The Religious Warrant for My Paleoconservatism
Scattered reflections on political theology.
This Substack was originally meant to focus on a range of content, but not so much political theology. But since the Christian religion is so tied up into the way I see the unfolding of world history and the dynamics of social theory, I constantly get sucked back in. The great German political theorist Carl Schmitt, whose thought I, through the academic work of Paul Gottfied, have been so influenced by, was keen to note that only those who understand the religious backdrop of European history can truly understand modern political theory.
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I had originally planned an essay dealing with the history of political theology so as to prepare a dehomogenization effort between two schools of thought operating under the same label. I will still do this, but am going to take more time on it. Because I think it’s worth it. Nevertheless, this different post will accomplish similar objectives, even if the means are different.
In this present post, I’m instead going to produce a series of statements that describe how my understanding of certain themes from Christian political theology flow into my traditionalist, right-wing, Paleoconservatism. I want to differentiate myself from other schools of thinking such as the variations of “Transformationalism”on one hand, but also what I’ll call the “Neutralist” camps.
I consider my position to be that, more or less, of the Magisterial Reformers. It has taken me quite a while to get here. One of the major themes that I have picked up from the Magisterial position (and elsewhere) is that of particularity: the function of politics is not to craft an ideal situation, but to constantly be making judgements about what is possible, what needs to be defended with power, and what needs to be confronted with power. Circumstances and threats change. By the way, it is fascinating to me that, despite the heavy number of Roman Catholics in traditional conservative circles, Gottfried himself thinks that Calvin, Luther, and Hooker had more preferable political theologies, as they relate to his own understanding of political sovereigns.
The purpose of this piece isn’t to “prove” Paleoconservatism from my religious grounding so much as it is to explain the connection between what I believe about the basics of political theology, and the rhetoric and framing of my Paleoconservative political observations. In short, I don’t believe I could be a very good paleoconservative if my political theological foundations were Transformationalist on one hand, or Neutralist on the other.
What Is Paleoconservatism?
Paleoconservatism was and is a reaction to the political and ideological corruption of the Conservative Movement in America. Paleoconservatism therefore is particularistic (as opposed to universalistic), pro Heritage America (it recognizes that politics is chiefly about group interests), pro Anglo-traditionalism (while it benefits from the Western tradition broadly, it knows that America has British cultural origins), and pro-Christianity (it recognizes that the moral and metaphysical backbone of the West is a product of the spirit and labor of the Christian religion). If Christianity is its metaphysical lens, and it urges the solidarity of common peoples toward the preservation of their commonality, Paleoconservatism is consistent as a particular expression of the spirit of a “Christian nationalism” (so long as one doesn’t confuse nationalism with the American nation state in some sort of absolute sense).
The below statements will be brutally brief. Elaboration can come over time. What can also come over time are answers to all the obvious objections. This is just a reference-post.
Two Kingdoms Theology
My position is that of Classical Two Kingdoms (C2K). So that I don’t have to type it all out, here is a selection of Calvin, taken from Brad Littlejohn’s fantastic guide The Two Kingdoms.
I thus distinguish between Christ’s spiritual kingdom that is co-extensive with the elect (the justified) and the temporal, or creational kingdom, which includes the visible, institutional church as a mixed company of elect and unelect. In this model, both institutional/visible church, and the state, are part of the same kingdom, while the “mystical union with Christ” is sealed off into the spiritual kingdom.
The R2K position on the other hand is that the visible, institutional church is also part of the spiritual kingdom. The implication of my position is that the institutional church, being part of the temporal kingdom, therefore participates in the mosaic of political society. The other implication is that, as the visible church is part of the temporal society, so the state is, at the very minimum, not breaching some vital stricture in recognizing, defending, and upholding the duty of the institutional church to fulfill a sociological function unique to its own, Christian nature. The state has an interest in the well-being of the true religion, and the church as an interest in the favorability of the state.
Unlike the Transformationalists on the other hand, I do not apply gospel categories and the advancing of Christ’s spiritual kingdom to the domain of political involvement in an equivocal sense. The essence of the political state is not to bring mankind into subjection to Christ or bring about the realization of the new creation. Though promoting the true religion and protecting and advancing the interests of the Church is a legitimate function of state, since all kingdoms need some sort of religious hegemony to bind them.
My political interest is in shaping temporal political affairs in accordance with what is good for the well being of my natural family and nation (which includes, again, religious aspects), not building the kingdom of God.
