The New Right
Sohrab Ahmari correctly identifies many of the pathologies haunting liberal order in the West (“The New American Right,” October), which some on the right have been reluctant to acknowledge. Indeed, more conservatives should be challenging the fragile premises of the “autonomy-for-the-sake-of-autonomy,” contractarian, and utilitarian arguments often trotted out to defend, for example, free markets or liberal constitutionalism. After all, many of these positions figure among the left’s core philosophical commitments, even if the left invokes them to favor socialism or grand expansions of government that pulverize civil society and families.
That said, those proposing new ways forward for the right should recognize that many of the institutions of which they are increasingly critical—whether it is markets or aspects of liberal constitutionalism—are strongly rooted in the pre-liberal world. What we call “capitalism,” for example, isn’t purely a product of modernity. It first took on concrete form in the High Middle Ages—hardly a period of rampant utilitarianism or gender ideology.
What’s different between then and now are the philosophical assumptions driving the operations of these concepts, procedures, and institutions. Rights, for instance, take on a very different—and far more stable and rational—meaning when grounded in natural law rather than in Justice Anthony Kennedy’s infamous mystery clause. Likewise, in a market economy operating in a society that assumes natural law foundations, the question of people selling body parts wouldn’t arise in the first place.
But herein, I’d argue, lies the real challenge for those calling themselves the new right, one which is essentially pre-political. Yes, there are some things that the state can do. There is no such thing as morally neutral law, and law does shape culture. But there are limits to what state power can do when it comes to providing the correct foundations for “liberal institutions.”
The political common good—which is the state’s direct concern—is, as natural law figures ranging from Aquinas to John Finnis have illustrated, limited; it is not directly concerned with cultivating all-around virtue. Put another way, the solidarity for which the new right yearns must be realized via the principle of subsidiarity, not least so that concerns for community and the good are not reduced to government and positive law. Avoiding that trap, one which the left has enthusiastically embraced, is a major challenge confronting the new right. At a minimum, they must demonstrate why they won’t end up mimicking an increasingly authoritarian left, something that would be one of the most pyrrhic of victories.
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Sohrab Ahmari’s sketch of the “new American right” leaves me with more questions than answers about post-fusionist conservatism—but that’s not a bad thing. It’s in the nature of formulating new ways of thinking about politics that no one person, least of all in the space of a single essay, can possibly address every practical and theoretical issue on the table.
I write, then, to propose ways his outline can fruitfully serve as a kind of substrate on which new paths of inquiry can take root and grow to maturity. In the realm of partisan politics, I wonder: What alliances does the new right propose to make, if any, and what compromises is it willing to make to secure those alliances? And how does the new right plan to avoid reproducing merely a new fusionism, this time wedded to a faithless nationalism or some other secular ideology rather than to a bloodless libertarianism?
And in the realm of political theology, my questions are even stickier: How does a new right that aspires to influence the course of politics in this secular, pluralist nation relate to the Catholic faith that Ahmari and I share? What is the role of spiritual realities—grace, the sacraments, the Church triumphant—in political realism? Can we genuinely pursue the temporal common good while gesturing only abstractly toward the supernatural common good?
Ahmari has done an important service by giving us—and I count myself among those sympathetic to a new vision for an authentic conservatism—a starting point. Its legacy will depend a great deal, however, on the fruit it bears; it will be up not just to Ahmari but to all the partisans of the new right to cultivate these emerging ideas with boldness, faithfulness, and, above all, charity.
Sohrab Ahmari replies:
Samuel Gregg is correct that many of the liberal age’s most cherished institutions are “strongly rooted in the pre-liberal world.” This is why I would encourage Gregg not to be fearful of imagining post-liberal arrangements. That fact should reassure him that in seeking to restore the political as such, as the shared quest for the common good, a post-liberal or post-fusionist conservatism wouldn’t trash or ditch institutions he holds dear but only reorient them to humane ends.
That said, I reject his other premise—namely, that our task is “essentially” pre-political, whatever that means in this context. I’m afraid such rhetoric, as well as the effective equation of subsidiarity with basically liberal arrangements, is but another way to perpetuate the depoliticized politics that brought us to the current crisis.
I thank Brandon McGinley for his kind and encouraging words. As he rightly notes, my outline or sketch of the new American right was just that: Like him, I’m still grappling with how to harmonize Catholicism’s vision of the supernatural common good on the one hand, and the realities of a pluralistic republic in a secular age on the other. One starting point, it seems to me, is to frame—and pursue—the spiritual common good as essential to the temporal common good. If that is the case, and even some of the more deistic members of the founding generation seemed to agree that it is, then it follows that a rightly ordered state owes its citizens a positive duty to encourage and promote true religion. Call this religious-liberty-plus.
There I go again, offering broad outlines and abstractions! But let me declare myself ready to walk with McGinley in boldness, faithfulness, and charity.
In “Christian Universalism and the Nation” (October), R. R. Reno offers a number of propositions worthy of serious discussion. Apart from its immediate context, his article raises fundamental issues about “the nations” that have been obscured by related questions about the nation-state and religious nationalism. They invite several counter-propositions: “America is a civic nation, not a church or homogenous culture”; “Every gentile nation is in some sense a ‘constructed’ people”; “Biblical universalism affirms nations before the end of time when they will be held to account before God”; “Supranational capital seeks unbounded empire”; and “An internationalist politics can serve the end of Christian universalism.” It is not clear if Reno would deny any of these or what might follow should he adopt them. I suspect that much would depend on how they are interpreted or come bundled with other commitments. As they stand, however, Reno’s propositions remain underdetermined.
I take Reno’s article to be an intervention in contemporary politics and a statement of certain enduring truths. The relation between those two aims can be difficult to parse. Reno claims that we need better theology to navigate the present debate. I agree. The universal and the particular can be a route into some of these issues. But they often remain theologically vague and politically abstract.
There is a different way to frame his effort to wrestle with all that nation-talk in the Bible. It taps into traditions that both Reno and readers of this journal will recognize as the peace of nations governed by the rule of law. It also addresses a relative silence in his article: the relation between global justice and national conservatism. Christians should refuse both cosmopolitanism and nationalism. They can do so by endorsing a politics of internationalism. This politics admits different forms and attracts ideologies of its own. Today, it is a deeply contested project from the left and the right. But it was inspired by Christians trying to balance two sets of concerns: the duties we have toward our fellow citizens and the debts we owe to people in other nations.
Internationalists value the life-world of nations, even if they are not valued absolutely. Taking the second set of concerns seriously means excluding strands of toxic nationalism, recalling that Isaiah portrays the nations as a little dust on the scales of divine judgment (40:15). These two sets may at first appear independent. They are not.
Classically, like the Stoics, figures like Augustine imagined the social world as a series of concentric circles. Each circle marks off a degree of social distance that we are to gather closer to us than conventional morality might suggest. It is a familiar metaphor that has led to a repudiation of nationalism as a form of group egoism in modern Christian thought. Reno rightly sees how this impulse can go wrong by jumping out of temporal existence directly into a fictive universal humanity that looks to the Jerusalem above. His conservatism resists a picture of the world without history and without geography. His Christian faith resists a divinity that has neither preferential loves nor providential plans for peoples. But these circles have recently been altered, and our world is much smaller. The politics of internationalism is not a panacea for the hard work of sorting out our embodied relations and obligations. But it provides a different way to think about them than a lazy choice between nationalism and cosmopolitanism.
In American Babylon, the late Richard John Neuhaus wrote that he expected to meet God as an American. Such a provocation implies an eschatological claim. A theology of the nations can risk idolatry. It can also be a means of coming clean about shared loves and particular identity in the shadows of the earthly city. Reno’s propositions try to navigate these dangers. A more explicit internationalism might prevent his nation-based conservatism from being used for purposes he should want to resist.
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R. R. Reno relies on St. Augustine’s secondary, and really derivative, definition of “a people” without reference to Augustine’s wider argument.
For St. Augustine, God’s plan for social harmony is simply for men to love him and to love their neighbors as themselves. Augustine contends that even after the wounding of human nature through sin, these loves tug at us and pull us toward worship and justice, if ultimately perverted. Every people derives its politics and its traditions from its shared loves—whether they be good and true, or disordered and dissembling. In fact, Augustine makes clear that a people can only truly be “a people” insofar as their shared love is God; only insofar as they are rightly ordered in true justice can a group be profoundly and undeniably unified into “a people.” But for the sake of deepening the impact of this insight, he gives a secondary definition: A people is a community united by shared loves. This is not a relativizing move. Rather, any society can be judged as good or evil based on how closely its loves correspond to the only ultimately true love, the love of God and neighbor.
Part of what makes the nationalist project appealing to Reno is the sense of shared loves that we Americans tend to have. He writes:
Augustine . . . modified Cicero’s account of civic unity based in shared interests. Both described Rome as a republic, not an empire, one constituted by a shared love of self-government and of honor. These loves characterize the American people, even in our vastness and differences.
This is strange evidence for Reno to evoke in favor of his project. Augustine cites Rome and its loves in order to articulate his main point: Societies that are bound together by love of God are the City of God. They find anticipations of true justice and peace on earth and ultimately achieve true peace in heaven. On the other hand, societies that love anything else (as did Rome) are the City of Man. They may develop proximate virtues in pursuit of their loves, but they will not achieve peace, since justice is found only through the love and worship of the true God. St. Augustine cites Rome’s love of self-government and honor only to show how these loves end up damning it.
Reno says that America is just like Rome to the point of being bound together by the same shared loves. This might be true, but it is simply impossible to read St. Augustine, or the Catholic tradition generally, in such a way that America’s similarity to Rome is a good thing. Rome was evil, and it was really effective at being evil precisely because its shared loves penetrated so deeply into the Roman soul. Here, perhaps, Reno’s comparison between America and Rome again hits the mark, but not, I suspect, in the way he intends.
A better approach would be to look for fundamentally Christian loves, such as charity and compassion for the weak (vices, as Rome would see them), to serve as a basis of American unity. Christianity, after all, penetrates as deeply into the distinctive American personality as does pagan republicanism. Through an Augustinian reading of these American loves, we can avoid the mistake of dividing society into two realms, the spiritual and the political, and instead look to cultivate the Christian loves and convert the pagan ones.
Jacob Fareed Imam
oxford, united kingdom
R. R. Reno replies:
Eric Gregory is right. The propositions I put forward are underdetermined. I wished to show the theological illegitimacy of secular ambitions of political universalism (Proposition #1). And I sought to open up theological space for a nationalist outlook within a church-focused universalism (Proposition #7). Along the way I tried to set aside some obstructions (America as a church, nations as artificial constructions, ideological empires) and point to the pedagogy of love made possible by a shared political life.
Many loose ends remain to be tied, and Gregory does me the service of providing a provocative counter-proposition: “An internationalist politics can serve the end of Christian universalism.” I think not.
As an “-ism,” nationalism means that political leaders must give priority to the weal of the nation. Concern for other nations or involvement in international institutions can serve a nation’s interest in securing peace and prosperity for its people. Moreover, as Americans, we are a moralistic people with an interest in justice beyond our borders, and we often consider it in the national interest to comfort and succor as well as preach and interfere on a global scale. This native impulse is so strong that it sometimes requires a wise leader to discern when our all-too-American internationalism has become disordered and thus needs to be tempered, as is the case today. And in that determination, the nationalist weighs the nation’s interests ahead of those of other nations—and certainly ahead of the “international community,” which is composed of global corporations, NGOs, and other entities aligned with elite interests.
By contrast, insofar as internationalism is an “-ism,” it will give priority to the life-world of nations, as Gregory puts it. Others speak of this life-world as the “rules-based international order.” Ascribing priority in this way means that a nation’s leaders must entertain the possibility of sacrificing the national interest for the sake of the interests of the international system. I find myself recoiling from such a possibility, for the interests of the international system are either very nebulous or they are covert expressions of the interests of rich people whose weal now depends upon the globalized economic system and the network of international institutions.
Like Gregory, I seek an order—domestic and international—that is as just as possible. However, in view of the vagueness of an international common good, and given the absence of any global democratic mechanisms, I find myself more confident in nationalism as a framework for holding the powerful accountable, and thus directing them toward seeking what is just rather than their own interests.
I must disagree with Jacob Imam. It is possible, indeed well-founded, to read St. Augustine as praising nations that are similar to Rome. City of God turns on a fundamental dichotomy between two orders of love, two cities. One is founded on love of self, even to the point of hatred of God. The other rests on a love of God, even to the point of hatred of self. But we cannot easily identify either city in this world. As St. Augustine observes, they are intermixed. All institutions, communities, and spheres of life—indeed, our own hearts—are animated by sentiments, practices, and habits that draw us down into self-love, while others turn us upward toward love of God.
It is against this background that St. Augustine provides a subtle interpretation of Rome and her glory. In Book IV of City of God, he shows how the virtues of that great pagan city were but glorious vices. Rome’s order of love was that of the City of Man. In Book V, however, he illuminates Rome’s contribution to a proper love of God. Christians can learn from the Romans’ zeal, their steadfastness, and their willingness to subdue private lusts for the sake of public good. Rome can teach natural virtues: “If, for the sake of the most glorious City of God, we do not hold fast to the same virtues that [the Romans] held fast to for the sake of the glory of an earthly city, let us be pierced with shame.” Rome can also be a mirror for supernatural virtue: “See how great a love [Christians] owe their supernal fatherland for the sake of life eternal, if an earthly city was so greatly loved by its citizens for the sake of merely human glory.”
Our eternal rest is in God, not in our familial duties, bonds of friendship, local loyalties, or patriotic devotion. Yet, as St. Augustine recognized, because these natural loves work against the self-love at the foundation of the City of Man, they can prepare our hearts for the supernatural love of God.
Like Douglas Farrow (“Harrowing Hart on Hell,” October), I believe David Bentley Hart needs to fight some more rounds with his opponents. In Hart’s view, God could not be the Good, as Christians claim him to be, if he did not bring all human beings to heavenly glory. It is simply not metaphysically possible for God as the Good to permit even the possibility of one human being suffering for all eternity in hell.But this is not quite right: It is not metaphysically possible for God as the Good to permit even one human being unjustly to suffer eternally in hell. What Hart seems to forget is that if God is the Good, then God is also the Just. God would not be the Good if he did not justly punish eternally unrepentant sin, and so eternally unrepentant sinners who, through their own free choices, have confined themselves to hell for all eternity.
Of course, Hart does not believe in the concept of permanently unrepentant sin: It is metaphysically impossible for any human being, as a rational being, freely to turn away from God as the Good forever. The very idea of “an eternal free rejection of God,” Hart says, is “logically vacuous.” However, as Farrow points out in response, there is a clear and intelligible distinction we can and should make between a rational being created by God to enjoy God as the Good forever, and a rational being who freely and permanently chooses not to be all that he was created to be, and so freely falls short of enjoying God as the Good forever. As such, there is nothing illogical about a rational creature experiencing the eternal misery of being deprived of eternal happiness, which is what the Catholic tradition at least has understood the primary suffering of hell to be.
I actually agree with Hart on this count: God does not need hell in order to manifest his goodness or glory fully within the created order. My hope is that all will be saved, and that God will manifest his perfect goodness by enabling all of us ultimately, and freely, to attain heavenly glory and so become in the end the saints that God created us to be. But it does not follow from this, as Hart argues, that if God has not willed to save all, and thus permits some to damn themselves, he is not the Good I believe him to be. There is strong reason to think (on philosophical and theological grounds) that none of us can know, with the kind of epistemic certitude that Hart thinks he has, how far God’s salvific will and plan actually extend. And if that is true, then both a belief in the reality of hell and hope for the salvation of all remain fully rational positions for Christians to take.
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colorado springs, colorado
Douglas Farrow’s response to David Bentley Hart is strewn with many errors. But let me focus on his main mistake, which is to suppose that Hart is a Hegelian who thinks that temporary evil is built into the divine plan. It is, to the contrary, clear that evil, for Hart, is sheer fantasy and delusion, which God cannot comprehend, since it is incomprehensible. Its cosmic intrusion remains a dark mystery.
Farrow’s primary complaint is the claim that free will cannot be free if it is bound in the end to choose its own good. Yet were this not the case, we would have to suppose an eternal realm of delusion alongside God, thereby rendering after all positive and fully real the supposition of iniquity. This final scenario is incompatible with God’s goodness, omnipotence, and omnipresence. It is mere orthodoxy to say that for God evil is intolerable, and that precisely because it purports to steal from him his glory, God has from within the world overcome its pretensions—indeed primarily for his own sake, since our human interests are only participations in the one divine reality.
How exactly all freedoms are finally to be enticed remains an eschatological mystery, yet no more of a mystery than the entire divine causation of all our free acts, precisely insofar as they are free, and so good, all of the time. Hart is surely right: The gradual drawing back of all emanated or created things to the One who is God must necessarily entail also the banishing of all self-seductions by finite creatures who have idolatrously mistaken other creatures for the ultimate.
I agree with Farrow that the nature of Christianity is at stake here. It is time to recognize, with—but beyond the legacy of—de Lubac and Balthasar (as a theologian like Jean Trouillard saw), that the radical core of orthodoxy and of tradition was falsely marginalized. Origen and the supreme patristic synthesizer, Eriugena, and in their wake Albert, Eckhart, Cusanus, and beyond, are still truer to the Hebraic-Hellenistic-Roman fusion of the New Testament than the lines running solely from Augustine and Aquinas. Much of the best of Augustine was taken up into this lineage, and the weaker, more extrinsic elements were dropped. As for Aquinas, what really matters in him is often linked to the legacy of his teacher. But the upshot of the false suspicion of this lineage was univocalism, nominalism, Protestantism, and neo-Scholasticism. A nightmarish distortion of Christianity, including belief in the eternity of hell (to which a “liberal” view of freedom is intimately linked), then generated the modern, rejecting those currents of the Renaissance that were reviving and bringing out the humanist and alternatively modern potential of the more radically orthodox current.
Hart is a hero of a most crucial and burgeoning theological revolution that can revive this current and recover the authentically Christian.
I express my deepest respect for Douglas Farrow. I only note that, far from aiming at being “tendentious,” I endeavored to offer a rigorous work of historical theology in The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis. I do not try to do theology while dismissing Christian “tradition,” but always go to the very roots of Christian theology by investigating patristic thought, its roots, and its impact.
Augustine himself, cited by Farrow, in his anti-Manichaean phase, was a supporter of universal salvation, as I have argued elsewhere. Further work is needed into the influence of Origen on various phases of Augustine’s thought. Later, in his anti-Pelagian debate, Augustine took distance from apokatastasis, dubbing it the doctrine of the “merciful.” But he himself, along with Basil, testified that the majority of Christians in those days inclined toward the doctrine of universal salvation.
The Thomist thinks of a conscious rejection of God the Good. Ethical intellectualism, however, the roots of which go back to Socrates, Plato, and the Stoics, and which Origen, Nyssen, and other patristic thinkers embraced, did not contemplate a really conscious rejection of the Good. The “God of the Greeks” indeed allowed Plato to posit a category of “incurables,” while Origen corrected Plato on this point, claiming in On First Principles that “no being is incurable for its Creator.” Hart thinks with Origen, Nyssen, and even Eriugena. When he states that the Incarnation confirms that “evil has no power to hold us”—a statement criticized by Farrow—Hart echoes Eriugena: “through the Inhumanation of God’s Son, every creature, in heaven and on earth, has been saved.” Nyssen’s physicalist soteriology, criticized by Farrow as deterministic, was taken up by Eriugena. I agree with Farrow that humans are “made to love God freely.” Nyssen, following Origen’s argument in his anti-Gnostic polemics, far from being deterministic, is one of the greatest exponents of what I call “the theology of freedom.” The charge of postulating infinite cycles of redemption and new falls was leveled against Origen already in antiquity, but was preempted by Origen himself in Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, through St. Paul’s tenet in 1 Corinthians: “Love never fails.”
Ilaria L. E. Ramelli
durham, united kingdom
Douglas Farrow replies:
God stands in need of nothing. He most certainly does not need hell to manifest his power or goodness or glory. But God is faithful to himself and to his creatures, whether they be faithful or unfaithful. That is why he provides a way of salvation, which is not the same as saying that he makes damnation impossible. Now, Hart thinks God needs all rational creatures to become faithful. Or rather, Hart thinks that he himself needs God to make sure that all creatures become faithful. I think Hart misunderstands his own needs, to say nothing of God, who has no needs. I also think that Paul Macdonald concedes too much to Hart (though Hart would say that he concedes too little by taking refuge in mere hope). Belief in the reality of hell, though perfectly rational, is not the product of “strong reason.” It is the product of grasping dominical teaching in and with the Church.
John Milbank agrees that the nature of Christianity is at stake. Orthodoxy, he says, at its radical core, is at stake. I suppose he should know about the latter, having helped invent or reinvent it. About the former, there can be no doubt. Different gospels are at work, as are different attitudes toward the Church and its authority. Milbank is mistaken, however, about my primary complaint. It is not the errors in Hart’s view of freedom—or of creation, man, time, eternity, hell, and so on—that occupy the center, but the faulty or absent Christology that makes those errors possible. Hart starts and finishes his book in the wrong place: not with Jesus Christ, but with himself. As for Milbank’s defense of Hart by insisting that evil is “sheer fantasy and delusion,” which God is at pains to overcome “primarily for his own sake,” I repeat the Irenaean refrain that God stands in need of nothing. And I add that this is a delusional view of evil, if not an evil view of evil, which owes nothing to knowledge of Christ.
To Ilaria Ramelli perhaps I owe an apology for using the adjective in question while doing no more than referring the reader to an appendix in McClymond. But I have yet to see any solid evidence for her claim that a majority of Nicene-era Christians inclined to universalism. Basil clearly did not. Augustine may or may not have, at some early point, but in his mature thought removed all ambiguity. Neither man makes the claim about the majority Ramelli attributes to them. For his part, Hart seems to want it both ways. His “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” reading of Nazianzen (a reading I certainly dispute) is deployed to suggest that universalism belonged only to an elite, to “the more rarefied circles” to which he himself belongs. Hart does indeed think with Origen and Nyssen and Eriugena. The problem is that the Church did not and does not. Nor could it have. Origenism, in the relevant sense, was condemned for good reasons, about which I have written elsewhere. That it retained its admirers, was revived in the Renaissance, and persists today does not alter or answer to its condemnation. The nature of Christianity was at stake and is at stake, as Hart and company themselves declare.
Evil has indeed no power to hold us, thanks to our Redeemer, but we have power to hold to evil. Pondering universalism in the light of Matthew 25, Basil suggested that this was “surely one of the devil’s strategems: that many human beings, by disregarding such weighty and solemn words and declarations of the Lord, award to themselves an end of punishment in order that they may sin with greater bravado.” Be that as it may, a choice of gospels, of authorities, even of gods, is laid before us. Let the reader, and the waverer, beware.