A Note on Language
In my second installment on the consequences of the election of Donald Trump for republicanism, I wrote of what it might mean for the religious landscape in the United States, and sketched ever so briefly and inadequately what I took to be the history behind the relationship between Christianity and republicanism hitherto. In this blog, I want to discuss what his election might mean in concrete terms for Christianity in the U.S., as well as what might be done to shore up its institutional independence in the face of an increasingly hostile and uncomprehending society.
But I wanted to first explain why I use the terms that I do to discuss this whole issue. Very frequently, conservative religious or cultural commentators will bemoan the rampant belief in the unfettered “autonomy” of the individual that modernity (or modern society, or modern something or other) have unleashed, and this idea is applied as an explanation of whatever said commentator finds objectionable in contemporary life. Now, there are of course a great many things that are objectionable about contemporary life, but I doubt that “autonomy” has anything much to do with those things, or that the word itself is an adequate descriptor of such phenomenon. I have a couple of reasons for this. The first is that “autonomy” is a rather airy abstraction, and though abstract thought is a necessity for serious reflection, in this case the term conveys a sense of solidity and absoluteness that is not present in daily human experience. For “autonomy,” as I take it, means something more than mere independence; it means quite literally what the original Greek suggests, that of being a law unto one’s self—self-governing, complete and total, without any hint of external influence. Such a thing, of course, is a fantasy: as I indicated in the first blog on the subject, our human nature is defined by our dependence, though even that has it limits as well. I favor the independence/dependence binary because it conveys both the ineradicable nature of dependence in human life, but also its relative nature as a feature of human society. Dependence should not be hated so excessively nor independence prized so highly as it often tends to be in our public life, and if possible, the way we talk about such things ought to reflect that.
I know such concerns may sound pedantic, which is why I feel obliged to explain my word choices. In my experience, both as a teacher in an academic setting and merely as someone observing modern political discussions in the media, I would say that modern political/philosophical ideas tend to be more about talk than anything else. Since you cannot eradicate dependence and inequality from human life, most moderns seem to want either to ignore it altogether or treat any obvious instance of it as an aberration that they can easily remedy with some sort social engineering, by a gradual historical evolution that they themselves will direct and of which they represent the vanguard. Mostly, in practice, this means enforced rules about not mentioning social dependence or inferiority of any kind—or officially redefining it so that those who are don’t feel insulted about it. This is the origins of “civility” in the 18th century and “political correctness” in the 20th—indeed, it is a rather logical consequence of the hyper-awareness of any sort of dependence that modern life produces. Usually anything that attaches the word “modern” to itself these days I automatically assume to be a bullshit advertising gimmick, until I have good reason to think otherwise, for that very reason: “modernity” is a partisan metaphysical and philosophical point of view, and is just as questionable as any other; its votaries’ attempts to convince me otherwise almost always amount some sort of special pleading, designed to shield a sacrosanct element of “modernity” (whatever it may be) from the criticism they so boldly direct at the beliefs (usually religious) of others. I hope that by using more accurate terms I can at least be open to such criticism, as I know my opinions here are eminently questionable, to say the very least.
Problems With the “Benedict Option”
Religious conservatives have been concerned with the decline of a religious sensibility in the West for at least the last fifty years, if not more; philosophers as irreligious but profound as Nietzsche and Heidegger have been lamenting it in very different ways for much longer. But no one has been as solicitous for the future of Christian community as a journalist over the past ten years as has been Rod Dreher, the writer and blogger now currently wielding his pen for the site The American Conservative. There, he has been documenting and attempting to raise the threats to religious believers of the conservative, traditional type, and in general inveighing against the dominant cultural elites that threaten them. Dreher has written for the National Review and other more mainstream conservative publications, but has evolved toward farther and farther in the direction of “crunchy conservatism,” a phrase which served the title of one of his books, and which denotes an environmentally friendly, communitarian, small-is-beautiful sort of philosophy on society and politics. Over the years, he has connected all sorts of threats that he believes are related and threaten the integrity of religious communities in the U.S.: Islamic terrorism, mass immigration, the Sexual Revolution, transhumanist and aggressive secularism, to name a few. For the past few years he has been thinking out loud about what he calls “the Benedict Option”: the idea that, rather than seeking to uphold the larger polity in which they live, faithful, small “o” orthodox Christians should focus on living out their faith in small communities, where they can practice the virtues and hold onto their traditions in the face of the cultural solvents threatening them on every side. In a recent blog post on mass immigration entitle “Blindly Staggering to the Precipice,” Dreher sums up the situation thus:
My sense is that it is going to get much worse before it gets better, and that those who stand a better chance of surviving the dark age upon us without losing our children and our humanity are going to be those who respond by committing themselves to solidarity through strong forms of religious community that produce strong families. This is what I mean by the Benedict Option. It’s not religious escapism; it’s a general strategy for surviving and even thriving in chaotic and tumultuous times.
Critics have charged Dreher with being unnecessarily defeatist or, as the above paragraph indicates, with being escapist—of abandoning the world to its fate while religious believers huddle together and cultivate their gardens. Most of these criticisms miss the mark; Dreher has been quite explicit that he does not mean everyone has to enter a monastery or become Amish (though his idea does sound a bit like Dostoevsky’s notion of the “monasticization” of society, put into the mouth of the Elder Zosima in The Brother’s Karamozov). His idea is that Christian and other religious communities need to live in a consciously different way from the rest of American and Western civilization, in order to transmit their beliefs to future generations. This is in some ways a truism, and Dreher has been at pains to make clear he is sketching a general outline for what these communities should do, and help to start the conversation about the necessarily difficult task of hammering out specific recommendations. To that end, he has just sent the manuscript of a book to his publisher, which will be published before the year’s end. I eagerly look forward to reading it.
Despite my general agreement with Dreher, I have two major issues with his “Benedict Option.” One is that, in all his discussions of the topic, you never hear the word “power” mentioned once. That is a problem. I say this reluctantly, because I have listened to undergrads pen the most trite and silly things in their papers over the years, the essence of which can be summed up in that idiotic phrase, “it’s all about power.” That is a peculiarly modern pathology, to think that all that matters in human life is power. But this error is a response I think to an equally modern one: that all human relationships can be arranged in terms of mutuality, equality, love, without any reference to power or authority at all—in short, to a sort of utopianism which, though it has antecedents, seems to be particularly strong in modern societies. This side of eternity, all human relationships are marked by some sort of power dynamic, and anyone who wishes to think seriously about human community must come to terms with this. Dreher has talked at length about the need for authority, solidarity, tradition, customs, etc., but nothing of how power would be structured in “Benedict Option” communities. Will these communities be patriarchal in nature? Will they subordinate in a fairly restrictive manner the freedoms of individual members, for the sake of solidarity and community? Perhaps these are questions Dreher will address in his book, but I do recall reading anything of them in his blog on the subject. But until he does, his idea will be susceptible to the charge of utopianism; there is, after all, and long and even venerable tradition of building utopian communities in American history, and the “Benedict Option” will probably amount to little more than “religious escapism” if Mr. Dreher cannot articulate how workable power structures might be constructed to sustain his “BenOp” communities.
There are of course historical examples might serve as guide for such communities. The very name “Benedict Option” derives from a famous passage in Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue about the supposed analogy between the fall of ancient Rome and late modernity, and he is quite fond of monastic institutions (as am I). One might also mention in this regard medieval Jewish communities, which have a long history of trying to sustain themselves amidst generally hostile societies. (Interesting in this regard is the Erasmus Lecture given to the First Things crowd a few years ago by Lord Jonathan Sacks, a Rabbi from Britain who talked of what could be called a “Jeremiah Option” in contrast to a “Benedict Option.”) But there is an even more apposite example from within American history itself: the Church of Latter Day Saints. Whatever one thinks of their theological beliefs, there can be no doubt about the organizational genius of Joseph Smith and the other founders of that body. Scorned and persecuted for their beliefs wherever they went, Smith and Brigham Young founded a hierarchical and firmly patriarchal community which was able to not only sustain a community of thousands on the move from persecution, but to move it across thousands of miles into an arid wilderness, settle and then flourish there, all within a generation or so. Small-o “orthodox” Christians might balk at looking to the Saints as a model, but if they are serious about preserving their traditions, they could find much worse to imitate. My point is not that these historical examples represent ready made solutions without dangers or problems. It is the fact they succeeded in transmitting their faith, their minority culture, in spite of internal and external struggles, fairly well. Whatever the internal problems of communities run by rabbis, such as the Hasidim, or the Mormon church, with its entrench patriarchy, they have managed to keep their beliefs intact while keeping the wolves at bay.
And this has meant they had to deal with the governments and polities in which they lived more intimately than they would have liked. This is the other sense in which Dreher’s project doesn’t deal with the realities of power: his BenOp communities, in order to live the manner of life to which they have been called, will need political protectors. Which is another way of saying, they can no longer count on being independent in the manner that perhaps we think they should be. They will have to make hard choices in exchange for that protection, and some hard reflection will have to be done in order to do that without compromising the beliefs that they are meant to protect.
All of which leads me back to Trump, and the present moment. The other major issue I have with Dreher’s idea is that it seems to rest too much upon the analogy of contemporary America with ancient Rome. The differences between the late republican or late imperial eras of ancient Rome (both scenarios get thrown around a great deal, and both are wrong) and our situation that I think it is dangerous to proceed upon this analogy. Which is why a clear appraisal of what is possible at the present moment is urgent. And that means finding political protection from the legal, cultural and political forces that would dissolve those communities. And that means dealing with Trump, and what his presidency might mean for the future of what is left of that Christian, republican tradition in this country. As this post has gone on longer than I had planned, I will address this last topic with one final post.