Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

After Liberalism

The Benedict Option and neoreaction

Ross Douthat had a good column yesterday talking about the anti-liberal, or at least post-liberal, trends at the margins of Left and Right. Excerpts:

The Western system — liberal, democratic, capitalist — has been essentially unchallenged from the inside for decades, its ideological rivals discredited or tamed. Marxists retreated to academic fastnesses, fascists to online message boards, and Western Christianity accepted pluralism and abandoned throne-and-altar dreams.

The liberal system’s weak spots did not go away. It delivered peace and order and prosperity, but it attenuated pre-liberal forces – tribal, familial, religious — that speak more deeply than consumer capitalism to basic human needs: the craving for honor, the yearning for community, the desire for metaphysical hope.


Now, though, there is suddenly resistance. Its political form is an angry nationalism, a revolt of the masses in both the United States and Europe. But the more important development may be happening in intellectual circles, where many younger writers regard the liberal consensus as something to be transcended or rejected, rather than reformed or redeemed.

Douthat goes on to talk first about the different strands on the Left, collecting them under the name “New Radicals”. Then he turns to the Right, and the “New Reactionaries”.


Then finally there is a third group of post-liberals, less prominent but still culturally significant: Religious dissenters. These are Western Christians, especially, who regard both liberal and neoconservative styles of Christian politics as failed experiments, doomed because they sought reconciliation with a liberal project whose professed tolerance stacks the deck in favor of materialism and unbelief. Some of these religious dissenters are seeking a tactical retreat from liberal modernity, a subcultural resilience in the style of Orthodox Jews or Mennonites or Mormons. But others are interested in going on offense. In my own church, part of the younger generation seems disillusioned with post-Vatican II Catholic politics, and is drawn instead either to a revived Catholic integralism or a “tradinista” Catholic socialism — both of which affirm the “social kingship” of Jesus Christ, a phrase that attacks the modern liberal order at the root.

Whole thing here. If you click on the link that says “tactical retreat,” you will go to the Benedict Option FAQ page. “Subcultural Resilience” is going to be the name of the Ben Op techno band.

Anyway, last week David Brooks wrote on a similar theme: “The Age of Reaction”. Excerpts:

Reactionaries, whether angry white Trumpians, European nationalists, radical Islamists or left-wing anti-globalists, are loud, self-confident and on the march.

Reactionaries come in different stripes but share a similar mentality: There was once a golden age, when people knew their place and lived in harmony. But then that golden age was betrayed by the elites. “The betrayal of elites is the linchpin of every reactionary story,” Lilla writes.

Soon, they believe, a false and decadent consciousness descended upon the land. “Only those who have preserved memories of the old ways see what is happening,” Lilla notes. Only the reactionaries have the wisdom to turn things back to the way they used to be, to “Make America Great Again.”

“Reactionaries are not conservatives,” Lilla continues. “They are, in their way, just as radical as revolutionaries and just as firmly in the grip of historical imaginings. Millennial expectations of a redemptive new social order and rejuvenated human beings inspire the revolutionary; apocalyptic fears of entering a new dark age haunt the reactionary.”

Reactionaries are marked by a militant, apocalyptic mind-set, a crisis mentality. They are willing to take extreme, violent action to turn back the clock. In their narcissism, they think they alone understand the crisis and are in a position to reverse the trends.


The belief systems that used to reinforce a faith in progress have become less influential. First there was moderate religiosity, the belief that God is ultimately in control, that all things are ultimately fashioned toward the good and that the arc of history bends toward justice. This was the mind-set that made Martin Luther King Jr. fundamentally optimistic, even in temporarily dark times. Then there was humanism, the belief that people are learning more and more, inventing more and more, and so history is a steady accumulation of good things.

As humanism and moderate religion have withered, gloom has pervaded that national mind. It doesn’t matter how much living standards rise or the poverty rate falls, it makes you seem smart and woke to be alarmed and hypercritical. Every dour attention-grabber wants to claim that the elites are more corrupt than ever.

Read the whole thing. 

I read that, trying to figure out where the Benedict Option fits in. Let me think out loud for a second here.

  1. I don’t believe there was ever an era of perfect harmony, not since Eden.
  2. I don’t believe our crisis situation today is the fault of elites. I’m worried about corruption in high places, but I’m much more concerned about corruption in our own hearts, and communities. By “corruption,” I mean the lies most of us have come to tell ourselves about the way things are in the world, and are supposed to be. It is a philosophical and theological corruption as much as a moral one, and even a moral corruption because it’s a philosophical and theological corruption.
  3. My aspirations for the Benedict Option are far more modest than what Lilla describes as a “redemptive new social order.” I only want to strengthen the Christian church, and Christian culture, against forces that are dissolving it, and with it the possibility of the encounter with Jesus Christ, “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” That’s enough for now.
  4. I do believe we are entering into a new Dark Age, and in fact already have. I define a Dark Age as a falling away from faith, and with it the memory of who we are, and what makes us human.

Where my real disagreement with Brooks’s column lies is in the last two paragraphs I quoted. I do believe that God is in control, and that all things are ultimately fashioned towards the Good. That is the source of Christian hope. But as I keep saying, hope is not the same thing as optimism. The Whiggish optimism  of Brooks’s “moderate religiosity” and “humanism” is not on solid ground, in my view, though Brooks is certainly right to identify these things as at the core of the traditional American worldview.

