Against Game of Thrones Christianity

To truly care about virtue is to recognize that it matters how you win: Ends don't justify means.


For many members of the so-called New Right, one thing is clear: Classical liberal principles are not getting the job done.

The left, after all, has no compunction about using the state to go after conservatives. As far as those illiberal progressives are concerned, Catholic hospitals should be forced by law to perform abortions, and social media companies should be threatened with regulatory action if they don't agree to scrub their platforms of ideas and information unfavorable to the Democratic Party.

So instead of a principled commitment to limited government and individual liberty, the argument goes, conservatives who "know what time it is" should be willing to use public power to attack their foes. Anything less amounts to unilateral disarmament or even suicide.

The stakes, in this telling, are existential. It's not uncommon to hear that a future of Soviet-style persecution awaits those who refuse to embrace a sufficiently "muscular" response. A New Right influencer once told me that the liberalism of the American founding, by making conservatives squeamish about fighting fire with fire, was apt to land her in a gulag. Like the famous maxim from Game of Thrones, it's a vision of politics as a literal war in which you win or you die.

But how like Westeros is the United States? Are American leftists really plotting to round up religious traditionalists and Republican voters? If they were, would they stand a chance of getting away with it under the American system as it exists?

Perhaps the leading argument for classical liberalism is that it turns down the temperature of our politics. By ensuring that the rights even of minority groups are respected, good institutions can remove, or at least significantly reduce, those supposedly life-or-death stakes. Meanwhile, Americans by all accounts want a government that protects basic rights and liberties, not one that imposes a single moral orthodoxy on the country, however much some progressives might wish to do so. Given all this, perhaps the worst thing conservatives could do is to tear down the liberal institutions and norms that keep the left's worst impulses in check.

New Right rhetoric is saturated with talk of the need to restore traditional Christian virtue, by force if necessary. Several prominent New Right voices, including law professor Adrian Vermeule and journalist Sohrab Ahmari, are Catholic converts who dream of subordinating civil government to the church in pursuit of "a public square re-ordered to the common good" and possibly even "the eventual formation of the Empire of Our Lady of Guadalupe." At this year's National Conservatism Conference in Miami, a major New Right gathering, one speaker after another lamented "the things that we've lost" under liberal modernity: God, Scripture, nation, family.

The irony is that the approach to politics outlined by these new, militant conservatives is flatly at odds with authentic Christian virtue. The New Right implies that religious traditionalists have a choice: They can either be the ones inside the gulag, or they can make sure their enemies are. Jesus never would have accepted that bargain.

"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,'" he says in the Gospel of Matthew. "But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father." These are probably the most radical words in the Bible and almost certainly the hardest to live by. Yet the very heart of Christian teaching (if not necessarily the heart of Christian practice) has always been self-sacrifice, self-emptying, "taking up your cross," and "laying down your life for your friends."

That radical, countercultural message is far too often absent on the right today. As the Catholic writer Leah Libresco Sargeant puts it, "A lot of social conservatism has defined virtue down to 'refraining from certain modern errors' rather than 'living a life shocking in its generosity, courage, etc.'"

To truly care about virtue is to recognize that it matters how you win: Ends don't justify means. If conservatives ever did have to choose which side of the barbed wire to be on—as the gulag inmate accepting persecution or the victor carrying it out—there would be only one right answer from a Christian perspective. It isn't the New Right's.