#RosaryExtremist: A recent Atlantic article connected militarized images of the rosary with Christian Nationalism, but some of the responses from Rad Trad Twitter were surprising

On Sunday, August 14, 2022, the Atlantic ran a piece by Danial Panneton called How Extremist Gun Culture Is Trying to Co-Opt the Rosary. In it, Panneton uses images of rosary beads draped from guns to connect radical traditionalist (or “rad trad”) Catholics to what some scholars are calling Christian nationalism. Panneton even linked to a recent Religion Dispatches piece by Thomas Leaque that discussed the AR-15 and its association with Christians in the U.S., arguing that these militarized images and the rosary-as-weapon rhetoric function to bring together right-wing Catholics with the gun culture of Christian nationalism. 

Conversations around Christian nationalism usually focus on evangelicals, and Panneton used rosaries made of bullets and parachute cords as Catholic examples of a “militia culture, a fetishism of Western civilization, and masculinist anxieties” that also characterize the “new right” in the U.S. The article, predictably, kicked up a huge amount of dust on Caholic Twitter, so much so that Panneton had to lock down his Twitter account. The discourse got even larger when most major conservative outlets (e.g., Fox News, The Federalist, and The National Review) picked up the story. There is a lot to unpack here regarding Rad Trad Catholics and Christian nationalism, but what struck me the most was that while responses from news outlets highlighted the long history of “spiritual warfare” rhetoric in both the Catholic tradition and among other (mostly evangelical) Christians, Twitter users highlighted how, in many ways, this particular media image of traditionalism is a pretty new phenomenon born of the internet.

The goal of the news media seemed to be to emphasize (what they see as) the banality of normalcy of spiritual warfare rhetoric. The response from Tom Shillue on the Fox News show Gutfield! centered on the argument that Catholics and Christians have long referred to prayer with language of weaponry and warfare, and the idea of spiritual warfare is not a creation of the new right. The article was also discussed by Laura Ingram on her show as well as on Fox & Friends, where the hosts and guests all highlighted that Christians have been praying the rosary for centuries. Similarly, The Federalist argued that “the left” was afraid of the rosary because “rosaries today, just as in medieval times, are an explicit rejection of the sins of our culture.” In order to respond to the article’s accusation of “extremism,” conservative news media marshaled centuries of Catholic and Christian history. They constructed themselves as simply carrying on a long tradition.

But there must be something “new” about the “new right.” How, indeed, are these images different from what happened in the past? I suggest the answer is media, namely the internet.  

The responses from Twitter users provide a nice little example of this, as they had a slightly different emphasis from legacy media. In reaction to the article, self-proclaimed “rad trad” media figure Taylor Marshall tweeted out the hashtag #RosaryExtremist in which he implored his followers to “make it trend” by posting pictures of their rosaries. Presumably, this was meant to mock the Atlantic article by showing that rosaries were not, in fact, physically dangerous (only spiritually). Thus people posted a lot of soft and even feminine images of the rosary in reaction to the article’s claim that gun and war-like rosaries displayed anxieties about Catholic masculinity. Many posted photos of cherubic, rosy-cheeked children holding the beads and nuns happily frolicing in a field while rosaries dangled from their belts. In an ironic twist, rather than a doubling down on the normalcy of firearm and warfare images, the hashtag (with some exceptions) is largely a thread of examples of precisely NOT the masculinist militarism Panneton’s article was hoping to address.

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet”><p lang=”und” dir=”ltr”><a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/RosaryExtremist?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#RosaryExtremist</a> 😂😂😂 <a href=”https://t.co/dFiYS3Tj2S”>pic.twitter.com/dFiYS3Tj2S</a></p>&mdash; TradCatholicCody (@CatholicCodyB) <a href=”https://twitter.com/CatholicCodyB/status/1559333952225165312?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>August 16, 2022</a></blockquote> <script async src=”https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js” charset=”utf-8″></script> 

One of the more common responses I found in the #Rosary Extremist tweets was a hang up about the terminology Panneton used. Many Twitter users were surprised and confused about the full term “radical traditionalist” instead of using “trad” or “rad trad.” Some claimed it was odd to be that “formal” about the movement, suggesting that the author must not understand this subculture if he would call it that. Others genuinely seemed not to realize that “rad trad” stood for “radical traditionalist.” One user mentioned that they had never thought about it before, they just new rad trads were committed to the truth vis-a-vis “the woke church.” Utilizing a fun-sounding word like “rad trad” and defining it (however loosely) over and against “wokeness” (however conceived) reduces the variety of traditionalist Catholic communities and individuals to a digestible media image and allows people to express political values and tastes. It’s a modern meme.

Other Twitter users claimed that the author was clearly not familiar with the movement if he would call them radical traditionalists, because “no one calls it that.” Hearing the full phrase “radical traditional,” for dozens of Twitter users, was like watching a dog walk on its hind legs. These conversations highlight just how much “rad trad” really is a product of the internet, indeed of Web 2.0. Media has created this image of the rad trad, and there is yet no good data that tells us how large, how cohesive, or how consistent this movement even is. 

Many threads under #RosaryExtremist posts speculated as to just how many men (or anyone for that matter) actually own or purchase rosaries made out of bullets or parachute cord, and to what extent it was just a media image. The point underlying these inquiries is that, in some ways, it hardly matters. The rapid spread offered by social media platforms means that media images alone are enough to (re)shape the Church’s identity.  

Many on Catholic Twitter (who presumably did not read the article) were initially upset by the original cover image, which featured the rosary shaped by bullet holes. There was so much outcry over the bullet hole rosary that the cover image was replaced by a picture of traditional rosary beads. The article itself, of course, bemoaned how rosaries made of bullets and parachute cords depict a militia culture that is so characteristic of right-wing politics. Those Catholics upset by the bullet holes would presumably share the author’s critiques of the violence implied in the militarized images of rosaries and AR-15s, but the main takeaway for them seemed to be that “leftist media” (referring to The Atlantic) hates Catholics. Interpreting the title and cover image through a lens of persecution, dozens of users claimed they had reported the article retweets as hate speech. Again, the content of the article hardly mattered, this Twitter event was enough to sew distrust of mainstream media and fuel narratives of persecution. 

I often wonder what the term “Christian nationalism” really tells us– who is included in the category, how it is different from the Christian nationalist sentiments of previous centuries, and how it is helpful for understanding right-wing movements today. #RosaryExtremist and its debates over the “rad trad” term show us what is new about “Christian nationalism” right now, and that’s the internet.

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