One of the smarter criticisms I’ve read of Rod’s book comes from Doug Wilson’s initial post about it in which he raises the question of whether we are moving into a time of extended testing under an established regime hostile to the Gospel or whether we are moving into a time of political chaos where pretty much anything is possible within the next 20 to 30 years. Rod himself is conflicted about this, as Doug noted in his review. When he responded to a similar point being made by Brad Littlejohn, Rod said that he didn’t see why it mattered whether we were headed into one sort of social order or another.
In a sense, that’s a reasonable response. As Douthat noted at the event in New York, Rod is right (about the need for a renewal of catechesis and the cultivation of Christianity community) even if he is wrong (about the specific nature of the forces arrayed against the church in our historical moment). To the extent that the BenOp is simply a modern-day Enchiridion, as I said it was in my review, it is a useful book for everyone regardless of what the immediate future holds and regardless of your own specific ecclesial affiliation.
What if the current social order is unstable and unsustainable?
That said, as Susannah noted in her sharp essay we published last week, the election of Donald Trump suggests that, if anything, the “Benedict” bit of the book’s title may be more accurate than even Rod realized while writing it. If we are moving into uncharted waters, as Trump’s election along with the ascent of the far right in Europe would suggest, then we cannot simply stop at producing Enchiridions, we also need to do some more theoretical thinking about the nature of human community as it relates to the Christian faith. Rod gestures in that direction at times, but to the extent that he develops a political theology in the book at all it is, strangely, a fairly Anabaptist sort of Christ-against-culture theology. 1
But, of course, Anabaptist political theology is not the only option available to us, even if it may sometimes seem that way within the limited confines of intellectual American evangelicalism. There are other options. And if we are headed into a time of chaos, then we need to not only have our own piety and communal practice in order, we also need to be thinking about more high-level questions, such as the nature of a virtuous society, how to understand the liberal individualism that is the air most of us breathe every day, and the church’s proper relationship to the magistrate amongst others.
Toward that end, this post is an attempt to index six basic postures that Christians might take toward mainstream culture (by which I mean, roughly, the products and general influence of powerful cultural institutions existing in media, politics, academia, tech, and finance that are primarily based on either coast or in Chicago). By classifying the various approaches that seem to be most common, I hope that this post can refocus the conversation so that it is less about personalities and single issues and is instead focused on more fundamental questions of first principles.
What is Liberalism?
Before we can get into identifying groups and faultlines that separate them, we must first define a term that is going to be near the center of the entire discussion: Liberalism. When I speak of liberalism, I am referring to something broader than just left-wing politics or even some brand of liberalism realized in a single discipline, such as theological liberalism.
At its heart, liberalism is concerned with how human beings know things. As a system, it is suspicious of knowledge not derived from empirical observation. Thus it is suspicious of the claims of religious faith as they inform social life. Religious practice is fine for individuals, but any attempt to enforce a set of religiously based moral norms beyond the religious individual or maybe a voluntary religious community is suspect because the knowledge is not sure enough to justify political application. Indeed, this skepticism goes beyond a skepticism toward religious faith and goes so far as a skepticism toward any kind of comprehensive moral system that claims to be true in anything beyond a particular, local sense. We simply do not trust our moral judgments enough to think they can be binding in anything beyond an individualistic, voluntaristic sense. When this epistemological agnosticism becomes pervasive in a social order, you basically have some species of liberalism.
In an odd way, these instincts can make liberalism like a more traditional Christian sort of social order. It tells us that men should be persuaded rather than coerced into belief. It tells us that there is, as one friend put it, a “just area of sovereignty,” that each person possesses. However, the way that liberalism arrives at these ideas is not necessarily through the belief in a God who rules over creation and endows his creatures with dignity, honor, and freedom. Rather, they arrive at it through a lack of confidence in the ability of anybody to wield coercive authority justly or to infringe upon a person’s autonomy.
Thus liberalism is forced into being a sort of lowest-common-denominator form of social organization that prizes, as Elliot Milco helpfully summarizes it, free discourse, mutual toleration, and the struggle for liberation. The only thing we think we can know with any certainty is the individual self and that self’s experience of reality and so everything about our social order exists to protect that kind of self-expression.
