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Christianism

Under new management, Your Majesty:
Thine.

John Berryman

I

“And the king went up to the house of the Lord, and all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem with him, and the priests, and the prophets, and all the people, both small and great; and he read in their ears all the words of the book of the covenant which was found in the house of the Lord. And the king stood by a pillar, and made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord, and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all their heart and all their soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people stood to the covenant.” A great awakening took place in the kingdom of Judah in the seventh century BCE, or so the king intended it to be. Josiah was the sixteenth king of the kingdom of Judah, which included Jerusalem, the rump state that remained in the wake of the secession of the ten tribes after the death of Solomon. He ruled for thirty-one years, from 640 to 609. Three centuries earlier, not long after the disintegration of the Davidic kingdom, his birth had been foretold by a strange unnamed prophet, who predicted (“O altar! O altar!”) that Josiah would be a great reformer. The Bible records — there are two accounts, in 2Kings and 2Chronicles — that he came to the throne at the tender age of eight, and eight years later, “when he was still a lad,” the young monarch began to “seek after the God of his forefather David.” It appears that there followed four years of intense spiritual work, because it is reported that Josiah began the religious reform of his kingdom in the twelfth year of his reign.

The Josian reformation, his rappel a l’ordre, proceeded in stages. It is a dramatic tale. It began with a ferocious campaign against idolatry, which involved the physical destruction of pagan statues and altars not only in his realm but also beyond — a “purification” of the entire land of Israel. (The recent weakening of the Assyrian power to the north emboldened the Judean king to extend his campaign beyond his borders.) He also uprooted Israelite places of worship, with the objective of what historians like to call the centralization of the cult — the re-establishment of Jerusalem, and more specifically the Temple, as the only legitimate site of Jewish priestly rites and Jewish sacrifice. In his twenty-eighth year on the throne, in accordance with his plan, Josiah began a massive renovation of the Temple. It was during this project that lightning struck. As often happens on construction sites, an antiquity was found — in this instance, an old scroll. It was the book of Deuteronomy, which was Moses’ valedictory summation of the Biblical commandments and his ethical testament to his people. When the scroll was read to the king, he rent his garments and cried out in anguish at how much had been forgotten. He then summoned the population of Judah, high and low, to the Temple and read the ancient scroll to them, and announced a new covenant, a grand restoration, which was then marked by a spectacular Passover celebration at the Temple. Judging by the scriptural accounts, which is all the evidence that we have for these events, it was an electrifying moment. Zeal was in the air.

The shocking element of this tale is that Deuteronomy, fully a fifth of the divine revelation at Sinai, the climax of the Torah, was unknown in Israel. How much more of the tradition had been lost — or more accurately, shunned and neglected and indifferently consigned to oblivion? Idolatry, and the cruelty of some of its practices, was widespread. Josiah was himself preceded and succeeded by idolatrous kings. When one reads the Hebrew verses carefully, it becomes clear that the emotion that overwhelmed Josiah when he heard Moses’ farewell address for the first time was not so much guilt as panic. For if Deuteronomy was unknown to the Jews of the time, then so were many of the fundamentals of the religion, which meant that a colossal delinquency, a terrible fall, a vast collective iniquity, had taken place. The king’s first feeling was fear. “Great is the wrath of the Lord that is poured out upon us, because our fathers have not kept the word of the Lord, to do after all that is written in this book.” This explains the vigor, and the violence, of his correction. When Josiah reflected that God is just, he trembled for his country.

The interpretation of idolatry is one of the largest themes in the history of religion. At stake in its proper definition is the distinction between true and false faith — assuming, of course, that the veracity of belief is still a matter of consequence to believers, which is increasingly no longer the case. The term itself is pejorative: an idol, however it is construed, is ipso facto false. I was raised to recoil from the term, and to admire the many smashings of the many idols that recur throughout the ancient history of my religion. The smashers were my childhood heroes, Josiah included. It was not until I studied the history of art that I began to grasp the ugliness of iconoclasm, the brutality of it, its cost to culture. I remember the dissonance that I experienced two decades ago on the day that the Taliban blew up the monumental Buddhas of Bamyan, because the government had declared the statues to be idols. But this was what our righteous Jewish kings did, and the Lord was pleased! (I had a similarly disquieting experience when I first watched a video on Youtube of a public stoning by the Taliban and thought back to the punishment of seqilah, or stoning, mandated by Jewish law in capital crimes.) Regarded politically, the definition of an idol is: another person’s object of worship. Idolatry is your religion, not mine.

There is nothing, of course, that could mitigate the practice of child sacrifice, but its moral offense is obviously bigger and more universal than the sin of following strange gods. So let us — anachronistically, to be sure, but we often interpret Scripture in the light of ideas that were developed long after it — pause to think kindly for a moment about ancient idolaters. They were not all savage killers. They were ordinary men and women, living vulnerably in the world, in families and communities, with needs and fears and sufferings, and they took their troubles — erroneously but sincerely — to sacralized carvings of wood and stone, and to religious authorities whom — erroneously but sincerely — they believed had the power to help them. Folk religion (which the monotheisms have certainly not been spared) is one of the primary human expressions. Its coarseness represents the best that the theological imaginations of many people can accomplish: religion is not solely, or mainly, the province of intellectuals, much as it sometimes pains me to say so. I am the unlikely owner of an ancient Hittite idol from Canaan in the third millennium BCE, about three inches tall, finely made of clay — a domestic idol consisting of a single flat body with two heads, one male, one female, presumably designed as an amulet of happy conjugality. On the same shelf, to its right, as a challenge to this icon of domesticity, sits a small clay mask of Dionysus, from Paestum in the second century C.E. When I look at them, I see illusion, beauty, difference, and humanity. Pity the faith that cannot withstand the sight of them.

All this, as I say, is an anachronistic way of looking — but not completely. As Hume observed, the multiplicity of the gods in polytheistic religions inculcated a climate of tolerance, whereas the exclusiveness of the monotheisms had precisely the opposite social and political effect. The ancient world was violent, but not owing to holy wars. State power availed itself of many divinities and many cults. By contrast, the human costs of the mono in monotheism have been incalculable. (It was not until modernity that we learned of atheism’s equally hideous costs. Evil has a home everywhere.) If it is appropriate to speak of religious pluralism in the ancient world, then it is also appropriate to describe Josiah’s (and Asa’s and Hezekiah’s) extirpation of the idols as a war against pluralism. Or more pointedly, as a war against what democrats and liberals believe. Our models are not to be found in Kings and Chronicles.

