How should contemporary Christians react to the decline of their churches, the secularization of the culture, the final loss of Christendom? Perhaps, one important author has suggested, they should reconcile themselves to the new dispensation, accepting that the “modern age is not a sacral, but a secular age,” that the state can no longer be treated “as the secular arm of the spiritual power,” that the “freedom of individual conscience” is one of the “crucial assets” of our civilization. In this new order any Christian approach to politics must accept the fact of pluralism, with its “diverse spiritual lineages” and its “variety of moral creeds,” and place its hope in the church’s liberty, its opportunity to act as “spiritual leaven” free from the corruptions of the past.
If this sounds like surrender to the spirit of the age, there is an alternative perspective. Christians might instead set out to build “a new Christendom, a new Christianly inspired civilization.” They might try to bring new life out of what remains of cultural Christianity—“the often unconscious Christian feelings and moral structures embodied in the history of the nations born out of the old Christendom.” They might seek to turn the state away from a dangerous moral indifferentism, because “the final objective of the law is to make men morally good,” and toward a public recognition of God and biblical faith.
Above all, they would reject the chimera of perfect moral and theological neutrality. For in reality, “the world has done with neutrality. Willingly or unwillingly, States will be obligated to make a choice for or against the Gospel. They will be shaped either by the totalitarian spirit or by the Christian spirit.’”
These contrasting quotations offer a reasonable approximation of one of the crucial divides among Christian intellectuals today—pitting not just conservatives against liberals but conservatives against one another, in a debate about how the church of Jesus Christ should think about liberalism, secularism, the United States of America, and modernity itself.
But the reality is that all these quotations belong to the same writer. Indeed, not just to the same writer, but to the same writer in a single chapter of a single book: to Jacques Maritain, writing on “Church and State” in the sixth chapter of Man and the State, published in 1951. And the fact that one can construct such different narratives from a single essay suggests that returning to Maritain’s work might shed interesting light on our own controversies, almost three generations later.
In the chapter in question, Maritain was—as part of a larger movement—trying to develop Catholic teaching on church-state relations beyond his church’s traditional view that the two powers ideally should be effectively united, integrated as the soul and body are integrated in thought and operation. That older view implied that Catholicism should be recognized as the official religion of the state, that there should be some subordination of secular power to the hierarchical power of the church, and that the church should be able to rely on the secular power to enforce its own claims over all baptized Christians—making state power available for the coercion of heretics and schismatics, the maintenance of uniformity rather than pluralism in Christian practice and belief.
The Catholic Church in the early twentieth century was willing to accept that this arrangement was often a practical impossibility, but it was retained as an official ideal, a hoped-for destination even for a diverse and heavily Protestant republic like the United States. By contrast, Maritain was arguing, with whatever care and caution, for a more explicit shift, one in which the church would say that the ideal of church-state relations in the “sacral” Middle Ages no longer applied in “secular” modernity, and that the ideal relationship was now a different one—from which there could be no return to, say, the political theology of the Spanish Inquisition.
Whether or not Maritain was intellectually successful in arguing that this shift could happen without a change in formal doctrine, in practice he and others did succeed in hastening a change in the public posture of his church. By the time of Man and the State, the pronouncements of popes already seemed more favorable to ideas of religious liberty, and fourteen years later, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom ratified a major shift. Thereafter, to the extent that the older teaching still persisted, it did so as a hidden aspect, a traditionalist secret wrapped inside modern-sounding rhetoric. Even scholars like Thomas Pink, who argue that the Council actually retained the prior teaching, the integralist ideal, tend to rely on close reading and careful parsing, while conceding that in terms of the church’s self-presentation, its “official theology”—to be distinguished from inerrant “magisterial theology”—ideas like Maritain’s carried all before them.