When folks inclined toward some sort of post-liberal social critique observe this, they conclude that liberalism is fundamentally an unstable suicide machine. The values of liberalism are not sufficient to create civil society and so liberalism is essentially a doomsday device that will simply wind down until it hits zero, at which point civil society will fracture and something new will have to take its place. (This is roughly the point that many of the people I cited in my “new alarmism” post were making.)
The first four options described below see liberalism in this fashion. The last two options are not as radical in their critique. They argue, instead, that liberalism either has resources within itself to prevent this sort of fracturing or that Christian communities can work with the resources of liberalism to create a just society or both.
The Four Axes of Cultural Engagement
Before getting into the six schools, however, we need to begin by talking about four main axes that will define where most people end up. With a hat tip to Chris Krycho who first articulated in this exact way, the four axes are:
- Accommodationist v Post-Liberal
- Confessional v Non-confessional
- Anabaptist v Pentecostal v Protestant v Roman Catholic
- Revanchist v Retreatist
A few terms from that list need defining.
Accomodationist v Post-Liberal refers to what one makes of the liberal democratic order we currently live in. I have described that order above so the only thing I will add here is that this axis in particular is going to be defined by a lot of gradations between an absolute accomodationalism and absolute post-liberalism.
Confessional v non-confessional refers to whether or not your church community is bound in any way by any kind of historical confessional document. So the PCA, Roman Catholic Church, or LCMS would be confessional churches, although the mechanisms that are used to enforce confessions are different. The understanding of who is or is not subject to the confession will also change from denomination to denomination. The SBC is not confessional. Non-denominational churches (usually) are not. Acts 29 Churches can be in either category as Acts 29 is simply a network for church planting and member churches can be in confessional bodies, such as the PCA, or non-confessional, such as the SBC.
The third axis should be clear enough: Which of the four major western Christian traditions do you belong to?
The fourth refers to your basic instinct as to how we ought to respond to our cultural moment. A revanchist would be someone who wants to take back ground that has been lost. Retreatists would be more inclined to say “we need to circle the wagons a bit, shore up some things, and regroup.”
So one way of thinking about these issues is to ask where you land on these four axes. Someone who is a post-liberal Catholic revanchist will obviously have very different ideas about how to proceed in a situation than an accommodationist Protestant or a post-liberal anabaptist retreatist, for example.
The Six Strategies
With that bit of methodology now explained, let’s consider the six most common strategies that Christians seem to be embracing. They are:
- Catholic Integralism
- Post-Liberal Protestantism
- Post-Liberal Retreatists
- Radical Anabaptists
- Liberal Protestantism
- Liberal Revanchists
I also want to note that I have ordered them in a particular way. The first four approaches are all variations that reject modern liberalism. The first two approaches, Catholic Integralism and Post-Liberal Protestantism, retain a fairly robust idea of civil society and the polis while the third and fourth strategies, Post-Liberal Retreatism and Radical Anabaptist, would offer a similarly stinging critique of liberalism but are much less hopeful about the possibility of reinvigorating civil society and are often even skeptical as to whether such a work is necessary or desirable, although that is a contested point within these groups.
The fifth group, the Liberal Protestants, are the first of the two groups that are much more at peace with modern liberalism. What separates them from the Post-Liberal Protestants is that they are more hopeful about the possibility of a just society existing within our current social order. What separates them from the sixth group is that they are also quite skeptical of any sort of “God-and-country nationalism” or other similar rhetoric from the religious right. Finally, the sixth group, the Liberal Revanchists, are those who see the American experiment as being compatible with a just society but who think that we need to take back large swathes of society in order to achieve such a goal. On the evangelical side of things, this is the old Religious Right plus many Trump-supporting evangelicals. Amongst Catholics, this is the John Courtney Murray wing of American Catholicism.
One reason I have made this option sixth and placed Catholic Integralism first is that the current editor of First Things, Dr. R. R. Reno, strikes me as someone straddling the line between the first and sixth options in a “so far left he’s almost right” sort of way. He also seems to be a transitional figure in the history of First Things. Richard John Neuhaus, the founding editor of the magazine, clearly belongs to the sixth school. Younger editors like Matthew Schmitz and Elliot Milco (himself a founder of The Josias) are clearly part of the first school. So Reno is a major figure here both because he seems to represent a transition chronologically and because he seems to be the only prominent Catholic thinker in the US right now trying to blend some of the Integralist insights with the more pro-American ethos of writers like his predecessor Neuhaus as well as George Weigel.
Conveniently, the integralist school has a reasonably active web presence and has gone to some length to articulate core principles. So this is a relatively easy one to define. Here is Pater Edmund explaining the basic idea of integralism:
Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that rejects the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holding that political rule must order man to his final goal. Since, however, man has both a temporal and an eternal end, integralism holds that there are two powers that rule him: a temporal power and a spiritual power. And since man’s temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power.
In another essay, Pater Edmund helpfully draws some distinctions between what he sees as the three main schools of political theology in Catholicism: Integralism, Whig Thomism, and Radical Augustinianism:2
Catholic integralism (not to be confused with secular movements such as integral nationalism) was a name first applied in the 19th and early 20th centuries to Catholics who defended the anti-liberal and anti-modernist teachings of the popes. Particularly integralism came to be associated with a defense of pontifical teachings against the separation of Church and state, and the claim that Social Kingship of Christ demands an explicit subordination of all areas of human social and political life to God through His Church.
The idea of Integralism is thus rather simple: Because man’s temporal end is subservient to his eternal end, the institutions which exist to help fulfill temporal ends must be subservient to those which help to fulfill eternal ends. Put briefly, in a just society the magistrate would be somehow responsive to or under the authority of the Roman church and specifically the Bishop of Rome because the Bishop of Rome presides over the only true and complete community, the Roman Catholic Church.
This idea seems radical to us today, but it really shouldn’t. It’s a core idea of Roman political theology, despite its falling out of vogue amongst many Catholic thinkers over the past 150 years. Indeed, the USA’s history of anti-Catholicism makes more sense when you realize that Integralism is an established, easily defended view within the Roman church. It wasn’t until JFK effectively diffused that fear with his famous 1960 speech that many Americans became more willing to support a Catholic presidential candidate. Indeed, JFK’s speech is in many ways a good distillation of the liberal project we have already described:3
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.
Of course, not all American Catholics have gone with JFK on this. Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum, though he is by no means an Integralist, expressed strong dislike for the speech when asked about it several years ago. However, while Santorum belongs to the liberal revanchist school and differs from church teaching on a number of key points, the Integralists take church teaching at its face value and believe that a just magistrate is a magistrate that submits itself to the church and attempts to promote a social order shaped by the church’s teachings and particularly by Catholic Social Teaching.
As such, the Integralists are a politically homeless group in American politics. They are far too left wing on immigration, economics, and healthcare policy to fit within the Republican Party but their rock-ribbed commitment to church teaching on sexual ethics makes them anathema to the modern Democrat Party.
Of course, such is the radicalism of this approach that it is hard to know where exactly such a movement would begin their work within the contemporary United States. Their current projects are mostly focused around publishing and a reinvigoration of American Catholicism. There is certainly a mini revival happening in the northeast right now and many of the young converts this revival has produced seem to be moving toward some sort of trad Catholicism which is where the Integralists are coming from.
That said, the only way American Catholicism has been able to establish a political foothold in America is by repudiating Integralism. So it is hard to see how the Integralism school can really take root in the United States without some sort of major revolution that creates such instability in the United States that more radical ideas can take deeper root. (Of course, such a revolution is not nearly as unthinkable as it once was.)
In the meantime, the most pressing need for the integralists would seem to be catechetical—how do you teach American Catholics their church’s traditional political theology and how do you do it in a way that sticks in a place that is so famously hostile to such political theology?
By the nature of their ecclesiology, Post-Liberal Protestants will not have the same sort of focus on tying the magistrate, which helps to secure temporal goods, with the church, which helps secure eternal goods. Indeed, they would critique that formulation by saying the institutional church as such does not strictly speaking secure eternal goods—Christ does that. The institutional church exists as a useful mechanism for administering the sacraments, preaching the Gospel, and assisting with the cultivation of Christian discipline and spiritual practices.
