All the Kingdoms of the World: A Review

All the Kingdoms of the World: On Radical Religious Alternatives to Liberalism by Kevin Vallier. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Hardcover. 320pp. £19.99.

Any reader of Thomas Mann’s 1924 epic The Magic Mountain cannot help but be struck by its philosophical sparring between the humanist Settembrini and the reactionary Jesuit Naptha. The battle spills across dozens of the novel’s pages, an ideological case each side litigates in sweeping prose. “It is childish to believe that the Church defended darkness against the light,” Naptha insists, pressing the case for political Catholicism against Settembrini’s accusations of reactionary fearmongering. “Rather, she did what was right, right three times over, in declaring criminal any ‘unbiased’ striving for a knowledge of things, that is to say, any striving that casts aside those spiritual concerns aimed solely at winning salvation.”[1]

Naptha’s words are a challenge to any modern political order—a challenge to treat all dimensions of human existence, religious and secular alike, with equal seriousness. Agree or not, the little Jesuit throws down a gauntlet waiting to be taken up. And in his new book All the Kingdoms of the World: On Radical Religious Alternatives to Liberalism, philosopher Kevin Vallier sets out to do so.

Despite the book’s expansive subtitle, the volume mostly focuses on the contemporary revival of “Catholic integralism” as a distinctive political project. Vallier—an Orthodox Christian and classical liberal—is sharply critical of this revival, but never dismissive or contemptuous. Indeed, he takes the subject more seriously than most integralists themselves, digging deep into source texts to build a “steelman case” for Catholic integralism. No one can charge him with misrepresenting his subject matter.

In Vallier’s telling, contemporary integralism originates with philosopher Thomas Pink’s influential argument that Dignitatis humanae—the Second Vatican Council’s influential declaration on religious liberty—must be interpreted in a manner consistent with the centuries-long history of Catholic critiques of that principle. For Pink, the integrity of Catholic doctrine demands a hermeneutic of continuity, not rupture: on Pink’s interpretation of the declaration, even if secular states cannot act coercively in matters of religion, the Catholic Church still retains that power. In the wake of Pink’s argument, Cistercian monk Edmund Waldstein intuited that this position could ground a new—or rather old—approach to Catholic politics, a “Gelasian dyarchy” in which the Catholic Church exercises coercive authority indirectly through the operations of the temporal state.

This conversation was eventually overtaken by a small but noisy coterie of integralist public intellectuals—Vallier describes them as “strategists,” over against the “theorists” Pink and Waldstein—comprised of Harvard Law professor Adrian Vermeule, University of Dallas political scientist Gladden Pappin, and Catholic University philosopher Chad Pecknold, among others. These strategists are far less interested in dialogue than in overthrowing the hegemonic “liberalism” that characterizes modernity. Liberalism, by the strategists’ lights, is the root of political evil: less a contingent adaptation to historical conditions than a heresy to be excised and burned.

What, exactly, do these integralists hope to accomplish? Vallier makes the stakes clear with an elegantly precise formulation of the central integralist claim: to advance the supernatural good of all baptized persons, the Roman Catholic Church may mandate state policies, backed by civil penalties, that advance that supernatural good directly without excessively undermining the temporal common good or the supernatural good in some other respect (37).

That is an ambitious endgame indeed, and it calls for equally ambitious tactics. Some years ago, Vermeule proposed “integration from within,” or a concerted effort to infiltrate the modern administrative state with integralist-aligned personnel, until such time as the tables can be turned. The goal? Nothing less than final victory and “sear[ing] the liberal faith with hot irons.”[2] After Trump and Brexit, after all, anything can happen.

Vallier, though, isn’t concerned with simply presenting the integralist case. He goes so far as to defend it historically and logically, surveying the history of Catholic political thought and the institutional configurations that characterized early-medieval Europe. Ultimately, he concludes—over against the “new natural law theorists” ubiquitous in elite Catholic circles— that today’s integralists are well within their rights to defend their stance as the historically Catholic position. Pink, in short, has a point.

From there, Vallier presents and defends three arguments against the integralist project: transition, stability, and justice. First, Vallier argues that integralists lack a realistic theory for transitioning away from liberal democracy and into an integralist regime, while acting consistently with Catholic principles. If liberals—especially secular liberals—will inevitably fight tooth and nail against an ascendant integralism, then integralists must respond in kind if they hope to secure and retain power. This, Vallier submits, will require offensive violence on a scale forbidden by Catholic doctrine (136-37).

It’s an interesting argument, and Vallier may well be right on the merits. In the experience of this reviewer, though, the average integralist will not be much bothered by the theological objection. Penance can always be performed down the line; far more important is overthrowing a decadent and depraved status quo. Practical considerations, though, are another matter. As Vallier quips, “[i]ntegralists must convert a national state and an international church, and then they must convince the former to submit to the latter. To succeed, Vermeule must solve three of the greatest coordination problems in the history of the human race” (161). Good luck with that.

