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The two Christian Nationalisms
Bothsidesing America's low-grade war of religion
Sam’s got a point. In the 1950s, Catholic politicians like JFK were treated with open hostility by many American Protestants. In the 1980s, the so-called Moral Majority scared liberals into pouring money into advocacy organizations specifically focused on opposing the Christian right. In the 2010s, Evangelicals got their turn, as Chris Hedges waxed conspiratorial about the Bush administration’s secret Dominionist plot to bring on the End Times. And now in the 2020s, we hear endlessly of Victor Orban’s friendly relations with American “postliberals,” as if Rod Dreher were on the cusp of orchestrating a Trad Cath regime change. Any day now.
To complicate matters, genuine Christian Nationalists do exist, and despite being a fringe element are more salient than ever thanks to the internet. The latest such figure is Nick Fuentes, the 24 year old Catholic fascist who somehow went from incel 4chan troll to Ye’s personal Goebbels. For liberals with an existing fear of incipient theocracy, the last few days have been an orgy of confirmation bias.
There’s no downplaying the harm caused by the elevation of bipolar Nazis to the national stage, nor the enabling role of the GOP’s insouciance to Trump. But as a practical political threat, Christian Nationalism remains largely a red-herring; a distraction from the deeper sociological determinants of today’s radicalism and an excuse to let ostensibly secular sources of illiberalism off the hook.
Take “Catholic integralism,” a term that gets dropped in conservative intellectual circles more often than it should. In broad strokes, it refers to the fusion of Roman Catholic religious authority with the political power of the state. Think Sharia law, but for papists.
It’s less scary than it sounds. As best I can tell, the political movement to transform America into a confessional state consists of approximately seven dudes shot-gunning beers behind Notre Dame stadium and a handful of Catholic converts with their characteristic zeal. Big picture, no more than 21% of Americans even identity as Catholic, with most being quite liberal compared to the typical sedevacantism-respecter found interning on Capitol Hill.
Integralism only gets brought up so often because conservative Catholics are overrepresented in the upper echelons of the American right. The pro-life movement has something to do with it, along with the educational selection effects and political gravity of New England. Flirting with Catholic integralism has become a kind of right-wing Radical chic. If conservatism is the new punk rock, its CBGB is a Latin mass.
In practice, however, the actually-existing Republican Party has far more Glenn Youngkins than Young Popes. Consider Paul Ryan, the last Republican Speaker of the House and self-described Ayn Rand aficionado. Rand was an atheist philosopher who followed Nietzsche in equating the Christian value of self-sacrifice with slave morality. With that as the baseline, an ounce of Catholic social teaching probably wouldn’t hurt.
More to the point, integralism requires a much broader social base to be, well, integrated. Claims of a postliberal plot to make the Handmaid’s Tale reality drive clicks from doomscrollers but are otherwise laughably implausible. “A fully integrated social and political order based on a comprehensive doctrine of human nature” doesn’t begin and end with a couple Catholic justices on the Supreme Court and a First Thing’s subscription. In the language of our tech overlords, it’s got to be fullstack.
Lifeworld and System
To be sure, regions with large Catholic populations, like Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, developed thick Catholic social institutions with significant power in US politics, especially at the state and local level. As Charles McElwee notes, populist mayors like Philadelphia’s Frank Rizzo “turned Catholic working- and middle-class voters into a formidable electoral coalition.” Catholic organizations, from trade unions to the Knights of Columbus, were truly integrative, helping assimilate immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe while giving structure to otherwise inchoate demands for civic representation. As Michael Lind argues, this explains why so many working-class white ethics gravitated towards Donald Trump. As a throw-back to the populist archetype of a vulgar, big-city political boss, Trump represented not “Der Fuhrer,” Lind writes, but “Da Mayor of America.”
A bit of genuine integralism is unavoidable. Every well-functioning society integrates its members in some fashion. Traditionalist societies depend more on normative integration through custom and ritual, while modernist societies achieve scale by supplanting traditional mores with explicit laws, regulations, and professional bureaucracies.
