The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Catholic right wing takes a wrong turn

Scaffolding rings the San Giovanni Baptistery in Florence this month, as the ancient church's mosaic undergoes restoration. (San Giovanni Baptistery Press Office/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Justin Dyer is executive director of the Civitas Institute and a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book, co-authored with Kody Cooper, is “The Classical and Christian Origins of American Politics: Political Theology, Natural Law, and the American Founding.”

Conservatism, at its best, seeks to conserve America’s founding principles: economic and religious liberty, representative government, constitutionalism and private enterprise. But in an inauspicious turn, growing segments of the political right dismiss these principles as liberal and blame the country’s founding for our current malaise.

The signers of the Declaration of Independence held it to be a self-evident truth that we are all created equal and endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights. Our civic ideals of limited government, rule of law, economic opportunity and individual liberty stand on that bedrock. “If anyone wishes to deny” this, Calvin Coolidge claimed on the Declaration’s 150th anniversary, “the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people.”

Coolidge had in mind the progressives of his day, who saw our founding principles as outdated; today, his words offer a challenge to conservatives who see them as pernicious. Weary of the messiness of democratic politics, and dismayed by the libertinism of American culture, an alarming number of conservative intellectuals are looking to Europe’s pre-liberal past for ideas to guide us in a post-liberal future.

The most radical of these visions flies under the flag of “integralism” and takes its bearings from an old current in Catholic social thought. It is radical in the sense that it strikes at the root of the ideas underpinning the American experiment. Lost in the conflict is the rich moral and theological inheritance of the American political tradition. Gained is a mess of authoritarian pottage.

The logic of integralism is straightforward. There is no neutral ground on fundamental questions of God, good and evil, and the purpose of human life. Political conflict entails conflict about these ultimate things, integralists argue. Accordingly, they view public institutions, social structures and religion as an integral whole. Nothing is truly private. Everything affects the common good; there is no private life or private conscience. The resulting vision is of a hierarchical society with concentrated power, close coordination between church and state, and public regulation of religious orthodoxy.

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Donald Trump’s realignment of U.S. politics, although populist and secular, exposed deep fissures in conservative thought and opened the door to such a radically alternative vision. Halfway through Trump’s term, Notre Dame political scientist Patrick Deneen gave voice to the bubbling conservative discontent. In “Why Liberalism Failed,” Deneen offered a counterintuitive answer to the question posed by his book’s title: Liberalism failed because it succeeded. By liberalism, he meant the broad Enlightenment tradition of liberty that gave birth to the United States. In Deneen’s retelling, that tradition eroded the church, disrupted communities, degraded the environment, shattered families and left lonely, isolated, and shallow individuals in its wake.

The book resonated with many — and not just conservatives. Former president Barack Obama wrote one of its blurbs. But if liberalism failed, what would take its place? In a bold work of political imagination, some conservative Catholic intellectuals met Deneen’s diagnosis with an implausible remedy: the Catholic Church should strategically co-opt the American state. The result would be a return of state-sanctioned religion and a politics that is at once socially conservative, statist and economically populist.

Prominent proponents of integralism include the intellectually eccentric Harvard Law School professor Adrian Vermeule, former New York Post opinion editor Sohrab Ahmari and the Austrian monk P. Edmund Waldstein. They have pressed their case at, in journals such as First Things and American Affairs, and in the online magazine Compact. Waldstein, in Josias, succinctly explained that “Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that, rejecting the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holds that political rule must order man to his final goal.” The final goal is heaven, and the integralist means of getting us to that destination is to subordinate politics to the spiritual authority of the Catholic Church.

There is nothing new under the sun, but some ideas do hide in the shadows for a time. Resurrecting an old model of church-state relations would also resurrect old, dark answers to questions about citizenship, religious liberty and state power. Serious writers and scholars now envision the return of confessional states, religion-based citizenship, and a state powerful enough to enforce orthodoxy.

In 2020’s Integralism: A Manual of Political Philosophy, friar Thomas Crean and theology professor Alan Fimister assert that only baptized Christians in good standing with the Catholic Church may be citizens of a fully integrated Catholic state. Such a vision of religion-based citizenship runs counter to the U.S. Constitution, the American political tradition and the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, as Ave Maria University professor James Patterson recently noted in National Review.

Integralism is the intellectual right’s reaction to the illiberalism of the far left. As a political vision, it is monumentally imprudent. These combustible questions of religion and national citizenship once tore the West apart and fostered centuries of horrendous cruelty and injustice for Europe’s religious minorities. Countries with serious integralist parties in the 20th century now rank among the lowest in religiosity. And scholars such as Allen Hertzke and Rodney Stark have marshaled a wealth of empirical evidence to show that religious liberty is not only good for individual human flourishing but good for the flourishing of the institutional church.

Implausible as the integralist vision might seem from the vantage point of 21st-century America, it points to a troubling trend that we must take seriously. Too many thinkers are losing faith in the United States, and Americans remain ignorant of the moral foundations of their republic. For conservatives working to conserve America’s first principles, the task is to make the case anew for the wisdom of the U.S. founding, the theological basis of religious liberty, and the moral framework of private enterprise and limited, constitutional government.