Stephen K. Bannon — political strategist, filmmaker, financier, and … occultist? Really: multiple sources have reported that Donald Trump’s advisor, right-wing populist, and former Breitbart News editor Steve Bannon has a penchant for the occult and the esoteric. Bannon had notably cited the early twentieth century Italian esotericist, traditionalist, and Nazi affiliate Julius Evola during a 2014 conference with traditionalists at the Vatican. More recently, Mitch Horowitz — author of Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped our Nation wrote in Salon that, after the 2009 publication of his book, Bannon had called the author to express his “deep interest in the book’s themes,” encouraging Horowitz in his work on his next volume, an exploration of the positive thinking movement in American life. Horowitz goes on in his article to give a history of American conservatism’s interest in occultism and New Age mysticism, including Ronald Reagan’s use of Manly P. Hall’s esoteric ideas about America’s “secret destiny,” Donald Trump’s belief in the power of positive thinking, and the Freemasonic symbols in the Great Seal of the United States.

Of course, one could easily find just as many examples of occult and esoteric influences on American left-wing politics. Like most religious traditions, esotericism can be utilized for both conservative and progressive purposes. Horowitz concludes that the political influence of esotericism in the United States has more to do with the American religious character than any secret Illuminati plot to build a nefarious new world order (whether right or left-leaning):

Rather than fomenting secrecy or subterfuge, America’s embrace of esotericism is often characterized by a chin-out earnestness, something that many observers and conspiracy-mongers miss … Today, cable television producers and radio hosts often urge me to postulate some kind of occult “pact” between the Bushes and the dark side (cue up Skull and Bones). But such things are fantasy. The truth is, Americans have always been, well, a little strange. As a historian, I feel affection for that aspect of American life. Shadowy figures have long hung around the fringes of power in many nations; but rarely have they done so with the ingenuousness and transparency of those I’ve been considering.

Rather than suggesting that American esotericism is inherently liberal or conservative, Horowitz proposes that our “belief in the protection of the individual search for meaning,” even expressed in terms of “esoteric and unusual religious ideas in our political culture,” is a fact that “unites us across our fractured political divide.” Esotericists can be right-wing populists like Steve Bannon, but they can also be Trump-binding witches, flower-children living in anarchist communes, hipsters with Tarot card tattoos, and military service people who chose occult symbols for their monuments in Arlington National Cemetery. Americans are nothing if not eclectic in our religious beliefs, just as we are in our politics.

Esotericism, Religion, and Human Rights

If the meaning of esotericism in American politics is multivalent, how can esoteric ideas be utilized in the service of human rights and social justice? The common image of esoteric movements — whether secret organizations like the Illuminati, fraternal societies like Freemasonry, or magical orders like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn — is of mysterious masked figures practicing solemn rituals, or powerful old men meeting in smoke-filled rooms, planning the future of the new world order.

However, as Horowitz’s article suggests, the truth of these movements is both more pedestrian and potentially more radical. Esotericism has kept alive certain threads of religious and spiritual attainment that have been excluded from the mainstream exoteric religions of the Western world. The fraternities, orders, and societies that continue to pass on this ‘rejected knowledge’ have frequently served as laboratories of new forms of social organization, spiritualities, and political formations.

Until the recent development of esoteric studies, however, esotericism and esoteric groups were largely ignored in the academic world. Even now, many esotericists tend to focus on the more mystical or intellectual aspects of esotericism, rather than its social impact.

More mainstream religious studies scholars, meanwhile, continue to consider esoteric movements as outside the scope of their studies. Esotericism is not, after all, religion — it is on the periphery of religion, existing in the spheres of the irrational, the rejected, and the occult.

Kairos Spirit of StruggleYet we should take seriously the introduction to the Kairos Center’s The Spirit of Struggle, which deconstructs the common notion of ‘religion,’ explaining that “even the term ‘religions’ can be a highly contested and problematic one.” Rather than focusing on the abstract high theology of the ‘world religions,’ the contributors to The Spirit of Struggle concentrate their scholarship on “the ‘lived religion’ of people fighting for social justice.” The essay continues:

Putting aside preconceived ideas of what is and isn’t ‘religion’ makes possible going beyond only or mainly organized creeds and institutional forms of religion to explore and learn from all beliefs and practices that point to a transcendent or deeper source of meaning and power.

In terms of esotericism, by bracketing debates about what is and isn’t ‘religion’ we can expand the scope of our education to include those forms of ‘rejected’ beliefs and practices which might point to a “transcendent or deeper source of meaning and power,” but which do not fit the mold of traditional religion. We can begin to pose the questions asked in The Spirit of Struggle to esotericism and its relation to and potential for popular social movements:

How do these movements, and their participants, define the source(s) of meaning, power, and inspiration in their work? Are there collective definitions of these values and where do these come from? … What kind of teachings, symbols, rituals and practices are used to help sustain and inspire those involved in diverse struggles for social justice?

In fact, examining esotericism in terms of popular social movements for justice is not so alien to the history of either esotericism or the history of popular movements. The universal human rights framework, especially as it is conceived of and utilized in the United States — based on the Declaration of Independence’s statement that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” — was indirectly influenced by the participation of many of the American Founding Fathers and other eighteenth century intellectuals in Freemasonry, which was in many ways an attempt to put the philosophy of the Enlightenment into experiential, symbolic practice.

Additionally, African American Freemasonry — also known as Prince Hall Freemasonry — has had a noted role in the struggle of black Americans to achieve freedom, equality, and enfranchisement. In the 1960s, the SCLC headquarters was located in the Prince Hall Masonic Temple in Atlanta, Georgia. According to the King Center, “many Prince Hall Masons were active in the civil rights movement.” Scholar Corey D.B. Walker has studied how black Freemasonry functioned as a “laboratory of democracy” in the early nineteenth century.1Corey D.B. Walker, A Noble Fight: African American Freemasonry and the Struggle for Democracy in America. Walker argues that Prince Hall Freemasonry provides a lens for “understanding the distinctive ways African Americans have constructed a radically democratic political imaginary through racial solidarity and political nationalism,” and examines the history of Prince Hall Freemasonry in order to revisit “the complex relationship between voluntary associations and democratic politics.” For example, Walker locates some of the inspiration behind the early nineteenth century slave rebellion led by Virginia slave and blacksmith Gabriel Prosser in the complex symbolism of black Freemasonry.

Knights of Labor emblem

The emblem of the Knights of Labor.

Later in the nineteenth century, trade unionist and tailor Uriah H. Stephens met with eight fellow unionists to form The Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Laboror K. of L. Stephens was a Freemason, an Odd Fellow and a Knight of Pythias, “and incorporated much from Masonry and Pythianism into the ritual of the K. of L. In fact, the structure and ritual of the K. of L. was based on the Masonic lodge system.” The fraternal-style secrecy of the Knights of Labor, and its early ritualism, didn’t just reflect the general Victorian interest in secret societies — it also had a practical purpose. As one source explains, “the Knights did in fact conduct their activities in secret, indeed, they kept their very name secret for a time, but this was because they feared that employers would discover Knights working in their factories, mines, and shops and fire them.” Scholar Stefan Arvidsson notes that “occult rituals, secret handshakes, and ancient mysteries were straws many workers clutched in the wake of the defeat of the first trade unions.”2Stephan Arvidsson, “The humanistic study of religions: An obscure tradition illuminated by the ‘Knights of Labor’,” Temenos Vol. 51 No. 2 (2015): 227-56.

Esotericism as Populist Spirituality

Exoteric Christianity, though frequently abused for oppressive purposes, arguably possesses a liberative core based on the consistent teachings of the Bible on freedom for the poor and dispossessed. Esotericism, meanwhile, is a broad, sometimes anarchic stream that encompasses many different movements and many different political imaginations.

