinds of left-wing sectarians knows this.

What, then, distinguishes millennial spirituality? If millennials are the inheritors of fractured religious certainty, then they are also, in Burton’s phrase, “remixers” of the shards. “Remixed” spirituality becomes the master concept in Strange Rites. It’s a grating phrase (to this rockist anyway) but apt, at least as good as the commonly-used phrase “cafeteria spirituality” that captures roughly the same thing. A few characteristics distinguish millennial religious remixing from the borrowings that have long gone on among religions, in Burton’s telling. Remixed spirituality, across the board, is highly “intuitionist,” valuing subjective experience over institutional rules and self-creation over doctrinal purity. Contemporary remixed spirituality values authenticity, as measured by resonance with the person doing the remixing, over other aspects of religious experience (which clashes ironically with the thorough commercialization of remixed spirituality Burton observes, but perhaps I’m just being rockist again). Lastly, the Internet imparts a quantitative difference—the sheer intensity of communications and interconnectedness it enables—that makes millennial remixed spirituality different from what came before.

One is tempted to call remixed spirituality, of any of the varieties Burton pores over, the “fast fashion” of religions, but the author shows admirable restraint in avoiding such knee-jerk judgments. It’s a low bar, but granting any meaningful historical context to Brooklyn witches and Harry Potter fandom is more than a lot of people paid to write about culture manage, and a sign of good faith. Burton’s seemingly-genuine curiosity, thoughtful analysis, and clear writing brings the reader along, until they’re halfway through and realizing that only one chapter out of nine deals with any practice that takes the supernatural for granted—the rise of “witchcraft” as an interest, most notably among millennial women. The emphases of her other chapters, after a few that introduce her basic ideas, include fandom culture, BDSM and other “alternative” sexual lifestyles, men’s rights activists, rationalists/singularity believers, “social justice warriors,” and wellness culture. Burton makes acute observations on all of them, but a reader looking for “religion” in anything like the usual sense of the word might be left scratching their head.

Burton’s emphasis on the religious aspects of seemingly secular phenomena—enjoying fan fiction, developing a skin care routine, being a liberal and/or a reactionary—both originate in powerful thought concerning what religion is, and open odd pathways into potentially dark territory. Here, it is worth noting that unlike Josh Hawley, Tara Burton has an advanced degree in theology. She identifies four elements that remixed spiritual practices provide their followers, that tie all of these practices back to religion: meaning, purpose, community, and ritual. All of these elements show up in the new religious communities she documents, from the rituals surrounding attendance at the interactive play “Sleep No More,” with which Burton begins the book, to the incel rage providing purpose to “men’s rights activists” towards the end. It is precisely the activation of these elements—the attachment of meaning, awakening of purpose, nurturing of community and ritual—that has led to a re-enchantment of unlikely aspects of the world, in Burton’s telling: consumer goods, social media fora, gyms. Burton makes a compelling argument for why her subjects ought to be treated as religions, and her own analyses on these lines are fruitful for anyone interested in any of the practices she discusses.

There is something to be gained, then, by treating such nontraditional spiritualities as religions. But there’s inevitably a trade-off. The bigger a category gets, the less precise it becomes, and the more open to intellectual abuse—precisely that kind of abuse Josh Hawley undertakes, in a ham-fisted way, in his Christianity Today article. Idealism can be a hell of a drug in the hands of the vulgar, plucking long-dead heresiarchs from the noosphere to decorate petty grudges and political ambitions.

If Hawley sent one of his aides to go out and select bits of Strange Rites for the Senator’s next speech or article, any aide worth their letters of recommendation would come across Burton’s discussion of the role the concept of consent plays in millennial sexual communities—polyamory, BDSM, and so on. This section of the book would provide the most ammunition for the point Hawley tried to make in his Christianity Today article, and the contemporary sex-panicked right-wing mindset would find in it a nice soupçon of salaciousness: “look what those Pelagian liberals get up to!” Here one BDSM practitioner tells Burton: “if we had a god, it would be consent.” Putting herself in the place of one who has “divinized consent,” Burton imagines that the purpose of life, from the remixed perspective, is “at a very real and deep level […] to express our authentic selves, and to pursue that self through freedom.” This is very nearly what Hawley accuses the elite Pelagian liberals of believing to the detriment of America’s moral core.

It’s worth reciting the differences between Burton and Hawley’s positions, here, because the point is not that Burton is some stealth reactionary. Burton displays the keen nonjudgmental eye of the anthropologist (and the considered choice of when to stick the boot in, as she does with the men’s rights people, of the social media survivor), not Hawley’s reedy effort at righteous fury. Burton, a theology PhD, does not drag Pelagius or any other theologian into her discussion, because she doesn’t need to. She writes gracefully and Hawley does not. It is hard to imagine Burton making the utterly inept pivot to the material that Hawley does, when he insists that the freedom from restraint he falsely attributes to both Pelagius and contemporary liberalism is an upper class affectation that somehow leaves the working classes bereft (as if they hadn’t more material things to worry them). Burton’s book might have benefitted from more discussion of class, but not like that.

