Leah Libresco has been digging deep into the Pew data sets, and has discovered that when Americans change religions, Evangelical Christianity is the religion most of them embrace. Excerpts:
If conversions went on as they do today and all other factors were held steady, America would wind up with the religious demographics of the stable distribution.
Unaffiliateds would wind up modestly gaining ground (from 23 percent at present to 29 percent).1 And Christian denominations would drop a little (from 69 percent at present to 62 percent at equilibrium).2
But there would be substantial redistribution among Christian groups, with evangelical Protestants gaining (26 percent at present to 32 percent) and Catholics losing more than half their current share of the population (21 percent to 8 percent).
Why do evangelicals wind up ahead of other Christian sects in this model? They’re better at holding on to the people born into their tradition (65 percent retention compared to 59 percent for Catholics and 45 percent for Mainline Protestants), and they’re a stronger attractor for people leaving other faiths. According to Pew’s data on conversion rates, 10 percent of people raised Catholic wind up as evangelicals. Just 2 percent of people born as evangelicals wind up Catholic. The flow between mainline and evangelical Protestants is also tilted in evangelicals’ favor. Twelve percent of those raised evangelical wind up in mainline congregations, but 19 percent of mainline Protestants wind up becoming evangelical.
Leah, a recent convert to Catholicism, also looked at the role fertility has on increasing (or not) the size of each religious tribe. She found that the Nones — those without a religion, or without religious affiliation — are effectively infertile, having children at below the replacement rate. The news is bad for Orthodox Christians either way: my tribe isn’t having enough babies or converting enough people to replace ourselves, and are therefore declining overall. We are already a tiny minority, and because we are neither effectively evangelizing nor having children beyond the replacement rate, we are on track to extinction. Mormons and Muslims, as it turns out, do vastly better relying on fertility to increase their numbers, rather than conversions.
But the worst news is for Leah’s own tribe:
In either model, Catholics wind up as one of the biggest losers even though their odds of retaining the children born into their faith are in the middle of the pack. They’re not a strong enough attractor of people leaving other faiths to replenish the people they lose, and so their share diminishes to the single digits.
Understand what she’s saying here. If current trends continue — and Leah cautions that this model is not predictive, but rather is meant to cast light on which churches and faiths are better today at retaining and attracting new members — Catholicism would come very close to collapsing in this country. The big gainers are the Nones and Evangelicals. If the current trajectory continues, America is on track to be significantly less Christian country, though it will still be able to claim a Christian majority, and the kind of Christian most Americans will be — by a long shot — will be either Evangelical or Mormon (who, as non-Trinitarians, are not seen as technically Christian by other Christian churches, but who are plainly within the Christian tradition).
The fact is, Evangelicals are doing an incomparably better job than other Christian traditions at evangelizing and making converts, and Mormons (and Muslims) are doing an incomparably better job at having babies.
These numbers startled me. I had no idea that the Catholic collapse was so dramatic, probably because the headspace I live in daily, online, is so strongly Catholic. Catholicism is on track to become such a minority religion in America that absent some dramatic shake-up, its numbers will in the future look like those of historically black Protestants today. Now, one in five Americans is Catholic; on current projections, only about one in ten will be in the future. (I can’t tell what the timeline is here; how far into the future does the analysis run?). Of course anything might happen to change this trajectory, which is why Leah says that you should look at the data not as a sign of what’s going to happen, but rather of what’s happening now.
So, questions to the room:
1. What are Catholics doing wrong?
2. What are Evangelicals doing right?
I have no experience with Evangelicalism, so I’ll defer to the judgment of you readers. My sense is that whatever flaws both Evangelicals and non-Evangelicals may identify within that tradition, Evangelicals are much more successful than other Christian churches at making the encounter with God real to its people. And a lot of that has to do with their vigorous engagement with the Bible.
In Catholicism, the ethos at the parish level is, in general, more like a sacrament factory. The worship experience is a lot like Mainline Protestantism, actually, and if you’re going to do Protestantism, the Evangelicals are much, much better at it. Some intellectual Catholics of an orthodox orientation, conceding the flaws in worship, liturgical and otherwise, stand firm on the intellectual arguments for Catholicism. Despite its problems, they will say, the Roman church remains the church that Christ founded, and unlike all other churches (except the Orthodox, who are negligible in an Americn context) it has the Real Presence of the Eucharist at its center. I spoke to a frustrated but faithful Catholic recently who said that despite all the problems at the local level, he keeps going to mass because he believes that is the only place to truly experience Jesus in the Eucharist.
As an ex-Catholic turned Orthodox, I obviously don’t agree with that analysis, but it does make sense. The problem with it is that it does not make sense to most dissatisfied Catholics, as the dramatic Pew numbers show. It is the kind of thing it takes a mighty intellectual effort to hold on to, an effort that includes a significant amount of self-education in the doctrines of the Catholic faith. It’s not happening at the popular level. In her great little 2010 book Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Catholic theologian Tracey Rowland contends that Joseph Ratzinger was a prophet fighting against the sacrament factory. Excerpt:
For the second half of the twentieth century (especially since 1968) and the beginning of the twenty-first he has represented Catholic theology in the face of a militant secularism and various crises internally created within the Catholic Church. With respect to the latter, Philip Blosser offered the following indictment of post-Conciliar Catholic culture:
For more than two generations now, we [Catholics] have been robbed of the fullness of Catholicism, which is our birthright. With a few thankful exceptions, our collective acquaintance with Scripture is piecemeal, our knowledge of tradition is pathetic, our hymns are embarrassing, our religious art is ugly, our churches look like UN meditation chapels, our ethics are slipshod, and our aesthetic and spiritual sensibilities are so far from being sublime that they almost look ridiculous. … For over two generations our faith formation has been shaped by a media culture that has portrayed our Church as a dinosaur that is either an impediment to social progress or simply irrelevant.
Amidst this general condition of cultural poverty, Ratzinger never pursued a strategy of accommodation to the culture of modernity, as was the preferred option of so many of his generation, but he did set about … to recapture the essential spirit of Christianity. … The development of a Christian personalism, in Ratzinger’s case, one heavily indebted to St. Augustine and Guardini, has been one of the positive post-Conciliar developments helping to counterbalance Blosser’s long list of humiliating failures.
Rowland goes on:
The rise of Catholic Inc. — the model of the Church as a modern corporation — has in recent times fostered this “tragedy of a starved imagination” [the phrase is the Catholic poet Paul Claudel's]. The pneumatological dimension of the Church is constantly suppressed by people with narrow imaginations focused on figures, annual reports and mission statements. Against this contemporary sociological development Ratzinger constantly reiterates the importance of the prophetic Pauline charism and the personalist nature of Catholic welfare and community service. Ratzinger’s use of the phrase “our bureaucratized faith” and his many warnings against this tendency of the Church to ape the managerial processes of the corporate world represent an acute sociological observation about the source of pastoral problems in the contemporary Church.
Rowland quotes a French Catholic theologian saying that at the root of the most serious crises the Catholic Church has faced in the modern era have to do with “the theological significance of experience.” She says that Ratzinger, in contrast to “neo-Thomists in the pre-Conciliar mode” and liberation theologians, has a robust Augustinian theology of beauty, from which he was able to judge the postconciliar aesthetic leveling of the Catholic experience. Also, she says, Ratzinger was able to perceive something his co-generationalists within the Catholic Church could not: that the question is not, “How can Christianity plausibly co-exist with secularism?”, but rather “What is the place of Christianity within a pluralistic culture in which people may choose any number of religious options, or no option at all?”
My sense is that Rowland’s take on Benedict’s worldview tells us a lot of why Catholicism is failing in America (and highlights the tragedy of the brevity of the great man’s papacy). The leadership class of the Catholic Church — bishops, theologians, and so forth — “gave themselves up to modernity just as the real avant-garde was beginning to critique it. They came out of their bunkers with their hands in the air as the enemy was departing for a new battlefield. The Catholic elite of this generation was left to look effete and irrelevant.” In an effort to be relevant to modernity, they surrendered the Catholic distinctives that stood in contradiction to the currents of modernity. Thus while Catholic theology remains intact, the transmission of that theology in the lived experience of the parish — both in worship and in catechetics — has badly broken down. Paradoxically, in many parishes, a worshiper in this most sacramentally-oriented of the major American Christian churches may find himself having to hold on to the truths of his faith by exercising his will and his imagination to an extraordinary degree, because what he sees happening around him does not convey what the Church proclaims to be true.
If you want a vivid, tangible sense of beauty, reverence, and sacramentalism within the ancient Christian tradition, Orthodoxy gives you that far better than the Roman church (though as I’ve said, we are tiny, and we do a poor job of making converts). If you are drawn to the Protestant form of Christianity, Evangelicals evidently do a far better job of it, of making it real and relevant to the lives of ordinary people. I say “evidently” based solely on the numbers; I have little direct experience of Evangelicalism. The problem for Catholicism in America seems to be that the bureaucracy effectively embraced the Mainline Protestant ethos, casting aside Catholic distinctives, in a time in which Mainline Protestants were going into decline and losing market share to Evangelicals, with their more robust and engaged way of worshiping, and living out the Gospel. Leah Libresco’s data crunch seems to me to be another testimony to that theologian’s framing of all the big modern (= 18th century to the present) problems in Catholicism as one of the theological significance of experience.
In his First Things column today, George Weigel tears into the German Catholic bishops for their pastoral failures. He writes:
Now comes this report for the synod, which suggests that, on matters of marriage, the family, the morality of human love, and the things that make for genuine happiness, German Catholic thinking is virtually indistinguishable from that of non-believers.
Yes, but if you poll American Catholics (not bishops alone), you’ll find that this is pretty much true for them too.
I have to say also that Catholic and Orthodox intellectuals — I am guilty of this — have a strong tendency toward self-satisfaction, resting in the beauty and the intellectual depth of our respective ancient traditions, but notably lacking in missionary zeal. This is not generally a problem for Evangelicals.
I eagerly await your comments, but I’m not going to publish comments that are crude tu quoque remarks. There is no Christian church in America that has the solution, though on evidence, the Evangelicals are doing far, far better than the rest of us. We non-Evangelical Christians should learn from them. So, let me repeat the questions I want us to talk about here:
1. What are Catholics doing wrong?
2. What are Evangelicals doing right?
If you come from a non-Christian religious tradition, or a Christian tradition that is neither Catholic nor Evangelical, please feel free to comment on your tradition’s strengths and weaknesses in light of Leah’s analysis of Pew’s data. In my case, it’s pretty simple: Orthodoxy is so exotic in the American context that it’s hard for it to evangelize relative to other Christian churches, and it doesn’t do much evangelization anyway. The best form of Orthodox evangelism is to get someone to come to church. The experience of Orthodox worship can be overwhelming, in a good way. There’s just nothing else like it in American Christianity. Not even close. You really do have to come and see for yourself. But it’s hard to get people to do that, and I don’t think we try nearly as hard as we should.
If there’s one thing that sets Beevor apart from other historians – beyond his gifts as a storyteller – it’s that he is not afraid to look at the most uncomfortable, even frightening subjects, but does so in a way that doesn’t threaten the reader. There’s rarely a judgmental note to his writing. It’s like having Virgil there to lead you through the underworld: he doesn’t leave you stranded amid the horror, but leads you back out again, a wiser person for having undergone the journey.
He has a knack for choosing controversial subjects at the right moment – when they are raw enough to touch a nerve, but not so raw as to be too painful to acknowledge. His latest is an account of the battle of the Ardennes in 1944. The book, which comes out this month, is a natural progression from his earlier history of D-Day. There is the same political tension between the British and American commanders; there is the same desperation in the fighting of ordinary soldiers on both sides; but at the heart of it lies another dark subject: the indiscriminate killing of prisoners. This, Beevor says, is “unmentionable”, one of the last taboos of the war. “I still haven’t read any American historian on the subject of the shooting of prisoners. And until recently I don’t think many British historians have written about the British killing of prisoners. That was something the Germans did, but we prefer not to talk about our boys doing it.”
Beevor speaks of fighting between Americans and Germans in a thickly forested part of the Ardennes:
Here, men on both sides developed extraordinarily creative ways of killing one another. They fired bursts of artillery at the tree tops so that splinters would tear through the people below. They learnt to play on the instincts of their enemies, placing landmines wherever they might seek shelter, such as in hollows or shell holes. Soldiers were often afraid to look about them, because they were too busy scanning the forest floor for trip wires. The Germans, in particular, developed a habit of placing explosive charges beneath American wounded or dead, knowing that as soon as a rescue team or burial party tried to move them, they, too, would be killed by the explosion.
“This is not a normal part of human behaviour,” Beevor tells me. The purpose of tactics such as this was not only to kill the enemy but also destroy their spirit. Both sides, he says, knew that demoralising the enemy could be the key to winning each battle; thus brutality, even atrocity, became an integral part of the fighting.
The things the Germans did, the things we did, beggar belief. One last excerpt:
As we talk, it is clear that Beevor struggles with these issues. Outside academia, there are few people who are prepared to look unflinchingly at the less flattering parts of our behaviour – and certainly no one with Beevor’s large readership has. What’s more, it is one thing to state that such events happened – an admission that many historians have shied away from – but quite another to know how to react to them. The whole subject runs counter to our most cherished communal myths about British and American heroism and gallantry.
Beevor knows instinctively that he must tread carefully, neither condoning the revenge nor reaching for outright condemnation.
“I think what one should try to do is to leave the moral judgments up to the reader. There’s no use in being judgmental. Far from it; we can only speculate as to how we would react in the circumstances ourselves,” he says.
For me, the most intellectually and morally difficult task is facing the horror of what Our Side (e.g., our ancestors, our country, our church) did in a given situation, without surrendering to the despair of nihilism. I was watching Selma with the kids the other night, and telling them, to their very great shock, that such things happened right here in our town too. When I wrote a while back about the reign of racist terror that white supremacists — my own ancestors, broadly speaking — presided over in the South, I compared it to the rule of ISIS.
That angered lots of readers, but I honestly don’t know how else to describe the lawless terror, including killings, for the sake of ideology. It doesn’t look like that to whites today, because that world disappeared so quickly, and it’s hard for us to imagine what it would have been like to have lived knowing that white power could and would kill you for getting out of line, and there was nothing you could do about it, because these people controlled the legal system. We Americans look at the atrocities that ISIS perpetrates, and are rightly horrified by them, especially by the revelry in sadism and gore that those Islamist berserkers embrace.
We did it too. As I wrote in that ISIS post:
See the photo that illustrates this blog post? It shows the charred remains of Jesse Washington, a black man lynched by a mob in Waco, Texas, on May 15, 1916. He had confessed under police interrogation to murdering a white woman. From the Wikipedia account of his lynching:
Washington was tried for murder in Waco, in a courtroom filled with furious locals. He entered a guilty plea and was quickly sentenced to death. After his sentence was pronounced, he was dragged out of the court by observers and lynched in front of Waco’s city hall. Over 10,000 spectators, including city officials and police, gathered to watch the attack. There was a celebratory atmosphere at the event, and many children attended during their lunch hour. Members of the mob castrated Washington, cut off his fingers, and hung him over a bonfire. He was repeatedly lowered and raised over the fire for about two hours. After the fire was extinguished, his charred torso was dragged through the town and parts of his body were sold as souvenirs. A professional photographer took pictures as the event unfolded, providing rare imagery of a lynching in progress. The pictures were printed and sold as postcards in Waco.
That was not the Middle Ages. That was 99 years ago, in Texas. The killers were not berserker jihadis. They were the people of Waco, Texas, including the leadership of the city.
It is a recurrent theme in human history that we tell ourselves lies to hide our own complicity in evil from ourselves, and to absolve ourselves of guilt. One of my favorite films, but a difficult one to watch, is Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity, a lengthy 1969 documentary about collaborationists in Nazi-occupied France. It’s a spellbinding work, because it shows how ordinary people, people we might otherwise think of as good, do horrible things and justify them. Not one of us knows how we would have acted had we been put to that test, just as not one of us knows how we would have acted had we been under fire in the Ardennes, and faced with taking as prisoners German soldiers who had committed war crimes.
We tell ourselves after the fact that the Cause, whatever it is, or was, absolves us, but it doesn’t, not really. War is at best a necessary evil. But an evil all the same.
And not only war. I feel certain that every Catholic bishop who facilitated child sexual abuse did so not because he wanted to see children abused, but because he thought that covering up these atrocities was necessary for the Cause. If it had not been for the courageous Boston Judge Constance Sweeney opening up the evidence in the Geoghan trial to the public, it would have been easy for those inclined to deny the truth to continue in their delusion. The people within our government’s national security apparatus who have signed off on torture, and who have approved massive spying on American citizens, no doubt aren’t doing it because they choose evil, but because they believe the good requires it.
“History will absolve me.”
It is our way as humans to see the world from the point of view of Exceptionalism: we as, [fill in the blank with race, religion, nationality, sexuality, political ideology, etc.], are not guilty, because we mean well, or were forced into behaving that way, or because Good People Like Us Can’t Possibly Be Guilty, Unlike Those Not Like Us.
“Mistakes were made.”
I want to believe that I would not have shot surrendering German prisoners, or would not have gone to that barbaric public lynching. But I cannot say with confidence what I would or would not have done. Unless you were there, neither can you.
Brought to you by Disney. Yes, Disney. Tells you all you need to know about where America is today — and where we are going.
If you are not a Benedict Option kind of Christian, your children and grandchildren probably won’t be any kind of Christian at all. This kind of thing — this relentless propaganda mocking the faith and what it stands for — is why. You may not be interested in being a radicalized Christian, but simply to stand firm for what you believe today will require you to be a radical in this increasingly anti-Christian culture.
UPDATE: Readers, it’s not that I expect this show to be a big hit. It’s the idea that a mainstream network would offer something so crass, vulgar, and hateful of religion as a comedy. This thing will likely fail, but that mentality will keep coming back, because it’s what lives in the imaginations of the people who run the image factory.
Above, a photo I just took of the books from my library that I have set aside for reading to inform me in the book I plan to write about the Benedict Option. I don’t believe this is an exhaustive list — I need to read Morris Berman, for example — but it is where I stand right now. A survey of these titles should make it clear that this is a theological and cultural project, not primarily a political one.
UPDATE: I forgot to mention that I have Hauerwas on order.
Have you heard of the Benedict Option? If not, you will soon.
It’s the name of a deeply pessimistic cultural project that’s capturing the imaginations of social conservatives as they come to terms with the realization that the hopes and assumptions that animated the religious right over the past 35-odd years have been dashed by the sweeping triumph of the movement for same-sex marriage.
He talks about how the standard base for Religious Right political activism over the past generation was a view that they stood for a “moral majority,” and if only they defeated the liberal elites controlling institutions of law and government, they would restore health to the body politic. It didn’t work. Despite the hope the George W. Bush presidency gave to many religious conservatives (both Evangelical and Catholic), they were dashed by reality. More Linker:
The mood among social conservatives has been darkening for years, as a liberal Democrat has taken and held the White House, as the Republican Party has placed greater emphasis on economic concerns than culture-war issues, and (most of all) as same-sex marriage has come to be accepted by more than half of the country and Democrats have begun to embrace it without apology.
But nothing compares to the gloom that’s set in during the weeks since the passage of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act sparked a rapid and widespread condemnation of religious traditionalists, not only by gay activists and liberal Democrats, but also by a number of Republicans with national stature and high-profile members of the business community. Suddenly social conservatives began to think the unthinkable: Is it possible that we’re now in the minority, with our freedoms subject to the whims of a hostile majority that will use the power of the modern liberal state (especially anti-discrimination laws) to enforce public conformity to secular, anti-Christian norms?
That’s where the Benedict Option comes in.
He talks about the politics of all this, pointing out that this inward turn toward “community building” within Christianity does not require, and will almost certainly not occasion, Amish-style political quietism, and will not be like the Fundamentalist withdrawal from public life of the early 20th century. He’s right about that, in my view, for reasons I have explained earlier on this blog, and will no doubt explain again. The headline for the essay overstates the case, though, saying that religious conservatives are considering “all-out withdrawal from politics.” No, that’s not true.
Here, in Linker’s words, is the radicalism of this present moment:
Then again, this may be the first time in American history that devout Christians have been forced by events to accept without doubt that they are a minority in a majority secular nation.
We have entered uncharted territory.
This offers me the opportunity to clarify something. The legalization of same-sex marriage, and the clear and irresolvable conflict it poses to religious liberty in our liberal order, has sharpened the vision of some religious conservatives. It has made clear how far the secularizing culture has moved away from its general Christian framework, and reveals how when it comes to a question of religious liberty versus gay rights, the elites in this culture — even Republican ones — will always side with gay rights. And increasingly, so will the public. The shock of Indiana to people like me was what it revealed about the state of the religious sense, and Christian conviction, in this country — not just within the Republican Party.
The point here is to make crystal clear that the Benedict Option is not a reactionary response to same-sex marriage. As I have said, if same-sex marriage were not an issue, and if the Republicans were running all branches of government, the Benedict Option would still be necessary for small-o orthodox Christians, because the logic and progression of secular modernity has hollowed out the Christian faith from within. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, as sociologist Christian Smith has written, is the de facto faith of most American teenagers — and, let us be honest, of most Americans. It is a counterfeit form of Christianity, the form of the faith that secular modernity produces. It is our form of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer condemned as “cheap grace … the deadly enemy of the church.”
Though it has political implications, the Benedict Option is not primarily a political project. It is primarily a theological and cultural project. It requires not a withdrawal from political life, but a strong recalibration on the part of Christians of what is possible through politics in a liberal order, and what is necessary to do for the sake of the preservation, over time, of authentic Christianity in a post-Christian and increasingly anti-Christian culture.
In fact, it is an example of what Vaclav Havel once dubbed “antipolitical politics.” The writer Robert Inchausti, in his great book Subversive Orthodoxy: Outlaws, Revolutionaries, and Other Christians in Disguise, has a good take on this:
Modern novelists may have diagnosed our current spiritual situation with clarity and power, but their visions must be transformed into practice if we really want to test their value as criticisms of life. The Christian social activists examined in this section [e.g., Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Merton, E.F. Schumacher, Wendell Berry] bring visionary standards to bear on the social realities of their times. Each of them advocate what Vaclav Havel calls “antipolitical politics,” politics not as an art of manipulation or rule over others, but as a way of achieving meaningful lives together, politics as “practical morality, as service to the truth, as essentially human and humanly measured care for our fellow humans.” Their collective work constitutes the beginning of a unified front against the “political politics” of both left- and right-wing ideologues, carrying forward Chesterton’s notions of decentralization and “distributism” into the twenty-first century. At first glance, this road not taken may seem a bit anachronistic and nostalgic, but for those for whom the Beatitudes still remain the last word in social ethics, it deserves a hard and close second look.
According to these religious theorist-practitioners, the primary threat to human autonomy no longer comes from “nature” or from “tyrants” but from economic, political, and social systems of our own making that have become increasingly powerful, increasingly self-perpetuating, and increasingly out of control. The men and women who operate these systems benefit by them and defend them with their lives but don’t really understand the impact they have on other individuals or cultures. And even if they did, they wouldn’t be able to do much about it given the complexities of the systems they serve and the enormity of the problems they face.
The response, these thinkers broadly indicate, is moving toward a smaller, more local economy. That is a political vision, but not one that fits into standard American ideology. As elite law professor “Prof. Kingsfield” said to me in our must-read interview, the legal revolution in gay and transgender rights is going to have dramatic impact on Christians, including at the economic level. This is not theory; this is happening now, and will expand greatly after the expected SCOTUS decision constitutionalizing same-sex marriage. As Kingsfield said, we are now at the point at which it is legitimate to ask if sexual autonomy is more important than the First Amendment.
In a 1984 essay, the Czech dissident Havel — who was not a religious man — wrote:
I am convinced that what is called ‘dissent’ in the Soviet bloc is a specific modern experience, the experience of life at the very ramparts of dehumanized power. As such, that ‘dissent’ has the opportunity and even the duty to reflect on this experience, to testify to it and to pass it on to those fortunate enough not to have to undergo it. Thus we too have a certain opportunity to help in some ways those who help us, to help them in our deeply shared interest, in the interest of mankind.
One such fundamental experience, that which I called ‘anti-political politics’, is possible and can be effective, even though by its very nature it cannot calculate its effect beforehand. 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 and it can be almost impossible to determine what value it assumed therein and to what extent, if any, it contributes to shaping social development. 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. It is becoming evident that even in today’s world, and especially on this exposed rampart where the wind blows most sharply, it is possible to oppose personal experience and the natural world to the ‘innocent’ power and to unmask its guilt, as the author of The Gulag Archipelago has done. It is becoming evident that truth and morality can provide a new starting point for politics and can, even today, have an undeniable political power. The warning voice of a single brave scientist, besieged somewhere in the provinces and terrorized by a goaded community, can be heard over continents and addresses the conscience of the mighty of this world more clearly than entire brigades of hired propagandists can, though speaking to themselves. It is becoming evident that wholly personal categories like good and evil still have their unambiguous content and, under certain circumstances, are capable of shaking the seemingly unshakeable power with all its army of soldiers, policemen and bureaucrats. It is becoming evident that politics by no means need remain the affair of professionals and that one simple electrician with his heart in the right place, honouring something that transcends him and free of fear, can influence the history of his nation.
Yes, ‘anti-political politics’ is possible. Politics ‘from below’. Politics of man, not of the apparatus. Politics growing from the heart, not from a thesis. It is not an accident that this hopeful experience has to be lived just here, on this grim battlement. Under the ‘rule of everydayness’ we have to descend to the very bottom of a well before we can see the stars.
When Jan Patocka wrote about Charter 77, he used the term ‘solidarity of the shaken’. He was thinking of those who dared resist impersonal power and to confront it with the only thing at their disposal, their own humanity. Does not the perspective of a better future depend on something like an international community of the shaken which, ignoring state boundaries, political systems, and power blocs, standing outside the high game of traditional politics, aspiring to no titles and appointments, will seek to make a real political force out of a phenomenon so ridiculed by the technicians of power—the phenomenon of human conscience?
This is the general orientation I have in mind when thinking about the Benedict Option: not a fearful fundamentalist withdrawal from culture, but a new and concentrated inwardness so that we can strengthen our communal lives and our outward witness and service to the broader culture. The urgency of this project, and the radicalism of the present moment, is captured by the Catholic philosopher Michael Hanby, in his First Things essay about the civic Christianity project. Excerpt:
[T]here can be little doubt that we live in revolutionary times, even if this revolution is the full flower of seeds planted long ago. What availed as the common wisdom of mankind until the day before yesterday—for example, that man, woman, mother, and father name natural realities as well as social roles, that children issue naturally from their union, that the marital union of man and woman is the foundation of human society and provides the optimal home for the flourishing of children—all this is now regarded by many as obsolete and even hopelessly bigoted, as court after court, demonstrating that this revolution has profoundly transformed even the meaning of reason itself, has declared that this bygone wisdom now fails even to pass the minimum legal threshold of rational cogency. This is astonishing by any measure; that it has occurred in half the time span proposed by Jonas makes it more astonishing still.
Such are the logical consequences of the sexual revolution, but to grasp more fully the meaning of its triumph, we must see that the sexual revolution is not merely—or perhaps even primarily—sexual. It has profound implications for the relationship not just between man and woman but between nature and culture, the person and the body, children and parents. It has enormous ramifications for the nature of reason, for the meaning of education, and for the relations between the state, the family, civil society, and the Church. This is because the sexual revolution is one aspect of a deeper revolution in the question of who or what we understand the human person to be (fundamental anthropology), and indeed of what we understand reality to be (ontology).
All notions of justice presuppose ontology and anthropology, and so a revolution in fundamental anthropology will invariably transform the meaning and content of justice and bring about its own morality. We are beginning to feel the force of this transformation in civil society and the political order. Court decisions invalidating traditional marriage law fall from the sky like rain. The regulatory state and ubiquitous new global media throw their ever increasing weight behind the new understanding of marriage and its implicit anthropology, which treats our bodies as raw material to be used as we see fit. Today a rigorous new public morality inverts and supplants the residuum of our Christian moral inheritance.
This compels us to reconsider the civic project of American Christianity that has for the most part guided our participation in the liberal public order for at least a century.
In other words: this is not a Christian nation anymore, meaning a nation that is guided by fundamental Christian ideas of what it means to be human, and what it means to be just. What Hanby calls the “civic project of American Christianity” is the attempt to harmonize Christianity with the liberal political and social order. It has always been in tension, but now that tension has reached the breaking point, says Hanby:
This [philosophical] rejection of nature is manifest in the now orthodox distinction between sex, which is “merely biological,” and gender, defined as a construct either of oppressive social norms or of the free, self-defining subject—one often finds protagonists of this revolution oscillating back and forth between those polar extremes. And this sex–gender distinction, in turn, is premised upon a still more basic dualism, which bifurcates the human being into a mechanical body composed of meaningless material stuff subject to deterministic physical laws and of the free, spontaneous will that indifferently presides over it. This anthropology denies from the outset that nature and the body have any intrinsic form or finality beyond what the will gives itself in its freedom, and thus it fails to integrate human biology and sexual difference into the unity of the person. Indeed, the classical Aristotelian nature and the Christian idea of the human being as body and soul united as an indivisible and integrated whole are excluded from the outset.
Whether this is the logical outworking of the metaphysical and anthropological premises of liberalism or a radically new thing—and Hans Jonas’s analysis would suggest that these are not mutually exclusive alternatives—it marks a point of no return in American public philosophy. And it effectively brings the civic project of American Christianity to an end.
He says — rightly, in my opinion — that we cannot pursue an all-out withdrawal from politics, as so many people (including The Week‘s headline writer) wrongly think we advocate, but we do have to radically rethink our place within this order. More Hanby:
Yet something greater than liberal freedom is at stake. There seems to be a prevailing sense that this moment is something of a kairos for American Christianity, a moment of deep change in the public significance of Christianity and a moment of decision in the life of the Church. When George Weigel concedes his naivete over the possibility of a “Catholic moment” in America and concludes that the West no longer understands freedom, or when Robert George solemnly declares to the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast the end of “comfortable” Christianity, then you know that the times they are a-changin’. Perhaps this kairos is a chance for some sort of synthesis rather than a showdown, for an opportunity to rediscover those dimensions of Christian existence that comfortable Christianity has caused us to neglect, and an opportunity not simply to confront but also to serve our country in a new and deeper way.
This synthesis cannot be a political one, as if the civic project of American Christianity could be revived by rejiggered coalitions or a new united front. We must rather conceive of it principally as a form of witness. Here some elements of the Benedict Option become essential: educating our children, rebuilding our parishes, and patiently building little bulwarks of truly humanist culture within our decaying civilization. This decay is internal as well as external, for while the civic project has been a spectacular failure at Christianizing liberalism, it has been wildly successful at liberalizing Christianity.
A witness is, first, one who sees. And none of these efforts are likely to come to much unless we are able to see outside the ontology of liberalism to the truth of things, to enter more deeply into the meaning of our creaturehood. Only then can we rediscover, as a matter of reason,the truth of the human being, the truth of freedom, and the truth of truth itself. It is no accident that Benedict XVI placed the spirit of monasticism at the foundation of any authentically human culture. For nothing less than an all-consuming quest for God, one that lays claim to heart, soul, and mind, will suffice to save Christianity from this decaying civilization—or this civilization from itself.
This quest requires an internal renewal of theology and philosophy—not merely as academic disciplines, but as ways of life—and they need to be brought to bear on the governing assumptions, the unarticulated ontology of our culture. In other words, we will need a much more penetrating ontological engagement with the first principles of liberal and secular order than has heretofore characterized American Christian thought. We will need a deeper assessment of how liberal principles shape both the objects of our thought and the very form of our thinking. Only thus can we really hope to come to grips with the true depths of our predicament and help our liberal culture understand the truth about itself and the profound implications of its present course toward an impoverished absolutism now poised to seize control of the most primitive junction between nature and culture—the family itself.
A friend who is sympathetic to the Benedict Option tells me that it’s significant that Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, chose to respond to Nazi occupation by making theater with his friends. Curious as to the connection, I went back to George Weigel’s authoritative biography of the Pope, and read this:
This new form of drama was an artistic experiment but [Wojtyla's theatrical comrade Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk] also saw that it could be “a protest against the extermination of the Polish nation’s culture on its own soil, a form of underground resistance movement against the Nazi Occupation.” As the Pope later recalled, what came to be known as the Rhapsodic Theater “was born in that room,” let by Karol Wojtyla to the refugee Kotlarczyks.
… The Christian subtext to the Rhapsodic Theater, which reflected the New Testament image of the world created through the Word, the Logos who was with God and who was God (see John 1.1-3), also found expression in Kotlarczyk’s understanding of theater as ritual. In the world according to Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk, one did not simply to to the theater to be entertained. Rather, Kotlarczyk deliberately crafted the dramatic method of the Rhapsodists to evoke sentiments of transcendence and patriotism in a quasi-liturgical atmosphere.
The word of truth, publicly, indeed almost liturgically, proclaimed was the antidote the Rhapsodic Theater sought to apply to the violent lies of the Occupation. The tools for fighting evil included speaking truth to power. That was what Kotlarczyk and his Rhapsodic Theater believed, and lived. That believe and that experience made an indelible impression of Karol Wojtyla, who would not forget when, on a different kind of state, he would confront another totalitarian power in the future.
Sone have suggested that, confronted by the horror of Nazi-occupied Poland, Karol Wojtyla retreated into a religious quietism. In the light of evidence, it is clear that the had a decision to make. Some young Poles chose armed resistance or clandestine sabotage. The evidence makes clear that Karol Wojtyla deliberately chose the power of resistance through culture… [Emphasis mine -- RD].
The Benedict Option is absolutely not a retreat into religious quietism. Broadly speaking, it is a form of resistance through culture. It is not retreat from what is false, but an embrace — a joyful one — of what is true. And given the chaotic nature of the time, the church’s attention must be more focused on telling and living out our own story, which we are forgetting. Dorothy Day, for example, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, was anything but a religious quietist, but she had to go deep into Catholic thought, worship, and life to stay clear-eyed and stout-hearted.
It is a sign of how impoverished our thinking is that we can only conceive of resistance in terms of engagement in conventional politics. We can only begin to see things as they really are by giving up the impossible project of synthesizing Christianity with what the liberal, post-Christian order has become.
Is this “deeply pessimistic,” as Damon says? From a liberal (= conventional Republican and Democratic) point of view, yes. But I think of it as deeply optimistic, because it proclaims light and hope amid the darkness.
Father Andrew Damick, a friend who is an Orthodox priest, writes on his Facebook feed:
Just overheard an earnest conversation in which the speaker was making a serious argument that church attendance on Christmas and Easter was quite enough.
People do it, of course — lots of them. But I’ve never heard anyone actually defending it.
I wonder if they realize how much other people’s regular participation is subsidizing their twice-a-year appearance.
Also, I’m always glad to see even the folks who so rarely show up — and we welcome them — but I can’t understand what they think worship is actually for.
One of his followers commented:
Fr. well I think a few things are happening. The grey area on moral issues is being removed. That is a blessing and a curse. Consequently, people are figuring out that if they don’t think it is true then there is no reason to go to church anymore, so they stay home.
The problem is that this is by and large, as far as the Orthodox go, specifically GOA, a product of the unpaid bills of the church. People assumed things would continue as they have without noting the cultural change due to propaganda and pressure tactics, among other factors, and without doing what is necessary to preserve the church.
We aren’t going to combat privately accessed pornography with talk of values. And we are’t going to keep our youth with “teen talks” and babysitting sunday school. We can’t combat Hume, Kant and Co. with that stuff. It just doesn’t work.
That last line is so true. On Sunday, after church, Julie and I had a Full And Frank Discussion with our boys over inattention at the liturgy. We tried to impress on them that there are places in this world where Christians are risking their lives simply to do what we can easily do on Sunday morning. I told them about Father George Calciu, and what he and the other Romanian Christians endured in Ceaucescu’s prisons — and how they celebrated that same liturgy inside prison walls.
I told the kids that in their lifetime, they will all face pressure to abandon their faith, pressure much more serious than anything their parents or grandparents have had to deal with. I told them about Brendan Eich, a tech genius who was thrown out of his own company because he had given a small amount of money to a campaign to preserve traditional marriage, a cause that our faith teaches is just and right. I mentioned to them that Gordon College was being systematically dismantled by outside entities for a similar reason, and that this was going to get worse.
The liturgy, I told them, is not something we do on Sunday out of mere obligation, or because we have nothing more fun to do on Sunday morning. The liturgy is preparing all of us to live our faith with courage and joy. The time of testing is coming, indeed it is upon us every day. You kids are protected from a lot because your parents are vigilant, but we won’t be able to be there all the time. The liturgy, and the life of our church, exists in part to form your consciences and make you strong enough to choose the good when there is nobody around to make you do so. You can’t imagine how strong the forces are in this culture attacking your faith, and telling you it’s all a lie, I said. But you’re going to face this. In the liturgy, and in liturgical prayer, is our strength.
Later that night, e-mailing with an Evangelical friend, I told him that I had inadvertently ended up having a conversation with my kids about the kind of world they’re going to enter as Christians, and how they had to be prepared for degrees of martyrdom for the sake of Jesus Christ. My friend responded, half-joking with this first line:
I don’t think there’s any small group curriculum training parents how to have that conversation with their kids. You did the right thing, I am convinced. I said something similar to a group of homeschool parents this past weekend.
This is a conversation that Christian parents had better start having with their kids, not because They’re Coming To Get Us, as in the ages of martyrs, but because the middle-class softness of most American Christianity today — in nearly all the churches — will leave them extremely vulnerable to the acid of post-Christian American culture. Moralistic, therapeutic, happy-slappy Jesus-is-my-homeboy Christianity will not prepare anybody for what’s to come. Last night, after I read the usual story to my two younger kids (they’re on a Madeleine L’Engle kick), I lingered to read Father George Calciu’s testimonials about celebrating the liturgy in prison, despite the torture. Father George’s 2006 obituary from the Washington Post gives a short version of the two stories I read to the kids last night, from a book of his writings, sermons, and interviews. From the Post:
His clandestine faith was discovered by secret police in 1972. To save his life, Justinian appointed him professor of French and the New Testament at the Orthodox Seminary in Bucharest. He was ordained that year. For the next five years, Ceausescu’s government tolerated his anti-Marxist sermons. But after Justinian’s death in 1977 and the appointment of a hard-line church patriarch, conditions worsened.
Father Calciu announced plans to give a series of seven Wednesday sermons in the winter of 1978. The sermons attacked Ceausescu’s persecution of religion; after the third, he was thrown out of the church. He then preached on the church steps. The government closed the gates to the seminary, but the faithful climbed over the seminary walls to hear him. The new patriarch expelled the dissident priest, and, deprived of the church’s protection, he was arrested.
Prison the second time was much worse. “Ceausescu saw me as his personal enemy,” Father Calciu said. “For this he applied to me special methods of torture.”
When he did not break, the government decided to have him killed by two cellmates, convicted murderers who had been promised leniency if they would kill him. He was made to stand in a corner of the cell and not allowed to eat, drink, speak or relieve himself without permission, and he was often beaten.
After three weeks, the other two prisoners were summoned by the head of the secret police. When they returned, Father Calciu said, his tormentors were subdued. Taken to a small prison yard, his cellmates told him to stand in one corner while they conferred. Ready to die, Father Calciu confessed his sins and prayed for his family. Fifteen minutes later, the men approached him.
“And the youngest one said, ‘Father,’ — and that was the first time they called me Father — ‘we have decided not to kill you.’ ”
That Sunday, he asked their permission to celebrate Mass. He was making preparations and turned to see the two criminals kneeling on the cold concrete floor.
The kids wanted to hear more, so I promised to find other (appropriate) passages to read for them later. That boring Sunday liturgy looks different in light of what Father George suffered for it, and to be able to say it in prison. I could tell a change in my children’s view.
These are the stories we have to start telling our kids. They are the stories that belong to the church. Again, I don’t tell these as horror stories to convince our children that what happened to Father George will happen to them. Instead I focus on the faith and courage of the martyrs, and what that has to tell us about how to live when we are put to the test. If Father George can endure prison and torture for the faith, how much more should we be able to endure lesser forms of martyrdom (= “bearing witness”), like losing a job, being refused entry into professional societies, and so forth?
A Christian lawyer working at a high level on religious liberty issues told me recently that American Christians have no idea what’s about to hit them. He meant in terms of the loss of status, and the aggressive attacks in civil society against them and their institutions. He did not mean persecution in the sense that Father George and his comrades suffered. But then, he didn’t have to. When there’s a serious price to be paid for access to the mainstream, to maintain social peace, and to gain the peace of mind that comes with conformity, that’s a price that very many nominal Christians will be eager to pay.
The comfortable Christianity in which we were all raised isn’t going to survive this. Nor will the faith of Christians who have not prepared for it, who instead thought that everything would be okay if they just sat tight and stayed optimistic.
UPDATE: In 2011, Wesley J. Smith reviewed Father George’s book in First Things, saying:
Fr. Calciu lived what he preached. He did not hate his persecutors. Rather, he prayed for them daily and trusted in God’s mercy for their salvation. He also found joy. In her introduction to the book, Frederica Mathewes-Green, one of Calciu’s spiritual children writes of Fr. Calciu, “He had a beaming smile. He was often amused by life, and ready to laugh . . . . Fr. George was joyful . . . . He was naturally affectionate, and would hold my hand or anyone’s . . . just beaming with a radiant smile.”
A journalist with whom I’m friends of Facebook writes:
Wait a minute. Stephanopolous donates $75k to the Clinton Foundation WHILE he works as a news anchor?
Huckabee/Santorum/Gingrich et. al. fatten on the FOX payroll WHILE laying groundwork for presidential candidacies?
Ginsburg performs a same-sex wedding WHILE she considers the constitutionality of same-sex marriage? (How sweet! Isn’t she just a pistol?)
Are we agreed then? No more pretense to nominally disinterested umpires, adjudicators, arbitrators, appraisers, whatever? You rig the machinery your way as hard as you can, I’ll rig the machinery my way as hard as I can, and we’ll see who wins?
Did you hear about the Ruth Bader Ginsburg thing? It’s pretty outrageous. I mean, it’s not like there was any doubt how she is planning to rule in this case, but doesn’t she at least owe us the pretense of neutrality before she actually rules?
The Stephanopoulos mess is so serious that I don’t see how he can continue in his role. Why is this not perfectly obvious to ABC News? Peter Schweizer writes in USA Today:
I agreed to be interviewed [by Stephanopoulos], expecting a robust examination of my new book, Clinton Cash, and my reporting on the Clintons’ accumulation of massive personal wealth, cronyism and the lack of transparency surrounding the Clintons’ foundation.
What I did not expect — what no one expected — was the sort of “hidden hand journalism” that has contributed to America’s news media’s crisis of credibility in particular, and Americans’ distrust of the news media more broadly.
If Stephanopoulos had disclosed his donations to the very foundation I was there to talk about, perhaps it would have put the aggressive posture of his interview with me in context.
But he didn’t.
And even though he has apologized to his viewers for keeping this information from both his audience and his bosses, there is much that Stephanopoulos has yet to disclose to his viewers. Indeed, far from being a passive donor who strokes Clinton Foundation checks from afar, a closer look reveals that Stephanopoulos is an ardent and engaged Clinton Foundation advocate.
About the Fox News thing, I agree with the journalist I quote. It’s corrupting, both to the candidates and to the credibility of Fox News. Does it just not matter anymore? Sorry, that’s a ludicrously naive question.
This is what the neoreactionaries call “the Cathedral.” I am not a neoreactionary, but I have to give them credit for this coinage.
A reader said that some in her circle don’t want to read How Dante Can Save Your Life because they perceive it as a repudiation of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. It’s not true, or at least I don’t think it’s true. Let me clarify.
In Little Way, I presented a portrait of my late sister, my family, and their community that was deeply attractive. And it was true! It changed my heart, and caused me to move back home. But I also wrote about the less attractive parts of my family’s life, including my sister’s resentment of me for leaving home and, in her view, getting above myself. I ended the book with the dramatic revelation by her daughter Hannah, my niece, that my dream of family harmony was not likely to come true because their mother, supported vocally by their grandfather (that is, Ruthie’s and my dad), raised her and her sisters to think badly of me.
