Retreat and Engage: Towards a Conservatism for the Common Good


March 30, 2020

Christians are in uncharted political territory. Once a formidable force in our politics, the Religious Right is now effectively irrelevant, undermined as much by its own hypocrisy and short-sightedness as by growing secularism.

Until recently, most conservative Christians have subscribed to a philosophy known as fusionism: a combination of free-market economics, social traditionalism, and foreign-policy interventionism. Yet the fusionist elites in politics and media have consistently proven themselves to be far more concerned with delivering on its libertarian economics at home and hawkishness abroad. They are far less with those pesky “traditional values,” which have received lip service and garnered erratic Court picks over the decades. And that’s to say nothing of the consistency (or lack thereof) between Catholic social teaching and the other two legs of that “conservative” three-legged stool.

The faithful need a better path forward. It’s no wonder that the most interesting thinking is now focused on reimagining the political theology of our public square. Those clinging to the politics of the Reagan Era are hastening their own defeat.

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And, yet, the path forward appears contested. On the one hand, we have calls for a politics that reorders the public square to more explicitly Christian ends. This is roughly the “engagement” position. Far from advocating some sort of theocratic state, this argument recognizes that a “neutral public square” is never really that. Politics is inevitably underscored by some conception of the good, and the increasing hostility of this supposedly “neutral” state towards core Catholic beliefs indicates the bankruptcy of maintaining the status quo.

In its place must be a politics that advances an authentic vision of the good, one that isn’t afraid to use the levers of state power as a supplement to society’s failings. Policy can work to support the foundations of an ordered society like the family and public virtue. In the economic realm, this means looking beyond paeans to “market freedom” and taking seriously the effects of social and market forces on each other. In this camp, we can place the likes of Sohrab Ahmari, Gladden Pappin, J.D. Vance, and Oren Cass—and perhaps even elected officials like Senators Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio.

On the other hand, we have what seems to be a very different vision of a post-fusionist Christian politics. This approach is most prominently argued in a trio of books released in 2017: Anthony Esolen’s Out of the Ashes, Archbishop Charles Chaput’s Strangers in a Strange Land, and Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. While these books differ slightly in their prescriptions, they broadly share the view that reimagining the extent of our engagement with secular society is the most viable path forward.

These calls for “strategic retreat” stem from the recognition that our society has become so thoroughly post-Christian that the culture more often evangelizes the faithful than vice versa. Under this narrative, Christian political priorities eschew the spectacle of campaigns and elections and instead focus on the local, the familial, and the parochial. This is not the same as an abandonment of the political realm, as it is often caricatured, but rather a refocusing towards aspects of life not ordinarily considered political as the most effective means of reshaping the polis.

These two visions of post-fusionist Christian politics—engagement vs. retreat—can seem wildly contrary. But a closer examination reveals not only their reconcilability but their complementarity.

At their core, both positions stem from a fundamental unease with the liberalism that underlies the American project. While perhaps not all would be willing (with Patrick Deneen) to declare that liberalism has “failed,” both engagement and retreat positions recognize the ways in which the excesses of American liberalism can erode Christian sensibilities. Far from bringing about a freely chosen religious revival, the emphasis on individual liberty that has long been a part of the American Christian political program has instead wrought deaths of despair, industrial collapse, the scourge of pornography, and countless other social ills.

Both retreat and engagement are driven by a desire, not for liberty, but for limits. Engagement recognizes the need for policy to reinforce limits, and the retreat recognizes our need to order our social and communal lives around them.

In this sense, it’s only through adapting both of these programs for a post-fusionist politics that we can fulfill a thoroughly Catholic vision of the good. Relying on calls for religious freedom in a “neutral” public square is not enough. The logic of liberalism will inevitably place the Catholic conception of the good outside the limits of religious freedom protection, as it has already done on numerous issues in recent decades.

Likewise, arguing for a politics of the common good without recognizing that that public square is currently thoroughly hostile is a fool’s errand. If we are to reverse the alarming decline of Christian belief, especially within our own families and communities, it starts with a realistic recognition of the need for some retreat from the secularizing forces of our society.

Engagement is the political solution; retreat, the practical.

Our current moment may be analogous to that of fifth-century Rome, begging for a new St. Benedict. But the political confusion both outside and within the Church points to a similar need for a new St. Thomas Aquinas, one who can advance a thoroughly Christian vision of the good. The dead consensus was one for an age long gone. The answer to the seemingly competing visions of its replacement is “both and”. We can—in fact, we must—retreat and engage simultaneously.

Photo credit: Nancy Bauer/


  • Emile A. Doak

    Emile A. Doak is director of development at The American Conservative. He lives in his hometown of Herndon, Virginia.

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