Now, if you believe that the proper measure of progress is the accumulation of material improvement (more and better goods, improved health care, etc.), then there can be no doubt that we have been and are progressing towards that end. But income stagnation challenges this narrative, and the fact that ordinary Americans are facing the truth that their children may not live as well materially as they did shakes one’s confidence in material progress as an inevitability of American life.

If you see the expansion of liberty (understood as maximizing personal choice) as a measure of progress, then yes, we have been headed upwards. But the expansion of choice, especially sexual choice and economic choice, has greatly destabilized the social order. Deep forces at work in our culture for generations have atomized us, and are increasingly atomizing us. For a long time we lived off the interest generated from the principal deposited in our civilizational bank account over the course of many centuries. Now were burning our way through the principal. This can’t go on forever.

This is beyond the scope of the column, but at the heart of the Benedict Option: if you measure social and civilizational progress by the degree to which a people have a living, transformative relationship with the God of the Bible, then you cannot possibly be optimistic about the direction of the country. Again, there hasn’t been a perfect society since Eden. Every age has its sins and failings, some of them terrible indeed. The church always needs reform. All of that is true.

Yet in our time and place, the West is losing the most precious thing it has: knowledge of God. Jesus said it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. He’s talking about us. For Christians who think eschatologically — and all Christians must — no amount of material improvement can compensate for the loss of God. The moderate religiosity of civic religion is not strong enough to withstand the solvent of modernity, not anymore.

Free will is a divine gift, but people are free to choose badly. Societies, like individuals, can choose vice or virtue. Most societies do both at the same time, but it’s probably fair to say that they tend more to one than the other. The fact that something is chosen does not make it good. Our society, for example, has been since the 1960s choosing to tear down the family. Now that’s going into overdrive, and we are lately even attempting to destroy even the idea of male and female. This is not progress. In fact, it’s barbarism, and we are going to pay a terrible price for it.

Liberalism gives us many, many good things, but what’s before us now is the prospect that liberalism by its very nature has shorn us of the most important thing of all. And therefore, we who want to hold on have to build structures and habits that will help us keep that vital lifeline to God through the Dark Age upon us. Hence the Benedict Option.

In his column, Ross Douthat characterizes the Ben Op as essentially defensive. He’s right, mostly, but I don’t see a necessary contradiction between the defensiveness of the Ben Op and the stance towards offense embraced by the tradinistas (orthodox Catholic socialists) and Catholic integralists. In fact, I imagine the Ben Op will contain both within its big tent. If they want to be able to achieve social reform through their engagement with the world, though, they are going to have to take on Benedict Option practices, and build Ben Op structures, within which to grow in faith, hope, and love, so they can do what they believe God has called them to do outside in the world.

I understand fully that the State may not let us get away with this. A reader sends this account based on a story that appeared in Germany’s Die Welt newspaper. Excerpts:

Researchers of “extremism” have identified friendly, environmentally-conscious families living in the German countryside as likely dangerous radicals, and warn that rural living itself “is linked with racism”.

Marking country-dwellers with right-wing views as a problem, self-styled “antifascists” are hoping to get large numbers of migrants sent to rural settlements and have established welcome initiatives in preparation.

Welt informs readers that extremism researchers caution that “Volkisch families” pose a threat to the country. The term “Volkisch” relates to the German interpretation of populism and carries connotations of folksy and organic living.

Introducing Volkisch families, the daily newspaper writes: “They belong to no party, no union, and no organisation. They have no [political] voice and get no handouts. The term therefore [refers to] family groups who live in the countryside and are outwardly exemplary but internally right-wing.”

Describing a scene in which men, women, and children in traditional dress dance around a meadow, the newspaper warns that while such people look “basically quite harmless, they are not”.

Völkische families, Welt informs readers, are “friendly neighbours” who “grow vegetables and raise animals, keep bees, and produce electricity from photovoltaic systems”.

Other indicators to watch out for, it continues, are people who “show up as ‘greenies’ and engage in agriculture and crafts, argue against the planned highway 39 in their region, and they have a lot of children. The women bake cakes and get involved in parents’ meetings.”

Dear God, they are proto-Nazis! More:

The controversial Amadeu Antonio Foundation cautions that there is “a link between rural life and racism”. In a report commissioned by the Federal Ministry of Internal Affairs, the foundation wrote: “The objective of [Volkisch families] is to affect everyday culture and build a self-sufficient economic network.”

“While at first glance the men and women seem just to be engaging in cultural and traditional activities, they don’t accept migrants, refugees, democrats, and homosexuals in their society,” the publication cautions.

It is true that National Socialism evolved out of the Völkisch movement of the early 20th century, so these antifascists are not making things up. But good grief, to fault Germans for moving to the countryside and restoring farmhouses and celebrating German culture and building up self-sufficient economic networks — it’s insane. The reader who sent that warns that this is how the US state will treat any Ben Oppers who try this. This is a concern, of course, though I think we are a long way from that now in America. Still, it’s a reason to keep active to a certain extent in conventional politics. Besides, we can’t stop ourselves by worrying what might happen. If the left-liberal State does crack down on us in harsh ways, then we will need the Ben Op practices and networks more than ever, in the same way that the Polish people needed their churches to hold them together during communism, and to get them through it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a book to finish rewriting. This is the last week I have to work on The Benedict Option. The final push!