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Liberal Integralism

Liberals, not conservatives, have truly melded church and state.

There’s a prominent Catholic parish in the Georgetown neighborhood of our nation’s capital that sends weekly email bulletins to its parishioners, many of whom are prominent members of the city’s elite political class. According to a friend who has been receiving those bulletins since 2018, the most common themes have to do with race, sexual or gender ideology, immigration, or the environment. In other words, the bulletin doesn’t sound all that different from Democratic Party talking points or the headlines and op-eds of the Washington Post.

Indeed, the church has prominently displayed a Black Lives Matter banner and a rainbow flag outside its building. It holds events to promote diversity, inclusion, and equity. At this parish, at least, contemporary liberal ideology, Democratic politics, and religion seamlessly overlap. The parish effectively operates as an extension of the same institutional left that controls mainstream media, academia, the entertainment industry, and the federal bureaucracy.

This phenomenon is not unique to the Georgetown church. Indeed, it can be found in many religious communities whose members and regular attendees lean left. Mainline, overwhelmingly Democrat-voting Protestant denominations voice their unqualified support for the LGBTQ+ communityBlack Lives Matterfeminism, and open borders. Similarly, former editor of Commentary Norman Podhoretz called Reform Judaism “the Democratic party platform with holidays thrown in” and the services in a Reform temple “the Democratic Party at prayer.” The same is true of many Catholic parishes whose congregants are predominantly left-leaning and often endorse and proliferate teaching in flagrant opposition to Catholic doctrine. On the left, the collapse of religion and politics is ubiquitous.

This isn’t particularly surprising. More than 50 years ago Time magazine on its front cover promoted the “Death of God” theology movement, which argued that Christianity should dispense with belief in the divine in favor of a belief that God is a progressive force within history. Churches, they argued, should seek to secure a secular future defined by freedom and material prosperity, and forget about the cross and the resurrection. The “Death of God” theologians urged Christianity to will its own death in favor of a new utopian secular order. This is not only happening but being celebrated, as liberal elites praise dying churches who distribute their remaining property and finances to the secular social-justice movement.

I anticipate a retort: Should a conservative really be the one accusing others of blurring church and state? What about the long-standing influence of the religious right over the GOP, from Jerry Falwell, Sr. and Pat Robertson to various evangelical and Catholic leaders who threw their unequivocal support behind Donald Trump? Or what about the pro-life movement, which is largely reliant on churches and Christian organizations for its momentum?

All of that is true and demonstrates that the same intersection between religion and politics exists on the right as well. But there are some very obvious differences. For one, while liberal-leaning churches actively and unashamedly promote liberal political causes, the only political causes that conservative-leaning churches have aggressively promoted over the last several decades relate to the sexual revolution: namely, opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage (and, by extension, transgenderism). That points to a second difference: On the right, it has been the churches seeking to influence politics, rather than vice versa. It took a long time for conservative religious institutions and the broader pro-life movement to push the vast majority of Republican politicians into the pro-life camp.

This illuminates a third, and perhaps most important distinction: The leading voices on the right do not want church and state to collapse into one another, but rather want the church to retain an independent autonomous sphere from which it can critique and influence politics. In other words, conservative, religiously informed intellectuals aim to avoid what the late Richard John Neuhaus decried as the “naked public square.” They do not want to see church and state collapse into one another. Rather, they advocate either a state whose actions are more fully informed by natural law (e.g., Hadley Arkes, R.R. Reno) or a state that conscientiously applies certain religiously informed principles (e.g., Adrian Vermeule, Sohrab Ahmari). None of these prominent conservatives actually want church and state to become identical.

This is because conservatives are still largely in agreement with the Gelasian “two sword” theory, in which the church and the state exist as two separate competing (and sometimes collaborative) forces. Conservatives don’t want their state to be their church, or their church to be their state. They want their church to morally challenge their state and keep it accountable regardless of the extent to which the state aligns itself with natural law or Christian doctrine. If the church became indistinguishable from the state, it would have become so morally compromised as to lose all legitimacy, obscuring its focus on the otherworldly in favor of this-worldly priorities. It is the church, and not the state, that is in the business of saving men’s souls.

My own Catholic parish in Northern Virginia is a good example. Although its parishioners lean conservative, there is very little in the church bulletin or the parish’s weekly affairs related to Republican Party politics, save the parish’s pro-life organization. The parish’s position on LGBTQ+ issues is too rigid even for the mainstream GOP, while its robust outreach to disadvantaged communities is practically indistinguishable from more “liberal” parishes. In other words, the parish transcends party politics. Its primary focus is on the Gospel and the work of Christ rather than on furthering a narrow, historically conditioned ideological agenda. Much the same has been true in every other conservative-leaning church, Catholic or Protestant, that I’ve attended.

In a sense, the left enjoys a real political advantage over the right because its politics and religion so seamlessly overlap. The lack of distinction between the two allows the left to muster potent, cohesive forces aimed at advancing their goals in the public square. (Consider, for example, the recent backlash in the media, academia, and the entertainment industry against red-state anti-grooming legislation.) Religious conservatives, by contrast, continue to be divided on most political issues not related to the sexual revolution, like the environment, immigration, foreign policy, and race. The left, meanwhile, marches more or less in lockstep.

The irony of course is that the left has successfully tarred the right as wanting to dissolve the separation of church and state. Their success has given them a significant, seemingly impregnable rhetorical advantage over the right. According to the left’s narrative, the right is filled with Bible thumpers and Catholic integralists who want to remake America into a Handmaid’s Tale-style dystopia, while the left is the true defender of the secular republic—a remarkable story, given that “wokeism” has its own ideology and creed, coercively pushed on the populace.

Yet I do not think that the answer for the right is to apply the same playbook as the left. Indeed, to do so would only further undermine the evangelistic witness of our churches, which must remain places where people, regardless of political affiliation, can encounter God.

Rather, the lesson for conservatives is to constantly and aggressively expose the monolithic character of the left, as evidenced not only in the political liberalization of its churches but the rest of its institutions. Pro-life Democrats are now a relic, and even state-run liberal academic institutions no longer feel the need to retain even a single token conservative on staff. Their side is the one pushing Erastianism and demanding stricter ideological conformity. Their religious institutions are corrupted by carrying water for liberal causes.

In other words, we should make use of the narrative once propounded so cleverly and consistently by Richard John Neuhaus at First Things and Protestant theologian J. Gresham Machen in his book Christianity and Liberalism. The left’s hypocrisy and moral poverty must be highlighted and censured. For it is their institutions, rather than ours, that have truly melded church and state in a manner that threatens to turn the republic into a frightening dystopia.

Casey Chalk writes about religion and culture issues for The American Conservative and is a contributing editor for the New Oxford Review. He is the author of The Persecuted: True Stories of Courageous Christians Living Their Faith in Muslim Lands (Sophia Institute Press).