On Christian Mourning In America
Well, The Benedict Option will be published a week from today, and the reviews and coverage is really starting to pick up.
In First Things, my friend Patrick Deneen reviews my book in tandem with Tony Esolen’s Out Of The Ashes and Archbishop Charles Chaput’s Strangers In A Strange Land. I’ve read both those books, by the way, and strongly recommend them. I’m honored to call those Catholic men friends and allies in our common struggle, and encourage all my readers to embrace this “ecumenism of the trenches” across church and denominational lines.
Why does Deneen gather our books together in a single review? He writes:
This project [Jerry Falwell’s 1980s-era Moral Majority] reflected a kind of optimism: America is seen as a decent, faith-filled nation that can be restored with the ejection of a corrupt leadership class. The Moral Majority wasn’t claiming to change the nature of America, but to allow its true nature to reassert itself. Though the religious right sometimes engaged in jeremiads, reproving America for falling into sin and vice, the focus was on restoration. Ronald Reagan—cheerful, optimistic, and imbued with a spirit of American progress—promised not to raze Sodom and Gomorrah, but to right the course toward Zion. Combining Winthrop’s call for America to be a “shining city on a hill” with FDR’s belief that America’s path was toward a “rendezvous with destiny,” Reagan embodied the confident hope of an American renewal.
Thirty years later, the mood has changed. Three books have appeared almost simultaneously that assume the opposite of what Falwell believed: America is populated by an immoral majority. Not only is its leadership class dominated by progressive elites, but the American public more generally has been corrupted by constant saturation in a media of skepticism and irony, pervasive consumerism, unavoidable pornography, and incessant distraction fostered by entertainment centers in every person’s pocket. America has lost its faith, and so the faithful have begun to question their belief in America.
Published within months of each other—by a popular blogger and author who has journeyed from Protestantism to agnosticism to Catholicism to Orthodoxy, Rod Dreher; by one of America’s most prominent and intellectually accomplished Catholic bishops, Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles J. Chaput; and by a Catholic professor of English at Providence College and renowned translator of Dante, Anthony Esolen—the books share the belief that traditional Christians are a moral minority. All three books were written in the midst of a political campaign that was expected to result in the election of Hillary Clinton. All three reflect the pessimism that accompanied that prospect.
The outcome of that election, surprising as it was, does not change the argument of these books: Politics will not save us. What is first of all necessary is to rebuild a culture in disarray. Compared with recovering the basic requirements of virtuous civilization—healthy communities, flourishing family life, sound education, a deep reservoir of cultural memory and practice, and formative religious faith—remaking the Supreme Court is a cinch. Philosophers who have described culture as the first requirement of a healthy civilization, from Plato to Burke to Tocqueville, have generally believed that the most one can consciously strive to achieve is preservation of a healthy culture, should one be fortunate enough to possess one. Once a culture is corrupted from within, however, they saw little hope of reversing its decay.
Findings by the Pew Research Center about religious belief and practice show an ongoing decline in religious belief and membership, including a dramatic rise in nonbelievers, especially among the millennial generation. Even where religious faith persists, Christian Smith suggests that religion for many Americans is individualistic and therapeutic rather than a source of discipline and moral norms. For nearly thirty years, conservatives have triumphed politically amid a catastrophic breakdown of social and cultural norms, especially those that foster an ethic of self-sacrifice, commonweal, and practices that inculcate duty, discipline, respect, civility, and obedience.
After some thirty years of conservative ascendancy, it is difficult to proclaim the existence of a moral majority. If anything, the most recent election points not to hope for “morning in America,” but despair among those fearful of what comes after twilight. Calls for restoration of family values were nowhere to be heard among the cheering throngs at the rallies held for a serial adulterer and crude showman. The president secured the support of a number of prominent leaders in the Evangelical churches as well as majorities of Christian voters who viewed him not as the champion of a renewed Christian America, but as someone who could hold at bay a ruling class that is openly hostile to Christianity. The aspiration of those who voted against another four years of progressivism was not to restore political order but to smash Washington.
And so here we are. The long-standing conservative narrative held that America is fundamentally decent but that those decencies are being eroded by an elite that subscribes to non-American, and even anti-American, values. The simultaneous political success of conservatism and ruination of American culture has made this view untenable. Now, a more radical possibility is opening up. Traditional Christians now wonder if a just and righteous society must be built in opposition to a national creed that has led inexorably to libertinism.
