Interviews

Charles III: integral traditionalist, Islam sympathiser, admirer of classical beauty

Will the British monarchy survive the current century? I am quite pessimistic. The Queen was untouchable, mainly because of her age. Charles, on the other hand, has never been popular. I think he will be a much better king than many expect, but it will be difficult for him to navigate what Polish-born sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called liquid modernity - says Rod Dreher, an American conservative essayist.

TVP WEEKLY: Now when Elizabeth Regina is gone, Great Britain has a new king, Charles III. A couple of years ago you wrote a remarkably interesting piece about then Prince of Wales. You called him a philosophical traditionalist, but his support for organic agriculture and other green causes, his sympathetic view of Islam, and his disdain for liberal economic thinking have earned him skepticism from some on the British right. What kind of monarch may he turn out to be?

ROD DREHER
: Charles has shown in his long public life an admirable appreciation for traditional standards of beauty, particularly in architecture. British architects hate him for it, but I think we might see a renaissance of architectural tradition under Charles. He is also intellectually engaged. His mother loved horses; Charles loves ideas. It is difficult for a British monarch, who has to be carefully neutral, to say much in public, but I believe Charles will continue to cultivate his interests in art and architecture, and environmental protection. 

Charles is sympathetic to Islam, but is also known to be close to the Orthodox monks of Mount Athos. His mother was known to be pious, though in a conventional way. Not Charles, whose ecumenical passions will almost certainly conflict with his role as the head of the Church of England.

What effect, if any, will Charles have on the perception and practice of religious faith in that highly secular country? I don't know, but it's going to be exciting to watch this new monarch develop. The fact is, Charles is an intellectually serious man who is conservative in non-political ways that many will find surprising. However, we know from his past behavior that Charles has sometimes crossed the invisible line that British royals are not supposed to transgress, regarding making commentary about public life. I think this will always be a risk for him.

You also wrote that “Charles is a devotee of the so-called “perennial philosophy” espoused by René Guenon's traditionalists, and this is the key to understanding his worldview.” Could you elaborate a little more? It is a very interesting to have a monarch influenced – if only indirectly - by thoughts of René Guénon, the French traditionalist who converted to Sufi Islam and died as a sheikh in Cairo.

Perennialism is a school of thought that teaches that all of mankind's religions share a core metaphysical unity. Earlier forms of perennialism were universalist, but Charles has been associated with a branch of perennialism known as Traditionalism. The Traditionalists believe that there is indeed an eternal wisdom uniting all religions, but they emphasize difference. That is to say, they believe that God revealed Himself in particular ways to particular peoples, and argue that one should choose a path and stick with it. 

It should be obvious how this semi-universalism conflicts with orthodox forms of Christianity. What I find interesting about it, and about Charles's support of Traditionalism, is that this philosophy strongly contends that modernity has become imbalanced towards materialism. Man has lost his harmony with the natural world, it says, because he has forgotten the fundamentally spiritual nature of human life. 

For the Traditionalists -- and certainly for the new king, who expressed his Traditionalist views in a fascinating book called Harmony -- the problem is modernity, which denies intrinsic, ordered meaning in the material world. Charles says that God created man to be "participants in creation," and that all the ancient thinkers understood this. It is only in the modern world that we dehumanize men, and turn them into what Charles calls "ideological, indoctrinated machines." Leaving aside his religious ecumenism and his enthusiasm for Sufi Islam, Charles's ideas about the deep order in the cosmos make perfect sense to me as an Orthodox Christian, and I believe also resonate with traditional Catholics. Though I don't share his broad view of religion, I strongly identify with Charles's general metaphysical stance, and appreciate how he has supported for a long time anti-modern schools of art and architecture. Charles cares about beauty, not just because he has aesthetic taste, but because he believes there is an intrinsic connection between beauty and the flourishing of the human soul. 

In general, do you believe Charles III could be a new kind of postmodern monarch, giving away to all modern Elite ideas? And more important, do you expect that British monarchy survive this postmodern deconstruction of almost all institutions of the Western civilization?

