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Taxonomy Of Christian Intellectuals

Ross Douthat's guide to contemporary Catholic intellectuals raises the question: What does the broader religious intellectual landscape look like today?
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Boy, do I have a lot of blogging to get caught up on! I’m on the train back to Budapest from Prague, which brings my summer travels with my son Matt to a close. Regular blogging recommences starting now. Here’s a link to Ross Douthat’s new taxonomy of conservative Catholic intellectuals, which appears in the new First Things. It’s a rich, thought-provoking essay. Here are the highlights:

First, there are the populists, who regard many Trump-era shifts in conservative policy as congruent with Church teaching, and a welcome corrective to the libertarian errors they associate with figures such as Paul Ryan. The populists tend to champion a corporatist turn in economics, seeking strategies to recreate a family wage through industrial policy or family subsidies or some mixture thereof. They generally favor immigration restrictions to protect domestic workers and rebuild social solidarity; they are amenable to antitrust actions against Silicon ­Valley behemoths; they seek a more aggressive culture-war strategy, a counterattack after a long retreat, on issues such as transgenderism and internet pornography. And though they are divided on Trump’s capacities and morals, they mostly regard his rise as salutary and his presidency as at least the lesser evil, and probably a good.

Philosophically, the populists are often described as post-liberals or anti-liberals, and sometimes they describe themselves that way. But it’s not clear that the label fits. The Catholic editor of this ecumenical journal, R. R. Reno, speaks for many populists when he argues for populism as a solidaristic and religious corrective within the liberal order, rather than some kind of alternative to American constitutionalism. One can assume that the politicians who have championed policy ideas associated with this populism—including the Catholic Marco Rubio, the Protestant Josh Hawley, and the Mormon Mitt ­Romney—would wholeheartedly agree.


This idea of populism as a corrective within liberalism separates populists from the next group, the Catholic integralists, for whom liberalism is beyond correction because it was rotten from the start. The integralists are the heirs of Triumph, L. Brent Bozell’s disputatious magazine, and further back of the ­nineteenth-century popes and their ringing anti-liberal anathemas. Like King Josiah (who lends his name to the leading integralist website) recovering the lost book of the law, they believe that they are calling Catholics back to the true and only Catholic politics, obscured for a time by fond delusions and Americanism, but now, amid the crisis of liberalism, visible as an alternative once again.

The integralists align with the populists on pro-family economics and industrial policy (Gladden Pappin, an integralist editor at the journal American Affairs, publishes regularly on those themes), but they are more divided on other aspects of the new right-wing politics: immigration restriction, ­climate-change skepticism, and the idea of the nation as something worthy of loyalty. The integralists ultimately believe in Catholic empire, not Catholic nationalism, and they regard some of the leftward elements of Pope Francis’s magisterium as implicitly integralist­—­particularly the ecological encyclical Laudato Si’, whose admonitions and prescriptions do not feature prominently in populist politics at the moment.

Despite this critique, the integralists tend to look favorably on nationalist politicians, from Trump to Viktor Orban. They prefer illiberal nationalism to liberal internationalism, and they believe that ­nationalist-populist uprisings provide an opening for a Catholic insurgency within the West’s elite.

Because this insurgency is not exactly visible as yet, the practical impact of their ideas remains uncertain. But the integralists are engaged in at least two real-world projects: pushing Church officials toward a more vigorous assertion of the Church’s legal rights and juridical power over the faithful, and pushing both populist and neoconservative Catholics toward a more fully Catholic politics and a more aggressive use of state power. They believe, above all, that the conditions for a reinvigorated Church and a Christian revival in America can come about only if there is a revolution from above.


In this, they make a stark contrast with the third group, the benedictines, meaning not the religious order but those Catholics who accept Rod Dreher’s diagnosis, in The Benedict Option (2017), of the near inevitability of continued secularization and continued Christian retreat—who agree with Patrick Deneen’s conclusion, in Why Liberalism Failed (2018), that local experiments are the key to revitalizing our once-Christian culture—and who are particularly interested, with writers like Brandon McGinley and Leah Libresco Sargeant, in internal renewal as a precondition for any new form of Christian politics.

