This article was reported in partnership with Type Investigations.
On a Monday night in early November, in a basement ballroom at the Hilton Orlando, four conservative intellectuals—a nationalist, a neocon, a “political Catholic,” and a “why I left the left” guy—sat on stage, drinks in hand, to hash out the future of conservatism. As a drone buzzed noisily overhead, gathering footage for one panelist’s YouTube show, the loudspeakers played an unsubtle soundtrack: the Sister Sledge anthem “We Are Family.” It was the second night of the National Conservatism conference, a highbrow gathering of right-wing academics, writers, and think-tankers who, for the last several years, have argued that the old Reaganite coalition uniting religious conservatives, anti-Communists, and free-market libertarians is over, and some new shared vision must take its place.
Considered together, the conference’s speaker lineup didn’t seem like a united bloc, nor their ideas particularly novel. There were lamentations about pronouns, “soy boys” in need of compulsory wrestling classes, and university “citadels of gynecocracy”; proposals to criminalize contraception and perhaps revive McCarthyism; declarations that “wokeism” and critical race theory were bigger threats “than the defeated ideology of white supremacy”; multiple announcements of speakers’ plans to relocate to “the free state of Florida”; and a fair amount of “Let’s go, Brandon.” Several big names in attendance were vying for Donald Trump’s mantle as leader of Republicans’ populist right wing, including Senators Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Josh Hawley, as well as their would-be colleague, the Ohioan writer J.D. Vance, who invoked Richard Nixon to proclaim, “The professors are the enemy.” And an international contingent, dominated by Hungarians, arrived in hopes of crafting an “international nationalist alliance.”
Although some of the conference’s biggest headlines concerned Hawley’s opening-night pronouncement that the left’s war on men had created a generation addicted to porn, the heart of its agenda came in the informal discussion that Monday evening, between Israeli political theorist Yoram Hazony, British author Douglas Murray, American Conservative contributing editor Sohrab Ahmari, and political talk show host Dave Rubin. As chair of the Edmund Burke Foundation, which hosted the conference, Hazony was running the show. His declared purpose was to forge a new alliance among the right’s messy factions, to see whether it was possible to—as one audience member unnervingly put it—“unite the right.”
At the conference and beyond, the question inspired a sense of urgency. Despite all the punditry about the Dems’ disarray, a feeling lingered that it was conservatives who were weak, beleaguered—that, having long lost the culture, they were now dispossessed of government power, too. Or, as American Enterprise Institute fellow Lyman Stone recently tweeted, there’s no “obvious path forward for conservatives in a world where we don’t have any natural coalition with a clear path to national majority.”
But Hazony had a proposal for where to begin: with an avowal that America is a Christian nation with a Christian majority, where Christians should get to dictate the country’s laws and social norms. There could be “carve-outs” for minorities, he said, but no pretense of a neutral public square in which pluralistic concerns trump the majority’s right to see its culture reflected around it. Could the panel agree on that: not to actively persecute minorities but to let the majority control the public square? Ahmari suggested the model of Hungary—which banned same-sex marriage and adoption, legal recognition for transgender people, and, recently, sharing LGBTQ content with minors, but where homosexuality itself isn’t outlawed. “The minority in this case is well treated,” he insisted, “and not excluded and not oppressed in any way.”
“There’s a bit of an elephant in the room right now,” Rubin said. “Two of the panelists here are gay.” If Hazony’s proposed public norms were “purely biblical,” Rubin later continued, “I’d be a little worried.”
“Of course you worry,” Hazony replied. “Because what I’m asking you to do is to be willing to consider something other than the maximal dream scenario, in order to give the Christian majority the possibility of running a Christian society in Christian areas.” He narrowed his pitch: Allowing religious instruction in public schools should be a foundational litmus test for conservatives’ entry into the new alliance.
Classroom Bible instruction seemed oddly specific, not to mention small-scale, as a unifying theme for the new New Right. But as the coming weeks would prove, the focus on concrete examples of public religion was prescient, and helped chart a pragmatic course for some of the right’s most controversial plans. The panelists considered the proposal briefly, then agreed, clinking glasses.
The first NatCon conference, held in 2019, was inspired in part by Hazony’s book, The Virtue of Nationalism, which became part of a small library of scholarly right-wing works published in the last three years—including Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed and R.R. Reno’s Return of the Strong Gods—that take aim at what their authors saw as the root of America’s problems. Classical liberalism’s focus on individual rights, this new school of “postliberals” argued, demolished traditional values, built a multiculturalism in which traditionalists could live as they chose but had no social support to do so, and established a “woke” cultural hegemony as coercive as any state.
Many of these ills they traced back to post–World War II leaders’ mission to prevent a return of the horrors of the 1940s by assembling an international consensus on human rights and pluralism. That new world order, Reno argued, replaced the “strong gods” of king-and-country traditionalism, which helped birth fascism, with the “weak gods” of endless, oppressive openness.
The postwar United States, Hazony agreed, rightly tackled Jim Crow segregation but then went too far, saying “everyone should be equal to everybody: Blacks should be equal to whites, men should be equal to women, foreigners should be equal to American citizens … married people to unmarried people, heterosexual people to people who are homosexual, it goes on and on.” The consequent notion that government should be culturally neutral led to the misbegotten “invention” of church-state separation. A mere two generations after the Supreme Court banned classroom religious instruction, “vacuous, empty liberalism” had collapsed into a status quo where, as he remarked at a later conference, “people can’t tell the difference between a man and a woman.” That state of affairs didn’t just rankle those who disapproved of it but constituted an attack on their own right to live in a culture that supports their way of life.
As Deneen—Hazony’s former classmate at Rutgers University and now a political science professor at Notre Dame—wrote recently, “Liberalism’s internal logic leads inevitably to the evisceration of all institutions that were originally responsible for fostering human virtue: family, ennobling friendship, community, university, polity, church.” That conservatives were free to choose these virtues in their private lives wasn’t enough, as the ravages of modernization and economic globalization proved. Employers were now free to take advantage of their workers seven days a week, after the abolishment of “blue laws”; jobs had been shipped overseas thanks to limitless free trade; and the left’s “cultural deregulation” meant people were marrying less, abandoning religion, and having fewer children.
The postliberal project seeks to rebut all of this. Partly, it’s a quest to rehabilitate nationalism from its WWII associations: As Hazony’s Burke Foundation colleague Anna Wellisz told me, true nationalism doesn’t belong to Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia—more rightly seen as imperialist—but to countries like Wellisz’s native Poland, which resisted them. In this view, nationalism isn’t about exclusion so much as “being free to love what is yours.” By contrast, many of those gathered at NatCon see today’s imperialists as liberals—small-l and big-L alike—who deploy corporate power and international compacts to promote a global cultural and legal order that punishes those who don’t toe the line. Conservative postliberals also charge that the concept of public neutrality doesn’t lead to fairness but rather to oppression of the majority, and an inevitable slide into “Marxist cultural revolution.” It follows that if governments are never actually neutral but always either advancing or undermining the public good, the law should use its coercive power to instill virtue. That’s the gist of “integralism,” a conservative Catholic legal movement advanced by many prominent postliberals, which opposes church-state separation and the prioritization of individual rights in favor of a system ordered to uphold “the common good.”
In a 2020 Atlantic piece outlining the integralist vision, Adrian Vermeule, a Harvard Law professor and former Supreme Court clerk, explained, “Unlike legal liberalism, common-good constitutionalism does not suffer from a horror of political domination and hierarchy, because it sees that law is parental, a wise teacher and an inculcator of good habits.” Vermeule declined to offer “a bill of particulars” of what it means in practical terms to exercise authority “against the subjects’ own perceptions of what is best for them,” but allowed that under his order, laws around “free speech, abortion, sexual liberties, and related matters” would change, starting with the “abominable” claim in Scotus’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey opinion that individuals are entitled to define their own concept of the meaning of life. (Less pleasing to traditional conservatives, Vermeule added that there would exist “no constitutional right to refuse vaccination” and said, “Libertarian conceptions of property rights and economic rights will also have to go”—a position echoed in Ahmari’s recent support for striking Kellogg’s workers and in the presence of a labor leader at NatCon.)
