Have the Dark Ages Returned?

How is it that the United States is entering yet another war, a war which is arousing enthusiasm for Trump among his evangelical base? In the rhetoric of various evangelical leaders (as Franklin Graham has put it, Islam is “a very evil and wicked religion”), war seems to be part of a “necessary” clash of religions and civilizations? This seemingly medieval perception is, I would claim, precisely that – medieval in its theological/Roman Catholic roots. How is it that a medieval ideology has come to dominate evangelical religion and American politics?

The fusion of the Republican party with evangelical religion begun under Ronald Reagan and the rise of the Christian Coalition (with Pat Robertson designating Ralph Reed as its leader), the turn to partisan politics and the cry for cultural war begun by Newt Gingrich (a convert to Roman Catholicism), is the first phase in this two-part story. Gingrich’s name-calling, conspiracy theories, strategic obstructionism through government shut-downs, all in the name of bringing religion back into the public square, is certainly echoed in the Trump phenomenon.  But underlying the politics is the rise of a peculiar Catholic sensibility first expressed by George W. Bush.

Three days after the massive terrorist attacks of September 11, president Bush assured the nation that America’s duty was clear – not only to “answer these attacks” but also to “rid the world of evil.” Bush concluded his address by invoking St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (8:38-39) that nothing can divide us from the love of God. America set out on a holy war as Bush described it, “our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there.” The “mission” was not merely to bring justice to the men and the groups that had attacked the country but also to “defend freedom” in a world where “freedom is under attack.” This battle for freedom would be “civilizations fight,” led by the United States. In this struggle, both military and metaphysical, “the outcome is certain,” since “freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.” In Bush’s picture we would win the fight against evil through violence, war, and the destruction of hundreds of thousands of lives. Bush began a crusade which would fuse state and church in the fight for Christian civilization and in his conception of this world struggle, it is precisely Catholic intellectuals to whom Bush would turn.

Damon Linker in his book, The Theocons, traces the key thinkers and shapers behind Bush doctrine and the fusion of right-wing politics and theology. Richard Neuhaus, founding editor of the right-wing Catholic journal First Things, proposed that the American experiment in self-government be reconceived in terms of a communal “covenant” under God. The political and theological implications may be most simply expressed in his understanding that “when he died and stood face-to- face with his creator, he expected to do so as an American.” He holds that the American experience is a “sacred enterprise.”

In Michael Novak’s view, Christianity, modern democracy, and modern capitalism arose from and continue to share “the same logic, the same moral principles, the same set of cultural values, institutions, and presuppositions. Markets don’t simply produce economic growth; they mirror the divine Trinity in the way they enable many diverse individuals to function as one in perfect harmony. For Novak, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” guiding the market was quite simply the hand of God – and the rise and spread of democratic capitalism in the world is the “Greatest Story Ever Told.”

 William Kristol, the non-Catholic of the group, claims that modern conservatism should be based on a synthesis of religion, nationalism, and economic growth and that republicans should give up their resistance to the transformation of their party into an explicitly religious organization – all for the sake of banishing liberalism, the “enemy,” from American political life (all of this and the manner it came to shape Bush’s doctrine is set forth in Linker’s 2007 book).

Steve Bannon, perhaps the key thinker behind Donald Trump, believes 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 culture is Christian. This means our war with evil is a literal war against Islam: “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 a speech at the Vatican, he said, “We are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism.” During broadcasts of the Breitbart News Daily radio show, he alleged that “Islamist sympathizers had infiltrated the U.S. government and news media.” In his dark vision he planned, according to The Washington Post, to make a three-part movie in which radical Muslims take over the United States and remake it into the “Islamic States of America.” According to Newsday, an article published in La Civiltà Cattolica, a Vatican-vetted journal, singled out Bannon as a “supporter of apocalyptic geopolitics,” the logic of which is “no different from the one that inspires Islamic fundamentalism.”

Attorney General William Barr in a recent speech at Notre Dame, warned that Catholicism and other mainstream religions are the target of “organized destruction” by “secularists and their allies among progressives who have marshalled all the force of mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry and academia.” He insisted that “the traditional Judeo-Christian moral system” of the United States was under siege by “modern secularists” responsible for every sort of “social pathology,” including drug abuse, rising suicide rates and illegitimacy. The Guardian reports that C Colt Anderson, a Roman Catholic theologian has warned that Barr’s brand of radically conservative Catholicism is a “threat to American democracy.” He described the speech as a “dog whistle” to ultra-conservative Catholics. “The attorney general is taking positions that are essentially un-Democratic” because they demolish the wall between church and state, according to Anderson.[1]

As The Guardian notes, while the president enjoys the support of right-wing Christian evangelical leaders and their followers, he has also surrounded himself with conservative Roman Catholics like Barr and Patrick Cipollone, Trump’s White House counsel, both of whom served on the board of directors of a Washington-based organization staffed by priests from the secretive, ultra-orthodox Catholic sect Opus Dei. Ron Dreher is an example of why conservative Catholics are falling in line behind Trump: “As we religious conservatives think about how to vote in the election next fall, we should ponder the fact that under Donald Trump a man of William Barr’s convictions is heading up the Department of Justice. Thank God Bill Barr is there.”

While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is not Catholic but a devout evangelical, his open discussion of Christianity and foreign policy (particularly pro-Israel and anti-Islamic leanings) have raised questions about the extent to which evangelical beliefs are directly influencing recent decisions. The New York Times reports, his was the loudest voice in the administration pushing President Trump to kill Iran’s most important general, Qasem Soleimani.

Perhaps the new middle age has commenced, just as Steve Bannon would have it:

“And we’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict, of which if … the people in the Church do not bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the Church Militant, to really be able to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”

The line being drawn between this present moment and the Middle Ages is seen by alt right thinkers as a positive strategy. A variety of Catholic journals and thinkers would counter the cry of “Allahu akbar” with “Deus vult” (“God wills it”) as the call to war against the imagined Islamic enemy. [2] If ever there were a moment for the peace of the Gospel to receive a hearing and to make a difference this would seem to be that moment.

When “Christians” take up the sword to secure themselves and their people they have joined themselves to the power of death, linked to the power of Satan. This means that they have retreated from doing the work of God’s Kingdom, founded on the power of resurrection and not the power of death. As Christians faced with a profound Medieval form of Christianity we must turn firmly away from the means and method of empire. We are not seeking power and security through tight borders, strong military, or the defeat of Islam in war. The danger is that in aligning with the powers and methods of empire, Christians have joined forces with the counter-Kingdom of the antiChrist.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/oct/19/william-barr-attorney-general-catholic-conservative-speech

[2] For example, see the Imaginative Conservative, The American Conservative,

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

3 thoughts on “Have the Dark Ages Returned?”

  1. AMEN! As someone who has fairly recently exited the rightwing conservative fold, I am shaking my head at how so many have been seduced by the demonic powers of Empire, oppression and death. I feel pretty helpless, and, were it not for knowing that God foresaw and warned us of this vast deception, might feel hopeless. What does a powerless person do with all of this? Having many relatives and friends who have been seduced by the rhetoric and lies makes it doubly difficult.