Nietzsche’s Children: Faith, Freud, And Fascism In Reformed Protestantism

Every so often, I read posts from progressive, non-fundamentalist, religiously devout people – usually Christian, but not always – on, e.g., Facebook expressing astonishment and mortification at the manner in which the conservative evangelical / Reformed Christian church (with certain conspicuous exceptions, to be sure) has slavishly rallied around the Presidency of Donald Trump. This surprise is understandable if you only pay attention to the surface rhetoric of the conservative Christian church. But focusing on the superficial, conscious, “prefrontal-cortex” part of conservative Christianity is like looking at the surface of the earth and concluding that, except for the odd volcano here and there, the earth’s core is pretty much like the earth’s surface, that is to say, pretty dull:  95% or so quiescent, cold, and dead. You would miss the stupendous energy, left over from the creation of the earth around 4.5 billion years ago, that to this day, seethes out of sight and usually out of mind at the earth’s incandescent core. But just as the “odd volcano here and there” speaks volumes about what is going on in the earth’s interior, the culture of conservative Christianity reveals the energies that likewise seethe beneath its conscious exterior. Freud called this “the return of the repressed”, and in books like The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, wrote about it extensively.

Friedrich Nietzsche
Sigmund Freud, 1921

What plays the part of “the odd volcano here and there” is, in large measure, the hymnody of the conservative Reformed church. This musical culture is the ecclesial analog of the “Freudian slips” Freud talks about in Psychopathology. I have written at length about this elsewhere. But I want to concentrate now on two areas in which “the return of the repressed” – on an institutional / cultural level – is especially evident, and which, I would argue, account for the enthusiasm for Trump among so many conservative Reformed individuals and churches. We find such institutional / cultural “Freudian slips” in hymns dealing with two issues that are especially problematical for conservative Christians:  violence and sex.

The fact that so many conservative Reformed Christians can so breezily pass over (see also this) the implications vis a vis violence and sex in their own musical culture is persuasive evidence that this culture is built on a foundation of unconscious repression of those qualities. We only see the explicit manifestations -- “the odd volcano here and there”, if you will -- in conspicuous eruptions like those involving Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Bill Gothard, et al. As with their geological counterparts, such occasions beg an important question:  what is going on beneath the surface that accounts for such eruptions?

Friedrich Nietzsche gives us a useful way of approaching this problem -- together with some of the most astute religious psychology ever  written -- in his Genealogy of Morals. Genealogy is Nietzsche's description of the clash between the ethic of "primitive" Christianity within the Roman Empire and the ethic of the Empire itself. The details are far too complex to even fairly summarize here. Suffice to say that, whereas the ethic of pre-Constantinian Rome ("pre-Constantinian" turns out to be a critical adjective) valorized excellence, strength, and honor, all in the service of both individual and social nobility, Nietzsche asserted that Christianity, both then and now, emphasized the diametrically opposite values of humility, subservience, and self-abnegation.

But the important point to note is that the ethic of late Rome and the ethic of Christianity (as Nietzsche understood it) both likewise emphasized the maximization of sheer power. Whereas St. Paul's Christian God said in II Cor. 12:9 "My strength is made perfect in weakness," any of Rome's gods would probably have said "My strength is made perfect in more strength".  (If you want to investigate the roots of Nietzsche's beliefs about the dynamics of power, the place to start would be Arthur Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation.) Whereas Rome conquered others while itself avoided being conquered, the Christian ethic demanded that subjugation be endured patiently, the better to conquer by sheer endurance. The usual term of art for Nietzsche's understanding of conquering-through-endurance is ressentiment:  resentment and rage sublimated into a passion for suffering and self-sacrifice. In other words, Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals is a late-nineteenth-century account of what we today would term "passive aggression". Thus understood, Christians in the late-Roman period wanted to strike out, wanted to bring down the Empire, but, lacking the power to do so, repressed their rage and sublimated it into passive aggression, in the process turning the vices of classical Rome -- humility, self-effacement, self-abnegation -- into actual virtues. Nietzsche termed this process of converting salient vices into no-less-salient virtues "the trans-valuation of all values".

Arthur Schopenhauer

Most likely, Nietzsche did not know Freud and Freud's work on the unconscious mind. If he had, he would have found a soul-mate, because Freud's writings about the return of the repressed constitute a near-perfect complement to Nietzsche's writings about ressentiment and the transvaluation of all values. What Nietzsche missed, Freud found. Freud's key insight in, e.g., Psychopathology is that, just because the contents of the psyche have been repressed beneath consciousness, that repression does not mean those contents have simply gone away. Repression is not destruction, it is abdication. Rage suppressed simply shows up in other ways, "the odd volcano here and there" I mentioned in the beginning, ways that emanate from the unconscious mind -- where the subject herself has repressed them -- and manifest themselves in ways over which the subject has no control.

Seething beneath the surface consciousness, like molten magma at the earth's core, is a mass of rage, lust, and feral affect that has, over multiple generations, been repressed so that human beings can live in ordered, coherent, civilized societies. There is no necessary pejorative value judgment attaching to repression, quite the contrary. "Civilization is bought at the price of inhibitions" -- Sigmund Freud. I include "lust" in that list deliberately, because one of the impulses, one of the Freudian instincts, most often repressed is the sexual impulse. Contrary to popular belief, Freud never said "Everything is sex" any more than Einstein said "Everything is relative". Therefore sex is one of the impulses that most often manifests itself as the return of the repressed. Hence the Elektra and Oedipus complexes. Hence, also, the incest taboo. (Freud's account of the etiology of the incest taboo is wildly fanciful.) All such complexes are living laboratories for studying the return of the repressed.

So is the conservative Reformed Protestant church. If one could study the Reformed psyche somewhat as geologists, geophysicists, and volcanologists study the interior of, say, Mauna Loa in Hawaii or Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines or the Yellowstone supervolcano, the similarities would be all the more striking because of the repressed rage of the Reformed church at being culturally marginalized and considered a mere atavism. That rage is often incandescent, as witness the recent comment about giving Donald Trump a "mulligan" (do-over) regarding adultery. But this is nothing new.

Reformed evangelical rage at being looked down upon, though cloaked behind a screen of ressentiment -- humility, patience, and long-suffering -- has returned from being repressed and manifests  itself in the musical culture of that church tradition. I hardly need reference hymns like "Onward Christian Soldiers" as cases in point. Sometimes the words of the hymns, not just the titles, are equally revelatory, as in "Stand up, stand up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the Cross", "The strife is o'er, the battle done", more or less implicitly in "A Mighty Fortress is our God".  Even hymns that start out emphasizing humility and self-effacement -- like "Man of Sorrows" -- end up concluding on a note of hoped-for power ("When He comes, our glorious King, / To His kingdom us to bring, /  Then anew this song we’ll sing / Hallelujah! what a Savior!") Two of the few hymns that do not celebrate, or end up celebrating, raw power are "May the Mind of Christ, my Savior" ("Him exalting, self abasing, / This is victory!") and "Ah Holy Jesus" ("Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended / That we to judge thee have in hate pretended?") As for sex, we need look no farther than "In the Garden", which is always erotic in its imagery and cadence, and in places at least approaches soft-core porn.

Given all that, and given all the pent-up rage and lust that the Reformed evangelical church has been repressing, it seems to me that it is more appropriate to wonder why the Reformed tradition did not discover its affinity for Donald Trump before now. (One more time in the interest of fairness:  yes, there are exceptions in the Reformed evangelical church. But they are conspicuous as exceptions because of their contrast with the surrounding ecclesial culture, rather as a white buffalo stands out from the herd, the exception that proves the rule.) The "repressed" has been waiting to "return," in fine Freudian fashion, for many generations. Up until now, we have only had isolated inklings in the form of "the odd volcano here and there":  the histrionic fulminations of, e.g., Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, and Bill Gothard. (And in case you think I am giving the Roman Catholic Church a pass, please see this.) No wonder Reformed evangelicals are so facile at wink-wink'ing and nudge-nudge'ing at Donald Trump's adultery(ies):  they have staged dozens of dress rehearsals with their own clergy over years past.

But perhaps the worst aspect of the discrete-volcanoes-here-and-there pattern is that its very gradualness breeds cynicism, and eventually even boredom. An honest, above-board orgy of recrimination and lust would at least have about it a certain refreshing quality of honesty. Such an untrammeled exhibition of honest lust the Reformed church in the US seems increasingly determined to give us.

James R. Cowles

Image Credits

Nietzsche ... Portrait by Hans Olde ... Public domain
Sigmund Freud ... Max Halberstadt, 1921 ... Public domain
Kneeling sihlouette ... Erwin Gerodiaz ... CC by SA 4.0
Bible and Crucifix ... Photographer unknown ... Public domain
The Oath of the Horatii ... Jacques-Louis David ... Public domain
The Ecstasy of St. Teresa ... Photographer: Napoleon Vier ... CC by SA 3.0
Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker ... Peter K. Levy ... Public domain
Jimmy Swaggart ... J. N. Tracy ... CC by SA 3.0
Arthur Schopenhauer ... Jules Lunteschütz ... Public domain

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