One of the greatest contributors to the rise of the far-right, historically and today, is the normalization of far-right tropes and narratives by more mainstream outlets. The aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, for example, saw the LA Times put out reporting which emphasized the fashion sense of white nationalists like Richard Spencer over serious discussion of their policy goals. 2017, similarly, saw the New York Times publish “A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland”, an interview with white nationalist Tony Hovater which drew criticism for spending more time describing Hovater as a normal, everyday American than it did addressing his hateful views.
The Atlantic’s “The Return of the pagans” by Rabbi & visiting Harvard Divinity School faculty member David Wolpe, published on December 25th, 2023, may soon be remembered as the latest case of a mainstream media outlet normalizing far right narratives. Wolpe, in his essay, effectively recycles many far-right narratives attributing the decline of society on moral decay, straying from traditional religion, the advance of an ill-defined “paganism” on both left and right, and claims figures like Donald Trump and Elon Musk are the ultimate modern “pagans” despite his acknowledgment of evangelical Christian support for the former. Wolpe further blames these “pagans” for the rise of historical fascism while effectively absolving monotheistic religion in general and Christianity, by extension, of their role in these historic crimes.
Before describing how Wolpe and the Atlantic are playing a normalizing role, it is first necessary to address Wolpe’s definition of paganism and the problems with it. According to Wolpe, Paganism, “generally takes two forms: the deification of nature, and the deification of force”, was universally true of pre-Christian societies, and is equally present in his modern pagans. Wolpe then proceeds to blame this nebulously defined “paganism” for everything wrong with modern society including the rise of modern fascism and Donald Trump’s election as President. One could easily replace “pagan” with “decadent” and the effect of Wolpe’s piece would be the same.
His definition and use of the words pagan and paganism has been roundly lambasted by Pagan authors and scholars like Patheos columnist Jason Mankey, Sabina Macliocco, the Chair of the Program in the Study of Religion, the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Wild Hunt Editor in Chief Manny Tejada Moreno, and journalist Nathan M. Hall for its total lack of historical polytheist or modern Pagan sources or consideration for the materials produced by both groups describing their beliefs and ideas. Wolpe’s only public response has been his reported reply to a request for dialogue by Cherry Hill Seminary director Holly Emore where he brusquely stated, “The article did not and does not address the current pagan communities nor was it intended to.”
Regardless of his intentions, using pagans and paganism as a stand-in for everything wrong with society is a problem for modern Pagans and eerily mirrors similar uses of the term on the Christian Right. Paganism is one of the fastest growing religious movements in America with an estimated 1.5 million Pagans living in the United States today, a greater number than the membership of the mainline US Presbyterian Church. Using a religious movement’s term of identification as a dogwhistle is, by itself, deeply problematic but Wolpe’s use is not an isolated incident. Modern evangelicals have long used the term pagan to lambaste everything they see as decadent, immoral, and wrong with society. Right-wing evangelicals and Christian conservatives have even claimed, like Wolpe, that environmentalism is a mask for Earth worship and creeping paganism.
These claims of creeping paganism are sharply at odds with widespread documentation of conservative and evangelical Christianity’s central role in putting Donald Trump in power. As is well-documented by researchers like Katherine Stewart, Bradley Onishi, and the Charismatic Revival Fury docuseries, Donald Trump’s MAGA movement is deeply rooted in white American Christianity. Christian evangelicals and nationalists even utilized the biblical example of Cyrus the Great to argue Christianity’s place in society could only be restored by electing a seemingly ungodly man like Trump to do the job. As evangelicals like Pastor John Lee of Iowa argued at the time, “I’m not electing a pastor in chief. I’m electing a commander in chief.”
Trump, since his election in 2016, publicly reciprocated this support in the form of policy decisions, public appearances, and moments like when, in 2019, Trump boasted he was, “the chosen one” mandated by God to lead America. These same forces were also central in mobilizing the mob which stormed the US Capitol on January 6th, 2021 and rallied the support of Christian prayer warrior networks to sanctify the whole exercise. Some of those present at January 6th even blew on shofars, a Jewish ritual instrument which has been appropriated by Charismatic Christian congregations as a weapon of spiritual warfare.
Elon Musk shares a similar relationship with right-wing Christianity. Though Musk has, publicly, been largely irreligious most of his life, beginning in 2022 he began publicly flirting with the Christian Right. This started with a 2022 interview with the Babylon Bee Musk claimed that he agrees with the teachings of Jesus Christ, going so far as to say, “Sure, I’ll be saved,” a statement backed up by additional tweets suggesting at least some sympathy for Christianity. He also recently appeared on a Twitter Spaces event alongside Infowars host Alex Jones, who is well-known for his vocal Christianity(1), Christian nationalists Jack Posobiec and Laura Loomer, and presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy who has voiced support for Christian nationalism and has expressed similar support for Hindu nationalists like Narenda Modi. He further reinforced these overtures on January 3rd, 2024 when he tweeted his support for British rapper Nzube Udezue’s contention that, “the West is absolutely screwed if it loses Christianity” by replying with, “I think you’re probably right”.
