Conservative Christian Americans currently face a challenge from an insurgent group of scholars and activists calling themselves “post-liberals” or “neo-integralists.” They are largely scholars. Some are theologians, like Chad Pecknold (Catholic University of America) and Fr. Edmund Waldstein, O. Cist. (Stift Heiligenkreuz, a Cistercian abbey in Austria). Others are political scientists, such as Gladden Pappin (University of Dallas) and Patrick Deneen (University of Notre Dame), or law professors like Adrian Vermeule (Harvard Law School). Others are popular authors like Sohrab Ahmari, who currently holds a visiting position at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Post-liberals take their name from the 2017 book Why Liberalism Failed, which Deneen wrote at a time when the conservative movement was in flux. In retrospect, the book retains a strong sense of Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option,” perhaps because the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, seemed destined to win the 2016 election; her loss was a surprise opportunity for post-liberals to emerge from a defensive crouch and advance their vision of a future in which conservatives could discard liberal nostrums of a bygone age in favor of a nation with a government that uses its power to advance the common good. In short, they longed for an America after liberalism.
What do the New Catholic Right and the Trumpian National Conservatives have in common? Less than you may think. Will this marriage of convenience last?
Post-liberal conservatism is very different from mainstream American conservatism. Mainstream conservatism has its roots in Anglo-American colonial customs, the Scottish Enlightenment, the Founding, and the 20th-century Judeo-Christian consensus. Post-liberal ideas have their origin in the Catholic reactionary thought of continental Europeans like Joseph de Maistre, Juan Donoso Cortés, and Carl Schmitt, itself a response to the French Revolution and the subsequent iterations of liberal parliamentarism. Unlike the Anglo-American liberals, continental liberals were much more radical, seeking to secularize all public life. Reactionaries opposed secularization by attempting to reimpose a centralized, top-down political order of a conjoined church and state. Reactionaries had always remained marginal in America. Our history is simply not that of the European continent. Moreover, the United States did not have even the historical memory of an aristocratic class and church hierarchy as sources of social order. Their imposition would be something entirely new, not a ”return to tradition.” Finally, these European thinkers have rather unfortunate histories: Maistre and Cortés advocated for absolute monarchy; Schmitt was a Nazi.
Despite its historical remoteness and problematic origins, post-liberal thought has begun to influence largely younger conservatives. As the left has increasingly captured elite institutions to impose “woke” ideological constraints on them, many on the right want a national counterrevolution. Mainstream conservatives resist this approach, preferring local government, entrepreneurship, and the formation of civil society. These priorities do not resonate the way they once did. Opportunities to enter public life depend on carefully navigating rules and regulations designed by progressives to catch conservatives and relegate them to the margins. What if local government is composed of a self-appointed vanguard of the left? What if entrepreneurship depends on starting a business in which clients require towing an ideological line? What if civil society is unequally policed, wherein progressive protesters receive elite endorsement and conservative ones federal investigations? These questions might sound over the top, but I have been asked them from conservative students and recent graduates. This kind of uncertainty makes the promised authoritarian response of post-liberalism more seductive.
Post-liberalism is part of a broader group of ideological outcasts that have begun to coalesce into a kind of conservative countermovement to the older, more traditional conservativism—a countermovement called “National Conservatism” and usually associated with the Donald Trump presidential victory. In this essay, I will discuss how post-liberal thought has precursors in figures like Fr. Charles Coughlin and Triumph magazine. Next, I will explain how this form of thought fits within the broader National Conservative countermovement. I will conclude with some words of warning.
