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Integralism: The Shiny New Toy of the Right

A dangerous dissatisfaction with American life that borders on clinical paranoia and dictatorship.

People walk by a portrait of President Donald Trump that was completed by artist, Julian Raven at the Conservative Political Action Conference or CPAC at Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center on Friday March 01, 2019 in National Harbor, MD. (Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

People walk by a portrait of President Donald Trump that was completed by artist, Julian Raven at the Conservative Political Action Conference or CPAC at Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center on Friday March 01, 2019 in National Harbor, MD. (Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Next Big Thing in American right-wing circles is integralism, or, in the original French, intégrisme.

Founded in early 20th century France, integralism stresses a comprehensively integrated social and political order complete with religious and cultural conformity. Of course, somebody would have to do all that integrating, and that means a powerful state apparatus keeping everyone in line and inevitably deciding which religious views should be fostered and which are heretical. (If the Religious Right in America gets the whip hand in such a political system, as appears to be the plan, it is unlikely they would be quite so solicitous of Islam, idol worship, or voodoo).

The present uproar about integralism commenced in March 2019, when a group of religious and cultural conservatives published a manifesto in First Things, a polemical religious journal that apparently seeks ownership of words and phrases like Christendom, the West, tradition, “the public square” (which conservatives of faith feel invariably excluded from), and “the culture.”

The manifesto is a catalogue of all the ways American Christians are persecuted by liberalism, which it describes several times as tyranny. It checks off the usual religious-right complaints about the horrors of modernity, such as abortion, “pornography, ‘designer babies,’ wombs for rent, and the severing of the link between sex and gender.” It condemns a “soulless” and “borderless” world, as well as a “culture of death,” a term left undefined.

The declaration has to be read to be believed. It redefines oppression as being obliged to live in the same country with other people whose opinions and habits might differ from one’s own. Divergent views are no longer what is described in the old folk wisdom that it takes all kinds to make a world; no, they are mortal sins that by their very existence threaten to taint the righteous. Not for these signatories the biblical injunction that only the sinless should cast the first stone; they boldly steal what used to be the prerogative of God to judge.

The piece is shot through with leaden humorlessness, sanctimony, and a peevish dissatisfaction with modern American life that borders on clinical paranoia. Somewhat jarringly, the principal author of the manifesto, Sohrab Ahmari, who evidently aspires to be the next St. Augustine, works a day job writing editorials for the New York Post, the trashy tabloid owned by greedy buccaneer Rupert Murdoch, who has never hesitated to retail lascivious junk to the public. Does the pious Ahmari have qualms about the fact that his paycheck is signed by a moral monster whose flunkies hacked the phone of a murdered 13 year-old girl, or does having theological chops and the ability to quote-mine Matthew Arnold grant the power of absolution?

A few months later, no longer under constraint from needing others to agree with and sign his writing, Ahmari issued a broadside against David French of National Review, a publication that is the standard bearer of whatever remains of establishment conservatism.

In his piece, bearing the exquisitely subtle title of “Against David French-ism,” Ahmari confesses that his rationale for the original manifesto was opposition to the kind of conservatism expressed by Mr. French. The latter, while relentlessly criticizing liberals, nevertheless has expressed fealty to values like tolerance and pluralism: the notion that people with sharply diverging views on religion or politics can nevertheless coexist in the same community or workplace. While frequently engaging in the usual ritualistic cant that intolerance is a monopoly of liberals, French still affirms in principle the values of classical liberalism.

This horrifies Ahmari, who thinks French (himself a practicing Christian) is too kindly and too dim to grasp that politics, correctly viewed, is “war and enmity.” Christians are being viciously persecuted in a relentless culture war in which there can only be victory or defeat.

And this is what victory looks like: “’The only way is through’—that is to say, to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.” It’s unclear exactly what his pretentious capitalization denotes, but the meaning of the sentence is clear enough – Ahmari is advocating a sort of theocracy.

After running through the usual menu of religious-right sexual obsessions like “same-sex marriage, polyamory, kids in drag,” he closes with the following:

Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral. To recognize that enmity is real is its own kind of moral duty.

Ahmari really lets his freak flag fly: good Christians need no longer worry about civility and decency in dealing with someone holding other views, because such values are only valid when subordinated to the convenience of an enforced orthodoxy of believers. This is strikingly like the Leninist tenet of kto-kovo (“who-whom”), that matters are morally and legally right or wrong depending solely on who is doing what to whom. In other words, it only matters who wins.

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For decades, conservative scolds like William Bennett made accusations of liberals’ moral relativism into a cottage industry. But moral relativism is now a plank in the religious-right platform.

French quickly fired back at Ahmari’s diatribe. Adjusting for the usual right-wing biases, his rejoinder was an effective defense of classical liberalism and the value of pluralism. Then the dust-up went viral, with Ross Douthat, the New York Times’ Catholic theologian in residence, adjudicating.

Douthat, in conformance with the major media’s imperative to normalize Republican behavior, downplayed the troubling anti-democratic aspects of Ahmari’s tirade and cast it mostly as a struggle for ascendancy within the GOP rather than as an exclusionist vision for ruling the country. He did, however, allude to integralism, which is what Ahmari advocates, albeit without bothering to define it or mention its history.

The term “integralism” was first used at the beginning of the 20th century by French Catholics loyal to the then-pope, Pius X, who waged an unremitting struggle against accommodations to modernism in the church or the larger society. Integralism, which was Catholic, monarchist, and reactionary, became the ideology of those who had never accepted the legitimacy of the secular and democratic Third Republic.

While it attained a sizable following in France, with Charles Maurras’ integralist Action Française engaging in violent street demonstrations during the period between the world wars, it never attained power during the life of the republic. The movement had more traction in Portugal and Spain, then cultural backwaters that had scarcely seen liberalism and possessed tiny middle classes. Francisco Franco’s nearly 40-year dictatorship in Spain was based on a form of integralism, featuring enforced Catholicism, police-state control of the population, and hyper-nationalism. Salazar’s dictatorship in Portugal, the estado novo, was similar but somewhat milder in application.

Integralism only gained power in France with the collapse of the Third Republic in 1940 as a result of the German invasion and occupation. Although never a majority of the French people, the followers of integralism felt justified in their conception that they represented a truer and deeper France than the decadent republicans.

With grim irony, the integralists, who espoused Maurras’ commandment that "a true nationalist places his country above everything," practically licked the polish off the German conquerors’ jackboots, so eager were they to serve a hostile foreign power. Anti-Semitism was a pillar of Maurras’ integralism from the beginning, and unlike Denmark, which did everything possible to shield its Jewish population from deportation, the French Vichy regime went out of its way to ship the country’s Jews to Nazi death camps.

It is normally out of bounds to bring up ethnicity when criticizing a person’s ideas, but the American Right’s reanimation of integralism’s corpse makes it imperative. Does an immigrant from Iran named Sohrab Ahmari have any clue that he is playing with fire when he promotes a political scheme whose origin is nativist, hyper-nationalist, and exclusionary? He may have converted to Catholicism, but converted Jewish Christians did not fare very well in the New Order that integralism served. And right here in America, Sikhs have been murdered because they were mistaken for Muslims; Ahmari may be washed in the blood of the Lamb, but that might not avail him in a dispute when it’s in, say, rural Alabama.

Even stranger, then, is the impassioned defense of Ahmari in Tablet, a Jewish publication, by Liel Leibovitz. He holds that observant Jews might do better under the arrangement advocated by Ahmari than under a supposedly spurious pluralism that explicitly permits religious freedom, but favors no sect and keeps civil society strictly neutral.

His ideas clearly reflect the inexorable rightward lurch of Israel’s and America’s orthodox Jews, but he evidently thinks that the lethally violent tiki-torch march in Charlottesville and the synagogue murders in Pittsburgh and San Diego occurred on another planet. These events happened during the presidency of Donald Trump, who declared there were “fine people” among the Nazi rioters in Virginia.  Leibovitz chooses to defend Trump, who on the part of most integralists along with the rest of the Right has become the Marshall Pétain-like object of a cult of personality.

That said, even during the Trump presidency, our courts have been nominally independent and have disregarded his decrees in several rulings, and at least part of the government is under opposition control – which is exactly why integralists groan that they are being persecuted. It does not require much imagination to extrapolate Charlottesville if the Right had hegemonic dominance at the federal, state, and local level and began implementing the regime that the integralists want.

David Frum has written that one might consider the ideology of Vichy France “the deadest of intellectual dead ends, and so it should be, but so it is not.” The American Right has resuscitated the repugnant beliefs of Quislings who collaborated with one of the most horrific regimes in human history as a theological rationale for repealing the Enlightenment and imposing fascism.

And it seems like only yesterday in America when there was general agreement that Nazis and their collaborators were bad.

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