The hashing out of this philosophy might have remained a niche academic exercise were it not for a pair of articles Ahmari published in First Things in 2019. One was a group manifesto, “Against the Dead Consensus,” declaring the obsolescence of “consensus conservatism” as it’s existed for 60 years. The other was a blistering tweetstorm turned essay, “Against David Frenchism,” which invoked never-Trump conservative lawyer and commentator David French to mock the idea that conservatives can win the culture wars playing by liberalism’s rules. Instead, Ahmari insisted, they must fight “with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square reordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”
It was an electric mandate, still quoted two years later at NatCon. The postliberal movement that followed has converts so ardent they’ve created their own fan art: a modified Magnificent Seven movie poster that made the rounds on Twitter this November, depicting the “Postliberal Seven”—including Ahmari, Vermeule, and Deneen—in Wild West getup. The tagline: “Sometimes the Common Good Needs Uncommon Men.”
This fall, integralism received renewed attention thanks to the increasingly public alliance between the U.S. right and the ruling classes of Hungary and Poland, which in recent years have assumed the aura of conservative utopias due to their governments’ fusing of traditionalist ideology with populist nationalism. In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice Party equates conservative Catholicism with patriotism, to the extent that two Catholic relics have recently been enshrined within the Polish parliament and Law and Justice campaign posters are displayed on church grounds.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government has transformed the country into a pointedly “illiberal” Christian democracy. It has funded an extensive suite of pronatalist policies (including a lifetime income tax exemption for women who bear four or more children) as a bulwark against Muslim immigrants—who, Orbán says, can’t be assimilated because “multiculturalism is just an illusion”—and passed a constitutional amendment that all children should be raised “in accordance with values based on Hungary’s constitutional identity and Christian culture.”
Both countries, and especially Hungary, have gone to some lengths to cultivate American conservatives’ support. The Budapest-based private college Mathias Corvinus Collegium has spent the last two years hosting American thinkers alienated by liberal mores at home. In October, a new Polish counterpart, the Collegium Intermarium, invited several U.S. “political Catholics”—including Vermeule, Ahmari, and Journal of American Greatness co-founder (and current Mathias Corvinus Collegium visiting fellow) Gladden Pappin—for a conference on “cancel culture.” In June 2021, when all three men spoke at a youth integralist conference outside Washington, Hungary sent two ambassadors to join them (one a Habsburg descended from Franz Joseph I, a revered figure among today’s monarchist right). Eastern European cities are now key book-tour stops for postliberal writers, and Orbán himself encouraged conservative American writers like Rod Dreher to consider Hungary their “intellectual home.”
The courtship has paid dividends. Dreher’s association with MCC and his residence at another conservative Budapest think tank resulted in a stream of dispatches last spring and summer articulating an increasingly vigorous defense of Hungary’s most authoritarian measures. Orbán’s “illiberal right-wing initiatives,” like banning university gender studies curricula, Dreher concluded, were the regrettable necessity of resisting “left-wing illiberalism.” In July, J.D. Vance heaped so much praise on Orbán’s pronatalism that he ended up calling for a two-tiered voting system that would entitle U.S. parents to more votes than “the childless left.” In August, Tucker Carlson capped a week of reporting from Budapest by broadcasting a prime-time interview with Orbán into millions of Fox viewers’ homes. And just this week, Trump announced that Orbán has his “Complete support and Endorsement for reelection as Prime Minister.”
Coverage of this budding right-wing International also highlighted the integralist leaders at its vanguard. By late November, around the time a new movement Substack, The Postliberal Order, was launched, integralism even ranked a brief mention on the TV show Succession. But the sudden prominence also elevated critiques long made in Catholic and academic circles. “The most fundamental weakness of Catholic postliberalism is that, despite the prefix, most of its proponents are reactionaries at heart,” argued Matt McManus, the progressive author of the 2019 book The Rise of Postmodern Conservatism, which describes the right’s descent into an identity politics of its own (namely, the call to “reassert the authority of certain identity groups that once upon a time were in charge”). “Far from just conserving the achievements of liberalism and going beyond them,” he wrote in The Bias Magazine, “they want to turn back the clock to a preliberal era where Aristotelian-Thomism sorted individuals according to divine hierarchies and the state took punitive measures against sexual deviants, intellectual dissidents, and heretics without hesitation.”