Originally from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, Charles Coughlin (1891–1979) came to America at the behest of the bishop of Detroit, Michael Gallagher. Coughlin was ordained to the priesthood in 1918 as a member of the Order of St. Basil (he left in 1923 after it was reorganized in a way he did not like), a French-Canadian brotherhood dedicated to restoring and updating medieval Catholic thought for the industrial age, and he brought this experience to his call for social justice to a working-class Irish-Catholic audience. In 1926, Fr. Coughlin began broadcasting catechism classes for children over Detroit radio. From his newly founded Shrine of the Little Flower, Coughlin enjoyed initial success in teaching the basic dogmas of the Catholic faith and soon branched out to political topics appropriate for adults. Soon Coughlin had millions of listeners to his radio program The Hour of Power, and in 1930 CBS aired his program. When the Great Depression hit, he rallied to the Democratic candidacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and, after FDR’s victory, became a cheerleader for the New Deal. He expected some degree of influence in the new administration, but FDR froze him out. Coughlin was not happy.
Coughlin, however, had only himself to blame. He had spent much of the months following the onset of the Great Depression accusing Jews of orchestrating economic collapse. His anti-Semitic attacks became frequent enough that CBS dropped him in 1931. He had alternative broadcast options, and in 1936 he began publishing his own magazine, Social Justice. Coughlin’s politics were isolationist, strongly in favor of a welfare state, and defended authoritarian government. Coughlin formed the National Union for Social Justice (NUSJ) to rival the Democratic Party, but the campaign failed. Unphased, he launched the Christian Front in 1938, which was anticommunist, anti-Semitic, and clearly sympathetic with fascist causes. As Charles R. Gallagher recently published in his book Nazis of Copley Square: The Forgotten Story of the Christian Front, one of Coughlin’s chief lieutenants, Francis P. Moran, was an unregistered foreign agent for the Nazi government. Despite Coughlin’s full-throated fascist rhetoric, he retained a large following. Bishop Gallagher protected him from American episcopal and Vatican efforts to shut Coughlin down. It was not until 1942, after America had already entered the Second World War, that Coughlin finally broadcast a message demanding America not enter the war, as the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, were the result of a Jewish plot. That message violated the 1917 Espionage Act, giving the federal government cause to shut his media operation down for good.
Coughlin is part of an American Catholic history many contemporary Americans either do not know or would like to forget, yet he represents a strain of thought that has remained influential if underground. L. Brent Bozell, William H. Marshner, and other writers formed Triumph magazine in 1965 after the fusionism of National Review proved insufficiently Catholic for them. As Max Bodach has published in a study for the American Enterprise Institute, the Bozells moved their family to Spain, then suffering under the elderly Francisco Franco’s rusting iron fist. Inspired by the integralist parties of the 1930s, the Bozells and their authors offered a reactionary critique of America. Perhaps too effete for Coughlin’s rough populism and open anti-Semitism, the Triumph crowd at least shared his worldview of a church embattled and in need of a strong authoritarian turn. Perhaps the best example of this was Marshner’s November 1972 article “Politique d’Abord,” in which he directly appealed to the ideas of Charles Maurras, a notorious anti-Semite involved in the Dreyfus Affair and later founder of Action Française (AF), a French proto-fascist party. Marshner regarded America with contempt, saying in his article, “We have been accustomed to think that the Land of the Free represents an alternative to that sort of totalitarianism, but once again we have been deceived.”
The echoes of authoritarian Catholicism have resurfaced in the rise of neo-integralist thought among a cohort of conservative Catholics disaffected by the 2015 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which stripped states of traditional marriage laws, and constitutional amendments to affirm a right for same-sex couples to marry. Their rise coincided with blogging and social media sites that gave them access to new audiences, often composed of young conservative Catholics and other Christians unhappy with the perceived indifference among mainstream conservatives in response to the decision, as well as other social conservative issues like abortion and pornography.
Fr. Edmund Waldstein began writing for his personal blog, Sancrucensis, and a group blog, The Josias, about a decade or so ago. At both he seeks to resuscitate pre–Vatican II church-state relations of the 19th century and revive the politics of Catholic Action groups from the 1930s. Over time, likeminded scholars like Vermeule began to contribute to The Josias as others founded new publications of their own. Gladden Pappin helped found American Affairs in 2017, an elite policy journal aligned with National Conservatism, while Patrick Deneen, Adrian Vermeule, and Chad Pecknold started a Substack newsletter, The Postliberal Order, late in 2021. All of them hold official positions or publish in important conservative journals like First Things and The American Conservative and also occasionally publish in The New York Times and The Atlantic. In other words, the post-liberals hope to shape conservatism and gain a greater public profile in their national outreach.
The starting point for post-liberals is that all politics is fundamentally theological and that the conflict in our culture is one between liberal and Christian orthodoxies. To win the conflict requires total victory, which in turn means seizing the institutions of the federal government and imposing a post-liberal order onto the American people the way they believe progressives have in the past 20 or so years. The term “liberalism” as they use it conflates progressive thought with mainstream conservatism—the latter they call “right-liberalism,” since right-liberals do nothing, in their view, but slow down progressive social change until conservative leaders ultimately cave on issues they once fought against.
The reason “right-liberals” cave, to their mind, is because their own liberalism demands it. Liberalism, according to post-liberals, defines the good at the level of the individual rather than according to church dogma or the common good. When “right-liberals” concede this approach in their opposition to progressives, they are in fact already giving the game away. Progressives understand the conflict as one of orthodoxies in a way that “right-liberals” do not; hence, “right-liberals” keep losing because they are unaware or unwilling to admit that liberalism itself is a dogma. When demanding that individuals make judgments on their own, liberals are in fact excluding Christian religious authority and substituting their own liberal authority on these matters. Hence, the language of “human rights” and “liberation” become the prevailing values that right-liberals cannot resist on liberal terms.
Some readers may be nodding their heads at some of these arguments, and that is because there is some truth to this critique. Progressives really do advance their own dogmas, whether it be “wokeness” or politically charged notions of “following the science.” Moreover, progressives have worked hard to seize elite institutions to shape political discourse and, perhaps more importantly, control the supply of elite university graduates and their placement in government, media, corporations, and nonprofits. Hence, in the past few years, one has noticed an increasingly hostile environment within these organizations and high-profile “cancellations” of leaders within them.
If the post-liberals have some good points of diagnosis, what then is the problem? There are two problems. The first is with the facts and the second is their solution.
The post-liberal story of mainstream conservative failure is highly selective. Conservatives have had many wins as well as defeats. The Cold War comes to mind; however, the same-sex marriage example is not entirely the fault of mainstream conservatism. The Supreme Court overturned successful conservative efforts to define marriage as one man and one woman at the state level. It is hard to blame the swing vote of former associate justice Anthony Kennedy on an entire movement. In addition, conservatives have made great strides in the efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade at the state level and are posed to strike a fatal blow in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization case currently before a 6-3 conservative Supreme Court. Even if this case fails, there is every indication that conservatives have momentum. For example, in K–12 education, conservatives have advanced school choice, charter school, and homeschooling options for parents seeking alternatives to public schools.
Much worse and more important is the post-liberal solution. Here is where echoes of the NUSJ, Christian Front, and Triumph era flirtations with fascism can be heard. Post-liberals wish not only to “defeat” liberalism but also supplant it with what they say must come “after” it, hence the name “post-liberal.” The post-liberal regime has a centralized political authority and devalues ideas of natural rights and human dignity, the latter of which Pecknold is especially critical. Like the integralist parties of 1930s Latin America and Catholic Europe, they aim to impose Catholic orthodoxy on the laws and subsidize family formation but with a modern twist they draw from examples in Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz Party in Hungary and Xi Jinping’s rule over the People’s Republic of China. Orbán offers generous subsidies for families who have multiple children to boost the number of Hungarians born above the replacement rate. While the program has not had much effect, Pappin has sung its praises widely and encouraged Republicans to add it as a kind of middle-class entitlement to lure suburban voters back to the GOP. Vermeule and Ahmari have publicly celebrated communist China in its embrace of state-run capitalist enterprises and a “superior” natural virtue in a restored Confucian culture over America’s “liberal” one.
One might think that Xi’s totalitarian handling of religious and ethnic minorities might be cause for concern, but one should recall that post-liberals are not attached to ideas of natural rights or human dignity. Rather, they subjugate concerns for rights and dignity to the common good as they understand it, which is in a more collectivist sense of what a centralized government, duly informed by Catholic teaching, ordains for the people. Post-liberals stress the obligation for subjects to obey political authorities and leave ruling to elites. If the government deems a religious or ethnic minority, especially a Muslim one like the Chinese Uyghurs, a threat to the regime, then it has the sovereign authority to suppress it. After all, post-liberals strongly emphasize the Schmittian friend/enemy distinction, which they argue is the basis for all politics, although in terms of friends and enemies of the church and the state. While Xi is no Catholic, for post-liberals he at least has the right view of politics; if Xi were to enter the Catholic Church, he would, for them, be the best ruler in the best regime this side of God’s Kingdom. Vermeule makes no effort to hide his enthusiasm, using his significant social media presence on Twitter to share stories from official Chinese press sources and to recommend the works of Wang Huning, a member of the CCP's Politburo Standing Committee and the first-ranked secretary of the CCP's Secretariat. In a recent jointly written op-ed for The New York Times, Ahmari, Deneen, and Pappin referred to China as a civilizational equal despite its handling of religious minorities, and advocated a “hands-off” foreign-policy position. Another echo of the past.
Such a position becomes downright chilling when examining the work of neo-integralist theorists Fr. Thomas Crean, O.P., and Alan Fimister in their book Integralism: A Manual of Political Philosophy. According to the widely shared “Three Sentences” definition of integralism shared on The Josias:
[blockquote]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.[/blockquote]
Crean and Fimister provide the theoretical foundations and political implications for neo-integralism. Perhaps most concerning is their limited justification for slavery, the denial of women the right to vote, and the exclusion of the “unbaptized,” meaning especially Jews and Muslims, from citizenship. For neo-integralists, unbaptized populations would live at the pleasure of the regime, meaning they could not hold political office, serve in the military, or practice their faith in a way that might draw converts. Historically, to ensure that religious minorities do not convert the faithful, integralist states have segregated them into ghettoes, which Crean and Fimister say nothing to oppose. One can see the parallel in the way China has handled the Uyghurs.
Surely, a reader may insist, all this is impossible to achieve. How would a majority of Americans ever agree to this? The post-liberal answer is to reject the premise; a majority is not necessary. After all, when progressives pushed for their policy proposals, few if anyone agreed with them. Same-sex marriage was unthinkable in 1990, marginal in 2000, a progressive plank in 2010, and the law of the land in 2020. The method for achieving this policy change was the organization of a small, well-situated minority who could use political and cultural power to move elites to their own position. The broader American people were indifferent, and progressive cultural elites simply led them to a majority support for same-sex marriage with a combination of popular entertainment like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Will and Grace and political activism by organizations like the Human Rights Campaign. Vermeule argues that post-liberals will do the same but with neo-integralist ideas. In an article at The Josias (revised and recently published in the book Integralism and the Common Good: Selected Essays from The Josias), he calls for “integration from within” in which conservative elites work their way into the federal government and use their access to state power to impose conservative policies. Conservative criticism of this view Vermeule has criticized in The Postliberal Order as the “futility trope” that right-liberals have held on to as consolation for their own failures to conserve anything.
Post-liberals are an awkward fit in the broader National Conservative movement, but there is sufficient overlap to make it easier for the coalition to come together. The first thing to note is that the term “post-liberal” is of later vintage than “integralist” or “neo-integralist.” Originally, the group staked its future on neo-integralism quite explicitly, but the significant historical baggage made progress difficult. The move to “post-liberal” is more an affirmation of what they oppose rather than affirm, which is perhaps an easier way to gain greater traction and make in-roads among National Conservatives. The same is also the likely rationale of rebranding neo-integralist politics as “common-good conservatism” or “common-good constitutionalism.”
National Conservatives are deeply skeptical of free markets and favor a return to working-class politics of the “Old Left,” namely of labor protections, aggressive tariffs against American enemies/competitors, reshoring of industries to make American production more self-sufficient, antitrust actions on Big Tech corporations, and tight restrictions on immigration. Post-liberals generally agree on labor protections, tariffs, reshoring, and antitrust action. All of these entail the use of centralized political authority for what they regard as the common good for ordinary Americans instead of progressive elites. If post-liberals really do “integrate from within,” they will be the ones coordinating these policies, meaning they will not be subject to progressive capture because post-liberals will have captured them already. Antitrust is especially important because of how it would break up the progressive dominance of cultural production in social media, leading to opportunities for post-liberals to create and oversee new firms that suppress progressive ideas instead. However, post-liberals are less enthusiastic about immigration restrictions. Vermeule publicly called for more immigration but targeted to nations with large Catholic populations. While Pappin and Ahmari have sided more with the National Conservative approach—Pappin in American Affairs and Ahmari as an invited speaker at the 2021 National Conservatism conference—Vermeule seems less enthused with the Trumpian vision. Another point of friction is over the federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate. As an advocate for centralized authority, Vermeule favored it, but Pecknold did not.
Perhaps the most obvious problem for post-liberals is that the National Conservative movement began with the Edmund Burke Society, led by Yoram Hazony, an Orthodox Jew, and has in addition many Jewish members. Hazony’s inspiration for nationalism is the combined influence of modern Israeli solidarity and the sense of national purpose of 19th century Great Britain. Both were tolerant yet confessional states with a strong sense of national identity necessary for pursuing great projects. The common identity served as a foundation for constructive politics, despite intense partisan disputes within it, in a way that liberal politics simply prohibits. Does the neo-integralist position on Jews bother Hazony? He does not seem to take notice, but it is worth pointing out that Vermeule and other post-liberals are not really nationalists at all. Vermeule has stated that he is not nationalist, “except in the very qualified, non-ideal and second-best sense that nationalism may be a temporary expedient born of necessity, in opposition to an overbearing transnational liberal order.” Indeed, he has endorsed a kind of “world government” under a Vatican-approved state. As with most coalitions, what holds the constituents together seems to be a common opposition both to mainstream conservatives and to progressives. Without these, they would necessarily oppose each other.
Post-liberalism is still very new and may prove to be quite short-lived, but there is no guarantee of this. As already mentioned, many young conservatives are unsettled by the status quo and want a definitive answer to the many setbacks they experience in public life. Moreover, the post-liberals may need years to see dividends in their strong social media and prestige media presence, one in which younger post-liberal adherents eventually make their way through graduate programs, law schools, and the federal bureaucracy. Integration from within takes time.
However, the most significant gamble for post-liberals is that there will be a constituency for their ideas. Vermeule insists that the broader American people will simply acquiesce to the ideas once the post-liberals have gained a foothold in the culture, but this view seems to underestimate American independence and overestimate the ability of post-liberals to reach positions of power. After all, it is one thing to favor banning pornography; it is quite another to do so while endorsing Orbán and Xi. National Conservatives arose to meet the demand for a conservatism more amenable to the presidency of Donald J. Trump and the perceived need to move beyond the “dead consensus” of the Reagan years. Given Trump’s vehement opposition to China, an opposition that has become a consensus view in Washington, it is hard to see how a pro-China post-liberalism could make any friends even with the Trump wing of the party—to say nothing of rank-and-file Republicans opposed to China in principle and in politics.
The most likely outcome for post-liberalism is that it will fall victim to the same fate as Coughlin and Triumph, wherein the movement loses support as more people learn of its true ambitions. That said, to get Coughlin off the air was quite difficult, and Triumph had some strong interest in the early days until ultimately the Bozells mismanaged the magazine to such an extent that it came to ruin. Even so, it is important for those who stand for ordered liberty and constitutional government to stay vigilant against dangerous ideologies on the right as well as on the left and not assume that they will simply burn themselves out.
*An earlier version of this essay misidentified the parties in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization.