No idea is more fundamental to the American religious ethos than the separation of Church and State. But to the movement known as Catholic integralism, one expression of our larger postliberal moment, no idea is more repugnant. Catholic integralists such as legal scholar Adrien Vermeule, the philosopher Thomas Pink, and other contributors to the conservative Catholic journal First Things insist on a public role for religion and indeed special privileges for it in the eyes of the law. They maintain that their convictions, founded as they are in biblical truth and natural law, cannot simply be ranked as one viewpoint among others.
Some postliberals sympathetic to the movement, such as Matthew Brendan Dougherty of National Review, defend integralism on humanist grounds, attempting to link the integralist worldview to that corpus of virtue the founders claimed was necessary to a free republic. But integralist hopes for a privileged place in the public sphere make any claim to the republican tradition tenuous. They much more closely resemble 19th century Ultramontanes, particularly of the French variety. The Ultramontanes favored the absolute supremacy of the pope over national authorities, thus deadlocking Catholicism and liberalism in a zero-sum game for political survival.
Lay activists also led the 19th century Ultramontane movement, most notably the French polemicist, Louis Veuillot (1813-1883), editor of the conservative Catholic newspaper, L’Univers. Veuillot did not respect the separation of the political and the religious under the constitutional July monarchy of King Louis Philippe. He raged daily against the tyranny of legal indifferentism towards the one true faith. Leading a movement that was “lay, proletarian, and Roman,” this self-taught son of a cooper brilliantly marshaled the resentment of the French lower clergy against the clerical elite of the French Church, which he described as spinelessly kowtowing to their liberal puppet-masters. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, Veuillot and other 19th century malcontents looked “beyond the mountains” (hence ultramontane) to Rome and the papacy as the necessary counterweight to the bourgeois democracies then overturning the Catholic monarchies of Europe. Together they longed for the imagined theocratic ideal of the Middle Ages, with its ranked society of mutually beneficial orders.
There is a family resemblance between the old world of L’Univers and the new one of First Things, where Sohrab Ahmari, the editor of the New York Post, recently published a manifesto entitled “Against the Dead Consensus.” Signed by a number of postliberal intellectuals and activists, that text, with its critique of global capitalism, led to a major crack-up on the right, pitting libertarians against a coalition of conservative religious actors. The signatories insist that though the alliance of liberalism and conservatism was necessary to win the Cold War, the destructive forces of free market economics are now too flagrant to ignore. In a subsequent First Things piece entitled “Against David French-ism,” Ahmari takes aim at the civil discourse of National Review writer David French whose purportedly naïve belief in rational argumentation is panned as an inadequately muscular response to this (knives out?) stage of the culture war.
One might expect that the inspiration to abandon civility in politics for more drastic action would result from a proportionately momentous event: Catholics being jailed for their beliefs, or silenced in the press, for example. It turns out that the jumping off point for Ahmari’s bellicose turn, at least in what concerns his critique of French, was a drag queen story hour held at a public library in Sacramento, California. Ahmari’s disproportionate response to a seemingly innocuous event should raise a number of red flags in even the most casual reader of history. In that piece, he issues a somewhat sinister call for a “re-ordering” of society to “the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.” He speaks about defeating his “enemies,” a “politics of war and enmity,” and a righteous commitment to “enforc[ing] our order and our orthodoxy.” If civil discourse is not the means by which to do that, Ahmari lets it be inferred that violence is at least on the table.
Veuillot was ruthlessly effective in humiliating opponents willing to work within the liberal system. Ahmari does not have Veuillot’s polemical verve. Even his takedown of French, conceding French’s amiability and grace, is Frenchian in its restraint. “It isn’t easy to critique the persona of someone as nice as French.” Veuillot’s tongue did not speak of the “guileless public mien” of his opponents, but rather eviscerated those David Frenches of the day who dared to do business with the liberal order rather than rejecting it out hand. But the difference between the two figures is that Veuillot could rely on the pope, whereas even if the integralists wanted to restore the temporal power of the Papal States, they could hardly rely on Pope “Who Am I to Judge?” Francis to carry out their agenda.
The truth is that, despite their hostility to free trade, integralists do long for a lost American consensus. Their aristocratic critique of capitalism defends the interests of working people not on grounds of equality but out of paternalist nostalgia for an organic society of orders. They look back to a time when a patrician WASP elite dominated high finance and culture, a Catholic civil service controlled city politics in the northeast, and women safeguarded the moral integrity of the home and its children. It was a time when gay men married “beards,” and gay women lived with their “roommates” in “Boston marriages,” and everybody accepted that African-Americans made up the permanent underclass. In those days, cultural norms were self-enforced under the sign of “community standards,” but now that that the ordered society of pre-1960s America has come undone, the type of blue laws or decency codes that the Catholic right longs for are destined to die in the courts. Or are they?