Hannah told me, I wrote in Little Way, that she learned later, when she started coming to visit Julie and me, that her mother and grandfather had misjudged us, but her younger sisters don’t know this, and they are going to keep us at bay. This was a total shock to me, as I indicated in the book, and I concluded it by focusing on signs of hope that we might be able to transcend these divisions.
As I wrote in the book, my sister was, I think, a saint, but that did not make her perfect. That she was so good, but still only human, made, I think, for a more compelling portrait. It was who she was. My dad’s verdict on Little Way was simple and direct: “You told it like it was.”
How Dante is pretty much a follow-up to Little Way. It turned out that Hannah was prophetic. I was not received back, and nothing I did — not returning, and nothing I tried after coming back — made any difference. I realized, at last, that the rejection had nothing to do with what I did or did not do; it was about who I was — or rather, who I was not. This sent me into depression and deep into an anxiety-related physical illness. I was rescued out of this by God, who helped me through prayer, therapy, and most of all, reading Dante’s Divine Comedy, a poem about how to live as a Christian in exile. There is no exile quite like living on the threshold of your family home, but not being allowed to enter into it.
How Dante is how I discovered the roots of my own despair, tied intimately to the very good things — and very good people — of my place and family. How is it that people who loved each other — I really did love them, and my sister and dad really did (do; my dad is still alive) love me — could be so at odds? How could people who intended so much good — that is, my dad, my sister, and me — miss the mark so massively?
A key thing I discovered is that the confidence and unswerving devotion my dad and my sister had to family and place — something I admired and desired — drew so much of its potency by negating the possibility of anything else. To put it into more direct terms, their love of family and place, as they conceived it, commanded them to stigmatize me because I chose a different path. It’s not that they thought about it; it’s what came natural to them. Will Wilkinson nailed the psychology of this phenomenon here. What I did not understand until I came back was how profoundly they had rejected me, and always had. It had been kept hidden for all these years behind a façade of friendliness, and none of us had to face it because I lived so far away.
I didn’t see this when Ruthie was alive, didn’t anticipate it in the wake of her death, and could not have imagined that her death would change nothing. Nor could I have foreseen that writing a book testifying to the virtues of Ruthie and the family’s traditional way of life, and giving testimony as well by changing my own life to live more like them, would make no difference. But it didn’t.
Had I known this was the true nature of things, I would not have moved back to Louisiana. But if I had not moved back, I would have lived the rest of my life under a number of illusions, and would have continued to avoid facing some core questions about myself and my family — questions that had to do with the deepest facts of life: with God, with family, with our place in the world, and our selves.
The frustrating paradox in all this is that everybody involved in this tragedy is (or in Ruthie’s case, was) a good person who intends good. But our particular virtues — and in How Dante, I don’t exclude myself from this judgment — also occasioned our particular vices. To say that How Dante is a “repudiation” of Little Way is in no way true. It is a deepening of the mystery of her life, of our life together, and, well, of life.
You might say that Little Way is a book about what to do when bad things happen to good people. How Dante is a book about what to do when good people unintentionally cause bad things to happen. Taken together, both books are about harmony, love, faith, and family. You can’t fully understand Little Way without reading How Dante — and vice versa. This is not because I held anything back in Little Way; it was because I was still learning. There is nothing about my sainted sister in How Dante that wasn’t in Little Way, and nothing in How Dante obviates the very real goodness to which I bore witness in Little Way. The only difference is that the promise of Little Way came to nothing — and a key lesson from this is that this tragedy was not fated, but was the effect of human choice. Another key lesson is how we can shipwreck ourselves upon our own idealism, not because our ideals are bad, but because we held them too dear.
Here is an excerpt from near the end of How Dante, which might shed light for some readers:
One sunny Saturday afternoon in late November, my son Lucas and I gathered and stacked firewood for my folks. We sat and talked with them on their front porch for a bit. They thanked us warmly, with gratitude and affection that were strong, clear, and genuine.
That night at vespers, I prayed for Mama and Daddy, and thought of how beautiful their faces had looked in the golden autumn sun, and how tender their voices sounded thanking us again as we kissed them goodbye. These are such good, kind-hearted people, I thought.
And then, in my mind’s eye, I had a vision. I stood next to Mama and Daddy and Ruthie, and we stared into a white sun, so close we could almost reach out and touch it. Our eyes were wide open, we were looking upward, and all of us were grinning in wonder and delight. Ruthie and I were children again, and our parents were young, and we were all happy, so happy, staring at the sun together.
This, I knew, was paradise, and this was Paradiso: the world to come, the world where there are no more tears, and when all that separates us from God and each other has ceased to exist. This is the vision Dante gives us in the last and greatest of his three canticles. It is the home toward which we are all going, though some of us will not make it; the choice is ours.
I pulled my glasses off and wiped my tears away. After evening prayer ended, I was the first in line for confession. In the empty church, I stood with Father Matthew.
“During vespers, I was praying for my folks, and I had a kind of vision,” I told Father Matthew. After telling him what I had seen in my mind’s eye, I said, “I realized that I am so sick and tired of seeing my mom and dad and feeling disappointed over what might have been. I just want to enjoy them for who they are. They have given me so, so much.
“I accepted a long time ago that they aren’t going to change,” I told him. “But they have free will, and that means nothing is decided in advance. In Paradiso, St. Thomas Aquinas cautions the pilgrim not to think he has the future figured out. Only God knows. Because of that hope, however, I feared falling back into the snare of believing that if only I give them this thing or do that thing, then they really will change.
“But I have to tell you that I don’t want my heart to be an obstacle to the vision I saw coming true,” I continued. “I know what we all want can only be fulfilled in God’s presence, but if God wants to start it in this life, I don’t want to stand in his way.”
Russell Arben Fox offers a typically rich, complex, thoughtful take on my recent writings about the Benedict Option, and the example of some Kansas friends of ours, the amazing Elder family, who live and farm near Wichita (they call their farm “Elderslie”). It’s impossible for me to do justice to his post in my reaction below, so when I advise you to read the whole thing, I mean it.
Alan Jacobs refers to the Benedict Option as putting its priority on Christian “culture-making” and enabling those concerned about the values of the Christian tradition to be “fully shaped….by the Christian account of things.” Again, for people like myself who care about tradition, that’s a vital and inspiring point. But is thinking hard about how to build and preserve the roots of–and the socio-economic and legal space for–a culture mostly a (as Rod sometimes seems to suggest) liturgical phenomenon? Perhaps you could argue that Elderslie and other family and community operations like it really are “liturgical” in some sense, because their direct engagement in the practices that keep them going really do result in a kind of discipline and ritual to their lives. If so, then I suspect that the Benedict Option which has struck me as a needful way of helping to shape how we think about community in the 21st century will only grow more convincing in my mind. But if not–if Rod’s Benedict Option really is, essentially, about protecting the “church of Jesus Christ,” as Alan put it–then I think, at least right now, that it’s allowing current arguments about religious liberty to narrow its focus too much (though Rod is, clearly, still thinking about this stuff, writing recently that “the Benedict Option is far more a response to pervasive consumerism, individualism, and atomism than anything to do with gay rights,” which I think puts things right).
Rod has insisted, in response to Frohnen, that he’s not an agrarian–and of course, that’s true. But Frohnen has a point, I think–whether or not Rod’s thinking about the Benedict Option currently points him this directly, I suspect (and I have written before) that it is very difficult to get to the kind lasting, sustainable separateness which he thinks (and I at least partly agree) is needed if those traditions supportive Christian virtues are to be fully lived and inculcated into one’s children without at least some kind of anti-capitalist, agrarian mentality. Becky Elder took the time to preach to my students for a short time about Andrew Lytle, one of the Southern Agrarians, and his important essay “The Small Farm Secures the State”–one of the essential 20th-century Jeffersonian declarations against an economy based on distant specialization, monopolistic centralization, and all things big. If we don’t, in our innumerable and diverse ways, seek to enable our families and communities and co-ops to become more capable of feeding themselves, then a pattern of dependency inevitably follows. Honestly, just how far could any church group go in building for itself a genuinely separate cultural track if the individuals who make up that group ultimately, fundamentally, have no real independence in their livelihood, in making the money to put food in their own and their children’s mouths? Will liturgy suffice if your boss changes your shift to Sunday, religious liberty be damned? Will a strong pastor be enough to provide an education which reflects Christian priorities when all the families in the congregation are too busy to volunteer to help out in classes, because food costs and health care costs and mortgages require every family send both spouse out into the work force full-time?
Read the whole thing. I mean it.
I tell you, I am well and truly blessed by having readers like Russell, who challenge me to think more deeply into these things. He will be happy to learn that I’m finalizing my book proposal for The Benedict Option this week, and I am including in it the Elders’ farm and the classical school they run as an example of what the Benedict Option — or Benedict Options, plural — could look like. All of America can learn from them.
As Russell says, I am not an agrarian, though I am sympathetic to agrarianism. We are not an agrarian country, and if the Benedict Option depended on everybody becoming an agrarian, it would be stillborn. That said, the points Russell makes about the material and institutional forms that the Benedict Option will have to take are very strong, and I suspect the Elders will have lots to teach even non-agrarians, and never-will-be agrarians, about the connection. I can’t say much more about this now because I have to learn myself … and that requires a long visit with them, as part of the book’s research.
Related to this, I finished last night Matthew Crawford’s newest book, The World Beyond Your Head. Crawford’s is a work of philosophy, not religion; in fact, I would be surprised if he had any religious beliefs at all. But his book gives me deep insights into how to think about the Benedict Option — insights that ground the book in a more truly MacIntyrean approach, I think. To be clear, I think Crawford’s vision is incomplete, because it lacks a religious dimension. But as I read, I kept thinking about how this or that philosophical point he makes could be placed within a Christian vision — one that Crawford lacks.
I intend to blog in much more detail about Crawford’s book later this week, but for now, and in relation to Russell’s post, let me say that Crawford is a traditionalist and an Aristotelian in the sense that he believes that our culture of liberal autonomy and choice has reached a dead end. We are incapable of building cultures of practice that lead us to virtue, because we cannot identify one thing as being better than the other. Choice, not what is chosen, is what matters. I can’t stress strongly enough that Crawford does not have in mind any particular idea of virtue in a moral sense. He’s talking about defining goals and organizing one’s life in such a way as to make it possible to attain those goals, in community. He writes:
When the sovereignty of the self requires that the inheritance of the past be disqualified as a guide to action and meaning, we confine ourselves in an eternal present. If subjectivism works against the coalescing of communities and traditions in which genuine individuals can arise, doe the opposite follow? Do communities that look to established forms for the meanings of things somehow cultivate individuality? …
But here we come up against a methodological problem. On the one hand, to speak about “community” in general is to be led almost necessarily into idealistic blather. This would not be very informative, and would also tend to alarm some people: those who maintain the enlightener’s vigilance against the threat that communal authority poses to individual self-fashioning It would be easy to trigger this defensive reflex while also tickling a contrary sentimental reflex among those who long for “lost community.” But I don’t want merely to press PLAY on a dusty old culture war cassette.
Crawford goes on to write at length about the culture within a shop of pipe organ makers Taylor & Boody, in Staunton, Virginia. He goes in-depth in writing about what they do and how they do it. The goal this community of craftsmen sets for itself is turning out exquisite instruments. To reach this goal, there are certain practices that they have developed, certain traditions they have held fast to, and certain traditions they have altered, to reach the goal. They all recognize — had to recognize — that there is something beyond their individual desires to which they must submit if they are going to become what they want to become: first-rank craftsmen. And it works.
Reading this, I kept thinking about what aspects of a Benedict Option community must be present to produce members who care about preserving and living out the faith amid the atomizing forces of decadent liberalism (and by “liberalism,” I mean the Enlightenment tradition). Crawford writes, of the organ makers:
The point isn’t to replicate the conclusions of tradition (here, the use of oak), but rather to enter into the same problems as the ancients and make them one’s own. That is how a tradition remains alive.
Funny, but that’s how Dante’s Divine Comedy came alive for me: I was able to enter, imaginatively, into the same problems he faced — how to make sense of an unjust world, and to live well in it as a Christian — and make them my own. Anyway, what I’m after in the Benedict Option is showing why we who see it vital to hold on to the Christian faith in one of its orthodox forms must adopt a radically countercultural stance toward liberalism, and to explore how to instantiate this subversive orthodoxy in our time and place.
One of the principles guiding the organ makers is, to quote from one of them, “What can I really get away with here, and what will the results of my actions be four hundred years from now?” This man is not talking about politics or religion; he’s talking about building an organ that lasts, and continues to serve future generations long after those who have made it have passed on. You can see, though, the applicability of this approach to religious life, can’t you?
It is an absurdly tall order to expect contemporary people to construct the kinds of communities that will still be around in their present form four centuries from now. But we have to play the long game here — and that includes, as Russell indicates, devising and implementing material forms of the Benedict Option that allow us to support our communities over the long term. The Benedict Option cannot require a dropping away from politics entirely, if only because we have to defend our right to be left alone. But it does demand a repositioning of orthodox Christian thought and action away from politics and toward building and thickening Christian culture within the church, as it has grown dangerously thin, even as we orthodox Christians have been chronically focused on politics and law as our protectors.
As the philosopher Crawford makes clear, the threat to any kind of tradition is not liberal Democrats, but liberalism itself — and that includes libertarians. Modernity tears us from any connection to the past, and to anything outside of the desiring self, and that leads us to a dead end. If I’m reading Crawford correctly, he is saying that there’s a better way, a more ancient way, a way that has served humanity well. We Benedict Option Christians can learn from him. And from the Elders — even if most people living the Benedict Option will do so in the city or the suburbs.
One aside before I go back to writing the proposal. Russell writes:
But to rush past all this vital, practical, material work, and cast the Benedict Option as an imperative act of moral or metaphysical sanctuary in the face of the collapse of Christianity itself…that, I think, just misses the trees for the forest, if you know what I mean. (I should note that it’s possible I can speak this way, wanting to push the particular and local mechanics rather than clutching at the biggest themes, because I simply don’t see the “collapse of Christianity” happening at all, not one bit. Yes, strong protections of religious liberty and certain tax and legal privileges enjoyed by Christian institutions have been, I think, of tremendous civic benefit in American history, and deserve to be fought for–but it’s not like their loss in a more secular America would equal some kind of Christian Armageddon, unless one happens to believe, as I presume the Francophile Rod does not, that France with its laïcité is a formally oppressive and persecuting anti-Christian society.
But I don’t believe that the American state will persecute Christians! It may happen, but if so, that will be a long time into the future. And I don’t believe that losing tax exemptions counts as persecution. When I speak of the “collapse of Christianity,” I’m talking about the cessation of church life, and/or the end of anything like Christian orthodoxy. In the Netherlands, churches are not oppressed at all — but Christianity has collapsed. I don’t actually believe that the greatest threat to US Christianity comes from the government, but rather from the culture, which includes corporate culture. If the Republican Party dominated our government from now until kingdom come, the need for the Benedict Option would scarcely be less.
Good Douthat column this weekend criticizing recent statements by both President Obama and the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, in which they blamed American churches for abandoning the poor in favor of fighting the culture war. Douthat calls b.s. on that:
As Mark Hemingway of The Weekly Standard pointed out, “Even the most generous estimates of the resources devoted to pro-life causes and organizations defending traditional marriage are just a few hundred million dollars.” Whereas the budgets of American religious charities and schools and hospitals and other nonprofits are tabulated in the tens of billions. (Indeed, as Bloomberg View’s Megan McArdle noted, some of that money — from Catholic sources — paid Obama’s first community-organizer salary.)
This reality is reflected in the atmosphere of most churches and the public statements of their leaders. Anyone who tells you that America’s pastors are obsessed with homosexuality or abortion only hears them through a media filter. You can attend Masses or megachurches for months without having those issues intrude; you can bore yourself to tears reading denominational statements and bishops’ documents (true long before Pope Francis) with a similar result. The belief that organized religion is organized around culture war is largely a conceit of the irreligious.
That’s really true. As I’ve said here before, it was shocking to me to enter the Catholic Church back in the 1990s and find that it was nothing at all like the media had prepared me to believe it was. Thirteen years as a practicing Catholic, and I never heard a single pro-life sermon, and only heard one sermon proclaiming the church’s teaching on sexual morality (hetero, not homo). The only two sermons I ever heard about homosexuality were from a Fort Lauderdale priest who criticized his own church’s teaching on the matter. That’s it. And having spent the last nine years in Orthodoxy, another church that’s officially conservative, I have heard exactly zero homilies on culture war topics. Not one.
I’m quite sure that some churches do focus more often on the culture war, both for better and for worse, but I strongly agree with Douthat that the idea that pastors are standing in the pulpit grinding out angry jeremiads against liberals and secularists is mostly fantasy. More Douthat:
Is there a version of the Obama-Putnam critique that makes any sense? Maybe they just meant to criticize religious leaders who make opposition to abortion more of a political priority than publicly-funded antipoverty efforts. But even this critique essentially erases black and Latino churches (who reliably support social programs), ignores decades worth of pro-welfare-state talk from Catholic bishops, and treats the liberal Protestant mainline as dead already.
It also conveniently absolves liberalism of any responsibility for pushing churchgoing Americans toward the small-government G.O.P. That’s an absolution that the Obama White House, with its pro-choice maximalismand attempts to strong-arm religious nonprofits, particularly needs.
He goes on to talk about the most meaningful way in which the churches are failing the poor, and that’s in failing to attract and keep them in the pews. It has long since been established by social scientists that religion in America is largely a middle-class phenomenon, particularly among whites. Douthat:
From a religious perspective, this a signal failure: A church that pays out to help the poor, but doesn’t pray with them, looks less like a church than what Pope Francis has described, unfavorably, as merely another N.G.O.
