The National Conservative Movement Needs Liberalism to Save its Soul
Its members are liberal enough to tolerate each other's vast religious differences but not liberal enough to tolerate their liberal enemies. That doesn't work.
Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump transformed the conservative movement, but in different ways. Reagan embodied the deeply held political principles of his coalition—social conservatives, fiscal conservatives and foreign policy hawks—that had been developed in prior decades.
Not so with Trump. His fiscal profligacy, MAGA nationalism and rhetorical excesses shattered the conservative consensus. In its rubble, a mishmash of conservative intellectuals see an opportunity to organize a new conservative movement: national conservatism. Its policy aims remain unclear, as National Review’s Nate Hochman admits. What is clear is that the neo-nationalist adherents of this movement oppose liberalism.
Neo-nationalists use the term “liberalism” unusually broadly to cover both “woke” progressives and classical liberal defenders of limited government. Both groups oppose national conservatism’s goal of deploying a muscular state to advance cultural and religious objectives. Their reasons, however, are very different: Classical liberals disagree with the means national conservatives deploy because they believe that the state must remain neutral among competing ends. Progressive liberals, on the other hand, disagree only with the ends that these conservatives seek, not the means they would employ.
But if national conservatives make common cause with classical liberals and embrace a neutral state, they might be able to fight the worst progressive excesses while maintaining the integrity of their political coalition.
Before they can do that, however, they face the following challenge: Neo-nationalists agree that politics must promote a conception of the common good that leans to the right. If either of the two liberal camps protest, they say “tough luck.” Classical liberals have no conception of the common good, and progressive liberals have the wrong one. Neither, therefore, merits toleration. But to win elections, the neo-nationalists must unite voters of many different persuasions under a common banner, not only religious nationalists of various stripes. So far, they have shown little inclination to do so.
The Impossible Ideal of Liberal Neutrality
What is the neo-nationalists’ objection to (classical) liberal neutrality? They claim it is an impossible ideal, even a myth. Law, policy and the public square must take sides. Neutrality, after all, is itself a value. When law, policy and the public square embrace neutrality, they have paradoxically taken a stand—for liberalism. This makes neutrality absurd and a cloak for the unbridled exercise of liberal or, rather, progressive power.
According to neo-nationalists, a good example of why neutrality fails as a governing principle can be found in Justice Anthony Kennedy’s famous claim in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992): “At the heart of liberty, is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” But, they point out, Kennedy’s seemingly neutral posture resulted in keeping abortion legal, something they consider beyond the pale.
Hence, faith in this false, and quintessentially liberal, doctrine has led to moral abominations such as widespread abortion and pornography. But that’s not the only problem with the doctrine of neutrality. It also destroys family, community and religion because it takes away the ability of society to enforce its strictures. One of the leading lights of the movement, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), believes that “repairing the harm” this kind of thinking has caused is “one of the challenges of our times.”
However, when it comes to one’s choice of religion, neo-nationalists functionally agree with Justice Kennedy. That may be because the national conservative movement already contains a great deal of religious diversity, consisting of strong Presbyterians like Sen. Hawley, Eastern Orthodox Christians like The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher, a slew of deeply committed Roman Catholics—like writer Sohrab Ahmari, political philosopher Patrick Deneen and law professor Adrian Vermeule—as well as Jewish intellectuals like Yoram Hazony of Israel and Newsweek columnist Josh Hammer.
So, neo-nationalists need to respect religious neutrality enough to keep their coalition intact. A good example of this is how some Catholic integralists have tempered their anti-liberal ideologies to make space for Jewish neo-nationalists such as Hazony and Hammer.
The Mortara Test
Catholic integralism—a doctrine that Vermeule and Ahmari have adopted—claims that all political and legal authority comes from God. God authorizes the state to promote the earthly common good. God also authorizes the Roman Catholic Church to promote the eternal common good of the church’s own members. Moreover, the Church can also call on the state to help advance its mission by directing the state to impose civil punishments for violating church law, such as punishing heretics, among other things. Spiritual power—a.k.a. the Church—is superior to the state under the integralist framework because the Church’s objectives have much greater moral importance. In other words, salvation matters more than finding a job. One implication of integralism is that states should become Roman Catholic and officially recognize Catholicism as the religion of the state.
While the thinking behind integralism was accepted throughout much of Catholic Europe until the 19th century, by today’s standards (or any standards) it is a profoundly anti-liberal, non-neutral doctrine. So, what is the stance of the Catholic members of the neo-nationalist coalition? They don’t directly say, but their views can be discerned from the position they take on a test-case event in 1858 that initially exposed integralists to public scrutiny.
The event concerned the plight of Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish boy whose family lived within the papal states—the old polities in central Italy directly governed by the pope until Italian unification in 1861. As an infant, Mortara was secretly baptized by his Catholic nurse when she believed he was near death. The law of the papal states required the pope—then Pius IX—to guarantee that all baptized children receive a Catholic education. Therefore, Pius IX authorized Mortara to be removed from his Jewish family and raised him as his own son.
Most people, including most Catholics, believe that Pius IX acted unjustly—gravely so. But if integralism is true, Pius IX probably acted justly. He had authority over all the baptized to ensure they seek and find salvation. Therefore, Pius IX prevented Mortara’s family from putting his soul at risk, even if that had regrettable consequences.
Vermeule believes that Pius IX had no choice but to remove Edgardo from his parents to ensure he received a Catholic education. This judgment places Vermeule squarely within the integralist camp.
But Ahmari, it seems, disagrees with Vermeule. He pointedly told The New York Times that he does not “want to turn this [America] into a Catholic country.” That presumably means that the state should not be empowered to remove baptized Jewish children from their parents. In other words, Ahmari does not want the state to treat Jews like second-class citizens with fewer rights than Catholic parents.
If Ahmari believed otherwise, Hazony and Ahmari could not work together amicably. Although Hazony says he would not mind if America were to become more Christian, he described this incident as “sickening.” To agree with Pius IX would be to discount the worth of Jewish people. Ahmari is not prepared to go that far and is willing to tolerate religious disagreements between Jews and Catholics. Pius IX’s actions were inappropriate. Or, at least, they should not be repeated.
But Vermeule does not believe that—and, interestingly, he was not invited to the recent National Conservatism Conference. Although we do not know why, it is entirely plausible that his well-known stance on the Mortara incident was a deal-breaker for his national conservative coalition partners. The Mortara test reveals the liberal lines that neo-nationalist Catholics cannot cross if they wish to maintain their coalition.
But if Hazony and Ahmari can set aside their deep religious disagreements on the divinity of Jesus and join hands, they are not as anti-liberal as they portray themselves. One need not adopt liberalism to tolerate religious differences, but it is one of liberalism’s signature principles. Whatever the reason, neither man is comfortable with the state choosing between their religions.
But if these thinkers are liberal neutralists when it comes to religion, how can they oppose neutrality when it comes to matters of morality?
The short answer is that they think reason, separate from revelation, shows that an objective common good exists. Reason also shows that the common good requires promoting public morality and religion in general, though not any one religion in particular. Those liberals who disagree, as far as these neo-right thinkers are concerned, are acting irrationally.
But Jewish-Christian disagreement is not irrational or unreasonable, in their thinking, because one can only conclude that Christianity is true if God reveals it. In lieu of divine revelation that Jesus is the Messiah, Jews have respectable religious and moral beliefs. Reason does not condemn them.
The Slippery Slope
This distinction between reason and revelation, however, cannot bear the weight Hazony and Ahmari must place upon it. First, many moral claims have a religious basis. And so, if people can rationally disagree about religion, they can presumably rationally disagree about those moral claims too. If the neo-right were consistent, it would have to admit that the state should not legislate moral matters, at least those on which rational faiths disagree.
Indeed, consider that many millions of Jews and Christians embrace progressive views on religious grounds. They may be wrong to do so, but it is hard to say they are being irrational. They honestly draw different moral conclusions from religious traditions whose truth is hard to grasp. Catholic Christians sharply disagree with one another about many moral and political truths on thoroughly Catholic grounds, after all. Hazony, a Jew, and Ahmari, a Catholic, may have reasonable disagreements based on their faiths, but Ahmari also has reasonable disagreements with Catholics like Vermeule, who do not share all his moral and political beliefs.
Hence the logic of neutrality and toleration unfolds of its own accord. By accepting neutrality with respect to religion, they must gradually extend it to morality. And then, by doing so, they have walked right into classical liberalism’s trap.
The Real Enemy
If religion and morality cannot draw the line between their friends and enemies, then what unites the neo-nationalists? The short answer is their perceived hegemony of progressive liberals. They are not especially irritated that these liberals exist, but that they rule.
Vermeule has condemned progressivism as an “imperialist” force that upends social customs with its ever-expanding demand for individual rights and personal liberation. The problem, as he sees it, is that progressive states must oppress non-progressives to achieve their political values.
But here neo-nationalists are in step with classical liberals. Classical liberals insist that the state not take sides in reasonable disagreements over different ideals of freedom. They oppose enlisting the state for secular causes just as much as religious sectarian ones.
If that’s the case, then neo-nationalists can use liberal neutrality as a tool to fight progressive excesses. It is precisely the principle of liberal neutrality that resulted in the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which aims to prevent the state from substantially burdening the exercise of anyone’s religion. This law gives religious employers meaningful exemptions from all kinds of federal regulations that violate their faith. For example, as we discovered after the enactment of the Affordable Care Act, private Catholic employers are not required to provide birth control coverage to employees. This puts a serious check on progressive excesses.
If neo-nationalists accept full liberal neutrality, they may find that they can both keep their coalition and ward off progressive excesses. That might give them more reasons to love—rather than reject—the liberal order.
Kevin Vallier is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Bowling Green State University, where he directs the program in Philosophy, Politics, Economics, and Law. He is the author, most recently, of Trust in a Polarized Age (Oxford UP 2020). His forthcoming book, tentatively titled All the Kingdoms of the World (Oxford UP 2023), will address religious anti-liberalisms.