Habermas describes this dichotomy as being between the “lifeworld” and “system.” The lifeworld is the world you self-evidently inhabit, replete with tacit moral commitments and an intersubjective understanding of one’s social role. The system makes those tacit commitments formal and objective through things like laws, bureaucratic process and market prices. Both the lifeworld and system offer mechanisms for coordinating social action but come with different trade-offs. While systems offer scale, they also risk creating social alienation by “colonizing the lifeworld,” i.e. replacing actions undertaken through interpersonal communication with incentive schemes and administrative processes. The challenge of modernity is to thus balance the benefits of scaled-up systems of cooperation with the human impulse to belong to, and integrate with, robust ethical communities (a recurring theme of this blog!).
The alternative is a deracinated public that turns to nihilism or cults of personality as its only organizing principle. I suspect this is the reason why center-right organizations like American Compass, and Republican lawmakers like Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley, have begun to explore the conservative case for labor unions and other ways to “integrate” our presently-disintegrated working classes. If successful, they'll have done more to combat illiberalism than all the Never Trumpers combined.
So while some bottom-up integralism is healthy, it can easily go wrong if the “comprehensive doctrine of human nature” is applied from on-high. Without reciprocal recognition of the norms in question, integralism-by-fiat becomes a form of political domination, i.e. the perfectionist imposition of a particular conception of the good life. The less generally accepted the norm, the more the self-regulation of an ethical community must be replaced with the violence and compulsion of the state.
States have been known to collapse under sufficiently diverging attitudes between their elite and the public; what Habermas calls a “legitimation crisis.” The current protests in Iran come to mind. The variety of Shia integralism favored by Iran's ruling clergy has rapidly waning purchase on the Iranian people, leading to civil unrest and a growing crisis of legitimation. Access to modern communication technology and exposure to foreign media have weakened the regime's normative authority among younger generations in particular. And while Iran’s Shiite clerical establishment forms a broad social network, it’s much too thin for a project as total as preserving a premodern Islamic way of life. If anything, the tight relations between clergy and government have adversely affected the cleric’s social authority through association with elitism and corruption.
As in Iran, an overly symbiotic relationship between church and state can have the paradoxical effect of weakening the functional role of religion as an informal and voluntarist means of social integration. David Hume was essentially an atheist and yet defended the Church of England precisely because he understood that monopolies reduce output and raise prices. Overtime, religion in countries with established churches either overreach and inspire revolt or become mundane to the point of irrelevancy — a part of the background culture that detaches itself from any particular theological proposition. Even the arch New Atheist, Richard Dawkins, once expressed “a certain love for the Anglican tradition.”
Protestantism as a meme
Back in America, the closest thing we have to a common ethical Zeitgeist is an usually thin form of cultural Protestantism that abhors institutional mediation and social hierarchy in all its forms. Indeed, Adam Smith attributed the relative “zealousness” of American religious life to the lack of an established church, which makes for greater market competition and product innovation. The novel religious movements that emerged out of the Second Great Awakening are a case in point.
Throughout, Protestantism’s egalitarian emphasis on personal revelation made it particularly memetic. The reproduction of culture through the medium of language exerts a pragmatic selection effect on norms, giving the appearance of directionality to cultural evolution. During the Reformation, growing literacy rates enabled ordinary people to put justificatory demands on their religious leaders above and beyond appeals to inherent authority. Yet when a social practice or article of faith is defended on the freestanding basis of reason, it becomes immediately exposed to subversion by “the unforced force of a better argument.” As Joseph Heath puts it, “tensions that were always latent within premodern worldviews become manifest, not because people one day started thinking harder, but because of the increased burdens that were placed upon language as a medium of social integration.”
Giving and asking for reasons presupposes a reciprocal recognition of autonomy, while language tends to abstract moral claims of their contextuality. The language-dependence of rationality thus exerts a rationalizing influence of cultural evolution, transforming “bad morality” into “good morality” overtime. “Good morality” means being characterized by universalism, generalizable interests, and a procedural commitment to giving individuals some say over what obligations they are subject to. Protestantism embodies all these aspects, and thus spread rapidly around the world as a natural container for the logos latent in all humans with linguistic capacity.