The great commission therefore, is not a political assignment (though it can have political ramifications), but pertains to the conversion of souls.
Nature and Grace
This flows into the absolutely vital topic of the relation between Nature and Grace. Questions relating to the dynamic between Nature (creational institutions—family bonds, reason, sexuality, physical desire, civil law, etc) and Grace (salvation, the invisibility of the true Church, eternal rewards, redemption, etc) are ancient and complicated.
The concept that teaches that Grace restores Nature rather than defeats it, is a key element of my thinking. As Jan Veenhof stressed in his exposition of Bavinck, the age of Grace has its war on sin, not nature. Creation is still good.
Restricting the relevance of Nature-Grace specifically to political theology, I reject the modern evangelical view—so commonly assumed in the rhetoric of critics of right-wing politics—that Christ’s coming marked the end of Natural relations as an animating feature of political interests. I reject the methodology of political analysis that leverages features of the age of grace in a way that seeks to sabotage nature. What is precisely relevant here is that I do not think of the dispensation of Grace as rendering irrelevant or void natural affinities, obligations, or political societies. It is still the duty of families, and by extension tribes, and by extension kin groups, and by extension nations, to work in solidarity with each other, and for each other, and with priority toward each other.
Is there any argument more irrelevant to questions of political, civil society relating to cultural interests than the citation of Gal 3:28, which specifies its own parameters (in Christ)? By citing this theme, they make one of the most basic mistakes in the history of Christian political theology.
All those evangelicals therefore (and left-leaning theonomists) who denounce the advocacy of temporary kingdoms fighting for their own, against Others, operate on the reversal of my own understand of the nature-grace framework.
This also applies, in a different way, to transformationalists who see in the restoration of Nature the building of a New Creation. In my understanding, the restoration means the affirmation of temporal institutions (the creation order, being under a Covenant of Works, was always temporal and heaven-oriented) as a good and worthy object of our care, attention, and participation. And working for the well-being of these institutions is a good unto itself, even if the institutions are not eternal.
Biblicism vs. Historicism (or Particularism)
I do not understand the function of the Bible in the same way that the theonomists do as it relates to temporal society. I do not think all political action needs to be exegetically sourced or defended any more than all business action needs to be exegetically sourced or defended. Unlike the theonomists, I don’t demand of political theory and the exercise of statecraft that it be constantly derived from the Bible alone. I believe flexibility and the constant awareness of real world political threats are key components of political activity. This means that I do not operate on the method that seeks to introduce themes from Mosaic civil law into modern society except inasmuch as the situation may call for it; it is a legitimate and authority-bearing (because it is infallible) source of guidance, and it is part of our heritage.
This was John Calvin’s view:
There may be a country which, if murder were not visited with fearful punishments, would instantly become a prey to robbery and slaughter. There may be an age requiring that the severity of punishments should be increased. If the state is in troubled condition, those things from which disturbances usually arise must be corrected by new edicts. […] One nation might be more prone to a particular vice, were it not most severely repressed. How malignant were it, and invidious of the public good, to be offended at this diversity….
The allegation, that insult is offered to the law of God enacted by Moses, where it is abrogated, and other new laws are preferred to it, is most absurd. Others are not preferred when they are more approved, not absolutely, but from regard to time and place, and the condition of the people, or when those things are abrogated which were never enacted for us. The Lord did not deliver it by the hand of Moses to be promulgated in all countries, and to be everywhere enforced.
Rather, I believe in the mixture of Tradition that stems from Christendom’s overall experience, Custom that stems from unique national-cultural experience, Scripture that comes from the mind of God, and Reason which is the ability of human minds to make judgements about the applicability of the above, in light of constantly changing and ever-unique situations.
I believe that rights, duties, legal principles, and political protocols are historically developed, within the context of particular societies. I disagree equally with the claim that “rights are given by God” and “only God’s law should be applied.” Rather, such political artifacts come about through socio-political experience and historical dynamics.
Politics vs. Legalism
The fourth glaring distinction between myself and the theonomists is that, since I don’t believe in an absolute and universal civil law, I believe the essential and supreme nature of the political society lies in the “concept of the political,” rather than in the essence of the laws.
What I mean by this is that I don’t approach political dynamics as if it were a matter of discovering good laws and applying them perfectly. An example is in order here. David Gordon, in a 1990s review of Paul Gottfried’s study of Carl Schmitt, wrote the following of the great debate between Schmitt and Hans Kelsen:
Schmitt maintained that liberals overemphasized legality: their quest for a precisely organized system of legal rules was a futile effort to avoid political decision. Thus, Kelsen, the leading liberal jurist of the German-speaking world and Schmitt’s arch rival, argued that every legal system stems from a basic rule or Grundnorm. From the basic rule, the entire legal system can be logically deduced.
[For Schmitt], the key to sovereignty lies not in a system of principles, but rather in the power to make exceptions to customary legality in order to deal with emergencies.
This is precisely how theonomists and biblicists (CS Lewis, in commentary on Richard Hooker, called the anti-conformist Puritan theologians promoters of a “Bibliocracy”) approach political questions: the pure application of the Grundnorm (in their case, Mosaic Civil Law).
Gottfried points out that it is Schmitt’s view of the state and the political that is the traditional European view and the view held by Kelsen (and also, I should add, by modern theonomy) is modernist and anti-political.
Is it any wonder that the Magisterial Reformers from Luther and Calvin to Richard Hooker spoke about the monarch as the image-bearer of God as King? Here was the embodiment of the sovereign, a true political actor in the purest, traditional sense.
There’s not too much more to say in this category that can be said briefly, beyond what was implied above. I’m a very convinced Amillennialist and therefore believe that there is no political preparation for the millennium, the rule of Christ. Since the cross, he has been in a place of kingship. The millennium is all of church history, as the Pagan gods have been toppled over a thousand years. I believe this to be most common historical, catholic, and Reformed traditional teaching. I do not look forward to a future millennium that theonomists think is in store for a world that applies Biblical political ideals.
Now that some key tenants have been presented, we can offer a few particular examples of common claims and see how I react to them. There could be pages of these, so I’ll just choose a handful of types I’ve seen over the last month.
Common R2K sentiment: “This world is not our home, therefore political involvement is futile.” Actually this world is our home, it’s just not our ultimate home. But since grace restores nature, we have a renewed obligation to take care of our temporary home and pass it on to our children. We must not reject the principles of stewardship.
Common Theonomy sentiment: “There is no neutrality; it’s God’s law or anarchy.” Indeed, there is no neutrality, but this is a false dilemma, because God has given men the ability to craft laws necessary for the preservation and well-being of particular societies, in light of specific situations, threats, and needs.
Common R2K sentiment: “You cannot use the state to force conversions.” No one in the Reformed tradition would ever claim this and anyone who objects in this way is not a serious correspondent.
Common Theonomy sentiment: “No king but Christ. Christ rules the nations.” Christ rules the nations through the mediation of magistrates, kings, governors, emperors, etc. Sometimes these rulers are very bad men, sometimes they are good men. Claiming that there is no king but Christ is subversive and anarchical.
Common R2K sentiment: “The historical record of Christendom shows that very bad things happened under its watch.” Wait until you hear about post-Christendom. Very bad things happening is the essence of the human drama. The abuse of something does not render the thing inherently abusive and the abolition of that thing has led to even worse things.
Common Theonomy sentiment: “We are going to bring the laws of [our nation] into conformity with the Biblical model of political and civil order.” This isn’t politically realist, nor is it imperative on us as Christians to operate on this way. It is imperative though, to use the tools available to us to work for the well-being of those around us and to honor our own, Natural, ancestors.
All of this is basically consistent with Stephen Wolfe’s book. I do think he is going to have to reiterate the extent of his non-theonomic views (even though he’s written on it before, and it should be implied), as they have adopted his label.
Given that politics is particular and does not exist in the pursuit of some ideal social order, but operates on the basis of the constant Friend-Enemy distinction, my politics is realist. And because I have a specific way of life and people and heritage that I want to defend, rather than recreate the political order along universal standards, I am indeed very traditionalist-conservative. This particularity, along with the need for flexible political strategies (sometimes, the situation may call for vicious acts of authoritarianism in states of emergency), puts me on the reactionary right.
All the distinctions expressed above flow into this political outlook.
(such as Kuyperianism and Theonomy and whatever Doug Wilson may call himself)
(such as R2K and the Regimevangelicals)
In the future, I’d like to explore why Wilson, a transformationalist, and DG Hart, a firmly R2K guy, both are friendly to Paleocon outlets like Chronicles Magazine; I think it has to do with the historical uniqueness of America’s regionalist and localist and decentralized past. Anyway, I just added this footnote to make your mouth water.
Very well done. I’m spreading around my circles. This is what we need