Timothy Troutner, a doctoral candidate at Notre Dame who writes for the liberal Catholic outlet Commonweal, first encountered integralism years before it was adopted by its current popularizers, in online circles peopled by Catholics who spanned the ideological spectrum but commonly wanted their faith reflected in their political commitments. When that group ultimately splintered into “Left Caths” and integralists, Troutner watched as the latter camp took a turn toward the ugly: arguing for “some of the more cruel things we associate with the Middle Ages” and a Catholic right version of power politics, fixated on triumph and “defeating enemies.”
Among conservatives, integralism found abundant critics, as well. Michael Hanby, a professor at the Catholic University of America, argued that it could never be actualized in the U.S. “without America’s effectively ceasing to be.” James Patterson, a professor at Ave Maria University, wrote more bluntly that the original integralism of the interwar twentieth century was intimately linked with fascism, and its contemporary adherents—like online forum commenters cheering that “the true Communion of Saints” wore “jack boots,” “burned heretics,” and “seized Jewish kids” for forcible conversion—seemed too ready to follow suit. In the end, he wrote, integralism “is an internet aesthetic of mostly young men alienated from the public life and consumed with the libido dominandi”—that is, the will to power. More mainstream conservative voices, like Bret Stephens, simply called it theocracy.
Although Dreher’s 2017 book The Benedict Option is considered a forerunner of today’s postliberalism (in it, he argues that “Enlightenment liberalism contained the seeds of Christianity’s undoing”), this fall he began echoing these earlier critiques. Vague definitions of integralism might sound OK, he wrote recently at The American Conservative, but “it’s when you start asking what that means in real life that it turns freaky.” Drawing extensively on an obscure 2020 integralist book written by a monk and a theologian, Dreher demanded to know whether the movement’s most vocal advocates similarly sought a country in which only baptized Catholics could hold political power; non-Catholic children might be removed from their families; and barring limited exceptions—call it a “carve-out”—for Jews, no religious minorities would be guaranteed freedom to worship. Not only did integralists laughably overestimate how few Catholics, even, would ever agree to such a program—their number, Dreher imagined, might fit in Vermeule’s Cambridge backyard—but “if most people knew what they really believed, they would run screaming the other way.”
The critiques prompted their own backlash: from Deneen, that Dreher might be the new face of David Frenchism; from Ahmari, that Dreher’s postliberalism mostly amounted to “being fond of traveling to Hungary.” Marco Rubio’s chief of staff, Michael Needham, argued that “outside intellectuals” like the integralists had already achieved something by “moving the Overton window.” And Vermeule wrote that Dreher lacked the political imagination to see what a small core of committed believers could do. Quoting reactionary French intellectual Joseph de Maistre, he quipped, “Four or five men can give France a king.”
And here they had the Postliberal Seven.
If most of these interfactional beefs seem, to liberal ears, like distinctions without a difference, they mostly are. After all, Dreher, Deneen, and Ahmari all signed the 2019 “dead consensus” manifesto in First Things. When Dreher urged his fellow postliberals to set aside the integralist “thought experiment” for Hungary’s more realistic model, he was speaking of a regime where most had already paid court. And despite the rancor of November’s infighting, a version of Orbán’s Hungary is what began to emerge, at the conference and afterward, as a shared destination.
As Hazony told me, many of the ideas being discussed at NatCon were young, and the people advancing them “in motion.” But in the weeks after the conference, he’d observed two important integralist shifts: a more full-throated embrace of nationalism and a simultaneous broadening of goals from a regime ordered to “the Highest Good” to a softer call for “ecumenical integralism,” as Catholic University of America professor Chad Pecknold put it on Twitter.
The primary example of this shift was a November article in The American Conservative, co-written by Pecknold, Ahmari, and Pappin. The piece, “In Defense of Cultural Christianity,” began with four scenarios: a cohabitating Matteo Salvini, the former deputy prime minister of Italy, waving rosary beads at a political rally; a divorced Marian Maréchal Le Pen, the former French politician, declaring Christianity the bedrock of French identity; a biblically illiterate Donald Trump brandishing a Bible during a photo op condemning anti-racism protests; and Orbán using public money to restore churches in an overwhelmingly secular country. The punch line was that none of these seeming examples of hypocrisy was problematic but, rather, they were commendable instances of a culturally Christian order that “didn’t guarantee the salvation of every soul, but … laid down structures that made such a thing easier.” The four leaders might be bad Christians, but their embrace of Christian symbolism—“the fumes of religiosity,” as another NatCon speaker put it—could go further toward establishing the culture integralists want than purity alone. After all, if “woke ideology” had been able to conquer the public square despite the fact that “its true-believing adherents form a minuscule share of the population,” cultural Christianity might be able to do the same, and thus “save the countries that embrace it.”
To Hazony, the argument demonstrated an exciting graduation to pragmatism, similar to his own conference proposal—which he, too, repeated at Hungary’s Mathias Corvinus Collegium this fall. The American Conservative article called not for the total conversion of the public but rather a brokered agreement that Christianity should dominate the public square, even in places where the population is far from devout. It also renewed the vows between nationalism and traditional religion, since all four examples of “cultural Christians” the authors chose were clear nationalists, as well. Here were the building blocks of a new conservative fusionism.
“In historical terms, this is the way the conservative movement has operated since the 1940s and ’50s,” said Jerome Copulsky, a research fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. “You had these different wings of the conservative movement, like the Catholic traditionalists, the Southern agrarians, the libertarians, the Cold Warriors, but you’re facing this liberal beast. So you find the Venn diagram where you all have a shared space and go forward on that.” Many of today’s right-wing marriages of convenience negotiate similar truces between its jockeying factions: from minor discrepancies, like the fact that Deneen and Ahmari don’t call themselves integralists, to larger questions about how to square Catholicism’s claims of universality with nationalism.
While “no serious Catholic can take an uncomplicatedly nationalist stance,” Ahmari told me, he supported the “new nationalism” in a “narrow, tactical” way. Nationalism was good “insofar as it stands against the utopian ideal of a borderless world that, in practice, leads to universal tyranny,” atomizing people into “self-maximizing consumer–gig workers” and threatening traditional belief. Nationalism could check those abuses, and cultural Christianity could help. “The whole point is that cultural Christianity is this vestigial structure that can’t be stamped out,” he explained. As liberalism falters, that structure could “help reconnect Western nations to their deepest roots and prompt moral renewal, even and especially among populations that aren’t possessed of a profound and spiritual faith.”
Lacking faith is a fair description of the U.S. these days, when, for the first time in Gallup’s polling history, less than half the country belongs to a house of worship. It also applies in Poland, where young people are leaving Catholicism in droves (many citing its politicization), and in Hungary, where just 12 to 15 percent of the population regularly attend church.
And in this, Central Europe presents not just a model for cultural Christianity but a warning about where it can lead. In Hungary, the reality of an overwhelmingly secular population in a supposedly Christian nation has led Orbán’s supporters to argue, as one Hungarian bishop did, that “in Europe, even an atheist is a Christian.” Which seems a roundabout way of admitting that the “Christianity” Orbán is most committed to preserving is defined in nationalistic, not religious terms. In short, that it’s white.
That critique has even been made within national conservatism’s ranks. In 2020, Mary Harrington, a U.K. writer who spoke at NatCon, disparaged “cultural Christianity” as little more than the “hollow identity politics” McManus diagnosed as postmodern conservatism. “This in turn is why Orbánist ‘Christian democracy’ and many of its populist cousins find their most compelling realisation not in religious doctrine or observance, but in defining themselves against their outgroup,” Harrington wrote. “If ‘even an atheist is a Christian’ … the only way of defining what a Christian is, is in terms of what it is not: foreigners.”
While Troutner, the liberal Commonweal writer, doubted “cultural Christianity” was intended as racial code, that was often its consequence. “Part of the power of populist rhetoric is always, ‘They are taking away the culture you used to have,’” he said. And any movement that appeals to people’s resentments of how their society is changing inevitably includes layers of racism, xenophobia, and anti-immigration sentiment. “If you want that rhetoric to be powerful, you will tap into it.”
In the days and weeks following the NatCon conference, a number of calls for public Christianity less agile than the American Conservative article seemed to demonstrate that tendency. Former Newsmax commentator Emerald Robinson tweeted that she didn’t want to live in a multicultural country but a “Christian country.” Far-right provocateur Jacob Wohl posted on Gab that all American Jews should be required to put up Christmas lights, because America is a Christian country. (“It’s called assimilation.”) And at a megachurch conference in Texas that drew a number of QAnon adherents, disgraced General Michael Flynn declared, “If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion.”
When I asked Hazony about some of these examples—what was to keep his majoritarian culture from being expressed like this?—he answered that, to some degree, it was inevitable that minorities would retain an outsider status: “That simply is reality.” Such groups “should be grateful for the fact that you’re not persecuted as minorities often have been in history,” he said. “I think that there needs to be some kind of an understanding that the majority is not going to be treated equally with every minority.” And if anyone “feels that by emphasizing the gratitude minorities should have toward the majority, that that’s undignified, or un-American, or unfair, I would just say they’re not being realistic about politics and human societies.”
More pointedly, he added, “All these efforts to overthrow traditional Anglo-American law, religion, and language … are forcing a choice between individualism, which the right is leaving, and racialist white supremacy, which is definitely getting stronger on the fringes of the right in America. A lot of people … consciously see the revival of national conservatism as an alternative, trying to head off the grotesque political impulses that we see on the far right.”
It wasn’t the first time such an ultimatum was issued. As Reno argued in his book, “the Strong gods” of national and cultural loyalties “will return in one form or another.” And if they aren’t welcomed back in the form of “the best of our traditions,” they will arrive as “the darker gods whose return our open society was intended to forestall.” That line was echoed at NatCon, as Brown University professor Glenn Loury warned, “The folks who think they can insist on spelling Black with a capital B while keeping white in lowercase” or who politicize police killings as “racial deaths” are “playing with fire” and tempting white backlash. Ahmari put it to me more succinctly: “If we don’t propose a reasonable idea of the nation,” tempering “liberal imperium and barbarous nation-idolatry and race-chauvinism” with Christianity, “we will get an unreasonable one.”
But at times that seemed like a distinction without a difference, too. Throughout last spring, Rod Dreher’s writing from Hungary showed a growing appreciation for Orbán’s methods of protecting Christian culture. In a piece titled simply, “Viktor Orban Was Right,” he warned that coming elections would pose a terrible choice between countries maintaining their commitment to pluralist democracy and their ethnic heritage; that France—where, as he proclaimed at NatCon, “the fear of civil war with the Islamic minority in the suburbs is on everyone’s lips”—must soon decide “either to cease to be a liberal democracy, or cease to be French.” This December, he went a step further, when far-right French journalist Eric Zemmour, twice convicted of inciting racial hatred, announced a run for president in a video featuring Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 with footage of street violence, veiled women, and Muslim men at prayer. Zemmour—a Jew of Algerian-French descent who went on trial last January for “contesting crimes against humanity” (in essence, Holocaust revisionism) and again this November for inciting racial hatred—invoked “Great Replacement” theory as he vowed to take France “back from minorities that oppress the majority.” On Twitter, Ahmari beseeched, “Who can articulate Zemmour’s message in an American vernacular, for Americans?” The following day, Dreher rewrote Zemmour’s speech with American themes and resentments.
Meanwhile, in Poland, last year’s Independence Day celebration managed to top previous years’ reports of fascist sloganeering when a crowd burned in effigy a thirteenth-century document giving Jews legal permission to live in the country, while shouting “No to Polin”—the Hebrew name for Poland—and “Death to Jews.”
That week, I spoke with NatCon organizer Anna Wellisz. She hadn’t yet heard of the incident but insisted she could “never believe that it was real.” It struck her as “too clever by half,” a Russian provocation timed to smear Poland while it faced a manufactured refugee crisis on its border with Belarus. But more importantly, it didn’t “sound like the country” where she grew up—where Poles had risked their lives to save Jews, where her father and his parents were arrested for resisting the Communists and the Nazis, and where she believed nationalism didn’t mean racial purity but a compact of loyalty anyone could join.
Several days later, Wellisz emailed to say she’d since learned, to her dismay, that the incident had in fact happened. But she still struggled to make sense of it. It wasn’t the nation she knew.