Further Thoughts On Postliberalism
I want to add some follow-up commentary on Elizabeth Zarofsky’s good New York Times Magazine piece about “how the American Right fell in love with Hungary,” which landed to great effect yesterday.
Yoram Hazony, the Israeli scholar and founder of the National Conservatism movement, offers some constructive criticism of the piece (which he liked overall) on Twitter:
That’s really true, and I had not thought about that. The Catholic contribution to this general project is vital, but it is by no means a Catholic-only, or even Catholic-dominated, one. Viktor Orban is a Calvinist, as is his beloved-by-all-of- us Minister of Family, Katalin Novak. He has around him strong Catholics, like Balazs Orban. But theirs is an ecumenical project, one they are undertaking with the full knowledge that Hungary is effectively post-Christian. They seem to understand that if they are going to have any chance of success, they are going to have to make and strengthen alliances not just across confessional lines, but to non-Christians, and secular people. In Hungary, the number of observant Christians is pretty sparse, but rejection of mass immigration (as a strategy to maintain national sovereignty) is popular, as is holding the line against gender ideology. Orban is not a cuddly figure, heaven knows, but he has managed to do what Donald Trump could not, in large part because he doesn’t go out of his way to insult and antagonize people. To be clear, he is hated by the Hungarian left, but he does not engage in lib-owning for its own sake. This is one of the big failings of Trump: he reveled in being hated, even when it hurt the substantive political causes he favored.
It’s also true that most of the Catholic intellectuals Zerofsky cited — Adrian Vermeule, Gladden Pappin, and Sohrab Ahmari — identify as integralists, which is a distinct intellectual tradition in Catholicism (Patrick Deneen, as far as I can tell, is a fellow traveler, but does not identify as an integralist). Catholic integralism basically means that Catholicism should be the underpinnings of the state, as the established religion, or close to it. It’s political Catholicism. This is a very old mode of thought in Christendom; in Orthodox Russia, it is called “symphonia”. It is intellectually rich, but in the modern world, quite problematic. In Russia today, the state is cracking down on Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians — something that I, as an American Orthodox Christian, reject. I think it was important for the fragile postcommunist state to do this at first, when Orthodox institutions stood eviscerated by Communism, and the Russian people, having suffered seven decades of militant de-Christianization, stood vulnerable to well-financed American Evangelical movements swooping in. But at some point, the religious liberty of Russian Evangelicals and Pentecostals must be respected, in my view. This is why I still have a lot of classical liberalism left in me: I believe people have a right to be wrong.
Plus, the very close relationship between Church and State in Putin’s Russia has not been good for the Church and its witness. On the Catholic side, modern Ireland was about as close to an integralist state as you could find. How did that work out? The state turned a blind eye to the church’s horrific sexual abuse problem, until that was no longer possible. Now Ireland has secularized, and Catholicism is seen with contempt by many Irish people. This is a catastrophe. I don’t think separation of church and state would have necessarily spared Ireland this calamity — it certainly didn’t spare the US — but the close cooperation between church and state in Ireland made it much worse, I think, or at least harder to fight. In general, I think keeping Church and State in a relationship of creative tension is the best possible arrangement.
Besides, integralism is an absolute dead letter in the post-Christian West, especially the United States, where Catholicism is a minority religion. More to the point, study after study has shown that a large majority of American Catholics relate to their church with an essentially Protestant mindset — meaning they do not accept and live by its authority. I regret this as an ex-Catholic, because Christianity in America overall is helped by a strong Catholic witness. But it’s the sad truth. Integralism will never get anywhere in America unless and until American Catholics return to submitting substantively to the Magisterium — as a start. The plain fact is that most Americans don’t want to live in a Catholic confessional state, and most American Catholics don’t either.
And there’s one more thing. Ever heard of Edgardo Mortara? He was a six-year-old Jewish child living in Bologna in the mid-19th century, when that city was still part of the Papal States (meaning it was a Catholic monarchy led by the Pope). The family’s Catholic maid secretly baptized the boy when he fell ill. When this fact became known to Church authorities, they seized him from his Jewish parents to give him a Catholic upbringing. The law held that a Catholic child required a Catholic raising, so agents of Pope Pius IX took him, and refused his parents’ please to give him back. It became a huge controversy in Italy and beyond, and for good reason. As a matter of law, the Pope was correct. But the fact remains, the Church, in an integralist state, kidnapped a little boy from his parents, and refused to return him.
It was monstrous. One of my big concerns with postliberalism on the Right is that we never, ever allow ourselves to get into a position in which something like the Mortara case can happen. Mind you, the woke Left is all in favor of the state seizing trans-identified children from their parents. Abigail Shrier recently wrote about a Muslim family that fled Oregon to escape a law that would have given the state the right to seize their minor son and administer hormones and other sex-change treatments, because the boy identified as female. If you support the state in that case, you have no business criticizing Pio Nono for grabbing Edgardo Mortara. You should know that Adrian Vermeule and I cannot stand each other (for more on that, see here), something I bring up only to illustrate that by no means does Catholic integralism define the postliberal political movement. (For a robust conservative Catholic critique of integralism, see this piece by James M. Patterson at Law & Liberty.)