Of course, Deneen has shown strong sympathy for both populist and integralist arguments, and ­McGinley recently co-authored an integralist-tending book with Scott Hahn—proof that these categories are unstable and overlapping, not settled or fixed. But though some benedictines may vote for populist politicians or endorse integralism at some level, and others may have more left-leaning sympathies, they are generally skeptical about national political solutions and doubtful of the prospects for any kind of top-down Christian restoration, preferring to pour their energy into institution-building from below. Their watchword is Joseph Ratzinger’s famous admonition:

[The Church] will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. . . . As a small society, it will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members . . . [it] will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right.This means that benedictines are often more ecumenically inclined than integralists, with sympathies for anti-political Protestant figures such as Stanley Hauerwas and Wendell Berry and communities like the Bruderhof. It means they prefer Alexis de Tocqueville to Carl Schmitt, and strategies of ­community-building and evangelization to ­strategies of power. And it means their cultural influence waxes and wanes depending on the apparent prospects for Catholic politics at the national level: The marginalization of religious conservatives in the late Obama years made the benedictine option more attractive, whereas the seeming widening of political possibilities in the Trump era pushed their ideas into ­abeyance. They may return, should a Biden presidency usher in a long liberal age.

The fourth group Douthat calls “tradinistas,” who are supposedly traditional on theology and morals, but socialist on economics. More:

Even if it lacks the direct political influence of the populists or the ambitions of the integralists, tradinismo nonetheless has a clear political theory: The conditions for Christian renewal depend on breaking capitalism’s chains, and thus to ally with secular socialists may be to seek the good of the Church in the long run, notwithstanding the gulf between a figure like Bernie Sanders and Church teaching on just about every non-economic issue. And to the extent that they participate in some small way in the larger revival of socialist thought, which in turn participates in some way in the Biden presidency’s ambitious economic agenda, these “LeftCaths” can claim at least a modicum of remote influence over our second Catholic president.

All of these categories, again, are unstable and shifting. One could easily subdivide them further, and it’s possible to move from one camp to another, or simply straddle them. One can be an integralist-tradinista for whom socialism is the political economy of the integralist state, or a benedictine drawn to populism because it promises political protection for the local and experimental, or an integralist who turns tradinista out of distaste for Donald Trump. (I can identify writers who have made versions of these moves in just the last few years.)

Read it all. 

What do we make of this? I appreciate how Douthat talks about how these categories overlap. I am about two-thirds benedictine (small b, note well) and one-third populist, because as Douthat says, it promises political protection for the local and experimental. I have no faith at all in American elites; the unwillingness of the John Roberts-led SCOTUS to take up the Arlene’s Flowers case and the trans bathrooms case signals to me that in the end, most conservative judges will not be traitors to their class on social and cultural issues. Of course all the other institutions are by and large lost. Politically, I see the only real hope that people like me will be left alone is in strong and competent populists willing to use the power of the state against elites. But even if that were to happen, it will mean nothing if we don’t renew the faith, the family, and institutions of civil society — which is where the Benedictine part comes in. My dispute with the integralists is that I think their project depends on the basic spiritual and moral health, and theological orthodoxy, of Catholic/Christian communities, which I strongly doubt.

Let me ask you readers: what would a taxonomy of contemporary US Protestant intellectuals look like? Of contemporary American Jewish intellectuals (by which I mean those who identify as religious)? Help me understand those worlds, would you?

A second question: to what extent are these religious intellectuals relevant to the broader public debate in a rapidly secularizing America? The whole Neuhaus-Colson project of Evangelicals and Catholics Together really meant something in its day, but I think Christian intellectuals now are fairly marginal. If you haven’t seen it yet, Michael Hanby’s terrific 2014 essay about “The Civic Project Of American Christianity” is a must-read. Here’s how it begins:

According to Hans Jonas, the birth of modern science was bound up with the advent of a radical new view of reality, a “technological ontology” that conflates nature and artifice, knowing and making, truth and utility. This metaphysical revolution has set in motion a perpetual historical revolution, whose interminable machinations continually threaten to overwhelm the revolutionaries themselves. Confronting the obvious question of how a perpetual revolution could be recognized or measured from the “inside,” Jonas offered for consideration the span of an ordinary man’s life:

