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Fashioning a Post-Fusionist Christian Politics

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, [1]” co-sponsored by the Thomistic Institute [2] 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 [3] 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 [4], 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 [5], 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 [6] 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.

21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "Fashioning a Post-Fusionist Christian Politics"

#1 Comment By Youknowho On February 22, 2018 @ 2:04 pm

It should have been obvious a long time ago that Ayn Rand and Christianity do not mix. That no economic system is sacred by itself. That denying climate change is nowhere to be found in the Credo.

And that when you sleep with dogs you wake up with fleas.

#2 Comment By The Scientist 880 On February 22, 2018 @ 2:10 pm

“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.””

I didn’t realize that America is 99% white. Most minorities sure care about being attacked by republicans.

#3 Comment By Teej On February 22, 2018 @ 3:01 pm

Haven’t watched the video yet, but plan too, but am curious as to the omission of any mention of Elizabeth Corey above. Did she add nothing of interest throughout the entire event?

#4 Comment By John Gruskos On February 22, 2018 @ 3:48 pm

“Free-market economics, neoconservative foreign policy hawkishness, and traditional social conservatism were always strange ideological bedfellows” . . .

. . . but ethnic nationalism and traditional social conservatism are a perfect fit, especially if supplemented by pragmatic populist economics.

Fidesz in Hungary, and Law and Justice in Poland, show how it is done. Other good examples include Marion Marechal Le Pen’s wing of the French National Front (aligned with successful mayors in southern France, such as Jacques Bompard of Orange), paleo-conservative American congressmen such as John Duncan and Mo Brooks, and Trump-supporting evangelical leaders such as Franklin Graham.

If Viktor Orban hadn’t taken the lead with a bold synthesis of nationalism, Christian social conservatism, and economic pragmatism, the resulting political vacuum would have been filled by the emphatically non-Christian wing of the Alt-Right, rooted in Nietzsche, Evola and the French New Right, represented in Hungary by the ultra-nationalist Jobbik Party.

A big stumbling block is the notion that America is an immensely wealthy nation, with a responsibility to share this wealth with the rest of the world via open borders immigration policy, policeman of the world foreign policy, and trade deficits. Such a view stems from a misunderstanding of true wealth. The only ultimate wealth is eternal salvation (“What profits it a man to gain the whole world . . .”). But even from the perspective of transient worldly wealth, GDP is not true wealth.

True worldly wealth consists of an identity, a homeland, children, and a moral code.

God promised these 4 things to Abraham – including real biological descendants, not merely an heir who shared the same propositions as Abraham, such as his loyal servant Eliezar of Damascus.

Measured by these four standards, America has become one of the most impoverished nations of the world, rivaled only by similarly impoverished European nations. Our morality has descended into the gutter to a degree unimaginable to previous generations. American ethnic identity, robust a century ago, teeters on the brink of extinction – because we have been lied to, and told that we have no moral right to our identity. Our birthrate is below replacement level. And our moral right to our own homeland is denied.

There is no shame in seeking to restore the real wealth of our nation to levels high enough to ensure the survival of this relatively new, yet nonetheless unique and precious people, the Americans.

#5 Comment By Whine Merchant On February 22, 2018 @ 6:23 pm

Thank you for this succinct summary of interesting ideas from this event. I do worry that there are still the taken-for-granted concepts such as “Among these are a “built-in preference for the limited state,”” as an enduring Christian value. An enduring large ‘C’ Conservative value Yes, but necessarily Christian? Not at all.

There seems to be the unspoken presumption that Jesus was very conservative rather than spiritual, an idea that contradicts the very concept of realised eschatology. The money changers in the temple are at Goldman Sachs, Morgan, and in GOP/Tea Party leadership positions today, as well as Trump’s cabinet.

Thank you –

#6 Comment By Fran Macadam On February 22, 2018 @ 8:26 pm

Just War Theory as the bedrock Christian governing principle? The Just Means More War theory is the reality, a perversion of following an idolatrous war Jesus instead of taking up His cross. But that perversion has often been the price to ruling by the power of this world, which Jesus Himself rejected three times: when tempted by dark spirituality in the desert, when offered a military messiahship by popular acclaim on entering Jerusalem, and by correcting the Roman Empire’s governor in his misunderstanding the Kingdom of God as a political rival.

#7 Comment By Delos Fall On February 23, 2018 @ 1:43 am

John Gruskos writes:

American ethnic identity, robust a century ago, teeters on the brink of extinction – because we have been lied to, and told that we have no moral right to our identity.

What on Earth is “American ethnic identity”? Certainly the United States was predominantly white and, to a lesser extent, Protestant in 1918. I don’t think even that qualifies as a common ethnicity. Scots-Irish aren’t Germans, English aren’t Scandinavian. Of course these groups have more in common with each other than with Guatamalans or Chinese, but those commonalities seem like a thin basis for a shared ethnic identity.

Mutatis mutandis, this is true of basically all racial groupings in the United States, with the exception of black Americans, who (with the exception of more recent African immigrants) do have a more-or-less shared cultural experience. Chinese are like Japanese in many ways, but describing them as the same ethnicity elides real differences.

Flashback to 1918: what did my German ancestors in Milwaukee have in common with Cajuns in Baton Rouge? Not nothing, surely, but enough to qualify as the same ethnicity? Not unless we dilute the word to near meaninglessness. And indeed, white identity, excluding any distinctives from more coherent ethnic groups (e.g., Lutheranism isn’t part of white identity, although it’s traditionally German), doesn’t have a great deal of content.

The United States has always been a multiethnic nation, although of course immigration in the last fifty years has intensified this dramatically. This doesn’t mean that we should adopt diversity as normative, but it does mean that whatever model of national solidarity that prevails is not going to be based on a shared ethnic identity.

I agree with you insofar as you’re arguing for the preservation of a distinctively American common culture with a genuine connection to our past. Being American isn’t merely a dedication to certain abstract principles, but a meaningful cultural inheritance, and it’s not an infinitely plastic identity.

Where I think you’re wrong is in trying to retrofit a European idea of the nation-state to the United States. America isn’t American in the same way that Poland is Polish. It arguably wasn’t in 1818, certainly wasn’t in 1918 and probably never will be. Speaking of “the Polish people” makes sense outside of a civic context; speaking of “the American people” doesn’t. Civic nationalism is the only kind of American nationalism that makes any sense.

Sidenote: it’s very difficult to believe that the low birthrate among Americans (which, by the way, has fallen below replacement rate within all major ethnic groupings, including Hispanics) has anything to do with a lack of ethnic self-regard given that the same phenomenon is at work in many East Asian countries and much of Eastern Europe.

#8 Comment By Delos Fall On February 23, 2018 @ 2:02 am

I should clarify about my earlier comment: I’m assuming that the “American ethnic identity” John is talking about maps onto the category “white Americans” because it’s the broadest group to which a single ethnic identity could conceivably (if not plausibly) be imputed. If he does, against my expectations, include blacks or Hispanics in his imagined “American ethnicity” of a century ago, my case isn’t materially altered and is actually much easier to make.

#9 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 23, 2018 @ 3:09 am

“God promised these 4 things to Abraham – including real biological descendants, not merely an heir who shared the same propositions as Abraham, such as his loyal servant Eliezar of Damascus.”

All of the subtleties interjected here are rebutted by one verse:

“A Jew/Hebrew is one of the heart.”

The hurdle of faith is to know when my loyalty to state crosses the line of faith. Nothing bars believers from participating in the social arena save that one principle. Upon pressed to adopt an ethic that violates faith, I must reject it. And yet I am welcome according to Paul’s example to adopt a posture of citizen.

Including the rights, responsibilities of the constitution that governs country. My participation is influenced if not guided by my faith.

#10 Comment By Marie On February 23, 2018 @ 8:19 am

Watch the video–chock full of much-needed insights and ideas.

#11 Comment By Alexanda On February 23, 2018 @ 2:40 pm

I too notice there was no mention of Dr. Corey. I saw a video over at AEI and appreciated her great comments about the importance of charity and moderation in politics. Weird omission.

#12 Comment By John Gruskos On February 23, 2018 @ 3:15 pm

Crevecoeur, What is an American: “What then is the American, this new man? He is either an European, or the descendant of an European . . . melted into a new RACE of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. . . . they are a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans and Swedes. From this promiscuous breed, that RACE now called Americans have arisen.”

Burke, On Conciliation with America: “In this character of the Americans, a love of freedom is the predominating feature which marks and distinguishes the whole; . . . This fierce spirit of liberty is stronger in the English colonies probably than in any other PEOPLE of the earth,”

Declaration of Independence: “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one PEOPLE to dissolve the political bonds . . .”

John Jay, Federalist #2: “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united PEOPLE – a PEOPLE descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs”

Washington, Farewell Address: “The name of American, which belongs to you in your NATIONAL capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism . . . With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manner, habits, and political principles.”

Crevecouer, Burke, Jefferson, Jay and Washington agree. Americans are a race, a people, a nation, a tribe, an ethnos, in the same sense that the Japanese or the Poles are.

(I agree it is only right to use the phrase “White American” when talking about the people referred to above as “American”, since Black Americans are another new ethnicity, with a recent ethno-genesis in this country, who also have a claim on the name “American”, and a blood and soil claim to this land.)

There are no raceless men. Each of us has an ethnicity, a tribe, a nation, a people to which we belong. It is part of being human, and to deny people an ethnic identity is to deny their humanity.

Mass movements such as the Know-Nothings and the 1920s KKK, movements which had millions of adherents and a much larger group of sympathizers, are evidence that earlier generations of Americans agreed with Crevecouer, Burke and Jay, that Americans are indeed a race, a nation, a tribe, a people, an ethnos.

If “American” or “White American” is not the proper term to use to describe the ethnicity of people whose ancestors have been living in this country 411 years, with 20 generations of ancestors buried in this soil, and with mixed ancestors from England, Scotland, Germany, Netherlands, France, Scandinavia etc., and those subsequent immigrants who have utterly assimilated to them through intermarriage and utter renunciation of all other identities, then what *is* the proper term? Or are these people, and only these people, expected to live without that greatest of all earthly treasures, ethnic identity, on pain of being labelled a “racist”, just because the suppression of their ethnic identity happens to be convenient for other groups?

#13 Comment By Marie On February 23, 2018 @ 6:36 pm

Dr. Corey had very little to say, and it was of minor importance.

#14 Comment By Phete Endeav On February 23, 2018 @ 10:26 pm

John Gruskos is talking about imaginary lines, drawn where he prefers, as if they are fact. They are not. You could draw tribal lines along, say, physical height instead of ethnic descent or geographic boundaries if you wanted to, and devote just as much literate-sounding but intellectually bereft verbiage to crafting apologias for it as he has here.

There are only raceless men, because ‘race’ is an intellectual construct, a purely contrived falsity. We are all raceless men, save for the human race and whatever other race we individually prefer to imagine ourselves divided into. But that choice is on those who make it, not on anyone else. You might just as easily talk about those of other backgrounds being a different species altogether, if you’re subscribing to made-up rules. It’s only your choice not to that distinguishes that from assigning some objective importance to ‘race’.

To me, it would be much more pragmatic to talk about xenophobia, a subjective phenomenon but which nonetheless actually exists, and for those who defend it to be open about that.

#15 Comment By Intelliwriter On February 23, 2018 @ 11:53 pm

Christians should have stayed out of politics as a monolith. By supporting Trump in bulk, they hasten their own demise. Most decent people are horrified by the thrice-married, sexual-assaulting, grifter in the WH. The idea that Christians wholeheartedly back this charlatan says a lot, and it isn’t: Come join us.

#16 Comment By TR On February 24, 2018 @ 7:07 pm

FranMacadam: Thank you. I’m glad someone else choked on the “just war theory.” The irony is that the man who made the remark is the biographer and super-fan of John Paul II. And JPII, whatever else one might think of him, wasn’t too enamored of the “just war” defense of our Iraqi adventures.

#17 Comment By Wayne Lusvardi On February 25, 2018 @ 3:06 am

You can always tell when the intellectual Knowledge Class, religious or secular, Right or Left, meet. They use abstract terminology like “Post Fusionist”. Fusionism once met the combination of traditional, social conservatives with economic-right libertarianism. Post fusionist must mean that the Humpty Dumpty of the Republican Party has fallen off the wall and can’t be put back together again. No surprise that the above article doesn’t seem to want to discuss “fusionism” as much as it wants to lament that intellectuals, be it of the Right or Left, or Center, don’t carry much weight with the Trump Administration. Trump doesn’t want to “fuse” with “subsidiarity” or “solidarity” as much as he wants to “fuse” with the working class. That has left those in the Alt Right feeling pretty alienated. The one Big Elephant in the Republican Party Room is that it can’t win elections without the private working class, despite that the Religious Right and the Alt Right pretending that the are still the cogsnoscenti of the party.

#18 Comment By chipshot On February 25, 2018 @ 11:00 am

It constantly amazes me that there are still old dinosaurs like John Gruscos roaming the earth, whining about people that don’t share his skin color being called real americans. That this shallow thinking betrays the very american ideals that he espouses seems beyond his comprehension. Get outside your own head John and meet some real americans. They come on all shades of hue.

#19 Comment By connecticut farmer On February 25, 2018 @ 11:37 am

@ Delos Fall

Interesting response. I more or less agree with you Would love a more in-depth explanation of what you but…would love a more in-depth description of what you mean by “a meaningful cultural inheritance.” There are those critics, especially in Europe but here in the ‘States too, who are fond of pointing to the Mickey D’s golden arches with a snarky “THERE’S American culture for you!”

#20 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 25, 2018 @ 4:17 pm

“Himself rejected three times: when tempted by dark spirituality in the desert, when offered a military messiahship by popular acclaim on entering Jerusalem, and by correcting the Roman Empire’s governor in his misunderstanding the Kingdom of God as a political rival.”

We aree on so many perspectives, I had to chew on your comment about “just war’. That is n ot really what propels the idea of just war – this idea of Christ as military commander and taking up one’s cross means a crusade of the material. I agree, that is the abuse, but just war theory is not really that tilted. Just war theory is an attempt to grapple with the realities of christian being in a fallen world.

Christ never lifted a finger against his prosecutors. If that is the example, does it mean that i as christian must never act in defense of self? Christ didn’t say much about secular life. He didn’t attack Rome. His battles of deep consequence were with the religious Jewish leadership. What i think is obvious, is that Pontious Pilate had no idea what to make of Christ. In reality, he wanted to set him free, not as lunatic, but simply as an innocent man. He simply did not buy the case that was made. In his view, this was a Jewish issue, why they were pestering him with was a puzzle, in my view. In fact, at some point, I can imagine his wife’s admonition in his ears,

“Don’t have anything to do with man.”

He could find no fault, he sought escape through an appeal to the public. And while in reality it provided no escape, it at least shared the blame, though we rarely address that. So if I am to follow Christ’s walk, pick up my cross as you say, if as wholesale ethic, one who follows christ makes no defense, even when innocent, in spite of innocence —

If my country is attacked, must I in the manner of Christ offer no defense — that is what “just war theory” attempts to address. Christ did not assail or even suggest that the Roman soldier who sought his aide, give up being a soldier.

It is the Jehovah’s witness vs. Baptist debate. a commitment to Christ say many believers means no involvement in the civic at any level because these are issues of the world for the world, a follower of Christ is no longer of this world and by mandate of faith – should avoid all it’s entanglements.

baptist would contend I am not of it, but i live in it and the Apostles lives reflect men who lived in it and the real teaching is not merely avoiding entanglements, but rather navigating through them with christ as lead. And being in the world means on occasion, I will ave to join it the world’s fights – literally, with Christ as my guide. Hence what constitutes scenarios by which I can be a person of faith and serve in a fallen world.

Even Paul appealed to Roman law as a Jewish citizen when in legal troubles. The force of that appeal, actually caused his accusers/adjudicators some fear and consternation, that they had been improper. The apostles don’t condemn politicians or soldiers.

The civil war was not directly to free slaves, that was a byproduct. But plenty of Christians, thought that slavery was cause for to set men free. The same tensions can viewed internationally. Should a nation, of a “christian ethos” claim a cause for war on behalf of another it believes is being wronged, if war s the only method of redress. In my view, our efforts in S. Vietnam comes close to that. We cloaked genocide in Serbia-Kosovo, but not in Rwanda. Should the concentration camps been enough cause for war. sec. Albrieght made the case in Kosovo, but shunned it in Rwanda. If the US takes on a humanitarian disaster it may mean taking up arms to accomplish that mission —

That is the nexus points of just war theory.

#21 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 25, 2018 @ 9:23 pm

“The idea that Christians wholeheartedly back this charlatan says a lot, and it isn’t: Come join us.”

The truth is they don’t support the executive as an all in affair. They chagrin the language, they chagrin some his attitudes, they are well aware that he is not a conservative, nor well versed on the meaning of scripture. The debate among the vast array of believers was and remains fairly open and robust. When I voted, I was not voting for a pastor. I voted on managing the country. Character matters: integrity, consistency, all of that, but counting up his marriages as a sole determinant, when we have had divorced presidents, adulterous presidents, even presidents who agreed to murder — in light of the competition all ’round, the question was not morality, but how one wanted morality dressed.

Whatever ails the the Republican Party didn’t start with the election of President Trump. Whatever occurred started during the years of Pres Reagan, when the party’s leadership opted that any real ethos of challenging abortion, same sex marriage made christians but useful tools for votes. The real tragedy is the relational bandwagon dirt hugging to impeach Pres Clinton. And when all discernment was tossed out the window for war in Iraq and Afghanistan, after 9/11 and the eagerness to be patriotic above reason —

the wake-up call – when the democratic admin began using the tools designed to fight terrorism against its own citizens – conservatives and republicans.