Integralism and Protestant theocracy are twin movements of which our readers should be aware. The first is a Romanist movement. The second is a movement among a small but visible band Protestants who seek a similar outcome.
Romanist “integralists” like Patrick Deneen have decided that the classical liberal experiment has failed and, as Romanists, they are no longer comfortable with that strain of Romanism that made peace with classical liberalism, i.e., the American experiment of a disestablished church and religious toleration. Sohrab Ahmari writes, “But in the long term, religious-liberty absolutism will put Christians and other traditional believers in a bind. If the moral law is merely a matter of ancient, if sincere, conviction, then of course it must give way to the demands for autonomy of people in the here and now.” In place of liberalism, he argues, “[c]onservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral.” R. R. Reno explains,
More precisely, “integralism” refers to a distinctly modern cultural-political project. The most notorious instance of this project was Action Française, a fascist movement in France between the wars that attracted support from traditionalist Catholics. Franco’s Spain provides another example, though one less theorized. In these and other instances, the Catholic concept of authority (or what proponents imagined to be the Catholic concept of authority) was of central importance, rather than any particular theological or moral claims. The Church’s supreme authority was thought to provide the integrating principle that would restore the differentiated, hierarchical social system that had been weakened by modern economic, political, and cultural developments in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century.
In short, it is the restoration of a version of the medieval and traditional Romanist doctrine of the two swords, in which authority is said to come from God and to be administered by two swords, the sacred (e.g., the church) and the secular (e.g., the state). The punchline, however, is that the swords are ordered hierarchically, with the state, because it is temporal, serving the interests the church, because it represents the eternal.
This is the very sort of theory that worried Americans about Jack Kennedy as he ran for office in 1960. Remember that, when he was campaigning, Vatican II had not begun and no Roman council had promulgated Dignitaries Humanae, thus, officially, Rome still regarded liberal, religiously pluralist states as a heresy. On the history of Romanist relations to liberal democratic theory see D. G. Hart, American Catholic: The Politics of Faith During the Cold War.
There is a roughly parallel movement among some Protestants. One of them is Brad Littlejohn, who seeks “recover anew a synthesis that used to be central to Protestant political thought: the shared commitment to public religion and private conscience.” He argues from an eighteenth-century Swiss writer, Emer de Vattel (1714–67) that natural law requires a “public religion.”
The natural law, of which classical and Christian thinkers had written for two millenia, applied in its moral demands not merely to individuals, but to nations as corporate entities. Each nation, like each individual, must chart its course in relation to three overarching sets of duties: duties to self, duties to God, and duties to others. Indeed, God had so arranged the moral universe that a nation, like an individual, flourished best (and thus fulfilled its duties to self) when it honored God and honored its obligations to others. Unlike an individual, however, a nation had no higher authority on earth to tell it how to balance its various obligations; it must in the final analysis make its own decisions and bear the consequences before God.
Vattel argued that the telos (end, purpose) of human life is “happiness,” that humans naturally live in community, and therefore a shared public religion is the surest way to happiness. Littlejohn summarizes,
Vattel begins by making a fundamental distinction, one which goes all the way back to Martin Luther and his “two kingdoms.” Religion has both an internal and an external dimension. “So far as it is seated in the heart, it is an affair of conscience, in which every one ought to be directed by his own understanding: but so far as it is external, and publicly established, it is an affair of state” (§127). We might balk at the last phrase, but if the nation has duties toward God—and if religion can generate conflict—how can religion not be an affair of state?
Make no mistake, Littlejohn is arguing for an established religion. He wants enforcement to be mild and tolerant but he wants an established religion. What of dissent? Littlejohn has a plan:
But what if, after the nation settles on its established faith, a large dissenting minority remains? Reminding his readers “that liberty of conscience is a natural right,” he says that in such cases, the minority must either be allowed to emigrate in peace, or else given freedom to practice its religion. The latter he prefers, since it would be tragic for the nation to lose some of its most conscientious citizens, but he realizes that it may be difficult in some contexts for the two religions to peacefully live side-by-side. Thus, “if there be reason to fear that they will produce divisions among the citizens, and disorder in public affairs—there is a third method, a wise medium between the two former” (§130): to form a federated republic, where cities or states can establish their own religions and regulate their internal affairs, while uniting in one larger confederacy for purposes of foreign policy. This was the practice of his own Switzerland, and this was also the early model for the American states—recognized in the First Amendment, with its promise not to interfere in local state religious establishments.
What of religious liberty?
