This essay traces the arc within movement conservatism in the United States from Steve Bannon, Chief Strategist to President Donald Trump (and arguably the most reviled and feared conservative political actor in American public life) to Robby George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University (and arguably the most respected and influential conservative political thinker in American public life).
Stylistic and intellectual differences between Bannon and George, real though they may be, cannot obscure the common ground they share regarding both the sources and the implications of their ideas, specifically those ideas pertaining to Catholic (or Thomist) natural law. While neither might relish the comparison, the relationship between Steve Bannon and Robby George is the relationship between messenger and message, between musical prelude and orchestral suite.
The Messenger and the Message
Irish-Catholic Steve Bannon embeds in the White House an emotionally manipulative, threat-driven sensibility, with methods and antics that echo the methods and antics of Irish-Catholic Senator Joseph McCarthy (and, more recently, two fellow Nixonians, Irish Catholic nationalist Pat Buchanan and Catholic agitprop maestro Roger Stone). A sensibility, and a set of methods that are politically effective and destructive, but inherently unstable and unsustainable. For this reason, Bannon’s intellectually suspect flirtations – with Catholic mystics, fringe historians, and prophets of apocalypse – probably also entomb him politically, alongside fellow Irish-Catholic street brawlers, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, for whom success is ultimately about insurgency, about blowing up things, which means, ultimately, that one blows up oneself.
Put another way, Steve Bannon is all about tactics. An architecture of assumptions scaled to the existential stakes of our current moment in time might therefore tell us that Bannon is epiphenomenal. He is only the messenger. He is not the message. Bannon’s talents for political mayhem have surfaced and brought into more clear relief the remarkable influence of idea-driven institutions such as the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society around and through which American political conservatism has built itself into the dominant force in contemporary American politics. Catholic-powered ideas about natural law provide the most enduring and consistent thread of thought at the most high-profile and well-funded conservative think tanks and foundations. As the leading philosopher of Thomist natural law on the American political scene, Robby George most clearly articulates and contains within himself the distilled message and the intellectual contradictions of these institutions.
The Catholic Moment
Roman Catholic influence in American politics has mushroomed in the past 40 years, specifically in response to the crisis engendered by the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, but more generally as an organizational and intellectual presence best evolved to exploit and respond the cultural uncertainty and flux of our times. The precepts of Roman Catholic theology – specifically (although not exclusively) with regard to the human life / human dignity issues associated with reproductive politics – now interpenetrate conservative American political thought and nearly every political institution of consequence, including the Republican Party, Congress, the White House, the military, and the media.
Five Catholics serve as justices on the Supreme Court. A sixth, Neil Gorsuch, is a formerly devout Catholic who now worships as an Episcopalian. Antonin Scalia, the justice Gorsuch replaced, was of course also Catholic. Which means seven of the most recent ten justices have a Catholic background (with Episcopalian identification one shade of gray removed from Catholicism). Prior to the appointment of Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court in 1986, only six of the previous 103 justices serving the previous 197 years of the Court’s history had been Catholic (the first being Roger Taney, appointed by Andrew Jackson in 1836).
None of this happened by accident. The hegemony of Puritan/Protestant ideas/ideals in American history always masked a specific organizational weakness. We can presume this organizational deficit is dispositionally endemic to fractional/fractious religious movements. In the case of American cultural formations associated with Protestantism, we can also speculate this institutional insufficiency was reinforced by the omnipresent option – dating back to the settlement patterns of 16th-century Protestant sects – to separate, to drift, to disperse, to migrate. Or as Albert Hirschman’s paradigm might suggest, to exit. This weakness the Articles of Confederation expressed politically and the Constitution and doctrines of federalism barely masked.
American Catholics lacked both the recursive instincts to fractionalize of post-Reformation Protestantism and many of the first mover settlement options of Protestant sects and communities that preceded the arrival to the United States of Catholic immigrants. But American Catholicism possessed a latent advantage that proved to be enormously functional in the decades following World War II, when economic growth and global reach allowed American Catholics to attain business and financial prominence and political influence that had previously eluded them. That latent advantage was organizational, a capacity integral to an enormously sophisticated, globally minded religious enterprise with centuries of experience building institutions and making theory practical via the law. And when theory – the systematic elaboration of ideas about cause and consequence – becomes practical and programmatic, it suddenly also becomes powerful.