The New Politics of History
Issue #21, October 1995
"Once upon a time,'original sin' was the theological term for what we now refer to as repetition compulsion, whether on the individual or the collective level."
— Jurgen Habermas, Past as Future
During the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco two years ago, many Biblical scholars were convinced that the Federal Government seriously misunderstood David Koresh and his religious brand of anti-statism. After emerging from the compound, James Tabor reported that Koresh believed he was living out the last days of history as foretold in the Book of Revelations. Convinced that the federal agents laying siege to his compound were indeed a Roman occupation army in Babylon, Koresh is believed to have instigated a mass suicide, assured that it was the fulfillment of a historical destiny spelled out in the Book of Revelations.
The question that Koresh's fatalism raises for us is how we are to understand the new politics of history in America. How is Koresh's apocalypticism symptomatic of a greater sense of despair among Americans as a whole, and who, if anyone, are the forces which seek to forestall the inevitable decline of Babylon? Should we even attempt to order the world as we see fit? If David Koresh did indeed commit suicide, then things would be a lot more straight forward. We'd be able to say, "Look, this guy was obviously mentally ill, he had a Führer complex like Jim Jones and Charles Manson, and he simply offed himself and his friends to show that he was more in charge than the government." But we can't resort to such simple-minded forms of psychological reductionism, because Koresh isn't the only person thinking this way. When all possibilities for historical renewal seem to have exhausted themselves the only thing it seems we can do is look backward in order to have some sense of what the future may bring.
History would not have the kind of political importance that Christians attach to it if the status of religious identity were not in question. As our economy shifts from an industrial basis to a service basis, the impetus towards secularization continues to renew itself. And yet the possibility for some sense of reassurance, stability and comfort that would spell the end of ideology is nowhere in sight. Christians politicize history because they are in the process of integrating their religious identities into this new era. History becomes the only place where one can find some sort of sense of transcendence that our increasingly tenuous everyday lives cannot give us.
The suicidal nostalgia exemplified by Koresh is the most extreme variant of what is otherwise a more insidious sense of history synonymous with conservative politics. There is a general sense of foreboding about what the future holds in store for us from the Reagan-era call for a return to family values to the Christian Coalition's insistence that we return to our nation's Christian origins. Unlike the Branch Davidians and other similar end-time movements, the religious right uses the end of history as an excuse to return to a time when the apocalypse didn't seem so imminent. Nostalgia obscures certain basic truths about the present. Nostalgia for an old order is a way of putting off the inevitable, if only to keep the Apocalypse at bay for practical reasons. If we continually remind ourselves that the end is always at hand, we'll be able to live with what's wrong with the present. Maybe that's just the way the religious right wants to keep things. When the militia movement questions the government's account of the Koresh conflagration in Waco, and then starts blowing up government facilities, you begin to wonder.
If we declare the closure of all historical possibilities, we issue a self-fulfilling prophecy. This prophecy is not only a way of forestalling social change. It also prevents us from seeing what in the present could suggest a more humane future. During times of extreme social upheaval, apocalypticism functions as a means by which the old social order is integrated into the new division of power. The function of nostalgia is to remember all of the various historically specific aspects of an older state of affairs in order to fuse them with the coming one. This is what Horkheimer and Adorno mean when they talk about there being a "Dialectic of Enlightenment." The self-reflexivity of the old order simply increases the more it learns how to adapt itself to the ever changing demands of history. If the Branch Davidian compound at Mount Carmel had not burned to the ground, the historical consciousness of the religious right would look a lot different. Apocalypticism would not appear as a potentially suicidal dissatisfaction with the present. Instead, it would seem to be an extreme way to force people to comply with a particularly religious manner of sublimating anxiety about declining living standards.
To look at it from a completely different angle, apocalypticism is the logical consequence of nostalgia's failure to find a new home for a failed present in the past. When the end of history fails to materialize, the nostalgic cycle begins all over again because it has succeeded in creating a kinder, gentler form of remembrance. The increasingly religious character of American politics since Waco confirms this. What remains to be seen are the social consequences of the religious glance backwards that seeks to fuse past and future.
The meaning of religious nostalgia is twofold: First, it functions as a way to understand the failure of the present in light of promises made in the past. By promises, I mean the envisioning of a future history based on the revelations of God to man, and the prophetic interpretation of these promises as they are presented in theology and Scripture. Nostalgia in this sense describes the hope for history to follow a predetermined outcome that means total destruction. Second, religious nostalgia is the recollection of past moments in history in which communities possessed shared belief systems which gave them a sense of social cohesion based on a common religious and national identity.
In the case of contemporary religious conservatism, nostalgia is meant to compensate for the high degree of insecurity and despair during the transition from an industrial to a service economy. As much as nostalgia may look to the past, the new politicization of religion brings visions of these eclipsed communities forward as the basis for a new social order in America. The danger inherent in such regressive utopianism is that it seeks to impose an ideal of citizenship which reflects a certain kind of racial and ethnic homogeneity that is inconsistent with the pluralist character of contemporary American culture. Although the breakdown of civil society conforms to a Biblical vision of history, the religious right can't live with this realization. Instead of passively awaiting the end, it attempts to purify America in preparation for the countdown to Armageddon. Much to its chagrin, nothing ever happens, except, of course the fulfillment of its wishes. David Koresh may have made it into heaven but, in his wake, the Christian Coalition might very well turn America into a living hell.
The new emphasis upon cultural identity does not occur in a vacuum. Nor is it a simply a strategic appropriation of identity politics. The defence of cultural authenticity is increasingly common in conservative politics in Europe as well as North America. But each and every time the right to a distinct historical identity is invoked it is almost always done so in reference to religion, or as in the case of contemporary New Right thought in France, Italy and Germany, spirituality. Eurofascist Adolfo Morganti spells this out best when he describes the relationship between religion and nationalism as "opening up access to the sources of the Sacred in its expressions which are most appropriate to binding together practically a supranational community through the sacredness of the world and the liturgy of existence."
In an essay on nihilism, post-war German fascist Armin Mohler provides us with an insight as to the importance of apocalyptic conceptions of history and religious renewal. Mohler argues that a cyclical understanding of history is essential to any understanding of real conservatism. At the heart of this philosophy is Nietzsche's concept of the eternal return, which means that unconditional destruction "continuously metamorphoses into its opposite: unconditional creation. For the essential core does not decay....Our hope is placed in what is left over." Mohler later concludes that this conception of history enables us to understand the phenomenon of 'rebirths,' which he characterizes as one of the primary spiritual characteristics of our time. An apocalyptic conception of history and its concurrent forms of nostalgia make a lot more sense when viewed through the Nietzschean lens of fascist metapolitics. The church can continue to recycle the message of the apocalypse because the destruction the end of history promises provides us with a sense of the possibility of starting over from scratch. How one chooses to interpret what it means to renew oneself is another story. When Mohler speaks of placing hope in what is left over, we get an idea as to how the destructive power of the apocalypse provides the faithful with the means to impose this same kind of renewal upon others. Though Mohler does not immediately state so outright, he suggests as much when he states that the kind of revolution implied by this conception of history is a bloody one. This should be taken into account when we attempt to evaluate the social implications of the vision of community implicit in the new religious historicism. Waco would be a good place to start such an evaluation.
Conclusion: Reconsidering Strategies
The importance that the religious right attaches to its vision of history is more than philosophical. It represents a deepened understanding of the importance of theological doctrine for its revolutionary strategy. In this respect we should be careful to reconsider the Christian Coalition's recent efforts to take over the Republican party, its emphasis on lobbying in congress, the support of these initiatives by so-called militia auxiliaries, gun-toting preachers, and the civil disobedience campaigns of the anti-abortion movement. The new emphasis upon history represents the development of a new understanding in religious circles as to what it really takes to seize state power.
To return to the European context, one of the most significant influences on fascist political strategies in recent years has been the work of Antonio Gramsci. In a treatise entitled "The Metapolitical Rebirth of Europe," Pierre Krebs explains that what the right has to learn from Gramsci is that the state is not confined to its institutional boundaries, but has its own civil apparatus in popular culture and particularized world-views. In order for the state to be able to govern effectively, it has to secure cultural and religious assent. Citing Gramsci's strategic identification of culture as a new sight of struggle, Krebs argues that the right has to gain control of cultural power first in order to take control of state power. Only by fighting the state on the level of metapolitics, "on the level of world views, ways of thinking, and culture," can a new right revolutionary strategy be truly successful.
As Charlie Bertsch suggests in discussing Rush Limbaugh's reference to Gramsci in BS issue #12, the American right does indeed copy the example of its European mentors. No similar citation is made in religious circles. But it's the parallel that is important here. What we see in the historical consciousness of the religious right is a similar recognition that the formation of a coherent counter-hegemony is a vital step in their march towards state power. Evangelical nostalgia and apocalyptic anxiety are so important because of the role they play in the creation of the religious right's counter-hegemonic worldview. Thinking in terms of counter-hegemony also sheds light on the world of religious broadcasting, where programming is not only designed to encourage spiritual reflection, but also political participation.
The significance of the religious right's adoption of a Gramscian strategy is that it represents a new way of practicing politics in North America. Regardless of the alliances the religious right has formed with the Republican party, its commitment to a politics based on history, culture, and theology represents a shift away from party politics to the realm of religion, back to the church. The Church is unlike other institutions within mass culture because it provides the most historically self-conscious social space within civil society where it is possible to think about the future nostalgically. Why? Because according to the logic of Waco, history is over before it is really ready to begin.
If the Branch Davidians had to create their own separatist community then we can see where the new religious politics are going to lead us. Out of the desire to restore a covenant between man and God, the religious right is trying to create a social order based on fear, segregation and suicide. Even if David Koresh was not responsible for the destruction of the compound, the need to be reborn through a continuous cycle of death and destruction was able to fulfill itself. This is the point which the commission investigating the stand-off with the Branch Davidians seemed to miss in its criticisms of the government's handling of the siege. Koresh did not have to commit an act of mass murder to fulfill a greater need for national renewal. Our inability to escape a deeply entrenched sense of history did it for him. To absolve themselves of responsibility for the tragedy, commentators in religious journals like Christianity Today continue to deride Koresh for his incorrect reading of scripture. Obviously no one wants to accept that there are certain preordained cycles within history which, until we can manage to escape them, we'll always be doomed to repeat. This is why it is important to understand the new politics of history as it is being created by the religious right. By making history an integral part of its attempt at an effective counter-hegemony, the Christian Coalition deepens our inability to escape the grasp of a self-destructive past. Unfortunately, breaking with tradition requires much more than the therapeutic diagnosis of trauma. It requires an act of remembrance, one based on the need to clarify where the current malaise comes from, and why in historical context it remains dangerous.
Joel Schalit is a Ph.D. student in the Program in Social and Political Thought at York University. He is also a member of leftist montage 'band' The Christal Methodists, famous for their satirization of the Christian Right. They have a new single spoofing the Kurt Cobain death industry called "Grungicide." To contact Joel about his article or his band, use the following e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.