Yet the post-liberals of our day find them there. A few years ago a group of Catholic post-liberals founded a website, which has expanded into books and podcasts, called The Josias. Josias is Latin for Josiah. (The Hebrew original, Yoshiyahu, most likely means “healed by God.”) The first editor of The Josias, Edmund Waldstein, is a Cistercian monk in Austria who — judging by his own contributions to his journal — is a sophisticated theologian, as are some of the other contributors. I have now read a good deal of The Josias and I can report that, except when it surrenders to a genuinely foul invective about what it abhors — abhorrence is one of its main activities — its writings have all the rigor, and all the charm, of dogmatics. In its way it reminds me of orthodox Marxist discourse, in which fine points of doctrine are scrupulously examined without any interest in the scrupulous examination of their philosophical foundations. The difference between theology and philosophy is that philosophy inspects the foundations, whereas theology merely builds on them. How serious can thinking be when its own premises are protected from it?

As in all doctrinaire writing, the writings of these post-liberals, of all post-liberals, has a settled and self-congratulatory tone, and expresses the mutual admiration of a quasi-conspiratorial fraternity. (Are there are any women among them?) They are the club of the just. The motto of The Josias is non declinavit ad dextram sive ad sinistram, “to incline neither right nor left.” This may sound like an invigorating assertion of intellectual independence, until one recalls that it is also the title of the definitive historical study of the rise of fascist ideology in France. “Neither right nor left” was the motto of a crack-up, of a philosophical desperation. The purpose of The Josias, its founding editor has written, is “to become a ‘working manual’ of Catholic political thought.” But not all Catholic political thought. It is the organ of a particular school, known as integralism. Here is Father Waldstein’s explication of the concept: “Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that, rejecting the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holds 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.” Or in the less reflective words of an American integralist, “the state should recognize Catholicism as true and unite with the Church as body to her soul.”

Premises, premises. The Catholic post-liberals are animated by a crushing sense that we, America and the West, have fallen. The feeling of fallenness is not theirs alone: it is one of the few things that unites this disunited country, though we differ in our preferred heights. For the integralists, whose very name suggests that the rest of us are disintegrated, what we have lost is the magnificent unity of church and state. That is the fissure that infuriates them, that they wish ruthlessly to repair. They are wounded holists; yet another bunch of moderns with a burning hunger for the whole. They detest “the personalization of religion,” as if there are no religious collectivities and religious institutions and religious movements in our liberal polity, as if social domination and political control are necessary conditions of spiritual fulfillment. It is important to understand who were the authors of the abomination that the American integralists wish to repeal. Whereas some of them can live with aspects of Karl Marx — neither right nor left, remember — it is finally James Madison whom they cannot abide. He, after all, was the diabolical author of the separation, and Jefferson, and Mason, and the other founding fathers of the American dispensation. (And Roger Williams, the founding grandfather, whose banishment from the highly integrated Massachusetts Bay Colony marked the inauguration of the separation.) Integralism as an ideology originated in late nineteenth-century Europe, particularly in France, in the Action Francaise of Charles Maurras (the American integralists remind even the editor of First Things of Maurras, and also of the Catholic phalangists of Franco’s Spain); but now Maurras has been pitted against Madison. What a villain Madison was!

I call these Christians Christianists, in the way that we call certain Muslims Islamists. Christianism is not the same as Christianity, just as Islamism is not the same as Islam. (There are Jewish parallels in Israel.) Christianism is a current of contemporary Christianity, of the political Christianity of our time, a time in which religions everywhere have been debased by their rampant politicization. The Christianists, who swan around with the somewhat comical heir of an avant-garde, are in one respect completely typical of their day: they are another group in our society that judges governments and regimes and political orders by how good they are for them. This selfishness, which is a common feature of identity, is as tiresome in its religious versions as it is in its secular ones; it is an early form of contempt, and extremely deleterious to the social unity that the Christianists fervently profess to desire.

I am not a Catholic. I am an ardently Pelagian Jew. I would prefer not to intervene in the disputations of a church that is not my own. The problem is that these are also the disputations of a country, and a civilization, that is my own. The ideas and the programs and the fantasies of the Christianists bear upon the lives of citizens who are not Christians, who answer to other principles. I will give an example. In an ambiguous essay on immigration that treads warily between liberalism and populism, Father Waldstein remarks: “After the horrors of the World Wars of the twentieth century, a new ideal of global solidarity founded in a secular, liberal conception of human rights came to the fore. This aridly rationalistic liberalism, however, cannot provide true universal solidarity, which can only be found in the Social Kingship of Christ.” Never mind, for now, that the “arid” secular liberal conception of human rights, going all the way back to Kant’s sublime idea of a universal right to hospitality, has been infinitely more effective in aiding and sheltering immigrants, in taking in the poor and the weak, than the ethno-nationalist regimes that the post-liberals celebrate, which scorn them outright. The fact that the vast majority of the refugees in Europe are not Christians has dissuaded these governments from acting on the Social Kingship of Christ. Would they help me off the dinghy and on to dry land? When I read Waldstein’s words, I think: those words are not for me. They are, by implication, against me. They cast me outside the circle of universal solidarity, an insulting ban, because for me the notion of the Social Kingship of Christ is nonsense. He is not my king. Such a ground cannot compel my assent. They must give me a better reason to repudiate liberal immigration policy, especially as I hold that we must give sanctuary to more of the miserable. The Christianists can do anything they wish with their church, but they cannot do anything they wish with their country. They must respond to the objections and the anxieties of their non-Christian and non-integralist brothers and sisters. When I see them palling around with Viktor Orban and extolling Nigel Farage as “the defining mind of our era,” their business becomes my business.

II

In these times it is common to hear that everything is broken. As an expression of anxiety, the slogan must be accepted. As an analysis of what ails us, it is plainly wrong. Everything is not broken. Some things are, some things are not. The last thing we need in this crisis is to surrender our sense of the particulars and the possibilities. The belief in brokenness, however, has enjoyed a long career in the history of religious and political thought. In those worldviews in which brokenness is the most salient characteristic of the cosmos and the person, the existence of the many elements, the multiplicity of the parts, the clutter of the pieces, is regarded as a problem, a catastrophe, a punishment for transgression, a fate from which we must be redeemed. There is an overwhelming presumption in favor of the one over the many. Every separation is a wound, a crack, an exile, a tear in the fabric, a setback to be overcome. Once there was unity; now it is no more; may it come again soon, amen. Among the adherents of such totalistic views of life, it never occurs to anyone that perhaps multiplicity is the natural condition of the world — that it is not the problem but the solution. They do not acknowledge that the primary fact about anything is individuation: it is this and not that, it is itself and not another thing. In religious language: my soul is mine alone. Individuation is not a writ of loneliness, though loneliness may be one of its results; it is a writ of specificity, of potential. It is how we begin and how we end; what we are before we belong, while we belong, and after we belong. In a life of joinings and partings, it remains constant and irreducible. Attempts to deny it or to flee it are usually disastrous. The scanting of individuation, the attempts to amalgamate the individual soul out of its distinctiveness and to dissolve it into an imaginary whole, all the communitarian ideologies of integration, have often brought misery into the world. Surely there are recesses of the soul that public affairs ought not to reach — or is that the “privatization of religion”? So many innocent people have been hurt by other peoples’ feelings, and theories, of loneliness.

