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Gen. Flynn’s Trumpagelical Integralism

Michael Flynn says US must have 'one religion' if it is to serve God well. Do we need a megachurched Constantine?
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Did you see Gen. Michael Flynn over the weekend at that crackpot hootenanny at John Hagee’s megachurch? The one in which a church full of people chanted, “Let’s go, Brandon” as they were egged on by a man onstage? In his remarks, Flynn said that America was prophesied in the Gospel of Matthew, and said that we need “one religion” in America. Watch:

First of all, his Biblical exegesis is bonkers. America is not Biblical Israel. We are a country that has been greatly blessed by God, but Americans are not a chosen people. This is idolatry. I am in favor of what is called “national conservatism,” but I do not believe in mixing nationalism with Christianity. In Germany and Austria before the Second World War, lots of Christians were so corrupted by nationalism that they fell for the Nazi Party’s pseudo-Christian propaganda, and failed to recognize the evil of Nazism. I oppose the Church getting too close to the state for the sake of protecting the Church.

Second, about the “one religion” think, Flynn didn’t specify which religion, though presumably he means Christianity. Leaving aside the constitutional ban on establishing a religion, this country is rapidly de-Christianizing — an alarming fact, but one we have to deal with. Christians are 70 percent of the country today, but the picture is distorted by the weight of older demographic groups. If we were somehow able to repeal the First Amendment, there is no guarantee at all that the religion established in this country would be Christianity.

Besides which: whose Christianity would it be? Michael Flynn’s, whatever it is (he was raised Catholic, but it’s not clear where he worships today)? Over my dead body. I am a churchgoing Christian who recognizes the nonsense that went on in that Texas megachurch over the weekend as idolatrous nonsense. I would do everything I could to prevent that nationalistic pseudo-Christianity from infecting my church community. I wrote about the big Jericho March in Washington last December, and what an appalling religious spectacle it was. 

I’ll give Flynn this, though: it is better for a country to be united in religion. It makes things more stable and cohesive, but as the case of contemporary Ireland shows, it doesn’t mean that the populace will remain Christian. Even if you concede that having only one religion in a country is ideal, that does not describe conditions in the actually existing USA. Absent mass conversion, there’s no way to enforce the “one religion” mandate without tyranny.

The Catholic integralists make a claim far more sophisticated than Flynn’s crudeness, but one that is clearly related. They too believe that society should have a single religion, and that it should be Roman Catholicism. How you get that in a country where only slightly more than 20 percent of Americans identify as Catholic, I don’t know. How you get that in a country where the number of Catholics who would accept the Church’s authority over their lives is very small, I don’t know. I mean, without mass conversion, I don’t know how they do it absent tyrannical methods. 

Writing in Notre Dame’s Church Life Journal, Terence Sweeney considers both the Benedict Option and the integralist program, which he calls the Salazar Option, after the one-time authoritarian leader of Portugal (who, note well, was not a fascist, and who didn’t make Portugal into a confessional state). Here’s how the essay begins:

The publication of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option by Penguin Random House in 2017 launched a slew of options. There was the Dominican, Franciscan, Ignatian, and Salesian Options (my favorite was the Walker Percy Option). The debate about these options occupied the Catholic commentariat for a while, but the furor around these options slackened during the Trump years. A recent article titled “The Salazar Option” brought back memories of this proliferation. The shift is stark: from an array of saints and scholars to a petty dictator forgotten outside of fascist circles. This article is not in isolation, as many conservative Catholics have shifted from programs based on saints and religious orders to a variety of integralist, fascist, and neo-colonizing options.

Despite the incongruity, there are connections between the Benedict Option and the Salazar Option. To see these connections is to identify a constitutive flaw in those early debates while also recalling important insights from the various options. My goal here is to figure out how we can have the insight while excising the flaw. We need, in a sense, to begin again with those conversations to take seriously the diminishment of Western Christianity, and to articulate a vision forward for a small Church open to going out into the world to invite our neighbors into the Church.

The BenOp conversations were centered on the question of how the Church relates to the world and how we are to live as Catholics in these Christ-forgetting times. This conversation was and is essential, the defining theological question of our time. However, the conversations were short-circuited by a vision of Church-world relations based in a Schmittian friend-enemy binary. The rejection of this binary has been at the heart of Francis’s papacy as he articulates an ecclesiology of open doors which might very well be the Benedict we are all waiting for.

Well, I think he’s as wrong as wrong can be about the Francis papacy, but I won’t argue with that. Before I engage with the meat of Sweeney’s essay, here is his characterization of the subsequent discussion among Catholics:

The culture war was lost; the “empire” of Christendom is fallen. All that could be done was to foster intentional communities amidst the ruination. This was the state of the Church in 2017. And yet by 2018, Christians, especially Catholics, quickly shifted their intellectual projects from the Benedict Option to integralism. The Benedict Option was premised on having lost the Culture Wars. The integralist option was premised on the idea that we could so thoroughly win the Culture Wars that, according to Sohrab Ahmari, we could enjoy “the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.” The Benedict Option saw the Roman Empire as fallen; the integralists thought the Imperium could be restored.

How did this shift from “it is all lost” to “it can all be won” take place? And how do we get from bolstering our local communities, parishes, and schools to seizing the reins of power? To see this, we must understand the core flaw of the Benedict Option. This defect regards those who are outside the Church (or perceived as being outside). In Dreher’s metaphor those “outside” are barbarians who, like the barbarians of the late Roman Empire, have brought ruin to the Imperium. If we take barbarian as our guiding metaphor for others, we must then determine what to do with said barbarians. In Dreher’s metaphor, the barbarians are winning (or have won), so we retreat strategically, sustaining the light of the faith and laying seeds for a new civilization. This, as Dreher has rightly insisted, is not defeatism but a realism that allows a robust approach to our actual situation.

But that is not the only option when faced by barbarians. Sure, if one thinks that one has no chance of victory, one might take this route. But what if you can fight back and win? One only speaks of the spoils of victory and the transformation of the public square because victory is possible. Barbarians—in this case secular liberals, leftists, and many Christians—are not the type with whom you can reach compromise. While Ahmari is not as extreme as the pro-Salazar right, he too thinks that we cannot hole up and survive. If we take that route, we should expect what Christophe Roach calls the “branch Davidian treatment.” We must fight to survive and then to conquer.

Again, I’m not Catholic, so I don’t have a good handle on how the conversation shifted in Catholicism. Did it really move so quickly from discussing the Benedict Option to integralism? Maybe it did — but I also wonder about the extent to which either idea was or is being discussed outside of the Very Online. Anyway, I’m not sure why Sweeney identifies the barbarian problem as the fatal flaw of the Benedict Option model. I use the term to describe post-Christian Americans (including post-Christian Christians) who no longer share the faith, or who have adopted a modernist form of the faith that makes it conform to contemporary progressive standards. I don’t think that they can be defeated in the short term. Team Integralist says:

Meanwhile, right liberals and libertarian Christians routinely mock the idea that Christianity could master the public square prior to widespread conversions.

Yet woke ideology, including in its pseudo-Christian iterations, has decisively taken hold of the Western public square, though its true-believing adherents form a minuscule share of the population. Could cultural Christianity become again politically relevant, not for the further extension of liberalism, but for the protection of traditional Christian life? We answer yes, that the very political examples criticized as “insincere” betoken Christianity’s enduring importance.

They are correct that wokeness is so powerful, despite representing the views of a small number of Americans. They don’t explain why, but the only possible answer is that it conquered the elites who administer American institutions. Why hasn’t there been mass pushback against it? I would argue that it’s because many woke suppositions, despite their extremism, reflect what most Americans believe. The insane gender ideology debates are happening not only because they are forced on us by progressive elites, but also because most Americans, especially the young, who came of age in a post-Christian country, accept the choosing individual as sacrosanct, and recognize few if any natural limits. This is the cultural revolution that small-o orthodox Christians and conservatives are up against. The woke are indeed a vanguard, but they are rowing with the cultural tide.

How could Christians “master the public square prior to widespread conversions”? I suppose the same way the woke have done: by marching through the institutions. But what kind of changes would they make to the system to establish their mastery?

In the first 2019 French-Ahmari Debate (starting just after 28:00), French challenges Ahmari to explain how he would fight Drag Queen Story Hour. Ahmari says he would like to see a Senate hearing in which Hawley, Cruz, and Cotton roast a librarian. OK, says French, but what serious thing would you do? Ahmari says, “Local ordinances” — which, as French points out, are subject to constitutional review, so this is not a way out. What? Ahmari’s got nothing. Watch the clip yourself.

This is why it’s unlikely that we will defeat these people in the near term, unless we abolish the Constitutional order. French keeps pointing out that if we do that, just to get at the freaks of Drag Queen Story Hour, we will leave our own institutions vulnerable to those who hate us. And unless we see mass conversions in the next decade or two, they are going to be a majority in America by mid-century. Where will we hide then? Note well that the angry woke left doesn’t like the First Amendment either. As the Millennials and Gen Z age, there will be a lot more of Them than there are of Us. If the integralists prefer a top-down Catholic dictatorship, then they should say so. If not, then they should explain how they will master the public square as tiny minorities within a post-Christian society.

Look, some Ben Op critics call it “defeatist,” but I don’t want Christians to lose! The Benedict Option idea is not how I prefer to live. But I agree with the Catholic historian Robert Louis Wilken that in the modern world, we have lost much substance of what the Christian faith stands for. If we hadn’t, then Catholic sociologist Christian Smith’s concept of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism would not be such a compelling and convincing explanation of contemporary religious demoralization. To think that political power can reverse the deep currents that have led us to this decadent state is to follow the Julian The Apostate Option, named after the neopagan Roman emperor who tried to return the Empire to paganism, and failed.

What is the purpose of controlling the levers of worldly power if we lose the next generations to the faith? What does it matter if we depend on nominal Christians to help us master the public square, if the life-changing power of the Gospel does not exist in their lives? Kierkegaard famously said that in a society where all are Christians, Christianity ceases to exist. His point was that if people come to believe that they are Christians simply by virtue of having been born into a Christian society, then people will lose the authentic Gospel, which requires radical conversion of life. Kierkegaard, a cranky Protestant, went farther than I would go on that point, but I believe he is more right than wrong.

As I write in The Benedict Option, Christians have to stay involved in politics, if only to protect religious liberty. I come out strongly in the book against my fellow Christians who think that politics is the solution. It is part of the solution, yes, but it cannot be the whole of it, or even the greater part. All my adult life I have heard conservative Christians speaking, and watched them behaving, as if winning political power were the key to solving our problems. Our candidates did win, often. Are we a more observably Christian country because of it? Things probably would have been worse had they not won, but that’s a very low bar for success. Look at this:

In the decade of political Christianity’s greatest influence over national politics, the decline of Christianity in America began. I don’t think that there is one-to-one causation at work here. That is, contrary to what liberals might say, I don’t believe that the Religious Right’s influence over politics is the cause of younger Americans abandoning Christianity. There were other more important factors, such as longterm effects of the divorce revolution. I only cite the graph above to show that political power did not help us Christians hold on to our children’s generation. And, we just had four years of a president who openly and lavishly praised Evangelical Christians, but under whose presidency wokeness accelerated to Lamborghini cruising speed. Again, I’m not blaming Trump for that, but am simply saying that politics cannot control culture.

Back to Sweeney’s essay:

As Wittgenstein argued, language can be bewitching. We are captured by the pictures of the world that our metaphors shape. To think of others as the barbarians is to imagine them as enemies, and one fights enemies. Too many have been captured by this image. Unsurprisingly, Carl Schmitt’s popularity is rising on the right. For Schmitt, “The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.” If we posit the people around as barbarians—enemies to our group of unambiguously Christian friends—then we have the following options: you have lost the war, so you survive and thrive in the “monastery”; or you can still win, so you fight and conquer. In 2016, the answer was the former. In 2018, the answer shifted to the latter.

The move from the Benedict Option to the Salazar Option was possible because the BenOp metaphor was wrapped up in the idea of enemies.

Well, no, that’s not right. The barbarian tribes were enemies of Imperial Rome, yes, but to the early Benedictines, they were also potential Christians. The Benedictines were not an evangelistic order, but they did reach out to the peasantry in many ways, to present them with the faith and with better ways of living amid chaos. As Catholic historian Russell Hittinger said in this great lecture on the legacy of St. Benedict:

Benedict’s wisdom, genius and “legacy,” for which history rightly esteems him, certainly extend beyond the modest walls of the monastery or the humble souls of the monks. If one goes to Benedict’s hometown of Norcia, a little town of about 4,600 souls nested in the mountains of Umbria, one quickly happens on the Piazza di San Benedetto. On the far end of the piazza stand a church and a monastery built over the top of the Roman-era apartment building in which Benedict was raised. In the center of the piazza is a statue of Benedict, made by Giuseppe Pinzi in the late 19th century. The inscription reads:

Founder and Father of Monasticism in the Western regions, he was driven by the Spirit to a life hidden from society. From whence there arose a renaissance of letters, the useful arts, agriculture, and sciences.
The inscription is quite astute. Benedict, it suggests, is the patron saint of Europe not so much because of the civilizing of culture accomplished by his monasticism but because he went into the desert. This reveals the spiritual root of European culture. Europe’s claim to fame, in other words, is not so much that it relearned and perfected the arts and sciences preserved by monks during the Dark Ages, but rather that Europe is a civilization grown from a cultivated desert. This is a quite radical claim, made in our own day more than once by Pope Benedict XVI, who suggested that the current crisis of European identity should be understood in terms of what the Benedictines did in the wasteland: Were they merely technicians who invented tools to till the soil, or were they about the business of clearing the weeds growing in the human soul?

If Benedict’s Rule established nothing but a trade school for learning the useful arts—slightly eccentric monks who figured out how to build windmills—it quickly would have made itself obsolete. For it is in the very nature of such an enterprise to graduate its students into more advanced skills. This is how humanists in modern times interpreted the story of Benedict’s “school.” But if the monastic school teaches its students to awake from the mortal slumber of the Old Adam, and like the Prodigal to run to the Father, no one (in this life, anyway) can claim to be a graduate, and the capacity of monastic culture to renew culture from within is truly boundless.10

How to be “a beginner”: This is the first thing Benedict teaches the Dark Ages, his and ours. To be a beginner in this way is not a primitive condition to be outgrown but rather a sign of advancement and the mark of a return to the most essential. It is what everyone needs to relearn each Lent and learn again amid the vespers of our present age.

Yes! And more:

It is worth reflecting on the possibility that technology alone is not the only factor that marks civilization from a dark age. The European Dark Ages teach us that the more diversified the functions of a civilization, the more necessary it is that at least some people know what is a life worth living versus a life worth merely enduring. The Dark Ages were dark because people simply forgot what the Owl of Minerva understands—namely, the way the world ought to be or, at least, the way it once was.

As one will discover when reading the Rule, in addition to their commitment to poverty, chastity and obedience, like other consecrated religious, the Benedictine monks also promise stability (stabilitas) and reform of manners (conversatio morum). Stability was perhaps the most important vow for the Dark Ages. For when the Benedictines established a community, they were there to stay. Unlike the warrior class, which was mobile and just short of nomadic, the monks would arrive, clear the forests, and irrigate and cultivate the land. Within earshot of the bells, laypeople could begin again to measure time. From the monks they learned how to properly bury the dead, how to read and write—how to do things that transcend a life of mere subsistence. In summary fashion, this is what Benedict taught the Dark Ages: how to live life as a whole when forces of disintegration and confusion abound. Not a life of worldly success so much as one of human success. Not only how to divide a day, but how to divide it unto wisdom.

Read the whole lecture. 

Maybe the greatest difference between the integralists and me is that we have a somewhat different diagnosis of the nature of our civilizational sickness, and very different ideas about how to fix what is broken. We probably agree that the core problem of our civilization is that it has forgotten God. We might differ a bit on the manifestations of that forgetting. But we definitely disagree on how to address the crisis. I think it’s going to require the work of generations, to nurture us back to wholeness; the integralists seem to believe that they can command the body politic to get healthy. I don’t think they can do this any more than the Communists could command the economy to obey its will. And even if they did take full power, it is one thing to have people obey the law, but that’s not the same thing as conversion of life. If outward obedience to the law was sufficient to guarantee a Christian society, Spanish Catholicism wouldn’t have collapsed shortly after Franco died in 1975.

Once more, here’s Sweeney:

The genetic flaw of the Benedict Option was that it thought of those outside the Church according to the un-Christian hermeneutic of friend-enemy.

Not so, or not as Sweeney has it. In the book, I talk about the enemy (though I don’t use that word) being our own complacency about the lateness of the hour and the depths to which we have sunk. Besides, The Benedict Option is not a manual for how to defeat the enemy (defined as those outside the Church). It’s about keeping the faith alive in a period of chaos and de-Christianization. Again, I would consider it a tragic defeat if believing Christians held all the top political offices in the country, but the country had become hostile or indifferent to Christianity, whose founder is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I think Sweeney may mischaracterize the Benedict Option because he wants to posit Pope Francis as offering the real solution to the crisis of our age. He writes:

If we need to look for new Benedict Options, Pope Francis is a good guide. He sees the deep un-Christianity of friend-enemy binaries and the need to restore the biblical language of neighbor, friend, and brother. In Fratelli Tutti he writes “Amid the fray of conflicting interests, where victory consists in eliminating one’s opponents, how is it possible to raise our sights to recognize our neighbors or to help those who have fallen along the way?” Here there is no language of the spoils of victory, forced labor, or going for the jugular. We are not trying to eliminate or avoid our opponents; we are trying see them as neighbors. We are to help them along the way to God.

To go out to my neighbors or to welcome them in requires open doors that let us go out and allow them to come in. In so doing, we find that our neighbors are actually our brothers and sisters. This is a key to Francis’s maternal and paternal images of the Church. Francis teaches that “The Church is a home with open doors, because she is a mother.” We lock our doors when we believe that others around us are a threat. To leave our doors open is to treat those around us as neighbors and friends. The Church, as mother, welcomes not only her children within but also her children without.

This is precisely how Francis partisans do the same thing that the integralists do: portray the Benedict Option as one of simple, crude retreat. As I say in the book, the retreat is not into closed communities. Rather, it is into ones that are somewhat separated from the world, for the sake of maintaining fidelity to our Christian identity. In a post-Christian (and increasingly anti-Christian) world, if you do not have some ground on which to take your stand, you will be assimilated by the broader culture. This is why some conscious distancing must happen. From The Benedict Option:

St. Benedict commands his monks to be open to the outside world—to a point. “The House of God will be wisely governed by wise men,” the Rule says. Hospitality must be dispensed according to prudence, so that visitors are not allowed to do things that disrupt the monastery’s way of life. For example, at table, silence is kept by visitors and monks alike. As Brother Augustine put it, “If we let visitors upset the rhythm of our life too much, then we can’t really welcome anyone.” The monastery receives visitors constantly who have all kinds of problems, and who are seeking advice, help, or just someone to listen to them, and it’s important that the monks maintain the order needed to allow them to offer this kind of hospitality.

Rather than erring on the side of caution, though, Father Benedict believes Christians should be as open to the world as they can be without compromise.

“I think too many Christians have decided that the world is bad and should be avoided as much as possible. Well, it’s hard to convert people if that’s your stance,” he says. “It’s a lot easier to help people to see their own goodness and then bring them in than to point out how bad they are and bring them in.”

The power of popular culture is so overwhelming that faithful orthodox Christians often feel the need to retreat behind defensive lines. But Brother Ignatius warns that Christians must not become so anxious and fearful that they cease to share the Good News, in word and deed, with a world held captive by hatred and darkness. It is prudent to draw reasonable boundaries, but we have to take care not to be like the unfaithful servant in the Parable of the Talents: punished by his master for his poor, fearful stewardship of the master’s property.

“The best defense is offense. You defend by attacking,” Brother Ignatius said. “Let’s attack by expanding God’s kingdom—first in our hearts, then in our own families, and then in the world. Yes, have to have borders, but our duty is not to let the borders stay there. We have to push outwards, infinitely.”

This is why I think that the Benedict Option model is the only one I’ve yet seen that has within it the capacity to renew, organically, this world — and it will take a long time. I can’t see that Pope Francis has the least concern with whether or not Catholics know their faith, affirm it, and strive to live obedient to its teachings. You can’t give the non-Christian world what you don’t have. What’s the point of “going to the peripheries,” as Francis calls on Catholics to do, if you don’t know what you are supposed to tell the people when you get there.

Finally, I want to share with you some quotes I found from my 2016 interview with Russ Hittinger — material I did not use in The Benedict Option:

“Christopher Dawson used to say the secret to all spiritual reform in Latin Christianity is that there are movements from below that no pope or no bishop can cause, but there are ecclesiastical authorities above who can pick it out and promote it. This new life can’t be engineered from above. All the big religious orders came out from below. Even Ignatius and the Jesuits began as a group of college students at the University of Paris. The Franciscans were just a bunch of rich kids in Assisi. … When you get both of those aligned, things began happening, but it can’t be generated from bureaucracies.”


“Just going out into the woods of Arkansas, that may work for some, but that is necessarily limited in scope. There’s another thing about liturgy too. Because I’m a Benedictine oblate, I’ve come to appreciate that liturgy, including the office, is profoundly formative. It’s not just a matter of doing good works and having the right moral opinions. There’s a very deep moral formation when there’s a common life around prayer. The Church in this country has never figured out, once the Catholics moved to the suburbs, how to form suburban parishes into anything like a Durkheimian community. They’re sacramental gas stations. At least the old urban parishes were communities at multiple levels. The church hasn’t figured out how to do that.”


“It usually comes down to little and simple things. American Catholics are very generous, and they can take to big things that have a big purpose, but simple and little things, which is the way one has to learn anyway, we’re just not as skilled on that one. So at the end of MacIntyre’s book, we have to be patient, because whoever the spiritual genius is, the one who figures out a traditional way of living and praying together that is adaptable to our sociological conditions, whoever that genius is, or that group is, we don’t know.”

Political power can help protect churches from attacks from the state and other hostile powers that may arise. But political power cannot keep churches from becoming sacramental gas stations. In the Soviet Union, people stayed away from churches because the state terrorized them into cowering with fear. In the US, more of the young are staying away from church, even though they suffer no penalty by attending. That is not a problem that can be solved through politics — though it is a problem that is existential for the churches.