What is the 21st century going to be about? If you had asked me 20 years ago, on, say, Sept. 10, 2001, I would have had a clear answer: advancing liberalism. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of apartheid, Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in China, a set of values seemed to be on the march — democracy, capitalism, egalitarianism, individual freedom.
Then over the ensuing decades, democracy’s spread was halted and then reversed. Authoritarians in China, Central and Eastern Europe and beyond wielded power. We settled into the now familiar contest between democratic liberalism and authoritarianism.
But over the last several years something interesting happened: Authoritarians found God. They used religious symbols as nationalist identity markers and rallying cries. They unified the masses behind them by whipping up perpetual culture wars. They reframed the global debate: It was no longer between democracy and dictatorship; it was between the moral decadence of Western elites and traditional values and superior spirituality of the good normal people in their own homelands.
The 21st century is turning into an era of globe-spanning holy wars at a time when the appeal of actual religion seems to be on the wane.
Xi Jinping is one of the architects of this spiritually coated authoritarianism. Mao Zedong regarded prerevolutionary China with contempt. But Xi’s regime has gone out of its way to embrace old customs and traditional values. China scholar Max Oidtmann says it is restricting independent religious entities while creating a “Socialist core value view,” a creed that includes a mixture of Confucianism, Daoism, Marxism and Maoism.
Last week, the Chinese government ordered a boycott of “sissy pants” celebrities. These are the delicate-looking male stars who display gentle personalities and are accused of feminizing Chinese manhood. This is only one of the culture war forays designed to illustrate how the regime is protecting China from Western moral corruption.
The regime’s top-down moral populism is having an effect. “Today, traditionalism is gaining momentum among everyday Chinese people as well as intellectuals and politicians,” Xuetong Yan of Tsinghua University wrote in 2018. The Chinese internet is apparently now rife with attacks on the decadent “white left” — educated American and European progressives who champion feminism, L.G.B.T.Q. rights and such.
Vladimir Putin and the other regional authoritarians play a similar game. Putin has long associated himself with religious philosophers like Ivan Ilyin and Nikolai Berdyaev. In an essay for the Berkley Center at Georgetown University, Dmitry Uzlaner reports that the regime is casting itself as “the last bastion of Christian values” that keeps the world from descending into liberal moral chaos.
The culture war is going full blast there, too, with the regime restricting the internet, attempting to limit abortion, relaxing the fight against domestic violence and imposing blasphemy laws and a ban on supplying information to minors that supports “nontraditional sexual relations.”
Even wannabe authoritarians in America and Western Europe are getting in on the game. The international affairs scholar Tobias Cremer has shown that many of the so-called Christian nationalists who populate far-right movements on both sides of the Atlantic are actually not that religious.
They are motivated by nativist and anti-immigrant attitudes and then latch onto Christian symbols to separate “them” from “us.” In Germany, for example, the far-right group that aggressively plays up its Christian identity underperforms among voters who are actually religious.
In another Berkley Center essay, Cremer writes that right-wing American extremists “parade Christian crosses at rallies, use Crusader imagery in their memes and might even seek alliances with conservative Christian groups. But such references are not about the living, vibrant, universal and increasingly diverse faith in Jesus Christ that is practiced in the overwhelming majority of America’s churches today. Instead, in white identity, politics Christianity is largely turned into a secularized ‘Christianism’: a cultural identity-marker and symbol of whiteness that is interchangeable with the Viking-veneer, the Confederate flag, or neo-pagan symbols.”
These religiously cloaked authoritarians have naturally provoked an anti-religious backlash among those who understandably now associate religion with authoritarianism, nativism and general thuggishness. The rising and unprecedented levels of secularism in Europe and the U.S. over the past several decades have not produced less vicious cultural and spiritual warfare.
The pseudo-religious authoritarians have raised the moral stakes. They act as if individualism, human rights, diversity, gender equality, L.G.B.T.Q. rights and religious liberty are just the latest forms of Western moral imperialism and the harbingers of social and moral chaos.
Those of us on the side of Western liberalism have no choice but to fight this on the spiritual and cultural plane as well, to show that pluralism is the opposite of decadence, but is a spiritual-rich, practically effective way to lift human dignity and run a coherent society.