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Integralism as Default

The so-called post-liberal debate rolls on; as is to be expected in the midst of the greatest civil unrest and polarization many recent generations have yet witnessed. So long as present problems can be attributed to the status quo, then soul-searching will commence (hopefully on both sides of the ideological and class divide, but I would not advise holding your breath). And this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Recent contributions from Sohrab Ahmari and Gladden Pappin tracked and exposited the trajectory of the Right toward post-liberal reassessments of once cherished, orthodox conservative commitments—e.g. the fusion of economic libertarianism and social traditionalism. A common thread running through both Ahmari’s and Pappin’s work is a reconsideration of state power. In some ways, this is taking place on a more metaphysical than practical or realist level. Though, discovering anew political possibilities previously assumed by bygone generations is part of their reassessment. This is happening both here and on the continent. Recognition that “cultural and ecological vandalism,” to borrow a phrase from the late Roger Scruton, has been occurring in the West, long before excited and excitable teenage hooligans hit the streets undeterred. The “conservative” political commitments that have militantly defended the culprits for decades—for the sake of maximizing profit, and ignoring the concomitant non-economic externalities—are being more or less tossed by the incoming class of “woke” conservatives, as Ahmari calls them (borrowing a term from the New Left).

The less interesting takes are simply those that investigate how Trump has changed the Republican party. Examining social and political dynamics from another and far more exciting angle are people like Michael Lind, who insist that class is the basis of division in the West. Patrick Deneen’s review of Lind’s newest book at First Things is a must-read.  

I continue to think that the most engaging and significant facet of this discussion is presented by integralists—Pappin is one, Ahmari is not. I’ve written on the subject before and will assume some acquaintance with the basic tenets of integralism by the reader. Integralism seems strange to people because, I would argue (and have), it is not really a post-liberal idea but rather a pre-modern one. Integralism is not like, by analogy, postmodernism. That is an arid critique of everything that is for the sake of its demolition and, well, nothing else really. Postmodernism is a theory of resentment, and an assault on confidence of any kind. It is a pushing of all modern commitments and assumptions to the extreme, allegedly to expose their impracticality and dishonesty. But integralists present a positive vision for replacement or, at least, alteration of the modern situation. And they do this by getting behind modern assumptions, not in front of them.

In his famous study of Puritanism, Errand into the Wilderness, Perry Miller wrote:

Certainly, if the eighteenth century inaugurated the modern epoch in natural sciences, so also did it in the political and social sciences. For the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire religion could be separated from politics, doctrinal orthodoxy divorced from loyalty to the state, and the citizens of a nation be permitted to worship in diverse churches and to believe different creeds without endangering the public peace.

Accordingly, Miller advises, to understand political (and other) ideas that predate the modern era (sidestepping questions of periodization here), “We must go behind these eighteenth-century developments,” from which we now struggle to detach ourselves and imagine anything different. If we dare, we must venture back to “an age when the unity of religion and politics was so axiomatic that very few men would even have grasped the idea that church and state could be distinct.”

By leading us to do this, integralism presents one side of its utility—the other side, which flows from the first, will be discussed momentarily—for contemporary discussions, a utility that does not necessitate a complete structural overhaul. Obviously, specific brands of integralism (i.e. Catholic integralism) present certain implications for political (and church) polity, but this is not inherent to integralism itself, contra its critics—who never seem to tire of crying, “Theocracy!”  

One of the best arguments for integralism, in my estimation, has been presented by Thomas Pink. In an article at Public Discourse, Pink argues that all states are integralist. The only remaining question pertains to what good society and the state are ordered. Considered this way, integralism becomes not an aspirational program but a realist assessment; descriptive rather than prescriptive.

At its root, integralism is about recognizing the teaching function of the state—specifically its law. This, in turn, is about recognizing that some governing moral commitment(s), some concept of the good, necessarily undergirds the law, is taught by it, and justifies the coercive force on the part of the state to preserve it. In Pink’s words, “[T]he state is not just a facilitator of protection and cooperation. The state is also a public teacher. Through its laws, we as private individuals come to understand what the common good involves and how it should be pursued.”