But they did so, crucially, because they promised something more than simple church-state separation, and certainly something more than a reconciliation with liberalism in its most secularizing aspect. The apparent dualities of Maritain’s essay reflect this key element of his argument: that in setting aside any formal claim to political power, in laying down the tiara, the church of Christ could not just retain influence, but also aspire to a soft hegemony, a power within a pluralist context that would be exercised more indirectly but remain real power all the same—real enough, indeed, to merit the old label “Christendom,” however different its modern features.
This power would flow, first and foremost, from what Maritain called “vivifying inspiration.” The church separated from the state and freed of certain corruptions and temptations would be more radiant, with a “penetrating and vivifying influence” on “other agents . . . whose place is less high in the scale of being.” But that influence would not merely be felt in the individual conscience. Maritain’s “other agents” include all the secular forms of power, the powers of lawmaking and culture-shaping alike, which he expects to take the side of the gospel, never imposing all its doctrines but still animated by its teachings, still seeking a Christian politics amid a landscape of pluralism in theological belief.
If from the vantage point of 1951 Maritain was a liberalizer, then, from the vantage point of 2022 he can sound more like one of our post-liberals, with their promise of a society “re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good,” to quote the famous Sohrab Ahmari broadside against the classical-liberal right.
Maritain’s vision rules out coercion in belief but clearly allows, within the limits of prudence, for all manner of morals legislation, sabbatarian laws, bans on pornography, and prayer in schools. It requires religious toleration and church-state separation but doesn’t expect that every religious body will enjoy equal influence or deference. It expects the state to accommodate human weakness but also to seek moral improvement, not simply to leave individuals to their libertarian devices. It assumes some public acknowledgment of God’s existence, even some “public expression” of the “Christian confession.”
And if this vision of the Christian society can seem a little vague and abstract, as well as idealistic and over-optimistic—if the two impulses quoted at the outset of this essay are not completely harmonized—Maritain could also claim that it had a hardheaded and practical basis in the real world. With whatever theoretical baggage, he was essentially describing something like the mid-century American model of church-state relations, of Christian politics playing out in a pluralist society, albeit reimagined in his argument for a society with a Catholic majority rather than a Protestant one.
The proper exercise of Christian power under modern conditions, in other words, was not visible only in some theoretical utopia. It was already clear enough in the role that the Protestant churches, eventually joined by the Catholic Church, had played in the United States for generations. Here Christian belief was not imposed, nor was any individual denomination privileged. Nonetheless, America was clearly a Christian society, entrusted to the Almighty in its Pledge of Allegiance and on its currency, more Christian in practice than many European countries, with the power of the faith manifest in the shaping role that Christian ideas played in so many of its institutions and debates.
Without ever demanding creedal conformity, Christian America was constantly arguing about the proper application of both biblical principle and natural law to secular politics, constantly generating religious reform movements with a social or economic vision of the common good. And that long experience—from abolitionism to the temperance movement, from the social gospel to the New Deal, with revivalism a constant throughout—demonstrated the fundamental plausibility of the Maritainian vision. The state could disentangle itself from the church without disentangling Christianity from politics, without undermining Christian faith, without even abandoning the ideal of Christendom itself.
Today we know that this optimism was timebound and ill-fated. The religious arrangements that Maritain observed in America, the mix of church-state separation and soft Protestant hegemony, dissolved across the generation following his essay, and the religious conservatism that sought to restore an American Christendom by means of an Evangelical-Catholic alliance was defeated in its turn. In Europe, a Maritainian model arguably seemed possible in the brief window of his lifetime, the Christian Democratic era of Konrad Adenauer and Alcide De Gasperi and Jean Monnet—and then similarly dissolved into de-Christianization, with any alternative confined to the continent’s peripheries.
This experience has generated various critiques of Maritain’s original vision among the writers sifting the wreckage of Western Christianity. (And it must be noted that all of them follow in Maritain’s own footsteps, since by the time of The Peasant of the Garonne, his late-life, mid-1960s cry of disillusionment, he was convinced that his earlier “hope for the advent of a Christian politics” had been “completely frustrated.”)
