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Crunchy Cons: Not Dead Yet

Nearly a decade old, the book and its ideas are still finding an audience

It has been nine years since Crunchy Cons was published, and the thing still has legs. From an op-ed in New Statesman by Nigel Dodds, an MP from Belfast:

Justin Welby rebuts the idea “that if we fix the economy, the fixing of human beings will follow. This is a lie,” he starkly says. When opponents of this truth contend the churches shouldn’t “poke their noses into politics”, I, as a politician, say politics has done a lot of poking over the years and everyone else should feel free to poke back. A capitalism that conservative-minded Christians can live with is one that Rod Dreher, the American advocate of “Crunchy Conservatism”, has summed up very well. We’ve got to call greed to account; we’ve got to be as sceptical of big business as we are of big government; and all our hopes for any economic system should be rooted in humility and restraint. Mrs Thatcher, as she was in some other matters, was wrong about the Good Samaritan. What mattered was not that he had hard cash but that he had good intentions. The Archbishops have them too and conservatives of every stripe should listen and learn.

Thank you, Nigel Dodds! Yesterday I received this letter from a new reader of the book. I post it with his permission:

Hello, Rod. I don’t know how often you get mail from someone who has just discovered Crunchy Cons after all these years, but I just finished reading the book last night and wanted to thank you so much for a marvelous piece of writing.

I have been reading your stuff the last couple of years and have seen Crunchy Cons mentioned by others numerous times. My reaction was always, “Oh, that looks good; I should read it sometime.” Of course I never got around to it. But lately I’ve been doing a lot of reading on distributism and Catholic social teaching, and at some point it hit me – “This is what Rod Dreher must’ve been talking about in Crunchy Cons!” And so I read it, and not only did I find that it resonated perfectly with the ideas of distributism that I’ve been learning about, but also with my own lifetime intellectual and spiritual trajectory.

I was raised in a rural, middle class home in Kentucky just one generation removed from agrarian poverty. My parents (a factory worker and school teacher) were Baptists and New Deal liberals. I grew up with their values, except that in high school I took on a much more radical stance after reading Gandhi’s autobiography and encountering Charles Reich’s book, The Greening of America. By the time I entered college I was probably the youngest card-carrying member of the Democratic Socialists of America, and spent a lot of time involved in various kinds of campus activitism. This was the late 1980s and early 90s.

My particular brand of socialism was extremely communitarian, even though I didn’t have that word to describe it at the time, or to articulate why the Left’s obsession with identity politics and the ever-expanding welfare state left me a bit cold. Their solutions were simultaneously too ideological and too technical. There wasn’t nearly enough of MLK’s “beloved community” in that kind of political milieu.

After going to work as a teacher in public schools in my mid-20s, I became thoroughly disenchanted with big government solutions to our social ills, and my politics veered off in a decidedly libertarian direction. I liked to celebrate the linkages between some of the anarchist and other socialist radicals of the early 20th century, and the idea of creating meaningful (and more just) social structures through local, voluntary action rather than the coercive power of government.

Along the way I become a convert to Catholicism, but at first I held a very postmodern, cafeteria-style approach to my faith. It was after my wife and I started a family (our kids are 5 and 2) that I got much more serious about my faith life, and have come to really appreciate the wisdom and discipline of traditional Christian doctrine and liturgy. I started to think of myself as a conservative in the more classical, T.S. Eliot/Russell Kirk sort of way. The exuberant, life-is-all-about-personal-fulfillment ethos that my libertarian friends celebrate seems more of a grave threat to the way I’m trying to raise my children and lead my family.

The Obama years have led me to a place of real disenchantment with politics. This regime has demonstrated the outright hostility the modern Democratic party has for traditional values, and for genuine democratic processes, for that matter. The Tea Party has brought a kind of anti-establishment spirit that resonates for me, but still leaves me dissatisfied. My own senator, Rand Paul, says many things that I like but I can’t help but feel that Tea Party pseudo-libertarianism is still rooted in the same Lockean anthropology of political rights that feeds the narcissistic individualism of both the Big Government Left and the Big Business Right.

And then here we have the crunchy cons. It was so terrific to be affirmed in the things I’ve been struggling with and yearning for in recent years. Along with the distributist writers I’ve been studying, I can now see a logical and necessary connection between the kind of communitarian radicalism of my youth and the religious and cultural traditionalism I’ve embraced in my 40s. My intellectual and spiritual world has a coherence that I couldn’t recognize in the polarized, hysterical world defined by Fox News and MSNBC.

I’m trying to apply some of these concepts in my professional life as well as my personal life. These days I train teachers who aspire to be administrators in public schools. This is an awkward place to be since I’ve become extremely dissatisfied with traditional pedagogical methods that still predominate in both public and parochial schools. I’ve come to have a radical confidence in families and the communities they voluntarily populate to shape the learning experiences of their children, and I write about this sometimes on my blog: https://schoolleader.typepad.com.

For me personally this means that I’ll probably be sending my kids to the local Catholic school, at least while they are still young, but I’m also constantly reflecting on the possibilities of homeschooling them at some point, and how I could do that effectively, and that what means for someone who works within the institutions of traditional schooling. I don’t know if what I’m doing really qualifies as the Benedict Option, since I remain deeply immersed in the world of public schools, but it feels nevetheless a kind of prophetic calling to be in this world, but not of it, and witness to a different set of values and assumptions.

Sorry for the long message. I just want to say thanks for the book, and for the ministry of your writing in general. I feel like I know you and your family through your public writing and have a great appreciation that you have shared so much of your own personal journey with the rest of the world so that we might be blessed by it and find echoes of our own stories.

May God richly bless you and whatever comes next in your journey. I look forward to reading about it.

Gary W. Houchens, PhD

Dr. Houchens, your senator, Rand Paul, self-identifies as a crunchy con. He seems to believe that a crunchy con is a conservative who loves the great outdoors. It’s a lot more than that, but I’m happy to have Sen. Paul sign on.

How gratifying it is that the vision of that book still reaches people. Have you read it yet? Here’s a link to the Kindle edition.