Up until recently, a discussion on “Christian political principles” at a leading center-right Washington think tank would have centered on the usual culprits. Abortion would take center stage, marriage (circa 2004) or religious liberty (post-Obergefell) would be a close second, and perhaps some en vogue issue like school choice would sneak in as well.
But Donald Trump’s presidency is new territory for Christian engagement, and Wednesday evening’s “Christian Political Principles in the Age of Trump,” co-sponsored by the Thomistic Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, showed how much the political landscape has changed. Throughout the wide-ranging, 90-minute discussion, one would be forgiven for forgetting that the topic was ostensibly religious in nature. Panelists Elizabeth Corey of Baylor University, Joshua Mitchell of Georgetown University, R.R. Reno of First Things, and George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center addressed not only the issues of our time for Christians, but for all of Western democracy.
The Trump phenomenon has shattered a multitude of political conventions, but perhaps none is more consequential for those on the right than the rapidly unraveling fusionism that has dominated Republican politics (and American conservatism more broadly) for decades. Free-market economics, neoconservative foreign policy hawkishness, and traditional social conservatism were always strange ideological bedfellows, but their philosophical distinctiveness has now reached a tipping point. A concern about the “atomizing effects of modern economic practices…individualism and materialism,” as Reno put it, has led to some uncomfortable self-reflection on the electoral coalition that has long driven movement conservatism.
Questions were asked about the recent rebuke to globalism and the proper role of the state in bringing this reckoning to a head. In his opening remarks, Weigel appeared to double down on at least some of the fusionist mantra, arguing that the current moment doesn’t modify Christian political principles, which are perennial. This means that Christians have the same priorities in the age of Trump as they do “in the age of Obama, Clinton, Bush, Carter, Reagan, whomever.” Among these are a “built-in preference for the limited state,” which leads to a deep skepticism of any “remediating government interaction” for a corrupt culture (at least at the federal level), and a “built-in duty of self defense [based on] a development of the just war way of thinking to address the new forms of war waged against American democracy today.” Weigel appealed to a “global solidarity that expresses itself…for the past half-century in support of human rights and pro-democracy activists around the world.” In essence, free markets, strong national defense, and the promotion of “American values” across the globe.
In contrast, Reno and Mitchell were more prepared to rethink “small-government conservatism.” This is by no means an endorsement of statism—indeed, both Reno and Mitchell are deeply skeptical of the federal government—but rather a recognition that some government action may be needed as an intermediary for our vast cultural deficiency. Instead of the progressive project, which views big government as a substitute for civil society, Mitchell argued that “we have to distinguish between supplement and substitute. The state can supplement for the institutions of society periodically when things are deeply dysfunctional” (emphasis added). Reno also offered some practical implications of the “supplement” view of the state: a type of “Homestead Act for the 21st century” to restore property and wealth to middle-class families, a heavy tax on supersized university endowments, and perhaps even a divorce tax to discourage family breakdown. These novel suggestions are hardly a break from precedent, as government already encourages socially desirable behaviors through things like cigarette taxes and tax-exempt status for churches and charities. The extent to which free-market conservatives and libertarians bristle at Reno’s suggestions shows how entrenched we are in our outdated political orthodoxies.
Yet perhaps most indicative of how badly both the left and the right in America have missed the changing political landscape is President Trump’s defining issue: immigration. It’s an issue that—aside from some GOP lip service every few elections when the thorny issue rears its ugly head—official Washington has largely ignored. As Reno astutely observed, “It’s really quite telling that places like AEI and Heritage don’t have full-time staff working on immigration questions when in fact it turns out to be the single most salient political issue in the West in the 21st century.” But noteworthy as this omission may be, it’s not wholly surprising. The issues that have long driven our political establishment—for example, identity politics on the left and marginal tax rates on the right—are quintessential “1 percent” issues, indicative of the development of what Reno coins the “donor-ocracy.” Rampant immigration affects the economic and social fabric of the lower class, so it’s largely unimportant to the donor class.
But why has immigration become so salient as to upset this political establishment? Why has, as the Trumpist takeover of Republican orthodoxy shows, the globalist versus nationalist distinction become starker than that of Republican versus Democrat? Mitchell, the political philosopher, unsurprisingly suggests a philosophical answer: modern man experiences “this dim longing for home.” It’s a deeply Christian notion, for while St. Paul reminds us that this world is not our permanent home, the yearning for a sense of place—both secular and heavenly—is rooted in Christian anthropology.
Christian anthropology is relational; man flourishes in a community properly ordered towards the common good. And like most things worthwhile, community and the common good have limits. The increasingly ridiculous notion of Facebook as a legitimate global community illustrates the former. As for the latter, as Reno argued, the language of the “common good” is ill-suited to global realities. Sure, there are global goods, things like peace, prosperity, family—things that are as true in America as they are in Afghanistan—but these are not the same as the singular, indivisible, communal, and limited common good that is the proper object of all political and social life. The common good emerges from the relationships, traditions, and cultures that provide purpose to a polity. And these elements can only develop when rooted in a specific place over time. It’s no wonder that introducing a massive influx of new people with new relationships, traditions, and cultures has caused such anxiety among those already navigating the most fragile social fabric—the most fraught common good—in American society. While the topic of mass immigration understandably draws sympathy for the immigrant seeking a new and better life, this sympathy must be balanced with a renewed awareness of the effect that mass immigration has on the social fabric of communities tasked with absorbing it.
This is the new Christian political project. Working towards electoral goals with regard to select hot-button issues, while laudable, is increasingly a relic of a past age. Western democracy has reached a tipping point, leaving Christians—the laity especially—to imagine a new political paradigm that protects both subsidiarity and solidarity, one that buttresses against the ill effects of both state and market, globalism and ethnic nationalism. In a world where global managers have severely eroded our sense of place and home, and a “dangerous romanticized [ethnic] nationalism,” to quote Mitchell, is on the rise in response, we need another option. To find one, we on the right will need to engage in the same kind of unorthodox debate that was on display at AEI Wednesday evening.
This article has been updated.
Emile Doak is director of events & outreach at The American Conservative. He lives in his hometown of Herndon, Virginia.