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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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