David Sessions has some interesting ideas about how the Benedict Option talk reminds him of 19th century French Catholics coming to terms with the Revolution’s effects. Excerpts:
I have developed a fascination with Rod Dreher’s blogging about what he is calling the “Benedict Option,” the idea that because American culture is entering a dark period of persecution of conservative Christianity, conservative Christians should turn inward to focus on revitalizing their own communities in preparation. This comes in the wake of the controversy over the Indiana discrimination law, the reaction to which seems to have been for Dreher something of a final confirmation that gay rights will lead to the widespread political persecution of religious conservatives for their increasingly intolerable beliefs.
OK, stop right there. This is a classic case of people projecting their own fears onto the Benedict Option concept. I think that life will be made increasingly uncomfortable for orthodox Christians in the years to come, but I honestly don’t know if it will come down to actual persecution, though I suppose to the man who has been driven out of his job, or the woman who has lost her business, this is a distinction without a difference. In any case, as I have said over and over, and will keep saying over and over, if there were no such thing as same-sex marriage we would still need the Benedict Option because the logic of liberalism — and by that I mean mainstream, pro-market Republicans as well as lefty Democrats — is destroying orthodox Christianity.
Gay marriage and the advance of homophilia in our culture has come at the expense of religious liberty, just as LGBT advocate and lawyer Chai Feldblum said it would. It has been the catalyst for a lot of Benedict Option speculation among orthodox (that is, traditional) Christians because it is the ultimate institutionalization of the Sexual Revolution and the autonomous individualism that characterizes liberalism. I have said over and over that Christians who think same-sex marriage and the rest is a one-off thing, disconnected from what came before, are deluded. Sessions seems to agree, and also to agree that the triumph of gay rights is a genuine cultural turning point:
My argument is that, even though the extremists on both sides [of the 19th century French struggle — RD] were wrong about the exterminationist ambitions of their antagonists, to the point of being legitimate conspiracy theorists, they perceived a conflict on the metaphysical level that the compromisers tried to downplay. There was a profound transformation taking place of the ideological basis of social authority, a struggle between a vision of society rooted in obedience to divine revelation deposited in the institutions and traditions of the church, and a vision rooted on the primary power of individual human reason, with the state as its guardian and “instructor.” These two visions could be made to coexist institutionally, as they arguably do in contemporary France, but first, one had to win decisively. There had to be an absolute sovereign with broad authority to set the terms of any conciliation. As Danièle Hervieu-Léger puts it, “The confrontation between church and state goes back, in the French case, to an inexpungible struggle for mastery of the reference to transcendence.”
And so it is with us. People who don’t see the largely zero-sum nature of the gay rights vs. religious liberty debate don’t want to see it. More Sessions:
But the civic religion of the American government shares another aspect with its Enlightenment sources: because it is rationalist and naturalistic, depending on the light of human reason and assuming historical progress, it is inherently in tension with the ahistorical, normative claims of religion at any particular moment. Because of the historical progress assumed to be a byproduct of the rational project, it will eventually move out of alignment with religious claims once broadly recognized as social norms. To quote Hervieu-Léger again (who is influenced on the point by Marcel Gauchet): “Heaven and earth are increasingly distanced from each other, and the state alone is henceforth invested with the task of rationalizing the earth.” Historical forces in the U.S. did not produce an intense moment of institutional expropriation of religion—something that can produce an anti-religious society fairly quickly, as in the case of Québec. But there is no reason to think that the passage of time, and particularly considering America’s reckless commitment to subjugating all social relations and human concerns to the profit motive, would not eventually perform a similar function. We’re thus fighting a pale, spectral version of the battle France fought in the nineteenth century—spectral because the metaphysical transformation still at issue in nineteenth-century France was decided in America at the beginning.
Yes, I think he’s right about this. But here’s the thing: this is news to nearly all American Christians. They have not thought through the deep logic of our cultural situation because they have never had to do so. General Christian principles were the framework within which we all moved and thought. The fact of post-Christian America has not occurred to most orthodox Christians. The quick acceptance of same-sex marriage revealed something about American culture that has shocked many Christians, who now must reflect, in a way their ancestors never had to, on the relationship they as people of faith have to their own country, and its ideals. This is what is so radical about the current moment, from an orthodox Christian point of view.
Will the U.S. really become a place where people with conservative religious beliefs are politically persecuted and socially ostracized? To put it simply, it’s impossible to imagine such a thing. Our form of government is too decentralized and self-contradictory, and its religion too diverse. We are not really arguing over a profound change, just a logical step in a historical progression—a step that conservatives have decided for the moment is the hill to die on.