If a man in the fullness of his days, at the end of his life, can pass on the wisdom of his experience to those who grow up after him; if what he has learned in his youth, added to but not discarded in his maturity, still serves him in his old age and is still worth teaching the then young—then his was not an age of revolution, not counting, of course, abortive revolutions. The world into which his children enter is still his world, not because it is entirely unchanged, but because the changes that did occur were gradual and limited enough for him to absorb them into his initial stock and keep abreast of them. If, however, a man in his advancing years has to turn to his children, or grandchildren, to have them tell him what the present is about; if his own acquired knowledge and understanding no longer avail him; if at the end of his days he finds himself to be obsolete rather than wise—then we may term the rate and scope of change that thus overtook him, “revolutionary.”By this measure, there can be little doubt that we live in revolutionary times, even if this revolution is the full flower of seeds planted long ago. What availed as the common wisdom of mankind until the day before yesterday—for example, that manwomanmother, and father name natural realities as well as social roles, that children issue naturally from their union, that the marital union of man and woman is the foundation of human society and provides the optimal home for the flourishing of children—all this is now regarded by many as obsolete and even hopelessly bigoted, as court after court, demonstrating that this revolution has profoundly transformed even the meaning of reason itself, has declared that this bygone wisdom now fails even to pass the minimum legal threshold of rational cogency. This is astonishing by any measure; that it has occurred in half the time span proposed by Jonas makes it more astonishing still.

Such are the logical consequences of the sexual revolution, but to grasp more fully the meaning of its triumph, we must see that the sexual revolution is not merely—or perhaps even primarily—sexual. It has profound implications for the relationship not just between man and woman but between nature and culture, the person and the body, children and parents. It has enormous ramifications for the nature of reason, for the meaning of education, and for the relations between the state, the family, civil society, and the Church. This is because the sexual revolution is one aspect of a deeper revolution in the question of who or what we understand the human person to be (fundamental anthropology), and indeed of what we understand reality to be (ontology).

All notions of justice presuppose ontology and anthropology, and so a revolution in fundamental anthropology will invariably transform the meaning and content of justice and bring about its own morality. We are beginning to feel the force of this transformation in civil society and the political order. Court decisions invalidating traditional marriage law fall from the sky like rain. The regulatory state and ubiquitous new global media throw their ever increasing weight behind the new understanding of marriage and its implicit anthropology, which treats our bodies as raw material to be used as we see fit. Today a rigorous new public morality inverts and supplants the residuum of our Christian moral inheritance.

This compels us to reconsider the civic project of American Christianity that has for the most part guided our participation in the liberal public order for at least a century. Encompassing the Social Gospel movement of the early twentieth century and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops at the beginning of the twenty-first, this project has transcended the historical and theological division between Catholics and Protestants. This has been particularly the case as Protestant adherence to divisive confessional commitments has declined and Evangelicals, filling the void left by the decline of mainline Protestantism, have found common ground with Catholics on moral and social issues in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade. Though popular imagination identifies this project in its latter stages with political conservatism, it also transcends the division between the Christian left and the Christian right, which ­partly explains why their opposing arguments so often appear as mirror images of one another.

Of course, for Protestants, the fate of the United States and the fate of American Protestantism have been deeply intertwined from the very beginning, so adherence to the civic project must stem not simply from confidence that American liberty was generally hospitable to the flourishing of Christianity but from a deep, if inchoate, conviction that the American experiment itself was the political outworking of a Protestant sense of “nature and nature’s God.” For Catholics, whose experience in this country was at least initially very different from that of Protestants, common commitment to this project is testimony to the long shadow cast by John Courtney Murray. Catholics generally find his argument for the compatibility of Catholicism with the principles of the American founding convincing because they believe that the argument has been vindicated by the growth and assimilation of the Church in the United States and by the apparent vitality of American Catholicism in comparison with Catholicism in Europe. Rarely do political or theological disagreements penetrate deeply enough to disturb this shared foundation. Liberal or conservative, postconciliar Catholicism in America is essentially Murrayite.

Broadly speaking, we may characterize the civic project of American Christianity as the attempt to harmonize Christianity and liberal order and to anchor American public philosophy in the substance of Protestant morality, Catholic social teaching, or some version of natural law that might qualify as public reason. George Weigel articulated one of the assumptions animating protagonists on all sides of this project when in Tranquilitas Ordinis he wrote that “there is no contradiction between the truth claims of Catholicism and the American democratic experiment.” This assertion rests on some form of Murray’s familiar distinction between articles of faith and articles of peace. This view defines the state as a juridical order that exists principally for the purpose of securing public order and protecting our ability to act on our own initiative. It therefore renounces all competence in religious and ontological matters. This ostensibly modest view of government opens up space that is then filled with the Christian substance that animates civil society.

One needn’t be ungrateful for the genuine achievements of American liberalism in order to question the wisdom of this project and its guiding assumptions. First, a purely juridical order devoid of metaphysical and theological judgment is as logically and theologically impossible as a pure, metaphysically innocent science. One cannot set a limit to one’s own religious competence without an implicit judgment about what falls on the other side of that limit; one cannot draw a clear and distinct boundary between the political and the religious, or between science, metaphysics, and theology, without tacitly determining what sort of God transcends these realms. The very act by which liberalism declares its religious incompetence is thus a theological act. Its supposed indifference to metaphysics conceals a metaphysics of original indifference. A thing’s relation to God, being a creature, makes no difference to its nature or intelligibility. Those are tacked on extrinsically through the free act of the agent.

