Once limited to a few Roman Catholics who never fully embraced the ideals of liberal democracy, integralism as a political philosophy has until recently been on the margins. Though still far from mainstream, following the last few years’ challenges to America’s prevailing political philosophy the ranks of integralists are growing.
One such example of the progression of integralism is the formation of New Polity, an organization committed to “investigate and construct a Christian postliberal worldview, recognizing that the defining characteristic of human societies is their fundamental orientation towards or away from God.” Based in Steubenville, Ohio (where Franciscan University of Steubenville is located) New Polity recently hosted their first conference on postliberalism and integralism.
The conference, entitled “Founding the Christian Society” took place March 19-20 in Steubenville. The largest panel included First Things Editor R.R. Reno, Professor D.C. Schindler of the John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C., University of Dallas Professor Gladden Pappin, Cistersian monk Edmund Waldstein and St. Louis University Professor Andrew Jones. Though Protestants were absent, postliberal Anglican theologian John Milbank serves on the New Polity board, indicating politics takes precedence over Catholic purity.
All panelists agreed that liberalism has failed and something else must succeed it. Disagreement centered around how Christians should proceed.
The panel opened with the question of whether Christians should strive to move the orientation of the state towards being explicitly Christian. Jones responded no; using an analogy from Lord of the Rings, he said that while Christians may seek the “ring of power” for themselves to keep it out of the hands of evil, “to use it against Mordor is a mistake” because “in the long run we will become the bad guy.”
Pappin however cited Poland and Hungary as recent examples of orthodox Christians acquiring levers of power and using them for good. Despite decades of Nazi and Soviet occupation that sought to eliminate all traditional community and religion, both nations have seen an unexpected tilt towards illiberal Christian politics.
“Thinking of Hungary and Poland in particular, where the attainment of political power and the ability to use it, the ability to use the purse strings, the full force of the law, all of that has actually turned them around… partial political and cultural turnarounds have actually happened already in our lifetimes through the attainment and use of political power,” Pappin said.
Reno added that he thought there were clear examples of ways American Christians could wield power for good. He argued that “the United States Supreme Court in the early 1960s deemed anodyne ecumenical school prayer contrary to the First Amendment… I think it should be part of the Republican Party platform to have judges that will reverse that ruling.”
He went on to say that it was a good mental exercise “as a Christian to [think of how to] promote policies that would order, as we’ve heard in this conference, that would order civic life towards the highest good.” Although he didn’t expect school prayer and mandated “biblical literacy” in public schools to solve all our problems, they would help “lift the minds of young people above the mad scramble of consumer society.”
How much Christian political domination of civic life is necessary was the most conspicuous point of disagreement. Against the “maximalist integralist” position that would, as the name suggests, maximally integrate church and state, Jones argued: “I don’t think you have to imagine… a Christian regime as being a homogenous top-down totalitarian ideological regime…. That seems to be the exact antithesis of Christianity to me. That’s what non-Christians build when they get power. Christians should build something different.”
Reno, describing himself as not yet sold on maximalist integralism, said that he could foresee changing when someone is “inaugurated president of the United States with no religious implications [like a consecrating prayer]. I can easily imagine that happening in the next 20 years and when that does happen it will put a person like me who is not ready to sign on to the maximalist integralist program in a difficult position… Can I really be loyal to a regime that has functionally repudiated any need for divine consecration?”
Not everyone was so indecisive, though. An audience member asked the panel: “from an assumption of reasonable pluralism, that people can reasonably disagree about the temporal good and the religious good… if we accept a maximal integralist position does that just mean tough luck for the people who reasonably disagree with us?”
To great laughter and applause, Waldstein immediately responded with a resounding “Yes.”