One of the chief difficulties about the conversation between the Augustinian Liberal Christian Right and the Reactionary Christian Right to this point has been a lack of clarity about the actual political principles and norms that reactionary conservative evangelicals affirm.
Prior to 2016, there were three main lanes that white evangelicals tended to run in as far as their political theology goes. By far the largest and most powerful was a Reaganite bloc that favored small government (veering toward libertarianism at times) while, at times, trying to harness government in extremely limited ways to help the disadvantaged—thus “compassionate conservatism.” Though the largest group by some measure, it never was an altogether coherent fit with historic Christian political thought, as many of us have been at pains to demonstrate for some time now.
Amongst those more interested in historical Christian thought, there were two primary groups. The first and larger team was the Hauerwasian, for the great radical theologian Stanley Hauerwas, which sought to highlight the sharp discontinuity between the church community and all other human communities, while the second was the O’Donovanian, for the preeminent Anglican theologian Oliver O’Donovan, which sought to promote a vision of Christendom that was compatible with many elements of classical liberalism. (While I have much respect and love for the Hauerwasians, I am going to mostly leave them to the side in this piece.)
Tim Keller, it seems to me, is an exemplary popular example of the O’Donovanian school. Keller is not a libertarian by any stretch, but neither is he illiberal. Rather, he has spent his ministry promoting a vision of Christian faith that is pervasively and unapologetically Christian and deeply engaged with modern society. Like Herman Bavinck, Keller’s faith is both orthodox and modern. His broader social program is also quite harmonious with the vision of O’Donovan. For O’Donovanians, Christendom is, as one friend put it recently, “the organic, non-coerced response to the mission of the church, which is made fruitful by the church’s suffering for the sake of the Gospel.”
In practice, this means two things that highlight the distinctiveness of the O’Donovanian school. First, there is the forthright claim that there can be such a thing as a “Christian nation” and that, in fact, it is good for nations to be Christian—Christ himself is “the desire of the nations,” after all. Moreover, in keeping with that claim, Christian governments can and should use their power to advance a recognizably Christian vision of the good. So the O’Donovanians break rather sharply from the libertarians. On the other hand, the O’Donovanian school recognizes that much of the energy and momentum that drives Christendom forward is not found in the hard power of states, but rather through softer forms of power: through the church’s work of evangelization, the patient work of loving one’s neighbor, and through faithful suffering. It is through these means that Christendom is established and made fruitful.
This means that Christendom derives its moral and epistemic authority not from political power as such, but from a broader way of life that, over time, yields much fruit socially and, in time, radiates out into politics proper. The church is faithful, eventually the king hears the Gospel and repents, and then he starts asking questions about what it means to be a Christian king. And so Christendom begins to unfurl. (This is a process well underway in sub-Saharan Africa, incidentally, where a number of nations are now Christian nations according to their own constitutions and some national leaders are even asking the church to help them understand how to be a Christian ruler.)
From this core definition, a few additional points quickly become apparent. One key insight of O’Donovan’s is that many debates concerning politics and ethics are vexed not by a lack of good answers but by a lack of good questions. We need true moral concepts, O’Donovan teaches us, before we can engage in healthy moral reasoning. So to take one example, the O’Donovanian school has a sharp concern with the distinction between power and authority and wants to talk about that before getting into brass tacks questions about the licit uses of power.
In a recent lecture at a Davenant Institute event in Minneapolis, Brad Littlejohn (himself an O’Donovan student) distinguished between the two by saying that power relies upon the personal presence of the one who possesses power while authority is something that still holds even when the possessor of authority is not personally, bodily present. Inherent in this sort of analysis, then, is a recognition of the limits of power in itself to accomplish real change. Change comes when power is wed to authority, not simply when power is wielded. What power makes can just as easily be unmade. What authority makes is much more durable.
Because of this concern about “authority” a further concern of the O’Donovanian school is with the relationship between the liberal rights and Christianity. It won’t do, this school says, to simply use power to promote the good unless that power recognizes its own fallibility and limitations. Eric Gregory, another O’Donovan student, offers a compelling account in his book Politics and the Order of Love of how liberal rights can be anchored positively in Christian concepts rather than being rooted in a purely negative procedural argument. Liberalism need not necessarily entail the naked public square that so many on the reactionary right think it does; it can, rather, be reconciled to a Christian account of public life and even a positive Christian vision of statecraft.
What all of this cashes out to, in practice, is a political vision in which specific policies are under-determined by design so that each polity can discern the right policies that, within their context, best accord with the requirements of justice, political authority, and the kingship of Christ. The chief concern for the O’Donovanians then is not power qua power, but the conditions under which power is made fruitful.