This was also true of historical fascism. Contrary to Wolpe’s narrative of creeping Nietzschean paganism rising against monotheistic, predominantly Christian civilization, historical fascism rode its way into power wrapped in flags and brandishing crosses. Benito Mussolini greatly benefitted from the Catholic Church’s support to help shore up his regime’s legitimacy during and after his rise to power. Francisco Franco enjoyed uncritical support from the Catholic Church for his National Catholicism during his bloody march to power and throughout his brutal rule. Franco has also enjoyed a recent surge of support from far-right US pundits who are now heralding his regime as a template for a future United States.
Adolf Hitler and his Nazis, who Wolpe casts as a new paganism bent on destroying monotheistic virtues, drew considerable support from German Catholics and Protestants,(2) some of whom called themselves “stormtroopers for Christ”, by tapping into centuries of Christian anti-Semitism . The Nazis were quite aware of this and included what they called Positive Christianity in their platform, which was a Christianity purged of its so-called Jewish influences, as a way of attracting support from these groups. He also reached agreements with German church leaders like the Reichskonkordat with the Catholic Church where he guaranteed their safety in exchange for their silence.
Hitler was, by contrast, far less accommodating for less traditional religious groups. He denounced occult and other fringe spiritualities in the Nazi Party, first in Mein Kampf when he derisively dismissed them as those who, “brandish Teutonic tin swords” and “skedaddle when the first communist cudgel appears”(3) and again at a 1938 rally in Nuremberg when he asserted, “We will not allow the mystically-minded occult folk with a passion for exploring the secrets of the world beyond to steal into our Movement. Such folk are not National Socialists, but something else – in any case something which has nothing to do with us”.(4) According to George L. Mosse, the influence of German occult groups like the Thule Society was mostly limited to the Nazis freely utilizing their symbols while Society members found themselves excluded from any real power once the Nazis took over.(5) In the words of historian Peter Staudenmaier, “Attributing the horrors of Nazi Germany to obscure occult sources is all too often a convenient way of absolving ourselves from the hard work of understanding the past.”
Further undermining Wolpe’s contention that Nazis were, in fact, pagans and not Christians is his use of Tom Birkett’s essay on far-right co-optation of Norse symbolism. In “The return of the Pagans,” Wolpe uses Birkett to claim, “Norse and Viking mythology have played a large role in the far right, just as they did for the Nazis. The Norse were people of conquest, rape, and pillage, at least in the popular imagination.” This, based on Wolpe’s earlier arguments, is perfectly in line with his depiction of all paganisms as inherently obsessed with power, conquest, and domination. Even though he cites Dr. Birkett’s piece to support this claim, Birkett himself draws a very different conclusion from what Wolpe implies with this citation.
Birkett argues the root of the problem is found in fascist co-optation of Norse symbols and imagery to develop a new fascist iconography and not anything inherent to Nordic mythology. In Birkett’s own words, “Neo-Nazis have never been particularly good at reading the medieval sources they are so drawn towards. They find what they want to find in Norse myth –- violence, ruthlessness, an existential war that will lead to the rebirth of a new world -– and they read no deeper.”
Though Wolpe’s intent appears to be reclaiming the more positive, sustaining elements of Christianity and Judaism from the far-right, his approach may mostly succeed in enabling them. Blaming the far-right and its causes on his nebulous, ill-defined “pagans” draws the attention away from the role very mainstream Christian institutions have played in empowering the historical and modern far-right. Regardless of how deeply-felt his positions may be, his arguments are more likely to further normalize Christian nationalism than effectively oppose it while also placing modern Pagans in greater risk of harm.
Art by technosomething
1. Menno H. Reijven, Sarah Cho, Matthew Ross, and Gonen Dori-Hacohen, “Conspiracy, Religion, and the Public Sphere: The Discourses of Far-Right Counterpublics in the US and South Korea”, International Journal of Communications 14 (2020)
2. Doris L. Bergen, “Catholics, Protestants, and Christian Antisemitism in Nazi Germany”, Central European History Vol. 27, No. 3 (1994)
3. Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, translated by James Murphy, 300
4. Speech in Nuremberg on September 6, 1938. The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, April 1922-August 1939, Volume 1, Edited by Norman Hepburn Baynes. University of Michigan Press, 396
5. George L. Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich, Grosset & Dunlap (New York, NY: 1964), 305-309