The Great Awokening
Of course, Protestantism comes in more and less “comprehensive” varieties. At its best, it serves as the cultural firmware for political liberalism and the separation of church and state. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, fought for disestablishment in Anglican Virginia by enlisting the support of Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers and other “dissenting” faiths. The disestablishment process was thus never about imposing a crude secularism on American public life, but rather unfolded as a political accommodation to minority Protestant denominations amid their rapid proliferation. This is why most states initially understood disestablishment to mean the official recognition of a nonspecific Christianity, not the lack of any state-endorsed religion whatsoever.
“Every man has an equal right to follow the dictates of his own conscience in the affairs of religion,” wrote the Congregationalist pastor, Elisha Williams, in 1744. The Methodist theologian, John Wesley, agreed: “No man can choose for, or prescribe to, another. But every one must follow the dictates of his own conscience, in simplicity and godly sincerity.”
Fast forward to 2022, and the United Methodist Church (along with most other major Protestant conventions) has found itself fracturing over the issues of gay marriage and whether LGBT members can be ordained. Arnold Kling recently observed a similar schism playing out in his branch of Judaism as well. The catalyst to all this appears to be the so-called “Great Awokening” — a secularized repeat of past Great Awakenings, only now amplified by the social media age.
The Great Awokening combines the memetic virality of personal revelation with the demanding normative commitments of past social gospel movements. As an ethic of authenticity, it asks not for neutrality or tolerance for dissenting faiths, races and genders, but active acceptance and conformity to progressive narratives, complete with conspicuous repentance for past sins.
It was one thing when elites were contained to their aristocratic bubbles, but those days are over. Today, the state intervenes in every aspect of economic life, from education and health care to the content moderation policies of major social media companies. The values and prejudices of those in charge thus inevitably impinge on the provision of basic public goods, leading policies that were devised to resolve the crisis tendency of capitalism in the economic sphere to generate new crises in the socio-cultural sphere; what we’ve come to know as “the culture war.”
Secular but no less sectarian
The rise of the reactionary right is thus largely a backlash to the most hegemonic aspects of the progressive left, a “Christian Nationalist” movement by any other name. The big difference is that the left couches their value-laden prescriptions in the seemingly benign language of diversity, equity and inclusion. But make no mistake: what’s framed as secular is often no less sectarian.
Democrats’ push for investments in “the care economy” via Build Back Better illustrates the point. Promoting access to affordable child care is one thing, but the policies advanced by the progressive "early childhood education” community went much farther. Build Back Better envisioned a federal system of quality regulations and accreditation standards, giving enormous monopoly power to organizations like the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Far from promoting affordability, federal mandates would have required providers to pay their workers on par with K-12 educators, doubling current labor costs and paving the way for the absorption of the child care sector into the SEIU. These new costs would then be passed on to taxpayers through a convoluted system of means-tested subsidies that excluded religious providers by design.
Parental choice would thus be summarily replaced by “universal child care that centers gender & racial equity.” This translates to the federal government imposing a specific social gospel tradition on kids in their most formative years, dragging the CRT debate into the Pre-K realm and beyond. The Christian right can only dream of using the powers of the state with such reckless abandon.
The issue is not whether DEI trainings and “equity centered” child care are good or bad. The issue is that, when compelled or given preference by the state, such programs come to represent a “perfectionist” imposition of a particular conception of the good life. I’m personally an atheist and have no plans to give my future kids a religious education of any kind. My core commitments are instead to scientific naturalism, political liberalism, and the ideal of mutual respect. As such, I believe Catholics ought to be free to give their kids a Catholic education, Jews a Jewish education, Muslims a Muslim education, wokes a woke education, and so on.
Progressives might understand the conservative push-back to their agenda if they practiced some perspective-taking. It’s not irrational for parents to oppose having their impressionable kids sorted into race-based affinity groups and offered “gender affirming care.” Progressives would be just as alarmed if a cabal of Catholic activists rewrote their school’s curriculum around the natural law tradition. They might even be pressed to support a “Don’t Say Catechism” bill that barred the teaching of natural law below certain grade levels. Far from being anti-clerical, it would be a justified if somewhat blunt and defensive means of restoring ecumenical trust.