Of course, it is for precisely these reasons that the O’Donovan school can sometimes struggle to accomplish real world political goals—the combination of a deep, wide-ranging concern with asking the right questions wed to a high regard for prudence can have the appearance of watering down a political vision by shrinking back from rendering firm judgment. This isn’t inherent in the program, however. There is a practical edge to it, even an edge that can accommodate some types of compromise.
O’Donovan himself has famously said that, “The prophet needs a point of view from which it is possible to criticize without criticism becoming a mere form, empty of substance. The prophet is not allowed the luxury of perpetual subversion. After Ahab, Elijah must anoint some Hazael, some Jehu.” The point of the O’Donovanian school is not that we can only be ruled legitimately by philosopher kings. Someone must hold power, even if that someone is as bad as Hazael or Jehu. However, the O’Donovanians insist that power will fail if it is not linked to something deeper that exists outside of the political offices themselves.
The Eclipsing of Organic Christendom
The advent of Donald Trump, however, combined with the legal transformations brought about by Obergefell introduced a new stress test for the American church. The O’Donovanian school, with its interest in principles, asking the right questions, and its high emphasis on patience suddenly appeared ill-equipped for the moment. The questions they wished to foreground and the distinctions they sought to make suddenly looked decadent, like luxury items that needed to be cast aside due to political necessity.
And so a new school emerged. While it is true that this new political school often seems to be propelled purely by ressentiment and animus and a delight in owning the libs, if we reduce the reactionary Christian right to those appetites and impulses we will have done ourselves and them a disservice. There is an underlying political theology here I think, even if it is not clear that all the members of the movement recognize the fact. One attempt at articulating that theology, and the best I’ve seen so far comes from Gladden Pappin in the pages of The Lamp.
The heart of Pappin’s theory is what he refers to as “reasons of state.”
On his deathbed in Paris in December 1642, Cardinal Richelieu was asked by the curé of Saint-Eustache, his confessor, whether he forgave his enemies. “I have had no enemies,” the cardinal is alleged to have replied, “except those of the state.” Although the anecdote may not be entirely factual—it was widely circulated by the cardinal’s critics—it points to an entire school of Catholic political thought that has fallen from favor. Richelieu occupies no place in our curriculum except as an example of cunning and ruthless statecraft. Most people associate his manner with that of Machiavelli.
It is a mistake to do so. Richelieu belongs to the ragion di stato (reason of state) tradition, which was born as a counter-Machiavellian response to “Old Nick.” But the confusion is unsurprising: reason of state emphasizes the use of state power to ensure the common good. And this clashes with the conceit popular among many Anglo-American conservatives that the wise statesman restrains the state within careful boundaries, enabling traditional culture to flourish. It’s doubly unfortunate for Catholics in American politics, who, fearing the use of state power, limit themselves to vying within the modern Republican Party’s uneasy coalition of hawks, traditionalists, and free marketeers. They have been cut off—often unknowingly—from the specific tradition of political thought by which modern Catholic strategists have understood statecraft. And they labor under an illusion. Government spending as a share of GDP has consistently inched higher since the 1960s, and that trend shows no signs of reversal. Yet outside Central Europe, conservatives seem unable to practice statecraft to harness or direct an ever-growing state.
Briefly, the argument of the reason of state tradition, as best I understand it, is that within modernity “the state” occupies a central role in the life of every society. Therefore, it is right and good for Christians to both attempt to gain and hold political power and for the state itself to be used in service of the common good.
This, then, is the philosophical rationale for what is increasingly known as “Orbanism,” for the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Orbanism is, simply stated, a right-wing political program dedicated to using the power of the modern administrative state to promote and advance the common good, as understood by a certain sort of right wing traditionalism. To state the division plainly, if the O’Donovanian instinct is toward patience and broader questions about how societies learn to hear and respond to Christ their King, the Orbanist school simply takes whatever political tools are given to it and puts whatever power is at its disposal into service of its vision of the good. The O’Donovan school is concerned with the quality of the soil and the endurance of the farm. The Orbanist school just wants the keys to the tractor so it can start plowing.
Amongst those of us critical of the dead consensus, this debate is the center of our division. The ascent of Orbanism should not come as a surprise to us, however. Many of the victories the political left has won in recent years are perceived to be what we might call “reason of state” victories. President Obama lied about his views on gay marriage in 2008, for example, because it was advantageous for securing the presidency. Once in office, he secured a major political victory on Obamacare and then, during his presidency, the Supreme Court secured a further progressive triumph through the redefinition of marriage.
Given that, many conservatives started to feel as if they had taken a knife to a gun fight: If the left is going to use the state to advance its understanding of the common good, even when that understanding includes all the violence and mutilation entailed in transgenderism (for example), and the right is going to continue regarding state power with suspicion and fear… well, that fight is only gonna end one way. If the left is willing to use the state to secure their vision of the good life, why shouldn’t the right as well?
Within this frame, many of the decisions and strategies of the reactionary Christian right snap into sharp focus, taking on an intelligibility that they sometimes seem to lack when viewed as being purely driven by animus. Here, again, is Pappin:
It took several decades of percolating through the courts of Europe for ThePrince to draw serious responses from other political minds. Machiavelli’s guidebook was shocking not only because of its attack on Christian virtues, but because it positioned their violation as the sine qua non of successful statecraft. This framework for the debate continues to our own day. It is taken for granted that Machiavelli’s moral and religious indifference is the price of political success, and any successful leader is assumed, regardless of his character, to have paid it. Christian conservatives are supposed to be “principled” politicians; statesmen who defeat their enemies are presumed unscrupulous. …
Reason of state literature acknowledged where the power of the new, amoral reasoning was tending. Rather than harkening back to a golden age, reason of state simply accepted that moral guidance on its own would be insufficient to persuade modern princes against the Machiavellian path. The new type of prince needed a new model of statecraft founded in showing princes how advice born from Christian prudence could ensure success after Machiavelli had identified Christian education as the source of modern weakness.
Thus Pappin and the reactionary right believe that their political program is the antidote to the cynical and Machiavellian strand of contemporary progressivism now ascendant on the American left. Orbanism is how you fight Machiavelli by fighting him on his home turf, as it were. Rod Dreher is perhaps one of the most obvious examples of this line of thought:
It’s instructive to consider that the fights against wokeness finally gained traction when people came to understand that these activists were trying to poison the minds of their children — and they took political action. What the movement against CRT in schools in northern Virginia did — that’s the way. Ron DeSantis — he’s the way. One of the reasons I tout Viktor Orban is that, for example, he used political power to defund and disaccredit the bullsh*t academic field of “gender studies” in state-funded Hungarian universities. He didn’t apologize for it, and didn’t give a rat’s rear end what the bien-pensants of the Left had to say about it. He doesn’t want this garbage taking root in his country, if he can help it, and convincing Hungarian adolescents to cut off their balls and breasts.
Are we serious about fighting the culture war? If so, it’s going to require developing contempt for these elite institutions that already hold contempt for us — and making them pay real prices. They are going to hoot and holler about our “illiberalism” — while remaining perfectly blind to their own left-wing illiberalism, and completely sanguine about the justice of their own privilege.
In the event that DeSantis is the nominee in 2024, as I think he will be, expect this conversation to only become sharper and louder.
This, then, is the difference on political theory, I think, that is driving much of the contemporary debate on the Christian right: For the “reasons of state” side, the O’Donovanian school is a kind of indulgent, decadent movement that lacks the fortitude required to stand in this cultural moment. But the O’Donovanian school looks at Reason of State and sees something that is inherently brittle and unsustainable because it has focused on power without any consideration of authority.
Is this sketch of recent history even accurate?
What’s intriguing about all this is that it’s not actually as obvious as one might think that it is the left using “reasons of state” style politics while the right used a naive, anti-state Reaganite strategy.
Take the left’s signature political victory in the past 25 years: gay marriage. Did the left triumph here because of the Supreme Court and hard political power? In a technical sense, sure. But there are any number of things the left would love to do through legislation or the courts. So why is it they could do something that once seemed as absurd and far-fetched as redefining marriage and yet they still haven’t managed more drastic economic reforms? What conditions made their technical triumph on gay marriage plausible in the first place?
Answer: a long-standing cultural campaign made through media to help normalize same-sex romantic relationships. Shows like Will and Grace rendered the idea of “gay marriage,” which historically does not exist even in societies that tolerated same-sex relationships of a kind, something plausible and even morally necessary in the eyes of many Americans. So one can make the case that it was persuasion and not state power, that secured the left’s great victories.
Indeed, when one recalls O’Donovan’s words about the power of suffering and one also factors in the obvious public suffering of many gay men during the AIDS crisis, my case might become even stronger: Is gay marriage the product of hard political power or the product of long-term persuasion aided by cultural forms and clear, undeniable public suffering? The technical answer is “both,” but the latter came prior to the former and it was only because of the latter that the former could ever have happened. If progressivism has replaced Christendom, it may well be because the progressives borrowed heavily from Christendom’s toolkit before ditching it once their triumph seemed final. Indeed, it is striking that it is only since the left has begun to abandon soft power and to impose their norms onto others that they have begun to rack up defeats.
One could even go further and make the case that the conservative movement has already been availing itself of state power to secure its goals apart from any concerns with persuasion or deference to liberal norms and has been doing so since the Obama years at least. Consider cases like the refusal to appoint Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, the fast-tracking of Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment, as well as the constant politicking and maneuvering of Mitch McConnell across his entire career as the Republican’s leader in the Senate.
And yet, whatever one makes of the historical arguments here, it is clear that today both the right and left are chiefly concerned with hard power. Neither is in search of true political or moral concepts, neither is much interested in the conditions under which authority is made or power is made fruitful. The entire game is “gain power and then use power.” So where does that leave us?
The Brittleness of Reason of State
Though the reactionary Christian right is a mixed movement of Catholics and Protestants, it is significant to note that the Reason of State tradition as articulated by Pappin is primarily a Catholic tradition. The reasons why become apparent with only a moment of thought.
Magisterial Protestantism, by its very nature, recognizes that institutions and communities, even ecclesial institutions, can enter into error. This breeds in us a certain allergy to absolutism, some of the crankier members of the magisterial tradition notwithstanding. And so we have a strong emphasis on reading scripture, arguing over its meaning, and reasoning with one another hardwired into our tradition, all of which incline Protestants toward a certain species of liberalism simply because we have no all-powerful institution to appeal to. We reason with one another and protect each person’s right to read the Bible for themselves because we have no other option given our underlying principles.
For Rome, in contrast, when the church speaks, you do not question it or argue against it. You submit. Whereas the magisterial protestant tradition shrinks back from certain forms of judgment, particularly physically coercive judgments made by the church, the Catholic tradition has mostly had no objection to such things.
Indeed, one can read even the post Vatican II church as still affirming the church’s right to use physical force against baptized Christians. This inherently causes Roman faith and practice to be institutionally mediated in a way that Protestant practice is not (due to the priesthood of all believers). It also means that simply holding institutional power is of far greater import in the Roman world than in the Protestant.
The problem is that while Reason of State can start out looking like a plausible vision because it fights fire with fire, its institutional fixations cause it to lose many of the goods essential for long-term health and the sustainability of any human movement. To see the proof of this, we need look no further than the Protestant Reformation.
Mark Noll summarized the issue well in an exchange he had with Brad Gregory over the latter’s book The Unintended Reformation. Here is Noll:
Because of how intimately the affairs of state and church had become interconnected in the centuries before 1520, Pope Leo X was involved up to his eyeballs in the maneuvering that led to the appointment of the new Holy Roman Emperor. Far more important than pastoring the renegade Augustinian monk from Wittenberg was the need to protect the papal states and its revenues amidst the delicate power politics that required the pope to balance the interests of the Habsburg emperor, the Hohenzollerns of Brandenburg Prussia, and the Valois of France.
This brief summary that formed the background as Luther’s protest exploded indicates what kind of ecclesiastical embodiment the Christianity of western Christendom was enduring in the early 16th century. In a word, it was an institutional embodiment vastly overloaded with coercion and skimpy, to the point of non-existence, on caritas.
Put another way, because of Rome’s concern with hard power and obsession with one particular institution it felt that virtually any means imaginable were licit to secure the safety and prosperity of the Roman pontiff. And so the late medieval church often leaned hard into coercion while lacking basic Christian love.
Significantly, in the countries that rejected reform, this problem did not go away. Here the fact that Pappin opens his essay by citing Richelieu is most striking: Is it a coincidence that the place Pappin cites as the model for “Reason of State,” politics is also the seed bed for modern atheistic political revolution?
Historical Protestants would say, “no.” Indeed, all I have said so far is an echo of Groen Van Prinsterer, a 19th century Dutch political theorist and historian. It was Groen who took up the question of “the revolution” in Europe and argued, convincingly, that the French Revolution had essentially metastasized in 19th century Europe, unleashing a radical voluntarism onto the world that would know no limits and create a great deal of suffering and injustice in the world.
Against this, Groen suggested that the magisterial reformation is actually the counter to the revolution precisely because the French Revolution and its children were a predictable reaction against an overbearing ecclesial authority. The Reformation, then, attempted to correct these problems in the Roman church before the situation would escalate to what eventually took place in 1789. Here is Groen:
(Late medieval Catholic political theory) contained the very germ of unbelief. First, it changed the sovereignty of God into the sovereignty of the pope, changing the vicar into a rebel and the worship of God into the worship of an idol. Furthermore, by having church and state together coerce and repress conscience it provoked a reaction to religion and authority that was bound to lead to the most dreadful situations.
