Impious and Unpatriotic: Authoritarians on the Right

By John Zmirak Published on April 14, 2020

The left views with haughty scorn the “outdated” preoccupation America’s founders had with the dangers of overweening government. And also their willingness to see the government encourage morality and religion — via local laws, subject to democratic vote.

What we don’t see much of in America? The kind of right-winger who also scoffs at individual freedom. Who views judges and bureaucrats as little philosopher kings, empowered to herd the citizens like sheep to healthier pastures, with or without their consent.

The European authoritarian reactionary tradition has found few takers here. It didn’t help that every country where right-wing authoritarianism was tried (see Portugal and Spain), it failed. Massively. Such countries are now more secular and leftist than the U.S. is today. Almost as if jamming theology down people’s throats via government coercion … made them angry, and embittered them against the Christian faith in whose name it was imposed. Or as if lavishing churches with government power and money tended to corrupt them and hollow them out … exactly as America’s founders warned would happen.

Trotting Out the Cranks

But there are exceptions. The left loves to capture and exhibit the rare specimen of authoritarian conservative (Imperiosus Optimatium) found on our shores. It helps feed the phony narrative that every pro-lifer or orthodox Christian secretly fantasizes about imposing The Handmaid’s Tale at the point of an AR-15.

Which of course is absurd. Some 99.999% of us want to preserve Americans’ liberties, along with key institutions like marriage and the traditional family, and the rights of unborn children. We also want some sane regulation of obscene materials. In other words, something like America in 1965, after The Civil Rights Act but before Roe v. Wade.

When leftist media can find someone who really embarrasses the right, they love to give him airspace. David Duke would be a long-forgotten huckster, if CNN would stop putting him on TV to smear Donald Trump. The only people who care about Richard Spencer’s fever-dream of white separatist homelands? Anchors on MSNBC, who use him to discredit moderate, patriotic resistance to hysterical multiculturalism.

Catholic Sharia in Mom’s Basement … and at Harvard Law

Leftists eager to discredit the pro-life movement and the Christian right have fallen in love with a fringe Catholic movement called Integralism. An intolerant, authoritarian, paternalistic system, it’s like Catholic Sharia. I noticed its existence in dank, angry corners of the Catholic blogosphere back in 2013, and have been warning against it since.

Now the mainstream media has noticed it, thanks to a single eccentric law professor at Harvard, Adrian Vermeule. While he climbed the greasy pole to tenure, Vermeule was a garden-variety left-wing secularist. Once safely ensconced in the U.S. equivalent of the British House of Lords, Vermeule announced:

  • His conversion to reactionary Catholicism.
  • His admiration for Nazi collaborator and jurist Carl Schmitt.
  • And his support for the Vatican’s kidnapping of baptized Jewish child Edgardo Mortara in 1860.

I don’t know if Vermeule is sincere, testing out the limits of Harvard’s tenure protections, or trying to help the left by embarrassing the right. 

Remember how 1980s comedian Andy Kaufman morphed into a thuggish wrestler, taking on only women? That bizarre performance art stunt lasted for years, and he never went out of character. I’m wondering if Vermeule is pulling a Kaufman on us.


Let’s remember that Vermeule, back when he was a leftist, helped coin the term “tyrannophobia” as a smear word for our founders.

Learning to Lie About the Constitution, from the Left

Vermeule’s latest provocation is a long, spiky essay which The Atlantic identified as harmful to conservative causes, and duly published. For all its thousands of words, the essay’s easy to summarize.

Vermeule says that leftist judges long ago ceased to see the Constitution as our anchor and source of political legitimacy. Instead, they treat it like a bag of Lego blocks. A toy chest they can plunder to suit their vision of improving humanity via the government.

Conservatives, pro-lifers, and defenders of religious liberty responded by insisting on the actual meaning of the words, in context, of the written Constitution.

And they were right. Our founders never intended to permit legal abortion. Or allow for gun bans, or limits on political speech. This response to leftists’ belief in a “living Constitution” got the name Originalism. It calls for us to be bound by the Constitution’s original meaning. If we don’t like that meaning, it’s our task to amend it — not twist it into pretzels, as the left does, treating each session of SCOTUS as a Constitutional convention.

Originalism: Piety and Patriotism

Leftists have typically treated Originalism as a cynical tactic. We answered that it was the fruit of a genuine reverence for the wisdom of our founders. And even more importantly, for the Constitution’s role as guarantee of our government’s legitimacy. Vermeule agrees with the left. Originalism was a cynical tactic, he admits, though it served our purposes once.

Vermeule agrees with the left. Originalism was a cynical tactic, he admits, and it served our purposes once.
But now the tool is rusty, and it’s time to toss it aside.

But now the tool is rusty, and it’s time to toss it aside. Instead conservative judges should adopt the same paternalist attitude toward the law and the people who made it. A Justice Vermeule, for instance, would happily torture the Constitution and the nation’s laws to suit his vision of a “good society.” It’s just that instead of leaning on John Dewey or Darwin, he would smuggle in snippets of Carl Schmitt and his own take on Thomas Aquinas.

In Vermeule World, right-wing judges would mold and sculpt the law to impose their own vision of man on citizens of every faith. The voters be hanged. He’d use the power of law to socially engineer them. They might grouse a bit. But in the long run the peasants would learn to be grateful to their masters for imposing virtue on them from the top.

Impious, Ungrateful, and Unpatriotic

No, I’m not making this up, or exaggerating for effect. This really is what he believes. I’m simply translating the high-flown rhetoric into blunt, honest English.

Rather than argue once more against an intolerant state that persecutes Protestants and Eastern Orthodox, let me just say this. A core element of conservatism is piety. The great conservative thinker Richard Weaver described piety this way: “an attitude of reverence or acceptance toward some overruling order or some deeply founded institution which the mere individual is not to tamper with.” Weaver quotes Plato: “Let parents, then, bequeath to their children not riches, but the spirit of reverence.”

The proper attitude any patriotic American ought to have toward the constitution and our nation’s founders is piety. We ought not to lightly dismiss the careful wisdom that made our great nation’s freedom possible. Nor assume that we know better, because we had a religious conversion and thought of a few clever arguments.

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When leftists sneer at our founding in the name of socialism, feminism, or anti-racism, we rightly take offense. We ought to be equally angry when ungrateful American Catholics like Vermeule start acting as impious as … typical Harvard leftists.

If Professor Vermeule really detests our nation’s Constitution, he ought to try to amend it. Not scheme for ways in which he can emulate the left’s dishonest strategies for misreading it. And if he can’t abide it here, where religious freedom is sacrosanct? He doesn’t deserve our attention so much as a one-way ticket to Riyadh.


John Zmirak is a senior editor at The Stream, and author or co-author of ten books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism.

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