No, he is not a modernist. However, I do worry that he is far too uncritical of the World Economic Forum types. He seems to have a weakness for their world government schemes. He should stop and think about how these globalists, deep down, hate most of what he stands for. 
Queen Elizabeth II and the Prince of Wales, the future King Charles III in 2019. Photo by Paul Edwards - WPA Pool/Getty Images
I am pessimistic about the British monarchy surviving this century. The Queen was untouchable, in part because of her great age. She was the last living connection with a Britain of the past. Charles has never been popular with the British people. I expect that he will be a better king than many anticipate, but it will still be quite difficult for him to navigate the turbulence of what the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called "liquid modernity." Liquid modernity dissolves everything it touches. In a democratic, iconoclastic age, if the British people see no role for the monarchy, it will go away. The real question of the British monarchy's survival will come when Charles's death passes the crown to William, who is a far more conventional figure than his father. I am told that William has no religious inclinations to speak of, and if he has any intellectual interests, he has kept them largely hidden. 

You’re one of the harshest critics of nowadays America from Christian positions. You called the United States the post-Christian country with forces of cultural & societal Left getting more & more influence over America.  You wrote the whole book “The Benedict Option” in which you argue that religious people should develop their own institutions and live their lives separately. Do you still think it will be the future of religious people?

 That's not quite correct, your characterization of "The Benedict Option". I don't say that Christians should live totally separate, like the Amish or the Hasidic Jews do. I don't think that is practical or appealing to most people. Rather, I argue that if we are going to live authentically Christian lives in a post-Christian society, then we will have to undertake a "strategic retreat" -- that is, withdraw in certain limited ways so that we can maintain our own culture and traditions. For example, more and more Christians in my country are choosing to homeschool, or to start new Christian schools that follow what we call the "classical" model (which means an emphasis on reading the Great Books, as opposed to trendy modern educational styles). Homeschooled and classically-schooled kids go on to normal universities, but they have a deep background in Western thought and history, much deeper than ordinary students. I also argue that Christians are going to have to be far more intentional in establishing and cultivating communities of believers. The goal is to build Christian resilience. 

Until now, at least in America, Christians have generally thought that there was no conflict between wanting to be part of the American mainstream, and being a faithful Christian. That is now absolutely a thing of the past, certainly in the age of gender ideology. We are already in a time in which faithful Christians who believe in orthodoxy on matters of sex, sexuality, and abortion are marginalized in many professions. The day is coming when we will be persecuted. The American churches have long been very comfortable, and have no idea how to handle suffering. Many, many will care more about preserving their social status and material comfort than about defending their faith. Many will not pass the faith on to their kids. Just this week there was a new analysis out from the Pew Research Center predicting that if current trends continue, by the year 2070, Christians will be an absolute minority in the United States. That actually understates the problem, because very many people who today identify as Christians are only nominal believers. The churches in America are in a deep crisis now, but not too many priests, pastors, or laypeople understand this yet. 

Your last book “Live Not By Lies” goes even further. You wrote about “soft totalitarianism” with its “Pink Police”, a nowadays reality where Progressives try to marginalize traditional Christians & dissenters and promote the Woke agenda using power of the State, Technology, and Corporation. Are we really in such danger? Has Aldous Huxley’s “The Brave New World” already become reality?

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Yes, it is becoming a reality quite fast. In Budapest, when I was reporting the book in 2019, my translator, a young Catholic woman, told me that she has difficulty talking to her friends -- even her Catholic friends -- about her struggles as a wife and mother. She said that as soon as she says that she and her husband have been arguing, or that their little boy is having behavioral problems that frustrate her, they immediately say that she should get a divorce, put the boy into day care, and go to work in an office. "You have to be happy," they tell her. But she is happy as a wife and a mom! She said her friends don't understand that even a happy life has struggle in it. They believe that the best life is one with no anxiety, and no struggle.

I said to her, "Anna, it sounds like you are fighting for your right to be unhappy." Her eyes grew big, and she said, "Yes, that's it! Where did you get that idea?" I pulled my smartphone out of my pocket, and found Chapter 17 of "Brave New World." That's when John the Savage, the dissident who has been raised outside the totalitarian dystopia, has a showdown with Mustapha Mond, the World Controller for Europe. Mond doesn't understand why the Savage won't join their society. All of his needs and desires are fulfilled there, with porn, sex, drugs, and constant entertainment. A puzzled Mond tells the Savage his struggle makes no sense, because it sounds like he's fighting for his right to be unhappy. Yes, said the Savage, I am. 