Put another way, by making the claims that the late medieval church made about the nature of papal authority, both over the church and as it related to government, these claims effectively dislocated God as the authority we submit to and dislocated Scripture as the norm that governs our lives. And by replacing these authorities with fallible, finite human people, they uprooted the sources of political society in Christendom.
Elsewhere, Groen says
Many have said that the Revolution of our time has its cause and origin in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. This thesis has been defended by such well-known men of learning as Bonald, Maistre, and Lamennais. Like us, they seek to explain the Revolution from the spread of unbelief throughout Europe. But who do they say is to blame for this unbelief? The Reformation. And why? Because it rejected all authority and in its stead pushed the sovereignty of human reason to the foreground. …
The principle of the Reformation–its basic premise or point of departure: was it liberty? Most assuredly not. It did preach liberty, but as the Gospel does: a liberty that is grounded in submission. Liberty is the consequence, the principle is submission. Submission to God’s Word and Law. Submission, for his sake, also to men. Submission to every truth drawn from God’s Word, to every authority derived from Divine authority. Freedom to perform one’s duty. Freedom from the whim of men, to submit to the will of God.
The Reformation wants to be free from Tradition whenever it contradicts the Bible, free from human command whenever it conflicts with the divine commandments. it desires prayerful searching of the Scriptures, not in order that Revelation might yield to Reason, but that men’s presumptuous minds might bow to Revelation’s higher light. In placing the Bible in the hands of every man the Reformation does not put its confidence in man’s private wisdom and individual insight to sift out the correct meaning, but it places its trust in the promise of the Holy Spirit to enable men to receive “the things of the Spirit.
The Reformation demands freedom, not in order to lay down the law to kings and magistrates, or to procure political privileges for itself, or to use liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but freedom to be servants of God, to worship Him, and to confess Him as Lord.
So for Groen, what we might call “reason of state” political theory leads directly to revolutionary thinking precisely because of its fixation on hard power and indifference to authority. When you become narrowly focused on hard power and utterly indifferent to persuasion, virtuous public life, and love of neighbor, you inevitably breed in your society a contempt for all authority.
Bavinck deals with this as well in his essay on catholicity, writing that, “Christianity is no longer the content, it is only the foundation of the Roman superstructure. Christ is the step by which the pope climbed his throne.” We might say, likewise, that Christ (a deeply cynical, deeply American “Christ”) is the step by which Chris Rufo, Ron DeSantis, and their ilk would climb their own thrones. But Christ is no man’s footstool.
“Reason of state,” we might say exalts the quest for political power to such a degree that it effectively insulates the means we use to gain power from any recognizably Christian moral norms. And then, somehow by magic, people schooled in behaving as amoral, power-mad cynics must suddenly become promoters of justice and righteousness upon gaining power. It’s no surprise, then, that the home to Reason of State would also become home to revolutionary modes of thought.
Back to O’Donovan
What this means is that those who think we need to bring “reason of state” back to successfully resist contemporary progressivism have the matter precisely backwards: Contemporary progressivism is the natural reaction against the “reason of state,” model, as plainly seen in the history of France. The last thing we should be doing in this moment is turning our back on the questions and concerns of the O’Donovan school.
The O’Donovan school recognizes the importance of political authority and, indeed, the necessity of compromise while also recognizing that political power is not ultimate, but exists subserviently to other concerns which must never be abandoned in the pursuit of power, not only because such abandonment is in itself wrong, but also because such abandonment does, over time, have the effect of sterilizing political forms and structures, such that they become impotent and discredited.
And so we return to where we began: How does one sustain a Christian community in the aftermath of Obergefell and when facing the threats posed by liquid modernity in all its forms to Christian faithfulness and the Christian family? The various reactionary Christian right thinkers would have us think that we do it through a taking up of force, deploying the means of the state to reward our friends and punish our enemies.
To this, I think the tale of France offers a sad, cautionary warning as to where such thinking will lead. The reason the appeal to “reason of state” exerts such force on us today is because our church is weak and, in such a moment, the state can look like a savior. But Christian theology has a name for the act of looking to anything other than God to save us: That name is “idolatry.” When we invest such authority and significance into fallible human persons and institutions, we inevitably set ourselves up for failure and collapse, as happened in France.
Far better, I think, to consider that perhaps “reason of state,” is not new at all, nor, indeed, can it be our salvation. It has been and will continue to be our ruination. Indeed, our progressive opposites, rose to power not through coercive means, but by making their case through media and through public suffering. So where to, if not “reason of state”? Back to O’Donovan, back to “true political concepts,” and back to ways of living that make authority real and cause it to be fruitful.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).