Paganism promises to elevate the self but in reality it is diabolically self-destructive
Katie McHugh, who gained fame as a provocateur of the white nationalist “alt-right,” has left the movement. In a recent interview, McHugh’s message to alt-right friends is “get out while you still can.”
The fascinating profile of her life took her down the rabbit hole of neo-paganism which lies at the dark heart of the movement. Like many lapsed Catholics, McHugh was attracted to aspects of the new paganism which has been steadily growing in post-Christian America. The new paganism is different from the old paganism in that it doesn’t have a thousand functionary gods yet, but like the old paganism, it does have a sacralized view of the world — and man, not God, is the measure of it.
A Catholic friend quoted in the profile reports that in 2014 McHugh had brought him neo-pagan reading materials while he was in the hospital. By some extraordinary grace, McHugh’s friend had the insight to give McHugh St Augustine’s devastating rebuttal of Roman paganism, The City of God Against the Pagans.
“In 2014 I was in the hospital, and when you’re in the hospital people bring you things to read. And she brought me this little pagan pamphlet. And I was like, oh, we gotta stop this. Nip this in the bud.” The friend gave her a copy of City of God, St. Augustine’s seminal defense of Christianity in the declining years of the Roman Empire. He thinks it brought her back from the brink. “She was like, oh, this book’s incredible,” he said. “At that point, it was that she was not going to become a pagan, that she was gonna remain a Christian.”
For most of the 20th century, theologians were taught to mainly read from the second half of Augustine’s City of God. That’s where the famous “two cities” argument is primarily located, and it’s true that this is where most of his theological claims reside. But this approach misses something extremely important, namely it skips over Augustine’s profound criticisms of pagan thought which reside in the first ten books.
St. Augustine understood paganism for what it was, namely human pride divinizing the self. But in understanding this he also shows how paganism promises to elevate the self but in reality it is diabolically self-destructive.
Even if McHugh had only made it through the first ten books, she would have arrived at the contrast between the soul-destroying sacrifices that paganism demands from people, and the life-giving sacrifice that God makes on the Cross, and which Christians cling to in the Most Holy Eucharist. And in this she will have understood the two cities quite perfectly.
Her message to those post-Christian neo-pagan alt-right citizens is fittingly Augustinian now: “get out while you still can.”
C.C. Pecknold is an Associate Professor of Theology and Fellow of the Institute of Human Ecology at The Catholic University of America