The rebel and the dissident from this therapeutic totalitarianism that we are creating is someone who fights for his right to be unhappy. That is, he fights against this idea that struggle is meaningless, and that the best society is one in which nobody has to worry about anything. A college professor once told me that he stopped teaching "Brave New World" because none of his students understood that it was a dystopia. They thought that the Brave New World sounded like a great place to live. 

Today, we are forming young people to be psychological cripples who demand to be cared for -- and that includes demanding that the state silence anyone who makes them anxious. The research on the political beliefs of Americans under the age of thirty is chilling. Most of them have no respect for traditional liberties, like freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. They think those things are bad because they might make people feel uncomfortable. They will demand -- and they will likely receive -- a state that monitors dissenters with a social credit system. I hope I'm wrong about this, but I don't know what could stop it at this point. We have become quite decadent. 

In your book you lay out the steps for resistance sharing stories of brave dissenters fighting Communists in former Soviet Union and Central & Eastern Europe countries. How these people inspired you, most of them completely unknown in the United States?

 I first began to hear their stories from people who came to America to escape Communism. Then I went to Central Europe, and to Russia, to meet some of them myself. It is a shocking scandal that these people are unknown in my country! In American academia, and in the US news and entertainment media, there is very little desire to criticize Communism, or even to understand it. After the end of the Cold War, the names and histories of these people, and of what you all suffered under the Soviet yoke, ought to have been widely explored in film, novels, and journalism. But it has all been swept under the rug. And now, we are losing these voices. Only today I learned of the death of Maria Wittner, a hero of the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the Soviets. She is in Live Not By Lies. There are two documentary filmmakers who are now raising money to make a film series of my book. They want to come to Poland, Czechia, and other countries to interview these great men and women. They had better hurry. We won't have them with us for much longer. 
Rod Dreher while praying in front of icons in his Batoun Rouge flat in 2017. Photo by Max Becherer for The Washington Post via Getty Images
I was personally most touched by your book “How Dante Can Save Your Life”. The idea that reading a classic wrote by Medieval author could help you change your life may sound crazy, but I can tell you it helped me to better understand myself and start a real reconciliation with my father. How did you get an idea to write such a book?

 I'm so thrilled to hear it! In 2011, after my younger sister died of cancer, my wife and I felt called to move from Philadelphia down to the small Louisiana town where I grew up. We wanted to help my family -- my sister's children, and my elderly parents. When we arrived, we discovered a dark family secret: that all these years, my sister, who was a saintly person in most respects, and my parents raised her children to reject my wife and me. They thought we were "city people." I was completely shocked by this, because I thought we had a loving family. They refused to change. The shock was so great that I developed a chronic disease of the autoimmune system. I was very weak, and slept for four to six hours every day, for years. A rheumatologist told me that I would never recover unless I found inner peace.

Around this time, I was in a bookstore, and saw on the top shelf several translations of Dante's "Divine Comedy." I thought that it was a pity I had never read it in college, but I was sure it was too complicated for me to read now. It would be like climbing a literary Mount Everest. But out of curiosity, I took it down from the shelf, and read the first lines: "In the middle of the journey of our life/I came to myself in a dark wood/For I had lost the straight path."

Boom! It hit me like a stroke of lightning: This is me! I am 46 years old, and I thought I was making a grand homecoming, but instead I am in the dark wood. Maybe God has sent Dante to me as, in the poem, He sends Virgil to Dante. Eventually I bought the book and read it not as a literary exercise, but as a kind of map to show me the way through my own battered heart, and out of the dark wood. I used it as a guide to help me in confession. My priest thought it was strange that I would go to confession and talk about what I had learned about my own sins from reading Dante, but he told me he could see improvement. Eventually reading Dante, and praying, and working hard to repent, brought me to physical healing. God used Dante's poetry to deliver me from the dark wood. I never expected such a result from reading poetry, but it really happened.

