April 24, 2024 - 10:00am

Candace Owens declared this week that she had converted to Catholicism, having previously identified as a Reformed Evangelical Protestant. Her baptism into the Church was clearly influenced by the fact that she is married to George Farmer, the CEO of recently relaunched conservative social media app Parler, who is himself a devout Catholic. But it also points to a broader trend on the radical Right.

Large portions of this political grouping have adopted cultural Christianity, less as a theological outlook or spiritual enterprise and more as a tribal marker which is closer to nationalism and other forms of secular radicalism than to traditional forms of faith. This is happening as broader adherence to established Christianity has declined across the Western world in recent decades, with church attendances reaching record lows. The idea of “defending” Christian Europe or Christian values, whether from godless secular liberalism and “degenerate wokeness” or the supposed threat of Islamic domination, has been a motif in the rhetoric of the radical Right for years.

Because of Christianity’s origins as an upstart movement persecuted by the most powerful empire of the time, it’s almost irresistible to claim the mantle of the humble believer marginalised for standing up for virtue and truth amidst a decadent and corrupt society. Owens herself has previously leaned into this identity politics, saying that Christianity is being “persecuted” by “demonic Hollywood” and that “people who despise Christ removed him from the classrooms, then encouraged atheism and never-ending protestant sects in His place.” In some cases, it is not dissimilar to those Islamists who adopt Islam and its aesthetic markers to encapsulate their cultural alienation from contemporary Western society.

Catholicism is particularly attractive for this type of branding because its development is deeply enmeshed with the political history of Europe, while there is a library of art and ritual surrounding it which provides aesthetic virtue. Its ornate emblems and iconography have been deployed by nationalists for their own purposes, whether it was the Catholic fascists in the early 20th century or the radical Right of today.

It’s hard to deny that contemporary society is lacking in beauty. Everything from architecture to art is beholden to utility and functionality, not to mention the cash nexus: devoid of the character and numinous depth that moves the human imagination in profound degrees. The great buildings and art that the Catholic Church built and sponsored can seem like a zenith of cultural excellence that has yet to be matched, which provokes the nostalgia one sees among the “trad Right”.

Society is now atomised, considerably more mobile and constantly in upheaval. Catholicism — or at least the idea of it, with its firm structure, baroque aesthetics and rituals — then becomes a means of asserting those values, establishing some form of identity and tribal solidarity to anchor them in a world that appears to be running wildly out of control. A world that has no foundation, no identity, no definition, no legacy to pass on.

Religion as identity politics is a product and symptom of this social void, even if it advertises itself as a solution to it. There is a reason, after all, why Marx said that religion is the “heart of the heartless world; the spirit of the spiritless situation”.

Ralph Leonard is a British-Nigerian writer on international politics, religion, culture and humanism.