Nevertheless, I sincerely welcome integralists to the broader debate, because they ask hard and important questions about the deep conflicts between liberalism and Christianity. If integralists have few realistic answers to the problems, they are at least making the incommensurability of liberalism and Christianity clearer. Classical liberalism, as you know, arose out of the post-Reformation Wars of Religion, as a way for people of different religions to live together in relative peace. Integralists and others (especially Deneen) are correct to point out that liberalism brackets ultimate questions of the Good for the sake of maintaining the social order — and that this is ultimately untenable. I think they are right about that. It is easier for Christians to espouse classical liberalism within a society in which there is broad agreement on basic goods.
But we no longer live in such a society. So now what?
When I said to the Times reporter that I doubted very much whether our side was going to handle power well, what I was getting at, in context of our discussion (if memory serves), the sad fact that in our political culture today, we have all become subject to a moralistic extremism that leads us to justify treating those who oppose us inhumanely. The Left has almost all the power within institutions, and has no self-restraint when it comes to imposing its convictions. Even though gay customers could have bought wedding cakes at many other places in Colorado than Masterpiece Cake Shop, and could have bought wedding floral arrangements at many other places than Baronnelle Stutzman’s shop, the Left is so militantly moralistic and hateful that they would happily crush those Christian business people for the sake of proving a point. This is the same spirit that led the Church to seize Edgardo Mortara in the 19th century. That temptation is within every one of us, if we’re honest: the temptation to wield power cruelly, out of confidence in our own righteousness.
It is impossible for me to overstate how important the impact the catastrophes of the Iraq War and the Catholic sex abuse scandal had on me, and the understanding I bring to this postliberalism question.
The absolute certainty I had that the Iraq War was just and right frightens me to think about, because that war destroyed the lives of so many, and brought nothing good to our country. Yet back in 2002, like many conservatives (including religious conservatives), the case for war was crystal-clear, such that the only reason anybody opposed it was that they were fools or cowards. I really believed that, and so did most conservative in my circles. We were dead wrong. We sincerely thought we were doing good, but in fact, exactly the opposite was true — and both America and the world are still paying the price.
As to the Catholic abuse scandal, I once held, as a Catholic, what I now recognize was a very naive view of the Church. I did not believe that the Catholic Church was perfect and sinless, but then I plunged into the demonic mess that was the scandal, and saw how much raw evil was perpetrated and covered up for by churchmen who sincerely convinced themselves that they were doing the right thing. As you know, I lost my ability to believe as a Catholic, but more than that, I gained a radical understanding for how vulnerable all of us are to rationalizing evil by convincing ourselves that it is necessary for the common good.
This is not just a Catholic problem. This is something that afflicts every one of us. About a decade ago, I read a biography of Robespierre, whom I only knew as the premier butcher of the French Revolution. What I had not known was that he was known as “The Incorruptible” for his stringent moralism. He began as a provincial lawyer who fought bravely for social justice for those oppressed by the monarchy. But his dedication to justice was sincere, but abstract. He had little capacity to empathize with other human beings. So, when he attained supreme power, he saw human beings who dissented from the Revolution’s principles as nothing more than objects to be done away with for the sake of Justice.
That, I confess, is kind of how I viewed potential Iraqi victims of the unnecessary war the US launched on that country. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, they weren’t real to me. About the Church scandal, it is widely known now that the many victims of clerical sex abuse and their families were mere abstractions to many bishops and laypeople in church administration. I bring both instances up in this context because I learned from those shattering experiences how easy it is to be so carried away with The Cause that you forget that the lives of real human beings are at stake.
To be sure, one cannot allow oneself to become paralyzed by fear of making a mistake. You have to act, even though it is often impossible to do so without hurting some innocent people. I’m digressing here, so I’ll end by saying that we live in a political culture that rewards nastiness, and drawing unnecessarily sharp friend-enemy distinctions, even when they hurt the cause. And within Christian circles, too many of us think assholiness is compatible with holiness. Too many of us think compromise is always a sign of weakness, as opposed to often being the best we can hope for in an imperfect and fallen world. This is why I don’t have a lot of confidence that we would be wise in how we wield power, should it come to us. This is less a remark about us and more an observation about the chaotic world we all live in.
It occurred to me this morning that one significant distinction to be made in this discussion has to do with the question, “What is postliberalism?” Some people on my side, I think, see it as a positive program, e.g., “Here is what we postliberal right-wingers believe and want to see happen.” I tend to see it more in the sense of “postliberalism” being a general condition, and all of us having to figure out where we stand, and where we should stand, now that liberalism has exhausted itself.
