Radio review: The Rising Right in Europe, and Heart and Soul

01 March 2019

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ACCORDING to Steve Bannon, he’s “the smartest man in Rome”. The former adviser to President Trump goes on to call him “a very tough guy”. The man he is talking about is the founder of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute (DHI), Benjamin Harnwell. The smiling visage that greets you from the DHI is neat and friendly — not at all what Bannon’s description might lead you to expect; but who could doubt the former executive chairman of Breitbart News?

The unlikely alliance between Harnwell and Bannon has been formed through a shared distaste for the perceived Islamisation of the “Judaeo-Christian West”. Bannon is now investing in an academy, of which Harnwell will be the director.

All this was the subject of Edward Stourton’s disturbing documentary The Rising Right in Europe (Radio 4, Monday of last week). If it was just about Harnwell alone, then we might take it as a horror story told round the left-liberal camp-fire. The aims and ambitions of the academy will align those of various other European right-wing organisations that express their nationalism through appeals to Christian tradition.

Its rhetoric resonates with that of European politicians: Viktor Orbán, in Hungary, for instance, and Matteo Salvini, in Italy (Comment, 25 January, 5 October 2018). The appropriation of Christian symbols in this new appeal to the Right is as specious as it is calculated: Orbán, a Calvinist by upbringing, was well-known for mocking the Roman Catholic Church in his early career, while Salvini’s Liga movement began life with a distinctly antagonistic attitude to the Church.

The adoption of Christianity by European political parties as a cultural marker represents at least as great a threat to the European project as any disputes over here about backstops.

In contrast are the words of the astronaut Frank Borman: “The only border that matters is the thin blue line of the atmosphere.” The perfect antidote to this poisoned vision of cultural territorialism was provided by Heart and Soul (World Service, Friday), in which the story of the 1968 Apollo 8 mission to orbit the moon was told by participants and fellow astronauts.

This was the mission during which was taken that iconic photograph of the earth rising from behind the moon: a blaze of colour, set against a barren moon and empty sky. To the astronauts, this was a vision of paradise in which scripture was vindicated: God sitting enthroned above the circle of the earth. And it was this that inspired the three-man crew to recite the opening chapter of Genesis to the largest broadcast audience in history up to that time.

The story of God’s creation never sounded so profound as over that crackly line from space, although it is clear that some of the crew members took the passage more literally than others. In ironic counterpoint, Borman is later asked by a reporter to comment on the scepticism of a Flat-Earther from London whose faith is unshaken even by the photographic evidence. “It doesn’t look too flat from here.”

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