Beyond differences of temperament and intellect, Burton and Hawley differ in how they use the very wide space they have opened for critique of politics-as-religion (and lifestyle-as-religion, one is tempted to say everything-as-religion). For Hawley, whatever he might profess to believe, religion serves a function: the instantiation and/or preservation of the kind of order he favors. Whack society with the religion stick and it will move in a given direction: that’s the logic at work for him. For Burton, religion is more of a form, the variety of shapes which organized devotion takes. There’s another passage that Hawley’s long-suffering assistant might deploy their highlighter to, and one of the few in the book where Burton approaches a definitive ascriptive judgment. Early in the book, after reflecting on the many-faceted self-created attributes of millennial spirituality, she asks, “when we are all our own high priests, who is willing to kneel?” She does not pursue this question in any systematic way. It seems almost besides the point, except, perhaps, in a formal sense: religion is more beautiful, truer somehow, when some kneel. It’s hard to say.

Strange Rites can probably best be shelved as journalism; Hawley’s “Age of Pelagius,” were it a book, in the “politics” section of the bookstore, with the other tendentious polemics. Neither are histories, and neither are notably historically grounded. Hawley reels erratically between late antiquity and the present. Burton presents remixed spirituality in the context of the decline of the mainline Protestant denominations and the rise of the internet in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, but her presentation of the past takes the historical foundation of the “age of fracture” for granted and does not interrogate it further. Doing so would alter the purposes of the book and bring in more and thornier questions of power than those Burton chooses to engage. Burton’s subject is not power. Hawley thinks his is, but he has a child’s notion of power. Burton’s urban millennial neighborhoods (and their internet adjuncts) resemble the Alexandria of sects scattered around like so many wares in the bazaar; Hawley pictures himself climbing the Capitoline steps of a Rome after completing “the great task of the hour,” creating a new orthodoxy that will sort out the Pelagian-Alexandrian mess of the “remixed” in short order.

What would happen if we looked at the spiritual picture of millennial America through a lens less of function or form but of power, understood historically? Religion has great power and that power takes many shapes. Henry Adams compared the power of belief symbolized by the cult of the Virgin Mary and Chartres Cathedral to the dynamos newly-invented in his time. He saw that spiritual power as both capable of inspiring greater efforts than a dynamo, and of having greater coherence. This was, in many respects, a historically-selective daydream of a spiritually superior past on the part of a reactionary, but thinking about religion in terms of the energy and coherence it lends to societies can illuminate some questions.

There’s energy in the beliefs depicted in Strange Rites, but little coherence. The remixed believe in often diametrically opposed things, and those things are generally made from found parts. Lack of coherence makes it difficult to turn energy into power. What power remixed spirituality has runs in capillaries throughout the society—a changed opinion here, a new connection made there. To date, this power seems to lack any direction more precise than the plant’s surge towards the sun (or the unsupported object’s path towards the center of the earth). Late antique Alexandria wasn’t known as a conquering city, or a particularly governable one, whatever its many gifts. Maybe it could be called resilient, if disaster prone, and maybe we need that more, these days.

Old consensuses had power and coherence both. Indeed, the liberal consensus (which included the mainline Protestant churches and to an extent the Catholic Church and most American Jewish denominations), in most respects, was more of an expression of the power and confidence of postwar America than it was about any particular belief system. If we live in the aftermath of Daniel Rodgers’s “age of fracture,” what the remixed are doing is picking up the pieces left by the shattering of the liberal consensus and constructing new belief systems of them. Among other facets of the age Rodgers identified was “the return of history,” and between the renewed prominence given to history and the access the internet gives to (certain pictures of) the past, numerous concepts drawn from the wells of history join fragments from the more recent past in the belief-collages constructed by the remixed.

Alas, Pelagianism doesn’t seem to be among these concepts in any imagination but that of Josh Hawley. More than a snide dig, this points to something relevant: when a consensus is gone, it is gone for good. You can recreate its forms but that’s not the same thing as bringing it back to life. This is the tragedy, or anyway the farce, of “tradcaths” (young online reactionary Catholics), “tradlife” as the hashtag puts it, and every other attempt to role-play a given (generally inaccurate, not that accuracy will really help) picture of orders past, from pre-Christian Europe to fifties suburbia. The map isn’t the territory and without the historical context that brought a given time to life, “trad” anything is a sad charade. If Hawley’s Pelagianism conspiracy theory was real, it already won, and there’s no going back. More than that, Hawley’s writing on the subject calls up a past order that somehow combines the heretic-fighting Christian deep past and the white postwar suburbs of living memory and tells us to go back to both, a historical farrago so hopelessly absurd the only word for it seems to be one descriptor for Hawley’s enemies in the culture war: postmodern. Neither past is any realer or more coherent than the fractured present in which the remixed make their way.

For all of its weaknesses, the reactionary strain Hawley represents and seeks to lead has a major strength over the more liberal remixed spiritualities Burton describes. If Hawley understands anything, it’s power, a thing that is often beneath and above language, power as the boot stomping on a human face. While the remixed scan the wall moldings for a socket to power their various little projects, the Hawley’s of the world propose to plug in to the oldest, dirtiest power plants they can find: raw tribal and sectarian hatred, the desire of the powerful to hold on to their positions unchallenged, the love of power for its own sake. The belief system of a Josh Hawley only needs to be coherent enough to channel those energies to do what men like him want to do: smash their enemies and enthrone themselves. Once good and ensconced in power, they can get around to hiring someone—maybe that aide with the highlighter—to write a history of how it was all because their beliefs were truer and more coherent, not because they tapped into the worst humanity has to offer. Then they can sort out the business of who kneels to whom, to which Burton fleetingly alluded, like a premonition, before going on to less ominous concerns.

Peter Berard is a writer and organizer who lives in Watertown, Massachusetts. You can follow his work via his newsletter, peterberard.substack.com.

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