The most straightforward of these critiques, for our purposes, is the argument that Maritain was too naive about what would follow, sooner or later, from the church’s surrender of formal political power. Whatever soft power the faith retained, the terms of surrender still fundamentally left Christianity at the mercy of the state—and as Pink puts it in one of the more direct critiques of Church and State, since the 1950s “political secularization has not taken the benign form” that Maritain predicted.
Rather than cultivating (as Maritain hoped) a clearer distinction between the temporal and the sacred, a clearer sense of the church’s superiority to the political realm, the secular state today imposes itself ever more on Christianity, constantly demanding things of the church, disregarding the limits on its power that Maritain, like the authorities of the Second Vatican Council, assumed would hold. And the lesson, then—especially for writers sympathetic to the older style of integralism—might be that a regime that does not explicitly use its powers in favor of the true faith will eventually end up using those powers against the faith, and that if you give up all claims of authority over the state you will eventually earn its enmity.
Out of this critique you can tell a story of Christianity’s American decline in which the secular state becomes the chief player. The soft hegemony of American Protestantism, in this account, did not simply fail from the 1950s onward. Rather, it was torn down by raw political power, beginning with the Supreme Court decisions on school prayer and continuing through Roe v. Wade to Obergefell v. Hodges, with other social and economic coups and revolutions from above folded in as well. The soft Christian power that Maritain observed and celebrated was no match for the hard power of liberal and neoliberal elites. The specific kind of political secularity that he defended was always destined to give way to something different, less benign and Christian, more aggressive and domineering and intolerant.
This last point, about the timebound nature of Maritain’s argument, represents the critique at its strongest, since it’s impossible to read Maritain today without occasionally picking up the same over-optimistic vibe that informed so much religious writing between World War II and the 1960s—the feeling that you’re listening to a confident mid-century urban planner sell you an apartment in Brasilia—and that looked dated to Maritain himself fifteen years later, let alone to us today.
But with that concession, one might make two arguments in defense of Maritain’s general vision. The first would challenge the claim that the primary force driving American Christianity’s retreat has been the power of a secular and anti-Christian state. Yes, state power has mattered to religious change, but in a fashion that’s more often provisional than decisive, and frequently subordinate not just to general social and cultural trends, but to developments and crises within the Christian church itself.
Thus the school prayer decisions, for instance, did strike a blow against soft Protestant hegemony, but judicial hostility to public expressions of Christianity peaked in the 1960s and early 1970s and has been partially rolled back by justices friendlier to religious liberty in the decades since. The crucial Supreme Court decisions on homosexuality followed broad shifts in public opinion rather than preceding them, ratifying a cultural revolution rather than imposing one. The recent use of civil-rights law to harass conservative Christians is just that—a recent development made possible by Christianity’s weakness, not some immediate and inexorable consequence of laws passed almost sixty years ago. And while the Supreme Court’s decision on abortion did impose a revolutionary dictum, given that the pro-life movement is pretty much the only element of religious conservatism that has actually gained ground since the 1970s, it’s hard to argue that Roe v. Wade explains secularization, the decline of religious identification, the cultural weakness of the churches.
Instead the more important explanation lies within, in Christianity’s internal divisions, its failure to respond effectively to social and economic and technological changes, its theological civil wars and failures of leadership and egregious scandals. No ruthless secular authority drove the Protestant Mainline to collapse. The crisis of faith among the Mainline’s own leaders, the bishops and theologians who denied core Christian doctrines, the desperate chasing after political causes to make up for the waning of missionary zeal—even the tendency, predating the 1960s, for upper-middle-class Presbyterians and Lutherans and Methodists to have ever fewer children—all these mattered far more than anything the Warren Court or neoliberalism did.
