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The Political Benedict Option

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My colleague Leah Libresco has been at CPAC, where she observed that the libertarians didn’t really want to have much to do with social conservatives [2]. Excerpt:

Throughout the panel, the social conservatives seemed to be soliciting the help of the libertarians, trying to speak their language, while the libertarians seemed indifferent to the idea of converting social conservatives. The libertarians answered the questions that were posed to them but made no parallel attempts to appeal to socially conservative tenets in order to attract their fellow panelists to libertarian positions.

The closest the libertarians came to trying to attract social conservatives, rather than just rebut them, was when Matt Welch of Reason argued that religion benefits from a free market in churches and contrasted the vibrancy of American churches with the weakening ones in France. However, the diversity of American sects is not necessarily attractive to social conservatives, any more than a strong environmentalist is pleased by a completely free market in cars, where some meet gas efficiency standards and some do not.

Leah goes on to say that the panel left her feeling the truth of Ross Douthat’s observation that on gay marriage, social conservatives are now negotiating the terms of their surrender. I take her to mean that the CPAC panel made clear that the “surrender” is not simply over the resolution of gay marriage, but more broadly — even within the conservative movement.

Libertarians know that social conservatives are losing badly on this issue, and they also intuit that the gay marriage issue is such an emotional one, and has been made to carry such symbolic weight in American politics and culture, that to have been wrong on this issue (“wrong” = on the losing side of the argument) carries with it a stigma. Libertarians don’t want to be tainted by it — and, given how fast the culture is moving in their direction, they don’t see what’s to gain by tolerating social conservatives. And not only that, many younger libertarians believe now that social conservatives are positively malicious, given their stance on gay marriage.

Granted, this is just one panel at CPAC, but you see the logic here. To be sure, there remain tens of millions of social conservatives, and Republican candidates need our votes. But the day is coming, and coming soon, when holding on to our votes is going to be more costly to GOP candidates who need to win over Independents, than it is worth.

It’s time for social conservatives active in politics to start thinking about what the post-SSM landscape looks like. This was a major battle, and we lost it decisively. But social conservatism doesn’t begin or end with same-sex marriage. Abortion remains, of course, but there are other issues of importance to us. We have lost American culture, no question about it, so we have to find ways to protect our institutions and our religious liberties in the new settlement. Principled libertarians can be helpful here.

Plus, it’s time — past time, really — for social conservatives to move beyond the great issue that has defined our particular politics since the 1980s: fighting the Sexual Revolution. It still must be fought, of course, in our families, churches, and communities, but we’re not going to do anything through political action on this front. Social conservatism has to include resistance to the great liberalizing force of our era, sexual emancipation, in large part because of the effect it has on the traditional family, the bedrock of our society. Russell Kirk said that the family is the institution most necessary to conserve There are other threats to the stability of the family, threats that have nothing to do with sexual mores. I’m thinking about health care and economic policy primarily, but there are others, including defense policy, which anyone who knows families that have been separated for long periods of time by America’s current wars understands to be destructive of the social fabric.

Politically active social conservatives have by and large been unwilling to question their free-market, libertarian economic views, and have kept their focus on abortion and same-sex marriage. Now that opposing SSM is a lost cause, and a cause that, given the emotional dynamics of the gay rights issue, increasingly makes us political pariahs, that unpleasant fact frees us to widen our areas of concern. This book is a good place to start thinking in a broader way about what it means to be socially conservative today.  [3]

Finally, the most necessary truth, I think, is that social conservatives should learn that politics isn’t the most important thing to our cause. It never was. Culture is more important than politics, and we have badly neglected the culture. This is hardly a novel point. It’s worth re-reading the short essay the political theorist Claes G. Ryn wrote in this magazine in 2006, as part of its What Is Left? What Is Right? symposium [4]. I’m going to reproduce it here in full, because there’s no link directly to the Ryn piece:

Modern American conservatism has been enthralled by politics. It should be obvious to all by now that this has been a debilitating preoccupation. Society’s long-term direction is not set mainly by politicians. It is set by those who capture a people’s mind and imagination. Conservative politicians and policy wonks have failed to reverse any of the main deleterious social trends of the last half-century not because they have lacked financial resources but because efforts like theirs have limited efficacy in the first place. While they have gobbled up millions and millions of donated dollars, the activities that shape the deeper sensibilities and desires of Americans have continued to be dominated by people trying to dismantle what remains of traditional American and Western civilization.

