Clarifying The Stakes

I have often remarked upon the dramatic changes during my lifetime in what people consider “conservative.” I’ve speculated about the causes, pointed to the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of the contemporary GOP, and speculated that the current “conservative” movement (note quotation marks) is basically an intellectually incoherent expression of MAGA’s underlying fear and racism.

The fear and racism are certainly there, but recently I came across an essay in Persuasion that described an all-too-coherent philosophy underlying the current assault on the American Idea. 

Broadly speaking, there are two different kinds of contemporary American conservatism. The more familiar—traditional conservatism—holds that the founding principles and institutions of the American polity remain sound but have been distorted by waves of progressive activism that have eroded our commitment to individual liberty and limited government. The task is to preserve these fundamentals while restoring their original meaning and function. 

The second kind of conservatism claims that America was flawed from the start. The focus on individual rights comes at the expense of community and the common good, and the claim that government exists to preserve individual liberty creates an inexorable move toward moral anarchy. These tendencies have moved us so far from traditional decency and public order that there is little of worth left to “conserve.” Our current situation represents a revolution against the forces—religion, strong families, local moral communities—that once limited the worst implications of our founding mistakes. The only remedy for this revolution is a counter-revolution. Instead of limited government, we need strong government capable of promoting the common good and defending moral common sense against the threat posed by unelected elites.

This proposed counter-revolution has little to do with conservatism as traditionally understood. It seeks not to limit the flaws in our founding principles but to replace them. Specifically, it is a revolt against liberalism, the political theory rooted in the Enlightenment that inspired the Declaration of Independence. This New Right is unabashedly anti-liberal, at the level of philosophical principle as well as political practice.

The essay distinguishes between different kinds of anti-liberalism. Fascism, for example, finds legitimacy in the “culture and spirit of a specific people.”  Then there is what the essay calls integralism, defined as a distinctive form of religious anti-liberalism that originated within Catholicism.

It arose many centuries before the emergence of liberalism, as a justification for the integration of Catholicism and political power that began under the Roman emperor Constantine and was completed in 380 by emperor Theodosius I, who embraced Christianity not only as his personal religion but also as the religion of his realm. At the end of the next century, Pope Gelasius I formalized the Catholic understanding in his famous distinction between priestly and royal authority. In matters concerning religious practice and ultimate salvation, Gelasius argued, political authorities are required to submit to the authority of the Church. 

The essay proceeds to outline the history of this melding of church with state, and its eventual decline, thanks to the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution. While MAGA voters are highly unlikely to have heard of integralism, its resurgence among intellectuals on the Right is clearly influencing and shaping our current culture war. “Integralism” is at the root of current attacks on the very basis of the Enlightenment liberalism that undergirds America’s Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Liberal philosophy distinguishes between public and private, and prohibits government from invading the zone of personal autonomy. Liberals may argue about where the line between public and private should be drawn, but they agree that the distinction exists and–more importantly– that it is morally fundamental.

Integralists “reject freedom of religion, and they are prepared to use government power in the name of public morality to control what liberals consider private and individual decisions.” They reject the goal of a legal or public culture that is neutral– that accommodates different beliefs about morality and/or religion.

That philosphical approach explains a lot.

For Integralists, culture war is the only war: seeing neutrality as a myth, they see the battle as Manichean, a war between advocates of personal autonomy and defenders of (their version of) traditional morality. 

This explains one of the most confusing aspects of Republicans’ U-turn from their former commitment to limited government. These “common good constitutionalists” want a government with the power to impose their version of the good society on everyone.

If political power always shapes culture, as increasing numbers of traditionalists are coming to believe, they will conclude that they must seize and use this power—if necessary, without the limits they have long advocated.

It’s a war between fundamental–and irreconcilable–world-views. One is consistent with American constitutionalism; one is unambiguously not.


  1. These political movements hiding behind tax exempt churches should be taxed like all other corporations.

  2. Compare today’s Republican party to Bette Davis in “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?”. They have slapped on inches of makeup and present themselves as the old GOP but the vast erosion of the members and the party itself is evident to all who are paying attention. They may be fooling the old fans of Republicanism with their act, those who are willing to pay to watch them “strut on the stage but signifying nothing” as they destroy democracy, Rule of Law and the Constitutional basics of rights for all. We can fool ourselves into believing that Trump’s Party, with or without him, is leading to its final act but we need to be afraid, very afraid of what lies ahead. You can take the philosphical approach or admit what is actually happening to us as another Trump administration, with or without him, looms ahead.

    The stakes are our lives and the lives of all who come after us.

