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 The Prince 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.
This is a good piece, Jake! I appreciate your careful evaluation of the reason of state crowd, rather than just calling them reactionary.
(I say that as someone whose political philosophy is more O’Donovanian)
I wonder, though, if it would be more helpful to distinguish either camps within the reason-of-state crowd, or to add another category to the “Christians who seek hard power in politics” group.
Because, while the reason-of-state philosophy can seem amoral or friendly toward immorality, I do think it’s possible, even in today’s political environment, to 1) seek hard political power, not just persuasion, but 2) do so “within the rules of the game” politically and morally, knowing they might make enemies as well as friends.
As best I can tell from the James Wood Event, that’s the position Wood was trying to validate, against the Kellerite approach of trying to accommodate as many political positions as Christianly possible for the sake of evangelizing and pastoring. Wood seemed to be advocating for pursuing political power, I assume within the spheres of Christian morality and legal possibility, for the sake of pursuing political ends consonant with a conservative’s vision for social good. That pursuit will make political enemies and runs the risk of dividing congregations, which makes it probably not the sphere of pastors; but I assume many people who caricature Wood’s position would probably think doing the same thing to end slavery or Jim Crow were morally good (as I do).
In the same way that you could caricature O’Donavonians (?) as people more interested in talking ideas and seeking consensuses while doing nothing, you could caricature all Christian seekers of political power as corrupt Orbanites. And I don’t follow these things closely enough to hold any one person up as an exemplar of “moral power seeking.” But I assume there are such people, and it would be a shame to lump them in with people not worthy of admiration or imitation.
The key hurdle here for the aspirants to hard power is to identify a *positive* vision of the good life that’s both plausible and actionable.
Rod Dreher is probably the leading spokesman for this philosophy. But Dreher offers no vision for the good life beyond enacting laws that would have the effect of stuffing gay people back into the closet. In fact, I’d suggest that Orban’s recent anti-gay policies are a cynical ploy to marshal the support of US social conservatives as his authoritarian kleptocracy continues to suffer economic decline and massive emigration of its best and brightest. Without the largesse of EU transfer payments, Hungary is Albania. Trust me. Not many Americans hate gay people enough to take on the Albanian way of life in exchange for pushing gays out of the public square.
The only other vision I see from this crowd is wistful nostalgia for the America of the 1950s.
I believe that a vision of some sort is possible. But it has to account for the realities of where we are today. As long as this crowd is mired in admiration for authoritarian strong-men like Orban, Franco, and Putin, they may as well take the Haurwasian approach.
I’d also note that few of these fans of places like Hungary have any interest in moving there. At least Dreher has spent some time there. But he spends that time in cosmopolitan Budapest, not in a hardscrabble farming village in the Carpathian basin. When one of these Orban apologists cuts themselves off from wealthy sponsors and decides to make a go of it in rural Hungary in the same way that a native Hungarian would, it’s hard to take them seriously. It’s easy to think that Hungary’s a nice place when a billionaire donor in the US is paying for your luxury flat in Budapest’s most expensive neighborhood.
Thanks for taking the time and effort to put this together. I found it to be quite helpful.
The piece gave me a much better appreciation of O’Donovan (OD) project. I read a couple of his books when I was in law school, and found them to be consistent with this. But the few Americans who promoted OD often seemed to draft him as a promoter of the reactionary model.
I agree that Trump and Obergefell are probably the two things that put wind into the sails of the reactionary program.
As far as Trump is concerned, I’d suggest that Trump is merely echoing the sense of grievance and ressentiment that had already taken hold in a certain sector of the American electorate. He have voice to people’s pain and frustration in a way that no prior GOP candidate had. Trump, to his credit, saw that the Bush-Romney policies had run their course and offered few benefits to working-class Americans. But Trump wasn’t saying anything that you wouldn’t have heard from half of the folks at a sports bar in rural Indiana on a Friday night. The problem is that the GOP establishment had become too beholden to the private equity and hedge fund crowd. Of course, once Trump was in office, the narcissism that served him well in the 2016 campaign became a hindrance. In my view, the GOP could have pushed him aside, and run with Pence and won. Polls show that the wing-nut crowd is rather small; most people voted for Trump because he spoke to the issues that mattered to them, even if he did so poorly and with incoherence.