Integralism is not a post-liberal innovation, of course. Its modern origins, as noted, were in the Action Francaise of the hateful Charles Maurras, whose motto was “politique d’abord!” But there were also non-reactionary versions of the integralist enterprise, most notably the “integral humanism” of Jacques Maritain, who began as a supporter of Maurras but in 1926 revised his views and advocated a Christian democracy that promoted the creative forces of the person — “the holy freedom of the creature” — acting in history. Maritain’s integralism called for a Christendom that would “correspond to the period into which we are entering,” and in a calm tone of constructive realism he renounced the dream of a new unification of altar and throne, of the sacred and the secular. He was explicit about the pluralistic nature of his integralism: “Civil society is made up not only of individuals, but also of particular societies formed by them, and a pluralist polity allows these particular societies the greatest autonomy possible.” Reading Maritain’s large-hearted pages, one is struck by the meanness, the stridency, the resentment, that disfigures the pronouncements of many post-liberal integralists. Our Christianists are sometimes so unChristian.

I was first introduced to the rich and troubling intellectual universe of twentieth-century French Catholicism, to its epic struggle with the relations of the sacred and the secular, by a small and beautiful book by Jean Danielou called Prayer as a Political Problem, which appeared in 1965. Danielou was a Jesuit and a cardinal, and a member of the Académie Française; a towering scholar who was one of the fathers of modern Patristic studies; the interlocutor of Bataille and Hyppolite and Sartre on the subject of sin; an “expert” invited by Pope John XXIII to participate in the deliberations of Vatican II. Some of the post-liberal Catholics refer occasionally to Danielou’s book. Prayer as a Political Problem is one of the primary documents of the collision of religion with modernity. It is a deep and deliberate book: “for me, the sphere of the spiritual is as rigorous a discipline as that of any of the profane sciences.” I have given Danielou’s book, as a cautionary gift, to Jewish friends wrestling with similar perplexities. This little volume is a precious statement of what I do not believe, and it is an honor to argue with it.

Danielou begins by noting the “incongruity in the juxtaposition of a private religion and an irreligious society,” which he regards as the lamentable norm in modern Western societies. The obvious course of action is to relieve religion’s confinement to the private realm and find a way to release it into the public realm — “the extension of Christianity to an immense multitude, which is of its very essence.” But Danielou, at least at first, does not seem to harbor holistic aspirations. “How are society and religion to be joined,” he asks, “without either making religion a tool of the secular power or the secular power a tool of religion?” A splendid question! The frontiers are not trespassed. It has an air of patience and friendship. There is no program for transforming the sacred and the secular into one thing. The objective seems to be co-existence, with boundaries and a generous understanding of the realms.

But soon there follows a less splendid question. “What will make the existence of a Christian people possible in the civilization of tomorrow?” And he continues: “Our task is to discover what those conditions are which make a Christian people.” What does Danielou mean by “a Christian people”? A people composed entirely of Christians? But there is no such people, at least none that conforms to any national borders. Though he has some skeptical things to say about the separationist arrangement, Danielou makes a resounding defense of religious liberty. Yet slowly his argument creeps disappointingly towards holism, and on strangely practical grounds. “Experience shows that it is practically impossible for any but the militant Christian to persevere in a milieu which offers him no support…Christians have need of an environment that will help them. There can be no mass Christianity outside Christendom.” And more generally: “Only a few would be able to find God in a world organized without reference to him.” In other words, to be a Christian somewhere there must be Christianity everywhere. Otherwise heroism would be required for faith.

Danielou makes the issue more concrete with the case of prayer. “Prayer is a personal relationship with God,” he writes. “Does it not belong strictly to personal life? It is true that it does, but it is also true that the full development of this personal life is impossible unless certain conditions obtain.” He concludes that “the civilization in which we find ourselves makes prayer difficult.” I do not understand this complaint. Prayer is difficult. It is an attempted communication with occult metaphysical entities, a regular approach on transcendence. It requires that one collect oneself from one’s own dispersal. Is there anything harder to do? To want prayer to be easy, to make it banal and frictionless, is to invite decadence into your faith. And if prayer is difficult, it is not because there are people of other faiths, or of no faith at all, in the society in which you live. Communal prayer is one of the pillars of traditional Judaism, and in its strict construction it requires a quorum of ten men; and I can testify that not once in my many attempts to pray in my synagogue was the presence of the church down the street an obstacle to my concentration. There were obstacles, to be sure, and sometimes they included the other nine Jews in the room, but mostly they were inside myself. I would not have the audacity to blame my spiritual infirmities on others, and certainly not on my Christian neighbors.

Many years ago I got into a spat with William F. Buckley on this very point: he remarked that the social and cultural diversity of New York was making the formation of Catholic identity more difficult, and I replied that my difference from him was not the reason that he might be having trouble keeping his children in church. Anyway, all communities of faith in an open society are confronted by this challenge. (As Danielou sagely observes, “engagement in temporal affairs is at one and the same time a duty and a temptation.”) Are we to conclude, then, with Danielou, that the transmission of religion is impossible in a multi-religious society? This would be perverse: it is precisely the philosophical and political framework of pluralism, of liberal indifference (“neutrality”) to the fortunes of particular confessions, that makes such transmission possible, by leaving it in the hands of the believers themselves. If they fail, however, it is largely their own fault. Of course we could offer them some assistance by constricting and even closing down our society and thereby make their dream of conformity a reality. But close it down to whom, and for whom? Which faith will dominate, and why should other faiths trust it? Should the church or the mosque or the synagogue seize the government for the sake of their children? My children, or yours? These jeremiads against the separation of church and state can only have been composed by people who are confident that they would be the winners.

Religious traditions with historical memories of persecution should carefully ponder the moral consequences of undoing the separation. They might also consider whether Danielou’s vision of the identification of religion with its environment does not betray one of the central tasks, and privileges, of religion, which is to be counter-cultural. When the church and the state are unified, the state will no longer hear the truth from the church. Social and political criticism will be heresy. The standpoint from which power may be criticized independently and disinterestedly, in the name of values that are supported only by their own validity, or by their supernaturalism, will have vanished. The efficacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s agitation was owed in large measure to the force of the religious language that he hurled against the policies of government; a stranger to the state, he came to chastise and to castigate. If there must be no established religion, it is in part because religion’s role in society must be adversarial. There is an embarrassing passage in Danielou’s book in which he notes that “Christianity works alongside those [institutions] which exist, purifying them of their excesses and bringing them into conformity with the demands of the spirit” — and so “it was in this way that it acted on slavery, not condemning it as such but creating a spirit which rendered its continuance impossible.” But over here, in America, where no such alignment of religion with the institutions is required, there were Christians who denounced slavery directly and bitterly, and on Christian grounds. The abolitionists could say it straight; the critics were separated and free.

