Steve Bannon’s Church and the Construction of a European Christian Right

One of the first spheres of political influence into which Bannon ventured in Europe was the Vatican. Before he took the role for which he would become famous at the helm of the Trump presidential campaign in 2016, Bannon had spent a decade at the helm of Breitbart News building a propaganda machine that had as its centerpieces the demonization of Islam, the pandering to volkish moral intuitions usually forged in an inferno of mega-church theological cocktails and the foretelling of a cataclysmic war of civilizations between the West and whatever lies beyond its confines.

In 2014, when Bannon was invited to give a talk at a conference organized by the “Dignitatis Humanae Institute” in Rome, he laid out his political vision revisiting several of the ideological themes that he had spent the previous decade promoting to the loose array of fringe far-right readers who constituted the bulk of his Breitbart News’ public.

Bannon project consisted in issuing dire warnings about the impending doom of the American Christian world and its dream to an audience that he along with a long line of reactionary voices at FoxNews and in far-right talk radio, had helped to groom. Three main antagonists appeared regularly in Bannon’s conspiratorial musings: Islam in some or other version, China and its pernicious economic policies and, at home, their liberal and globalist “enablers among us”, which unsurprisingly in included Jews and New York liberals.

The had spent decades elite conspiring in the shadows to exploit its undeserved financial and political advantages to swindle what Bannon and generations of populist ideologues before him have called “the little guy”. Of course, Jews and the so-called liberal elite were perfect foils for Bannon’s narrative and echoed in all sorts of ways the prejudices that much of his public already held about the power behind financial, political and media institutions.

In little more than a decade, Bannon drew the blueprint for his version of a Huntingtonian civilizational war and produced an increasingly comprehensive portrait of his ideological enemies, their collaborators and of the enemy within. All the while, he groomed his image as the brilliant and bedraggled friend of the proverbial little man. The ethnoreligious fingerprints of, both, friends and foes were unmistakable.

Völkish Elitism and Clerical Populism

In Rome, however, his audience was not a mish-mash of basement activists and fundamentalists united by a general aversion to Federalism and the long shadow of the state, Muslim immigrants and Chinese monetary policy as the Tea Party had been. Bannon’s Institute in Rome and its members were a prominent group of Europe’s political, nobiliary and clerical elite. These political figures from across the European conservative landscape had been brewing a heady mix of integrist Christianity and national conservative politics to inject into the European Union.

The Dignitatis Humanae Institute took its name from the title of the declaration of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), a document devoted to the defense of religious freedom and the promotion of religious tolerance, which since has come to be considered the foundational document of the modern church.

The institute is one of the many ultraconservative institutions that exist at the margins of the Vatican and as the rest, it depends on vast networks of financing which are not always transparent. Most of these groups are devoted to influencing the political course of the Church focusing on particular issues such as right-to-life debates or the influence of secularism in Church affairs. Bannon’s hosts in Rome had much more ambitious goals.

The Dignitatis Humanae Institute was founded by Benjamin Harnwell in 2008 while Harnwell was the chief of staff of conservative British MEP Nirj Deva, and it was launched under the auspices of then-European Parliament Speaker President Hans-Gert Pöttering. It includes in its ranks — for example — Rocco Buttiglione, (who had been minister in two Berlusconi cabinets and had been denied a position as EU Justice Commissioner because of his views on sexual minorities and abortion), Luca Volonte, (who had been president of the European People’s Party group in the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly), Cardinal Renato Martino,( a prominent member of the conservative wing of the Roman Curia) along with Cardinal Raymond Burke (perhaps the most important exponent of a stridently reactionary vein of American Catholicism in Rome and the best known and most vocal of Pope Francis antagonist).

Photo by Nacho Arteaga on Unsplash

Just as remarkable as the presence of these European conservative elite and the Catholic aristocracy is the presence of European nobility. For instance, Lord Nicholas Windsor, first cousin of Queen Elizabeth II and a convert to Catholicism with a strong interest in abortion as a political issue was the institute’s director between 2011 and 2013. More recently, the New York Times has reported on the relation of Bannon and Burke with Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis whose 500 room palace had been one of the places where Bannon and Harnwell hope to build their political summer school.

