Conservative intellectual histories often take a familiar shape: In the beginning, it was good. And then came the bad idea. For some, the mind virus is “nominalism,” the denial of real essences delimiting the natures of things. For others, it’s “liberalism,” or the emancipation of individuals from unchosen limits. But whichever decline narrative one chooses, the potential “solution” is clear: If you really want to make a difference, read more. Write more. Win the debate.
For people who prefer to argue with their keyboards rather than fists or ballots—that is, most writers and academics—this is a seductive proposition. Of course, ideas do matter. (This very claim is being argued in print, after all.) But in imagining alternate pasts and futures, one risks missing exactly how much has changed between past and present.
Is simply thinking differently enough to transform the world? If only William of Ockham had never lived, if only Luther had been burned at the stake, might the age have stayed golden? Maybe. Or maybe not. Maybe the world would’ve changed anyway.
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Among both Protestants and Catholics, recent years have witnessed a revival of what can loosely be called “classical political thought.” Whether in an “integralist” or “Christian nationalist” or “postliberal” key, proponents generally converge around some version of the following argument: politics, properly understood, aims at the total good of human beings. As such, politics is ineluctably theological at its root. It is necessarily more than just the legal mediation of producers and consumers across a gigantic global market, where such mediation occurs on the basis of judicialized “rights.” All of this was once widely recognized, but the West has forgotten it.
Of course, this ongoing retrieval is not just an abstract argument. It is driven by the notion that this classical political tradition has something valuable to say to the modern world, that present pathologies can be addressed by looking to the past. This impulse, in turn, leads to an emphasis on particular historical moments as proof-of-concept for successful Christian politics.
Most retrieval projects, however diverse, are defended on the basis of some continuity or other with “Christendom” past. Doug Wilson’s libertarian-inflected Mere Christendom makes it explicit, but from Stephen Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism to Thomas Crean and Alan Fimister’s Integralism: A Manual of Political Philosophy and Andrew Willard Jones’s Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX, versions of the continuity argument abound. (Indeed, the Davenant Institute’s own A Protestant Christendom? anthology similarly recalls this past.)
Much of this work is valuable and important. To date, vast tranches of medieval and early-modern writings still remain untranslated, and so largely inaccessible. These pieces of the Western past are grasped only imperfectly, and that blindness leads to distorted historical thinking. That being said, translating these past insights into actual electoral politics is very far from straightforward, no matter how intricate the theory deployed.
For one thing, “retrieval” is never unmediated. Where one’s research into the past is motivated by present problems, one will always selectively reappropriate those elements of the past perceived as more useful than others. This is a distortive pressure all its own, not limited to “left” or “right.”
It is precisely because there are many ways to interpret the past, and no agreed-upon criterion for settling disputes, that it will be difficult to get others—even one’s own denominational fellow-travelers—on board with a radical new interpretation of political history. Why should anyone change their settled positions in the face of “new research” when that research is consciously being undertaken to shore up contestable present-day agendas? The tail clearly wags the dog.
But there is a more fundamental problem with treating “Christendomic” political thought as a plug-and-play proposition. Specifically, most calls for theo-political RETVRN simply decline to tackle the problem of mass communication, driven by technological change.
Virtually all conversations about Christian political thought “after liberalism” seem to assume that, in reconstructing an actionable vision of Christian politics, the most important thing is to win an intellectual battle for the “common good” over against defenders of “individual rights.” And that’s where most of the combat takes place. But lost to view, on this approach, is the extent to which the ostensible success of “Christendom” was predicated on an information ecosystem utterly unlike today’s.
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Christians obviously do not communicate among themselves in the same way they did in the Middle Ages, or even early modernity. Basically nobody does. And this is a politically consequential change.
The residents of past “Christendom”—Catholic or Protestant—did not inhabit a world saturated by difference. One might be born and live and die within a few miles of one’s family home. This was an age before telegraphs, before televisions, before an internet constantly bringing news of the foreign or allowing the foreign to present itself.
Some of this is inherent in any geographical localism, to be sure. But it also reflects a now-irretrievable psychological localism. With travel costly and difficult, novel and unsettling ideas were harder to come by. One simply did not know what others were saying and doing on the other side of the country, or the globe, except in the most mediated fashion. Instead, one’s mind was taken up by the problems and concerns of one’s immediate environs. The old oak tree is dying. The field had a poor yield this year. The lord’s taxes are too heavy. We are under threat from foreign invaders.
Perhaps most importantly, anchoring and orienting this life-way was the accepted authority of a unitary church capable of exerting powerful control over information flows, through its oversight of universities and monasteries as centers of learning. This element—this universally recognized authority—was the linchpin of social order.