  3. The intermingling of church and state during the Holy Roman Empire era requiring papal approval of its emperors and which prompted the famous response by Voltaire that the Holy Roman Empire “was neither Holy, Roman, nor an Empire” should have been enough to tell us today that such an amalgamation is oil and water, but greed and the quest for power dictate otherwise. The term “Conservative” doesn’t mean what it once did, but the means of achieving it (church and state stoked by fear and quest for power and money) remain both pre- Luther and pre-Florentine Enlightenment.?

  4. Today’s blog is an intellectual exercise in seeing how poorly we humans govern ourselves. As my favorite non-fiction author, Rebecca Costa posits, we have evolved much faster socially than we have biologically. We humans still operate with a 200,000 year old brain fraught with survival instincts based on small, tribal communities. That was when there were maybe a few hundred thousand humans on the entire planet. Today, there are 8 billion of us.

    Try as we might, we simply cannot dispel the primitive, basic instincts we have without significant intellectual purpose. Sadly, only a relative few, it seems, have the means or the energy to execute that purpose for the sake of the larger community of man. Churches don’t do it, because they’re protecting their enterprise. Capitalists won’t/don’t do it, because money has replaced the health of the community attitudes and decency that allowed us to grow our population so. It’s always profits before people and to hell with the country’s standing.

    And then there are the war mongers like Putin… The threat he poses to all living things on Earth is profound and significant. Does anyone see his actions reflecting any intellectual pursuit for any community but his own – or so he seems to “think”? Primitive. Not conservative. Vile. Not progressive or liberal. Backward and anti-human.

    We have our own version of what modern thinkers might call a monstrosity to liberal OR conservative thought: The Orange Hairball.

  5. Right-wing ideologies are often based on fear and racism. These ideologies are spread by oligarchs who use propaganda to manipulate the masses. While some people on the right are open-minded, many are not and are easily influenced by fear-based strategies. These people often see liberals as the enemy and believe the government is trying to take away their freedoms. They are also more likely to believe in conspiracy theories and distrust experts.

    The keyword is manipulating, or who is doing the manipulating. 😉

  6. The Integralists mentioned above sound like the group that Richard Hofstsadter mentioned in his book Anti-intellectualism in American Life. He noted that the fundamentalist mind will have nothing to do with nuances. It looks upon the world as an arena for conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, so it scorns compromises – who would compromise with Satan? – and can tolerate no ambiguities.

  7. New conservatism advocates nothing but tearing our Constitutional Republic down. As far as I understand they want to replace it with more wealth redistribution up but I can’t imagine even nothing but Capitalism doing more for wealth redistribution up than our present mixed economy of regulated capitalism plus socialism.

  8. I note that there are a number of religions, many use the same Bible, but they don’t believe the same way. Whose religion should dominate? If you tell me the Christian religion, I have to ask which one? Should it be the one with the most followers? What do we do when “unaffiliated” has more than the next two combined?

    I think it was William James who posited that a good man in one society would be a good man in any society. Count me as an agnostic when it comes to governance. The last thing anyone needs is religion guided government. I sometimes wonder how the wrong wing thinks about Iran. Do they understand that is what they are calling for here?

  9. It seems to me it’s just another conspiracy theory. The current right sees the liberal/progressive agenda of upholding founding ideas based on the Enlightenment and personal liberty as a conspiracy meant to undo what they are certain was a USA created specifically to be a white, Christian, male-dominated society.

  10. All that the integralists, the evangelicals and the Catholics are doing is sowing the seeds to their own destruction. That destruction started with Reagan, and his poison crop has sprouted into the weedy mess that is the Republican Party today.
    We don’t just need to take a weedwhacker to them; we need to apply a heavy dose of Roundup to what is left.

  11. Senate Democrats are blocking aid to American citizens unless said aid includes Ukraine.

    Democrats can go to hell.

  12. I agree trickle down authoritarianism needs to be scrutinized and seen clearly for what it is. When all answers come down from on high individual freedom is thwarted, and that kind of authority doesn’t tolerate being questioned.
    Americans need to take ownership of their freedoms in the Bill of Rights. When these “independent legislatures” locked in by gerrymandering, tread on citizens personal rights they need to have consequences. Holding on to our inherent human rights and being vocal against this narrow minded and hearted movement, is the American way.

  13. Great explanation today. Interestingly, the radical conservatives with whom I’ve chanced to interact still think of themselves as supporters of limited government while simultaneously working to impose their cultural, sexual, religious, ethnic, geographic, and racial preferences on everyone else via government control. Their philosophy is not one of consistency, let along enlightenment.

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