White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon’s job may be in jeopardy, according to recent news reports. Coming on the heels of his removal from the National Security Council, the commotion surrounding the alt-right provocateur has raised new questions about his broader ideology—and to what degree it may or may not be influencing the policies of the Trump administration. Is the current infighting between Bannon and more moderate elements in the White House a result of personality clashes, or is it tied to his extreme political and religious ideals? By now, Bannon’s brash and aggressive political discourse is well known. Comparing himself to “Dick Cheney, Darth Vader, Satan,” Bannon pulls no punches when describing his own radical vision of America’s future—for example, by calling for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” Yet Bannon’s complex religious rhetoric is much less well understood.
Since his career as a documentary filmmaker in the early 2000s, to his tenure as the head of Breitbart News, to his most recent speeches and interviews, Bannon has in fact articulated a fairly consistent religious ideology. While he was raised and self-identifies as Catholic, Bannon does not express a worldview that would be recognized by most Catholic theologians today. Rather, he has crafted his own complex amalgam that combines aspects of Christianity with a profoundly dualistic worldview, an intensely negative view of Islam, and a quasi-apocalyptic historical narrative drawn from novels and popular sources.
Steve Bannon had a long career in various fields before assuming the position of Trump’s campaign strategist. A Navy veteran and a former Goldman Sachs investor, he also became a documentary filmmaker in the early 2000s—and it is here that we see the first clear articulation of his religious ideas. The most striking example is his 2004 documentary celebrating Ronald Reagan, In the Face of Evil. Using historical footage of trench warfare, political unrest, and marching Nazis, the film opens with a frightening view of twentieth-century history, which begins with the devastation of World War I.
From the aftermath of this conflict, the narrator tells us, a terrible Evil emerged: “From this fever swamp rose a Beast, one that played upon man’s yearning for a utopian solution to its abject misery—a quasi religious criminal, taking the form of a political Messiah.” This evil messiah is singular but has assumed multiple historical forms, according to the film, from Bolshevism and Communism to Nazism and the Soviet Union. “But always and everywhere,” the narrator intones, “regardless of its name or face, the goal remained the same: control of the state and power.“
Perhaps the most stunning moment in the film is the “Coda,” which ends with footage of the planes hitting the World Trade Towers on 9/11. These scenes are followed by various shots of Muslim women wearing burqas and Islamic terrorists in training. “The wolf is at the door,” we are warned, as we watch the rise of the “new Beast,” which is clearly represented as Islam.
The intensely negative image of Islam suggested at the end of the Reagan documentary was taken to new extremes in an outline for another film that Bannon proposed in 2007 (though never made). Bearing the title Destroying the Great Satan, the screenplay opened with the U.S. Capitol building topped by a flag bearing not the stars and stripes but instead a crescent and star, while the Muslim call to prayer played in the background. “On the screen in bold letters,” the proposed screenplay read, “‘the Islamic States of America.’”
In other films, Bannon also combined this Good versus Evil binary with a specific narrative of global history. His 2010 film, Generation Zero, borrows heavily from the popular book, The Fourth Turning, written by amateur historians William Strauss and Neil Howe. The film outlines three major events in American history that will soon be followed by a fourth major event of immense, violent, and radically transformative consequence. As Bannon explained during a speech at a Republican women’s conference in 2011, “We had the Revolution. We had the Civil War. We had the Great Depression and World War II. This is the great Fourth Turning in American history.” In his dire view, the “Judeo-Christian West is collapsing,” both because of the loss of traditional values and the threat of external forces, particularly Islamic extremism. The end result, he warns, will be nothing less than all-out war.
The focus on radical Islam and the sense of imminent disaster were soon carried over into Bannon’s next major career move as he assumed leadership of Breitbart News in 2012. Called by Bannon himself the “platform for the alt-right,” Breitbart during his time at the editorial helm consistently voiced an intensely negative, monolithic, and homogenized view of Islam. Even the most cursory review of Breitbart articles turns up flamboyantly Islamophobic articles, such as Pamela Geller’s piece, “How Migrants Devastate a Community,” Virginia Hale’s article, “Muslim Immigrants Secretly Hate Christians, Seek to Outbreed Them,” and Tom Tancredo’s incendiary diatribe, “Political Correctness Protects Muslim Rape Culture.” In all of these, we find that the enemy is no longer specified as “radical Islam,” but more often as Islam itself, whose own sacred scriptures are claimed to preach violence and the takeover of American communities.
One of Bannon’s most frequent literary references when describing the struggle with Islam and the broader problem of Muslim immigration was the controversial French novel, Le Camp des Saints. Published in 1973 by Jean Raspail, the novel paints a very dark picture of massive immigration to France by immigrants from India, which ultimately results in the destruction of Western civilization. The title itself comes from the Bible, a story from the book of Revelation in which “the camp of the saints” is surrounded by the armies of Satan until the fire of God comes down to devour the wicked. On various radio segments and interviews from his Breitbart days, Bannon repeatedly invoked the novel to describe global Islam and Muslim immigration to Western countries. As he put it on his Breitbart News radio show in January 2016: “It’s not a migration. It’s really an invasion. I call it the Camp of the Saints.”