But wherever two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, there is the church, even if it is not recognizable as such institutionally speaking. (The Dutch Reformed in particular have distinguished between the “institutional” and the “organic” church.) Thus the institutional church does not have the same role in securing eternal goods for Post-Liberal Protestants. So the question for this group has less to do with authority mediated through institutions and more with the sorts of authority that are considered licit in political discourse in the first place.
On a base level both the Post-Liberal Protestants and Catholic Integralists agree that Christ is king of all things and this includes the magistrate or local governing authority. You cannot cordon off a part of your life or a part of society as being somehow “non-religious” and therefore not accountable to the moral teachings of Christianity. You cannot say, as do many progressive Americans, that religious dogma is not a legitimate basis for public policy, for example.
However, whereas the Integralist vision of society is fairly hierarchical with the Bishop of Rome quite literally on the throne, the Post-Liberal Protestant view is more diffused, seeing society as being organized around different spheres and power being spread across those spheres and rightly enacted only within limited domains.
The family is foundational in this as it is the most basic, naturally occurring society within a broader commonwealth. But neighborhoods, cities, institutional churches, the magistrate, and the market all have a role to play in a Post-Liberal Protestant order and, as each of these institutions is thought to be part of what Calvin termed the “visible kingdom” ranking them in a sort of rigid hierarchy is difficult. The practical reality of how the different spheres relates thus ends up being much more complex and responsive to local questions and norms.
That highlights where the Post-Liberal Protestants differ from their Integralist cousins. However, it is just as important to highlight how they differ from our other post-liberal groups as well as where they differ from Liberal Protestants or Liberal Revanchists.
Unlike the Post-Liberal Retreatists and the Anabaptist Radicals, the Post-Liberal Protestants still have a fairly expansive, robust view of civil society. They would reject Hauerwasian-influenced rhetoric about the church being a polis, for example. Institutional churches cannot be a polis or a culture, to use another common term, because institutional churches are not complete societies. Institutional churches have a relatively narrow set of responsibilities within a broader society. They ought to administer the sacraments, preach the Word, and aid in the cultivation of Christian discipline. The third mark is where you can get some of the functions of a more complete polis, but even that is relatively limited.
In addition to these works, complete societies need a number of other things as well. Most obviously they need a mechanism to enforce the rule of law and protect the innocent through both a military and a police force. These responsibilities are assigned to the magistrate in Scripture. Other sorts of material provisions for the common good may also fall to the magistrate, although there is going to be room for debate on the specifics of how that works itself out.4 In addition to those responsibilities, you also need social structures to provide for the raising of children and care for the elderly (the family), for providing a living for the family (mostly the market), and so on.
Post-Liberal Protestants see each of these separate social spheres as properly belonging to a Christian society or, if you wish, to Christendom. To articulate more fully the dispute with the Post-Liberal Retreatists and Anabaptists will require us to turn our attention to those groups.
The Post-Liberal Retreatists include people arguing for a literal retreat from much of modern society, as some have (erroneously) included Rod Dreher of doing. But the key point for defining the retreatists isn’t actually whether or not they actually advocate for a retreat from civil society. Rather, the issue is how this group understands the role and work of civil society.
One way of making the point might be to say that there are three different ways you might talk about “retreatism”:
- Temperamental—There is some sort of personality trait or cultural trait within a small movement that inclines them toward retreat.
- Tactical—There is a short-term reason to “retreat” but this is seen as a temporary move in order to stabilize a community before they move back out into the world.
- Theological—The goods that civil society aspires to are goods, in some limited sense, but are ultimately of limited value and are not properly “Christian” but just belong to a kind of baseline public health.
The Post-Liberal Retreatists are those who affirm the third sort of retreatism.5
One way of understanding the Post-Liberal Retreatists might be to see them as Christians who embrace a functionally Anabaptist understanding of civil society without embracing other Anabaptist distinctives, such as the common sharing of property and a commitment to non-violence.
Dreher himself might fit into this picture. However, his situation is complicated. Given his own membership in the Orthodox Church, one would expect him to have quite high regard for civil society, or at least for the magistrate’s role in cultivating and preserving Christian society. That said, one astute friend remarked that because Orthodox Political Theology has such an expansive view of the power of the magistrate, perhaps Orthodox Christians default into a kind of Anabaptist separatism in nations where the magistrate is not Orthodox.
