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All the Kingdoms of the World: On Radical Religious Alternatives to Liberalism

Kevin Vallier
Published by Oxford University Press in 2023

Kevin Vallier has written a valuable exposition and critique of what he describes as radical religious alternatives to liberalism. Vallier is an Eastern Orthodox political philosopher at Bowling Green State University and a strong defender of the liberal tradition in politics. Liberalism in this sense refers broadly to such things as constitutional government, respect for individual rights and liberties, democracy, and so forth. However, recently some religious voices have challenged liberalism, referring to themselves as post-liberals or integralists. In the Western context, this particularly means rethinking the current relationship of church and state (e.g., religious liberty and minimal or no privileged legal status for a particular church). One of the most prominent versions of this challenge is Catholic integralism, which is the notion that, first, states should be Catholic confessional states, and second, that this arrangement is what the Catholic Church’s magisterial teachings require.

The purpose of Vallier’s book is to reject integralism in all its forms. The main task of the book is to engage Catholic integralism as a case study of religious integralism, while simultaneously constructing a five-point framework (history, symmetry, transition, stability, and justice) to assess any religious integralism (8). Vallier’s two main integralist interlocutors are philosopher Thomas Pink of King’s College London as the movement’s chief theorist and Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule as chief strategist (19). In additional to Pink and Vermeule, Vallier identifies Gladden Pappin, C. C. Pecknold, and Fr. Edmund Waldstein as some of the most important advocates of Catholic integralism (18). Vallier notes that Patrick Deneen and Sohrab Ahmari seem to accept integralist premises but both disavow the program; thus, he opts to not engage their work (19). The book is essentially arranged in three parts. After setting up the issue in the introduction and first chapter, Vallier spends two chapters constructing the strongest possible argument for integralism. Next Vallier spends three chapters arguing why integralism fails in terms of its own assumptions. Finally, after concluding his discussion of Catholic integralism, Vallier spends one chapter making a brief foray into contemporary Confucian and Islamic integralisms, using the analytical framework he has developed earlier in the book.

If integralism is to be rejected, the best arguments in its favor must be con- fronted. In the two chapters advancing the integralist claims, Vallier puts forth two major arguments in integralism’s favor: the argument from history and the argument from symmetry. The argument from history is that the consistent teaching of the Catholic Church over the centuries has contended for an integralist understanding of church and state. Vallier concludes that the integralists have a very strong case that history is on their side: up until the Second Vatican Council an integralist perspective was advocated. Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Immortale Dei (1885) can be considered representative of the traditional integralist position. However, despite that historical position, few if any Catholic magisterial authorities today contend for integralism. Neither the Pope nor any of the over five thousand bishops are openly integralist. Therefore, integralists need an additional argument: to strengthen their position they can claim that they give symmetrical weight to the claims of natural and supernatural goods. Integralists can contend that leading non-integralist theories, such as that put forth by Catholic political philosophers John Finnis and Robert George, do not give adequate weight to supernatural goods. That is, integralists can claim that if the state should promote natural goods, such as physical safety, then it ought to promote supernatural goods, such as union with Christ or growing in the theological virtues, which are more important than natural goods (97–102).

After setting forth the case for integralism, Vallier contends that the case for integralism fails, on three counts. For it to stand, integralism must succeed in three respects: transition, stability, and justice. First, the transition from a non-integralist to an integralist political order must be feasible. Second, an integralist regime must perpetuate a just and moral peace. Third, an integralist regime must be just, which includes both the liberty to enter and exit the church. Vallier concludes that integralism fails all three of these criteria. How so?

Regarding transition, “Integralists must convert a national state and an international church, and then they must convince the former to submit to the latter” (161). This process would face failures in leadership as well as internal and external opposition. Vallier goes beyond the claim that a transition is simply practically infeasible. He also claims that successful completion of a transition would require means that violate Catholic moral teaching. To seize and retain power from non-integralists who resist them, the “integralist party and the integralist state must respond with sufficient violence to succeed. But Catholic social teaching cannot legitimate the level of violence required” (136). In the chapter on stability, which Vallier describes as the book’s heart (167), he argues that an integralist regime would be unable to maintain a just and moral peace. Both sinful human tendencies and the ordinary use of human reason lead to a multiplicity of views on how one should obey the moral law. To contain this pluralism, an integralist state would need to engage in considerable coercion, such as would violate Catholic moral teaching. Finally, in the chapter on justice, Vallier discusses the idea of baptism as a moral transformer. This is the claim that, while no one may be coerced into being baptized, once one is baptized it renders it licit for the Catholic Church to coerce the baptized person, whereas it would be illicit to coerce the unbaptized. Vallier contends that no satisfactory argument can be made that baptism is indeed such a moral transformer.

After concluding his discussion of Catholic integralism, Vallier uses his framework in a chapter engaging two other religious integralisms: Confucian and Islamic. In an epilogue, Vallier suggests a path forward that could address the concerns of anti-liberal integrationists, post-liberals (those critical of liberalism but without a clear alternative), and liberals. Vallier suggests liberal societies ought to facilitate a radical federalism which would enable voluntary integralist communities to exist. People would be free to join and depart such communities at their discretion.

Vallier’s book is engagingly written in a conversational tone. It is not a harsh polemic but exhibits Christian charity towards the holders of a position Vallier does not share. In many ways, Vallier is sympathetic to the concerns of integralism and he explicitly includes integralists as one of his intended audiences.

One challenge of assessing integralism is the scattered nature of the literature. As of now, there is not a set of recognized classic texts which all participants see as touchstones; there is no integralist equivalent of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice or Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which are key texts in the contemporary liberal tradition. Rather, contemporary integralist arguments are scattered in various journals, blog posts, Substack articles, and so forth. Vallier has done readers a service in gathering together and synthesizing a disparate set of writings.

It is important to note that Vallier is engaging in an internal critique; he seeks to demonstrate on grounds that integralists—and most post-liberals—are most likely to accept. There are many potential arguments against integralism that Vallier does not deploy. For example, should one think of the church’s fostering of believers’ spiritual development using categories of law and punishment? Could other conceptions of the church be more satisfactory? Alternatively, can integralists’ account of the development of doctrine be challenged? The Second Vatican Council’s endorsement of religious liberty might be a reversal of a long-standing and dominant strand of church teaching, but does it do so legitimately in the name of more fundamental Christian doctrines?

It will be interesting to see how enduring Vallier’s book will be. Overall, we can fit the integralist movement in the context of the broader issues raised by the Christian church’s response to post-Christendom. If we indeed now live in a post-Christian age, what is the proper response to this situation? The integralist argument is that the idea of Christendom is fundamentally sound. But is integralism a fad, having a brief moment in the (online) sun, only to fade away in favor of some new obsession? One thinks of journalist Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (the book and the idea), which, although decidedly not integralist, decried what liberalism has wrought. As near as I can tell there is not much discussion of that these days. Or is integralism a phenomenon we can expect to recur as long as religion and politics both exist? Vallier sets the stage for his book noting how religion and politics are both human universals. Given that, and the certainty that these two universals will always interact, Vallier’s book may well have some staying power.

The idea of integralism raises interesting questions for non-Catholic Christians as well. Government at bottom is about coercion. While what we might call neo-Anabaptists, such as Stanley Hauerwas, would contend that this secular age is an ideal circumstance for the church to be the church, what about traditions such as the neo-Calvinist Kuyperians? The Kuyperians have argued for the right of each religious community to freely live out its beliefs in the public square, including the creation of religiously-based institutions such as schools. But they have also seen politics as an arena for the pursuit of Christ’s redeeming work in the world. Is the pursuit of Christian-inspired government policy a form of integralism? The integralist claims that someone’s religious or philosophical vision is going to be imposed, no matter what. Neo-Calvinists have argued similarly that religious neutrality is a myth. Unless one avoids politics altogether, can we avoid integralism? Or is it a matter of more or less robust integralisms?

Cite this article
Daniel Edward Young, “All the Kingdoms of the World: On Radical Religious Alternatives to Liberalism”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 53:3 , 122-125

Daniel Edward Young

Daniel Edward Young, Professor of Political Science, Northwestern College.