ST. FRANCISVILLE, LA.—Living in a small Southern town, it’s easy to forget that politics exists.
When I was working in Washington, D.C., as a journalist in the 1990s I would return here from time to time to visit my folks. It never failed to irritate me how disconnected everyone here was. Didn’t they know there had been a Republican Revolution and Speaker Gingrich was going to set everything aright? I was on Capitol Hill watching it all go down—and nobody cared to ask me what it was like. What was wrong with them?
Now that I live in my hometown, I see this disconnect not as a vice but as a virtue. A limited virtue, and a risky one: living here, it’s easy to believe politics doesn’t matter much and to give oneself permission to disengage. When the only political talk you hear is the Hannity-Limbaugh line, it’s tempting to turn away and focus on private life.
This suits my temperament. I tend to be a decline-and-fall pessimist. Perversely enough, little makes me happier than devouring a freshly baked Spenglerian meditation on how our civilization is staggering towards decrepitude. But then I think about a dinner I had a decade or so ago in my Brooklyn apartment. As usual, my guests and I were decrying the decline of Christianity. One of us, a Catholic priest, agreed that our gloom and doom was justified but accused us of lacking perspective.
“You only see the rot, and it is very real,” he said. “But you don’t see the possibilities. When I was a teenager in the ’70s, the only option you had for catechism was the liberal priests and nuns in the parish. Nowadays, you can go online, tonight, and have Amazon.com send you in less than a week a theological library that Aquinas could only have dreamed of. Do you realize how fantastic that is?”
He went on, talking about how our contemporary age, for all its chaos and breakdown, also contained the seeds of renewal—if only we had the wit to see what was in front of us.
People who think small towns are a refuge from the crises of our civilization are deluded. You’re probably better off here than living in a city, but you see the same patterns of social change, including the same dysfunction and pathologies. When I was a kid, out-of-wedlock childbirth, unemployability, and intergenerational poverty were almost wholly black problems. Not anymore. The barrier between healthy and diseased doesn’t follow the color line.
To whom can we look for relief? The government? Please. Politics? The Republicans and the Democrats are, to paraphrase the poet, ignorant armies clashing by night.
Besides, the rot is not primarily a political problem. You can’t pass laws to change the character of individuals or communities. Given the realities of our postmodern, post-Christian culture, the best we can hope is to create a legal and political framework in which people are free to make good choices.
But how to choose? This is the heart of our collective dilemma: we have come to value choice over what is chosen.
It’s wrong to yield to fear and paralysis. As Gandalf counseled Frodo, we are not responsible for saving the world, but we are responsible for doing what we can in the time in which we are given. That’s moral realism. And as the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre counseled the readers of After Virtue, the time may come when people of good will lose faith in a debased system and look elsewhere to construct “new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.”
This is what St. Benedict and his followers achieved in the ruins of the Roman Empire, even though—as MacIntyre concedes—they didn’t realize what they were doing. All they wanted to do was pray together and live in peace.
That’s not a political program, or if it is, it’s what Czech dissident Vaclav Havel called “anti-political politics”— the success of which, Havel wrote, cannot be predicted in advance:
That effect, to be sure, is of a wholly different nature from what the West considers political success. It is hidden, indirect, long term and hard to measure; often it exists only in the invisible realm of social consciousness, conscience and subconsciousness … It is, however, becoming evident—and I think that is an experience of an essential and universal importance—that a single, seemingly powerless person who dares to cry out the word of truth and to stand behind it with all his person and all his life, ready to pay a high price, has, surprisingly, greater power, though formally disfranchised, than do thousands of anonymous voters.
Havel wrote that in 1984, as an outcast in communist Czechoslovakia. Five years later, he was president of the liberated country. What might his words mean for us today?
Over the past few months, some friends and I in our small town have been doing something that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. We have been planting an Orthodox Christian mission church in our little Southern town. Our congregation is tiny, and all of us are converts, like the priest who moved here from Washington state to serve us.
At 45, I am the oldest person in the mission. Somehow, each of us—all born and brought up Protestant—found our way to Orthodoxy, the ancient faith of the Christian East. One of us is a sheriff’s deputy who works courthouse security. During slow times, he reads the Early Church Fathers on his Kindle. All of us have stories like that. We are an improbable bunch.
If we had not been raised in a time of turmoil, in which it was possible to conceive of changing churches so radically, and in which, thanks to the Internet, information about Orthodoxy was so easily obtained, there wouldn’t be a mission church on a hill south of town, a congregation in a cypress-wood house under the Louisiana live oaks, chanting the fourth-century liturgy developed under John Chrysostom, patriarch of Constantinople.
And though few people in this conservative churchgoing community know what Orthodox Christianity is, our bearded, ponytailed, black-cassocked priest is not the standout he once would have been in this community, in part because the hippies—yes, the hippies—got here first in the ’70s.
“Hey Father,” an old farmer here good-naturedly asked our priest, “what you wearing under that black robe?”
“My Hank Williams Jr. Live in ’95 concert shirt,” he answered.
That priest is so in. This might work, our little hobbits-at-prayer venture. We don’t want to change the world. We just want to pray together. Yet who knows what may come of it?
Rod Dreher blogs for TAC at www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher.