There are many types of conservative politics, just as there are many types of conservative theology. One strain of both is opposed to the American ideals of liberty, individual rights, and constitutional government. Many evangelicals who are involved in politics, and who have not necessarily thought through their activism theologically, seek guidance from some of these Christian political thinkers.
I am referring to the Integralists, a group of conservative Catholic intellectuals who view American politics through a medieval Catholic lens and who would like to build the kind of society ruled by Pope and Emperor that the Reformation firmly opposed. Her movement is named for her desire to integrate church and state, with the Catholic faith being, in the words of the Wikipedia article, “the foundation of public law and order within civil society.” (See my posts Integralism, the Pope and the Emperor, and Protestant Integralism.)
Mark Tooley, the president of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, explains it well in an article for world magazine entitled Introducing Integralism, with the deck “A group of Catholic intellectuals question America’s founding democratic principles”. He writes:
Integralism is a growing movement popular among Catholic intellectuals who believe that America’s liberal democracy, with its freedom of speech and religion, was doomed from the start because its design was contrary to God’s purposes for the community and the state . Liberal democracy, integralists believe, allows immorality to spread by denying any kind of religious foundation that underpins society. They advocate a peaceful social and political revolution against our democracy, replacing it with a new regime in which, as Wikipedia describes, “the Catholic faith should be the basis of public law and order within civil society”. Some non-Catholics who despair of our democracy share parts of this perspective.
This cause may sound extreme and improbable. And it’s true that very few Americans, including Catholics, are integralists. But this perspective demands the zeal of a group of bright thinkers and highly educated young people whose influence exceeds their small numbers. And it reflects a dwindling faith in our democracy that fuels increasing forms of illiberalism – forms of rejection of the idea of classical freedom. Integralism is just one example.
Tooley cites a few prominent integralists well known in conservative circles: Patrick Deneen of the University of Notre Dame; Suhrab Ahmari the New York Post; Chad Pecknold of Catholic University; Gladden Pappin from the University of Dallas; Adrian Vermeule of Harvard University School of Law; RR Reno, Publisher of first things; and Edmund Waldstein, an Austrian Cistercian monk Edmund Waldstein.
Now these authors offer some harsh critiques of contemporary culture. They are blameless for life, against the sexual revolution and supporters of the traditional family. As far as I can tell, they’re pro-Trump. You certainly have a right to your opinion and to your Catholic beliefs.
But while evangelicals and other conservative Protestants might find them helpful allies, so far they can only agree with them. integralism only works with Catholicism. Only a pope with universal temporal as well as spiritual authority can provide the kind of rule that integralists advocate. And, as Tooley points out, although the Integralists aim at the “liberalism” of the Enlightenment and the American founders, their more fundamental target is Protestantism:
The founders were Protestants, and here is what integralists often avoid in their criticism. While integralists cite Enlightenment liberalism as their nemesis, it is evangelical political tradition that confuses them.
American democracy is permeated by a particularly Protestant understanding of the common good, one that protects and advances all. Society’s moral confusions do not result from this understanding, but contradict it. Social renewal does not benefit from implausible theocratic theories alien to our history. Instead, evangelicals, through civil society, should help revitalize the rich Protestant faith that produced our liberties.
Luther and the other reformers vigorously opposed the pope’s claim to sovereignty over secular rulers. Listen to Melanchthon, though one of the more forgiving theologians, in his Treatise on the Power and Supremacy of the Pope, which is an authoritative confessional document for Lutherans. On the Pope’s insistence that “by divine right he has both swords, that is, authority also to bestow kingdoms [enthroning and deposing kings, regulating secular dominions etc.]’ writes Melanchthon,
Christ gave the apostles only spiritual power, that is, the commission to teach the gospel, to proclaim the forgiveness of sins, to administer the sacraments, to excommunicate the ungodly without physical violence [by the Word], and that He did not give the power of the sword or the right to establish, occupy, or consecrate kingdoms of the world [to set up or depose kings]. . . .
From this belief [of the temporal authority of the Pope] terrible darkness has been brought into the Church, and thereafter great unrest arose in Europe as well. For the ministry of the gospel was neglected, the knowledge of faith and the spiritual kingdom were extinguished, Christian justice was to be the external government which the pope had instituted.
35 Next the popes began seizing kingdoms for themselves; They moved kingdoms, they tormented the kings of almost every nation in Europe, but especially the German emperors, with unjust excommunications and wars, sometimes to occupy the cities of Italy, sometimes to subjugate the bishops of Germany and wrest the conferment of episcopates from the emperors . Yes, in the Clementines it is even written: If the empire is vacant, the pope is the legitimate successor.
36 Thus the pope not only usurped power against the command of Christ, but also tyrannically rose above all kings. And in this matter the act itself is not so much to blame as to abhor, that it cites the authority of Christ as a pretext; that he hands over the keys to a secular government; that he binds salvation to these ungodly and detestable opinions when he says that it is necessary for salvation that men should believe that this dominion by divine right belongs to him.
Meanwhile, the Reformation emphasized the importance of the individual, Christian liberty, and personal rights. Many Reformation churches and towns elected their own leaders. General education made democratic self-government possible. In England, radical Protestants overthrew the monarchy, executed the king, and established a republic which, short-lived as it was, set a powerful precedent in the American colonies.
The integralist project seems absurd, impossible, and merely theoretical, considering not only the fact of modern secularism but also the nature of modern Catholicism. The current pope to whom they would confer secular authority is Pope Francis, who is just as liberal-minded as the people they generally attack, with the important exception that he is pro-life and pro-sexual morality. But the current Pope’s preoccupation with leadership on social and political issues, from environmentalism to opposition to capitalism, is itself a legacy of the Catholic teachings on which the Integralists build.
Not all Catholics are like that. Conservative Catholic apologist George Weigel points out that individualism was in fact invented neither by the Enlightenment nor the Reformation, but by the early church, something that Luther and Melanchthon—who insisted their teachings were nothing new—certainly did would agree. And the strongly Protestant DG Hart points out that modern Catholicism is strongly committed to democracy in its formal authoritative teachings.
But in their opposition to liberty, democracy and other American values, for all their supposed conservatism, the Integralists are in fact in tune with the anti-Americanism and authoritarianism of the left.
Illustration: Pope as Emperor in a 15th-century manuscript – British Library MS Royal 17 F III f. 58v via Andrew Latham, Medieval Geopolitics: Giles of Rome on Why the Pope Should Rule the Whole World, Medievalists.net.