The woke Left has no intention of being classically liberal. It pushes illiberal Leftism — wokeness — at every opportunity. And it holds nearly all of the institutional power in this country. What, then, does this mean for us on the postliberal Right — by which I mean, all people on the Right, given that all of us live in the condition of postliberalism?
Many of us on the Right fight wokeness to defend classical liberalism. David French is the paradigmatic example of this sort of conservative. Aside from the fact that he is a good and decent man, one reason I do not join in the anti-French pile-on is because as a lawyer who has defended many religious liberty cases, French understands better than our leading postliberal ideologues what can and can’t be accomplished under our Constitutional system. Unless there’s going to be a revolution sometime soon, we are all going to be living under the US Constitution for the foreseeable future. Whether we like it or not, the Constitution, and constitutional interpretation, is going to set the boundaries for what we can and cannot do. We should be grateful for men and women like David French, who know how to use the system to protect our liberties, and not treat them like enemies — which they are not.
On the other hand, my sense is that French and his cohorts have too much faith in liberal proceduralism, and in the durability of the American order. French famously called the fact that both drag queens and Christians can use the public library one of the “blessings of liberty.” He did not, as many of his enemies claimed, call Drag Queen Story Hour a blessing of liberty. He said that equal access to public spaces is a blessing of liberty. I think that is naive. Recently I had a painful conversation with a friend who told me about a family he’s close to that is falling apart over their children embracing sexual and gender fluidity. My friend is heartbroken. There is no doubt in my mind that this never would have happened to that same family a decade ago. We have welcomed these malignant spirits into our public and private lives, and celebrated them as great goods. Now these spirits are destroying families, and destroying us as a people. It is not a blessing of liberty that drag queens can preach gender fluidity in public libraries to little children. It is a curse of degenerate liberalism.
Which brings us to Viktor Orban. He correctly sees this as degenerate, and wants to protect Hungarian children from it, as best he can, using the power of the state, within the bounds of the law. Good for him! If being a classical liberal means having to surrender to the cultural forces destroying the lives of children and families with these lies, then to hell with classical liberalism.
[David French voice:] “You sure about that? What happens when you have cut down all the laws built on classical liberalism, to get at those devils. Where are you going to hide when those devils turn on you?”
You see the problem. I don’t have an answer. I don’t know if there is an answer, to be honest. The tension between the principles of classical liberalism and rival visions of the Good is too great to be resolved, I fear. It wasn’t when we all generally shared a basic Judeo-Christian moral framework, but that’s gone. This is why I am fairly confident that the power-holders — the illiberal Left — will deploy a social credit system to suppress dissidents and control society in a totalitarian way. What could stop this? In the short term, the Right getting its act together and using the power of the State to push back hard on these illiberal leftist institutions. J.D. Vance’s argument for taxing assets of giant foundations is a good example.
Here’s the long-term problem: the culture is swiftly moving to the Left. In Hungary not long ago, I spoke with a middle-aged mom and Orban supporter who told me she is losing her children to cultural leftism. Her 19-year-old son told her that all of his friends were experimenting with gender fluidity, and that she was out of touch for finding this problematic. She told me that for at least two years, he has watched, listened, and read only English-language media. The Hungarian government can ban LGBT proselytizing to minors all it likes, but it can’t get around the Internet, which is forming the moral imaginations of all the youth of Hungary. In Poland too, a high school teacher told me that there is no institution in the country — not the Church, not the State, not the family, nothing — more effective at shaping the worldview of the youth than TikTok, YouTube, and social media.
If we remain democratic in the West, eventually we on the Right are going to be strongly outvoted. That day is coming soon. And if we are to stop it by non-democratic means, well, what does that make us?
To end this already far too long post, I want to reiterate Yoram Hazony’s point that the postliberal thinkers on the Right are fairly diverse, religiously and otherwise. This is a good thing, because we are facing a hell of a challenge, and need to think hard, figure out how to build meaningful coalitions, and learn lessons from figures like Viktor Orban that we can adapt to our American circumstances (while supporting him too as he squares off against the illiberal Leftists of the European Union, to defend Christian democracy and Hungarian national sovereignty). I know that I have a lot yet to learn, and I haven’t found anyone yet who has this all figured out. Come join us at the National Conservatism II conference in Orlando in a couple of weeks (Oct 31-Nov 2) to hear from a diverse round of speakers, and meet the people who are part of the growing movement. If you follow the link and see who’s coming, you will instantly be able to tell that there are a lot of things on which we don’t agree. But I think we know, and I hope we know, that we have to build an effective resistance. The day may come when circumstances require me to give up what classical liberalism I have left in me, but we aren’t there yet, and I hope we don’t get there, because none of the alternatives are appealing.
And look, we might not win, in the end, but we damn sure have to fight, and fight intelligently. We can’t hope to own the future if we only really care about owning the libs.
UPDATE: This just posted: the weekly podcast from Kale Zelden and me. This week, we talk about the Zerofsky piece, and what it says about Americans on the Right. Check it out: