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Integralism Redux

A final word about the dispute over reactionary Catholicism and politics
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I know that some readers of this blog don’t read other things at the TAC website — alas! — so they might miss today’s column by Sohrab Ahmari, in which he addresses the argument that he and I had last week on a TAC podcast. Here’s the heart of Sohrab’s piece:

But as he would likely be the first to admit, Rod is not a systematic thinker. This is a fact that makes it difficult to argue with him once he decides to disagree with a fellow writer—and as readers may have noticed, the latest disagreement has centered on me. There is an ocean of words, flowing into a thousand crisscrossing streams, rivers, rivulets, and tributaries. You try to follow one of these waterways to its logical conclusion but are soon swept by the dramatic surge of another.

Does Rod believe that the wokeness he decries is an outgrowth of classical liberalism? Or is it, rather, a distortion or aberration? Does Rod suspect that “liberalism is dead”? Or is it the best we can do in a “pluralist” society, which presumably means it can be resurrected? If we can return to some gentler stage of liberalism, what would prevent us from ending right back where we are, given that that gentler stage contained the conditions that brought us here?

Should we mourn the passing of an “authentic liberalism” and “liberal principles,” lost to “an aggressive and punitive politics that resembles Bolshevism,” as Rod has written? Or was this Bolshevik tendency lying dormant in old-school liberalism all along, as he also argued? Is the Good “the basis of a postliberal political order,” an order that Rod claims to strive after? Or is the Good so indeterminate that any authoritative assertion of it would be a terrible imposition?

Should American conservatives pursue Viktor Orban-style policies against LGBT ideology in schools, as Rod has recommended? If so, then how does he square that with his recent assertion that only “porny” books should be banned from school libraries (gender ideology can be promoted in non-“porny” books, after all)? Should we aim to forge institutions in truth (“live not by lies!”), or merely to enshrine a right to disagree (i.e., free speech as a high good)?


This is all very confusing. The source of the confusion (and attendant anxiety), I suspect, is a refusal to relinquish some fundamental liberal commitments. Rod is prepared to admit this. The trouble is that some of those commitments rest on the deceptions liberal ideology spins about itself and the world. Such as the notion that it’s possible to run a society without moral coercion (whatever the morality). Or that liberals invented procedural norms and rule of law just a few centuries ago, and, therefore, to imagine a world without liberalism necessarily means imagining a lawless barbarism. Or that because there is a range of opinions about the good, it would be a grave crime to authoritatively guide a society (relatedly, that such a decision can be forestalled forever). Or finally that “liberalism” itself is so indeterminate a concept that we can’t draw definite conclusions about it.

Read it all.

It is certainly true that I’m not a systematic thinker, but so what? I dispute that my objection to integralism, and my unwillingness to let go fully of liberalism, is not as confusing as Sohrab says it is. Let me speak as plainly as I can.

I do believe that liberalism is “dead” in the sense that the cultural conditions that made classical liberalism possible for the most part no longer exist. I accept Patrick Deneen’s critique, which says that liberalism has failed because it succeeded so brilliantly in liberating individuals from any unchosen commitments. But I also accept the unsatisfying ending of Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed, which says that we can’t really anticipate what is coming next, and prescribes (if memory serves) localist experiments. I don’t know if Patrick still believes that, or if he has been converted to integralism.

My unwillingness to fully surrender liberalism is in large part because we still live in a highly pluralistic and diverse society, one in which social and religious conservatives are a minority, and becoming a despised minority. You can gripe about the flaws of David French’s worldview all day — and mostly I agree with the critique — but French is correct that without the First Amendment to that classically liberal document, the US Constitution, people like Sohrab and me have nowhere to hide from those who would persecute us. Something the woke Left doesn’t understand either is that they are happy to roll over liberal principles like free speech in order to punish the unvirtuous, but should they find themselves in the minority, where would they hide to protect themselves from those who despise them?

I freely admit, and have long admitted, that I stand on uncertain ground here, neither believing that liberalism is sustainable (for MacIntyrean reasons, which is to say that the demise of Christianity has removed a basis for cultural unity), but also seeing that any non-liberal alternative would probably be tyrannical. That’s what we are dealing with now: the emerging tyranny of soft totalitarianism, coming into existence because the Left has abandoned liberalism.

But I tell you, I would rather be on this uncertain ground, trying to figure out a workable compromise that would allow us to live in peace than to sign on to the logically coherent but utterly unworkable and, to my way of thinking, repugnant fantasy of Catholic integralism. If you want a logical system, well, it certainly fills that need. But if you think that the United States of America — a majority Protestant nation that is rapidly de-Christianizing — is open to a revived throne-and-altar Catholicism, you’re deluded. Most American Catholics have never heard of integralism, and wouldn’t accept it if they had. Imagine accepting a system of government that would privilege people like Ted McCarrick! I would be shocked if there’s a single majority-Catholic country in the world that would accept integralism.

Sohrab writes:

Is the Good “the basis of a postliberal political order,” an order that Rod claims to strive after? Or is the Good so indeterminate that any authoritative assertion of it would be a terrible imposition?

It is true that we have to base a postliberal political order on the idea of the Good — but I do not want Catholic integralists in charge of defining the Good, and imposing it on the rest of us. It’s very hard to pin them down on what they actually think, possibly because the System is pristine, until you try to instantiate it. For example, I think the reason they get so upset when people bring up things like the Edgardo Mortara case from the 19th century is because it uses a real-life example of Catholic integralism acting on its idea of the good — namely, that a baptized Catholic child has the right to a Catholic upbringing — and using it to justify a monstrous deed (taking a Jewish child who had been secretly baptized by the Catholic maid away from his parents). Nobody thinks we are going to live in the Papal States again, but the fact that you can’t get today’s integralists to condemn what Pius IX did is because Pius’s seizing the Mortara boy was not an aberration of integralist principles, but a fulfillment of them.

People aren’t wrong to want to know if an American integralism would justify doing things like that — and if not, why not? I am supremely confident that a philosemite like Sohrab would never want to do that to a Jewish family — but what limiting principle would prevent a future integralist regime from doing so? What would integralism mean in power in this century? I doubt they all agree. Integralist godfather Adrian Vermeule has written that the southern US borders should be opened to Catholic migrants, and that the United States should be subsumed within an integralist Catholic empire. Logically consistent with prior integralist principles? Probably so. But something that Americans should desire? Uh, not in a million years. Sohrab appears to be a fan of Viktor Orban’s Hungary, but one thing Orban — a Calvinist — certainly is not is a fan of empire. The core of his political vision is defending Hungarian sovereignty over and against the secularist empire of the European Union.

In the recent NYT story about American intellectuals and Hungary, Sohrab appeared here:

He urged conservatives in a 2019 essay to approach the culture war “with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square reordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good,” a phrase that has enjoyed a long half-life. “I don’t want to turn this into a Catholic country,” Ahmari told me when I met him earlier this year. But he counts himself among those who believe conservatism has failed because it insists that the only kind of tyranny “comes from the public square and therefore what you should do is check government power.”

Well, what is the “common good and ultimately the Highest Good”? For Sohrab, that is defined by the Catholic Church. I don’t understand why he believes the Highest Good is to be found in Catholicism, but at the same time say he doesn’t want to turn America Catholic. The problem he has — and I have too — is that we believe in the Good, but when that concept becomes concrete, we run into problems. The integralists, it seems to me, have no room in their conception of the Good for liberty. It’s all command. I, on the other hand, believe that within limits, people have a right to be wrong.

Sohrab writes:

Should American conservatives pursue Viktor Orban-style policies against LGBT ideology in schools, as Rod has recommended? If so, then how does he square that with his recent assertion that only “porny” books should be banned from school libraries (gender ideology can be promoted in non-“porny” books, after all)? Should we aim to forge institutions in truth (“live not by lies!”), or merely to enshrine a right to disagree (i.e., free speech as a high good)?

Actually, I wouldn’t object to all books about gender ideology being removed from schools. My tweeted line about the “porny” books was a response to a Texas Republican legislator who made a list of over 800 books he thought should be removed from school libraries. This is nuts. We ought to at least be able to agree that books with unambiguously pornographic content, like Gender Queer, should not be in school libraries. We don’t have to return to the Catholic Index (of prohibited books) to accomplish that — and that is something that could actually be accomplished in a pluralistic society. I am not willing to give the Catholic Church the right to determine what can and cannot be read in schools, though — nor is the Catholic Church asking for it.

If, however, a Catholic polity wanted to grant this power to the Church, that should be its right. Ours is not a Catholic polity. If the integralists would like it to be one, then they should get busy evangelizing. The idea that taking over the institutions of government and using them to impose minority principles on an unwilling majority is generally unappealing. It seems to me far more likely to invite resentment of the Church, not acceptance of the Church’s wisdom. Which makes me wonder: are these folks more interested in saving souls, or in exercising power? Is the Christian faith about setting us free from sin, or subjecting us to a modified form of ecclesial rule? Given the way even classically liberal America treated Catholics in the heyday of Protestantism, it is difficult for me to understand why American Catholics would be eager to impose their beliefs on others.

In the end, we can’t get beyond liberalism — though if liberalism really is dead, then Something is going to come our way to replace it. What will that something be? I would hope that the transition to a postliberal society will be as painless and as gradual as possible. One of the reasons I’m here at the National Conservatism conference (as is Sohrab) is because I believe that we on the Right need to come up with a workable, practical program that can appeal to a majority of American voters. I’m not looking to create a Christian utopia in the USA; I would be satisfied with a “good enough” regime that fought for a strong localism, helped family formation, strengthened national sovereignty, defended (yes) liberal principles of individual equality before the law (read: kicked CRT to the curb), strongly defended religious liberty and religious institutions, and opposed wokeness in all its forms. There are many other things I would love for the state to do, but I think that’s a program that a wide variety of people, religious and non-religious, could get behind. It is also a program that can be accomplished within a classically liberal framework — which, at this time, and in this place, is the only thing we have.

I missed the event last night in which Sohrab and Yoram Hazony squared off on stage with gay conservatives Dave Rubin and Douglas Murray. I heard that Murray posed an interesting question. I hesitate to say precisely what it was, because I didn’t hear it myself, but it was something to do with the difficulty of reconciling religious conservatism with a social order that is not oppressive to gay people. This is a hugely important question, because even though gays and lesbians are a small minority, their cause is widely supported, especially among the young. We are going to have to find a modus vivendi. There are gay conservatives who value religion, even if they are not religious themselves, and who do not go along with the progressive crusade to stamp out religious conservatism. We religious conservatives need to see if there is some way to make common cause with those gay and lesbian conservatives. It is not the case that Western societies are going to return anytime soon to the point where gays are back in the closet. Woke Capitalism and other woke institutions are doing their dead-level best to make sure religious conservatives have to live in the closet. I believe there are gay men and women of good faith who don’t want religious conservatives to have to live that way. Despite my own Orthodox Christian conservatism on gay issues, I am eager to see if a compromise is possible.

Again, I am not willing to make the perfect the enemy of the good enough.

It is also the case that I have a weakness: I like people, and am inclined to respect them, even if I think they’re wrong. I sometimes fail to live up to that standard, but I try. I was talking with a friend here over lunch about the blows life has given us (since I saw her last, she suffered a serious illness). She brought up something Rabbi Heschel once said: “When I was young, I admired those who are clever; now that I am old, I admire those who are kind.” My friend and I reflected on how that’s hard-won wisdom. You don’t get to middle age without life beating you up. Having been kicked hard by a few things over the last couple of decades, I want to find a way to defend what I believe to be true and important, but without being disdainful of others, and unconcerned about their own struggles.

It is true that we cannot live in a world where everybody can have his way. Sohrab is right: at some point, coercion is unavoidable. Perhaps the best thing about liberalism is that it makes persuasion an ideal. This is not one I want to let go of so quickly. We are living through the coercive Left ramrodding its ideology through, with no regard to how this affects others — because, having decided that dissenters are wicked, the Left absolves itself from having to treat them with respect. One big reason the integralists give me the hives is because the ones most prominent in our public life seem to take pleasure in treating their interlocutors with contempt. Since I wrote about the integralists the other day, I have been hearing from Catholic conservative academics — people whose names you would know — who tell me that they don’t agree with the integralists, but won’t speak out because they are afraid of being monstered on social media, and turned into the next David French.

Fear is not the same thing as respect.

Anyway, Sohrab said in his piece that he doesn’t want to continue this back-and-forth. Fair enough. It’s not pleasant. A Catholic public intellectual who knows us both messaged me the other day to say it’s a damn shame that we Christian conservatives are facing down powerful enemies who control the high ground in our culture, and who want to dissolve the nation and the natural family — and we can’t get past intramural squabbling over sectarian concerns. He’s not wrong.

P.S. Just before I was set to publish, I saw an e-mail from Dr. William Tighe, sending me an essay that appears in the right-of-center Catholic website New Oxford Review, in which the writer Will Hoyt calls integralism a form of totalitarianism. I only gave the essay a quick read, because I have to run to another meeting here at the National Conservatism conference. I’m not endorsing or rejecting its argument — I’m simply putting it up because it might be interesting to consider.