Here is Danielou’s sentence again, except that I have altered one word: “Experience shows that it is practically impossible for any but the militant Jew to persevere in a milieu which offers him no support.” I have heard that sentiment my entire life from people who were sincerely frightened by change, by their children’s physical and spiritual mobility. For this reason, traditionalists like to stick together. The Christianists, too, can stick together. They can also secede, in the manner of “the Benedict option,” except of course that they are enjoined by the Gospels to do good in the world. Our society can become a collection of bubbles, a bubble of bubbles — not the best deployment of a multicultural society’s resources, and certainly not any sort of tribute to the various traditions that are terrified of being tested by the world, but we are headed in that direction anyway. As a historical matter, the Jews in the West did persevere in a milieu which, to put it mildly, offered them no support. That milieu was Christianity. There were no sympathetic surroundings to buck them up and ratify their exertions. And ironically enough, it was not owing mainly to social isolation that they survived, and without possessing political power created a civilization. Even though the Jews lived in walled quarters of the city, they had many kinds of relationships with their Christian neighbors, and they were exposed, sometimes by compulsion, to Christianity regularly. (Some of them could not withstand the pressure of their otherness and converted.) But it was not a bubble that protected them and their tradition. A hostile environment permits no bubbles. What protected the Jews was their faith and their will, and perhaps also the steadfastness that is one of the rewards of minority experience. There is indeed a measure of heroism, or at least an extra measure of inner resources, required of all minority faiths, of Jews in Christian surroundings and of Christians in secular surroundings.

But here are the Christianists, whining that they do not run everything. How much compassion should we muster for the pain of the post-liberals? How hard is it, really, to be a Christian in America? I appreciate the constant dissonance that a religious individual experiences in our secular culture, not least because of its lunatic sexuality. Raising children in a digital society is a traditionalist’s nightmare; the wayward influences get in like water under the door. So resistance must be offered, certainly, and not only by devout Christians. Resisting the world is one of the signature activities of the spiritually serious. “The greatest danger for the Christian,” Danielou says, “does not come from persecution but from worldliness.” But is the burden of resistance not worth the prize of freedom? The Christianists like to mock religious freedom, or as they prefer to call it, “religious freedom,” as a counterfeit corollary of the separation. The First Amendment does not suffice for the apotheosis of their particular Christian ideal. There is something especially obnoxious about people who enjoy freedom and disparage it. Do they have no idea of what the world is like?

Where in America is a Christian prevented from practicing Christianity? Of course there are occasional tensions between certain interpretations of Christian fidelity and the law, such as selling a wedding cake to a gay couple, and the courts may not always rule in favor of the Christian party in a dispute, but this is not exactly being thrown to the lions. The frustration of a Christian in a non-Christian world is inevitable, but it is ahistorical and self-pitying to mistake frustration for persecution. (The American Jews who insist upon the erosion of their “religious freedom” in America are just as bratty.) There are ghastly wars against Christians taking place in many countries around the world now, but the United States is not one of them. As for the infamously naked public square, I see religious words and symbols, Christian words and symbols, wherever I wander. God is plastered all over America, and so is Jesus. I can live comfortably with the ubiquity of Christianity in my country, because my belief is not damaged by the evidence of a different belief, and because the evidence of their own belief delights many of my fellow citizens, and because other streets display other messages. The public square should illustrate the public.

And yet, all the glittering Christian iconography notwithstanding, America is not, in Danielou’s phrase, “a Christendom,” even if most of its inhabitants are Christian; and it is not the duty of Americans, even of Christian Americans, to make it one. This was the American innovation: to interpose rights and freedoms between the religious definition of the country and the religious persuasion of its majority. Insofar as Americans are a people, we are not a Christian people, because we have chosen to alienate no gods and no godless, to embark upon a kind of post-Humean experiment in securing a polytheistic tolerance for a monotheistic society. Perhaps, from the standpoint of justice, pluralism is a restoration of polytheism. No wonder it rubs certain true believers the wrong way. “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me”: the One (or the Three-in-One, but never mind) must be the only one — this is the status anxiety of God. There is no room in the cosmos for many gods; but there is room in America.

The Christianists teach that it is the responsibility of Christians to influence the institutions of government in ways that will be favorable to the realization of their churchly goals. As Danielou writes, “Christianity ought for the sake of its own final end to influence the institutions of the earthly city.” Enter the bizarre Adrian Vermeule, the man of the integralist hour. (It was he who issued that encomium about Nigel Farage.) He has a plan of influence, which he calls “integration from within.” It is his retaliation against the separation. His plan is to infiltrate the government with post-liberals of his persuasion: “non-liberal actors strategically locate themselves within liberal institutions and work to undo the liberalism of the state from within. These actors possess a substantive comprehensive theory of the good, and seize opportunities to bring about its fulfillment through and by means of the very institutional machinery that the liberal state has providentially created.” Politique d’abord! This is a program for a long march, even for a crusade; and even for the kind of organized hostile penetration, stealthy or otherwise, that provoked Sidney Hook in 1953 to lay down a splendid rule: heresy, yes; conspiracy, no.

“The state will have to be re-integrated from within, by the efforts of agents who occupy strategic positions in the shell of the liberal order,” Vermeule explains. “Less Benedict, more Esther, Mordecai, Joseph, and Daniel.” Those “agents,” you see, “in various ways exploit their providential ties to political incumbents with very different views in order to protect their views and the community who shares them.” Political incumbents: plainly he does not have only Nebuchadnezzar in mind. In the cases of Joseph and Esther, it is worth noting, their alleged efforts at reintegration involved deception: they were under deep cover, and we don’t take kindly to that sort of thing in America. But Vermeule should read his Scripture more closely. Esther, Mordecai, Joseph, and Daniel may have performed certain services for the Egyptian, Babylonian, and Persian states, but they were not placed in their positions by the God of the Hebrew Bible for the purpose of reforming those states, or of making them over so as to achieve a Jewish purpose. They were there to protect their family and their people from eventual hardships, from famine and discrimination and slaughter. That is all. Egypt remained Egyptian and Babylon remained Babylonian and Persia remained Persian. In any event Vermeule is not satisfied with the successes of the Jewish agents. “It is permissible to dream,” he writes, “however fitfully, that other models may one day become relevant” — Saint Cecilia, whose “martyrdom helped to spark the explosive growth of the early church,” and Saint Paul, who “preached the advent of a new order from within the very urban heart of the imperium.” Vermeule is talking about the American government. Who does he expect to persuade with this sectarian rapture? Madison never looked better.