Such a circle of Europe’s political nobility seems hardly like the most suitable milieu for the propaganda minister of a Europe-wide völkisch movement to which Bannon seems to aspire. But as opposed to the US, where Bannon used the Republican party to buttress the accession to power of a Tea Party candidate, Europe lacks a significant political nationalist-religious right that can be mobilized in line with populist agendas. Arguably, this is precisely the function of Bannon’s circle of European aristocrats. Albeit not a parlour with a permanently opened door to the little man of which Bannon and his friends in the various European populist parties talk so much, Harnwell’s group is best-placed to help build a religious-nationalist base. And Bannon, who arrives with one of the most successful recipe books for the construction of völkisch conservatism in the past 70 years, seems to have recognized that.

Building a European Christian Right

When Cardinal Burke welcomed Bannon to the institute “to promote… the defense of what used to be called Christendom,” one could plainly hear the echoes of the political nostalgia of Trump’s campaign promise to “Make America great again.” In Europe, the question of Christian identity has become little more than a calling-card for right-wing atavistic populists to reconstruct a version of Christian nationalism that sees an incipient invasion of Europe by Islam as the direct product of the European Union liberal federalization and its enablers, incidentally, also liberal and globalists. This is a theme that, much like what Bannon found in the Tea Party, was already solidly rooted in the discourse of reactionary politics across the continent but was hardly a popular item in the political market of the region. Just as interesting is that as it had been the case in the US, the European field of right-wing politics offered a mix of nostalgic concerns for the integrity of national Christian identities and anti-federalism.

While Bannon’s association with soveranist movements like the Italian Lega, France’s Rassemblement national or Belgium’s People’s Party recruited their anti-federalism, Bannon’s association with Harnwell and his people was based on a common commitment to wax nostalgic about the ethno-religious integrity of days bygone. Yet, the second group was a mix of several of the political agents of the federalism that Bannon’s other acquaintances reject.

But, arguably, even this is a well-studied mechanism in Bannon’s playbook and it is precisely what has constituted his most resounding success across the Atlantic. In the US, Bannon managed to bring established conservative politicians in line with the fringe. But in order to do so, Bannon counted on the virtual destruction of the politics of consensus and toleration. In the US, the wedge issues that split traditional conservatives from the far-right fringe had to be progressively moved to the center in order to produce the split in the politics of consensus. Europe was no different.

Bannon’s stated plan to train activist could be best understood as the first steps in the construction of a political base like the one that brought Trump to the White House and which had its first rehearsal in the UK, where Bannon run Cambridge Analytica with astounding success.

Making Life in Europe Nasty, Brutish and Short Again

And it is precisely the instrumentalization of religious and ethno-national exclusivity have been powerful political instruments to divide the electorate along its central line and progressively destroy the politics of consensus. Bannon seems to think that this strategy could effectively be deployed to divide and conquer Europe. In this, the institute can render invaluable service. Both Bannon and Burke bring onto the table the type of reactionary folklorism that has dominated American politics for the past few decades.

And, indeed, this would not be the first time that religious and ethnic commitments that emphasize the threat to the tribal identity by dark external forces are used to propel political division in Europe’s long and bloody history. And indeed, Bannon’s ideological kin have come into the European political arena presenting their concerns with migration, economics, integration, debate in the region not in terms of policy but, by and large, in ideological terms. It is hard to find a political debate that is not rife with echoes of religious and ethnic nostalgia, phobias and aspirations. For this reason, Bannon’s road ahead is already well-paved.

As he did across the Atlantic, Bannon’s work consists in minting a political alliance capable of bringing together conservatives and völkisch populists while developing a grassroots base and forming political activists. And just as in the US, the divisive force of ethnoreligious ideology can be a great galvanizing force.