Even once achieved, religious liberty remains necessarily limited: if a religious behavior is destructive to the basic bonds of society, or is at least perceived to be, it cannot long be tolerated. (Incidentally, this is why Christians in America will not long succeed in demanding liberty to practice their religion if they cannot succeed in making the case that Christianity is actually good for the world.)
He does not want the state to compel people to Christian worship but he wants it to promote “the Christian faith.” It would be interesting to get Littlejohn in the same room with Deneen and Ahmari to see which Christian faith they would like the state to promote.
There are other advocates of a kind of Protestant integralism. At the turn of the twentieth century P. J. Hodemaker published a critique of Abraham Kuyper’s argument for a revision of Belgic Confession art. 36 the original text of which called on the magistrate to enforce (Reformed) religious orthodoxy and punish religious heretics. The confessional Reformed churches agreed with Kuyper. E.g., my own federation of churches (the United Reformed Churches in North America) have revised art. 36 so that we no longer call on the magistrate to enforce religious orthodoxy or to punish religious heretics. Hodemaker, however, was not persuaded by Kuyper and no reader, however, who is not already in agreement with Hodemaker, is likely to be persuaded by his arguments either. The translator notes that Hodemaker could have used a good editor. Perhaps. He certainly could have used a good argument.
Like the other integralists, Hodemaker left no room for nature in his argument and in that regard it is, ironically, Anabaptist. As with Ahmari et al. grace seems to have destroyed (not renewed) nature. Further, his argument rests, at least in part, on a bizarre reading of Western history. He simply assumes a Theodosian order, i.e., the necessity of a state-church, as did virtually everyone before the 18th century (though, Crawford Gribben has shown that John Owen was re-thinking the principle of establishment in light of his adventures with Cromwell during the English Civil War).
For his part, Vattel re-stated the older assumption. Not to have an established church would lead to chaos, which is not happiness. It is not at all clear that Hodemaker fundamentally disagrees with the nineteenth-century papal judgment that the very idea of America is heresy and its advocates are libertines. The old Reformed theologians would probably agree. Even as they articulated a theory of two kingdoms or a twofold kingdom (Calvin) they regularly wrote as if the magistrate were King David and that his duty was to uphold Reformed orthodoxy and punish religious dissent. One sees this assumption in the recently translated collection of passages from Pierre Viret (1511–71) who casually compared sixteenth-century magistrates to King Hezekiah.
Hodemaker certainly supported a state-established church. He left Kuyper’s Free University when Kuyper left the state church to form the Gereformeerde Kerk. One assumes that Littlejohn wants to see some form of Protestantism established as the “public religion” but lately I have been thinking about demographics. I live 40 miles from the southern border of the USA and have watched the transformation of Southern California via immigration off and on since 1984. My town is now predominantly Hispanic and Spanish-speaking. That is the product of immigration policy. The current administration has a wide-open border policy and immigrants have flooded in by the thousands.
One result of immigration policy since the Reagan administration is that the number of Roman Catholics has increased in the USA but, according to the Pew Center, the percentage of American adults identifying at Roman Catholics is down from 23% (2009) to 20%. The percentage of Americans who identify as Protestant (which includes the liberal mainline denominations) stands at 43%, down from 51% in 2009. In other words, the rate of decline among Protestants in the USA is more than double that of Roman Catholics. Perhaps when immigrants from impoverished and predominantly (even if nominally) Romanist countries settle in the USA they, like most Americans also become more indifferent to religion but the influx of even nominal Roman Catholics by the millions would seem to be a fact with which any theory must reckon. Littlejohn might be careful for what he wishes for he might find himself a tolerated minority in a majority Roman Catholic nation with a “public religion” that includes masses, plenary indulgences, and a pope.
As to Vattel’s argument from happiness, the American founders also thought happiness was important but they did not make it a communal project. The founders were individualists and, on this score at least, David French is right. The American experiment was a considered rejection of the medieval and Roman two-swords doctrine (i.e., integralism). It also represented a break from Protestant theocratic theory. They rejected both theories in light of hundreds of years of experience. Because everyone in Europe wanted to enforce their religious orthodoxy on their neighbors using the lever of the state, from the Peace of Augsburg (1555) Europe teetered on the verge of an all-out religious war between the Protestants and the Papists. It broke out first in the Netherlands in 1568 and then across Europe in 1618. Despite modern Romanist whining about Reformations imposed by magistrates, the Reformed took the brunt of it for decades. No religious group in Europe had more martyrs than the Reformed and war raged off and on for eighty years.
The American founders knew all that which is why they did not establish a federal church. It is right there in the First Amendment to the American Constitution, in the Bill of Rights:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
It took most of sixty years for the states to disestablish their churches and I see that there is an argument being made that the traditional narrative (which I am repeating here) is incorrect. Carl Esbeck and J. Den Hartog remind us that there was never a national disestablishment because there was never a national established church in the USA. See Esbeck and Den Hartog, Disestablishment and Religious Dissent: Church-State Relations in the New American States 1776–1833 (Columbia: University Of Missouri Press, 2019), 4. I plan to read more thoroughly but whatever the case, there are no state-churches now and I for, for one, am not prepared to pay taxes to support Baptist or Episcopal ministers or to submit to a “public religion,” however gently enforced. In that regard, the theocrats and integralists would do well to remember that there are other Amendments to the US Constitution. They might want to take a close look at the second amendment. When the English tried to impose an Anglican bishop on the colonies, that principle that is expressed there came in right handy.
As a matter of history, the integralists never seem to remember that there was when Christendom was not. It was not a pleasant time to be a Christian but from the ascension of our Lord until Theodosius (AD 381) made Christianity the state religion, Christianity was not a state religion and before Constantine issued his decree of toleration and then meddled in ecclesiastical affairs, no Christians were asking for the church to be established. The only thing that the earliest Christians asked was to be left alone to live peaceful, quiet, and godly lives (1 Tim 2:2). The Apostle Peter strongly exhorted Christians to obey Roman law (with the assumed caveat of Acts 5:29) and expressed little patience with those who, because of their disobedience, brought the Christian faith into disrepute (1 Pet 2:11–25). Justin Martyr told the Emperor that should Christians be found to be violating Roman law that the church would punish them more harshly than the Romans would. The Christians were content to exist as a private society within the larger Roman culture. They expressed no interest in dominating or transforming society.
Ahmari’s dismissive remarks about “ancient” moral laws seems to ignore the historic Christian conviction (firmly grounded in Paul’s epistle to the Romans) that there is a natural law, which reflects the divine nature, which is accessible to all. That law is ancient but it is not arbitrary and requires no state-church to mediate it. It is a matter of universal sense perception. I understand why Ahmari wants an established religion. He believes that nature (e.g., the state) per se is deficient and must be perfected by grace (the church). It is a little more difficult to see how, on Reformed grounds, Littlejohn appeals to nature since 1) the Reformed did not believe that “grace perfects nature” cosmically, i.e., beyond regeneration of sinners; 2) the American founders also appealed to nature and they reached rather different conclusions. Natural principles are self-evident. It is self-evident that humans are not birds and males are not females. It is not self-evident that there must be a state-religion. The USA has not had a federal religion since 1789 and no state-religion since 1833. Here we are. Things are a little chaotic at times but we have no wars of religion. I wish my neighbors were Protestants and trusting in the finished work of Christ for their justification and salvation (instead of seeking to propitiate the divine wrath in the mass etc) but I am happy enough to let them go to mass and they seem happy enough to allow me and my family to keep the Christian Sabbath in the Reformed way. We live together happily. Should Ahmari or Littlejohn persuade my frightened neighbors that the only way to address the Drag Queen Story Hour is to institute a “public religion” the general tranquility of our little town will be mightily upset.
I am as repulsed by the Drag Queen Story Hour as anyone but I hardly see how a “public religion” is necessary to address it. An appeal to nature, which, according to our mostly Deist founders, is self-evident, is sufficient to address the scandal. The Drag Queen Story Hour is manifestly a form of child sexual abuse. It matters not whether it is a voluntary association. Parents are not allowed to abuse their children psychologically or physically. Males are not females and those who dress up as “drag queens” to present themselves to children (even with parental consent) as garish females do so with the intent of grooming (preparing them for future sexual exploitation) them. I am not a lawyer but I suppose that is almost certainly a violation of current law. All we need is a measure of sanity and reason and a willingness to go to court to protect the welfare of children. Were people taking their pets to the DQSH, PETA would be suing them penniless. These are matters of nature.
The American Republic is a secular republic. As Hart has reminded us, it was the early Christians who gave us the idea of a secular state. The pagans had a state-religion and the Jews had a state-religion but the Christians did not. The American Republic was the first to attempt a thoroughly secular state. To make it anything else might be, ironically, anti-Calvinian, because it would require a revolution. Calvin certainly would not have been happy with the founders’ vision but would he support a populist theocratic-integralist revolution now? It seems unlikely. Are lesser magistrates (e.g., state legislatures) going to hold an article 5 convention and revise the Constitution to institute a “public religion”? It seems unlikely. Thus, however polite and well-spoken the integralists might be, they are proposing fundamentally to remake the Republic into something it has never been and should never be.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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