Vermeule has other bright ideas for his sacred subversion. By the grace of God, for example, the manipulative techniques of behavioral economics have been invented. “We have learned from behavioral economics that agents and administrative control over default rules may nudge whole populations in desirable directions.” Are you nudging with me, Jesus? Like all revolutionaries, even reactionary ones, Vermeule is opportunistic about his methods and teleological about his history: “The vast bureaucracy created by liberalism in pursuit of a mirage of depoliticized governance may, by the invisible hand of Providence, be turned to new ends, becoming the great instrument with which to restore a substantive politics of the good.” In this way, he and his gang will “find a strategic position from which to sear the liberal faith with hot irons.” An American Christian, a professor at Harvard Law School, wrote those words. I seem to recall from the history of Christian painting that hot irons were what Romans did to Christians, not what Christians did to Romans. It is not, in any event, what Americans do to Americans.

Am I taking Vermeule’s grisly metaphor too seriously? I don’t think so. It is of a piece with the rhetorical violence of his other remarks about liberalism. For Vermeule, and for the other post-liberals, liberalism is not wrong, it is evil. It teaches depravity and tyranny. I confess that I find such an evaluation baffling, it defies what I know about history and what I perceive around me, though I have myself, from within the liberal camp, done my bit over the decades to challenge and to refute certain liberal dogmas. But here is Vermeule, warning that non-liberal or anti-liberal communities in America are in mortal danger, because they “must tremble indefinitely under the axe.” At least the axe sometimes comes with a tax exemption. And here he is, in an even greater panic: “even if the liberal state lacks the time, resources, or attention span to eliminate all competing subcommunities collectively and simultaneously, it may still be able to eliminate any competitor at will, taken individually and one by one.” This is, well, nuts. Vermeule has no reason to fear the jackboot of Nancy Pelosi in the middle of the night. But his extreme view of his position in contemporary America enables him to cast himself grandiosely. He is the lonely knight of the faith who has taken up the Cross to do battle with the Jeffersonian infidels.

For Vermeule, liberalism is not merely a political ideology, or a political party with which he disagrees — it is nothing less than a religion, “a fighting evangelistic faith,” “a world religion” with “a soteriology, an eschatology, a clergy (or ‘clerisy’), and sacraments.” If he says so. Calling liberalism a religion no doubt makes the war against it feel more holy. Yet liberalism differs strikingly from religion, and even more strikingly from Catholic religion, in at least one fundamental way: it has a different principle of authority, intellectually and institutionally. This difference was established, prejudicially, by Cardinal Newman in an appendix to his autobiography — a text with which every honest liberal must make himself familiar. Liberalism, he propounded, is “the exercise of thought upon matters, in which, from the constitution of the mind, thought cannot be brought to any successful issue, and therefore is out of place… Liberalism is the mistake of subjecting to human judgment those revealed doctrines which are in their nature beyond and independent of it, and of claiming to determine on intrinsic grounds the truth and value of propositions which rest for their reception simply on the external authority of the Divine Word.” Simply!

Premises, premises. I have always envied people who find too much reason in the world. My view of what hobbles the world is different. Whatever the limits of reason, we are a long way from reaching them. When rationalists seem to be acting imperialistically, they can be challenged rationally, on their own grounds, and a rational argument for humility or restraint can be made; but no argument can be made with anybody who dissociates reason from truth, who repudiates “intrinsic grounds,” who demands of authority that it be “external.” The integralist enemies of reason are Rortyans with chalices. I recall gratefully how I came by my own enthusiasm for reason: when I was a boy in yeshiva, we wondered, as we studied Genesis 1:26-27, which aspect of the human being was the one that demonstrated the divine image in which he and she were said to have been created — what attribute could we possibly have in common with God? We pored over commentators and discovered an answer: the mind. I have been grateful ever since for having a religious sanction for my critical thinking about religion. But He knew what He was doing, right?
III

The most ambitious, and the most ludicrous, attempt by the Catholic integralists to discredit the separation of church and state is a work of history. It is called Before Church and State: A Study of the Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX, which appeared in 2017, and its author is Andrew Willard Jones, a theologian and historian at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. Jones is a learned man, at least about the Latin sources that are useful to his purpose, which is to paint a portrait of a time before the separation, a period in history when wholeness existed and everything went lustrously together, a “differentiated” but fundamentally seamless society that was unified, top to bottom, in its social and political order, by a pervasive belief in Christianity and in the unity of altar and throne. A “sacramental kingdom,” a golden age, a world we have lost. Jones has written five hundred pages about thirteenth-century France “to establish a vision of a social order very different from the liberal,” in which “integrated players” operated in “one field of action upon which both the spiritual and temporal functioned.”

Jones contends that one of the consequences of the separation of church and state has been the widespread conviction that we live in two discrete realms, the sacred and the secular, and that too much medieval history has been written with this dualist error in mind. His adopts his theology as his methodology:
I argue that thirteenth-century France was built as a ‘most Christian kingdom,’ a term that the papacy frequently used in reference to it. I do not mean that the kingdom of France was a State with a Christian ideology. I mean that it was Christian, fundamentally. There was no State lurking beneath the kingdom’s religious trappings. There was no State at all, but a Christian kingdom. In this kingdom, neither the ‘secular’ nor the ‘religious’ existed. I do not mean that the religious was everywhere and that the secular had not yet emerged from under it. I mean they did not exist at all.
The objectives of this pre-separated and numinously integrated kingdom were utterly unlike “the assumptions of modern politics”: they were the “negotium pacis et fidei — the business of the peace and the faith.” In Jones’ account, those are the motives and the intentions of the medieval figures that he describes; they act not for the sake of interests or passions, but for the peace and the faith. “Society was organized around the notion of peace, a peace that was real, and not simply another name for submission.” Jones further asserts that this is how the people of thirteenth-century France understood themselves, and that we must therefore understand them “on their own terms,” because “their language is better at capturing who they were than ours is.” This Christian idyll was exemplified in the figure of the king, Louis IX, the perfect Christian monarch, who reigned from 1226 to 1270, and was canonized in 1297.