Fascination with politics pushed into the forefront of the conservative movement individuals of limited philosophical and historical discernment. More and more they came under the influence of the zeitgeist and manipulative donors, which has contributed to sometimes ludicrous terminological confusion. Today “conservative” often means leftist, as in wanting to reshape the world in the image of a single ahistorical model (“democracy”). Many so-called conservatives are better described as Jacobins. Most neoconservatives are ideologically intense universalistic liberals. Needless to say, what Americans call liberalism has long been difficult to tell apart from European social democracy.

To recover, American conservatism would have to reorder its priorities and most especially put politics in its place. America’s crisis is at bottom moral-spiritual and cultural. Though a new alliance of homeless political groups is desirable, a realignment would be unavailing in the long run unless the old obsession with politics were also broken. The issues most needing attention will make the eyes of political junkies glaze over.

Modern American conservatism did not take to heart the insights of its most perceptive minds. Those who came to set the tone in the movement as a whole, William F. Buckley Jr. prominent among them, were political intellectuals. It seemed to them that dealing with the moral-spiritual and cultural foundations of civilization was not the most exciting and pressing need. The political intellectuals drew attention and respect away from efforts whose relevance to politics was not immediately obvious. That advanced philosophy and artistic imagination might over time do more than politics to change society did not even occur to most of them. Other than politics, what most interested them was economics. Some paid lip service to philosophy and to what Russell Kirk, following Edmund Burke and Irving Babbitt, called “the moral imagination,” but the humanities seemed worthy of little more than a polite nod.

The problem, simply put, was lack of sophistication—an inability to understand what most deeply shapes the outlook and conduct of human beings. Persons move according to their innermost beliefs, hopes, and fears. These are affected much less by politicians than by philosophers, novelists, religious visionaries, moviemakers, playwrights, composers, painters, and the like, though truly great works of this kind reach most minds and imaginations only in diminished, popular form.

Yet the conservative movement did not direct its main efforts toward a revitalization of the mind, imagination, and moral-spiritual life. There it relied on shortcuts. In the area of ethics, for example, it assumed that churches would handle the job. But the churches, too, had been deeply influenced by the general moral, intellectual, and aesthetic trends of society. The god worshiped by many was a figment of a polluted, sentimental imagination. The so-called evangelicals did little to break out of their accustomed intellectual poverty. Roman Catholics formed a core within post-World War II conservatism. Their church had more than superficially resisted major destructive trends in Western society. But as conservative intellectuals they, too, cut corners. For the most part avoiding an advanced engagement with philosophy and the arts, they were satisfied with upholding “orthodoxy,” which they did with Protestant-like earnestness.

The kind of intellectual, aesthetic, and moral-spiritual renewal that might have transformed the universities, the arts, the media, publishing, entertainment, and the churches never quite came off. Without a major reorientation of American thought and sensibility, conservative politics was bound to fail.

The neoconservatives reinforced the preoccupation with politics and public policy. They claimed that before their coming to the rescue American conservatism had been intellectually feeble, but, in reality, it had exhibited far greater scope and depth prior to their arrival. Mentioning just a few thinkers of the 1950s and ’60s proves the point: Friedrich Hayek, Russell Kirk, John Lukacs, Thomas Molnar, Robert Nisbet, Peter Stanlis, Wilhelm Röpke, Peter Viereck, Eliseo Vivas, Eric Voegelin, and Richard Weaver. Behind several of them stood the perhaps most powerful and prophetic American thinker of the 20th century, the Harvard Professor Irving Babbitt (1865-1933). Instead of fully exploring, developing, and applying the insights of such thinkers, the conservative movement wanted to get down to politics without delay, first by trying to elect Barry Goldwater president. Having a flawed sense of priorities, conservatism would before the end of the 20th century go almost completely off the rails, becoming a captive of party, money, and media celebrities.

To complain about today’s terminological confusion is not to imply that the terms used here have single, settled definitions. Words like “conservative” and “liberal” can be meaningfully defined and be useful, but any definition of this type simplifies complex reality. The more philosophical the study of life, the more inadequate such definitions appear. It is partly for this reason that traditional conservatives have insisted that conservatism is not an ideology. Even the best of principles are transcended by the enduring higher purpose of civilization. The means chosen to advance that purpose must change as historical situations change. For example, a conservative would never say, as would some classical liberals (or libertarians), that the legitimate functions of government are always and everywhere the same.

The word “conservative” was always problematic. It seems to imply that conservatism is all about conserving something already achieved. But conservatism wants to conserve the best of the humane heritage because the latter is an indispensable guide to finding and promoting the good, the true, and the beautiful in the present. The spirit of civilization must forever adapt to new circumstances.

Today highly destructive social trends have themselves become traditions of a sort. Hence the spirit of civilization will have to assert itself in sometimes radical-looking ways, not least in politics. It must free itself of incapacitating habits. One such habit is the increasingly philistine obsession with politics.

If I were a social or religious conservative who had money to donate, I would not give it to political causes. I would use it for strengthening our institutions as places of effective cultural resistance to the times we’re in, and the times that we’re entering. Make them function like the Benedictine monasteries of Western Europe did during the Dark Ages: as institutions and communities that bear and pass on our moral and spiritual vision in a time and place that does not share it, so that one day, far into the future, it will be there for rediscovery, and the rebuilding of society out of the ruins. Understand, I’m not advocating a withdrawal from politics, but rather a strategic reorientation of our priorities, and a reallocation of our resources — financial, organizational, and yes, spiritual — toward battles that are less fierce and emotionally satisfying, but far more important in the long run, if the virtues that we believe define a good society are to survive the new Dark Age that our fellow Americans embrace as Enlightenment.

177 Comments (Open | Close)

177 Comments To "The Political Benedict Option"

#1 Comment By Doug On March 10, 2014 @ 4:09 pm

Thursday: “Because secularization in Europe has hit its bottom.”

What does this even mean? I’m talking about demography. What exactly is it about this moment right now that signifies we have reached peak secularization? Why couldn’t someone have made the exact same case 10, 20, 50 years ago? Show me your work.

Thursday: “It’s obvious that you haven’t given this a moment’s thought before the last couple days, so you’re lobbing out random hunks of nonsense in hopes that something will stick. Slow down and think before you hit Post Comment. You’re not even trying at this point.”

This is just absolutely disrespectful.

#2 Comment By mrscracker On March 10, 2014 @ 4:16 pm

La Lubu,
Just to mention after reading your comments, I have friends who are conservative Mennonites, who live apart from many worldly things & don’t tend to educate their children formally much beyond 8th Grade-unless they’re intending to pastor a church.
They’re fully aware of contraception & modern medical options & make use of those if need be.
Even though formal education’s limited, they read extensively,travel abroad on mission trips & have connections with other Mennonite communities worldwide.They also have little bias towards marrying folks from other ethnicities & bring those foods & languages into their culture.
They have large families & seem to have a pretty good retention rate in passing down their faith.Just judging from the people I know, one friend has over 2 dozen grandchildren & counting.
I know non-Mennonite folk with 4 year degrees that seldom pick up a book after graduation & travel no further than Destin.
The Amish are different in some ways, but I don’t think foks are as shielded from the world as you might believe.It’s a choice made, not a prison.

#3 Comment By Thursday On March 10, 2014 @ 4:30 pm

I look forward to the veritable shower of Hail Marys coming in the next few comments. “We don’t know nuttin’.”

#4 Comment By Thursday On March 10, 2014 @ 4:49 pm

What hasn’t changed are collective, society-wide pressures and perceptions. We’re still fundamentally a social, not an autistic, species.

Some people are more resistant to modernity than others. Deal.

You might want to look into why these folk are so, er, downwardly mobile these days.

They’re not downwardly mobile. Religious people happen to be one demographic where fertility is not dysgenic. We’re headed for a religious elite.

You simply don’t know what you’re talking about. Which again, happens a lot around here.

You might want to look into the mental health characteristics of these families and groups for the answer.

You’re making stuff up.


The responses to on this issue are telling. When confronted with what is actually happening in the West, something that disturbs their complacency about the future of secular liberalism, people go a little crazy. Responses fall into at least three types:

1. Then “when it comes to the future, we don’t know nuttin'” response. Never mind that some scenarios really are vastly more likely than others. Honestly, you just shouldn’t bet on the seculars.
2. Switching to random (and often flagrantly untrue) accusations: “They’re all stupid/uneducated/psychopathic/unable to support themselves in modern societies, blah, blah, blah.” Self-explanatory.
3. Flagrantly denying the data: “Religious people don’t have any more kids than seculars.” La, la, la, I can’t heeeear you.

Hail Mary, Hail Mary, Hail Mary, Hail Mary, Hail Mary, Hail Mary, Hail Mary, Hail Mary, Hail Mary, Hail Mary, Hail Mary, Hail Mary, Hail Mary, Hail Mary. I mean it just can’t be true.

#5 Comment By Jesse Ewiak On March 10, 2014 @ 5:03 pm

Yes, if the traditionalists are having six kids like Orthodoz Jews are and the secular Jews are only having two, that’s an issue. Also, I’d point out, that wouldn’t be possible without relatively liberal immigration laws for Jews coming into Israel.

But, if America continues to be a place where secular people have one or two kids and religious people have two or three kids, as all statistics show, there won’t be any great shift.

The number of families having four or more kids is probably at the lowest level in American history, and is probably only to drop further.

Yes, there’ll be a core of people committed to out reproducing evil liberal likes me, but you’re not going to convince even most evangelical women in the South to have five or six kids for the good of the cause.

#6 Comment By Jonathan On March 10, 2014 @ 5:06 pm

Populations aren’t born into a vacuum. I suspect Kaufman is correct that the religious will become dominate, but they will become dominate in a world saturated with information and a secular infrastructure. The world isn’t going to become to a neo-Calvinist/Douglas Wilson style theocracy. Actually I think it will be more of a matter of stability than anything else. The information explosion has created a future shock effect, and the twenty first century is going to be about dealing with rapid change that feeds on itself.

Of course if Thursday is correct, our descendants are all doomed to live in a totalitarian Christian dystopia.

#7 Comment By Gretchen On March 10, 2014 @ 5:32 pm

LaLubu, Doug, I think we’re wasting our words with Thursday, since he’s got his own facts and he’s not interested in any of your reality. But here’s one more try:
Thursday, you still haven’t explained why you think that the children of religious conservatives will also be religious conservatives. Your intuition tells you it must be so, and none of the links others have provided will shake that, but really, chldren of conservative, religious people are often less of both.
As for the “massive, Darwinian advantage” of these religious families. Really? They have a massive advantage over those East Coast power couples who can afford to send their children to the best schools, and start them out in life debt-free with many helpful contacts? I’d have to see your data on that, but I think that’s another one you just made up because your intuition tells you it must be true.

#8 Comment By panda On March 10, 2014 @ 5:35 pm

Israel is just a breathtakingly bad example when discussing the issue of the religious will inherit the Earth. There, the ultra orthodox population basically managed to get the state to craft a welfare arrangement to specifically to allow Yeshiva students to be able to raise children without working (the state provides extremely generous benefits for families with four and more children, stipends and discounts on local and property taxes for yeshiva students, all sorts of social welfar institutions, religious schools and kindergartens where their wives work). Even under these conditions, life as in ultra-orthodox communities involves huge material sacrifice, and is only bearable to extreme community cohesion, ideological commitment and mutual support. In the United States, you won’t find such communities anywhere besides Hassidim and the Amish, and, I suspect, among Rod’s tiny Benedictine groups if they ever come into being. The general body of American traditional believers is too, well, American to even contemplate such a life (statistically speaking, of course.)

#9 Comment By panda On March 10, 2014 @ 5:36 pm

As a side note, Muslims in Israel, who enjoy many of the side benefits of the ultra-orhodox oriented state ,but lack its extreme ideological commitment, are a really good control group. Among them ,birth rates are plunging..

#10 Comment By Doug On March 10, 2014 @ 5:46 pm

Thursday: “La, la, la, I can’t heeeear you.”

So, you actually are just trolling us rather than engaging in a conversation?

The reason I responded to you originally was because I’ve seen your comments here many times, and even though I don’t agree with you most of the time (as with Rod), I always thought they at least came from the more thoughtful side of the spectrum. I’ve seen you make the assertion that religious people will tautologically dominate the future, and I’ve asked you to answer some basic objections I had with this line of argument. Obviously, this was a mistake, as when pushed on this single point you literally say this: “La, la, la, I can’t heeeear you.” What a dumb idea engaging you turned out to be.