Liberalism’s articles of peace thus mask tacit articles of faith in a particular eighteenth-century conception of nature and nature’s God, which also entails an eighteenth-century view of the Church. Moreover, liberalism refuses integration into any more comprehensive order over which it is not finally arbiter and judge. It establishes its peculiar absolutism, not as the exhaustive dictator of everything one can and cannot do—to the contrary, liberal order persists precisely by generating an ever expanding space for the exercise of private options—but as the all-encompassing totality within which atomic social facts are permitted to appear like so many Congregationalist polities, the horizon beyond which there is no outside. Hobbes’s thought aspired to this kind of sovereignty, and Locke’s thought more effectively achieved it, but it was Rousseau who really understood it.

Basically, Hanby, a Catholic philosopher of science, says that the institutionalization of the Sexual Revolution in American law and custom, most definitively with the affirmation of homosexuality, is the Waterloo of Christianity as a philosophy guiding public reason. This is because of the ontological grounds upon which the legitimization of homosexuality has to be built:

Whether this is the logical outworking of the metaphysical and anthropological premises of liberalism or a radically new thing—and Hans Jonas’s analysis would suggest that these are not mutually exclusive alternatives—it marks a point of no return in American public philosophy. And it effectively brings the civic project of American Christianity to an end.

This is not to say that Christians should disengage or retreat, the usual misinterpretation of the so-called Benedict Option. There is no ground to retreat to, for the liberal order claims unlimited jurisdiction and permits no outside. We do not have the option of choosing our place within it if we wish to remain Christian. We cannot avoid the fact that this new philosophy, once it is fully instantiated, will in all likelihood deprive Christians of effective participation in the public square. Hobby Lobby notwithstanding, appeals to religious liberty, conceived as the freedom to put one’s idiosyncratic beliefs into practice with minimal state interference, are not likely to fare well over the long haul as these beliefs come to seem still more idiosyncratic, as religious practice comes into conflict with more “fundamental” rights, and as the state’s mediation of familial relations becomes ever more intrusive. And attempts to restore religious freedom to its proper philosophical place, as something like the sine qua non of freedom itself, presuppose just the view of human nature and reason that our post-Christian liberalism rejects from the outset.

To say that the civic project of American Christianity is at an end is not to say that it will simply cease, however. There will no doubt be those who continue to fight on, like Japanese holdouts after the Second World War, unaware that the war is over. And they should carry on in some fashion, doomed though the civic project may be. Religious freedom is worth defending after all, even in its flawed liberal sense, and Hobby Lobby shows us that it is still possible to win some battles while losing the war. Moreover, if liberalism is indeed absolute, so that there is no longer any outside, then a contest of rights is really the only ground on which liberal public reason will permit itself to be publicly engaged.

Read it all.

Do you readers have any idea of how Christian intellectuals can be influential in public debate in this post-Christian era while remaining authentically Christian (instead of Christian-ish)? I’m struggling to see it myself.

UPDATE: Reader Anonicommentar writes:

OK, others have better answered the Jewish question, but I will have a go at offering a typology of Protestant thinkers in contemporary American politics. I will proceed by giving a brief outline of each group and then providing some exemplars of thinkers who I would place in each category. Admittedly, my focus here is on white evangelicals, a group of which I am a part. I’m not so up to speed on what conversations are happening in mainline and black protestant spaces.

1) The Revanchists. These people are the true believers, holding on to the Falwell/Moral Majority synthesis of nationalism, American values, capitalism, and traditional Christian morality. They tend to blame all the problems faced by American Christianity on externalities, and therefore believe that if these outside enemies are neutralized then Christianity will flourish anew in the United States. Hence, their main political project is to defeat whatever external factor they believe is currently bringing ruin upon the church and American society: the gay lobby, liberals, the Democratic party, activist judges, postmodern critical theory, Black Lives Matter, etc. Removing these groups will pave the way for a return to the ‘true American’ values of the 1980s, 1950s, or whatever point in the mythical past you would like to choose.

Their project is fundamentally negative, which is why this group is the one which most openly and enthusiastically embraced Donald Trump. They viewed Trump as the hammer which would beat back the church’s external enemies and allow the church to flourish in his wake.

