18 July 2017

Americanism and intégrisme: theopolitics resurgent

A recent Vatican-issued editorial co-authored by the Jesuit priest Fr. Antonio Spadaro and Presbyterian minister Marcelo Figueroa for La Civiltà Cattolica seems to have ruffled some feathers and inspired some serious reflection among my radical Catholic acquaintance. I find myself in broad agreement with the historical and moral stances written out in this article, given that it probes the sensitive point of the triumphal, right-wing Catholic intégrisme about which I have said several hard words recently. Spadaro and Figueroa make some sound historical points about the origins, nature and inclinations of right-wing political Protestantism (which they term ‘evangelical’ or ‘fundamentalist’) in the United States, link them to several parallel movements within American Catholicism, and attempt to show how they are at odds with a true Christian witness. Some parts of this they do better than others. They make, often very cursory, treatments of disparate elements of American Christendom, and the overall picture they paint seems a bit cluttered as a result.

There are several points where I believe that the authors could have made their point even more forcefully than they have. I will have to come back later and expand on this. I have already pointed out briefly how the sainted Emperor Constantine, despite the dubious place he occupies in Whiggish and Protestant historiography as a wedder of Church and State, was not an advocate of any political theology which might prefigure intégrisme. Constantine’s rule was messy, and he was deeply aware of that himself. He comported himself with humility in the presence of his bishops; and though he called for the council at Nicæa he did not dare to exert any political pressure on the outcome. He refused to be venerated as a god when that was expected of him under the pagan customs. In spite of the motto which has come to symbolise his reign, Constantine’s trajectory as Emperor was one of tragœdy, humility and repentance. He was a model of symphonía, and yielded in his own opinions to the counsel of the Church. Not his the triumphal victory imagined by those now comparing him to the current elected occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Considered in the light of Orthodox political philosophy especially, such comparisons are far beyond asinine. They border on defamation and blasphemy against a holy saint.

Another point on which the Orthodox witness needs to stand firm, more emphatically than even Spadaro and Figueroa do, regards the rejection of Manichæan ‘dominionist’ and ‘national blessing’ forms of political theology. For this we must appeal to history of Orthodoxy in North America. Orthodox Christians should be, to a greater extent even than Catholics, aware of the dangers of the faith that drapes the Cross in the Stars and Stripes. The vicious, inhospitable and unbrotherly reception that Saint Alexis Toth received at the hands of Archbishop John Ireland (a corporate-friendly ‘Americanist’ if there ever was one – though not an intégriste!), or the less-dramatic but more-persistent social humiliations working-class Rusin Orthodox immigrants to mining towns had to endure amidst their poverty for their faith and culture, should be grim reminders to all of us of the dangers of a political theology of ‘national blessing’, from when we were seen as the (cultural or class) enemy. These are forms of political theology which we must reject, with force. The more so since ethno-nationalism has been and remains an idol to which modern Orthodox Christians have proven sadly susceptible in our tragic history of resistance to Ottoman tyranny.

On the other hand, let’s be aware of what is happening with these back-and-forth salvos in the Catholic blogosphere. We are seeing the reawakening of older, longstanding questions of political theology. The intégrisme the authors of the piece attack within American Catholicism, is in fact a movement toward papocæsarism, a movement which Spadaro and Figueroa are right to oppose, being as it is a temptation of special intensity for political thinkers in the Latin tradition. But the authors of this piece somewhat lazily conflate this with an opposite movement in the American church, represented by the dominionist and national-blessing tendencies within the Protestant tradition. These have a tendency toward cæsaropapism: no Pope, no magisterium, but rather the earthly ideational leaders within American political life have the right and authority to dictate the priorities of the public spiritual life. It is true that there is a great deal of overlap – for the time being – in ‘values’ and priorities between these two approaches to political ethics. But these are static and temporary – as Quirk notes in his op-ed, the common cause between the two is ‘superficial’. Whereas, as Berdyaev would say, the political ethics of Christendom are dynamic and fluid. No, but that sounds too peaceful. Political ethics and theology are a veritable Strait of Messina; it is too easy to get sucked away in a rogue current.

At a certain level, there is a kind of naïveté to which Spadaro and Figueroa leave themselves prone. It may or may not be Pope Francis’s study to ‘break the organic link between culture, politics, institution and Church’, but it should be clear, from America’s own experience, that doing so is actually more difficult than it sounds, and has the added danger of further distorting and poisoning the right relationships between Church and state. There can be no doubt that America is a very religious nation, particularly when compared with Europe, and that despite having an official separation of Church and state, by design of our nation’s founders. Yet clearly Spadaro and Figueroa (and presumably Pope Francis by extension) believe that, in spite of our having broken ‘the organic link’, at least between political institutions and the Church, our religious life is still affected by a number of forms of, let’s politely say ‘weirdness’, that don’t appear in less-religious (but also less institutionally-sæcular) Europe. Now, I’ve been a vocal critic of American-style sæcularism since my Episcopal days. That’s because it’s been apparent to me for awhile that sæcularism or laïcité is easier to realise on paper than it is in practice. France’s violent mood swings between rabid anti-clericalism and loud outbursts of Catholic piety are comical enough in historical perspective, but we Americans shouldn’t laugh too loud lest we forget our own political-cultural-religious dysfunction (of which I freely admit myself to be a part).

This makes it all somewhat ironic, then, that Spadaro and Figueroa go to all the trouble to point out (in most cases rightly) how distant American expressions of religiosity are from an ideal formed within a more deeply institutional religious culture, but their end prescription – ‘breaking the link’ – is the same one which caused those expressions to go astray to begin with.

Orthodox political theology does, of course, have an answer – or rather, a direction – which can sound utopian (or indeed dystopian) to Western ears, including Catholic ones: that of symphonía. But in order to work well, the state needs to internalise the moral and spiritual authority of the Church; and the Church must forsake any claim on temporal political power. These are massive struggles, historically, within the Church and within societies where the Church finds herself. Orthodox religious historian Gyorgi Fedotov claims that the closest any Orthodox polity has come to realising symphonía (as opposed to a cæsaropapist distortion of the same) was in the early Kievan Rus’, whose kings really did bear a heartfelt humility before the teachings of the Orthodox Church of Constantinople. Later developments, though, would show that the ease with which moral authority could translate into earthly power also had its temptations.

Still, Orthodox Christians would do well not to ignore the rumbles brewing among our Latin brothers and sisters. Questions of political ethics and theology are back on the menu. And they are more urgent, now especially at a time when older questions of political œconomy in the sæcular sphere are also busy reasserting themselves.


  1. There are those, many, perhaps, within the Christian faith who would like for the state to promote their religion in what they see as a Godless secular society. It seems to me that implicit in this attempt to mix church with state is an acknowledgement that the Church, on its own, is failing in it's evangelical, missionary duty. Maybe we should be asking ourselve why, for so many people, the church has lost its relevance. Is it, perhaps, due to an overemphasis on judgement and condemnation, and not enough attention to the ministry of the sick and poor?

    In a place like Chicago, for example, where barbarism seems to have taken hold in some parts of the city, every Christian denomination should manifest its presence, not for a week or two of "missionary work" but, until the conditions which foster that violence are reversed, and the people of those neighborhoods have peace, security and opportunities for advancement.

    In the absence of a unified effort to redeem those neighborhoods from the violence that plagues them, by all Christian denominations of good conscience, the state, with all its limitations, will, sadly, be the preeminent force for good. And the Church will become ever less relevant.

  2. Hello, Bud 1! Thank you for the comment!

    I agree with you, of course, that the church should be more engaged in feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and aiding the poor. There is always need and there is always more that people (including myself) and churches can do. And I agree with you that the state has indeed stepped in to fill the gap, particularly in modern times. (As a result of the state abrogating its relationship with the Church, but that's a separate historical argument.)

    I don't think it follows, though, that those who want the state to 'promote' religion feel differently. There are several forms by which states can support religion; not all of them are unhealthy.

    You can have a state which represses non-state sanctioned religions; a state which enacts canon law (or sharia, or beit din or what have you) as the law of the land; or you can have a confessional state like the UK or Sweden or Finland, which has a secular law but also recognises an 'official religion'. I don't think the last form of state religion is necessarily unhealthy.