The reclamation of authority of this sort remains key to contemporary efforts to revive some version of the “classical” paradigm. Whether Protestant or Catholic, proponents of a Christian retrieval patterned on past “Christendom” are uniformly committed to the centrality of theological authority, whether mediated through a universal Church or through national churches in partnership with national sovereigns.
The crucial point is this: without a common commitment to this theological authority, the whole theoretical fabric unravels. There is no Christian politics without Christianity, as realized in the church.
The Christendomic equilibrium, though, did not last. Indeed, it was always profoundly vulnerable.
It is easy to see why, against this backdrop, Gutenberg’s printing press was such a revolutionary development. Prior to the press, as Kevin Vallier notes, “[t]he church coordinated the beliefs of a few hundred thousand elites, at most. And even these elites struggled to communicate.” But with new technology in hand, the low cost of distributing written materials made possible a relatively uncontrolled flow of information, among people who might’ve only seen books on rare occasions. With those resources in hand, Europe’s Reformers were poised to mount a scriptural challenge to the ecclesiastical elite. They did, and the Western world changed.
But the transformation proved to be a double-edged sword. The same Protestant traditions that flowered in the wake of Gutenberg’s press were unable to prevent Baruch Spinoza from circulating his historical-critical challenges to the biblical narrative, or keep David Strauss’s demythologizing Life of Jesus from becoming a bestseller. The effects of the new technology could not be so cabined. And thus, modernity began.
This is a brief—perhaps too brief—treatment of a vastly complicated history. But if this past suggests anything, it suggests an inverse relationship between the credibility of theological authority and the progress of mass communication technologies. So what are the relevant causal factors here?
Perhaps most importantly, new communications technologies have left individuals in the West theologically cross-pressured. The phrase originally comes from philosopher Charles Taylor, who explains that a “crucial choice which the immanent frame offers us is whether or not to believe in some transcendent source or power; for many people in our Western culture, the choice is whether to believe in God.” Under contemporary conditions, “[a] very common experience of living here is that of being cross-pressured between the open and closed perspectives”—between affirmation and denial of the supernatural, that is. But as Taylor stresses, for generations of Western Christians this was simply not experienced as a choice. Christian belief was the default condition (what might be called “cultural Christianity”).
What is key here, though, is the condition of the sustainability of this default—limited exposure to “alternative options” for life and belief. People who have lived and died for generations in the same place, attend the same parish, and worship from the same hymnal do not experience sustained challenges to their world-pictures. They may never even encounter these threats. In such a world, where exposure to the outside world is essentially limited, received authority—whether of local elders or church authorities—enjoys a credibility that would be unthinkable today. Apart from some cognizance of “higher” courts of appeal, authority cannot realistically be second-guessed.
This is no longer the case. The net effect of new communications technology has been a steadily increasing deluge of exposure to diverse beliefs and ideas, which inevitably challenge one’s own. As virtually everyone knows, to engage the modern internet is to encounter a landscape where one’s most cherished beliefs can be celebrated in one moment and mocked in the next. An emblematic example of this is the social media website Reddit, where one can click between “r/atheism” and “r/Christianity” subcommunities—each occupied by their committed partisans—with the press of a button.
There is no going back to the isolation of village and parish—at least not digitally. As James Davison Hunter explains,
technologies and the concomitant flow of communication and information make it impossible to avoid the plurality of cultures. All of this together means that instead of just a small minority of any given society coming into sustained contact with the differences represented by competing cultures, now the vast majority does— indeed, the majority is constituted by precisely those differences. Under the conditions of modernity and late modernity, then, the incidence of pluralism has increased massively, which means that average people experience it more frequently and more intensely than ever before in human history.
Plenty of scholars have argued that this “marketplace of ideas” constitutes the battleground on which truth will ultimately prevail. But whether this change is “for the best” is beside the point. The point is that change happened, and this change has made claims to theological authority far more contestable.
And beyond this cross-pressuring effect, communications technologies have led to an increasing trivialization of theological appeals as such. When “Christianity” becomes an identity marker to be casually invoked alongside other markers, rather than the fundamental principle ordering and giving shape to other categories, it inevitably loses its gravitas.
“Christianity is a demanding and serious religion,” social critic Neil Postman observed in his famous book Amusing Ourselves to Death. “When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.” Writing in 1985, Postman’s principal concern was the rise of television, but his core argument becomes eerily prescient when slightly updated. “[T]he danger is not that religion has become the content of [Twitter] but that [Twitter] may become the content of religion.” Precisely so. And precisely none of this leads to greater reverence for theological authority.
In the end, as the vast river of online information and controversy and disagreement and debate gurgles on, retrieval-minded Christian political theorists must reckon with the haunting observations of Jon Askonas:
When you descend from lofty rhetoric about ‘Traditions” and “Values,’ it becomes apparent that a huge number of the actual practices and social institutions which built those virtues have disintegrated, not because of Progressivism or Socialism but because of the new environment and political economy generated by technology.
Askonas rightly grasps that stewarding the Christian political inheritance cannot be primarily a matter of ideas and their refutation. That political inheritance depends on the credibility of theological authority. And it is the contemporary communications ecosystem that has undercut that very credibility.
If the problem of technology remains unresolved, there can be no retrieval.
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There is a ferocious irony in this predicament: Christians themselves have actively contributed to the authority-dissolution problem. From a theological perspective, the cross-pressuring effect of technology is not limited to the choice between faith in God or unbelief. Rather, it goes “all the way down,” rendering intra-Christian questions uniquely contestable.
In a much-discussed 2017 article on the curious place of online Christian writing, relative to the institutional church as such, Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren hit on precisely this point: “Where do bloggers and speakers . . . derive their authority to speak and teach? And who holds them accountable for their teaching? . . . What interpretive body and tradition do these bloggers speak out of? Who decides what is true Christian orthodoxy?” In a world of easy communication, there is always someone else offering an alternate theological take, someone disparaging the structures of theological authority one presently accepts. There is always someone trying to persuade Catholics to become Calvinists, or vice versa. That is life now under technology.
And persuasion rapidly becomes agitation. Recently, some of the most vigorous proponents of “classical” political retrieval have been the swiftest to denounce the “weakness” of local churches and condemn “Big Eva” parachurch institutions as insufficiently politically astute. But the problem is that in doing so, they are undercutting the very disposition of respect for theological authority that is necessary—even critical—to the holistic Christian political project they claim to support. The implicit notion seems to be that a practice of relentlessly challenging established theological authorities will somehow transition seamlessly into a stable reverence for theological authorities once a political tipping point has been reached.
That claim is dubious at best. It is no good to claim that “some authority is worth disrespecting”; the possibility of independent comparative evaluation of alleged authorities is itself the move that destabilized Christendom past. Lurking beneath the surface is “the dilemma of a community that extols individualism but ensnares every individual in a web of clashing authorities,” in the words of historian Molly Worthen.
There is something like a Protestant version of the traditionalist-to-sedevacantist pipeline at work here. The habits of relentless critique bred by contemporary online engagement, of revolt against embodied authority in the service of theoretical authority, are destined to make actual change unattainable, and unsustainable even if achieved. The medium is, in fact, the message.
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What it would take to address this communication-technology problem, fully and finally, is impossible to say at this juncture. On the macro level, a Christian politics of the future might involve a reassertion of local political control over the instrumentalities of communication technology—a move away from centralization, towards what such an approach’s critics have derisively termed “Splinternet.” Instead of imagining the internet as a tide sweeping all boundaries and controls before it, perhaps it is time to start thinking differently—envisioning individual communities exercising authority over their citizens’ relationship to a worldwide information ecosystem, through restrictions like age-verification requirements for internet services. Something like this might help combat the deracinating effects of a unitary internet culture, even though it is certainly still a long way off.
But some practical—that is, grassroots-level—steps toward a solution are nevertheless ready at hand. In an age of mass communication, Christians themselves should begin taking steps to cultivate the habits of virtue necessary to recognize and submit anew to theological authority. And here is one concrete way that Christians writ large can start doing so: as a condition of membership, churches should request and retain the social media handles of their parishioners.
The goal is not a state of constant surveillance, but that lay Christians learn to live with the possibility of being observed by an embodied authority charged with one’s spiritual care—a decidedly counter-modern commitment. Pastors or priests should “follow” or “friend” their congregants on major platforms—from Facebook to Instagram to Twitter—and should devote some time per week to observing their parishioners’ online lives and engagements. Correspondingly, seminaries should incorporate online-engagement training into courses on pastoral care. A practice like this doesn’t preclude the use of anonymous online accounts—Christians in hostile fields of work may need cover to communicate with others—but it does mean that those accounts would be de-anonymized before one’s minister.
Of course, this is not a catch-all solution. It doesn’t need to be. The core point is for Christians to consciously experience their lives online as visible to, and subject to, the theological authority of another, even if that authority (like all authority) is inherently incomplete. In a less atomized age, pastors and priests might have seen their parishioners about town, and raised concerns if their congregants were seen frequenting disreputable establishments. This sort of intracommunal discipline is not really possible anymore, as more and more social interactions have moved online. So, a proxy for that practice is entirely appropriate.
This concrete practice of “self-transparency” is deliberately opposed to the cross-pressuring and trivializing effects of the contemporary communications ecosystem. On this model, one’s engagement with ideas or individuals always takes place beneath the auspices of their prior commitment to a legitimate theological authority over them, which (rightly understood) can challenge them to act or act otherwise.
Those who react viscerally against such a proposal, particularly if they identify with projects of Christian political retrieval, should ask themselves why. Do they recognize legitimate theological authority? How are they helping to reinforce such authority, under the conditions of modernity? Or do they treat the internet as a theologically neutral domain, where Christian discipline has no purchase? That is not a very “classical” thought at all.
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The proposal outlined here, however haltingly, is precisely the opposite of those “emergent” projects that would dissolve the church into the internet. The goal here must be to fold the power of the internet, and other communications technologies in general, into the authority of the Christian church—to bring the full ambit of Christians’ lives within an ecclesial configuration. Any truly “integral” response to modernity, while it may certainly seek more, can certainly seek no less than this.
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.
- For a more fully elaborated discussion of this point in the specific context of American Christianity, see James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 24–27. ↑
The best-known treatment of this argument is, of course, Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018). See also Patrick J. Deneen, Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future (New York: Sentinel, 2023), passim. ↑
Douglas Wilson, Mere Christendom (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2023), 69–72; Stephen Wolfe, The Case for Christian Nationalism (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2022), 381–82; Andrew Willard Jones, Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Academic, 2017), 442–48; Thomas Crean and Alan Fimister, Integralism: A Manual of Political Philosophy (Heusenstamm, Germany: Editiones Scholasticae, 2020), passim. ↑
Onsi A. Kamel, “Introduction,” in A Protestant Christendom? The World the Reformation Made, 2nd ed., ed. Onsi A. Kamel (Landrum, SC: The Davenant Press, 2021), ix–xii. ↑
Kevin Vallier, All the Kingdoms of the World: On Radical Religious Alternatives to Liberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2023), 177. ↑
See Roy A. Harrisville and Walter Sundberg, The Bible in Modern Culture: Baruch Spinoza to Brevard Childs, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 36, 93–95. ↑
Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007), 600; see also Joseph Minich, Enduring Divine Absence: The Challenge of Modern Atheism (Landrum, SC: The Davenant Institute, 2018), 4–5 ↑
Taylor, A Secular Age, 555. ↑
Hunter, To Change the World, 201. ↑
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 1985), 121. ↑
Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, 124. ↑
Jon Askonas, “Why Conservatism Failed,” Compact (Oct. 6, 2022), https://compactmag.com/article/why-conservatism-failed. ↑
Tish Harrison Warren, “Who’s In Charge of the Christian Blogosphere?,” Christianity Today (April 27, 2017), https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/april-web-only/whos-in-charge-of-christian-blogosphere.html. ↑
I myself am as implicated in this larger problem as anyone. See, e.g., John Ehrett, “The Embarrassment Reflex: Evangelicals and Culture,” American Reformer (Oct. 5, 2021), https://americanreformer.org/2021/10/the-embarrassment-reflex-evangelicals-and-culture/ (“Perhaps the price of elite evangelical respectability in the modern academy is adoption of the embarrassment reflex—understood as, in its deepest sense, a willingness to allow the idea of the ‘social’ to displace that of the classically theological at the taproot of intellectual life.”). ↑
On this point, see Samuel D. James, Digital Liturgies: Rediscovering Christian Wisdom in an Online Age (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2023), 75 (“The radical democratization of everything has not only given billions of ordinary people a very real kind of power and voice; it has flattened the distinctions between one voice and another. . . . The web is, in a very real sense, a credential-erasing environment. When everything and everyone is disembodied, these structural distinctions between expert and nonexpert tend to mean very little.”). ↑
Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 257. ↑
For more on this point, see John Ehrett, “Can There Be a Conservative Futurism?,” The New Atlantis (Winter 2023), https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/can-there-be-a-conservative-futurism. ↑
See, e.g., John Ehrett and Clare Morell, “Age Verification: Policy Ideas for States,” Institute for Family Studies (June 13, 2023), https://ifstudies.org/ifs-admin/resources/briefs/ifs-eppc-ageverificationpolicybrief.pdf. ↑
Cf. James R. Wood, “Ordering Our Social Loves,” Ad Fontes: Commonwealth (Oct. 26, 2023), https://adfontesjournal.com/commonwealth/ordering-our-social-loves/ (stressing that “the church, as the ‘paradigm society,’ shapes the broader society around it to become more Christian, and thus more human”). ↑
*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons