by John Q on April 26, 2020

While trawling through my old posts, I came across this one, which looks at the case for the death penalty presented by Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule. At the time, I was moderately familiar with Sunstein, but knew nothing at all about Vermeule, who has now emerged as an advocate of theocracy (called “integralism” in its Catholic version). I thought about a three-degrees separation, running off the fact that, while I am no fan of Sunstein, quite a few people I respect and work with like (and, I think, work with) him. Before I wrote it though, I searched CT for references to Vermeule, and found him contributing to a 2013 book event we held, on Johnson and Knight’s The Priority of Democracy. What he writes there seems sensible enough to me, pointing out potential problems for democracy but not implying anything like his current position

It appears that Vermeule converted to Catholicism recently, so maybe this was part of some intellectual crisis, or maybe he was just swept up in the Trumpist wave. Any thoughts?



Chetan Murthy 04.26.20 at 7:08 am

John, a lot of folks who previously had to (uh) hide their light under a bushel, found that once Lord Dampnut came to power, they no longer needed to; they could instead fly their freak flag high. Perhaps Vermeule is one of these?


Chetan Murthy 04.26.20 at 7:09 am

Oops, I meant to add: By which I mean, that maybe he was always this way, but was feigning moderation and sanity because he thought it was necessary to be taken seriously.


Martinned 04.26.20 at 10:30 am

I don’t think anything about Trump’s election has made these kinds of views more palatable in Vermeule’s peer group (whose approval he might seek, and who might cause him to moderate his views). From what I hear, he really did have some kind of midlife crisis conversion, and all the fanaticism of a convert.


Matt 04.26.20 at 10:31 am

He was a “reasonable” conservative who published with people like Sunstein and Eric Posner (Posner the Younger.) But, as noted, he converted to Catholicism and, like many adult converts, he’s “more Catholic than the pope” now. Lots of adult converts to any religion, it seems, are undergoing a sort of personal or mental crisis, and latch on to extreme forms of the belief. I don’t know his personal story at all, but I would be surprised if it wasn’t largely banal, and would be of interest only to him, if he were not an “important” person (for some value of “important” ) advocating theocracy. It’s not like any of the arguments are any good.


MisterMr 04.26.20 at 10:56 am

The Catholic church is, since 2018, officially against death penalty:

So the idea that someone first converts to catholicism and then becomes pro death penalty is a bit weird.

But as a matter of fact, there are a lot of people who are, so to speak, more popist than the pope.
I think that this is a case where there are some authoritarian (in the sense used by Atlemeyer) psychology, that then both pushes towards death penalty and towards strongly structured faith systems, like the Catholic faith.
In cases like this where the faith itself goes against the authoritarian instincts, authoritarian instincts win and the official faith is thrown out of the window.


john 04.26.20 at 11:21 am

What CM said. And I know several Catholic artists and intellectuals who support DT and have announced their views in past four years. As the spouse of one said about her husband: “there’s an almost desperate need for certainty there…” Instead they get chaos.


Johannes 04.26.20 at 11:39 am

This article by James Chappel explains well where Vermeule comes from and how he ended up advocating for theocracy:


casmilus 04.26.20 at 12:05 pm

Oh the old story: new convert to “tradition”-based religion has a massive fetish for “traditions” as such and thus goes for the most extreme anti-everyone-else version they can imagine. See also: Robert Sungenis, champion of geocentrism against Galileo.

Yawn. The most extreme ones are sometimes coming in from a “far Left” angle and bring the old mentality with them.

This is the great advantage of being born in to RCism: all these lost boys have been haunted all their lives by this idea that it would all make sense if they were in a big proper institutionalised religion, not any wishy-washy liberal stuff. And those of us who start here already know that’s not true. At least not if you’re bothered about all the modern stuff about “meaning” and “identity” and drivel like Kierkegaard… that was never what it was about, and you’re not going to find those “answers” in the medievals any more than analytic philosophy.


Russell Arben Fox 04.26.20 at 12:48 pm

I believe there really was an actual change in his thinking, though whether that change was a dramatic, Trump-empowered/encouraged one, or a slow, beneath-the-surface one I don’t know. But there was a time when Vermeule participating in a Crooked Timber symposium, or writing alongside Cass Sunstein, wouldn’t have struck anyone as odd. I may be remembering this wrong, but I think it was Jacob Levy who commented a couple of years back, in regards ideological divisions that have been made stark of late, that Former Vermeule (as opposed to Present Vermeule) was one of the most interesting intellectual figures out there, and that it’s hard to remember that in the current moment.


Brad DeLong 04.26.20 at 12:50 pm

I think Murthy has it nailed on the head…


Ben Alpers 04.26.20 at 3:29 pm

fwiw, he comes from a family of otherwise sane, distinquished academics. So at some point he diverged from that path.


Henry Farrell 04.26.20 at 4:34 pm

The story I have heard (perhaps wrong) is that he had a genuine conversion experience. The couple of times I met him before the change he seemed to me to be a decent, intelligent right of center thinker, but that is certainly not his public persona these days (can’t speak to how he is in private). This has some more on his intellectual transition.


Bob Michaelson 04.26.20 at 5:21 pm

Per Wikipedia, he converted to Catholicism in 2016, so perhaps part of the Trumpist wave. Though I don’t know anything about his previous views, since adopting integralism he is a real p.o.s.
“The new state would “exercise coercion over baptized citizens in a manner different from non-baptized citizens”
To achieve this end, Vermeule has suggested giving confirmed Catholics priority in immigration, allowing them to “jump immediately to the head of the queue”. Vermeule describes this as being essential to “the eventual formation of the Empire of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and ultimately the world government required by natural law”
… originalism … has outlived its usefullness and needs to be replaced by what he calls “common-good constitutionalism”. Under this theory of jurisprudence, the moral values of the religious right would be imposed on the American people whether they, as a whole, believe in them or not. …
Vermeule sees no viable middle course between atheism and Catholicism.”


Kate Jackson 04.26.20 at 5:29 pm

I mean – this –

But I read his book on administrative law, “Law’s Abnegation.” And I think it’s very useful for anyone thinking about what kind of government we actually need if we’re to tackle climate change in any serious way. And he correctly puts the lie to the idea of the “separation of powers” – every judge makes policy, every policy-maker applies law. Maybe he wrote it as part of a grand plot to appoint theocrats into government. But I wouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. You know, sort of like how we deal with Schmitt.


bianca steele 04.26.20 at 5:33 pm

IMO what is called integralism is (1) not that far from what many people think actually exists, as well as (2) a rational deduction from the belief that (a) rule should be hierarchical, (b) hierarchy should track expertise and knowledge, and (d) knowledge should be tradition-based. It’s socially and intellectually/professionally untenable so it makes sense a leap of faith into a supportive institution might seem, psychologically, plausible or desirable.

Democracy is opposed to all of 2a-d, interestingly.


Dr. Hilarius 04.26.20 at 6:11 pm

I was not aware of Vermule until I read his recent piece in the Atlantic. Truly bizarre. I can’t imagine the author teaching constitutional law when his current view seems to reject any teachable method of constitutional analysis. Apparently when Vermule was hired by Harvard he was a fairly standard scholar of administrative law. The upside is that Vermule’s theocratic “it’s all for the greater good” scheme offends so many interests it’s unlikely to go beyond being his hobbyhorse.


Bushels Are Sooo0 2016 04.26.20 at 6:45 pm

If you’ve spent most of your adulthood in the orbit of American “conservative” politics (or, as sane people call it, “reactionary”), I suspect that a late conversion to Catholicism would require a lightning-bolt-to-the-head level of cognitive and evaluative change for the convert. There are, however, alternatives to such wrenching transformation, such as opting for a specifically American “Catholicism” that is actually quite comfortable in the bosom of the West’s biggest arms dealer, union-buster and citizen jailer/executioner. I’m gonna go with Door #2.


Dave Maier 04.26.20 at 9:08 pm

Thanks for the multiple links to the Dissent article. Should I read that guy’s book? (James Chappel, Catholic Modern)


M Caswell 04.26.20 at 9:44 pm

Many Catholic converts are liberal democrats, and some are even socialists.


DigitalRob 04.26.20 at 9:52 pm

Mister Mr @ 5: First Things has been consistently publishing pieces that oppose current Vatican doctrine on capital punishment.


hix 04.26.20 at 9:56 pm

Trump is about as anti-catholic as you can get.


John Quiggin 04.27.20 at 12:26 am

It’s striking that Vermeule’s advocacy is for a specifically Catholic (and therefore minority) theocracy, as opposed to the more commmon idea that the US is a Christian (primarily Protestant) country and should be run that way. It’s essentially the same position as that of Hizb-ut Tahrir, apart from some minor differences in theology.


Matt 04.27.20 at 12:57 am

John – Vermeule is one who thinks the reformation was total disaster, and that there is only one Church, so running the US like a non-denominational “Christian” country would be almost as bad, or maybe even worse, as it might sway more people away from the true path.

M Caswell at 19 – that’s true, of course, though even in the case of “socialist” adult converts, like Elizabeth Bruenig, they are often still pretty eager to have their religion put into force legally, they just disagree as to what the religion “entails”. (Bruenig would make abortion illegal, for example, among other things.) There are exceptions, even a lot of them, but it’s not unusual for the biggest zealots to be adult converts.


KT2 04.27.20 at 3:56 am

Bushels said; ” … late conversion to Catholicism would require a lightning-bolt-to-the-head level of cognitive and evaluative change for the convert.”

Looks like a case study for “Delving into the most recent work on decision theory, the nature of consciousness, and philosophy of mind, Laurie Paul has developed an account of those threshold moments where life is sure to change forever ”

And as my Master in Religious Ed catholic since 6yrs old greens voter friend would say “there are 2,000+ types of Christians”. So only 1,000 to convert for him to dominate.


Fake Dave 04.27.20 at 4:25 am

Like Matt at 23, I think Catholicism has a lot of unearned cachet as the “original” or “world” church that makes it attractive to theocrats of an anglo-protestant extraction.

Reactionary Protestantism has always been self-defeating because it is schismatic by its very nature. All the historical attempts to purify, revive, or awaken some “fundamental” Christian consensus in Protestant countries (and there have been many) have merely undermined the authority of traditional church hierarchies and opened the floodgates to new waves of sectarian evangelism. It seems like every time Protestants try to consolidate power over the secular state, they seem to wind up with more churches, not fewer.

I think when a lot of would-be Protestant theocrats look at the Catholic world (or Sunni Islam, for that matter) they get a twinge of envy at the apparent unity and power those religious establishments have. This is fundamentally ignorant of how diverse and divided the “world church” actually is and how much it has had to change and adapt over the centuries. The tendancy for Protestant theology to skip straight from Thomas Aquinas to Martin Luther probably contributes to this.


JHW 04.27.20 at 4:38 am

What struck me most reading the death penalty article was its airy dismissal of a nonconsequentialist approach to thinking about state punitive killing, based on arguments about the act/omission distinction that simply assumed out of existence the possibility of principled nonconsequentialism. I have wondered whether Vermeule’s conversion means that he no longer adheres to this casual instrumentalism about human persons, which (whatever else you might say about its many faults) Catholic moral theory emphatically rejects. I hope it does mean that.


John Quiggin 04.27.20 at 6:14 am

@24 Laurie and I will soon (I hope) publish an article on transformative education.


J-D 04.27.20 at 6:45 am

Vermeule sees no viable middle course between atheism and Catholicism.

I don’t suppose Vermeule would go so far as to deny the existence of Islam, Hinduism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and so on; so what does he mean by denying that they are ‘viable’? It’s a curious way of expressing oneself; less curious if the purpose is not to express one’s meaning but to disguise it.