Second, Vallier contends that integralists lack a realistic theory for how to preserve institutional stability over time. Historically speaking, the “dyarchic” relation of church and state proved profoundly unstable, with popes and kings constantly jockeying for greater authority. There is no reason to assume that a reconstituted dyarchic arrangement will obviate the possibility of disagreements about the legitimate power of the pope—disagreements that, once before, undid the integralist model (177). So too, since pluralism is endemic to actually-existing human societies, particularly in the era of mass communication, an integralist regime will tend toward one of two extremes. It might decay into a superficial establishmentarianism that is liberal in all but name, or conversely evolve into a massively repressive techno-totalitarianism that secures no “common good” at all (157).

This is the strongest by far of Vallier’s objections. It is powerful because the underlying premise of his critique—that integralists defend their model as a perennial political theory capable of standing over against the historical process indefinitely—is by no means a strawman.

In his recent book Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future, the integralist-sympathetic political theorist Patrick Deneen argues explicitly for a “common-good conservatism” that rejects the idea of progress tout court.[3] That is an extraordinarily heavy burden for any political theory to bear. And while most of Vallier’s argument concentrates on political dynamics, the problem is equal parts theological. As even cursory observers are aware, the twentieth-century Roman Catholic Church was profoundly split between conservative and progressive factions, and remains so today. This means that, if the real-world failures of “liberalism” constitute sufficient justification for a shift to integralism, then integralists must explain why the real-world failures of “liberalism” would not be replicated under an integralist regime administered by a liberal Catholic magisterium.[4]

Take an example. Much of the case for adopting Adrian Vermeule’s post-originalist judicial philosophy, “common-good constitutionalism,” was grounded in Bostock v. Clayton County, in which the Supreme Court found that 1970s-era civil rights laws somehow embedded protections for sexual orientation and gender identity long before those terms were ubiquitous. Vermeule and his acolytes held up the decision as yet another supposed failure of liberalism.[5] But if the Supreme Court were staffed by integralist jurists who happened to take their cues from progressive Catholic theology, would it reach a different result? That seems doubtful.

Theology develops. Institutions and individuals liberalize, or become more conservative. Indeed, that is what it means for anyone to stand within a living tradition.[6] And these dynamics of history cannot simply be wished away, as Vallier clearly understands.

Third, Vallier argues that integralism lacks a plausible explanation for why it is just to religiously coerce the baptized, but not the unbaptized. While integralist theory technically forbids the forced Christianization of the unbaptized, it does allow for the use of coercive force against baptized non-Catholics, as penalties for the crimes of apostasy or heresy. Against this dichotomy, Vallier argues that baptism confers a unique obligation upon the baptized to submit to the Roman Church’s authority, but in the case of infant baptism (the Catholic norm) this obligation cannot be squared with standard accounts of obligation. As a result, there is no plausible sense in which baptism constitutes a “vow” sufficient to justify the exercise of coercive force against the baptized (226).[7]

This is the weakest argument in the book, for the simple reason that Vallier’s own liberal commitments leak too much into the analysis. If theology really is the “queen of the sciences,” as any integralist worth their salt would contend, then it is perfectly valid to argue that baptismal obligation constitutes an absolutely unique phenomenon, such that its nature as obligatory cannot be derived from a supposedly more “basic” category of human vowing in general. On a theology-forward analysis, vowing is properly analogous to baptism, rather than vice versa.

From there, the book concludes with a brief treatment of Jiang Qing’s Way of the Human Authority, a sort of Confucian integralism highlighting both spirituality and meritocracy, and the Islamic Democracy program pioneered by Rached Ghannouchi in Tunisia. While neither of these receives the attention reserved for Catholic integralism, Vallier examines them through the lens of his basic argumentative trifecta—transition, stability, and justice—and finds each wanting.

How should religious critics of liberalism respond to all this? Vallier concludes with an interesting proposal: integralists should form charter cities committed to dyarchic governance, where citizenship is predicated on agreement with an integralist polity but individuals have a right to leave (118). In other words: integralists should put their money and time where their mouth is, and see what happens. (This proposal is not without precedent. Though Vallier doesn’t mention it, exit rights are a feature of the global Catholicism explored in Robert Hugh Benson’s integralist sci-fi novel The Dawn of All, in which the few remaining atheists, Protestants, and other dissidents withdraw to a tiny New England enclave.[8])

As a critique of “mainstream” integralism, All the Kingdoms of the World is a significant achievement. To the extent that integralists take Vermeule’s “integrating from within” as the roadmap for a Catholicization of the American public square, they must seriously reckon with Vallier’s arguments. But whether Vallier’s case holds up outside that particular context is an altogether different question.

To be more specific, the subtitle of Vallier’s book—“on radical religious alternatives to liberalism”—presumes that a stable “liberalism” exists against which the “religious” can be juxtaposed. But that is precisely the point that the savvy integralist contests. Rather, “liberalism,” as Vallier uses the term, seems to reduce to what Ross Douthat has described as an “Episcopalian integralism” that uncritically embeds its own first principles as supposedly neutral axioms.

Towards the end of the book, Vallier glosses Jiang as arguing that “American liberalism is sectarian secular Protestantism” (244). Jiang is right. American liberalism, such as it is, hinges on the notion that supernatural claims are ipso facto radically distinct from claims about natural order, and so are properly reserved to the domain of matters about which people can reasonably disagree. Indeed, Vallier himself opines that “[l]iberals do say that we should refuse to coercively pursue our values when sincere and informed people contest them. Liberals do insist on impartiality between different points of view. Liberalism is burdensome” (24).

But as Talal Asad, John Milbank, and others have shown, that claim is itself a theologically fraught judgment.[9] On the modern view, the sources of authority that reliably “carve the world at its joints” are modern research universities and liberal-democratic states, not received traditions that see the world as shot through with supernatural significance. Likewise, given that all law is inherently coercive, and all law reflects some value set or other, on Vallier’s construal a “liberal political order” becomes a simple contradiction in terms. Theology is not so easily disentangled from politics.

What, then, should Christian thinkers do about it? Probably not just repeat the past. Indeed, Vallier’s book suggests a fascinating paradox: a sharp natural/supernatural disjunction, which supposedly characterizes liberalism, is reinforced by the standard integralist commitment to “dyarchy.” Dyarchy presupposes two powers, spiritual and temporal, that are supposedly kept at arm’s length from one another. But that division, as history indicates, has always proven radically unstable. As embodied institutions, these spiritual and temporal powers naturally vie for genuine supremacy.

This dyarchic commitment, for its part, is grounded in what some have called “two-tier Thomism,” an approach to theology that sharply distinguishes the “temporal common good” from the “supernatural common good.” Liberalism simply takes up this existing two-tier framework, solving the tensions of dyarchy by pushing the state out of the business of policing the supernatural. Dyarchic integralism thus carries within it the seeds of liberalism—its supposed mortal enemy.

Catholicism is a big tent, though, and alternatives to this approach exist. In particular, the “two-tier” framework was powerfully challenged by the nouvelle théologie of Henry de Lubac and his successors, who played leading roles at Vatican II.[10] What if, perhaps, the supernatural and temporal orders are interwoven in a far more fulsome sense? Such a “more integral” response to integralism is today represented by a small but influential cadre of academics including D.C. Schindler, Michael Hanby, and others.

This integralism poses a real philosophical challenge to Vallier’s own liberalism. Of course, though, there are responses available. Early on, for example, Vallier makes the point that “Liberals helped lift billions out of grinding poverty by defending the market economy. Today’s anti-liberals cannot say one nice thing about liberal order. But liberalism delivers” (3). That’s a fair point; if “Episcopalian integralism” gets the economic job done, then that counts in its favor over against Catholic or other integralisms. At that point, it’s up to philosophers and political leaders to balance this “economic prosperity advantage” against the potential loss of other goods. Such is the ordinary business of politics. But it’s worth noting that this is in fact a contest of political theologies as such—not a struggle between “liberalism” and “illiberalism.”

In any event, one need not agree with Vallier’s liberal commitments to appreciate the book he has written. All the Kingdoms of the World is a model for critical engagement with a paradigm one opposes, even if the ideology of today’s Napthas cannot, in the end, carry the day.

And who knows? The world might learn a lot from an integralist charter city or two.

John Ehrett is a Commonwealth Fellow, and an attorney and writer in Washington D.C. His work has appeared in American Affairs, The New Atlantis, and the Claremont Review of Books. He is a graduate of Patrick Henry College, the Institute of Lutheran Theology, and Yale Law School.

  1. Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain, trans. John E. Woods (New York: Vintage International, 1995), 391.

  2. Adrian Vermeule, “Integration from Within,” American Affairs 2 no. 1 (2018): 213.

  3. See John Ehrett, “Are We All Common Good Constitutionalists Now?,” (May 20, 2022),

  4. See John Ehrett, “Standing Athwart History, Redux: Review of Patrick Deneen’s ‘Regime Change,’” Anchoring Truths (June 16, 2023),

  5. See Adrian Vermeule, Common Good Constitutionalism (Medford, MA: Polity Press, 2022), 16–17, 105–08.

  6. Cf. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 222.

  7. See Vallier, All the Kingdoms of the World, 226 (“Integralists of old reasoned backward. They thought allowing apostasy and heresy could destroy political stability and social unity, but they also knew they had to forbid forced baptism. So they formulated a rationale, and it proved flimsy.”).

  8. Robert Hugh Benson, The Dawn of All (St. Louis, MO: B. Herder, 1911), 406.

  9. See Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 58–62 (examining liberalism as a constitutive “myth” driven by its own conceptions of the good); John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 106, 110, 132.

  10. See Henri de Lubac, A Brief Catechesis on Nature and Grace, trans. Richard Arnandez (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1984), 86.


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