Peter Wolfgang wrote what I consider to be a really dumb piece yesterday, arguing that the Benedict Option produced Donald Trump. His point is that we got Donald Trump because too many Christians stayed out of the political fray. It’s a groundless argument for a number of reasons. But here’s the gist of it:
Some of the same churches that defended traditional marriage a decade ago now seem to be in thrall to ideologies urging a Christian withdrawal from public life. This has had an effect on how they vote. Some view Trump as the strong man best positioned to make the government leave them alone to practice their faith. Many seem to have given up on political involvement altogether.
Regardless of whatever the Benedict Option actually is, it and other things are heard as a call for disengagement from politics. Many small-“o” orthodox Christians are actually doing it. This is especially true here in the Northeast, where Trump scored his biggest margins of victory.
One criticism of Benedict Option thinking is that because it doesn’t directly produce real-world effects — or because those effects aren’t puristic — it’s not salutary. But that’s a category error. How could it produce direct political or social effects? (And for that matter, how could it directly prevent them?) That’d be especially ironic given MacIntyre’s portrayal of the non-communicability of virtue in contemporary society. Rod Dreher makes a similar point: he calls the Benedict Option “an intentional and thoughtful retreat into narrativity, by which I mean a reclaiming of the church’s story, inculcating commitment to it within the lives of its members, in defiance of the narrative collapse around us.”
Dreher says that to ask whether the Benedict Option could have caused Trump’s political ascendancy is “a stupid question to ask. A really stupid question.” I assume he means it’s stupid because it’s just the wrong sort of question.
For Wolfgang to be right, there has to be a “silent majority,” or something like it, of orthodox Catholics and conservative Evangelicals, who could turn this thing around if they just committed themselves more completely to partisan political activism. For one, that’s especially untrue in the Northeast, which is one of the most liberal, secular regions of the country (see here). Plus, we are living in a time of declining religious belief across the board in America. Finally, the Indiana RFRA debacle last year was the political Waterloo for religious conservatives. It showed that when Big Business takes sides against us in the culture war, the Republican Party will cave.
This is political reality. The Benedict Option is meant to be an alternative strategy to coping with this reality, and more broadly, with the fact that we now live in a post-Christian culture.
I don’t say that conservative Christians should get out of political life, stop voting, stop running for office, and so forth. I expect that we will keep doing that, and that’s fine, that’s even necessary. But we should abandon political hope, by which I mean that we should understand that politics can at best be a defensive action at this point, not a means by which conservative Christians can transform the commons, except at the local level.
The Ben Op is also about transforming the way we conceive of politics. At the broadest theoretical level, politics is the art and science of managing our common life. Seen this way, creating a classical Christian school to serve your community is a political act. Building a local economic network to serve your community (see Bernacchio and de Mahy on this) is a political act. Anything you do to build up the common good according to what you know to be good, true, and beautiful can be seen as a political act. As Bernacchio and de Mahy say:
We must be anti-modern to the extent that contemporary social and economic structures are destructive of the common good of local communities.
Dreher and other proponents of the Benedict Option stand at the crossroads of economics and ethics. Transcending contemporary cultural debates requires an understanding of the relationship between modern ethics and modern economics. Putting flesh on the Benedict Option requires an examination of contemporary forms of community that have been able to defend common goods against the atomizing effect of contemporary economic institutions.
This is true. The Benedict Option is a work in progress. Shoot, the Benedict Option book is a work in progress, literally. I don’t expect the book to settle arguments, but rather to start and give direction and substance to both contemplation and action to build these alternative Christian communities. A lot of people have this idea that I’m talking about building communes or somesuch thing. No. I mean, some might do that, and that’s fine by me, but most of us cannot do that, and do not want to do that. But it’s more achievable to build schools, and other institutions, and to build up our churches as our primary communities, in concrete ways. All of this I’m going to talk about in the book.
