National Conservatism’s Ecumenical Gamble

National Conservatism is all-in on ecumenical Christianity. Will the play pay off?

July of 2019 marked the first National Conservatism conference hosted by the Edmund Burke Foundation. By most accounts from attendees at that original NatCon, the conference was enjoyable and eye-opening, albeit a little strange. 

Tucker Carlson delivered a keynote address to the conference at 11:30 a.m. on July 15. That very same time slot the following day was occupied by Ambassador John Bolton. Carlson was questioned about the apparent mismatch in the question-and-answer portion of his talk. “What do you think of being paired with Ambassador Bolton as a keynote speaker?” R.R. Reno, serving as the keynote’s host, asked. The audience broke out into a nervous giggle. 

“I mean, how honest do you want me to be?” Carlson said, smiling with a slight jest in his voice. “It made me feel like wanting to go to war!” Carlson yelled into the microphone, before bursting out into one of his uncontrollable fits of laughter, keeling over and slapping the podium with his palm. “I mean it’s great,” Carlson said, before adding, “I disagree with Bolton on a lo—everything.”

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Carlson was, of course, being hyperbolic, but only just. The juxtaposition between Carlson and Bolton raised an important question: If NatCon can host two men on the opposite sides of such fundamental issues, then what exactly defines the burgeoning National Conservatism movement?

Much of that first conference, in 2019, was introducing the broader conservative movement and the public to National Conservatism. NatCon 1 hosted panels such as “The Nation and Conservative Tradition,” “International Institutions vs. National Independence,” and “Globalism and the Nation.” It had a blueprint of the movement it sought to create, based on Edmund Burke Foundation Chairman Yoram Hazony’s 2018 book The Virtue of Nationalism. And, of course, the rise of President Donald Trump added legitimacy and popularity to the kind of politics NatCon hopes to promote.

Fast forward to 2021. After a year off due to the Covid pandemic, NatCon was back—this time in Orlando, Florida. The most visible change between NatCon 1’s and NatCon 2’s respective schedules was an added focus on Christianity. NatCon 2 featured panels titled “Catholicism and the Nation,” “Protestantism, Nationalism, and Political Culture,” and “Marriage, Family, and Nation.” Speakers included Contributing Editor at The American Conservative Sohrab Ahmari, Notre Dame’s Patrick Deneen, and The Catholic Thing’s Robert Royal. 

NatCon 2 seemed to recognize that any new conservative movement in America must be built atop of the nation’s undeniably Christian heritage. It also recognized that the builders of this movement will be operators, intellectuals, and activists who want to see religion take not only a more active role in the private sphere but understand the inherent linkages between the public and private, government and culture, law and community; and they are unafraid to use political power to pursue ends that transcend the human condition but are vital to human flourishing. 

Yet, there was something odd, or at odds, even there in Orlando—with the presence of secular anti-woke liberals, such as Dave Rubin.

Two weeks ago, NatCon returned again—this time in Miami.

I have no doubt that, unlike some of the speakers at NatCon 1, nearly all those in attendance at NatCon 3 accept that the religious Right has been neglected for far too long by the Republican establishment in Washington—superseded by a platform prioritizing cheap labor, free trade, and foreign wars. For too long, religion, specifically Christianity, was seen as a beneficial and practical extracurricular—a nice thing that civil society would sort out on its own.

The National Conservatives deserve credit for ostensibly rejecting this old consensus, as some bitter clingers in the Washington establishment fail to do. NatCon 3’s schedule and structure evoked a further embrace of, and reliance upon, the religious Right. Panels titled “Constitutional Issues Post-Dobbs,” “Protestants and Anglo-American Conservatism” and “Protestantism and National Conservatism,” as well as “Nationalism and Catholic Political Thought” and “Catholics and Contemporary National Conservatism” filled breakout rooms over three days in Miami. The speeches and conversations were lively—no small feat for a heady conservative conference.

National Conservatives also deserve some credit for acknowledging that this is a coalition-building game. What happened onstage was always partnered with the organizations and groups in attendance poking and prodding one another, trying to feel out what other groups were thinking or doing. In a political environment where our enemies are as powerful as they are, and resources and personnel available to us are stretched thin, it’s not only natural but prudent to pitch a reasonably broad tent.