Liberté or Laïcité?
The Awokening follows a pattern seen in other cases of sudden cultural change. In 1960s Canada, for example, the historically Catholic province of Quebec underwent a “Quiet Revolution”: a period of rapid social and political change brought on by the emerging Baby Boomer generation. In a few short years, Quebec went from the most religious province to the most secular, spurring a left-wing ethno-nationalist movement that sought to integrate secularism into daily life. This included the construction of new health, education and welfare institutions intentionally designed to displace Church provided services with secularized bureaucracies.
In 1997, Quebec’s left-nationalist government introduced a low cost child care program for children aged 0-4, fixing the price at $5 per day. The first order effect was to displace church and family provided child care, leading to a substantial increase in maternal employment. Yet what seemed like a win for feminism and secularity wound up harming children in the long-run. As follow-up studies later found, Quebec’s universal child care program caused “negative effects on noncognitive outcomes” that “persisted to school ages,” leading the “cohorts with increased child care access” to have “worse health, lower life satisfaction, and higher crime rates later in life.” Oops!
Quebec’s draconian commitment to laïcité has carried forward to this day. In the 2010s, controversy erupted over the Quebec Values Charter and its proposed ban on “the wearing of any visible symbol indicating a religious affiliation, including a turban, hijab or kippah, by public servants when they are providing services to the public.” While the Charter would have faced constitutional challenges, its effects on social harmony were immediate. In one well-known case, an Algerian woman wearing an Islamic veil was accosted at a shopping center by a Quebecois woman demanding they abide by the Charter and change their religion.
Quebec’s secular-but-sectarian culture war underscores the two conflicting conceptions of liberty Jacob Levy discusses in Rationalism, Pluralism and Freedom. The rationalist conception of liberalism views the power of intermediate and local groups with suspicion, seeking to liberate individuals from the oppressive bonds of tradition. The pluralist conception, meanwhile, looks to accommodate intermediate groups, cultures, and ethnicities, while preserving the bulk of its suspicion for the centralizing state. The success of Canada’s multicultural policy derives from its embrace of this latter conception. Indeed, Canada’s commitment to pluralism and reasonable accommodation ultimately moderated Quebec’s separatist movement, and is the secret sauce behind Canada’s ability to integrate large numbers of immigrants.
In the US context, in contrast, Protestant America preferred to take a “melting pot” approach to assimilation; a tradition reflected in progressivism’s hegemonic approach to cultural inclusion. The term “multiculturalism” is thus associated, not with genuine pluralism, but rather a kind of multi-racial mono-culturalism. And as in Quebec, it’s an ideology that diffused itself through the organs of government beginning with the Boomer generation. The 1960s Great Society initiatives, for instance, were originally championed by mainline Protestant groups in fulfillment of their duty to feed the hungry. Yet in practice, the Great Society gave rise to myriad public programs that paralleled Quebec’s push for a secular technocracy, displacing communitarian self-help with professionalized programs for the poor.
The integration of sectarian Christian values with the machinery of American government is thus nothing new. If anything, it’s the status quo ante, providing the sociological foundations of America’s civil religion and a moral wellspring for social change. Yet with the growing religious fervor of a narrow segment of America’s post-Protestant educated class, the cultural firmware for political liberalism has been turned against itself, alienating virtually anyone with non-WASP folkways. The result is a growing crisis of legitimation propelled forward by disruptive communication technologies, not unlike in Iran.
If nothing changes, America’s dueling Christian nationalisms will continue to feed off one another, accelerating sectarian conflict until either one side achieves a decisive victory and imposes their vision of the good on the rest, or the country schisms apart. Neither outcome seems particularly desirable.
Fortunately, there’s a third alternative: to embrace political liberalism properly understood. That means sharing and decentralizing those powers that we can, while adopting a strict commitment to value pluralism for those powers that we can’t. Progress on this front starts by acknowledging the sectarian nature of our beliefs in the first place — a challenge only for those who, like fish, are stubbornly unaware of the water in which they swim.
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