Naturally I expect Catholics to dismiss all those other alternatives as false/incorrect/inaccurate, but I expect them to dismiss atheism in the same way. That’s only sense: when there are different positions which are mutually exclusive, to affirm one is to deny the others. I’m an atheist myself, and that means I think believers, including Catholics, are mistaken (as I was myself when I was a believer); but I wouldn’t say there’s my (atheist) position, one other viable position, and then a lot of other positions which are non-viable. I understand that Vermeule, as a Catholic, rejects my own atheist position; but I don’t understand what he means by considering it to have a viability that all the other non-Catholic positions don’t have. The word ‘viable’ seems out of place in this context.


matt regan 04.27.20 at 1:57 pm

Am I going to have to get the whole Guelph/Ghibelline thing straight now?


Neville Morley 04.27.20 at 2:36 pm

Slightly tangential, but I’m reminded of a passage from an early Julian Barnes novel, Staring at the Sun:

“The mind longs for certainty, and perhaps it longs most of all for a certainty which clubs it down. What the mind can understand, what it can ploddingly prove and approve, might be what it must despises. It longs to be attackec from behind, in a dark street, certainty a knife at the throat.”


steven t johnson 04.27.20 at 3:09 pm

If we are to think about the role of organized religion, personal commitments and politics, the fact there are no Protestants on the Supreme Court seems to be somehow relevant, to me at least.


bianca steele 04.27.20 at 4:15 pm

In the modern world, religion is an institution that’s critical of society without being responsible for changing it (as such, admirable enough, and not to disparage its other purposes) and at worst, a way of garnering power for individuals and points of view that would otherwise be too weak to dominate (and may or may not have some specifically “religious” character). The idea seems to be that by making religion responsible for the whole shebang, it would magically change into an ideal version of both religion and society combined.

Since that would be quite different from what even most religious people today believe in, they’d have to be suppressed, bought off, or permitted to rage against scapegoats, it seems to me. (I leave off reeducation as that seems to be the one thing religious reactionaries distance themselves from.) Maybe VR can be used for the purpose.


John Quiggin 04.27.20 at 6:50 pm

First Things seems to be consistently pro-death now, at least for everyone who’s already been born. with this attack on ‘the false god of “saving lives.”’ in the pandemic.


Barry 04.29.20 at 1:02 am

I think that this is just the sort of thing we saw back during the Dubya debacle, where various right-wingers assumed that they’d be dominant forever, and wove theories of Republican Monarchy.


Ogden Wernstrom 04.29.20 at 6:16 pm

After reading the article (Quiggin links to in 33), I wonder if the editors of FirstThings look both ways before crossing the street.

I also wonder if their fear of death is weak enough that they’ve all signed DNR orders.

Apologies to Hawking.


bianca steele 04.29.20 at 8:50 pm

I finally finished the article on Vermeule linked in the OP, and have to admit I find its thesis unconvincing, though typical enough among certain of the very online crowd: Catholics blaming ultra-Catholics on liberals and other assorted non-Catholics, could be said to be an especially bad look. Though I suppose the concession that he’s only against certain unnamed “technocrats” and not “liberalism” properly understood makes a difference.


Bushels Are Sooo0 2016 04.30.20 at 7:13 pm

One question looming in the background of all this: who adjudicates the truth or falsity of claims to membership in a particular religious group? A modern, individualist approach might defer to the personal judgement of anyone who claims to be, e.g. Catholic, and explain discrepancies between the avowed beliefs and values of individual claimants as variations within that religious community.

An opposing view is that it is quite possible for people, even large numbers of people, to be mistaken in the belief that they are Catholics, and the Church has a strong claim (even without resort to any supernatural authority) to authority on such a question. Maybe it’s too polite to say so, or it’s busy with more pressing matters, but it seems to me the RC Church should call out born-again Republican Catholics as the heretics and apostates that they are.


J-D 05.01.20 at 12:56 am

One question looming in the background of all this: who adjudicates the truth or falsity of claims to membership in a particular religious group?

Census-takers and other demographers accept self-identification because what else are they going to do?

An opposing view is that it is quite possible for people, even large numbers of people, to be mistaken in the belief that they are Catholics, and the Church has a strong claim (even without resort to any supernatural authority) to authority on such a question. Maybe it’s too polite to say so, or it’s busy with more pressing matters, but it seems to me the RC Church should call out born-again Republican Catholics as the heretics and apostates that they are.

The official position of the (Roman) Catholic Church itself is that even people who have been excommunicated are still members of the church; baptism makes somebody a member of the church and its effects are irreversible. From that point of view, what you’ve got are not large numbers of people who aren’t part of the Catholic Church but think they are; what you’ve got are large numbers of people who are part of the Catholic Church but think they aren’t.


LFC 05.01.20 at 3:21 am

I’m not sure which article bianca steele @36 is referring to — is it the Dissent piece that was linked not in the OP, but rather by several commenters, or is it some other article? (the OP itself does not actually link an article about Vermeule, rather the OP links an earlier CT post by JQ (on Vermeule and Sunstein’s case for the death penalty) and Vermeule’s contribution to a 2013 CT book symposium).

Anyway, I read the Dissent piece by Chappel, albeit quickly and some days ago, and I don’t recall finding anything esp objectionable in it in terms of analysis. But maybe I missed something. If the Chappel piece is the one bianca s. didn’t much like, I’d be interested in what her made think Chappel is blaming Vermeule’s conversion to “integralism” on “liberals and other assorted non-Catholics,” b/c I don’t recall Chappel doing that.

More generally, there are right-wing Catholics and left-wing ones (just as there are right-wing and left-wing Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and [maybe] Hindus as well), but “integralism” as I understand it (and I can’t say I understand it well) seems to be a step back to something that hasn’t, as far as I know, been as presence in public discourse since the late 19th or early 20th cent., and even then afaik more in Europe than the U.S.


LFC 05.01.20 at 3:23 am

P.s. Apologies for the typos in my above comment. Typing too quickly.


bianca steele 05.01.20 at 3:28 pm

“I don’t suppose Vermeule would go so far as to deny the existence of Islam, Hinduism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and so on; so what does he mean by denying that they are ‘viable’? ”

I assume that what he means is that there’s a logical argument that deduces the truth of Catholicism from the existence of God, and libertine violent chaos from atheism. Or something like that.

Moreover that he defines Catholicism as what the Pope, etc., says it is (as opposed to what the Patriarch of Moscow says, or some postmodern redefinition according to which it has some meaning as a placeholder in a “structural” form, or something).


MisterMr 05.02.20 at 9:17 am

@J-D 38

The problem is that catholicism differs from other Christian groups because, historically, it insisted on the preeminence of church interpretation of doctrine above personal interpretation of the scriptures, and more recently came out with the dogma of papal infallibility when the pope speaks ex cathedra, both based on the idea that the Holy Ghost directly speaks through them.

Peole who are baptized but disagree with this are still part of the church, but do not hold catholic beliefs.

So while in some sense we can say that V. Is more catholic than the pope, in official catholic doctrine that V says he adopts he actually isn’t.

If I can make a parallel with socialism, both Kautsky and Stalin said they were Marxist, and in my view Kautsky was way more orthodox than Lenin or Stalin, so how comes that when we speak of marxism Lenin and Stalin are taken as examples of marxism while Kautsky is not and is in facts often described as a social democrat?

How comes that V is described as an extremist catholics and not as a pretend catholic?

My opinion is that this happens because morality is a social thing, so moral systems will generally create an ingroup – outgroup distinction, and those who are more aggressive against the outgroup are taken as more fervent believers.

But I think that being more aggressive against outgroups is more a psychological attitude than something that depends on the specific faith /ideology, so I think we should reject the idea that V. is more catholic than others, or that Stalin was more marxist than Kautsky.

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