Some of the grievance people experience concerns the economic hollowing out that was bestowed upon us by globalization. In my view, the purpose of globalization—buying off the rest of the world to isolate the Soviets—had been accomplished by 1991. We should have begun stepping back then. Instead, we let the Chinese print money like there was no tomorrow and flood the global marketplace with underpriced goods. Although these practices were a clear violation of WTO rules, the US elites played along. The technocrats got rich, and Main Street suffered. Working-class Americans are right to harbor grievance and ressentiment over this betrayal.
But the ressentiment and grievance do not merely concern economics. That brings us to Obergefell. That said, I’d suggest that Obergefell is a condensed symbol of a broader sense of cultural estrangement. Those of us born after 1970 easily forget how overwhelmingly white and Christian America was before that time. It’s understandable that many Americans would believe that something has been irretrievably lost. Data show that ethnic and cultural diversity diminishes social trust. Notably, all high-trust cultures in the world are ethnically homogeneous. And high social trust demands that a certain degree of localism remain intact and that people suppress individuality in favor of group cohesion. Like it or not, that America is gone and will not return. Much of the reactionary project seems intent on bringing back that kind of America by force. It’s utterly unrealistic. Orban’s project only works because he receives a largesse in the form of EU transfer payments, which he doles out to cronies in his authoritarian kleptocracy. It is no model for America.
The frustration of the reactionaries seems to be that there is no way to recover pre-1965 America. They’ve given up on the OD approach because they recognize that it will eventually need to account for the changing ethnic and cultural landscape of the US. They like the OD approach, so long as it engages a pre-1965 America, plus Christians of Chinese and Korean descent. As the pressure mounts to accede to a broader view of what America is, they feel the need to retreat to something that allows them to evade reality a bit longer.
I do think that it’s worth sticking with the OD approach. The economic issues that gave us Trump will work themselves out. America is well positioned in the post-globalization economic order. See Peter Zeihan’s new book. I suspect that we’ll be able to reverse a fair degree of the hollowing out that working-class Americans have experienced. Moreover, I think we can navigate the cultural waters of we set realistic goals. We’ve got to stop crying over the loss of pre-1965 America. The high-trust homogeneous culture of that era is never coming back. Never. So, we should fight the battles that we can win, such as fighting the spread of pro-Marxist woke ideology.
It is interesting that Orban is the only world leader who’s Reformed, but he’s most beloved by Catholics. Has anyone ever seen an analysis of him from a Calvinist perspective?
Orban’s religious impulses are probably analogous to those of mid-century mainline Protestants in the US. Hungary is fairly secular, despite what Rod Dreher would have you believe.
My sense that as a leader, Orban’s Christianity is cultural and national (note: I am not judging his faith, merely the motivations for his governing). He sees Hungary’s culture as being directly tied to western Christian principles. I do not sense that he is attempting some sort of “Calvinist Integralism.” Catholics of a certain stripe seem to love Orban not strictly because of his Christianity, but because he is not afraid to wield his power in the service of certain cultural Christian and conservative principles.
I’d also note that Obergefell was hardly radical.
As Carl Trueman noted in his prescient piece, The Yuck Factor, that appeared in print more than two years earlier: “The argument for gay marriage proceeds on the basis of a logic which society, and sadly many churches, accepted long ago. Do not fret about when marriage will be redefined. It was. Quite some time back.”
The radical redefinition of marriage occurred in the early 20th century. Once we redefined marriage as the embodiment of heterosexual attraction and desire, the way for same-sex marriage had been opened. Once the Freudian junk science that led to defining homosexuality as a pathology had been debunked, there was no longer any rational reason to exclude same-sex couples from the legal benefits of civil marriage. After all, we had long ago come to reject the notion that marriage reflects a duty of the couple to the community, principally centered around procreation.
Also, the “liquid modernity” critique derives from a critique of the loss of a kind of epistemic and ethical idealism centered around the Church. It makes some sense in a European context, but not in an American context. Americans have always been epistemic and ethical realists, and remain so to this day. When writers like Rod Dreher complain about liquid modernity, they are comparing our present lot to life under a church-and-crown sort of conservatism. America rejected church-and-crown Toryism from its beginning. So, it seems odd to be calling us back to something that we, as a nation, rejected as illegitimate from 1776 onward.
I’d also add that there are few people on the left who’d view same-sex marriage as any kind of crowning achievement. That’s because there’s not much of a left-right split on the issue. The split mainly fell along lines of age and social class. Most younger professional-class conservatives favored same-sex marriage. In fact, the driving force behind the movement was Andrew Sullivan, a conservative intellectual. And the lawyer who put the legal strategy together was Ted Olson, a Federalist Society member and stalwart conservative.
I spent nearly a decade working for a notable conservative law firm in DC. I’d guess that about 20% of my colleagues were gay. And I never ran across any colleagues who opposed same-sex marriage (although some may question whether this is an issue to which the Constitution speaks). And this was well before Obergefell. Now that we know that gay people are no less normal than anyone else, it’s those who still insist on our marginalization who are the radicals.
Many angels dancing here…
Maybe people are becoming more rational.
I note the absence of thought on social media.
Big ol’ nothingburger to us rationalists.
I think we Christians spend too much time on trying to develop a distinct Christian political ideology. Why do I say that? It is because the Scriptures have little to say on the kind of government we should have for a religiously heterogeneous society. While the Old Testament talks specifically of a religiously homogeneous society, the New Testament doesn’t mention what kind of government should exist in which the Church promote. What we do know about what kind of society a government should allow is known from a few passages on evangelism and Church discipline as well as a few passages from describing the Church’s state as being in exile and away from home.
The desire to create a distinct Christian political ideology has created 2 detrimental effects on the Church. The first, and greatest, detrimental effect is that many deservedly respectable leaders in the Church have come to a Christian political ideology with an attitude that says to the world that us Christians have everything to teach the world and nothing to learn from it–which was a criticism that Martin Luther King Jr. made of the West during his speech protesting the Vietnam War.
That attitude is not only arrogant, but it produces churches that are behind the times in accepting truths about scientific issues like Climate Change, certain aspects of evolution, and the current pandemic in addition to accepting certain failures of Christendom such as its contributions to systemic racism and its penchant for supporting those with wealth and power who oppress others to get their way.
The other ill effect of the Church’s effort to create a distinct Christian political ideology is that it causes many in the Church to confuse ethnocracies with democracy. That distinction can be found in a quote by ICAHD’s founder Jeff Helper in his book, An Israeli In Palestine: Resisting Dispossession, Redeeming Israel:
An ethnocracy is the opposite of a democracy, although it might incorporate some elements of democracy such as universal citizenship and elections. It arises when one particular group—the Jews in Israel, the Russians in Russia, the Protestants in pre-1972 Northern Ireland, the whites in apartheid South Africa, the Shi’ite Muslims of Iran, the Malay of Malaysia and, if they had their way, the white Christian fundamentalist in the US—seizes control of the government and the armed forces in order to enforce a regime of exclusive privilege over other groups in what is in fact a multi-ethic or multi-religious society. Ethnocracy, or ethno-nationalism, privileges ethnos over demos. whereby one’s ethnic affiliation, be it defined by race, descent, religion, language or national origin, takes precedence over citizenship in determining to whom a country actually “belongs.” Israel is referred to explicitly by its political leaders as a “Jewish Democracy.”
See, in a democracy as a state of being, all ethnic groups have an equal share of the nation. That means, as Jefferson warned against in his 1801 Inaugural Address, that the rule of the majority must never be used to oppress minority groups–if only Jefferson had walked his talk. Considering that religion is an ethnic category, the efforts of Christians to not only create a Christian political ideology but to promote that ideology so that it should the ruling ideology of those in government shows that we Christians not only fail to understand democracy, we are working against it.
The result of working against democracy is that it sabotages our efforts to carry out the Great Commission. For with our efforts to secure a privileged place for Christians to have a significant degree of supremacy over others in the government and society, people will see our opportunism and oppression of others before they hear our evangelism.
I agree that Scripture is largely silent as to political structure and order. In that sense, I agree that there is no such thing as “political theology” for Christians. Never mind that the term is often just a euphemism for a call to return to a kind of crown-and-cup civic order more reminiscent of pre-1848 Europe.
But I’d suggest that Scripture also lends little support for democratic multi-ethnic pluralism. Nor do I see where the Scriptures compel me to be concerned about climate change. Never mind that nothing we do in the West will make a material difference so long as China and India continue to spew CO2 into the air. In fact, pushing CO2-producing manufacturing to China and India, such as metals smelting, simply exacerbates the problem. Yes, we lowered our own CO2 emissions. But the global demand for cobalt, lithium, and the like remain. So, they’re smelted in China using processes that generate about 50% more CO2 that the same processes would generate if carried out in the US. Sure, climate change is occurring. But until concern for climate change moves beyond mere virtue signaling, it’s hard to see how climate-change denial is a problem.
Curt is an old Marxist and he promotes the idea that the Bible has nothing to say about government in order to make Marxism more appealing. BTW, Tim Keller is a socialist, too, but doesn’t want to advertise it. He and other new Calvinists are socialists and want Christians to become politically ambivalent in order to give socialism a better chance.
The NT has little to say on government, but O’Donovan says that Romans 13 truncates the role of the state to nothing more than punishing evil people. I agree. And the state is a servant of Christ, so it has no more authority than what Christ gives it.
However, God established a government in the Torah for Israel. I know eyes will roll, but when God does something shouldn’t we pay attention? Of course, he instituted a New Covenant with Israel so we don’t need to follow the old sacrificial system and religious ceremonies. But most theologians admit that the moral law is still valid because it is based on God’s character and never changes. And few people would say that the civil laws of “Thou shalt not steal” or “Thou shalt not murder” have no validity today.
But the important part of the constitution of ancient Israel is its structure, not the specific laws. In modern terms, it was libertarian. It had no human executive or legislature. It had only courts and 613 God-given laws for government. That structure worked well for 480 years even though the people were mostly idolaters and committed many evils. God stepped in a few times to punish them with oppression by neighbors, but for the most part left them alone.
God created that structure for Israel, and opposed a monarchy (I Sam 8), for a people no more Godly than Americans. Maybe God understood what is the best type of government for evil people mixed with a few Godly ones?
Ancient Israel before the monarch wasn’t a democracy, but it was a republic. And it was ethnographically diverse. Of course the law said “Thou shalt have no gods before me,” but the government of Israel did not enforce such laws. They left them to God to enforce. You never see the government enforcing religious beliefs until very late in the monarchy. Most Israelis then were idol worshippers and did so unmolested by the government for centuries except for the few times God intervened and had a neighboring nation conquer Israel and oppress it for a few years.
I’m curious if anyone else has read Ronald Niebuhr in advance of reading this article. O’Donovan’s view smells quite a lot like Niebuhr’s “Christ Transforming Culture” paradigm, while Orbanism is reflective of his “Christ Above Culture.” Any thoughts from any of y’all?
Dear Mr. Meador,
I think you dismiss libertarianism to easily.
Murray Rothbard invented the term “libertarian” to distinguish pre-WWII conservatives from neo-conservatives, especially the conservatism of William F. Buckley, that championed a big powerful state and war. Paleo-conservatism is also known as classical liberalism, the philosophy of the US founding fathers.
It’s agreed almost universally that classical liberalism came from John Locke, but that’s wrong. It came from Catholic theologians at the University of Salamanca, Spain, during the Reformation who tried to reform the church from within. Part of their reformation involved rethinking government and economic issues through natural law. Their political and economic theology was implemented by the Protestant Dutch Republic in the 17th century and made it the richest and most powerful nation in Europe.
Adam Smith studied that system and called it the system of natural liberty in his book on economics. England and the US implemented that system in the 18th century and in the 19th Marxists labeled it capitalism.
I have detailed this history in my self-published book, God is a Capitalist: Markets from Moses to Marx. The bibliography of outstanding scholars of economic history is worth the price.
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