Thus, an overarching tactical ecumenism has developed at NatCon: the assembly of a new coalition, components largely based in religion, coming together under common goals and against a common enemy.

In its earlier iterations, it seemed NatCon had a reasonable amount of theory, but the practice, as it often does, lagged. Bolton’s NatCon 1 appearance and the anti-woke liberal contingent at NatCon 2 tested the far contours of the National Conservative coalition. 

The decision to hone in on ecumenical Christianity seems to have helped National Conservatives trim the fat, allowing the practical catch-up without coming at the expense of the theory.

But can the ecumenical flavor that NatCon boasts persist long enough for a National Conservative movement to move the needle in a significant way? For me, these questions are personal. In part, I feel myself at the metaphorical center of the intellectual jostling and political maneuvering preoccupying the Right at the moment. 

I grew up in Southern California. I am the son of divorced parents, both of whom have owned their own businesses. They aren’t fully country-club Republicans, and they certainly have an anti-government streak—the kind that can be expected from Protestant business owners living in California.

Part of that has certainly rubbed off on me throughout my upbringing. I went to a nondenominational private Christian school from preschool to eighth grade; then I attended a Lutheran high school. But my years growing up in California, attending U.C. Berkeley, and spending nearly a decade in political gigs have pulled me toward Catholic conceptions of politics. Currently, I’m beginning the process to join the Catholic Church.

Where do I, and the others like me, fit in the National Conservatism movement? There are those of us who understand the universality of God’s teaching and feel the gravity and bearing that should have on politics, here and abroad. At the same time, we maintain a sense of the particular—of the nation, the people, the places, the language—while recognizing that the particular alone may not be sufficient in a purely ecumenical form. Does civics guide what is acceptable Christianity (in a political sense), or should Christianity guide our civics? 

You’d be hard-pressed to find a Christian NatCon attendee that suggests the former. If the answer is the latter, then we must ask if ecumenical Christianity can provide an account of civics robust enough to cure our current ills. Isn’t there an inherent disjointedness to an ecumenical project that will lend itself to the elevation of civil religion over true faith? Without a specific Christianity, a specific Church, for civic life to be rooted in, does that not lead to the perversion of civic life by political powers, the kind that inevitably leads to the national decline we’re currently experiencing?

It’s a delicate balancing act to be sure. Tactical ecumenicalism can create a “rally around the Cross” effect, if you will. Christians of all stripes retain a lot of common political values, often seek similar earthly ends in limited scopes, and certainly share a daunting, powerful enemy. But cracks are already starting to emerge. In remarks to open the conference, NatCon 3 Conference Committee Chair Christopher DeMuth said that the National Conservatism movement in the last year had lost some fellow travelers to “radicalism,” a not-so-veiled reference to Ahmari and Deneen, both speakers at NatCon 2, and the contingent of post-liberal Catholic thinkers that have come alongside them.

If the National Conservatism movement wants to be successful and keep with its unstated but obvious principle of ecumenical Christianity as its driving force, it cannot simply write off those Christians who recognize the nation and the nation-state as a practical and political reality but do not believe it’s an end unto itself. And even if it is not an end unto itself, there are questions that remain regarding the extent to which nationalism can provide a robust enough political strategy to overthrow the global order of modernity—the crises of which become more abundant every day. 

Intellectual efforts to parse out the limitations and constraints—inherently conservative queries—of the National Conservatism project need not be to its detriment. Understanding that there might be goods beyond the capacities of the nation-state forces us to consider how we might bridge those gaps and fill those lapses. NatCon can still be the room where that happens.

But if National Conservatism sees Christianity merely as a tool—no matter how important of a tool they claim it is—to maintain national identity and national traditions while cultivating virtue, rather than an institution that points to something higher—away from the temporal and toward man’s true end in God—then I fear for the project’s viability in the long term.

[Image Credit: NatCon 3 YouTube Screenshot]

  • Bradley Devlin

    Bradley Devlin is a Staff Reporter for The American Conservative. Previously, he was an Analysis Reporter for the Daily Caller, and has been published in the Daily Wire and the Daily Signal, among other publications that don’t include the word “Daily.” He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in Political Economy. You can follow Bradley on Twitter @bradleydevlin.

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