The place of Catholicism within a republic is the central question that American Catholics have been litigating since the founding. In 18th century America, the Catholicism of John Carroll and John England was remarkable for its capacity to reinvent the faith of feudal Europe. Its defense of religious freedom and conscience rights made American Catholicism uniquely adaptable to the liberal order. Liberalism allowed American Catholicism to thrive not because the liberal framework is an ideology but because it is primarily a legal mechanism designed to prevent competing religious actors from killing each other.
The “siege mentality” of a subsequent Catholic generation rejected this republican brand of Catholicism, leading many American Protestants to suspect that Catholics accepted democratic norms out of convenience rather than conviction. The integralist movement revives these justified fears and threatens to reduce Catholic Americans to a stereotype they labored heroically to reject. As to its impact on conservative politics, to quote Charles C.W. Cooke, “the one way to create division on the right is to start talking as though you want to impose a Catholic monarchy.”
Maxwell Pingeon is a PhD student in American Religious History at the University of Virginia specializing in civil religion in France and North America.
Sohrab Ahmari will face David French in a debate tonight (Sept. 5th) at Catholic University of America. The debate is from 6 to 7 PM, and will be moderated by Ross Douthat. The event is free to the public, but for those unable to attend in person, the event will be live-streamed.
Over the past few weeks, we published a series of responses to Darren Dochuk’s Anointed with Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America. The responses were first given during a roundtable discussion dedicated to Dochuk’s new book in April, and were revised for publication on this blog. The series begins with a piece by Kevin Stewart Rose, who provides helpful context for Dochuk’s book, and suggests that oil itself is a sort of agent at work in the text. The next response is by Matthew Hedstrom, who did a postdoc with Dochuk at Princeton. He dives into the scholarly details behind Dochuk’s work, and assesses the scope of his achievement. The third response is by Brittany Acors, who conceives of Dochuk’s book as a “biography of American oil,” and highlights some of the voices that a biography of this nature overlooks. The fourth and final response is by Kathleen Flake. Flake focuses on the potential audiences the book might reach, and how that shapes the emphases and contours of Dochuk’s narrative. The series concludes with a lengthy essay by Dochuk, who extensively engages with each roundtable participant, offering a “response to the responses.” Collectively, the series offers a deep and multifaceted analysis of Dochuk’s groundbreaking new work.
The senior fellows of the Religion and Its Publics project met for the third time in Washington, DC in late March to continue their years-long discussion about religion and public life, with particular attention directed toward the nature and purpose of public theology. Throughout the weekend, the fellows discussed methods for shaping potential publics that may be receptive to the work of public theologians.
General check-ins and opening remarks on Friday over dinner were followed by a day of critical conversations. Saturday morning’s discussion covered Amy Allen’s book The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory, which investigates the narrative of progress underlying critical theory and evaluates the concept of progress as a political ideal in concrete and particular situations. For Saturday’s second session, the senior fellows discussed Prof. Chuck Mathewes and Prof. Paul Jones’ piece for the Political Theology Network, “Futures for Public Theology.” Themes from the first and second sessions carried into the third, which centered on Mathewes’ working paper “An Almost-Chosen People: The Prospects and Perils of Public Theology in the Contemporary United States.” The senior fellows offered a number of possible revisions, and suggested that the paper might be extended into a larger work or modified for a more “popular” (public) audience.
The annual meeting concluded on Sunday morning with a forward-looking brainstorming session. The fellows discussed various ways to expand the project’s scope, including by developing an innovative publication platform steered by new and promising voices in public theology.
Report by Shelly Tilton
Date: March 22-24, 2019
February 6th – David Clough (Professor of Theological Ethics, University of Chester) delivered a moving and provocative lecture about why Christians in particular have powerful reasons to care about the well-being of nonhuman animals. Drawing on his landmark two-part monograph, On Animals (2012 and 2018), Clough outlined current trends in the treatment of nonhuman animals, considered the place of animal ethics in ethical life more generally, and offered a compact account of Christian thinking on creation and reconciliation as a backdrop for Christian animal ethics. There followed an articulation of the ethical stance that Clough believes that Christians should adopt – one that aims at a decisive reduction in the human consumption of animal products and which aims to change the current farming structures.
December 6th – Leah Daughtry gave a talk on religion in politics, and politics in religion, at the University of Virginia. Daughtry, former Chief Executive Officer of the Democratic National Convention, spoke of the importance of engaging across boundaries to achieve broader sociopolitical aims rather than getting caught up in partisan politics. In her talk, the fifth generation pastor elucidated how her deep religious training, knowledge, and leadership experience led her to politics, and how she has been inspired by her faith to become a “disrupter” of injustice and inequality in American society. At the same time, she stressed that the Democratic Party, including secular representatives and strands, needs to speak to the diverse faith traditions of its members, taking seriously how faith motivates politics across party lines.
Nov 8th 2018 – Russell Moore, leading evangelical critic of the close alignment of white evangelicals with President Donald Trump, delivered the Luce Lecture on Religion in Public at UVA. In his lecture, Dr Moore, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, cited cynicism rather than secularism as a major problem for his faith. He said many wonder whether it has become “just another badge of tribal belonging,” and called for a refocusing on God and the cross at the center of American Evangelicalism. Watch the full video here: