The Rome-ing of the Right

Do American conservative problems have Catholic solutions?

In the paperback-promoting phase of this Substack (not that it’s ended: buy now!) I discussed my skepticism that the various forms of “post-liberal” politics now current on the intellectual right are actually well-equipped to revolutionize our decadent society. But I also think it’s possible to overstate this new right’s challenges, and to make its near-term project seem more incoherent or unlikely than it is.

That was my feeling reading this clever piece by Tanner Greer, in which he depicts the various attempts to formulate a “common good” style of conservatism as, in effect, a form of right-wing Puritanism — seeking a different trajectory than the woke-progressive one that New England and its trans-continental colonies have taken, but similarly moralistic and communitarian, and thus fatally at odds with the folk-libertarian, Scots-Irish individualism that defines the core of the current right-wing coalition:

In sociological terms, I suppose the best way to understand the New Right is as Puritan heretics. The Puritans were the most communitarian of [David Hackett] Fischer’s four founding nations; their cultural descendants (found in places like Boston and Portland) are the Americans most willing to live for the Holy Cause today. Like the New Right, the left's modern-day Puritans also lionize the Federalists and Whigs. It makes sense, in a way. Most of the New Right’s leaders either come from or immersed themselves in Puritan milieus. The number of Ivy League degrees claimed by New Right thinkers is one proof of this. That Claremont is based in California—instead of, say, Texas—is another example of the phenomena. Yankee thinking seeps into the thought of those who long swim through it.

About a year ago I met with a young post-liberal who expressed a passionate loathing of everything American. American culture was not home to her. And how could it be? New England born, Ivy-educated, committed to the politics of the “common good” — here was a spiritual descendant of the Puritans if there ever was one. But of course all the other Puritans, whose religion now runs woke, would not have her. She has no place at their table. This outcast was instead forced into the other coalition, the coalition led by the raucous individualists of the backcountry tradition. Enemies of one’s enemies are friends they say, but tactical allies make poor bosom-mates. My post-liberal friend has no choice but to work for the living antitheses of her deepest convictions.

As Connecticut-raised, Harvard-educated descendant of Maine Yankees who has ended up as some kind of strange populist-leaning religious conservative, I resemble these remarks. (Well, except for the part about loathing ‘Murica.) And I recognize the dilemma Greer describes: It is challenging to graft a politics of the common good or a “party of the state” conservatism onto a Baptist-libertarian-backcountry party, and more so than some enthusiasts for “realignment” or “a multi-racial working-class conservatism” are likely to admit. Indeed this challenge was richly illustrated during the pandemic, a seeming common-good-conservative moment if there ever was one, which instead produced polarization between public-health puritanism on the left and a folk-libertarian, “my body my rights” impulse on the right. (Trump’s choices played a part in this, but he was pushing on an open door.)

But Greer I think makes two oversimplifications. First, the libertarian thread running through “Jacksonian” culture is not the whole tapestry: There is also the revivalist moralism of Protestant religiosity and the populist hostility to malefactors of great wealth, both of which have at various points supplied support for actual programs of redistribution and investment and reform, not just Gadsden-flag leave-us-alone-ism.

Greer mentions one example, the not-very-libertarian William Jennings Bryan; another obvious case study is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who won plenty of votes from the Scots-Irish diaspora for his also not-particularly-libertarian program. And while it’s true that some “new right” intellectuals are more enamored of TR than FDR, there is also some New Deal appropriation going on within their ranks. (Indeed, a certain proto-populist manifesto very deliberately started with the pro-family “maternalism” of the second Roosevelt rather than with the trust-busting of the first.)

Then, too, Greer limits the scope of the current and potential right-of-center coalition by reducing it to dissident New-Englander elites and Jacksonian masses. Specifically, he leaves out the voters who actually tipped 2016 to Donald Trump and kept 2020 competitive: a mixture of white-ethnic voters in the old industrial heartlands and Asian and Hispanic voters in Florida and the Southwest. These populations aren’t particularly libertarian, and even if the white ethnics are secularized and the Hispanics are flirting with Pentecostalism, they are still strongly influenced by Roman Catholicism — which, not coincidentally, is the religious tradition that the pious wing of Greer’s new right is most likely to embrace.

Why Puritanism’s conservative heretics usually become Catholics if they become anything at all is a subject for a different post. (Working title: “Why I Am I Not a Presbyterian?”) But for the purposes of conservative coalition politics, the idea that there could be a Catholic center-right, linking Romeward-trending intellectuals and a motley Hispanic-Irish-Italian-Filipino voting base, is one plausible answer to Greer’s dilemma. The conservative coalition in this scenario would still need the backcountry and its Jacksonian libertarian votes, but it wouldn’t need to rely on them exclusively (and their reflexive anti-liberalism would bring the Jacksonians along for a while no matter what). So the Republican future would involve a negotiation between communitarian and libertarian tendencies, rather than just a foredoomed attempt to found a communitarian regime on a libertarian base.

This is a not an eccentric vision, nor even a particularly original one. The idea that Catholics would supply the country’s post-Mainline center of religious gravity goes back to Richard John Neuhaus before he became Catholic, and the idea that Midwestern Catholics and Hispanic immigrants would help the Republican Party become a communitarian majority coalition rather than a libertarian minority was one of the ideas underpinning the George W. Bush administration in its pre-9/11 beginnings. The arc of post-liberalism is long, but in an odd way it bends back toward the year 2000, when compassionate conservatism and a “humble” foreign policy were supposed to define the Bush presidency and the early-21st century right.

This is not a criticism: If an idea makes sense there’s no reason not to bend back to it, and Catholic ideas and inheritances really are the strongest candidate for binding together a functional conservative majority and governing strategy in 2020s America — whether you call this conservatism populist, “post-liberal,” communitarian or some as-yet-uninvented term.

At the same time — to give some ground back to Greer’s skepticism — something can be a reasonable and plausible idea but also a weaker one than the last time it was tried, and I think that’s the case here. Relative to 2000 the prestige of the American Catholic church is much lower, its wealth and influence are diminished, mass attendance has declined, scandal has discredited the bishops, and the debates of the Francis era have turned all the different kinds of conservative Catholics against each other. In the process, what you might call the Protestantization of American Catholic culture has accelerated, meaning that the things that make Catholics distinctive relative to both the folk-libertarian right and the secular left have diminished, and both practicing and ex-Catholics are more likely to be absorbed into effectively non-Catholic factions in our politics than to embody a distinct potential foundation for conservatism.

And crucially all of these trends seem likely to continue or accelerate (with an assist from Covid’s church closures) over the next generation, as the American church adapts to a post-Silent Generation and eventually post-Boomer reality — one in which its demographics are transformed, its funding base diminishes, and its diocesan and parish structures will have to be substantially consolidated and re-thought. Through this process Catholicism, historically the mass religion par excellence, could end up for a time consistently influential at the elite level even as it suffers a substantial diminishment of grassroots practice and belief.

An awareness of this reality probably explains some the enthusiasm among certain post-liberal Catholic intellectuals for the culture-shaping power of the state. But it places them in an odd position, effectively urging the re-founding of American conservatism on the Roman rock at a time when that rock looks more cracked and crumbling than it did in the years of W. or Ronald Reagan. If the effort fails it might be that their idea’s objective correlate was already behind them, somewhere back in that vast obscurity of right-liberalism, where the dark fields of the Republican Party roll on under the night …

[Sticks The Great Gatsby back on the shelf]

… or maybe putting more pressure on the rock will cause it condense, solidify, and bear more weight, as certain integralists expect or hope.

In either case the relationship between American Catholic ideas and American Catholic realities will take a lot of interesting and unpredictable turns over the next generation, as we head for the post-Boomer, post-post-Vatican II era. And I’ll leave you with some provisional thoughts on that relationship, in the form of remarks I delivered at a conference on Catholicism and liberalism at the University of Dallas two weeks ago — which at some point soon may become a readable essay, but for now are only available if you’re willing to gaze for a long time at my pale, puffy, it’s-been-a-long-pandemic-winter face: