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Heroes of the Fourth Turning: the Possession of American Conservatism

November 6th, 2019 | 6 min read

By Susannah Black Roberts

So I saw it, because that is the Rule, and also because there was this period of time a couple of weeks ago when my fellow commune member Sarah Bailey was texting me on an hourly basis to see whether I’d gotten tickets yet, because she wanted to debrief about it, and also because my friend Peter really wanted to see it.

Everyone seems to read it differently– Barbara McClay and Sarah will disagree with my reading, I think, but Leah Libresco will agree, I think, and Peter did. I haven’t read anyone’s reviews yet, although Peter and I went over to Barbara’s last night to drink Lambrusco and eat tacos and pet Boswell, which is what I do when I am upset, especially about demons or the white nationalism infecting the American conservative movement, and she gave us her take then. Here is a picture of Boswell, which she asked that I include if I referred to him in my review.

I hated it. Not because there was no accuracy in its skewering of the abuses of American conservative Christianity. There was, and for that accuracy, I am thankful. But I hated it because the world of the play was one where only the worst versions of American conservative Christianity are true, and God does not exist, but the devil does. It was a world where there is no grace and no help, an enchanted world but one where the enchantment is Lovecraftian horror. The house is possessed; Emily is possessed, arguably; Barbara pointed out that Kevin vomited when the others began to pray the Hail Mary. I get scared by this stuff, and not in an enjoyable way.

On the other hand, there were some damn funny lines. Although Peter and I both noticed that the two of us seemed to have different laugh lines than the rest of the audience: we both cackled when Kevin brought up The Benedict Option. And:

Stop it! Don’t say gross things in a holy space.

This isn’t a holy space, it’s just Justin’s house

The panopticon, Kevin, Catholicism is the panopticon. This is a holy space.

It’s also a profane space

Teresa, the off-brand Ann Coulter who lives in Brooklyn, does a lot of cocaine, and writes for (presumably, unnamed) Breitbart, is the most recognizable type. Her speech, which goes from “we should love Our Lady because of Bruggeman’s scandal of particularity” to “we should preserve national identity” to “Mexican migrants are a disease” is the crystalized perfection of Bannonism: a window into hell in a very particular way, where what is truest and best — devotion to Mary, the incarnation itself– is profaned in service of the rejection of the image of God in other human beings. And it’s not imaginary: I know, and you, reader, know that this is what some parts of the right have done. Don’t dismiss that as parody: it’s just real.

There was one note that seemed off to me– or would have, a couple of months ago. That was Teresa’s accusation to Dr. Presson, which the play seemed to moderately endorse, that her opposition to abortion was actually only in service to caring about “Western civilization,” which is itself only a veil for white supremacy. I would have thought that there was no truth to that, for anyone who uses pro-life language, because everyone I’d ever run into who is in the pro-life movement, actually just believes straightforwardly what they say.

That was then, though. This piece, by Hannah Gais, documents a node of the American right where Teresa’s accusation is simply and straightforwardly true: John Elliott, who ran a Great Books program called the Charlemagne Institute, can be seen taking advice from Jonah Bennett, who talks about the need to figure out a way to get Catholics to be pro-life for white women but pro-abortion for black women: the need to make the pro-life movement into a whites-only pro-natalist thing. The Charlemagne Institute, then, is the thing that I know of that’s as close to a real Transfiguration College of Wyoming as exists.

The two kinds of conservatism represented by Teresa and Dr. Presson– Trumpism, the new wave, and the old Reaganite Catholicism that it supersedes– are both, the playwright notes, founded on a compromise with racism: Dr. Presson was a Bircher, and held a fundraiser for Buchanan in her house. As much as I loathe the old fusionism, Buckley did get this right: he kicked out the Birchers and the Objectivists. Whatever fusionism comes next, it had damn well better get that right.

When Rosie Gray’s piece about Katie McHugh came out, a friend of mine said, “if American conservatism is just going to be the Wolves of Vinland boxing with the ghost of William F. Buckley forever, count me out.” Which, obviously, ditto. I don’t know if it can be something else, but I think it’s worth a shot. On the other hand, the incredibly comforting first reality that the play points to (though it may not believe) is that if “the American conservative movement” is blown up tomorrow like the Houses of Parliament were not, Christ and His Church will still be here.

What I care about, of course, and what I worry about, is that the play will be anti-evangelistic. That every person in the audience– all the New Yorkers, everyone like my family– will be immunized against any talk about Christ, because they will associate it with this viciousness. But do the characters’ references to Arendt and to Plato and Hopkins taint Arendt and Plato and Hopkins? If you don’t think that, and want to retain the privilege of talking about them without feeling that they are compromised by their abuse, then neither should Christianity be compromised by its abuse. And I’m even willing to not cancel the concept of Catholic liberal arts colleges.

I used to play a game with myself. I would imagine growing up on a space station, where there was no fresh air, and no greenery except for the carefully-tended hydroponic garden that we had to work hard to keep up, and everything was the result of human effort, and there was no outside, no opening to the sky. I would imagine this as carefully as I could, and get claustrophobic and horrified. And then I would go outside– out onto 95th Street, or out of the house in Connecticut. And the real world would rush back in: the world of ecosystems going of themselves, the world of air and light and tree roots that break sidewalks, and dandelions that push their way up through pavement, and water and mosquitoes and pigeons and men and women. Life.

When Peter and I left the theater, we left the imagined world of the officially-wholesome demonized woods of Wyoming where there was no grace. And we stepped out onto Forty-Second Street, and the real world rushed back in: Times Square. New York City, drenched in grace.




Susannah Black Roberts

Susannah Black Roberts is senior editor at Plough. She is a native Manhattanite. She and her husband, the theologian Alastair Roberts, split their time between Manhattan and the West Midlands of the UK.