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.