The religious and political rhetoric espoused in journalistic form in Breitbart found perhaps its most explicit articulation in a controversial speech given by Bannon via Skype at a conference at the Vatican in 2014. Hosted by the conservative Catholic group, the Human Dignity Institute, the conference was supposed to focus on poverty, but Bannon used the occasion to build upon the Good versus Evil binary of his films. He described a vast, historic, and religious struggle between the West and its many adversaries. Such a conflict demands that all Christians join together to form a new “church militant” in order to “fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting.” In this great battle, the United States is clearly identified as the primary flag bearer of the Good and the True, embodying both “a church and a civilization” that is nothing less than the “flower of mankind.”
Significantly, however, Bannon describes this Good versus Evil struggle in both religious and economic terms. He clearly identifies the former with a particular brand of capitalism—namely, an “enlightened” form of “Judeo-Christian” capitalism that is both the foundation and the primary driver of Western civilization. But this enlightened capitalism is now faced with a real crisis, a deep moral failing caused by the rise of secularism, which “has sapped the strength of the Judeo-Christian West to defend its ideals.”
But rather than celebrate all forms of capitalism, Bannon distinguishes this form of capitalism from various other religious and political systems. He distances it from “state-sponsored” Chinese and Russian capitalism, which in his view is authoritarian, anti-individualist, and creates wealth only for the few. Second, he distinguishes it from a purely secular, Ayn Rand-style of libertarian capitalism, which values the individual but lacks a religious dimension.
Finally, Bannon contrasts his enlightened capitalism with what he sees as its polar opposite—“Islamic fascism,” which he depicts as neither capitalist nor individualist but resting upon a kind of perverse form of religion. In his Vatican speech, Bannon said the West is now “in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism. And this war is, I think, metastasizing far quicker than our governments can handle it.” He compares the current war against Islamic radicalism to earlier confrontations between Christian Europe and Islamic expansions into Austria and France from the eighth to the seventeenth centuries. Again, however, Bannon’s rhetoric slips easily between identifying the enemy sometimes as “Islamic fascism” and other times simply as Islam generally.
So what, then, is the “theology of Stephen K. Bannon?” Ultimately, it is by no means a singular, coherent, theological system but rather a kind of bricolage—that is, a complex hybrid comprised of various, not always consistent, and sometimes contradictory ideas drawn from far-right nationalism, pseudo-historical narratives, Islamophobic fiction, and a deeply binary worldview. Its key elements, however, are fairly straightforward. Foremost among these are: first, a clear theological narrative of Good versus Evil, with America and “Judeo-Christianity” identified with the former and Islam with the latter; second, an economic narrative that aligns a particular form of capitalism closely with Christianity and maligns Islam for its lack of capitalist spirit; and finally, an historical narrative based on the idea of periodic, revolutionary turnings, with our own era seen as the most radical, catastrophic, and transformative moment in the unfolding of history’s grand design.
In 2004, University of Chicago historian of religion Bruce Lincoln published an incisive article on “The Theology of George W. Bush” (originally printed in Christian Century), which identifies many of the same religious tropes that we see in Bannon’s rhetoric. These tropes include a starkly binary worldview based on a conflict of Good and Evil, a vision of history guided by divine will, and an ideal of America as God’s chosen agent in that history. Yet Bannon’s theology differs from Bush’s in a number of key ways. First, as Lincoln suggests, Bush’s political discourse often relied on a kind of subtle “double-coding,” in which specific Biblical references intended for an evangelical audience were embedded within more mundane political rhetoric. Bannon’s discourse, conversely, has no particular subtlety or double coding, but is as blunt, ungroomed, and impolite as his own personal demeanor. Second, Bannon’s rhetoric about Islam is much more openly hostile and universalizing than Bush’s, making little effort to distinguish between terrorists and ordinary Muslims.
In writing about Bush, Lincoln observed that powerful theological ideals can very easily be put to powerful political uses. Above all, a binary logic of Good versus Evil can easily be wielded to justify all manner of this-worldly and material agendas. Once one political formation is identified as the Good and its adversary identified as metaphysically Evil, the door is potentially open to a number of actions: “Preemptive wars, abridgements of civil liberty, cuts in social service … and other like initiatives are not just wrapped in the flag; together with the flag, they are swathed in the holy.” If Lincoln is correct, then Bannon’s theology—with its far more extreme, quasi-apocalyptic narrative of Good versus Evil and its extremely simplistic, homogenized, and hostile view of Islam—should be a particular cause for concern.
It is not difficult to see Bannon’s influence in the rhetoric and early policies of the Trump administration. Bannon was in fact a co-author of Trump’s first inaugural address, with its repeated refrain of “America first” as God’s chosen and “totally unstoppable” nation. And we can also see Bannon’s influence in Trump’s intensely hostile rhetoric regarding Islam—first in his call for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” and subsequently in his two executive orders banning refugees and travel from seven (and then six) predominantly Muslim countries.
But Bannon’s removal from the National Security Council in April 2017 may well be an indication that his extreme ideology is not entirely welcome under the new national security advisor, H.R. McMaster. Bannon retains his key position as White House chief strategist, still close to the ear of the president. Yet his radical ideological positions are apparently at odds with other more moderate voices in the White House. The degree to which Mr. Trump decides to act upon or ignore the theology of Steve Bannon may well help determine the course of his presidency.
Hugh Urban is a professor of religious studies in the Department of Comparative Studies at Ohio State University. He is the author of nine books, including The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion and The Secrets of the Kingdom: Religion and Concealment in the Bush Administration.