New Polity

Integrate Church and State? Steubenville Panel Ponders Postliberal Future

James Diddams on March 29, 2021

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.”

  1. Comment by David on March 29, 2021 at 6:54 am

    If readers do a little online research about Poland and Hungary, they will quickly find reports of these countries turning towards authoritarianism. It would not surprise me if they eventually move closer to Russia than the EU. Religious political parties are not always a good thing. We see this in India where Hindu nationalism is driving attacks on Muslims and Christians. The religious control in Iran and Saudi Arabia is not widely admired in democracies.

    It is often ignored that many of the original colonies had official tax-supported churches. The people sought to overthrow these after the Revolution, that last being in MA until 1833. Our Constitution is “godless” by design despite objections at the time. There has been an intrusion of religion into government in the past century or so. The was “In God we trust” on money which Theodore Roosevelt opposed: “My own feeling in the matter is due to my very firm conviction that to put such a motto on coins, or to use it in any kindred manner, not only does no good, but does positive harm, and is in effect irreverence, which comes dangerously close to sacrilege.” Nonetheless, it was adopted and eventually extended to paper currency. In the McCarthy era, this motto replaced “E pluribus unum” as the defacto official one. “Under God” was added to the pledge in the same period. Keeping religious bigotry out of government is always a good thing.

  2. Comment by Palamas on March 29, 2021 at 10:32 am

    You can always be counted on to take a reasonable position and turn it toward hysteria. I agree that the secular character of our government is right and proper–as long as it doesn’t devolve into hostility toward faith, which it is in the process of doing. I don’t agree with the integralists, who seem to believe that American Christians are somehow exempt from the temptations that political power places in front of them. But when a secular government becomes hostile to unpopular expressions of faith, it stands in need of correction.

    That is, in part, what Poland and Hungary have done. The warnings about “authoritarianism” in those two countries that are so easy to find come largely from EU sources who don’t approve of the way the Poles and Hungarians deal with cultural issues, foreign policy, or internal government structure. Above all, they object to the populations of those countries wanting to maintain their cultural and political distinctiveness in the faith of EU homogenization.

    Of course, no post of yours would be complete without a reference to “religious bigotry,” which you seem to define as “religious people thinking that what they believe is true, and acting upon it.” And so, for example, the fact that religious people refuse to bow down to transgenderist ideology and declare mental illness healthy or delusion “settled science,” and desire to prohibit the institutionalization of that ideology, is obviously simply because they are bigots. These days, name-calling, not patriotism, is the last refuge of a scoundrel, it seems.

  3. Comment by Jeff on March 29, 2021 at 11:48 am

    Great post, Palamas!

    I would add only that those who spout the most contorted lies about the “dangers” of religious authoritarianism and “bigotry” are the same ones who are “all in” on economic and cultural Marxism. By design, Marxism the most evil, destructive, murderous, thieving, oppressive, and, yes, AUTHORITARIAN form of government that the enemy of our souls has ever foisted upon our broken world.


  4. Comment by David on March 29, 2021 at 12:10 pm

    Well, take the case of Turkey, a fragile democracy that has aimed for secularism. Then the current PM was elected from a religious party. Opposition leaders and others have been arrested in the thousands following a supposed coup attempt. Former Christian churches as Hagia Sophia in Istanbul that were used a museums have now been converted back to mosques. Other mosques have been built at the historical sites of Turkish secularism. There are fears for the historic mosaics in these Byzantine structures. Then there is the Russian Orthodox Church that panders to Putin in exchange for being allowed to operate freely. Other cases can be cited. Religion and government are a toxic mix.

  5. Comment by Steve on March 30, 2021 at 9:23 am

    None of that word salad justifies the “religious bigotry” comment made earlier. If any religious bigotry has been demonstrated here, it was by you.

  6. Comment by Diane on April 9, 2021 at 8:52 pm

    Here’s a very recent example of government wanting to inject religion or “conscience” into citizens’ lives: several Christian-identifying NC state legislators have introduced a bill that would allow healthcare workers, from nursing home aides to surgeons, to refuse to provide care, information or services to anyone they believe to be LGBTQ, based on “objection of conscience”, ie, belief.

    Please let’s not give religion this power in a pluralistic democracy.

  7. Comment by That's a good thing Diane on May 28, 2021 at 6:42 am

    You can distort the proposed legislation all you want, but it’s a good thing and you’re another example of what Palamas said

    And you want government tyranny against religious people to force them to confirm to your new, ever mutating orthodoxy.

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