These methodological cautions should not be mistaken for another warning against “presentism” in the writing of history or another exercise in the history of mentalities. Jones is writing triumphalist history, sacred history, in which the hand of God is revealed in the power of His representatives on earth. There is a tradition of such “historiography” in all the faiths. (In the Jewish case, sacred history had to be dissociated from triumphalist history, for reasons I will get to in a moment.) While this may be the way Christians do history, it is not the way historians do history. That is not because historians are the blinkered products of a secular age. Look again at Jones’ claim that the distinction between sacred and secular did not exist in thirteenth century France. What can this possibly mean? It is true that Louis’ France was officially and significantly a religious society, in which earth was universally believed to be subordinated to heaven. But anybody who has studied a religious society knows that the totality is never total. There are precincts of religiously untreated reality, unhallowed spots, everywhere. Consider only the culture of thirteenth-century France, its literature and its music. (Jones has no interest in such things.) It is full of — do you not like the word “secular”? — profane humane experience lived by mentally free men and women who carry desire and alienation and humor through a world in which everything is not clear. The religious polyphony of the medieval church, for example, the stupendous literature of the masses, found regular inspiration in the irreligious songs of ordinary folk. For secularity is not primarily a social or political category. It is a description of a constitutive trait of human existence: its creatureliness. We are dust and clay, even if not only dust and clay; we are animals, even if not like other animals; we live in time, even with visions of eternity; we decay. No “sacramental” interpretation or arrangement of our lives can nullify our intrinsic earthiness. It will never be fully incorporated or completely dissipated. “The secular” was not born on July 14, 1789, and neither was “the individual.” The magical kingdom for which Jones yearns never existed.

For many of Louis’ subjects, moreover, there was nothing magical about it. For them, it was a realm of oppression and massacre. Jones’ treatment of the political history of Louis’ France is outrageous. He extenuates the Inquisition, which was established during Louis’ reign by Pope Gregory IX, and pokes fun at its “black legend,” which he dismisses as merely another instance of “the mental furniture of the enlightened mind.” He seeks to show that there was no significant difference between the inquisitors and the enquêteurs, or the itinerant magistrates whom the king dispatched throughout the land to settle local disputes, and that both the religious inquisitors and the civil judges were “dimensions of the same project,” which was “the business of the peace and the faith.” Jones’ apologetics continue: “The ecclesiastical and the secular [oops!] ‘inquisitions’ [were they not inquisitions?] were integral [abracadabra!] institutions within a complex social order that was rooted in a sacramental understanding of the cosmos that did not allow for the divorce of the spiritual from the temporal.” Similarly, in the Albigensian Crusade, another glory of thirteenth-century France, a genocidal campaign that exterminated Cathar belief by exterminating Cathar believers, “the business was directed against what was understood as a heretical and violent society in the south.” After all, “a heretic shattered the peace.” Well, yes. That is his or her role. Is it presentism — or worse, liberalism — to suggest that such an acquiescent and exculpatory tone will not do? There is not a trace of horror in Jones’ accounts of the crimes of his church. He is so busy making church and state disappear into each other that he is dead to the consequences of Constantinism for non-Christians. One way of describing a liberal democracy is as an order in which heresy is just another opinion. If this is what writing Christian history from the inside looks like, I invite the Christian historian to step outside.

The Jews are mentioned six times in Jones’ history of the illiberal paradise in medieval France. They are all glancing references in which anti-Jewish ordinances are cited in passing. The subaltern status of Jews in the kingdom, and the atrocious ways in which it was enforced, is not a theme over which Jones cares to linger. Here is what you will not learn from Before Church and State. The reign of Louis IX was a series of monarchically supervised catastrophes for the Jewish community of France. “The Jews, odious to God and men,” wrote one of the king’s biographers, “he detested so much that he was unable to look upon them.” It was Louis, according to his seneschal Jean de Joinville, the author of the most renowned biography, who declared that “no one who is not a very learned clerk should argue with [a Jew]. A layman, as soon as he hears the Christian faith maligned, should defend it only by the sword, with a good thrust in the belly as far as the sword will go.” Tant comme elle y peut entrer: the king was monstrous.

Louis organized a devastating attack on the economic basis of Jewish life in his kingdom, which was moneylending. The throne announced that it would no longer enforce the collection of Jewish debts, and it reduced and even cancelled debts that Christians owed to Jews. Jews were forced to re-pay loans from Christians. New controls were imposed on Jewish loans and Jewish goods were confiscated. This was not only a campaign against usury, an economic policy, it was also a campaign against Jews, an ethnic policy — as, for example, in this royal edict: “The Jews must desist from usury, blasphemy, magic, and necromancy.” And alongside this royal campaign the baronial classes were permitted all manner of excess in the economic oppression of the Jews on their lands. Finally Rome was offended by this despoliation, and in a papal letter in 1233 Pope Gregory noted with disapproval that “some of the Jews, unable to pay what security was considered sufficient in their case, perished miserably, it is said, through hunger, thirst, and privation of prisons, and to the moment some are still held in chains.”

After the sustained royal assault on the economic sustenance of the Jews came the sustained royal assault on their religious sustenance. In 1239, under the poisonous influence of a converted Jew, one in a long line of such apostates who turned virulently against the people that they left, Pope Gregory launched a campaign against the Talmud, which was (and still is) the legal and spiritual foundation of rabbinical Judaism. He asked the vengeful convert to collect the Talmudic materials that offended Christianity and sent them out, with an accompanying invitation to take action against them, to “our dear sons the Kings of France, England, Aragon, Navarre, Castille, Leon, and Portugal.” The only king who accepted his invitation was Louis IX of France. The books of the Jews were ordered to be expropriated by the beginning of Lent in 1240. They were seized as the Jews were in their synagogues. The prosecuting convert drew up a list of thirty-five charges, an inventory of Talmudic passages that allegedly slandered the Christian faith, and between June 25 and June 27, 1240 there occurred in Paris a public disputation, in which the Talmud was put on trial. There are two unofficial Latin protocols of the proceedings and one longer Hebrew account. The defenders of the Talmud included some of the giants of medieval Jewish learning. They lost, of course, and two years later, in June 1242, twenty-four wagonloads with thousands of Jewish books were publicly burned in Paris. It was a cultural disaster for French Jewry. Wrenching Hebrew poems of lamentation were composed about the holocaust of the books. And the king did not relent. In 1247 and 1248 Louis ordered further confiscations of Jewish books and then gave the campaign against the Talmud another royal endorsement in 1253. It continued until the end of his reign. In the year before he died, Louis sponsored the rabid conversionist efforts of Paul Christian, or Pablo Christiani, the converted Jew who had debated Nahmanides in the extraordinary disputation in Barcelona in 1263. He was given royal authority to “preach to the Jews the word of light and to compel the Jews to respond fully.” An anonymous Jew left this testimony of his efforts: “Know that each day we were over a thousand souls in the royal court or in the Dominican court, pelted with stones. Praise to our Creator, not one of us turned to the religion of vanity and lies.”

