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Three-quarters of the way through his illuminating, engaging new book Regime Change, Patrick Deneen finds the key he’s been groping for over the past several years. Then he drops it again. 

Following Pierre Manent, Deneen sees liberal democracy as an “organization of separations.” For Deneen, the crucial separation is between classes, the ruling elite and the working drones. Every society is organized by class, but in modernity, class is overlaid with the ideology of progress. Thus, liberal class conflict is at heart a temporal disjunction between elites who regard themselves as the wave of the future and denizens of the old world who are stuck in an ignorant past. 

Deneen writes that liberalism is inherently elitist, but that varieties of liberalism differ in their evaluation of the common people. Classical liberalism (Locke) cultivates a new industrious elite and simultaneously seeks to keep the restive, revolutionary masses in check. Over time, it has become a meritocracy that inflames class hostilities by tempting winners to self-congratulatory contempt for losers and provoking losers to resent their superiors. Progressive liberalism (Mill), more accurately, sees that the working classes prefer stability to upheaval, and establishes a system to protect elite experiments in living and to nudge, cajole, and force the people to free themselves from the “despotism of Custom.” Like classical liberals, Marx thinks the people are harbingers of revolution, but, unlike classical liberals, he wants to screw them up to the sticking place. Liberalism promised to harmonize classes, but produces discord. It has no solution to class conflict because class conflict is baked into its faith in progress.

Genuine conservatism—as opposed to the “right liberalism” that wraps itself in the conservative banner—is cut from a different cloth entirely. Alone among modern political movements, conservatism renounces progress. There’s no vanguard class. Like Marx, conservatives side with the people, but, like progressive liberals, they see the people as basically conservative, and strive to protect settled customs, traditions, and ways of life. What’s needed to heal our divided society is a “common-good conservatism” that revives an Aristotelian “mixed constitution,” which will integrate the strengths of elites and workers to form an “aristopopulism.” Achieving integration requires a dose of Machiavelli, the “use of powerful political resistance by the populace against the natural advantages of the elite,” but these Machiavellian means must be deployed to achieve Aristotelian ends.

Then the critical twist. Deneen quotes 1 Corinthians 12, one of several Pauline passages on the body of Christ: “For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.” In Deneen’s view, Paul describes an integrated body, a mixed polity. Each individual and group uses their gifts not for individual benefit or the promotion of their class, but for the common good. 

Exactly so, but there are several things amiss. Deneen says Paul describes a society in which “natural” talents are devoted to the common good. For Paul, by contrast, the powers of the body’s members are gifts of the Spirit of Jesus. Then Deneen moves on immediately to cite John Winthrop’s justly celebrated “Model of Christian Charity” as an American expression of the Pauline vision. It’s a fair comparison, but it leaves out what’s crucial for the apostle: The integrated, aristopopulist community, the community in which every member contributes to the whole, is the church. In Paul’s view, the church is the communion where there’s no slave or free, and she integrates all sorts and conditions of men because she’s an utterly unique divine-human polity, the body of Jesus Christ and the community enlivened by the Spirit. Deneen doesn’t so much as mention the church in these pages.

The church is the missing key to achieving Deneen’s postliberal aims. As Timothy Carney has emphasized, America’s churches have been, and still are, a primary source of social capital for the poor and broken citizens of our nation. Imperfect as she is, the church is still the community where elites and workers are most likely to have a deep conversation and share a common table. We can be confident integration will work in the church because it’s not the product of policy or political will, but the fruit of the Spirit. In the United States, strong, harmonious communities take shape around strong, active churches. If Deneen wants regime change, he should be exhorting priests, preachers, and pastors more than pundits and politicos. If he wants class integration, shouldn’t he spare a thought for the Eucharist?

Several years ago, I asked whether Deneen remains among the liberals. At this point, I think the answer is no. Regime Change is superior to his 2018 book Why Liberalism Failed because Deneen gives more overt attention to the religious and theological dimensions of his postliberal vision. He recognizes, for instance, that liberalism is a nationalist replacement for the internationalism of Christendom. Yet Deneen writes as if we can get from a collapsing liberalism to a Christian nation without expecting anything much from the church. Even when he talks about Christian politics, it’s the politics of a Christian nation. Even when he calls for “a form of integration of local, national, and international” and quotes Pope Francis in support, he suggests this integration would be “new”—though he’s already a member of just such a polity, which recently entered her third millennium. 

Deneen hasn’t freed himself from the modern presumption that political politics—Machiavellian politics, if circumstances demand—is the only politics in town. It isn’t. There’s an ecclesial politics of love, which anticipates a future heavenly politics and is the only source for the integrated aristopopulist regime Deneen wants. Despite his criticisms of nationalism, he hankers for a nation that wants to be the church. He shouldn’t be satisfied with a simulacrum. Better to grab hold of the real thing.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.

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