I have already qualified “persecution,” but if it is impossible for Sessions to imagine being politically and socially ostracized over this issue, he is utterly deluded. I have been talking to people recently within various professional institutions and industries who are dealing with this right now. Not as any kind of dire prediction of what might happen, but what is happening, at the present moment. Rhetoric like Sessions’s, denying the radicalism of the change now happening (in part by hysterically exaggerating my actual position), is designed to convince the frog not to worry, that the heat rising in the pot of water is just the natural progression of things, and nothing to be anxious about. Or, less kindly, it’s about telling the unwilling woman to lay back and enjoy it, because it’s really not so bad once you get used to it.
I don’t doubt that Sessions really believes what he’s saying, but it’s imperative that orthodox Christians do not believe it, because they will won’t see what’s coming.
Finally, one more bit from Sessions:
In America, that battle for authority was lost before the country ever started; we were always an individualist, progressive nation, suspicious of absolutist social claims. What gay rights has revealed is the finality of the long erosion of our de facto Puritan sexual mores, the full and definitive integration of sexuality into the individualist ethos that American society, including most of its religion, has always embraced.
Emphasis his own. Here, he concedes the historical turning point of the current moment, and frames it as a historical inevitability, given the liberal founding principles of America. I think he’s probably right about this, but why he believes this should not concern orthodox Christians is beyond me.
It is incomparably more important to me to be a good Christian than to be a good American. Ideally, the two should harmonize, within reason, but the post-Christian nature of American culture is stretching the tension between the two nearly to a breaking point. In the short term, orthodox Christians are not going to win this one. The country has changed too much. My view is that we have to stay engaged to fight for our right to be left alone, but it’s more important now to prepare the institutions and networks necessary to endure rising hostility, and not only to endure, but to flourish amid it. I am against assimilation. The logic of liberal, individualistic America is to melt everything solid.
It’s frustrating that Sessions wants to reduce this to a political question. The political and legal question are less important than the cultural one. I have to catch a flight here in Atlanta in a few minutes, but I will quote from a chapter in Matthew Crawford’s new book The World Beyond Your Head, in which he presents Las Vegas as an American Babylon, created by the same liberal, individualizing forces that are at the heart of our political and cultural ethos. By “liberal,” he means libertarian and leftist both:
Liberal agnosticism about the good life has some compelling historical reasons behind it. It is a mind-set that was consciously cultivated as an antidote to the religious wars of centuries ago, when people slaughtered one another over ultimate differences. After World War II, revulsion with totalitarian regimes of the right and left made us redouble our liberal commitment to neutrality. But this stance is maladaptive in the context of twenty-first-century capitalism because, if you life in the West and aren’t caught up in battles between Sunnis and Shiites, for example, and if we also put aside the risk of extraordinary lethal events like terrorist attacks in Western countries, then the everyday threats to your well-being no longer come from an ideological rival or a theological threat to the liberal secular order. They are native to that order. [Emphasis mine — RD]
Those with a material interest in doing so have learned to speak autonomy talk, and to tap into the deep psychology of autonomy in ways that lead to its opposite. Further … our original liberal principle of value agnosticism neutralizes our critical energies.
If we have no robust and demanding picture of what a good life would look like, then we are unable to articulate any detailed criticism of the particular sort of falling away fromva good life that something like machine gambling represents. We are therefore unable to offer any rationale for regulation that would go beyond narrow economic considerations. We take the “preferences” of the individual to be sacred, the mysterious welling up of his authentic self, and therefore unavailable for rational scrutiny. The fact that these preferences are the objet of billon-dollar, scientifically informed efforts of manipulation doesn’t square with the picture of the choosing self assumed in the idea of a “free market.” It is a fact without a noisy partisan, so our attention is easily diverted from it. Further, by keeping his gaze away from such facts, the liberal/libertarian keeps his own soul pure, lest he commit the sin of recommending to others some substantive ideal, one that will necessarily be controversial. But outside his garden wall there are wolves preying on the townspeople. In our current historical circumstances, his liberal purity amounts to a lack of public-spiritedness.
Christians who continue to hold on to “liberal purity,” even of the conservative Republican, 100% Americanism, market-über-alles kind, are going to find their religious faith devoured by the wolves outside the garden wall. This is the reason for the Benedict Option. We and our descendants are going to live through this. If we want them to get through with their faith intact, we are going to have to take some radical steps to build resilience into them and into our communities.