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Benedict Option: Danger to Democracy?

When conservative critics of the Benedict Option say that the Left and its apparatus in the State will not leave us alone to pursue it, this is what they’re talking about. The author is Nathan Pippenger, a poli sci PhD student at Berkeley. Excerpt:

What, then, would be the result of a quietist, separatist movement that could erect only ineffectual barriers against the forces of the majority culture? Probably not the comforting preservation of traditional ways of life, but an exacerbation of the alienation which motivated the separatism in the first place. And here is where all of us—or, at least, those of us not completely resigned to permanent fracture and division among Americans—have reason for concern. The success or failure of democracy depends, in large part, on the recognition of citizens that they all share a part in it. If one group of citizens feels completely, comprehensively walled off from the broader public, the reassurance that laws come from “We the People” will be cold comfort. And this problem will persist unless the group can truly make its life in isolation from the majority; unless it can educate, worship, and govern in its own corner of the world. Anything short of this is unlikely to satisfy the separatists, since the world they want to preserve will continue to face intrusions from a wider society they can’t really escape. We want to be able to justify the legitimacy of democratic government by affirming that it really does emanate, however imperfectly, from the will of the people. When a subset of the people intentionally wall themselves off, the legitimacy of the rest of us ruling over them is called into question, and their reasons for obeying us are weakened. A “Benedict option”-style retreat, then, might look like the obscure politics of an isolated minority. But in reality, it concerns all of us.

Let me repeat that: “When a subset of the people intentionally wall themselves off, the legitimacy of the rest of us ruling over them is called into question, and their reasons for obeying us are weakened.”

In other words, if we withdraw in dissent, no matter how peaceably, we cannot be left alone because we might come to question the legitimacy of the political order, and lose sight of why we ought to obey the majority.

I find this extraordinary. With the Benedict Option, I have not called on conservative Christians to become neo-Amish (though if some feel led to that, be my guest). I have called on us to confront the fact that ours is a post-Christian culture, one fast moving toward an anti-Christian culture, and that should force us to rethink our place in the public square. And it should compel us to focus much more intently on building and strengthening local forms of community, so that we can hold on to our faith and pass it on to our kids, come what may from the wider, hostile culture.

It is primarily about religion, not politics. It does, though, have political implications, because it is premised on an ebbing of faith in liberal democracy. Note that I did not say loss of faith, but ebbing; I’m in no way advocating the end of liberal democracy (what would replace it?), but I am frankly expressing my inability to believe that it can produce a good (= virtuous) society anymore. It is, as political theorist Patrick Deneen writes, unsustainable.

And so first-wave liberals are today represented by “conservatives” who stress the need for the scientific and economic mastery of nature but stop short of extending this project fully to human nature. They support nearly any utilitarian use of the world for economic ends but oppose most forms of biotechnological “enhancement.” Second-wave liberals increasingly approve nearly any technical means of liberating man from the biological imperatives of our own bodies. Today’s political debates occur largely and almost exclusively between liberals, first-wave and second-wave, neither of whom confront the fundamentally alternative understanding of human nature and the human relationship to nature that the preliberal tradition defended.

Liberalism is thus not merely a narrowly political project of constitutional government and juridical defense of rights, as it is too often portrayed. Rather, it seeks the transformation of the entirety of human life and the world. Its two revolutions—its anthropological individualism and the voluntarist conception of choice, and its insistence on the human separation from and opposition to nature—created its distinctive and new understanding of liberty as the most extensive possible expansion of the human sphere of autonomous activity in the service of the fulfillment of the self. Liberalism rejects the ancient and preliberal conception of liberty as the learned capacity of human beings to govern their base and hedonistic desires. This kind of liberty is a condition of self-governance of both city and soul, drawing closely together the individual cultivation and practice of virtue and the shared activities of self-legislation. Societies that understand liberty this way pursue the comprehensive formation and education of individuals and citizens in the art and virtue of self-rule.


Liberalism instead understands liberty as the condition in which one can act freely within the sphere that is unconstrained by positive law. Liberalism effectively remakes the world in the image of its vision of the state of nature, shaping a world in which the theory of natural human individualism becomes ever more a reality, secured through the architecture of law, politics, economics, and society. Under liberalism, human beings increasingly live in a condition of autonomy such as that first imagined by theorists of the state of nature, except that the anarchy that threatens to develop from that purportedly natural condition is controlled and suppressed through the imposition of laws and the corresponding growth of the state. With man liberated from constitutive communities (leaving only loose connections) and nature harnessed and controlled, the constructed sphere of autonomous liberty expands seemingly without limit.

Ironically, the more complete the securing of a sphere of autonomy, the more encompassing and comprehensive the state must become. Liberty, so defined, requires in the first instance liberation from all forms of associations and relationships—from the family, church, and schools to the village and neighborhood and the community broadly defined—that exerted strong control over behavior largely through informal and habituated expectations and norms.

My political hopes have become far more modest. I simply want the State to leave me and my institutions the hell alone. More Deneen:

Liberalism’s founders tended to take for granted the persistence of social norms, even as they sought to liberate individuals from those constitutive associations and the accompanying education in self-limitation that sustained these norms. In its earliest moments, the health and continuity of good families, schools, and communities was assumed, though their bases were philosophically undermined. The philosophical undermining led to the undermining of these goods in reality, as the norm-shaping authoritative institutions become tenuous with liberalism’s advance. In its advanced stage, the passive depletion has become active destruction: Remnants of associations historically charged with the cultivation of norms are increasingly seen as obstacles to autonomous liberty, and the apparatus of the state is directed toward the task of liberating individuals from any such bonds.

The well-known words of John Adams come to mind:

[W[e have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

Having lost our faith as a meaningful guide to public life, and with the legal regime and business customs pushing orthodox Christians increasingly to the margins of American life, why is it a surprise that these Christians may, as MacIntyre put it, “[turn] aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and [cease] to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium”? It doesn’t imply that we won’t vote — we have to vote, if only to protect our own liberties — but it does imply that the political and cultural marginalization that the secular Left has been seeking for religious conservatives for so long has been achieved. I don’t know where Nathan Pippenger’s politics are, but if he is a secular liberal, why does it not please him that my people are starting to feel so alienated from politics that we are putting our passions elsewhere?

Why is he shocked that orthodox Christians would come to see the government as hostile to us, our beliefs, our practices, and our historic liberties? Why does he require that religious conservatives affirm belief that the post-Christian liberal order is just and good? Because if not, we won’t be as eager to do what the government tells us to do? Sure sounds like it.

I’m reminded of the time in my teenage years when my dad and I argued bitterly about something, can’t remember what, and I started to walk to my room. “You sit back down there and don’t you move!” he barked. “We are going to sit together as a family and watch TV!” It was important to him to maintain the façade of one big happy family, and my withdrawing to my bedroom threatened his ideal.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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