This conclusion has become harder to avoid. If the conservative political movement animated by a belief in a moral majority was born out of Roe v. Wade, it died with Obergefell v. Hodges. It died especially because, unlike Roe—which was decided while public opinion was divided, inchoate, and moveable on the question of abortion—Obergefell was decided with the backdrop of consistently growing popular support for marriage between homosexuals, with particular enthusiasm among a younger generation that will inherit the nation. Obama’s war against traditional Christians paid electoral dividends, supported all the while by the media, schools, universities, and even corporate America. This has caused a growing number of Christians to conclude that the nation is no longer a Christian nation, if it ever was.
One more bit:
Comparisons of America to Rome are as old as America, but the comparison takes on a distinctive cast for these authors. Rather than using the trope of Roman decline as a means to encourage recovery of republican virtues, the authors are in general agreement—with some interesting differences of emphasis as well as substance—that the task at hand is the creation of a distinctive Christian culture amid the ruins of the American republican experiment. If there is to be a recovery, it will have to take place during the decline of the American imperium. Perhaps, if some restoration of culture is successful, a political remedy may present itself. But all agree that any national political recovery is secondary, and perhaps ultimately unrelated, to the effort to build Christian communities in a corrupt social order.
This is a new condition for American Christians. Like Augustine, who wrote his masterpiece City of God following the sack of Rome in 410, these writers take our time as a reminder that a Christian’s ultimate allegiance is to heaven above. That still leaves the question of how we will understand our civic duties here on this earth. With the notable exception of those brought in bondage from Augustine’s Africa, Christians of various stripes have mainly been deeply supportive of the American political order, viewing it as a work of providence. These leading Christians are now calling on their fellows to consider something new. Perhaps it is time to see faith as working against rather than for the American creed.
Read the whole thing. Don’t worry, I haven’t over-quoted here; it’s a long review essay, but it’s so well written that it doesn’t read like a long review essay. I don’t want to spoil Deneen’s conclusions about any of the books, but I will say that I agree with his conclusion at the end of the essay:
Christianity is inevitably political. If Christians are to eschew Washington, D.C., as a lost cause, they should not imagine they can just build familial monasteries. Instead, we need to focus on our town and city halls, our neighborhood associations, seeking to foster the kinds of communities where our children can—and will—roam the fields again. At some scale, however small, the moral minority must become a majority again.
That’s true, and I talk about that in the Politics chapter of The Benedict Option. Deneen’s essay is a great introduction to the problem that all three books are trying to address.
This is not a link to a review, but to an interview I did with Michael Schulson at Religion & Politics. What good questions he asked! Excerpt:
R&P: How much is this an abandonment or disillusionment with the American project?
RD: I really don’t know if America is going to make it. God knows I don’t wish for America’s demise. It’s all I know, and it has been and continues to be a force for good and a safe haven. And it’s home.
We as a society have lost a sense of inner order. We’re seeing this more and more in the economic order, in the cultural order, with the dissolution of the family and the atomization of the individual.
The greatest thing [the Benedict Option] can do politically is teach us how to rightly order our hearts toward service of God and service to others, and to turn away from this radical individualism which has torn and will tear our country apart. Whether America can make it through, I don’t know. But that’s not as important to me as whether or not the church can make it through.
R&P: America is a pluralistic, multicultural democracy. How do kids growing up in a Benedict Option community learn to deal with people who are different from them?
RD: I don’t think most of us who do the Benedict Option are going to be retreating anywhere. I don’t think it’s feasible for most people, and probably not even desirable.
What’s important is that parents approach the Benedict Option not by simply saying no to bad things or harmful things, but by saying yes to good things. That means, in part, finding the good in other people and people outside our own tradition. For example, we have a lot to learn from our Orthodox Jewish brothers and sisters. They have been living as minorities in a hostile culture for a long, long time (sadly, hostility coming from Christian anti-Semitism).
I did talk to a young woman, about 18 [years old], whose parents ran to the hills to keep their kids from being polluted by the evil world outside. And their fanaticism, their paranoia, ended up strongly alienating their children from the faith. Every one of their adult children no longer practices the faith. That is a strong warning to the rest of us.
R&P: The Benedict Option still seems like a shrinking away from the basic, messy work of pluralism. Are you shying away from this uncomfortable reckoning with how to deal with people who think very differently from you about what it means to build a family or a culture?
RD: The fact is, it’s more important to be faithful Christians than it is to be good Americans. That’s the bottom line. And I would think that anybody, from whatever religion—Islam, Judaism, whatever—would place fidelity to what God expects of them above conforming to a culture.
There has never been a Christian utopia, and we can’t delude ourselves into thinking that it was. Look, I come from the Deep South, at a time when Christian faith was much more robust, and a lot of white Christians were severely oppressing black Christians. We can’t idealize the past.
That said, I wonder if your question is not so much that orthodox Christians don’t know how to deal with people who are different from us as that we are not changing our minds. People who are liberal on sex or whatever, in a time when the culture was more conservative, they had to figure out how to deal with the conservative majority too. And a lot of them did. I would hope to be in a time when we can find a lot more tolerance for each other’s difference, across both left and right.
I think of myself, and my generation—most of us, even we who are conservative Christians, would never want to go back to a time when gays and lesbians have to be back in the closet. I don’t want that at all. At the same time, I don’t want the state compelling religious institutions—churches, hospitals, schools—to violate our conscience on what sex is for and who the human person is and what marriage is.
I could be wrong about a lot of things, and I probably am. But that’s just life in a pluralistic culture, and if we start out with the presumption that people who don’t think like us are bad, there’s just going to be more and more warfare on both sides, and I think we’re seeing that.
My pal Russell Arben Fox writes about the Ben Op on Front Porch Republic. A critical review, but as with all the best critical reviews, one that I cherish because I learn from it, and, at the risk of being mawkish, I know it comes from a place of fraternal love. You should know before going in that Russell is a Mormon and a political liberal. Excerpts:
I have three points to make about this book. The first is that it’s really pretty great. Some chapters are better than others, but all are solid, as much as your mileage of appreciation may vary. (For example, I found chapter 2, “The Roots of the Crisis,” in which Rod lays out the whole intellectual history of Western Christendom’s rise to and fall from sociopolitical and cultural prominence in 26 pages, a little simplistic and pat, but those who aren’t scholars may well disagree with me;
I can see that. Imagine my poor editor, though, when I sent her the first rough draft of that chapter. It was over 17,000 words long, and I told her that I didn’t feel good about this draft, because I had really simplified things too much. She reminded me that the entire book was set to be 75,000 words long, and I had a lot of chapters left to write. There would be blood on the floor from all the cutting that lay ahead of me. In the end, that chapter ended up at something like 7,500 words long, which is more or less what all of them turned out to be. What I wanted to convey with that chapter is the sense that the crisis we are in today didn’t just come from nowhere. In my view — and this is a controversial one — the source of so much of this lay in 14th century theological shifts, which, as they played out over time, led us to this place. What I present is by no means a complete genealogy of an idea, but a conceptual framework pointing to what I believe we Christians need to recover. In truth, technology and economics also played a tremendous role in these changes, and cannot be separated from ideas. Ideas alone do not guide history. I just wanted to make clear that I concede that the history I offer is simplistic and pat, but also necessary to make sense of the rest of the book.
on the other hand, I thought chapter 10, “Man and the Machine,” was a sharp, haunting synthesis of the many powerful arguments which have been made regarding the “fatal error” of accepting unquestioningly “a world mediated by technology”…though I have no doubt that plenty of conservative Christian couples who only have children thanks to in vitro fertilization will be infuriated by his description of the damaging liberationist logic which he sees than practice as implicitly licensing–pp. 223, 234-235.)
Yes, they will. I don’t mean to give offense, but this is a good example of what I’m talking about. The context is as follows. From The Benedict Option:
Consider in vitro fertilization (IVF), a breakthrough technique allowing infertile couples to conceive. The 1978 birth of Louise Brown, the first “test tube baby,” caused great controversy at the time, especially among religious leaders, many of whom denounced it as unnatural and warned that it would lead to the commodification of childbearing by separating conception from sexual union. But most Americans did not agree. A Gallup poll at the time found that 60 percent of the public approved of IVF.
By 2010, when Robert G. Edwards, the British scientist who helped pave the way for IVF, won the Nobel Prize in medicine for his efforts, IVF was widely accepted. A 2013 Pew survey found that only 12 percent of Americans see IVF as morally wrong. The numbers are roughly the same with American Christians.5
As to the commodification of childbearing, consider the childless Tennessee couple who had donor eggs fertilized with the husband’s sperm, creating ten embryos. Four babies later the couple decided they didn’t want the remaining embryos and took to Facebook to offer them to a good home.
“We have six good-quality frozen six-day-old embryos to donate to an amazing family who wants a large family,” the wife posted, according to the New York Times. “We prefer someone who has been married several years in a steady loving relationship and strong Christian background, and who does not already have kids, but wants a boat load.”
According to orthodox Christian teaching, these are six human persons. The embryo donation community has developed a cute euphemism for these unborn children: “frozen snowflakes.”
Meanwhile British government statistics made public in 2012 revealed that 3.5 million embryos were created in UK laboratories since 1991, when record-keeping began.7 Ninety-three percent never resulted in a pregnancy, and about half were thrown away without even trying. The United States has no reliable records for the sake of comparison, but with a population five times larger than Britain’s, a parallel number would mean 17.5 million unborn human beings were brought into existence in a laboratory, with 16.2 million dying, and 8.8 million thrown into the trash can without an attempt at implantation.
Imagine every man, woman, and child in New York City, or the population of Houston times four, and you will understand the immensity of the death inside fertility clinics. That is, if you believe that life begins at conception, as 52 percent of Americans in a 2015 YouGov poll affirm.
Clearly there are millions of Christians not putting two and two together. Many conservative Christians strongly oppose abortion and back laws restricting it. There is no movement to ban or restrict IVF, even though from the life-begins-at-conception point of view, it exterminates millions of unborn lives.
How do conservative Christians who believe that life begins at conception justify this, except through consequentialist reasoning? The point of this chapter is not to condemn these people, certainly, but to show where the kind of reasoning that is common in the technological age can lead us. I hope that the book will start meaningful conversations about this kind of thing. It would have been easy to talk about the deleterious effects of technology on our thought and behavior had I chosen only examples that were easy for conservative Christians to affirm. This is one of the hardest cases, I think, which is why I chose it. Remember, The Benedict Option is more than anything else a challenge to conservative Christians. What you might not know, though, is that everything I say critical of the way so many of us fall short of our ideals applies to me, myself, and I as well.
Enough me. More Russell:
Overall Benedict Option is not, I think, Rod’s best writing; ideas are most deeply and effectively explored when they are organically revealed in the context of a story, and he did that better when he told the tale of his sister’s life, her death, and the hometown they shared in The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (a book I couldn’t write enough about when it first came out, and which I still buy copies of to give to students of mine as they graduate, marry, or move away), and then again when he wrote a spiritual autobiography of sorts as a sequel, How Dante Can Save Your Life. Benedict Option isn’t organic in that sense; while there are stories in it, they are arranged to serve as parts of his argument. Here the ideas, not the stories, come first.
That’s fair. If I had had more time and space, I might have been able to weave personal stories more neatly into the narrative. But this is, as Russell says, a book about ideas more than personal stories.
Look, I can’t begin to do justice to the complexity of this review by quoting bits and pieces. If I have time later this week, I’ll return to answer a couple of the objections he raises. In the meantime, I hope you’ll read the whole thing. Here’s the conclusion:
So I come to the end of this fine and challenging book and have to conclude: Rod’s thoughtful and important call for strengthening our families and rebuilding our communities by way of the same rules of attentive withdrawal and humble practices which communist dissidents and Catholic monks alike long exemplified is one that I can be inspired by and learn from–but it’s a lesson he’s not actually directing it at me. This makes me sad, a little bit: because when I look at the end of the book, and I read passages like this…
The Benedict Option is a call to undertaking the long and patient work of reclaiming the real work from the artifice, alienation, and atomization of modern life. It is a way of seeing the world and of living in the world that undermines modernity’s big life: that humans are nothing more than ghosts in a machine, and we are free to adjust its settings in any way we like (p. 236).
…I think to myself: yes, that’s what I want and need. If I am to make rational sense of the fact that I find my soul responding to much of Rod’s antipolitical politics, to his parallel polis, to his localist alternatives, and to his traditionalism, will I need, ultimately, a deeper conversion? Maybe. Or maybe not. But in the meantime, I hope Rod never forgets: for all our disagreements (and some of them are pretty huge), there are plenty of capitalist dissidents and liberal communitarians and heterodox Christians and modern pluralists and aspiring “intenders” like me who think you’re on to something. Even if you’re not talking to us, we’re listening, and we like a lot of what we hear, and are thankful for it.
A writer is blessed by friends who will speak to him honestly about his virtues as a writer and his faults. Thank you, Russell. Thank you, Patrick. And thank you Michael Schulson for your thoughtful attention to my book.
Readers, I’m getting lots of e-mails right now, more even than usual. If I don’t answer you, it’s not that I’m ignoring you. It’s that I can’t keep up. Please don’t be offended.