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Making America Great and the “Priority of the Spiritual” (Barrett Turner)

One argument in Donald Trump’s favor entertained by those concerned about religious liberty holds that Trump would be better for religious liberty than Hillary Clinton. The argument proceeds that Trump would be more likely, even if through insouciance rather than real commitment, to appoint judges, support legislation, and dictate regulations more open to religious freedom in its integral meaning. Instead of refusing both Clinton and Trump, each an odious candidate for president, believers should embrace the lesser of two evils, for in the lesser evil lies the greater hope for religious liberty. A vote for Trump is a vote for libertas Ecclesiae.

This argument for Trump recalls an earlier episode in Catholicism and political theology, the condemnation of L’Action française (AF) by Pope Pius XI in 1927. AF was an anti-liberal political movement in early twentieth-century France. It was a monarchist and nationalist movement centering on the French literary figure Charles Maurras, who held that in order for France to become great again, she must exhibit a national, religious, and political unity that could only be achieved by sloughing off liberal republicanism and embracing “integral nationalism.”

Maurras himself had lost his Catholic faith and was an agnostic, but his “throne and altar” politics appealed to many Catholic clergy and laity. Maurras saw the Catholic Church as a French institution capable of uniting Frenchmen politically. The Church was basically an instrument for implementing Maurras’s cry of “la politique d’abord,” or “politics first!” (Compare this with Trump’s recent appeal to evangelical Christians.) Maurras was also politically anti-Semitic, for Judaism was not French and not a religion capable of uniting the French. Maurras later obtained the sixteenth seat in L’Academie française, the same seat occupied by Cardinal Dupanloup in the nineteenth century. He supported the Vichy regime and spent five years in prison after World War II for doing so. He died with little support, even though he had influenced an entire generation of French politicians and intellectuals, Charles de Gaulle among them.

In spite of Maurras’s anti-Semitism and because his movement promised restitution and renewed privilege for a beleaguered Church, many Catholics supported AF. The waves of the French Revolution had continued to break over the Church in France, with the most recent assault at the time being the 1905 Law of Separation, which finally separated the Church from the Republic, except that all Church property was placed under state ownership and under the management of government-supervised lay committees. To many French Catholics, the Law of Separation showed the futility of Leo XIII’s ralliement policy of trying to find a modus vivendi for French Catholics in the Third Republic’s secular democracy. Hence the swing to anti-liberal, monarchist, restorationist movements like AF, movements generally labeled “integralist.”

One of the Catholics supporting AF was Jacques Maritain, who had affiliated himself with AF on the advice of his spiritual director, Fr. Clérissac. Maritain hoped that he could temper the components of integral nationalism incompatible with Catholicism through his association with Maurras in their joint publication Revue Universelle, for which Maritain wrote for seven years.

The Vatican had contemplated a condemnation of AF for some time, and the Holy Office’s desire to place Maurras’s writings on the Index was checked only by the outbreak of World War I. But late in 1926 after hearing of more French Catholic youth joining AF, Pius XI prohibited Catholic membership in AF’s “school” and Catholic support for AF’s publications. In early 1927, the official condemnation and excommunications began, shocking many French Catholics. Two French bishops lost their sees for failing to comply with the condemnation, and the great ecclesiologist Billot lost his cardinal’s hat. Papal ralliement was here to stay, and any party spirit suffused with pagan attitudes was deemed incompatible with Catholic political involvement. The condemnations were a watershed moment for Maritain, who quickly began to reevaluate his political and social commitments in light of his ultimate commitment to the Catholic faith. His apology for the condemnation of AF, Primauté du spirituel (1927), set the trajectory for his most famous political works, Humanisme intégral (1936) and Man and the State (1951). These works later influenced the Fathers of Vatican II, including Pope Paul VI.

The Vatican wanted Catholics to refuse an attractive but ultimately self-defeating choice in supporting AF, and today American Catholics face a similar sort of choice. Now Trump is dissimilar to Maurras in many ways. The latter was revered for his intellectual and literary ability and had coherent and firm philosophico-political commitments, while Trump has demonstrated a shocking ignorance of Christianity and malleable, opportunistic political positions. Although both in a sense promoted the “liberty of the Church,” Maurras did so through throne and altar restorationism while Trump does so through an appeal to religious liberty.

But the argument for supporting Trump has the same form as the argument to the French Catholics for supporting AF: support the movement, even if grudgingly, and the nation and Church will likely flourish; fail to support the movement, and the Church’s subjugation to progressivists will certainly follow. Never mind that the principles operative in this movement are ultimately incompatible with Catholic theology and social thought, and the movement seeks the subordination of the Church to political expediencies, for the religious and political exigencies of the moment are too important. Catholic association with the movement can be beneficial, by “managing” the figurehead in a more acceptable direction.

The lesson from the AF crisis bears mentioning today. The Church, both her teaching office and her living members, constantly must discern whether new means for political action are compatible with a genuine concern for the common good and the integrity of Catholics involved in politics. In some cases, as with AF, the means are immoral and even a begrudging allegiance is unacceptable. Today some Catholic politicians and voters are tempted to support an awful candidate who nonetheless appears a better deal for religious liberty and specifically for the liberty of the Church, her institutions and associations, and the lives of individual believers. The argument goes that although Trump is a narcissistic, erratic authoritarian, there is more of a chance of political success with him than with Hillary Clinton on the issue; that if religious believers get Trump elected, he will reward them with judges and legal protection.

Let Catholics and all believers put not politics first, but the spiritual, and reject the argument. This is not an argument in support of Clinton, a candidate who should be rejected on the grounds of her atrocious character and her positions on abortion, war, and religious liberty. What we need is to prepare for a new way in spite of the dangers of this election year, in the knowledge that the spiritual is primary, and that politics is not first.

Barrett Turner is assistant professor of theology at Mount St. Mary’s University, in Emmitsburg, MD. He recently completed his doctorate in moral theology and ethics at the Catholic University of America, writing on the development of the Church’s social doctrine on religious liberty.

One thought on “Making America Great and the “Priority of the Spiritual” (Barrett Turner)

  1. Thanks for the piece, Barrett. I was instructed on the AF history and the link to Maritain and his turning point. I hope you’ll write more for PTT about the political theology of that moment and this — both for Catholics and people of good will more generally. Am I right in reading the piece as a condemnation of Trump — as in good Catholics shouldn’t vote for him? If so, my sense is that you weaken your argument by your comments on Clinton, which I read as dismissive. Here you seem to join others (across the spectrum) who judge Clinton mainly by her mistakes, though I take it you may take issue with the ACA. Thanks again for the post.

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