At the end I must ask about your stance about war in Ukraine. You called it proxy war with Russia in Ukraine and you’re skeptical to U.S. aid to Ukraine. For Poles, with history of 200 years of dealing with Russia, perspective is completely different. Poles back Ukrainian 100%, they have every right to defend themselves. The main problem with Russia is that is the last colonial European power which refuse to treat countries like Poland, Ukraine, or Baltic states as independent, sovereign nations… And that’s a lot of people, who usually agree with you or Tucker Carlson, just can’t understand your position. Sometimes it looks like Biden & the Left doesn’t like Putin, so he must be somehow OK. But Putin – with his gigantic kleptocracy, blood on his hands & strange ‘Orthodox-Bolshevik-Third Rome’ rhetoric – is not a genuine answer to the Western degeneration & decline. I am not a Biden fan in general, his foreign policy is disaster – Kabul debacle, Middle East, China, you name it – but he got Ukraine right.
Look, I have said often that I oppose Russia's invasion, and that I hope Ukraine prevails. I agree with you that Putin is a kleptocrat, and though I'm Orthodox, I reject his "Russky mir" rhetoric. That said, I don't understand why Europe has to destroy itself and its own economies for the sake of Ukraine. It was a huge mistake for Europe to become so dependent on Russian energy, but it happened, and now European countries are looking at the realistic possibility of economic collapse this winter. A senior government official in Europe told me recently that the energy crisis is much, much worse than people know, and that many governments could fall because of it. Should they punish their own people so severely for the sake of Ukraine? I don't think it makes sense. It is very difficult to have a realistic discussion about these trade-offs because so many people in the media and in politics accuse one of being pro-Putin if one doesn't fully support continuing the Ukraine war. I think the sensible thing to do is to push for some kind of peaceful settlement. 

Taking aside our views of Russia, there’s a real chance for quite tectonic political changes in Europe if Ukraine survives the current war. Poland and Eastern & Central Europe countries will press for more cooperation within Three Seas (Baltic, Black, Adriatic) Initiative (Ukraine included). This could be backed somehow by Finland & Sweden (which Putin delivered to NATO) and probably Italy with new, center-right government. Political realism will also make reconciliation with Hungary (the most pro-Russian EU country) possible and probable. On the other hand, old guards – Germany & France, backed by Brussels bureaucracy, will press for even more federalization which would lead to breakout of European Union or ‘two tier’ EU. A lot of people see this as a great opportunity for United States to build a bloc of real allies in Central & Eastern Europe with strong military & economic (natural gas, nuclear energy) ties. Do you see this dynamic? What’s your opinion?

My own geopolitical sympathies are strongly with Central Europe, especially because of the general social conservatism of those societies. I see nothing good coming from the United States in this respect as long as the Democrats are in charge. The Democratic Party has become totally hostage to the gender and race ideologues. We see that Washington uses its power to demonize any country that doesn't accept gender radicalism. If the Republicans win the White House in 2024, maybe things will improve, but until then, Washington will continue to act as a cultural imperialist towards the non-progressive European countries. 

Overall, though, I don't see how it's possible to make any kind of forecast until Europe gets through this coming winter. We don't know what awaits us at the other side -- and I say "us," because I will be moving in October to Budapest, to work at the Danube Institute think tank. I am no expert on Russia, but I know enough about the Russian mentality to be sure that it will never accept a NATO-aligned Ukraine. And don't forget, Russia has nuclear weapons. If Putin's back was against the wall, I fear that he would use them. Plus, he can use the energy weapon to great effect for years, and Europe will be flat on its back. 

The great error was in Europe choosing to become so dependent on Russian energy. But that cannot be undone quickly. I understand why Poles have so much resentment towards Russia, and it is that strong feeling that may help you all endure the hardship of this coming winter. But the rest of Europe, especially those countries that were not oppressed by the Soviet Union? I fear that we will see mass protests that could bring those governments down. A Hungarian friend said to me, "Why are you moving over here now? It's like moving to Poland in August 1939." She wasn't joking. 

–interviewed by Paweł Burdzy

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists


Rod Dreher (Raymond Oliver Dreher Jr.) is a conservative American columnist, essayist, film critic and writer. Born in 1967 and raised in a Methodist family, he converted to Catholicism in 1993 and to Orthodoxy in 2006 in a protest against the paedophile scandals in the Church. He has published the books 'How Dante Can Save Your Life' (2015), 'The Benedict Option' (2017), 'Living Without Lying' (2020). He is currently associated with the Danube Institute in Hungary.
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