Likewise it’s hard to see how a Supreme Court decision outlawing school prayer in public schools led to the swift post-1960s decline of Catholic infrastructure in America—an infrastructure that had, after all, been forged precisely as an alternative to soft Protestantism in public education, and had flourished during a period of much greater anti-Catholic impositions than anything the secular state brought to bear in the 1960s and 1970s.
Nevertheless those years, rather than the 1870s, were the decades of Catholic crisis and collapse—again, not because of external pressure from the state, but because of terrible internal divisions over how to adapt, or not, to the social trends and changes of the era. Post–Vatican II Catholicism was divided over liturgy, theology, morality, and politics, and then its partial recovery of unity in the John Paul II era was undermined by the horrors of the sex abuse crisis. Would the church have avoided all this if Griswold v. Connecticut had been decided differently? Surely not: The breaking of pre-conciliar Catholicism was something that Catholics did themselves.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Maritain’s formula for a gentle Christian hegemony failed in an era when so many Christians lost faith in their own doctrines, when the churches fractured over essential teachings, and when the salt lost its savor in so many scandalous ways. His formula for Christian power under pluralism doesn’t require Christian perfection—nobody would call America’s nineteenth-century Protestant establishment perfect—but it does require some degree of doctrinal confidence, some reasonable fit between ecclesiastical structures and social trends, some clear sense of missionary zeal. So the fact that his model failed during an era when Catholics were feuding fiercely over their own liturgy, when Mainline Protestantism lost faith in the Resurrection and the Virgin Birth, and when evangelicalism’s leadership regressed from Billy Graham to Jerry Falwell, Jr., indicts the era’s Christians more than it indicts Maritain’s model of how a Christian society ought to work.
In the same period, too, there was no countervailing example of how a closer relationship between church and state could have saved Christian power from eclipse. Quite the reverse: Though the American model of power amid pluralism did not prevent Christianity’s decline, the ebb of faith and Christian influence was less complete in the United States than in the societies that had modeled a more integrated church-state relationship prior to the 1960s. The self-consciously hardheaded, faintly Grand-Inquisitorial idea that the church can survive scandal, social change, and theological crisis through the raw exercise of power may be true in certain historical cases, but it finds no vindicating example in recent history. The stronger church-state integration in, say, Quebec or Spain or Ireland proved a paper tiger rather than a firm Platonic guardian, and simply collapsed when it came to the test.
Meanwhile—and here we come to the second point that might be made in defense of his hypothesis—Maritain’s religious-power-amid-pluralism model arguably continued to function quite impressively in post-1960s America. It’s just that a different religious worldview filled the place heretofore occupied by Christianity, seizing its own kind of soft hegemony, filling the space left by the crack-up of the Mainline and the differing failures of Catholicism and evangelicalism. The American public square did not, in this reading, become simply “naked” as Christian influence receded. Instead a religious tendency that had been subordinate throughout American history, potent but not hegemonic, took over the role that Maritain envisioned for his own church and for Christianity as a whole.
This tendency can carry many labels, but for this essay’s purposes we can call it Post-Protestant Gnosticism. It descends along different lines from early-American Deism, Transcendentalism, and various health-and-wealth enthusiasms. It was manifest in the therapeutic forms of spirituality that were limned in the 1960s and 1970s, at the moment of their ascent to power, by writers such as Philip Rieff and Robert Bellah. And it now operates in American life in roughly the same way, with the same sort of influence, that Mainline Protestantism did a hundred years ago.
Since it lacked firm doctrinal definitions and ecclesiastical hierarchies, and included among its ranks a mixture of formal commitments—secular and spiritual, pagan and Christian-ish and Christian—this religion’s churchliness was not immediately evident, which is one reason that Christians in the 1960s and 1970s often worried more about pure atheism than about the worldview that was actually taking over their position in the culture.
But over time the label applied by reactionaries to this post-Christian formation, “the Cathedral,” has become more and more appropriate. Like the old religious establishment, the ascendant gnosticism operates through a set of institutions that resemble an ecclesia—through the old institutions of Protestant Christianity, its universities especially, and also through more novel institutions, from the tangle of big foundations and philanthropies and activist outfits to the “church of the masses” manifested in media and television and Silicon Valley.