That said, the main people I have in view in this section are evangelicals of a couple different stripes. The first are the New Southern Baptists with Dr. Russell Moore of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission as an obvious figurehead. Dr. Jonathan Leeman of 9 Marks Ministries may also fit in this group, though he comes from a slightly different tribe within the SBC than Moore. The second group are the proponents of the New Reformed Two Kingdoms view, which would include thinkers like David VanDrunen, D. G. Hart, R. Scott Clark, and maybe Carl Trueman.
The best way to get at the key difference between this group and the Radical Anabaptists is to highlight the differences in how they see the church’s relationship to civil society. For these thinkers, there is no problem with Christians participating in civil society. Indeed, such participation is inevitable. That is why Dr. Moore heads up an organization dedicated to protecting religious liberty and why Dr. Leeman and a number of his colleagues with 9 Marks pastor in Washington D.C. and support church planting efforts in the capitol city.
However, the good that these thinkers hope to achieve in all societies outside of the institutional church is purely natural while the goods they hope to achieve within the church are supernatural. The institutional church is, in Leeman’s understanding, an embassy for the Kingdom of God. Thus the institutional church as such is an institution of a qualitatively different sort than any other physical, visible institutions in the world. Likewise, Drs. VanDrunen, Hart, Clark, and Trueman have all at various times gotten very nervous about what they see as an attempt to sacralize work that is rightly understood as secular.
Thus there are two core pieces that unite the Post-Liberal Retreatists:
- First, they have what I take to be a realistic and appropriately sober assessment of our cultural state.
- Second, they see the work to be done in non-ecclesial institutions as being primarily defensive not only in our current moment, but in principle. The positive work of taking hold of supernatural goods happens primarily in the institutional church.
Thus the Post-Liberal Retreatists are suspended, as it were, between the Post-Liberal Protestants and the Radical Anabaptists. They share a similar read of the current cultural moment with both groups. Like the Post-Liberal Protestants, they still have a place for Christian participation in civil society. Like the Radical Anabaptists, they see the work of the institutional church as being qualitatively different than the work Christians do outside the church and essentially constructive in a way that civil society participation cannot be. So they would say, with the Anabaptists, that the church is a polis, but that it is not a comprehensive polis in the way that the Anabaptists use the term.
The Radical Anabaptists
The fourth group are the Radical Anabaptists. The purist expression of this sort of vision would be groups like the Amish, Hutterites, or the Bruderhof. The Radical Anabaptists see civil society as being basically broken, believe that the church is the alternative polis that exists separate from civil society, and that the church is in fact a complete society unto itself.
A few key points follow from these basic ideas:
- First, the Radical Anabaptists have to be credobaptist due to the implicitly voluntaristic way in which they understand Christian civil society.
- Second, the Radical Anabaptists will certainly have a different approach to the question of private property and, in many cases, will reject the idea of privately held property all together.
- Third, because the church is a polis unto itself, a number of ethical questions concerning the relationship between individual Christians and public life are dramatically simplified. The best example of this is the Radical Anabaptist commitment to Christian non-violence.
Traditionally there were other barriers to membership in civil society as well. For example, many early Anabaptists refused to take civil vows because it was a violation of Jesus’s words to not take vows from Matthew 5. Given that many positions in civil society required the taking of vows, this alone made it practically impossible for Anabaptists to do anything but withdraw from civil society.
Though groups that really do exist as alternative societies outside of larger civil communities and cities are, in my opinion, the purest example of this approach, you can also see the influence of Radical Anabaptism in communities such as Rutba House in Raleigh-Durham NC or the Simple Way in Philadelphia, PA. These communities might be seen as missionary works growing out of the Radical Anabaptist tradition and stationed in places where it is easier to grow the community though perhaps also harder to maintain the self-sustainability and independence that marks these communities in more rural areas.
Reviewing the Four Post-Liberal Approaches
Though the four groups differ in some significant ways, they all condemn our current way of ordering society. They all categorically reject the idea that individuals possess internalized identities which they must discover through exploration, introspection, and experience and that society and the magistrate exist to protect and facilitate that process of self-realization.
Some reject it more completely than others—the Integralists and Radical Anabaptists basically have no room for accommodating individualism while the more traditionally Protestant responses have a bit more room. But all four see it as being a radically disordered way of understanding human individuals and communities and believe that the only viable response for Christians is some kind of fairly pervasive rejection of that approach.
Now we are going to talk about two other strategies, neither of which can be termed “post-liberal” in the (mostly political) way I’m using the term here. Though these groups remain Christian, they are hopeful that Christianity can be reconciled with the current order in some means or fashion, thereby allowing Christians to participate fully in the existing civil society.
One reminder: When I use “post-liberal” or “liberal” in this piece I am almost always referring to classical liberalism as defined above rather than left-wing politics or theological liberalism. So when I identify people who I see as “Liberal Protestants” in this thread, many of them are to the best of my knowledge entirely orthodox. To be sure, this group will include any number of people who are apostate or heretical, but one can be a Liberal Protestant in the way I mean here while also being entirely orthodox theologically.
The best sort of Liberal Protestant is going to be someone like Robert Joustra, Alissa Wilkinson, or Michael Wear.6 I also suspect that folks like Andy Crouch and Katelyn Beaty would end up here, even if they haven’t explicitly endorsed such a social order. These thinkers want to argue for a healthy pluralism that sees Christianity existing amongst a number of other religious and philosophical traditions, all of which exist as neighbors to one another and wish to promote a shared common good. For these thinkers, there are a few key points that cause them to both pull back a bit from the cliff that is post-liberalism and to want to preserve a liberal social order.
The first point is that they are unconvinced that liberalism as a social order is bad in ways that are somehow worse in nature than the disordered aspects of older social orders. Wilkinson’s response when I asked about this on Twitter was that it is meaningless to ask if one era is worse than another unless we ask “for whom” one order is worse than another. There is a deeply admirable instinct behind this question.
Indeed, it raises one of the most vexing questions for the Post-Liberal Protestants especially. Two of the places that have historically, in some limited way, most fully embraced Protestant Political Theology are the old American South and Apartheid-era South Africa. Indeed, Apartheid itself enjoyed its strongest support from Dutch Reformed Christians in South Africa and Abraham Kuyper in particular, that darling of the American Dutch Reformed, has some disturbing things to say about race issues, if also quite typical for his generation.7
Any attempt the Post-Liberal Protestants make at social order has to recognize this fact and work to combat it in some form. One important note on this point is that the existence of this problem in both the American South and South Africa is almost certainly not a coincidence in officially Protestant social orders. Whereas the Integralists and the Radical Anabaptists locate the true community specifically within the institutional church, the Protestant social orders typically focus more around the idea of a “Christian Society” or “Christian Commonwealth.” In this case, cultural uniformity becomes more important because there is not a single trans-racial, trans-cultural institution at the center of the community.
So Post-Liberal Protestants need to think very carefully about this issue and have some kind of plan in place to make sure that “maintaining a coherent local culture,” which is a significant thing for any kind of thick community, does not slide into “establishing racist cultural norms and institutional practices,” as it so often has in other Protestant polities.8
The other point that Liberal Protestants do well to make is that a liberal social order rightly recognizes that conscience should not be violated and does a very good job at preserving space for conscience and individual freedom. Though Joustra and Wilkinson make rather too much of this in their attempt to defend what I consider to be a fairly bankrupt “politics of recognition,” this aspect of the point is important to remember. Indeed, Integralism and Radical Anabaptism in particular would do well to recognize it as these orders seem uniquely prone to coercing conscience.
That said, the Liberal Protestant project seems, to me, destined to end in failure for all the reasons that Eliot and Lewis anticipated 75 years ago: Though the order might possess within itself resources to correct its worst excesses as Wilkinson and Joustra argue somewhat convincingly, I do not see how it possesses within itself resources to justify itself as an order in the first place. This is actually Eliot and Lewis’s chief concern, which is why I would like to see more BenOp critics engage with them rather than focusing so much on Rod and folks like Anthony Esolen, as much as I admire their books.
It is precisely because liberalism lacks such resources that our current liberal order is sliding toward something that actually does not protect conscience and does not respect individual freedom. As I have argued in the past, the sort of liberalism we have today must necessarily have an implicitly totalitarian mentality because of how it rejects nature and wishes to promote forms of individual identity which cannot exist without some kind of totalitarian state facilitating them. Indeed, I would argue that the brittleness of Liberal Protestantism is itself proven by the sheer number of people that have rejected key teachings in historical orthodoxy: Thinkers like Rachel Held Evans, Tony Jones, Tony Campolo, and Nadia Bolz-Weber all belong to this regime and all deviate in significant ways from the traditional teachings of the church.9
This, then, is the irony of the Liberal Protestant project. It is, I think, the de facto norm most young evangelicals embrace. Certainly it seems to be the dominant view of many connected to our most visible institutions. Yet it is fundamentally unstable and self-defeating because it cannot justify its own existence.
The Liberal Revanchists are primarily the older, more confident take on Liberal Protestantism. Like the Liberal Protestants, they affirm liberalism as a social order. The primary difference is that whereas the Liberal Protestants affirm liberalism in a fairly pervasive way which drives them all the way to affirming things like identity politics, the Liberal Revanchists think that liberalism is actually foundationally Christian and so any attempt to uphold it must, in some sense, preserve some kind of unique, privileged place for Christianity or at least classical western thought. Thus the Liberal Revanchists may actually be the group most likely to engage in a kind of nostalgia for a lost American past that is seen as being more faithfully Christian then our republic is currently. This school will place a high emphasis on individual freedom but will also recognize the roots of that freedom in some kind of Christian or classical set of values and norms. Significantly, it will place a greater emphasis on individual freedom than on communal membership and so it is more likely to be both politically libertarian and socially progressive, as, indeed, American evangelicalism has often tended to be historically, especially prior to our relatively recent debates about sexual identity.
The old Religious Right belongs to this school, certainly, as does a number of prominent contemporary thinkers. Personally, I would place R. R. Reno in this school, though he has some Integralist tendencies as well. Mark Bauerlein and other prominent Trumpists also belong here. So too do people like the popular (and fraudulent) historian David Barton, who has managed to dream up a past in which America’s founders were predominantly orthodox Christians rather than various shades of rationalists, deists, and unitarians, as most of them in fact were. More positively, I think you can argue that my Sen. Ben Sasse, the first politician I’ve ever actually liked, probably belongs to this school. At minimum, he is trying to work within the existing political norms to promote the common good by emphasizing process and function over individual political issues.
Finally, a number of Catholics can accommodate this school while remaining Catholic in ways that they cannot if they embrace a more fully pluralistic solution, such as Liberal Protestantism. That is why this school has room for Catholics like John Courtney Murray, George Weigel, and Richard Neuhaus.
The strength of the Liberal Revanchists is two-fold: First, there is a fundamental hopefulness that they share with the Liberal Protestants that is admirable and should not be glibly tossed aside. Though their reads on American history differ significantly, both the Liberal Revanchists and Liberal Protestants see the American Project as being basically salvageable. Of the four Post-Liberal options, the only one that might be able to make the same move is Post-Liberal Protestantism but even that project probably has to dramatically reimagine American polity in some fairly basic, fundamental ways.
Second, the Liberal Revanchists have a confidence about them that is admirable and likely enables them to do much of what they have obviously accomplished. Part of the reason that the Liberal Revanchists are almost certainly the most visible school of the six I’ve described is this very confidence. They really believe that we can take back what we have lost and build within the existing social order.
The post-liberal movements we’ve discussed are still fairly embryonic, which is one reason they are less visible socially, but another reason is likely that the kind of radical critiques these orders make can be inspirational and they can be crushing, depending on the disposition of the leaders and the confidence of the other members. As far as mass movement appeal goes, the Liberal Revanchists are by far the most successful of the six groups. So while I find their project weighed down by the failures of Post-Liberal Protestantism but lacking its intellectual heft and potential, I cannot deny that as far as organization and mobilization are concerned, the Liberal Revanchists are extremely successful. Thus, even if the other schools have significant differences with the Liberal Revanchists and have some reason to look down their noses at them, the fact remains that this group has accomplished a great deal and so, if nothing else, we can learn a lot about mobilization and organization from their example.
