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The Alt-Right’s Intellectual Darling Hated Christianity

Stefano Rellandini / Reuters

In the summer of 2014, years before he became the White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon gave a lecture via Skype at a conference held inside the Vatican. He spoke about the need to defend the values of the “Judeo-Christian West”—a term he used 11 times—against crony capitalism and libertarian capitalism, secularization, and Islam. He also mentioned the late Julius Evola, a far-right Italian philosopher popular with the American alt-right movement. What he did not mention is that Evola hated not only Jews, but Christianity, too.

References to Evola abounded on websites such as Breitbart News, The Daily Stormer, and AltRight.com well before The New York Times noted the Bannon-Evola connection earlier this month. But few have discussed the fundamental oddity of Evola serving as an intellectual inspiration for the alt-right. Yes, the thinker was a virulent anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer who influenced far-right movements in Italy from the 1950s until his death in 1974, but shouldn’t his contempt for Christianity make him an unlikely hero for those purporting to defend “Judeo-Christian” values?

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His current popularity has several experts perplexed.

“Bannon seems to be both [a] very religious [Christian] and a staunch capitalist, two things Evola didn’t believe in,” said Cas Mudde, a professor at the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia.

Francesco Germinario, a historian at the Luigi Micheletti Foundation specializing in far-right movements, went even further. “I would not exclude the possibility that Evola is turning in his grave,” he wrote in an email.

Born in Rome to an aristocratic family, Evola became fascinated with esotericism and the study of non-European religions in his 20s. He developed a strong rejection of modernity—including egalitarian principles, democracy, and pluralism—and yearned for a return to an ancient form of spirituality: Roman paganism. A hardcore nativist, Evola became enamored with the Roman religion because he saw it as Italy’s ancestral belief system.

When the fascists came to power in Italy in 1922, Evola jumped on board and became a regular contributor to the regime’s mouthpiece magazine, Difesa della Razza (Defense of the Race). He devised his own brand of anti-Semitism, which he called razzismo dello spirito, racism of the spirit.

“Fascist-era anti-Semitic ideologues fall under two categories—biology-based racists and nationalism-based ones—but Evola was something different,” explained Valentina Pisanty, a semiologist at the University of Bergamo. “As an occultist, he was convinced that the world contained some mysterious truths that only the initiated could see, and one of those hidden truths was a Jewish conspiracy to rule the world.”

Further distinguishing Evola from other racist writers was the fact that he openly attacked the Christian religion, which he described as a “Semitic superstition” and as “one of the main sources of the decadence of the West” in his seminal 1928 essay “Imperialismo Pagano.” He opposed Christianity both because it was not native to Europe (“an Asiatic movement born to a Jew”) and because of its very message, which he deemed “incompatible” with fascism’s aggressiveness. “Which kind of State, not to mention Empire, can we build based on a Gospel preaching obedience … the pre-eminence of the humble, the abject, and the miserable?” he asked.

Evola’s fascination with esotericism wasn’t only abstract; he believed in the power of magic and tried to use it to restore Roman pagan religion. “He joined an esoteric group called the Ur Group and performed rituals with the specific aim of drawing [the dictator Benito] Mussolini away from Christianity and toward paganism,” said Simone Caltabellota, an editor and writer who researched the group’s archives for his historical novel Amore degli Anni Venti, set in Evola’s inner circle.

Evola’s radical ideas about Christianity eventually put him at odds with Mussolini’s regime, which signed the Lateran Treaty with the Vatican in 1929, establishing a special relationship between the Catholic Church and the Italian state. “Evola wasn’t an organic intellectual for the fascist government, but rather a merely tolerated one. Mussolini didn’t like Evola, because he knew of the magic rituals. For his part, Evola thought that Mussolini’s fascism wasn’t extreme enough,” Caltabellota noted.

Only after the end of World War II did Evola become the intellectual of choice for the far right—“their Aristotle,” Germinario said. “Both in Italy and in Europe, it’s hard to find a militant who hasn’t dealt with Evola’s writings.”

Evola’s once-marginal “spiritual racism” proved more fit to survive the fall of fascism than other ideologies from the Mussolini era, according to Pisanty. “Biological racism fell out of fashion and nationalist racism eventually morphed into a more acceptable form of nationalism,” the semiologist explained. “But Evola’s message, soaked in conspiracy theories, has quietly endured in the underground and has reemerged on the surface recently, thanks to the popularity of conspiracy theories.”

What’s more, Evola’s way of thinking resonates in a “post-truth” world, Pisanty said. For instance, in 1921, the philosopher wrote an introduction to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion—an anti-Semitic text first published in 1903—in which he conceded that the document may have been a forgery, but insisted that it nevertheless contained a deeper truth.

For some scholars, the fact that an anti-Semite is held in high regard by radical conservatives claiming to defend the “Judeo-Christian West” comes as no surprise.

“When people from the far right talk about the ‘Judeo-Christian’ roots of the West, often what they really mean is ‘Christian.’ The ‘Judeo’ part is just fig leaf,” said Donatella Di Cesare, a philosopher at the Sapienza University in Rome.

For Di Cesare, it’s Evola’s relationship with Christianity that makes his popularity within the alt-right uniquely perplexing. “There are two approaches to religion [in right-wing identity politics], depending on how one views the relationship between Christianity and Judaism,” she said. “I can either be a neo-pagan right-winger and reject Christianity because it came from Judaism, or I can reconcile my right-wing views with Christianity by separating it completely from its Jewish roots. What I cannot do, however, is to be a neo-pagan and a Christian at the same time.”

Nevertheless, Di Cesare noted that “there are points of convergence” between the Christian and the neo-pagan far right: “In the end both approaches come down to the idea of defending one’s identity at any cost, and religion is just an instrument [in this struggle].”

This may explain why some far-right organizations that appeal to “Christian values” still appreciate Evola.

“When people from the far right talk about ‘Judeo-Christian’ roots, the ‘Judeo’ part is just fig leaf.”

Matteo Cavallaro, a political scientist at Paris 13 University, said this phenomenon isn’t limited to American groups. Forza Nuova, an Italian far-right political party that combines radical Catholicism with xenophobia, has likewise embraced Evola and has even organized conferences about him. Explaining how some Christians in the far right rationalize their fascination with the philosopher, Cavallaro said, “They argue that Evola’s main teaching was to go back to tradition, so we have to look for what incarnates the tradition today, which is the Catholic Church.”

Toward the end of his life, Evola toned down his attacks on Christianity and on the Catholic Church in particular. While maintaining that Christianity was “incompatible” with his worldview, he claimed that, in an increasingly materialistic world, a “sincere conversion to Catholicism could be an advancement” for those incapable of embracing a more authentic spirituality.

But he found a new target for his invective: America.

“Evola saw the advent of [what he described as] Americanism—consumerism and egalitarian values—as the worst thing that could happen to Europe,” Germinario said, adding that Evola was particularly suspicious of Anglo-Saxon cultures because “he blamed Protestantism for having undermined the principle of authority.”

So, even if liking Evola and liking Christianity aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, those who do so in the context of the United States need to wrestle with the philosopher’s anti-America polemics.

“If the Anglo-Saxon far right flirts with Evola,” Germinario concluded, “then it must first find a way to reconcile its being ‘Anglo-Saxon’ with being far-right.”