Integralists: America’s Would-be Theocrats
A revolution is brewing, or so a small group of Twitter users would lead you to believe. This group bemoans the rise of liberalism, to which it attributes most of the evils of the modern world. Capitalism, murder, crime, and the hollowing out of working-class communities – all of these evils can be attributed to liberalism, in their view. The only solution is to destroy our present political order and replace it with one that they prefer.
You might think I’m talking about Rose twitter, Bernie bros, or avid Chapo Trap House listeners, but I’m actually referring to a different group of radicals — the post-liberals. You might not have heard of them, but their ideas are gaining traction in some segments of the religious right. Led by figures like columnist Sohrab Ahmari, Harvard Law School professor Adrian Vermeule, King’s College professor Thomas Pink, Twitter user Gray Connolly, and Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen and anchored by the Catholic conservative magazine First Things, these reactionary radicals dream of an America divorced from its founding tradition of classical liberalism. In its place will be…something, but definitely not liberalism.
The Medieval LARPing of Integralism
Post-liberal ideas range from Ahmari’s “Common good conservatism” to Deneen’s “Aristopulism”, a hierarchical society where cultural elites like Deneen will craft populist policy for the “common good” of the commoners. The far extreme lies with Vermeule’s “Empire of Our Lady of Guadalupe“, a global Catholic empire that will initially encompass the Americas and ultimately the entire world.
Such a regime would be based on pre-liberal concepts. Ideas like God-given rights would be discarded; instead, government policy would be directed from rulers to subjects. If Vermeule is to be believed, attending mass will be mandatory for anyone who has been baptized by any Christian church – Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, or Coptic. Dissenters will be made to perform menial labor to atone for their sins. Any Jewish-born child who has the misfortune of being baptized will, like Edgardo Mortara, be taken from their parents and raised by the church. Concepts like free speech or religious freedom will vanish.
It’s worth noting here that the Catholic Church itself has no interest in this idea. In fact, Pope Francis has specifically condemned integralism as a “plague.” That’s not to say that Pope Francis denies tradition, but he posits that it is “the guarantee of the future” rather than the “the custodian of ashes.”
An Academic Delusion
To say that integralism is ridiculous is obvious. America’s one true experiment in theocracy, Puritanism, crashed and burned to such an extent that its witch trials are still ridiculed to this day. A confessional Catholic state has no chance of happening in a country where only 22% of us are Catholic and only 40% of those go to Mass. Any attempt at forcing such a state on the American people would likely result in, at minimum, a protracted guerrilla war led by a coalition of Baptists and ACLU members.
Integralism is no more realistic or popular among the general public than “dominionism”, a fringe group of radical Protestants who wanted to return to John Calvin’s Geneva. What’s troubling is not that these ideas exist, but where they are coming from: while the dominionists were a group of crackpot pastors divorced from any real Protestant institutions, integralism is rising from academia as well as valuable institutions like First Things. When Protestant minister turned Catholic priest Richard John Neuhaus founded First Things, he saw it as an ecumenical outlet where conservative Catholics, Protestants, and Jews alike could contribute to a public discourse. Neuhaus would even edit the ecumenical manifesto Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission in 1995.
Neuhaus died in 2009, and it seems that mission died with him. As Jonathan V. Last explained in The Bulwark, RR Reno took over as editor in 2011 and immediately sought a new vision – and he’s seemingly found it. Instead of ecumenism, the magazine has now trended towards a hardline view. In 2012, Thomas Pink wrote an article justifying the concept of the Catholic Church exercising coercive authority over all baptized Christians. This means the church could “coerce individual belief and practice,” an idea which could “take political form and thus underpin state involvement in coercion.” The magazine has since embraced Trump following the 2016 election, met scandal after defending the kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara in 2018, and finally published a manifesto in 2019 declaring conservatism as we know it to be dead.
Flame to the Fire
The fact that the Adrian Vermeules of the world are involved in this effort has lent it some deal of credibility. After all, if academics have an idea, doesn’t that make it worth discussing? In an inexplicable decision, The Atlantic offered Vermeule the chance to explain why originalism – the commonly-accepted judicial philosophy of the right – is wrong, and instead how our judges should rule based on the “common good.” This is, of course, a sneakier way of explaining his actual ideology, raillement, where agents will be placed within government bureaucracy so they can seize power at the most opportune moment and create an integralist state.
If that sounds like fascism, well, that’s because it sounds like fascism. It should be treated as such, and its advocates should be treated as such. These people are not friends of the religious right, social conservatives, or conservatives in general, nor are they friends of other Christians, Jews, or believers of all faiths that make up a large component of the conservative base. Their goals do not align with the right and their methods do not either. Every inch of space given to them on the right is one taken from those truly involved in the cause, and if they seize enough institutions like First Things, the ecumenical nature of the religious right might be truly tarnished beyond repair.
A Serious Moment Needs Serious People
This isn’t to say that classical liberalism, or at least the present form of conservatism, is beyond question. But if you are going to question it, you need to be serious and realistic in what you are proposing instead – and when your solution is “Make America Feudalist France Again”, it’s not worth giving daylight to. If those skeptical of a more libertarian-influenced conservatism want to have a future in this movement, the integralists need to be treated like the unserious people they are.