It is highly probable that we will see major transformations in American social life within the lifetime of most millennials. There are many reasons for this: Political instability in Europe will create difficulties for the global order that props up the American economy. A resurgent Russia and booming China could add to the complexity still more. Domestically, there are quite clearly two Americas today and the rise of AI is going to further decimate one of those Americas, which will fuel the resentment that helped inaugurate Donald Trump. Add to this the fragmentation that is inevitable in a society that embraces expressive individualism and the fallout from climate change and you have a recipe for social revolution.
This, then, is why we cannot stop where Rod does in his project. Certainly everything Rod is talking about is significant. Churches need to rediscover catechesis. We need to develop thick, local Christian communities. And we need to think about how to preserve a healthy understanding of sex ethics in the midst of a world that is particularly insane when it comes to those questions. But attempting to do these works will necessarily lead us to other more foundational and theoretical questions about the nature of civil society.
Up to this point, I suspect the default tendency for most American evangelicals has been to embrace one of our two liberal strategies. Older evangelicals have likely veered toward Liberal Revanchism while the younger have embraced Liberal Protestantism. That said, the institutions that make these two strategies more plausible and normal-seeming are likely to fail or change dramatically in the years to come. We’ve seen hints of such changes already in the controversies surrounding religious liberty, safe spaces on university campuses, and so-called “hate speech.” While the shape of those controversies may change depending on what happens with the Supreme Court, the underlying cultural issues driving the controversies are not going to go away. If anything, they are likely to become even sharper in the near future.
For that reason, it will be increasingly important for western Christians to consider these kinds of questions. We live in volatile times. So it is important that we have plans not only for weathering whatever storms we may face, but also for beginning to build civil society again. Political theology cannot simply be a hobby for those who enjoy thinking about such things. That approach to the topic is a luxury for those who live in stable, sustainable polities. For all the reasons already mentioned, we do not. Whatever your approach to these questions of communal life, you need to understand the issue well and have a considered plan. This is the responsibility that those living in times of dramatic upheaval have to understand and embrace.
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- One smart friend suggested that perhaps the reason that Rod, an Eastern Orthodox Christian, sounds so Anabaptist at times is that in Orthodox political theology you pretty much have to have the magistrate working in service to the church. If you don’t have that, you basically are forced into a withdrawal from a social order that, in your eyes, is illegitimate. You then have to recreate your own parallel society beginning in local churches—which means that Eastern Orthodox political theology in non-Orthodox states may look a whole lot like Anabaptist theology.
- I have leaned on Pater Edmund’s analysis a bit in this piece. The difference is that whereas he is analyzing Catholic theology, I am looking at American Christianity. That said, what he calls “Whig Thomists” I include as part of the Liberal Revanchists” and what he calls “Radical Augustinians” I would include as part of the Post-Liberal Retreatist school.
- The treatment of religious liberty in Kennedy’s speech is interesting and tells us a great deal about how our understanding of “religion” has changed in 57 years. The understanding of “religion” that JFK is working from is bad, but it is better than what we have today.
- More libertarian types will have a fairly limited range of responsibilities here, political leftists, like myself, will have a more expansive notion of what this looks like.
- The first two types labeled above could actually be found in any of the first four groups because they are not ultimately concerned with the theoretical underpinnings of a movement but only with personality traits and prudential decisions about responding to a given historical moment.
- I reviewed Joustra and Wilkinson’s book last week.
- This is another reason there is something strange about James K. A. Smith dinging folks like Dreher and Chaput for wanting to prop up white culture in the United States. Dreher is Orthodox, a fairly diverse ecclesial communion that, particularly in America, often includes the various Asian Christians that have been displaced by recent conflict in the Middle East. Chaput himself is Native American. Smith, meanwhile, belongs to a tradition that literally invented Apartheid.
- Toward that end, I have plans to begin interacting with a number of books by black authors in the near future as soon as I get out from under the pile of work immediately set before me.
- From Jake: I amended this sentence in 2020. An earlier version was, in hindsight, too careless in its language and so I decided to modify the sentence.