Richard Spencer Is Wrong About Nationalism Replacing Religion

Historical precedent and religious group dynamics don't bear this thesis out.

Richard Spencer first gained notoriety when shortly following Trump’s inauguration, a group of neo-nazis he was speaking to at an alt-right conference performed the Nazi salute, with him showing seemingly no resistance. Since then, he’s gone on to be the opinion section darling of several high-profile outlets, where he’s portrayed as a perfect equivalent to the elusive threat of “antifa” and their radical push for political revolution.

Spencer’s influence doesn’t stem solely from the fact he’s been one of the very few unapologetic spokespeople for white nationalism in America — with the risk that pushing for such an ideology entails — it also comes from a long-standing conservative political thesis, which assigns the blame for rising intercommunal tensions to the erosion of religious institutions within the state — due to secularism and a dwindling belief in the divine — prompting those who once had a socially-embedded motivation for “respecting thee neighbor” to become disillusioned with the current materialistic state of our society, with nationalism presenting itself as a viable alternative.

As such, much of Spencer’s rhetoric hinges on mimicking 20th century nationalist movements across Europe — the results of which were catastrophic — only with a pool encompassing all those fair-skinned and of European descent (as loose as that has a tendency of being) since the case for racial homogeneity is harder to make as America’s roots of whiteness aren’t as far back reaching as Europe’s. There’s a lot that has been said to temper Spencer’s excited vying for a unified “white identity” but it’s worth zeroing in on why he thinks the lack of religious discipline is a good justification for why nationalism should take its place.

The main issue with Spencer’s view, is that it bears very little historical precedent. Even when Europe was firmly under the grip of Christianity — varied as its strands were — peasantry maintained a poor standard of living as the upper classes kept reaping the benefit of their labor. None but the most privileged were happy with the arrangement, and religion served the perfect role of a constant in an overwhelming sea of variables– between famine, disease and war, there wasn’t much to ground the realities of everyday people aside from their regular communal gatherings and shared rituals.

European-borne nation-states as they are recognized today are a fairly recent invention, and even when religious practice was an essential catalyst for promoting pluralistic values in small communities, the political case for why it was necessary to conform to one’s code of morals wasn’t always so obvious. Why interreligious exchange of social and cultural capital was able to occur, is due to the basic necessity of living with one another, and not having endless conflict stymie the flow of civic life–even when the tug of sectarian discord kept pulling hard in the other direction.

The inefficacy of Spencer’s argument doesn’t stop here however–the swornly-hated demographic of Muslims across the West hails from a political tradition whose resiliency stood the test of time more than any of Europe’s tepid attempts at maintaining order in an environment that was ever-so-dominated by a state of perpetual disarray. Despite the inevitable fall of the Umayyad, Abbasid and the Ottoman Caliphates for the very reasons that Spencer cautions against — including but not limited to intercommunal conflict — what lessons we’ve been able to glean from the expansion of Islamic political doctrine across Europe and Asia serve as a useful model for how the values of a religion can be best embodied, leading territory within its purview to prosper, and promote a measure of equality that far surpasses the glamorized era of Christian hegemony in war-ridden medieval Europe.

Backlash against religious institutions — from the dawn of the French Revolution, well into the late colonial era — happened because the cost of maintaining them far out-weighed any sensible consideration for orderly life. If “thee neighbor” feared as much as not being alive to be much of a neighbor anymore on the back of some state-stoked hate campaign against them, society just wasn’t going to be able to function, and that alerted the masses to the more pressing issues affecting their current state of being.

Pluralism’s main drive is a basic human necessity. People aren’t sharing space because they necessarily like it–they do it because the alternative is so much worse. The atrocities committed by Nazi Germany in WWII aren’t just the mere mental abstraction of a few mad men who’ve grown too attached to power and sought to impose their worldview beyond their own borders–they’re also a reminder that nationalism isn’t the harbinger of prosperity as some deem it to be. If anything, trade and cultural exchange was the main means by which that end has historically been achieved.

If Spencer were to have his will answered, and America were to rid its land of any but the most pale, he’d quickly realize that humans are incredibly good at sowing divisions even when there’s no apparent need for them. Pan-western judeo-christendom never worked out as a unifying platform for the New Right because of how many differences it forces them to stomach, before they get on the same page–by that token, white nationalism, as a posited replacement for Christianity, fails its most fundamental test. If white nationalists can’t agree on what “white identity” is and who the “whites” are, what’s to tell this won’t devolve into yet another round of further purification, dooming the movement to utter collapse before it even takes off.

Given the cultural stock that white nationalism has, it’s unlikely that any of its spokespeople have actually plotted a proper course of what would happen were this to be the predominant view in Western politics . If white nationalism stands any chance of maintaining a semblance of staying power in the American political apparatus, it would need to occupy a different role altogether from Christianity–it has to precisely become the work of the devil. And much like disbelievers, what unites them isn’t dogma, but rather an anti-dogma, and that’s what the white nationalist movement ultimately is–a reactionary counter-culture fueled by disillusionment with the mainstream. To that end, and counter to Spencer’s wishes, white nationalism will very much remain a niche for the foreseeable future, precisely because it lacks that crucial movement-building requisite.