My friend Glenn Wallis called my attention to Jason Horowitz’s NYTimes article “Bannon Cited Italian Thinker Who Inspired Fascists” (Friday 10 February 2017). This is connected with Patricia Miller’s article “Will ‘Church Militants’ Be Marching for Trump?” (10 January 2017, Religion Dispatches), which I’d been thinking about since reading it a month ago.
What Horowitz adds is an analysis of Julius Evola, the Italian religious thinker active from around the 1920s to the 1960s, and who is part of the Traditionalist movement (see Mark Sedgwick, Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century, a book everyone in religious studies should read). Evola promoted what can reasonably be called a fascist religiosity, one characterized by hierarchical authoritarianism, an obsession with purity, racism, patriarchy, and a dualistic apocalypticism. Previous discussions of Bannon’s worldview have tended to focus on one or another of those characteristics, while the Evola reference helps us to understand the integration of these elements into a vision of the present that is actually Gnostic in character—a teaching the Roman church long ago judged to be a heresy and which it is therefore surprising to find being embraced by hardline Catholic prelates today.
Bannon and others, such as the Christian dominionists discussed here previously, see the West (yes, that hoary old West of the Western civ courses and Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations) as weak, decadent, effete, undermined by the very principles of liberal democracy—a view shared with Osama bin Laden. This is why the principles of liberal democracy, such as rule of law equally, sanctity of the vote, the equality of all persons under the law, and so on, are now under attack by the present administration. In this view, Islam stands as the great enemy of Western civilization (Christian, white, heterosexual, English-speaking), poised for a…well, you can read the articles yourself—and think about Bannon whispering aggrandizing apocalyptic fantasies in Trump’s ear.
So, what you ask does this have to do with Buddhism? Buddhism has not been immune to being devoured by Traditionalist interpretation. Those interested in understanding this can see my essay “Traditionalist Representations of Buddhism” (here).
Traditionalist conceptions have been integrated into religious studies, and into college level courses on religion via such works as Huston Smith’s The Worlds Religions, and into courses on Buddhism via his derivative work Buddhism a Concise Introduction. In fact Smith, who once proudly claimed the label Traditionalist, has been perhaps the most effective promoter of an incipient fascist religiosity by means of such seemingly liberal and innocuous notions as that all religions are ultimately the same—many paths, one mountain. This idea has been so integrated into American popular religious culture that many people either don’t notice or don’t think about what it means when a dharma teacher uses a Rumi story, or an Hasidic anecdote. While I enjoy a Rumi story or an Hasidic anecdote as much as the next person, in the context of a dharma talk, where it implies that all religions are ultimately the same (a truly incoherent concept to begin with), I find my teeth grinding.
Let me close with an almost Zen-koan like question for you to ponder: If all religions are ultimately the same, why be a Buddhist?