Because they locate root causes as external to the church, they are primed to interpret events such as the recent sexual abuse scandals within the Southern Baptist Convention as being magnified by enemies of the church. Likewise, the influence of critical race theory within the church is seen as a greater sin than racism. They don’t see any necessary causal connection between, say, unfettered free-market capitalism and liquid modernity which dissolves social institutions and frays the bonds that hold a community together. They don’t see any contradiction between Christian commitments, nationalism, and American individualism.

Exemplar: John MacArthur

2) The Accomodationists. This group tends to have a bit more social status than the Revanchists, live in suburbs in upwardly-mobile growing areas. They see better than the Revanchists how far America has gone from being described as a Christian nation, and don’t put much stock in elections to turn this around.

What they share with the Revanchists is a commitment to America as an ideology. They believe in free markets, individualism, individual rights, and the Constitution. Yet, they recognize that Christians no longer form a majority, and hold out hope that by coupling vocal denunciations of the church’s failings with vigorous legal defenses of the rights of Christians (ultimately having faith that the Bill of Rights and the Supreme Court will protect religious liberty), they will be able to secure a future where Christians are free to practice as a minority faith.

This group is far more likely to locate many or most of the church’s problems internally rather than externally, suggesting that a tolerance for bullying, Trump, racism, abuse, etc has done more to undermine the church from within than anti-Christian forces have from without. Politically they have spent the last five years sliding towards the Democratic Party, and likely played a role in Biden’s stronger than usual showing in places like Dallas or the West Chicago suburbs.

Exemplars: David French, Russell Moore

3) Postliberal Protestants. The Protestant equivalent to the Catholic integralists, the Postliberals are far more willing to offer radical critiques of American ideology. While the Revanchists locate the source of the present crisis in an array of enemies, and the Accomodationists look within, the Postliberals dig much deeper, indicting the entire system of liberal democracy and individual rights.

Some in this movement are direct intellectual descendants of Christian Reconstructionists like R.J. Rushdoony, Greg Bahnsen, or Gary North. Nowadays, they’ve generally ditched the project of trying to create a theocratic state based on Old Testament law (or at least they don’t talk about it in public), while appropriating and sharpening Rushdoony et al’s critique of liberal democracy and American individualism. Much like the integralists, they see American ideals of individual liberty and equality as gateways to liquid modernity.

Exemplar: Peter Leithart

4) The Protestant Left. This is the hardest one to summarize because it’s a constantly moving target, changing to react against whatever the right is doing at a given moment and conforming to the left’s latest non-negotiable position. Nevertheless it’s hard to underestimate how much influence these movements have had, especially among millennials and Gen Z. I’ll try to parse out a few threads that have risen and fallen over the past two decades:

4a) Neo-Anabaptists. This group rose to prominence in the early 00’s partly due to younger evangelicals’ discontent with their parents and churches’ support for the Iraq War. Neo-Anabaptists preached pacifism, anti-imperialism, and anti-capitalism while maintaining (at first) traditional Christian commitments with regards to sexual morality. Obama took the wind out of their sales a bit as anti-interventionism suddenly wasn’t a left-wing priority after 2009, and other members of the movement (Shane Claiborne) came under fire for not being LGBT-affirming in their theology. SomePre found their way to the historic peace churches (Mennonites, Quakers) while others accommodated themselves to state power and social liberalism and became progressives.

Exemplars: Brian Zahnd, Scott McKnight, Shane Claiborne

4b) Progressive Evangelicals. Progressive Evangelicals (mostly millennials, with a few Gen Xers) embrace the entire liberal canon – LGBT, BLM, CRT – wholeheartedly. Their two defining theological commitments are probably being LGBT-affirming and denying the penal substitution theory of Christ’s atonement. This is a movement which was driven by bloggers and others operating outside of formal church governance. Progressive evangelical churches are theologically indistinguishable from mainline protestant denominations, and generally their difference is more one of style than substance (low church, contemporary music etc). As their views are generally indistinguishable from the mainstream left-liberal consensus, their ability to influence the direction of the Democratic Party is limited and their primary use is to provide cover for the political persecution of evangelicals by being the ‘good Christians’ who are compliant to the state.

Exemplars: Rachel Held Evans (RIP), Rob Bell

4c) Exvangelicals. Predominately an online movement, this consists of people who grew up evangelical but left the church, either for atheism or some vague “spiritual but not religious” mindset. Their primary purpose is to pressure Neo-Anabaptists and Progressive Evangelicals into adopting more and more mainstream left-liberal positions.



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