Pink’s contention is simply that all states do this, even if subconsciously. “[T]o give some sort of confessional character to the state is not a category mistake, but report of an inevitable feature,” says Pink. Every state is a confessional state. Before the modern turn in political theory, everyone understood this. Describing seventeenth century New England, Miller wrote: 

Puritans did not think that the state was merely an umpire, standing on the sidelines of a contest, limited to checking egregious fouls but otherwise allowing men free play according to their abilities and the breaks of the game. They would have expected laissez-faire to result in a reign of rapine and horror.

Perhaps they were right. 


The pedagogical function of law is a long-recognized truth. The cadre of intellectuals in American law schools known as the Critical Legal Studies movement certainly understands this. Politics may be downstream of culture, but this does not mean that policy does not instruct culture as well. The forming of the popular imagination is a circular, rather than linear, process.

What the law teaches is determined by the confession underlying and animating the state. The teaching function of law (procedural and substantive) evidences most obviously in punishment, a distinctly political power vested in the state by any Christian account of politics—even if a given account is Jeffersonian or minimalist, in that the state is conceived only as a protector of bodily safety and freedom of movement.

But it also manifests in what the law condones, privileges, and promotes—in some cases, merely as the converse to what it punishes. That is, it is just as important to recognize what the state does not do as it is to recognize what it does do. In either case, what the state does through human law is, by definition, on behalf of not any one individual but the whole community. That is why crimes are prosecuted by the state and not litigated between two equally situated individual parties, as they are in civil disputes. In the latter case, the standard of justice is redress for the aggrieved party, in the former it is either punishment or exoneration of the accused by the state on behalf of the whole. One can see why, especially by the late medieval and early modern period—as a result, in part, of the development of Roman theory of corporations—states were increasingly personified. Many of our criminal statutes today have embedded in them, either directly or indirectly, consideration of public safety, offenses against the whole, and the like. Treason is the most obvious example.

The state operates on the basis of public reason—we intuitively know this, otherwise we would not be so outraged when public officials abuse their privileges for private gain. The state is bound to make decisions on the basis of the public or common good, and it alone, materially, is really able to pursue such, even if individuals are able to formally pursue the common good. This returns us to the confessional aspect of every state. There must be values, a worldview, a confession that animates both the conception of the common good and the public reason behind decisions (i.e. human law), both necessarily and normatively.

Human law only remains legitimate insofar as it does not break the chain of the law’s hierarchy. Franciscus Junius (1545-1602) explained in his Mosaic Polity (1593) that, “Determinations [of human law] customarily arise from conclusions, and conclusions from principles, Principles are either natural, existing from nature, or supernatural, existing from grace. Conclusions are produced by way of reason.” Further, conclusions can be either general or particular. The determinations of human lawmakers then fit the conclusions (by reason from the natural law) to the circumstances presented to them. Hence, Junius again:

There is a knowledge of general things and there is a determination of individual things according to knowledge… And the reason why we call such determinations—the material of human law—in particular is because all of those minute things pertaining to right action, according to any particular thing that can be contingent for persons, things, and circumstances, or can be observed in these things individually, are delimited in human laws.

Junius’ delineation of human law’s function and place within the hierarchy of law follows Aquinas’s division of law and definition of the same. Human law must be promulgated by an appropriate authority with concern for the community, be it fitted to the context for the common good, and must not violate the natural law (i.e. the mode of law which precedes it).

Human law should follow, or be agreeable to, the natural law in order to retain its validity, but it necessarily, everywhere and always, applies to the community according to a certain public reason and conception of the common good. Classical metaphysics teaches that the human, rational soul (i.e. will and intellect) cannot desire evil things as evil or know things as false. It must desire them as good or know them as true, even if, in fact, the thing desired is bad and the thing known is false. Lapsarian man frequently gets the two confused, but to say that he could desire something as evil and know something as false would be to push the cause of his fallenness back into the work of the Creator. The faculties are corrupted in that they are disordered, but they are not metaphysically corrupt from the beginning.

In the same way, human law applies to the community. It employs public reason and it pursues the common good as the common good. The only question is how the common good is conceived; what values are deemed intricate to it. And just like that, we are back at the matter of the state’s confession. 


The utility of following the integralist-realist line of thought is that it helps us make sense of current cultural strife. The increasingly explosive conflicts over freedom of religion and freedom of speech are really no more than proxy wars over our state confession and our shared conception of the common good. Even so-called first freedoms cannot be limitless, nor should we want them to be.

David French is wrong, liberty is not an unmitigated good. Its value corresponds to that which it is ordered to. There is no purely libertarian society. Decisions must be made—usually at the outset, but they can be worked out and adjusted over time—about the limitations on human activity, especially of the public variety. Classically, liberty is the freedom to do what is virtuous, not what is licentious. And for all the libertine rhetoric of Western culture, the classical formula endures. All that has been altered is the meaning of “virtuous” and “licentious.” Our new culture police, the purveyors of cancel culture, evidence this fact. 

Just as liberty cannot be boundless, there is no such thing as a “secular,” which is to say, purely “civil” state. Whilst our state may claim to be secular, that is really a legal fiction of sorts that itself tells us something about the state’s confession, i.e. it feigns pluralism and is generally non-committal, but finds moral commitments that are historically attached to organized religion distasteful. Denial of moral value judgement is itself a value judgment that requires a positive assertion of something. Our state may be pluralist, but this, more than integralism, is aspirational rather than descriptive. Pluralism is part of the confession and, therefore, part of the public reason. But it does not entail what it claims: namely, neutral, value-free proceduralism and radical toleration across the board. 

In reality, pluralism’s place in the state’s animating confession yields intolerance for non-conformists, those who assert non-pluralist judgments and values as intricate to a substantive vision for the common good. Libertine pluralism has not fostered a “live and let live” civic culture (or state). For instance, as Adrian Vermeule has pointed out, the Obergefell v. Hodge decision does not represent a victory for gay rights. That outcome was inevitable, as evidenced by the trajectory of public opinion and state legislation at the time. In truth, Obergefell was about public recognition and acquiescence. It was about the confession of the state, its public reason, the particular actualization of its values. All that to say, one segment of the population—the one that often spouts off the neutrality and pluralistic rhetoric—understands the integralist nature of states. 


The ever-growing wall of separation between “religion”—itself minimally conceived according to the state confession—and state applies only to those “religions” that threaten to violate the confession directly and unapologetically. As Clarence Thomas has shown in his recent Espinoza concurrence (citing Philip Munoz of Notre Dame), the corruption of establishment clause jurisprudence has so narrowed the range of free exercise—the two being only formally separate though conceptually unified—to the extent that not only has the government been forbidden from any concern for religious matters, but so too have citizens been disallowed from arguing religiously in the now “naked” public square, to invoke Richard John Neuhaus. 

Hence, we must resort to proxy warfare to debate such things: arguing over the meaning of insular clauses of the Constitution to actually get at the substantive debate that should be had regularly and openly about the nature of the state’s confession and public reason. Hadley Arkes worried that this would be the case, as did the Anti-Federalists (“Brutus” in particular) upon which he often draws. His fear, now come to fruition, was that the specific delineation of the contents of the bill of rights would limit people’s ability to think and argue about said contents robustly. Instead, people would become overly tethered to a formula, and relevant debates would become debased, narrow squabbles over grammatical construction. 

Indeed, this seems to be the case, as even the intramural conservative debate over originalism shows. A more distressing example is Justice Gorsuch’s illogical, hyper-textual reasoning in Bostock, wherein he now (in)famously claimed that “law” is limited to the words on a page.  

Such textualism, what Vincent Clarke has termed the “deconstructionist textualism,” is, in fact, not as neutral and disinterested as Gorsuch and others let on. Rather, by artificially situating itself above the fray, pretending non-confessionalism, it ignores the substantive, worldview implications in play; those that govern the public reason and commitment to neutral pluralism itself, and more importantly, effect the integrity of law. (I would argue that, in effect, Bostock ushers in intersectionalist reasoning into anti-discrimination law, as the Tenth Circuit has exhibited in its recent citation to their alumnus, Gorsuch). 

On several levels, Bostock is worse than Roe, in both its immediate impact and long-term ramifications. It did not simply insert into precedent a newly-conjured “right” (i.e. privacy) predicated on mathematical gymnastics through the stages of pregnancy and protected by the amorphous standard of “undue burden” (i.e. Planned Parenthood v. Casey), but rather, asserted a new metaphysic. It claimed license to expand the possible over and against the given, according to the disordered desires of psychological man. 

That Bostock confesses something which confounds the hierarchy of law, and therefore constitutes a faulty determination, is not surprising. As the “secular” state confesses falsely as to, inter alia, the common good, it inevitably departs from the shepherding of the natural law in its public reason. That the hierarchy of law, the connection of human law to that which precedes it, is broken frequently by the determinations of the civil authority should be expected. Invoking Pink, again: 

For with that political secularization we find states also departing from natural law on an ever-widening field of issues, including aboriton, euthanasia, and marraige. We find the state still confessing, as states must do, but falsely. The secularizing state bears increasingly false witness to the common good.   

But, without recognizing the confessional nature of all states, and the animating values behind law and policy when judging or making law, we not only fool ourselves but cut out our legs from under us. As Al Mohler expertly explained in a recent Briefing episode, free speech cannot survive as an abstract value, free-floating in the firmament. (The same goes for things as basic as judicial review.) The moral commitments, the confession, which limits the exercise of the value also dictates it content and purpose. In the Western tradition, free speech was defended by thinkers like John Milton (Areopagitica (1644)) because of their confidence in 1) the obtainability of objective truth, and 2) the necessity of human inquiry to arrive at the same. 

Apart from this belief, free speech is open to interpretation. We are experiencing now the emergence of a new set of values, flowing seamlessly from the confession of a liberal (in the broad, historic sense) state that governs the use of speech. Radical human autonomy—liberation from all constraints—is the prevailing conception of the good to which speech must be ordered. Modern therapeutic or psychological man is both its subject and object. He is both a radical individual and a collective representative. His good is the good of others, and this is subjective, emotive comfort, not truth. These are substantive claims couched in the old neutral, procedural language over and against the old assumptions from which the same language has been commandeered. This is why, as Ryan Anderson has argued, religious liberty—the freedom to be bigoted in the eyes of the state confession in a cordoned off, private area of society—is not enough. Likewise, Pink argues that whether a state will recognize religion as a good transcending itself depends on what religion it confesses. Unless a state is at least ecumenically or broadly Christian, as seems to have been the vision of the founders, “it is unlikely,” holds Pink, “to recognize religion as a good above its sphere for very long.” We should, therefore, expect encroachment on religious liberty. The worldview which justifies such is less and less included in our state’s confession. The COVID-19 religious liberty cases like South Bay and Calvary Chapel are a good barometer in this regard.  


Understanding the descriptive and realist, rather than normative and prescriptive, assertions of integralism helps us to see all of this and more. All states are confessional. The only question pertains to the substance of the confession in question, the value commitments, the concept of the common good, to which law is ordered. Even for those who cannot get on board with all of the aspirations of Catholic integralism, Pink’s argument for integralism shows its utility. We would do well to continue to pay attention to those who articulate integralist arguments over and against old, tired claims of state value-neutrality and disinterested proceduralism.     


Image credit: @d_mccullough/ Unsplash

Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a graduate of Wright State University, Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary. He also writes at Modern Reformation and works as an attorney in Philadelphia where he lives with his wife, Rachel.

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