On the way to Houston on Friday evening, I finished Patrick Deneen’s extremely impressive forthcoming book Why Liberalism Failed, which will be published on January 9, 2018. There’s not a wasted sentence in the whole thing. In fact, I think it is certain to be one of the most important political books of the year. There’s material in there to shake up the certainties of both left and right. The understanding that Deneen, a political theorist who teaches at Notre Dame, brings to his analysis of why liberal democracy is careening into crisis, is piercing, even radical.

I won’t say much more about it here, because I want to wait until the book is out. But Deneen’s argument is so incisive and clarifying that I revised the Benedict Option speech I delivered on Saturday morning, to incorporate some of Deneen’s insights. Why Liberalism Failed helped me understand my own book and project more deeply.

By “liberalism,” he’s not talking about progressivism, or the politics of the Democratic Party alone. He’s talking about the entire system within which we live, and that has evolved in the modern era to this point. Deneen’s argument is essentially that liberalism failed because it succeeded so well in what it set out to do: liberate the consciousness of individuals from any restraints that inhibit their autonomous choice. To be clear, Deneen does not say that liberalism has been a bad thing; in fact, he says it is simply dishonest to ignore the very good things that have come out of liberalism, and that it is absurd to speak of the pre-liberal past as a golden age to which it would be possible to return. That said, his book interprets the systemic crisis we’re in now, and which he believes (quite correctly) is going to get much worse, because the center cannot hold.

I’ll hold back on saying what Deneen says we need to be working toward as liberalism collapses around us, and — listen up! — I don’t want readers to speculate too much on Deneen’s argument here. It wouldn’t be fair to him, because I’ve not laid out his case here. I give you all this prefatory commentary as background to what I’m about to say about American politics and culture in this moment.

The heart of Deneen’s book is a chapter discussing liberalism as “anticulture.” Drawing a contrast between the political theory that emerged in classical culture, and that prevailed in some form in the West until the Renaissance ushered in the modern era, Deneen shows that liberalism depends on a fundamentally different anthropology. To put it crudely, premodern political thought was based on the belief that man could only be fully human if he learned how to restrain his base passions so that he could grow in virtue. Modern man — “modern” meaning from Machiavelli to the present day — believed, and believes, that man is fully human when he is free to make his own destiny, unencumbered by any unchosen obligations.

Deneen says that liberalism is a “comprehensive effort to displace cultural forms as the ground condition of liberal liberty.” He talks about how Tocqueville worried that people within liberal democracies would eventually be overcome by their individuality that they would forget that they had any obligations to the past or to the future. In time, liberalism might cause people to lose the capacity for self-governance, because they will have become cut off from a sense of being embedded within a culture, a tradition, a past, a future, or anything beyond themselves. In fact, they have to be, if they’re going to become a fully self-determined individual. This is why Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the natural religion for an advanced liberal society. If you’re going to have a religion, it needs to be one that affirms the path one has chosen for oneself, and that buffers the anxieties of living without ultimate meaning and direction.

(Of course it’s a pseudo-religion, a self-help technique disguising itself as a religion, but those who are dedicated to it don’t yet know that. It’ll take another generation or two before it melts into air.)

If you’ve read The Benedict Option, you know that this is one of its main themes. This was already in my Ben Op talk for the Issues, Etc. conference in Houston (Issues, Etc. is the excellent talk radio show produced by the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod Lutheran Public Radio in Collinsville, IL, and hosted by LCMS Pastor Todd Wilken. The part I rewrote was the section in which I explained why and how this decline in the church and the fragmenting of society is not simply a problem to be solved, but a condition to be lived with for the foreseeable future. The cultural logic of liberalism — the progressive emancipation of the individual from unchosen cultural restraints — is an avalanche sliding down the side of a mountain toward the village below. The only thing to be done, in my view, is to get out of the village, let the avalanche pass, and go back to help the survivors and start the rebuilding.

I gave my talk on Saturday morning, and spent the rest of the day having great conversations with attendees between sessions — conservative Lutherans from all over the country, and even Canada. It always surprises me to find out how much reach The Benedict Option has had. One pastor who oversees a number of smaller Lutheran churches told me he bought a copy for each of the pastors under his oversight. That’s humbling, but more than that, it’s encouraging, because even though I don’t have all the answers to our common dilemma facing this crisis, I think I’m asking the right questions, the kinds that will prompt us small-o orthodox Christians to work out the answers together.

A couple of attendees approached me separately saying that they had not heard of the Benedict Option before my speech, and it sounds like the book articulates something that they had been thinking and feeling for a long time, but had not been able to nail down. I get that a fair amount. Serious Christians who are paying attention to the culture know that something is seriously wrong, something that defies ordinary means of repair. There is something in the air, for sure.

A few people told me that their congregations are really scared. “Scared of what?” I asked. The answers were all some variation on this:

  • they’re watching their numbers dwindle and in some particular cases, their congregations die
  • they can no longer make sense of the world
  • they see the country falling apart morally and otherwise, and don’t know where bottom is
  • they once thought getting America back on track was about getting our politics right, but they have lost faith in politics
  • they fear for the world their children and grandchildren are going to inherit
  • they’ve watched their adult kids leave the faith, and see that their grandchildren won’t have the faith
  • they’ve watched adult children of older faithful members of their congregation leave the faith, and worry that if it happened to the children of those good people, it could happen to them with their own children
  • they don’t feel ready for what they intuit is coming, but don’t know what to do about it

Not everyone said all of these things, but everyone said more than one of them. One man told me, “I’m old enough to remember the Reagan years. It felt like we were recovering from the craziness of the Sixties and Seventies. America had a lot of self-confidence then, it seemed like. We were all reminded that things were fundamentally sound in our country. This feels a lot different.”

“It’s not like we had no problems then,” he continued. “Everybody was thinking about the Cold War, and nuclear annihilation. That was huge, and it’s impossible to tell young people today what that was like to live with. But even so, you had the sense back then that things were going to work out somehow. I don’t think that anymore.”

I agreed with him, though I hadn’t thought about it that way. I, too, am old enough to remember the Reagan years (I was 12 when Reagan was first sworn in). It really did feel that for all the challenges in American life, that we were up to dealing with them. That we had something more or less solid to work with. It’s not like that anymore. Again, read the work of Christian Smith, especially his 2011 book Lost In Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. 

The fundamentals are gone, or nearly gone. We let them get away from us. As I write in The Benedict Option:

“America has lived a long time off its thin Christian veneer, partly necessitated by the Cold War,” Smith told me in an interview. “That is all finally being stripped away by the combination of mass consumer capitalism and liberal individualism.”

We are highly unlikely to recover that en masse. I didn’t get this from anyone at the conference, but one recurring critical reaction to the Ben Op concept is to fault it for not having a grand ideological strategy to replace what it criticizes. But Patrick Deneen writes — and I think he’s correct here — that we have to resist the impulse to “devise a new and better political theory.” Rather, he writes, what we need is “not a better theory, but better practices.” His point is that we don’t know what’s going to come after liberalism, but what we can do right now is the restoration of a strong local culture — within households and small communities, and working outward organically. To put it another way, we cannot “save America” any more than St. Benedict could “save Rome,” and at this point, it’s a waste of time to try. But we might be able to save our families, our neighbors, the people in our church and school, and so forth, by changing the way we live. Deneen:

Perhaps there is another way, starting with the efforts of people of goodwill to form distinctive countercultural communities in ways distinct from the deracinated and depersonalized form of life that liberalism seems above all to foster.

Again, I’ll say a lot more about this when Why Liberalism Failed comes out in January. Deneen’s point is the same as Vaclav Havel’s: only by creating a better life can we create a better system. One day, in the distant future, liberalism’s successor will arise, as imperial Rome’s successors eventually did, after a period of great turmoil and confusion. The church, including the monasteries, had a lot to say about the system that emerged, and that continued to develop towards a more humane ideal. If we want it to do so in the future that will be inhabited by our descendants generations from now, we had better act now to build the communities, institutions, and practices that will make faithful hearts more resilient in the times of trial to come.

I’m thinking right now of an attendee yesterday who told me about a congregation she had been a part of. They were collapsing numerically, and they knew it. It frightened them. But they were still clinging to the old ways of doing things, fearing that to give up anything would mean giving up everything. Mind you, these are not progressive Lutherans, and the proposed changes were not by any means to doctrine. I won’t go into more detail out of respect for privacy, but the point is that here was a congregation that knew in its bones that its days were numbered if it kept doing what it was used to doing, but it lacked neither the imagination nor the courage to take radical steps to save itself and to give itself a greater chance at viability in the future. It was less frightening to them to go down with the ship rather than take radical steps to save themselves.

This is a very human thing. Some friends here in south Louisiana, during the great flood of 2016, went to rescue an elderly man and his wife from their soaked mobile home. The friends said it was uninhabitable, that mold was going to take over soon, and so forth. The old couple refused to leave. My friends didn’t have the authority to make them leave, so they left. As the failed rescuers put it to me, it was too scary for that couple to leave what they knew, even though they could see all around them that the flood had effectively destroyed their home, and that it would rot around them, either driving them out or making them so sick that they might die. Yet, there they sat.

This is how it is with a lot of us conservative Christians today.

One attendee told me she had read The Benedict Option when it first came out, and had come to believe that the election of Donald Trump caused a delayed reaction in a large number of conservative Christians. “If Hillary had won,” she said, “I bet these Christians would have been forced to take a good, hard look at how messed up the system is, and to take the kind of actions you talk about in your book.”

But Trump’s unexpected win gave them an out, she said. Now, though, about a year into the Trump presidency, it’s impossible to plausibly deny that he’s not going to make things better. He’s dysfunctional. Both political parties are dysfunctional. Washington is dysfunctional. The media are dysfunctional. People are tribalizing. It’s not going to get better anytime soon, she said, and Christians who are paying attention, even those who had supported Trump (I got the impression that she had been a Trump voter) knew, or ought to know, that there is no real alternative to the Benedict Option.

Well, I agree with that, but it was interesting to hear someone else say it.

At the conference, I got to visit with my friends Mark and Mollie Hemingway, who both gave speeches. The Hemingways are LCMS Lutherans. In the group Q&A session at the end of the event, Mollie brought up the Benedict Option, and said that when she read the book, it made perfect sense to her, because that’s how her Lutheran parents raised her. I loved hearing that, because it underscores Leah Libresco’s point in the book: that the Benedict Option is just the church being the church, and doing what it’s supposed to have been doing all along, but stopped doing.

This is a very important point. From the book:

In my travels in search of the Benedict Option, I found no more complete embodiment of it than the Tipi Loschi, the vigorously orthodox, joyfully countercultural Catholic community in Italy recommended to me by Father Cassian of Norcia. Motoring with Tipi Loschi leader Marco Sermarini through the hills above his city, I asked him how the rest of us could have what his community has discovered.

Start by getting serious about living as Christians, he said. Accept that there can be no middle ground. The Tipi Loschi began as a group of young Catholic men who wanted more out of their faith life than Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

“That used to be my life,” said Marco. “I didn’t know the teaching of Jesus Christ was for all my life, not just the ‘religious’ part of it. If you recognize that He is the Lord of all, you will order your life in a radically different way.”

What Marco and his friends found, to their great surprise, was that everything they needed to live as faithfully together had been right in front of them all along. “We invented nothing,” he said. “We discovered nothing. We
are only rediscovering a tradition that was locked away inside an old box. We had forgotten.”

We had forgotten. Mollie Hemingway’s parents hadn’t forgotten, though. There are plenty of Christians who still remember, and plenty more who went in search of the cultural memory that their parents, and popular culture, erased — and found it. The answers we’re looking for are here, in our tradition. We have to live them, though — not just read about them, but live them. This, I think, is where the Benedict Option concept does add something new: it frames “the church just being the church” in a consciously countercultural — or, as Deneen has it, a “counter-anticultural” — way, positing the church’s way of life as existing in opposition to the dominant American culture. It is also in opposition to liberalism, in both its left-wing and right-wing varieties, because it refuses to believe the nihilistic lie that we are living in an Everlasting Now, and that man is the master of all things.

Liberalism, and the increasingly powerful administrative state that its progress requires, can take a lot of things away from faithful, small-o orthodox Christians. It can take away our business, our jobs, our professional opportunities, our institutions, and more. But it cannot take away our faith, unless through ignorance, cowardice, laziness, or indifference, we let it drift through our fingers. It was so very encouraging to me to meet Lutheran men and women who are determined not to let that happen to them.

UPDATE: We’ll have a fuller discussion of Deneen’s book later, when it’s out, but to clarify: Deneen’s basic point is that liberalism has failed because it succeeded so well in liberating individuals from a sense that they have unchosen obligations to the past, the future, or to each other. The trouble is, you cannot run a society that way. If you contemplate why “social media” ends up making us more isolated and abstracted from reality, despite its intention to connect us more closely, you’ll be on to Deneen’s argument about liberalism’s paradoxes. But again, we’ll talk about that in-depth later. I should add too that Deneen fully acknowledges the great goods that liberalism has given us, and he says it’s not possible or even desirable to go back to the pre-liberal past. Still, liberalism has reached, or is at least very close to reaching, a dead end, for reasons he explains in his book.