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Introducing integralism

Mark Tooley | A group of Catholic intellectuals challenge America’s democratic founding principles

Congregants and priests gather for Mass at Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, N.J. Associated Press/Photo by Mel Evans (file)

Introducing integralism
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Traditionally, American evangelicals are enthusiasts for the country’s founding principles. Sometimes, in their zeal, they get carried away, exaggerating Christianity’s influence among the Founders. But evangelicals are largely correct to honor the principles of human equality and liberty that ultimately originate in the Bible’s view of humans imaging God. American democracy, although of course littered with human sin, has providentially gifted unprecedented freedom, prosperity, and opportunity to hundreds of millions of people of all faiths and no faith.

So, evangelicals and others should be concerned about growing challenges to the founding premises of American democracy, not just from secularists but also from conservative Christians preferring some form of theocracy or confessional state. Likely you have never heard of integralism, but you need to know about it.

Integralism is a growing movement popular among Catholic intellectuals who think America’s liberal democracy, with its free speech and religious liberty, was doomed from the start because its design is at odds with God’s purposes for the community and state. Liberal democracy, the integralists believe, allows for the proliferation of immorality by its denial of any sort of religious basis undergirding society. They advocate a peaceful social and political revolution against our democracy, replacing it with a new arrangement in which, as Wikipedia describes, “Catholic faith should be the basis of public law and public policy within civil society.” Some non-Catholics, despairing of our democracy, share parts of this perspective.

This cause may sound extreme and unlikely. And it’s true that very few Americans, including Catholics, are integralists. But this perspective commands zeal from a band of smart thinkers and highly educated young people whose influence exceeds their small numbers. And it reflects a shrinking confidence in our democracy, fueling increasing brands of illiberalism—forms of rejecting the idea of classical liberty. Integralism is just one example.

Evangelicals, of course, sympathize with integralists in their distress about many moral and cultural failures in today’s American democracy. The latest fad of transgenderism is just one example of contemporary society’s destructive distancing from a transcendent moral order. With integralists, evangelicals also hope for a nation rooted in godly aspirations, to the extent possible in our fallen world.

But evangelicals should reject integralist arguments and offer an alternative vision affirming and renewing American founding democratic principles. Integralists agree with political scientist Patrick Deneen of the University of Notre Dame, author of Why Liberalism Failed, who asserts America’s founding originated in a corrosive individualism disconnected from divine transcendence and doomed to fail. Allegedly stressing rights rather than duties, American democracy was destined to leave people spiritually, culturally, and economically isolated, without ultimate meaning.

Liberal democracy, the integralists believe, allows for the proliferation of immorality by its denial of any sort of religious basis undergirding society.

Other writers popular with integralists include former New York Post editor Sohrab Ahmari, theologian Chad Pecknold of Catholic University, political theorist Gladden Pappin of the University of Dallas, legal scholar Adrian Vermeule of the Harvard University School of Law, First Things editor R.R. Reno, and Austrian Cistercian monk Edmund Waldstein. Several of these men became Catholic later in life and their formidable intellects are animated with the zeal of converts. Ahmari, Pecknold, Pappin, and Vermeule’s blog is The Post Liberal Order.

These writers, of course, each have different perspectives. Vermeule believes in integralism through faithful Catholics seeking positions through the United States’ present system, “eventually superseding it altogether,” based on Biblical models like Joseph, Mordecai, Esther, and Daniel, who gained “the affection and respect of those who formally wield power, and thereby exert influence.”

Some integralists seek collaboration with socially conservative, religion-friendly governments like Poland and Hungary, seeing those regimes as steps toward a more comprehensive integralist vision in which the state officially commits to Catholic teaching. For integralism, only a Catholic confessional state ultimately can steer a society toward the good and the true.

Evangelicals can sympathize with these hopes for a more Christian society while opposing the means. Integralists ironically join secularists in often mischaracterizing America’s founding as intrinsically materialist, hyper-individualist, and religiously indifferent. The Founders overwhelmingly identified as Christian, many were serious churchmen, and nearly all were committed to a wider public good that needed public Christianity.

The Founders were Protestants, and here’s what integralists often evade in their critique. While integralists cite Enlightenment liberalism as their nemesis, it’s the Protestant political tradition that confounds them.

American democracy is suffused with an especially Protestant understanding of the public good that protects and benefits all. Society’s moral confusions do not flow from this understanding but contradict it. Social renewal doesn’t benefit from implausible theocratic theories alien to our history. Instead, evangelicals should, through civil society, help to reanimate the rich Protestant beliefs that gave birth to our liberties. It’s up to us to reclaim a lasting vision of liberty.

Mark Tooley

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence. Prior to joining the IRD in 1994, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. A lifelong United Methodist, he has been active in United Methodist renewal since 1988. He is the author of Taking Back The United Methodist Church, Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century, and The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War. He attends a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Va.


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Good article. During this church age that we live in the New Testament teaches the church and the state are two separate realms. It is a good thing when Christians seek public office to exercise Christian influence but the church and state are separate realms until Christ returns.

Martin Lloyd Jones said the following when he was teaching through Romans 13 (see his commentary on Romans 13 Life in Two Kingdoms page 133)
“…what happened at the time of Constantine was not only a departure from the New Testament teaching but also a departure from the practice of the early church….
…the Roman Catholic Church perpetuated the church/state relationship that had begun at the time of Constantine…
…The Protestant Reformers perpetuated this precise error. They really did not face it. They just took it over without examining it as they should have done. And this was true not only of the Protestant Reformers but also of their descendants, even including the Puritans in Britain…”

John Woodard

I'm a Protestant of the Reformed ilk who has read a little of the works of Deneen, Pecknold, Ahmari, and Vermuele with some interest. Recognizing that Tooley has a limited space in which to introduce integralism, his article lacks the nuance that the thought of the men he mentions deserves while ignoring the weight of their legitimate critiques of liberal democracy and the influences of the Enlightenment on the American founding. (It lacks nuance to such an extent that another reader could assume that what they desire is akin to the desires of Isalmic militants, which is simply ridiculous). Tooley resorts to Wikipedia's summary of integralism to get his scary quote: “Catholic faith should be the basis of public law and public policy within civil society.” Have any of the men he mentions put it that way? If so, why didn't he quote them directly? Or would they be more comfortable saying that a mere Christian faith, or even the natural law as historically understood by Christians, would provide the appropriate basis for civil government? Did Tooley, while reporting for this article, reach out to any of the integralists or read any of them carefully enough to know? You could read the Wikipedia quote and assume the integralists he mentions daydream about the state's police to come and make sure the residents of your home all correctly adhere to the Catholic Church's understanding of the sacraments, are properly venerating Mary, and are in full submission to the pope. Nothing could be farther from the truth. They recognize the separate role and sphere of the civil government and the church government.
And yes, the integralists certainly look to Hungary (more than they do Poland from what I've seen) to see what might be possible, but interestingly Hungary's prime minister Victor Orban is a member of the Reformed Church of Hungary, not the Roman Catholic Church, and the country is not Catholic or even officially Christian. For that matter, Hungary probably protects all of its citizens' freedom of speech and religion better than our supposedly superior liberal democracy. So far as I know Poland isn't officially Catholic either, and it is certainly tolerant of not only Protestants but other religions and atheists as well, again probably more tolerant of non-Christians than our supposedly principled pluralistic liberal democracy is of those who hold traditional Christian views on any number of topics.
Tooley then goes on to far-too-easily flatten America's own founding into something historically unrecognizable: "The Founders were Protestants . . ." Well, some of them were. And some of those who were supposedly Protestant were certainly catechized far more by the forces of the Enlightenment than by the confessions (and historic understandings of the nature of being and reality) of their own Protestant churches. And then there were the out-and-out Unitarians, one of whom took his scissors to his Bible. But, sure, they were Protestants, and that's what the Catholic integralists can't wrap their heads around. (For the record, Chad Pecknold, mentioned by Tooley above, has written a book on the history of political theology that is particularly charitable and gracious to the Calvinist tradition titled Christianity and Politics: A Brief Guide to the History. Pecknold did not seem particularly confounded by Protestantism and would likely welcome informed conversation with Protestants). Commenter RSHA5892 has rightly linked the integralists' critique of the American founding to Trueman's The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self; there's a lot of overlap between Trueman's book and Patrick Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed and the general thrust of the integralists' ideas. A conversation between Trueman (who is from a very traditional Reformed denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church) and some of the integralists would be helpful.
It's far past the time when we need to stop falling reflexively into this kind of "defend [an increasingly indefensible] democracy mode" that will hear no critiques of liberal democracy and can't entertain the idea that it's time for, if not revolution, a serious examination of the American experiment and all the true results (the toxic ones included) of liberal democracy. Perhaps it's even time for some new experimentation in the American project. As Protestants committed to the historic, orthodox Christian faith (which comes with no commitments to any particular form of government last time I checked and certainly doesn't view democracy as the end of history or the privileged outworking of a development of doctrine) it would be to our benefit to stop writing off the men Tooley mentions above as dangerous revolutionaries or looneys who want to turn America into a Catholic caliphate along the Isalmic lines and instead start reading them carefully and charitably. Following such a reading, it would be in our best interest to start talking with them, finding out where and to what extent we might be able to work together, and where we must remain divided. Perhaps our disagreements would lead to productive new developments that could help our broken nation.
As far as I can tell, this kind of dismissive hit piece doesn't do anyone any good.


I had never heard of integralism until I read this piece. The concept is shockingly similar to the argument by Islamic militants that the state should govern with an explicit, specific religious construct for the good of society. Unfortunately for these integralists, the Bible is clear on two points: (1) God is already sovereign in and through secular authorities (see Romans 13 and consider the nature of the governing authorities in power when it was written); and (2) Jesus' good news was and is aimed at the individual person, not at the state. Reconciliation to God occurs one human at a time, and so will restoration of a good and just and moral order in society--a vision which can only be fully realized by God Himself, ushered in by the return of Jesus. In the meantime, our calling is not to force goodness on the world through government--it is to spread the good news of goodness unleashed from within human hearts by Jesus' renovation of our souls.


Thanks for this information on integralism! Our family worships at a Baptist church, with 2 middle schoolers attending public schools. Given the toxic cultural swirl we wonder whether we have thrown our children into whitewater rapids (analogy from Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, recommending strategic withdrawal from secular society) and we have sought to intentionally partner with other families in following Christ. After reading Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (his Grove City College lecture series is free on YouTube, and easier for the kids to follow) I think these integralists may have a right understanding, that our cultural mess has been developing over several hundred years. Praying for wisdom please.