But even from a secular perspective it’s a problem, because (as Putnam’s work stresses) the social benefits of religion are stronger further down the socioeconomic ladder, and these benefits are delivered through community, practice, and belonging. So churches that spend or lobby effectively for the poor but are stratified come Sunday morning offer less to the common good than if they won a more diverse array of souls.
I have a few thoughts about this. First, I see that some of Douthat’s commenters at the NYT say that the churches don’t care about the poor because the poor have no money to support those churches. That strikes me as a conclusion arrived at to support a preconception. This is just speculation — I am confident that Charles Featherstone will shed some practical light on this, informed by experience — but I think it is probably more true that the leadership class in most churches today don’t know how to reach the poor. They don’t share their lives, don’t share their experiences, and don’t know how to preach to them in an effective way.
Mind you, in my experience most (but certainly not all!) pastors don’t know how to preach, period — Evangelical readers, I trust, have a much more positive experience on this front — and satisfy themselves with saying little to challenge or to inspire their congregations. Contemporary homilies seem designed to mostly to avoid giving offense. I’m not sure we can entirely blame that on the priests. Back in the 1990s, a Catholic priest I knew who was personally quite orthodox, and who served in a fairly conservative diocese, told me that if he actually preached the Gospel full bore to his prosperous middle class parishioners, they would have him run out of his pulpit within a month.
The point is, it’s hard enough to relate to this kind of preaching as a middle-class person; I’ve often thought that someone who is poor, and who is struggling with the problems typically facing an impoverished person in this society, would walk into many American churches and wonder what the hell that preacher was talking about. Twenty or so years ago, I reviewed a memoir a young Episcopal priest wrote of her years in Manhattan seminary. In one telling anecdote, she wrote about doing ministry among prisoners, and telling them the good news that they didn’t have to take Genesis so seriously, that there were all kinds of ways to nuance one’s interpretation of what the Bible said. She reported that the convicts didn’t understand what she was saying. Then a Muslim convert prisoner in the back of the room piped up to tell the others that if they wanted a religion that told them clearly what to do, they should come to Islam. The priest was so puzzled by this, and why it seemed attractive to the inmates in her care.
That right there is the problem. She was raised among the upper middle class (her father is a Supreme Court justice), and simply could not relate to poor people whose chaotic lives had landed them in prison. She thought it was liberating to them to tell them that Scripture was not black and white, but grey, because this is the prejudice of her class. In fact, to the poor, this is a different kind of prison. This blog’s reader Another Matt has talked often about how his family came out of abject poverty, and embraced a harsh, unforgiving form of Christian fundamentalism (this is why Matt, as an adult, no longer believes in God). It sounds horrible, and it is horrible. But it is at least understandable. People who live close to the margins of economic ruin, and amid a society of chaos that sometimes may seem like a war of all against all, would understandably have little use for a religion that seems designed to comfort the middle classes.
In writing this, I am reminded of the most working-class church I ever visited. It was back in the 1980s, and I was an LSU undergraduate working at the campus newspaper. Word got out that there was going to be something big going on that Sunday morning at the megachurch pastored by the fire-and-brimstone Pentecostal pastor Jimmy Swaggart. I dragged my hung over self out of bed, got dressed, and drove out to Swaggart’s church. It turned out to have been his infamous “I have sinned” sermon, in which he wept and confessed to the congregation that he had been consorting with prostitutes. Back then, I couldn’t stand Swaggart and what he stood for, and I had a sneering undergraduate’s view of his kind of religion. But I remember standing there listening to that, expecting to feel some sort of vindication of my prejudices against fundagelical Christianity, but instead feeling a weird sort of shame. Why? Because the worshipers standing around me were pretty clearly working-class people, people who looked like they bought their Sunday best off the rack at Walmart. And these men and women were crying over the shock of their pastor’s disgrace. I felt so bad for them, truly.
I went to the Swaggart church that day expecting my prejudices to be confirmed, and left having had them challenged — just not in the way I expected. You could have gone to any number of Baton Rouge churches that morning and immersed yourself in a form of Christianity far more congenial to bourgeois sensibilities. But if you wanted to see the working class at prayer in south Baton Rouge, you would have needed to go to Jimmy Swaggart’s, or, I imagine, a church in that vein.
That said, is it really fair to assume that the failure of the church to attracted and keep the poor is entirely the fault of the church? I some ways, it’s a chicken-and-egg problem. In the newspaper world, consumer research has shown that those who buy the newspaper today tend to be white, middle-aged to elderly, and middle class to wealthy. Yet the overwhelming bias within the newspaper industry is to try to grow the market among the young and minorities. And this is understandable; you want to reach the unreached.
But no matter what strategies they try, those demographics desired by newsroom leaders — young people, African Americans, and Hispanics — aren’t taking up newspaper reading. They either don’t care about the news, or are getting the news they want from some other source, or sources. To be clear, newspaper readership has been declining equally over all demographic segments. The point is that there’s something going on culturally with changing media habits that defies the analysis that many newsroom leaders prefer.
I can tell you anecdotally that in some cases, the efforts of media institutions to draw in those demographic segments who don’t really want what newspapers are selling in the first place are alienating those loyal customers who do. This happened to me all the time in Dallas. I would meet former subscribers to my newspaper — conservative suburban white people — who would tell me that they finally quit subscribing because they concluded from the paper’s coverage that the people putting out the paper didn’t care about people like them. Fair or not, this was their perception, and they could all cite reasons. You might say that these people were narcissistic, or lacked a sense of the common good, or whatever. But the fact is, they perceived that the things they lived with day to day, and the things they cared about, weren’t the same things that the writers and editors of their newspaper cared about. So they quit buying us.
But the newspaper industry’s leaders continue their obsession with diversity, and believe devoutly that if they hire more racial minorities in newsrooms, this will result in greater minority readership. It never seems to occur to them that perhaps newspapers are something that these minority markets simply don’t want. I’m not saying that this is true; I’m saying that this hypothesis never seems to occur to those running newspapers.
Think about this in terms of the church. The unspoken bias within the church is that everybody would want to be a Christian if only they knew what was good for them. I’m a Christian, and I too believe that everyone should want to be a Christian. Christianity is a universal religion. But it must be conceded that in a secular culture — secular in the Charles Taylor sense, which is to say, a culture in which religion is seen as an option — there will be a large number of people who simply don’t want what religion has to offer. Or at least don’t want it badly enough to bother showing up at church. Would it do poor people some good to affiliate with a church, to commit to it, to become part of that community? No doubt it would, for reasons that have as much to do with psychology and sociology as with theology. But what if they simply do not want what religion is selling, in the same way more and more people don’t want what newspapers are selling? I believe it would do people good to subscribe to newspapers, but you cannot make people do what they don’t want to do.
To be sure, Christianity is not a product, like a newspaper. And a Christianity that ceases to be of and for the poor is not Christianity. There may be good market reasons for newspapers to cease trying to be all things to all people, and focus on the core readership, but there will never be a good reason for Christianity to give up on the poor, and never be a good reason for Christianity to stop evangelizing. And yet, I would like to see some thought given to the mindset of the poor and working classes regarding religion, to see them not as a passive population to be acted on (e.g., if they’re not going to church, it must be the church’s fault), and instead to see them as in some sense responsible for their choice to refuse organized religion.
I live in the rural South, and almost none of the working class white folks I know go to church. It just wouldn’t occur to them. It’s not part of their culture. It’s remarkable when you think of it, but it’s true. It’s not that they don’t believe in God, but rather that they don’t see churchgoing as having anything to do with it. Is this the fault of the church? I have been to most of the local churches, and none of them are unwelcoming, at least not in my experience. The church must never stop trying to reach these people — reach all people — but I’m simply saying that at some point, you’ve got to realize that you are up against some powerful cultural forces that simply are not within your power to counter.
It’s like this. I am a Christian, but if there were no Orthodox liturgies or Catholic masses in this area, I wouldn’t go to church on Sunday. It’s not that I think badly of my Protestant brethren or think that they are in some sense un-Christian or morally unworthy. Not at all! but only that the theology I hold in my head, and the way I have become acculturated to worship, means that Protestant modes of theologizing and worshiping leave me cold. I just don’t get them. I wish them well, and truly consider them my brothers and sisters in Christ, but the possibility of being part of their Sunday worship is just too alien to me, even though I grew up in the Protestant mainline. In fact, I find it hard to imagine what these churches might do to attract people like me. I am positively disposed toward them as a general matter, and genuinely wish them well. But for reasons of theology, practice, and culture, I literally could not imagine being part of their worshiping community.
Reflecting on that, it’s not hard for me to understand why poor and working class people would find the experience of church — any church — simply too alien to them to take seriously the idea of joining. This is a problem for the church, and from a Christian point of view, it is a problem for these lost sheep too, whether they realize it or not. My point here is simply to recognize that it’s too simplistic to blame the churches entirely for the falling-away of the poor and the working classes.