The strange phenomenon of the alt-right is now well fixed in the public consciousness. As a complex confluence of different groups clustered together online, it is hard to codify a coherent ideology. Key elements include a deeply critical attitude towards multiculturalism and globalisation. This is tied up with sinister views on race. Yet leaders of alt-right groups swear (unconvincingly) that they consider no race as superior to any other, simply that each race should defend its own interests and have a territory in which it is dominant (an “ethno-state”).
At Charlottesville in August, the alt-right made a conscious effort to move offline and into the open. This revealed just how extreme they were, with Nazi imagery aplenty, a torchlight procession mimicking 1930s Brownshirts marches, complete with chants of “Jews will not replace us”.
Nazism itself is a colossal inflation of human racial difference. Hitler linked an assumed German cultural superiority with a distinct “Aryan” racial identity. This race was presented as so different to supposedly lesser races as to render the latter sub-human. The alt-right share this basic commitment, rooting the profound cultural differences that undoubtedly exist between different peoples in race and speaking of a need to defend a supposed “white culture”.
The period in which the alt-right grew like a fungus in the dark corners of the internet also featured lots of angst over multiculturalism and globalisation from respectable quarters. In recent years society has had to grapple afresh with a perennial human challenge: navigating the deep differences between different peoples and identities, while celebrating and fostering our shared human nature: respecting the dignity of all, while not undermining our respective distinctness.
In 2009 Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate criticised globalisation along these lines, for making a “cultural” imposition of Western individualism across the globe, that is, undermining human difference with a falsely conceived unity. This might seem surprising, but Catholicism is the first and most longstanding example of humanity answering to the perpetual challenge of unity and diversity.
In the first place, Catholicism is crystal clear on unity, our shared human dignity. On race, the Catechism says that, being “created in the image of the one God”, we “enjoy an equal dignity”. Therefore every form of discrimination on the basis of race must be “eradicated” (934-935).
But Catholicism is of course a global community, and when it comes to respecting difference, the tradition takes a nuanced position. Profound human difference is often cultural. Gaudium et Spes, Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, celebrates a measure of cultural diversity in the Church (44), and reminds us that the Church is not the property of any particular culture (42). On the other hand, the same document does not assume all cultural expressions to be equal, and criticises the emerging Western culture of the 1960s as threatening history and tradition (56).
So Catholicism holds firm to the universal brotherhood of all when it comes to race and encourages some cultural diversity, while also acknowledging that culture can take wrong turns.
Following the Council, many unduly simplified these complex dynamics, and assumed the Gospel could take form in any cultural setting. This was one way in which the facile melodies of mass-market Western music were able to take liturgical precedence over traditional sacred music. Benedict XVI’s pontificate railed against the “dictatorship of relativism”, and part of this involved a critique of the surreptitious cultural relativism entering into the life of the Church.
The dominant liberalism of recent decades also tends to apportion the equal dignity of all, to all forms of culture. This liberalism has, of course, produced multiculturalism and globalisation, and proponents of these must assume at least a measure of cultural relativism. Multiculturalism assumes that different cultures can live alongside each other unaffected by each other, and without facing deeply different religious and ethical values. Globalisation presumes that any culture is able to host the system of free trade and limitless economic acquisition founded by Western democracy.
It is one thing, from a civic duty, to accept multiculturalism as a stimulating reality of modern life. It is quite another to commit oneself to cultural relativism as an idea. And on globalisation, Benedict XVI warned us that broad-brush relativism will lapse into dictatorship, in this case by imposing liberal Western values of individualism and utilitarianism across the globe.
It is a testament to the strangeness of these times that an agreement between the voice of one pope with his successor can seem surprising. But there is genuine alignment between Pope Francis and Benedict XVI on this last point – that globalisation can be destructive on cultural identity by superimposing dubious Western ideals. As Francis argued in Evangelii Gaudium (62): “[I]n many countries globalisation has meant a hastened deterioration of their own cultural roots and the invasion of ways of thinking and acting proper to other cultures which are economically advanced but ethically debilitated.”
It seems that the dynamics of unity and diversity at work Catholicism continue to inform us in unexpected ways.
Dr Jacob Phillips is BA theology programme director at St Mary’s University, Twickenham