Like the old Christian establishment, this new hegemon contains a fair amount of theological diversity, and like the old establishment, it experiences periods of revival and inner turmoil in which its internal tensions are debated and reworked. The “New Age” of the 1960s was formative in the same way that the era of George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards was formative for early-republic Protestantism; the current “Great Awokening” resembles the nineteenth-century Awakenings in its effort to renew and reshape the various institutions of the church.
Crucially, the ascendant gnosticism influences society in something close to Maritain’s model. It wields its power primarily through the cultural influence of nonpolitical institutions, and only secondarily through direct lawmaking or rulemaking. Its rule is firm within its own institutional territory but more limited and moderated in the political sphere writ large. Where it directly shapes the interpretation of laws, it does so through “vivifying inspiration” rather than ecclesial imposition. Gnostic values pervade the key rulings of a figure such as Anthony Kennedy, for instance, without there having been some explicit gnostic religious edict that the Catholic Kennedy was bound to follow. Likewise, there has been no central committee of wokeness, no progressive Holy Office, driving the rolling reinterpretation of the Civil Rights Act.
At the same time, the new hegemon is tolerant of religious difference, allowing conservative forms of Christianity to persist in the same way the old Christian establishment allowed America’s various heresies to flourish. It simply sets certain limits on their freedom, establishes implicit cultural hierarchies, and generally tries to nudge the other faiths toward itself, especially on certain key issues. The various attempts to push Christian churches toward a reconciliation with the sexual revolution, for instance, don’t resemble Reformation-era repression of religious dissent. But they do somewhat resemble the pressure experienced by Mormonism or Christian Science or even Catholicism in our more Protestant past, when the issue wasn’t doctrine writ large but some specific practice or idea that fell too far afoul of the moral and cultural consensus. Keep your faith but consider making it a little more like ours, is the constant message from the hegemon, with the further promise that if you converge with the hegemon you might get to share some of its cultural power rather than remaining perpetually outside the Cathedral’s doors.
Of course the pressure on non-Protestants in the nineteenth century wasn’t always gentle, and some critics of the gnostic hegemon argue that its own relative tolerance is only a temporary stage—that already in speech codes and cancellations and social-media censorship we observe an incipient totalitarianism, a more censorious and inquisitorial future, with overt persecution waiting in the wings. And they are certainly correct that the new cultural hegemon has become more intolerant as its power in certain core institutions has increased.
But it’s still an open question whether that intolerance will lead inexorably to greater power over the entire culture, or whether in a society as diverse and complex as ours the zeal of a hegemon has a self-limiting effect—generating stronger backlash when it uses power too overtly, creating new centers of resistance when it imposes theological conformity too explicitly, and imposing a Brezhnevian (or late-nineteenth-century Bostonian) freeze that looks solid but can’t survive the heat of crisis.
Whereas the more relaxed gnostic hegemony, a more Maritainian form—think early Obama-era Hope and Change, not peak Great Awokening—might have more staying power, disarming opposition and preempting backlash, balancing its power and its society’s pluralism sustainably rather than risking a crack-up for the sake of inquisitorial control.
At the very least, we can observe that the more intense alternative is meeting resistance all over, not just in Texas and Florida but even unto San Francisco’s school boards. And just as the most stringent expressions of Protestant hegemony in the old America sometimes found themselves resented and rolled back—Prohibition being a conspicuous example—so our gnostic tendency could remain culturally established for another generation, but find that its militants and missionaries are forced back to gentler tactics for a time.
From this interpretation of religious history, then, we might draw several provisional conclusions. First, there is important common ground between Maritain’s attempt to reconcile Catholic teaching with religious liberty and pluralism and the current post-liberal attempt to distinguish the Christian political vision from classical liberalism and libertarianism. The Maritainian and post-liberal visions both envision a society shaped in profound ways by religious power; they both expect the law to be a moral teacher and the state to recognize the Highest Power and seek the common good. They share an implicit view of classical liberalism in its purest form as fatally naive, its goal of strict neutrality a functional impossibility.
And they agree that even under conditions of pluralism, religion and politics will never be separated, some religions will always shape laws more than others, a religion that wins converts will inevitably wield political power as well—and if you throw down one religious hegemon a new spiritual power will fill the void soon enough.
If this shared view is correct, then, it might imply that some of the long-running debates about Christianity’s relationship to the American founding, the place of ancient religion within modern liberalism, are putting too much weight on what we might suppose in theory and not enough on what we’ve already seen in practice.
Whatever the founding generation consciously intended, whatever their ideas arguably implied, 1776 and 1789 created a political order that has been compatible with multiple different forms of soft religious hegemony, depending on how you subdivide our history—for instance, a brief Unitarian era, a long Protestant ascendancy, a shorter Protestant-Catholic and then “Judeo-Christian” era, and finally our own period of gnostic power.
Each form of hegemony has been potent and influential, each has also been contested and contingent—and there is no reason to assume that the story is now simply over today, that the liberal-democratic order has assumed its predestined and final form. To claim that religious liberty or pluralism or church-state separation leads inexorably and permanently to gnostic hegemony ignores the fact that the conflict between Christianity and gnosticism is as old as Christianity itself, emerging under imperial Roman and feudal conditions as often as in American modernity. And if certain social and technological conditions have enabled gnosticism to flourish particularly today, they have not made its rule absolute—and for anyone discontented with our current hegemon, American history licenses all kinds of alternative aspirations, including the vision of a renewed American Christendom shared by Maritain and the post-liberals.
But then when it comes to how such a renewal might occur, in the place where Maritain diverged from the old integralism, and still seems to diverge from the new sort—on the questions of exactly how closely church and state should be aligned, how tolerant of pluralism a renewed Christendom ought to be, whether Christian renewal can be somehow imposed politically or whether it must begin as an organic and voluntary process—the record of the last seventy years has continued to supply evidence in his favor.
That evidence, in a list: American Christianity’s decline was driven more by an internal crisis of faith than by pressure from without; the integralist solutions to the crisis failed more completely than the Maritainian model; the gnostic successor to Protestant hegemony achieved its ascendancy in precisely the way that Maritain imagined religious power would be wielded within pluralism; and this gnosticism’s hold on power is more fragile and vulnerable to backlash the more fully integralist it seeks to become.
And a final point: Whatever the merits of the (mostly Central European) models invoked by post-liberals for how a Christian revival might be encouraged from above, none of these models has clearly generated an alternative Christendom as vital in practice as American Christianity remains even now, as the weaker religious power under pluralism, after decades of cultural retreat.
All of this suggests, on the one hand, that American Christians interested in the recovery of lost influence can go some distance with the integralist critique of classical liberalism. They can recognize that the perfectly neutral society does not exist, that to preach the gospel is inevitably to seek some kind of Christendom, and that what Christians see in today’s ascendant progressivism isn’t just an imitation of how their own faith once exerted power within a pluralist society, but also a model for how it might someday do so once again.
On the other hand, this evidence also suggests the importance of recognizing the moral and spiritual advantages of putting limits on faith’s temporal ambitions, and trying to wield power within pluralism rather than over and against it.
For those with ears to hear, these are the practical lessons of the recent Christian past, and especially of our own country’s history. Religious power wielded wisely and mildly and indirectly, with due respect to liberty and diversity and a focus first on the faith’s internal health and zeal, can sustain a religious ascendancy for many generations.
But religious power wielded too much against pluralism, with political ambition substituting for real faithfulness, will corrupt and enervate and bring about its own reward.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times. This essay was originally delivered as a lecture for the Morningside Institute.