Esoteric scholar Christopher McIntosh explains that there are two poles to historic Western esotericism — on the one hand, belief in universal reformation and spiritual revolution, horizontalism, and radical democracy; on the other hand, an obsession with obscurantist mysticism, secretive ritual, and hierarchical spiritual authority. Examining eighteenth century Freemasonry, for example, McIntosh suggests that “Masonry could lead either towards a programme of egalitarianism, toleration and democratic political reform, or towards the view that the only worthwhile enterprise was the search for the pearls of wisdom and virtue embedded in an ancient gnosis that lay out of reach of the profane.”3Christopher McIntosh, The Rose Cross and the Age of Reason, 40.

Yet not only does the long, sometimes radical history of many specific esoteric movements hold the potential for utilizing esotericism in the struggle for universal human rights and social justice — including historic examples such as the Prince Hall Freemasons and the Knights of Labor — but even questionable esoteric beliefs and practices can be understood as expressions of a populist spirituality, of a peculiar interest in the mystical and occult that reflects humanity’s drive towards finding meaning and liberation in a world that is often characterized by poverty, oppression, and suffering.

Without uncritically granting the truth, goodness or even the sanity of certain esoteric ideas, I would like to raise the important point that the English occultist Kenneth Grant makes at the end of the introduction to his book, Outside the Circles of Time. Grant is often considered one of the strangest and most difficult modern occult writers, but this is perhaps one of his most lucid moments:

One final point is here relevant, and I state it without apology. It is not my purpose to try to prove anything; my aim is to construct a magic mirror capable of reflecting some of the less elusive images seen as shadows of a future aeon.4Kenneth Grant, Outside the Circles of Time, 12

Kenneth Grant Outside the Circles of TimeThis inherently eschatological purpose, this attempt to catch a glimpse in the mirror of “shadows of a future aeon,” should be understood to be at the spiritual heart of many seemingly bizarre, implausible, or downright ridiculous claims made within speculative esotericism. Grant goes on to conclude his introduction by stating that, in esoteric writing as in occult practice, it is often by an “architecture of absence” that the real building is revealed. In other words, the “reality-structure” of a future aeon, which is the true content of the work, is only made visible through carefully building an “alien structure” with one’s words, practices, and cultural expressions.

In this sense, esotericism may be seen as emerging from what Catholic theologian Edward Schillebeeckx calls “negative contrast experience” — the resolute sense by human beings that our experience of reality, often marked by suffering, injustice, and a lack of meaning, cannot be the whole story.5Edward Schillebeeckx, The Understanding of Faith: Interpretation and Criticism. In these moments of lack, we feel certain that what we see and experience isn’t everything: there must be more meaning to this seemingly cold and empty universe — a telos, an end-point, a future transformation. The spiritual practices, cultural expressions, and political organizing that emerges out of these moments are our attempts to express the sense that, despite all appearances to the contrary, our cosmos must indeed possess meaning and wholeness.

Esotericism is one of these irruptions of the human spirit, regardless of its bizarreries. And, according to Schillebeeckx, what emerges from these irruptions — diverse as they are, and united only in their unshakeable sense that real human flourishing and meaning might be elusive but must be possible, somewhere or some when — is not a positive picture of what Schillebeeckx calls the humanum, the glorified human being in its eschatological completeness, but in fact an apophatic image, as in the negative of a photograph, of what the humanum will look like when all is said and done and the skies are “rolled up like a scroll.” In other words, esotericism is one of those expressions that reveals a “shadow of a future aeon,” uncovered through an “architecture of absence,” through an “alien structure” haunted by the shape of the real building.

In the end, Kenneth Grant is not too far off from Paul of Tarsus in arguing that the shape of the human in the last age — as well as the shape of our future political structures — can only be grasped “through a glass darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12). What Grant and the other esotericists are willing to do, unlike many mainstream religionists, is to embrace the darkness of the glass.

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