There was still another way in which Louis IX distinguished himself in the history of anti-Semitism. He was a Crusading king, and twice went to the holy land to make war on its Muslims (he spent four years there in his first attempt and died in his second attempt); and he was so tolerant of the anti-Jewish atrocities committed by French Crusaders on their way east that in 1236 he was reprimanded by the Pope himself, who had heard reports that the Jews in France were living “as under a new Egyptian enslavement.” “Force the Crusaders to restore to the Jews all that has been stolen,” the pontiff scolded the king, “that you may prove yourself to be an exhibition of good works.” But this papal reprimand is not the distinction to which I refer. Like many rulers in the history of Christendom, Louis sought to segregate the Jews of his realm — to this end, for example, he forbade Christians from serving as nurses to Jewish children and as servants in Jewish homes. But then he went further: he ordered the Jews to wear a badge. The royal ordinance reads: “Since we wish that the Jews be distinguishable from Christians and be recognizable, we order you that, at the order of our dear brother in Christ, Paul Christian, of the Order of Preaching Brethren, you impose signs upon each and every Jew of both sexes — a circle of felt or yellow cloth, stitched upon the outer garment in front and in back. The diameter of the circle must be four fingers wide; its area must be the size of a palm.” Saint Louis!

None of this is to be found in Jones’ hundreds of dense pages. Instead he has the temerity to write that in the sacramental order of Louis IX, where there was no separation of church and state, “society was organized around the notion of peace, a peace that was real, and not simply another name for submission.” By giving his book the title that he gave it, he clearly implies that life was better and less sinful back then, and that this story of the Middle Ages is in some way of allegorical utility to our unsacramental country. I note in fairness that Jones’ nostalgia has provoked mixed feelings among the integralists. Vermeule plainly states that “there can be no return to the integrated regime of the thirteenth century, whatever its attractions.” But it is a pragmatic objection: Christians must face the sorrowful fact that those “attractions” can no longer be theirs. They were born too late for the Capetian utopia. Of course none of the integralists care to acknowledge all the people for whom the kingdom was dystopian, or that the thirteenth century was not integrated, except in theory. Father Waldstein is even more stubborn, and speaks up for the politics of nostalgia. “I am not going to let myself be bullied out of my nostalgia’” he protests. “I reject the whole notion that nostalgia is something bad.” So do I, especially these days. But surely nostalgia for something bad is something bad.

I assume that the general picture of the anti-Jewish vehemence of Louis IX is known not only to Jones, but also to some of the admirers of his book — it is not exactly a secret, even if the repulsive details are mainly the possessions of scholars. And so, given their silence on this matter, I assume also that they can live with it. It is an acceptable price for the sacramental kingdom. That is how teleological history operates. In one of his more revealing passages, Vermeule expresses his impatience with too much ethical fussing about his eschaton. “Of course it’s true — it’s obvious! — that there are versions of non-liberalism that are worse than liberalism. At a certain point, however, people can no longer abide perpetually living in fear of the worst-case scenario.” Vermeule would have us assess fascism probabilistically. He is right that worst-case scenario thinking is irritating and easily exploited. But there are situations involving questions of justice in which worst-case scenario thinking is also moral thinking. The moral worth of a society is not quantitatively determined, nor should its commitments to principle await an analysis of risk. Vermeule’s peculiar mixture of spirituality and social science lands him in a morally dubious place. Perpetually living in fear of fascism is precisely how we should be living, now and forever, and especially in an era of fascism’s return.

Vermeule relates an anecdote about a colleague’s anxiety. “In a fully Catholic polity,” his friend asked him, “the sort you would like to bring about, what would happen to me, a Jew?” He condescendingly admires the “passionate concreteness” of the question, its affecting concern with “the fate of an individual, a people, and the shape that a polity might take.” For him it was a dialogically romantic moment. But there was nothing romantic about the moment for his friend. He was demanding to know if the realization of Vermeule’s political program would require him to pack his bags. Vermeule answered him with more condescension, and recorded his answer in a coy parenthesis: “(Nothing bad, I assured him.)” His parenthetical assurance is not good enough. He might just as well have winked. The roots of his quasi-theocratic ideal are rotten with Jew-hatred, and so are some of his intellectual and political allies, as he might trouble himself to notice on his next visit to Budapest or Warsaw.
IV

The most prominent policy of Catholic integralism, its putative contribution to the resolution of our crisis, is “common good constitutionalism,” whose primary author is Adrian Vermeule. The polemical energy of his religious writing disappears into a thicket of legal and philosophical abstractions in his legal writing, even though he prides himself on his aversion to theory, which he regards as another vice of the liberal elite. The idea is pretty simple: that American constitutional practice “should take as its starting point substantive moral principles that conduce to the common good, principles that officials (including, but by no means limited to, judges) should read into the majestic generalities and ambiguities of the written Constitution.” This is the same “substantive comprehensive theory of the good” with which he equipped his post-liberal infiltrators of American institutions. Common good constitutionalism is presented as an exciting alternative to other doctrines of constitutional interpretation, and also as a revival of the classical tradition in law.

First, the good news. The grip of originalism upon the conservative legal mind has been loosened. Vermeule and his colleagues no longer wish to be trapped in the eighteenth century. They have recognized that the founders were themselves not originalists, and that they differed significantly among themselves, so that there were many views that could be treated as canonical, which is not helpful to scholars and judges who seek to locate a definitive old authority. While it would be an exaggeration to say that these conservatives have discovered a living Constitution, they do seem to represent a new conservative respect for contemporaneity. I guess it is easier to admit contemporaneity into your understanding if you are operating under the aspect of eternity. “For Catholic scholars in particular,” Vermeule observes, “it is simply inadmissible — inconsistent with the whole tradition — to imply that law has no objective content beyond the text and original understanding of particular positive laws, or that [law] is nothing more than the interpreter’s subjective and arbitrary desires.” Law must refer back to an objective source of legitimacy, to some abiding principle that cannot be reduced to the wishes and the partialities of any individual or group. This belief in objectivity, an outcropping of rock in a sea of perspectives, is commendable. There remains the question of what abiding principle Vermeule has in mind.

Common good constitutionalism is a restoration of moral values to the heart of the legal enterprise. Vermeule takes pains to show that his doctrine is not simply a substitution of morality for law, or that “it reduces legal questions to all-things-considered moral decision-making from first principles.” The relationship between legal rules and “a higher source of law” is more complicated, he shows; and I believe him. These complications, the serpentine methods of interpretation and argument in our schools and our courts, are presumably what rescue the common gooders from arrant “judicial activism” and all the other conservative prohibitions that conservatives anyway violate regularly. But I see no way to deny that in the end Vermeule seeks to establish a meta-historical standard of ethical value as the ground of law — a remoralization of law. (As an antidote, not least, for the demoralization of law professors.) In fact, Vermeule admits to “a candid willingness to ‘legislate morality’ — indeed, a recognition that all legislation is necessarily founded on some substantive conception of morality, and that the promotion of morality is a core and legitimate function of authority.” Well said. I admit that I am not completely horrified by this. I believe in the grandeur of meaningful living with others and I support intellectual ambition in the courts. As far as I can tell, liberal jurisprudence of the last thirty years tried very hard to squeeze first principles, moral principles, as far out of the law as it could; this was called “judicial minimalism,” and by my lights it represented a collapse in scale and an abdication of responsibility. The law was shrunk and intimidated. The liberals unilaterally disarmed, leaving the impression that they stand only for proceduralism and rule-regulated behavior. The higher dimension of law was usurped by a fetishization of text and a reading of statutes that was designed to be as unrepercussive as possible. Of course not all, or even most, of the cases that come before judges require exercises in moral reasoning, but many of them do, and more generally I do not see how you can work in the field of justice without an ever-present moral sensibility, an intense awareness of the pertinence of values. No society can function without empiricism and no society can live for empiricism.

That liberal diffidence was conceived as a retort to the moral interpretation of law (“there is inevitably a moral dimension to an action at law”) promulgated influentially by Ronald Dworkin, and Vermeule’s breakthrough is Dworkinism for the right. I mean methodologically, and in his larger kind of justification; but Dworkin’s view of liberalism, by contrast, must be anathema to Vermeule, who is another one of those communitarian preachers for whom liberalism is nothing more than a maniacal pursuit of “individualism” and the rest be damned. (The Antichrist is Mill.) Who, really, can be against the common good? But also, what is it? The integralists throw the phrase around like a talisman with healing powers. Its level of generality may be emotionally edifying but it is intellectually crippling. Before it can be critically assessed, it needs to be specified. After all, there are many versions of the common good, and they do not all go together. (There are philosophical contradictions that are not amenable to integration.)

According to Danielou, “politics exists to secure the common good. An essential element of the common good is that man should be able to fulfill himself at all levels. The religious level cannot be excluded.” An ecumenical religious humanism; fine. Father Waldstein’s characterization of the common good starts out with a lovely thought: “A common good is distinguished from a private good by not being diminished when it is shared” — rather like what the old mystics said about the bounty of light. “For this reason,” he continues, “common goods are better than private goods.” Moving sedulously toward politics, he stipulates that “the primary intrinsic common good is peace.” Still lovely, but still general. And then, the descent into specificity: “the temporal common good is subordinate to the eternal common good, and the temporal rulers are subject to the hierarchy of the Church.” Until the Second Coming, that is, when everything will be celestially transfigured. It makes you miss the generalities.

And Vermeule? He is made of harsher stuff. His “substantive moral principles that conduce to the common good” include “respect for the authority of rule and rulers; respect for the hierarchies need for society to function; solidarity within and among families, social groups, workers’ unions, trade associations, and professions; appropriate subsidiarity, or respect for the legitimate roles of public bodies and associations at all levels of government; and a candid willingness to ‘legislate morality’….” It is only a list, and we all have our lists. Some of his list seems reasonable, but all of it awaits reasoning. Indeed, it has a catechismic quality. The problem is that it is impossible to read Vermeule’s constitutional proposals without recalling his religious certitudes. Is it revealing that he begins his list with a validation of political power? Even when he writes about America he refers to “the ruler”; but we do not have a ruler, we have a president. (Not surprisingly, Vermeule has espoused an almost authoritarian view of presidential power.) He endorses “soft paternalism” and remarks that “law is parental.” He asserts that the common good may be legislated by rulers “if necessary even against the subjects’ own perceptions of what is best for them” — an uncontroversial observation about political reality even in republics, but without a whiff of democratic deference and haunting in its evocation of Christian rulers of the past.

Vermeule has no special place in his heart for democracy, which he views mainly as an instrument of liberalism: what matters for him is that the common good, whatever it is, be achieved, and this can be done in a variety of “forms of constitutional ordering centered around robust executive government” depending on “socio-economic conditions.” To attain his goals, “questions of institutional design are not settled a priori.” This may account for his acceptance of illiberal democracies and their authoritarian leaders. The road to heaven is paved with bad intentions. He writes chillingly that whereas the liberal virtues of “civility, tolerance, and their ilk are bad masters and tyrannous when made into idols,” they may be useful “when rightly placed within a larger ordering to good substantive ends” — to wit, “civility and tolerance may be cryptic terms with which to measure the substantive bounds of the views and conduct that will be permitted in a rightly ordered society, but such a society will also value charity, forbearance, and prudence.” Is it a liberal blindness to suggest that charity is not an adequate substitute for social policy, and that nobody who has ever experienced a violation of his rights and an abrogation of his freedoms should suffice with forbearance? Vermeule’s imagination of power is too happy to include its abuses. And so he cheerfully announces that “the claim [in Planned Parenthood v. Casey] that each individual may ‘define his own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life’ should be not only rejected but stamped as abominable” — stamped by whom? And also that “the state will enjoy authority to curb the social and economic pretensions of the urban-gentry liberals who so often place their own satisfactions (financial and sexual) and the good of their class or social milieu above the common good.” Why not shoot them?

Enough. I would not trust this man with the Constitution of the United States. In Vermeule’s common good constitutionalism I do not see much common and I do not see much good. There is something pathetic about faith that seeks the validation of power, that needs to dominate a state to prove its truth. Such a faith is too easily rattled. It has forsaken the still small voice. Why is community not enough for the Christianists? Why must they have society? They will have to learn the art of absolutes without absolutisms. To my Christian friends, I say: neither Benedict nor Louis, please. I say also that America was not designed for integralism, because it was founded on the wisest intuition in modern political history — that conflict is an ineradicable characteristic of human existence, that a perfectly harmonious state of affairs is a sign of freedom’s waning, that unanimity is the program of despots, that social consensus is not the condition of social peace. This is even more sharply so in a religiously and ethnically heterogeneous society, in which commonality cannot be complete but only sufficient to the purposes of a fair and decent polity, and differences may overlap but never coincide. The overlap is where the common good, whatever it is, may be found. The overlap is where democracy flourishes. We will never rid ourselves of the tensions of our complexity, and we should be alarmed if we did. Studying the Catholic integralists, I looked back fondly to the days of John Courtney Murray, S.J. and the American integrity of his non-integralism, his profound wrestlings with the religious realities of an open society, his theology of the tensions.

There is nothing that this country needs more than a common good. In the name of liberalism, and more often of progressivism that is mistaken for liberalism, the American commonality has likewise been severely damaged. The intolerance of the godless is fully the match for the intolerance of the godful. Progressives are attempting to regulate thought and speech and behavior as if they were integralists. What unites all the varieties of contemporary American integralism is that freedom is not what moves them the most. The Christianists have nothing of interest to say about it, and neither do the secular enforcers on the other side. Yet it is this, the inalienable freedom of the mind in matters of belief, its immunity to compulsion, that will eventually defeat them all, as it defeated Josiah. His reformation failed. The people deceived him. The midrash tells that the king sent out pairs of students to survey the success of his campaign against the idols. They could not find any idols in the houses that they inspected, and the king was satisfied with their report. What they did not know was that the dwellers had painted half an idolatrous image on each of the doors to their homes, so that when they closed them upon the departure of the thought police they beheld their forbidden images. The fools, we must learn to respect them.