Lacan and the Panicking Christians

April 26, 2016 in General

According to most psychological definitions, ‘anxiety’ refers to worry, physiological agitation, or free-floating anxieties related to existential situations, as well as panic attacks. In the work of Sigmund Freud, neurotic anxiety refers to undischarged libido, while other forms of anxiety are either a direct response to a traumatic incident, or else an anticipated or threatened traumatic incident. In the work of Jacques Lacan, this is tied in with the mirror stage, where the subject recognises that it is a distinct being from the mother which nurtures it. This recognition of differentiation results in anxieties about fragmentation, bodily dismemberment, castration anxiety and the fear of either being separated from a source of primordial nurturance (Freud) or overwhelmed by a powerful and volitional ‘terrible’ mother. The power of maternal nurturance or refusal is viewed as ‘unspeakable’ or ‘uncategorisable.’ When faced with this disruption of meaning and order, trauma and anxiety result. Lacan also refers to this in the context of ‘imaginary order,’ a perception that someone is in a precarious place or situation that threatens to become something disastrous for the subject.

So, how might this relate to the Christian Right? The fundamentalist subject always seems to be anxious about something, fearing itself on the verge of persecution, torture or obliteration- in short, anxiety or panic. There is also the question of a traumatic incident, but in their worldview, the trauma is a ‘closed future.’ It has yet to happen, it is dreaded, but it is preordained and unavoidable, or so say interminable volumes of ‘Armageddon theology’ potboilers like Tim LaHayes’ Left Behind series from the nineties. This may have some resonance in the fundamentalist anti-abortion position, in which the withdrawal of female consent for the presence of an embryo or fetus and subsequent abortion is mapped on to anxieties about female autonomy and the possibility of non-heterosexual relationships. In their worldview, there is trauma, anxiety and vertigo about the presence of such possibilities, hence their obdurate opposition to abortion and homosexuality and paranoid conspiracy theories and rhetoric about endangerment. For example, same-sex marriage is said to ‘result’ in consensual adult incest and polygamy down a ‘slippery slope.’ Permitting transwomen into women’s toilets or girl’s changing rooms ‘means’ anxieties about boundary demarcation and instability, regardless of the fact that such phantasms are unverifiable statistically. It was also reflected in the old discourse of ‘sodomy,’ where the mythical cities of “Sodom and Gomorrah” were destroyed, ostensibly for participation in gay sex. Therefore, ‘permitting’ gay sexuality ‘leads’ to the ‘same’ precarious and anxiety-laden existential situation or temporal setting that ‘resulted’ in the immolation of these mythological cities (which never took place). If ‘Yahweh’ (an overwhelming power or presence) ’caused’ the ‘destruction’ of “Sodom and Gomorrah” “due” to gay sex, then the current ‘permissive’ social context will ’cause’ a similar future ‘disaster.’ Banning parental corporal punishment will “mean” that the state and secular professionals will invade the boundaries of fundamentalist families, causing their disintegration and forestalling their ability to raise the next generation of fundamentalists.

Needless to say, none of these things have happened. And perhaps that is the key to their undoing. We merely need to point out the anxiety, trauma and irrational dread of the future within most fundamentalist popular culture and political rhetoric. Which may be why they’ve failed to gain traction. New Zealand just doesn’t have a large enough fundamentalist community to generate a critical mass on most ‘controversial’ ‘moral’ issues. We regard the Trump/Cruz Republican presidential animosities and their assorted phantasms with bewilderment. Certainly, there are right-wing New Zealand social movements who are trying to voice similar authoritarian populist anxiety rhetoric (witness the Centre for Political Debates’ attack on traditional Maori water use and ownership rights under the Treaty of Waitangi), but they’re not getting anywhere much either. The lesson from the United States is plain- go down the Trump road and risk something akin to US domestic fascism.


Jacques Lacan: Anxiety: The Seminars of Jacques Lacan (Book X): Cambridge: Polity Books: 2014.

Marshall Armintor: Lacan and the Ghosts of Modernity: New York: Peter Lang: 2004.

Roberto Harari: Lacan’s Seminar on “Anxiety”: New York: Other: 2001.

Brian Robertson: Lacanian Anti-Philosophy and the Problem of Anxiety: Houndsmills: Palgrave: 2015.