The Charlemagne Option: Conversion By Sword
Maybe you saw Sohrab Ahmari's First Things essay extolling "Apostolic Empire" -- I wrote a characteristically rambling response in "The Grand Inquisitor Option". Adrian Cardinal Vermeullarmine weighed in with a prickly short piece saying everybody on the Right is a big ol' puss except for the Integralists (all seven of them). He also condemned "mini-movements." Irony is not dead on Harvard Yard.
Here's a thoughtful new response from the traditionalist Catholic and sometime TAC contributor Michael Warren Davis, from his Substack newsletter titled The Common Man. He writes in part:
Because Church history is not a monolith. There isn’t the “Christian position” on the one hand and the “pagan position” on the other. It may shock you to learn that, historically, Christians were known to disagree among themselves on any number of issues—even politics!
Throughout that history, we find Christians espousing two different approaches to Christianization. One is the political method. This is when the government not only promotes but enforces the Christian faith. The other is the evangelical method, which stresses the need for a free and informed decision to embrace Christianity.
Mr. Ahmari clearly prefers the political method; hence his reference to the need for governments to “spread the same legally ordered way of being in the world, whether their subject peoples liked it or not.” So did St. Boris, Theodosius I, and Charlemagne (at least at first). In general, the political leaders of premodern Europe preferred the political method. And, for obvious reasons, they usually got their way. That’s why the word “Christianization” evokes visions of forced baptisms, holy wars, filial blindings, etc.
Very often, however, the saints were stridently opposed to the political method. Some simply found it unethical. They would agree with St. Gregory the Great, that “humility and kindness, teaching and persuasion, are the means by which to gather in the foes of the Christian faith.” At other times, though, their concerns were purely practical.
It is true, MWD concedes, that Europe was Christianized in large part through the political method (i.e., the sovereign converts, and then forced his people to follow his example). But that doesn't make it right, and it doesn't make it effective today. We don't live in a world anymore in which people look to political leaders for religious direction. And in any case, the pagans of early medieval Europe were intensely religious -- unlike people today.
MWD notes that Ahmari looks down on the gentler method of conversion: by example. He shouldn't says Davis:
I’ve encountered dozens of young men and women who converted after experiencing one of these “intentional communities,” places where Christians are committed to growing together in spiritual, moral, physical, and intellectual excellence. These folks didn’t understand Christianity—at least, not at first—but they wanted to be part of the Christian thing.
What’s more, effective revolutionaries have always known that, before we can transform society (for better or worse), we must transform ourselves. For instance, as Ian Huyett pointed out last month in Staseos, the vision of a “New Hebrew”—a “courageous, practical, and suntanned soldier” forged by honest landwork—was integral to the Zionist movement’s early success.
Yet Mr. Ahmari generally discourages these methods. He warns against placing too much emphasis on personal sanctity or evangelizing non-Christians. Rather, we should be more concerned about enacting “reforms to the material order to make their lives a little easier.”
Mr. Ahmari also warns us about the dangers of lifestyle rightism. That’s his term for a conservative subculture that stresses the need for healthy living, spiritual formation, and community-building. The lifestyle rightists are creating an army of “New Christians.” They’re transforming themselves, in order to transform society.
Working out and studying Scripture are good things, Mr. Ahmari concedes. Yet he argues that lifestyle rightism also “misdirects its adherents, shifting them away from collective action and the shared pursuit of common goods toward essentially private goods (some of which aren’t good at all).”
So, what does Mr. Ahmari actually want us to do with ourselves? He doesn’t say. And this is a common complaint about Political Catholicism. It asserts that we should seize the levers of power and create an illiberal Christian theocracy. Well, all right. But how do you seize the levers of power? The answer seems to be, “By writing tweets and op-eds about the need to seize the levers of power.” We talk about how we’d use the State to punish our enemies and hope our enemies decide to give us control of the State.
Somehow, I don’t see that quite doing the job.
Read the whole thing -- and subscribe. MWD is a really thoughtful writer.
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Anyway, of course I share Michael Warren Davis's critique of the Integralist project. I think it would be immoral for one thing, but more basically, it has zero chance of success in the world today, for the reasons MWD points out. But he could have gone even further. The integralist Catholics today would have to convince even their fellow Catholics to surrender their liberties to be governed by an illiberal order that privileges the Catholic Church, and renders non-Catholics second class citizens. I'm sure it looks good on paper to a few people, but most Catholics in the West, and certainly everybody else, would strongly, even violently, resist. The only way it could succeed is through tyranny. If you aren't going to resort to tyranny -- imagine Adrian Vermeule with Xi Jinping's surveillance state apparatus! -- then you end up back at evangelism and persuasion. Which is where we should be for both moral and practical reasons -- practical, because in a post-Christian world -- that is, a world that has already been through Christianization, and has fallen away from it -- you are not going to be able to compel people to accept Christian belief. How likely do you think Western peoples today would be willing to accept Islam if it were forced on them?
But let's say it worked, and somehow we got an Integralist state, for the same reason France in Houellebecq's Submission turned to political Islam: out of sheer exhaustion and demoralization. Does that save souls? Does it make lives more Christlike? I mean, look, I'm Orthodox, and I can't exactly regret Prince Vladimir forcibly Christianizing the people of Kievan Rus. If not for the Christian princes, brutal as they may have been, acting that way -- consistent with morals and practices of the distant past -- many of us heirs to a more gentle Christianity might not be Christian today. But that doesn't mean that we should want to return to that kind of thing. Not sure how excited any of us should be by a Christian form of ISIS.
(Readers, if you want to continue having these kinds of discussions with me after March 10, the last day of this blog on TAC, I invite you to pay five dollars a month, or fifty dollars per year, and sign up for my Substack, Rod Dreher's Diary. There's a terrific comments section that's on fire now.)