But hear me: I intend this book not to be the last word in the Benedict Option, but the first. Imagining it and building it is going to be a collaborative process, involving Christians all around the country, and even overseas (I got a very nice, long letter from a Hungarian Catholic, aged 31, today, saying how much the Benedict Option is needed in her country). This is going to be an adventure.
The longer Christians cling to the obsolete notion that if we just keep doing what we’ve always done, politically, things are going to turn around, the longer it’s going to take them to understand the reality we are now living in, and act both realistically and idealistically to construct a useful and meaningful response. These are not normal times. We cannot react normally to them.
The reconstruction of a morally serious political culture is essential, if American democracy is not to descend into incoherence and what an eminent churchman once called the “dictatorship of relativism.” That reconstruction could start with U.S. Catholics leavening our politics—and the culture as a whole—with Catholic social doctrine.
Well, yes, I would like that very much. But how does that happen politically when the tides are turning strongly against Catholic teaching? Who does the orthodox Catholic vote for? Hillary? Trump? Neither one offers a platform other than one notionally consonant with Catholic (or traditional Christian) teaching. By what means would Catholics achieve that, except at the local level? The nation itself is post-Christian! We have to accept that reality and figure out how to be what Pope Benedict XVI called (after Toynbee) a “creative minority.”
I don’t know how to do this completely. Nobody does, as far as I can tell. But we have no choice now but to put our heads together and try new things, risk failure, learn how to live as minorities in a hostile culture and to thrive. This is the heart Christian politics now and in the future. Yes, we will keep voting, and yes, we will run for office. But that kind of political action is now at the periphery. We lost the political fight because we lost the culture a long time ago. It’s going to be a very long time before it will even be possible to return to normal politics for us. We need a Christian politics for the long duration — and that will look a lot like what Peter King envisions in his great, wholly secular book The Antimodern Condition:
What makes [King’s program] manageable is that we focus on what is close to us, and what we focus on remains close to us. It is important because it is close, and close because it is important. And of course only part of the world is close to us. We cannot hold it all close to us; we cannot focus on all of it; and we can only understand but a fraction of it.
… So acceptance, which begins with the personal and ripples out, becomes, in its way, political. It shows how we view others as well as ourselves. It sets out the limits for our actions and what we should do for others and well as ourselves. Acceptance is the antimodern condition, whereby we reject the modernist ideal of progress and perfectibility. The beauty of the concept of acceptance is precisely what it encloses. It allows us to move beyond the assumptions of modernity, and we can do so positively. We can reject modernity in favour of something else. We are not being nihilistic or relishing in contrariness and rejection. Instead what we are doing is showing that there is an alternative to modernity and that this does not involve the flight of fancy of postmodern thought. We can stay grounded while criticising the modern. We can hold our position without seeking to transgress or to destroy. What we are saying is that we wish to keep what we have and we wish to do so because we know what it does for us. We know and need nothing more than this and this understanding arises out of experience. Our complacency is not groundless but based on an honesty that comes from a clear vision of what is close rather than scouring the horizon for what we hope might one day appear. The antimodern condition allows us to make that most peaceful of political statements: ‘I know my place.’
… Instead of calling for political action, [I argue] for a withdrawal to within the four walls of our home. This is not so we can isolate ourselves, but rather a pleas for acceptance of what makes our lives tenable and meaningful.
Here is a link to Prof. Peter King’s blog, also called The Antimodern Condition. I wish he updated it more often. He’s marvelous, and more people should know about him. Here’s a link to his latest book of essays, Here And Now, available inexpensively on Kindle. Try the “read inside” feature. If you’re a Ben Op fan, you’ll like what you read.
(Note to Ashgate, the publisher of The Antimodern Condition: Please consider releasing an affordable paperback instead of the wildly expensive, limited edition academic hardcover. I am going to praise this book to the heavens in my forthcoming book The Benedict Option, and I think there will be something of a clamor in the US for it. I hope so.)