The Integralist Abandonment Of Classical Liberalism: The Quiet Revolution

As much as the debates in Commonweal and the Times revealed that Roman Catholics were not of the same mind about the church’s relationship to modern society, those disputes were mild compared to a revival of antiliberalism from Roman Catholic intellectuals. In fact, recent critiques of modernity’s twin political ideas—liberty and democracy—have gone beyond any of the arguments leveled against Neuhaus or his Americanist colleagues (Novak and Weigel). Even more surprising, they have found a home in Neuhaus’ journal, First Things. 

First came Brad Gregory’s widely debated Unintended Reformation (2012), a book that traced the woes of modern secular society (with its materialism, hedonism, pluralism, and unbelief) back to the disruptive effects of Protestantism. According to Gregory, a historian at the University of Notre Dame, Martin Luther did not hope for a world of cheap goods available at Walmart or easy access to pornography, but he did challenge Christendom’s order that led to the modern West’s decadence. Next in the line of modern-day Savonarolas was Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option (2016). An opinion writer who went from mainline Protestantism to Roman Catholicism and then to Eastern Orthodoxy, Dreher registered a sweeping complaint against the morally relativistic West by appropriating Alisdair MacIntyre, a widely-read Roman Catholic philosopher at the University of Notre Dame. Just as MacIntyre had argued in After Virtue that modern Christians needed to learn from  Benedict of Nursia’s withdrawal from Roman society in order to save civilization, so Dreher asserted that twenty-first century believers (of all stripes) needed to form intentional associations to transmit faith and morality to the next generation. Adding to these critiques of modern liberal society was Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed. The political philosopher at the University of Notre Dame echoed Gregory’s and Dreher’s laments about modern liberal society but extended the critique to argue that, contrary to John Courtney Murray, the founding of the Republic was fatally flawed. The reason was that the Founders drew [from] Lockean and Hobbesian notions of human nature. Politics so conceived inevitably generated “pathologies” at once holding true to liberalism’s fundamental claims but also betraying promises of liberty and equality. Instead of working out a compromise with religious traditions, liberalism was a threat to them. 

D. G. Hart | American Catholic: The Politics of Faith During the Cold War. Religion and American Public Life (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2020), 220–21.


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  1. What I can’t help but wonder:

    How ‘Moral’ was the world under Mother Rome?

    If Liberalism is to blame for the depraved society we find our selves surrounded by today, then where would the early Christians lay the blame for the decadence and depravity of Imperial Rome?

    Why are Christians of all people, so surprised at how far down the slope fallen sinners are willing to go (we invented the slip ‘n slide, you know?)

  2. This quote from D. G. Hart’s book and the column yesterday are the first I’ve heard of the RC and Reformed et al. movement to address liberalism with state religion. How far has this movement progressed, and is it allied with theonomy, or at least as a co-belligerent? I do think the human reaction to extreme positions is to hop on the pendulum and swing in the opposite direction, but I am not convinced the swing will moderate to some reasonable point. The enemy’s assault is much more multi-faceted than I imagined, and I try to stay informed. As for information and alerts, I find the Heidelblog to be of inestimable help.

    • That’s a great question. It is hard to say exactly how pervasive theocratic politics/integralism is. As you can see in the resources I wrote about this in 2020 because I encountered it among a group of Dutch (ostensibly) Reformed folk. Sometime before that I read about a theocratic movement in the Netherlands. There is a region that sends a theocratic member to the Dutch Parliament every year and because of the parliamentary system, which requires governing coalitions, that MP has sometimes exercised unexpected influence.

      At the time I was surprised by the number of Americans, who, I assumed, had been instructed in American Civics (maybe a bad assumption) who were talking and writing as if a state-church is a viable possibility in the USA.

      Your supposition that they are co-belligerents (with belligerent being an apt adjective) with the theo-recons seems right. All theonomists are theocrats but not all theocrats are theonomists.

      I hear rumors that there is an ecclesiastical overture coming from one of our URCNA classes to synod that might have theocratic overtones. We’ll see.

  3. I could believe that there is more support in the US for doing away with the first amendment than for establishment of a theocracy. The theocrats/theonomists have to be incredibly small in number when compared to a nation of over 300 million people. This subject arises here on the Heidelblog fairly often but I am at a loss to understand why. A curiosity? Maybe, but an issue that threatens to gain any significant support? I don’t see it.

    • Bob,

      Sheer numbers are not the right way to look at this. Notre Dame is a significant cultural institution. First Things is a relatively influential magazine. Ahmari has been an editor at the NY Post, the WSJ, and First Things before beginning Compact. The Roman integralists have a platform and influence and these sorts of movements don’t stay put. They influence Protestants. Lots of Prots read the integralists. As much as I disagree with them, I appreciate their criticism of contemporary American life and culture.

      The theo-recon movement has had a surprising degree of influence over the last 40 years. Every homeschooling family in America owes that freedom to the indefatigable labors of R J Rushdoony. He became qualified as an expert witness and testified all over the USA in legislatures and courts. Now, we homeschooled and we’re thankful that he helped to pry the iron grip of the public schools off of American families but he also held bizarre ideas. Nevertheless, he gained access to the corridors of power, particularly during the Reagan administration. David Bahnsen is appearing on conservative podcasts and in conservative publications. See MacVicar’s work and Gribben’s work. There are influential and monied people who read Wilson.

      As I mentioned above, there are rumors of an quasi-integralist overture coming out of a URCNA classis to Synod. There was a quasi-integralist statement circulating on the interwebs a few months ago associated with people in that URCNA classis.

      I regularly hear from theocrats, some of whom are permitted to appear in this combox.

      I first encountered theonomy c. 1980. I spent three years arguing with theonomist classmates in seminary. I spent 18 years in the RCUS, which had real, live theonomists. I read them. People took Gary North seriously in 1999-2000. He lost credibility after Y2K but people took him seriously in the run-up tp Y2K.

      Brad Littlejohn writes for WORLD magazine. His bio says:

      Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is the founder and president of the Davenant Institute. He also works as a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

      The EPPC is an influential think tank.

      There are theocrats/integralists in the PCA.

      There are lots of reasons to pay attention to theocrats/integralists.

    • Plus, as a reactionary rally point against the progressive power grab, such a movement could attract a lot of followers who aren’t committed RCs or Theocons.

  4. What would a Christian liberal (classical, Locke-to-Acton kind) say to the political and social climate of our day? Not a Rushdoony-Ute; just curious.

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