#11 Comment By Doug On March 10, 2014 @ 5:53 pm

Thursday, it is highly wishful thinking on your part to believe that, after decade after decade of defeat, total victory lies just around the corner for social conservatives.

I would have been more charitable previously, but as these comments have panned out, I’d call it delusional.

#12 Comment By WorldWideProfessor On March 10, 2014 @ 6:35 pm

Thursday: See my 2:27 p.m. comment above. Click on the links.


#13 Comment By Sean Scallon On March 11, 2014 @ 12:28 am

Judging by this tome, social conservatives, whatever that phrase may mean (I hear Bill DeBlasio has a nice family too), would have been better off last weekend at SXSW in Austin trying to find out what makes the modern culture tick and see where their place was in it rather than hanging out with the Beltway fratbros at CPAC. At this point, what do they have to lose. It’s not being engaged at CPAC has done them much good.

#14 Comment By M_Young On March 11, 2014 @ 2:56 am

“There, the ultra orthodox population basically managed to get the state to craft a welfare arrangement to specifically to allow Yeshiva students to be able to raise children without working”

Not only in Israel.


#15 Comment By M_Young On March 11, 2014 @ 3:00 am

“In the United States, you won’t find such communities anywhere besides Hassidim and the Amish, and, I suspect, among Rod’s tiny Benedictine groups if they ever come into being. ”

Going from memory, Utah and Idaho have under 5 populations of just about twice states like Maine and Vermont. And about half again higher than the national average.

Yes, some kids will defect to the ‘secular’ culture, but some secular kids will convert, too.

#16 Comment By M_Young On March 11, 2014 @ 3:01 am

“(I hear Bill DeBlasio has a nice family too)”

The irony is that he is that married to, if you think about it, an ‘ex-gay’.

#17 Comment By Thursday On March 11, 2014 @ 1:12 pm

Thursday, you still haven’t explained why you think that the children of religious conservatives will also be religious conservatives.

I’ve actually explained this over and over and over again.

just around the corner

There you go again, putting words in my mouth. Typical.

#18 Comment By Thursday On March 11, 2014 @ 1:20 pm

Thursday: See my 2:27 p.m. comment above. Click on the links.

See my comment about lobbing random hunks of information hoping something will stick. Your links say absolutely nothing about the differential rate of childbearing between secular and religious. It’s all absolute numbers.

The United States is still undergoing secularization. But none of this changes the fact that those who can be and are being secularized won’t have many kids.


#19 Comment By Thursday On March 11, 2014 @ 1:23 pm

First off, as panda above pointed out, the bulk of married women with 3+ kids are wealthier, more affluent professionals.

Panda’s stats say no such thing. Please read them again.

See my comment about lobbing random factoids.

#20 Comment By Thursday On March 11, 2014 @ 3:23 pm

all doomed to live in a totalitarian Christian dystopia

People throw the word totalitarian around like it doesn’t actually mean anything. This tells us more about your fantasy life than it does about any potential pro-Christian government.

I have always said that there is in fact very little the government can do. Most of the heavy lifting has to be done by informal social attitudes. Christians should certainly be allowed to informally stigmatize and discriminate against immoral and irreligious behaviour without interference from the government, and insofar as a government needs to prefer some ideas over others (as all governments do) it should prefer Christian ideas. But to call that totalitarian is an abuse of speech.

#21 Comment By Doug On March 11, 2014 @ 4:55 pm

Thursday: “The United States is still undergoing secularization.

From earlier: “All the people who can be secularized, have been secularized.”

So, which is it? You’re starting to confuse yourself.

#22 Comment By Doug On March 11, 2014 @ 5:04 pm

Thursday: “I’ve actually explained this over and over and over again.”

Actually, no you haven’t. The only justification you have given is to misapply Darwinian thinking in the crudest way possible. It betrays a stunning lack of familiarity with how Darwinism and evolution actually work in practice. The events of the last 50-100 years (and probably much longer) positively disprove your hypothesis. The children of religious people turned away from their parents’ traditions to create the secular society we have now.

#23 Comment By Gretchen On March 11, 2014 @ 5:26 pm

Thursday, you still haven’t explained why you think that the children of religious conservatives will also be religious conservatives.

I’ve actually explained this over and over and over again.

You may have explained it in other comment sections but you haven’t explained it in this one. You seem to make the assumption that it’s true, but don’t cite reasons.

#24 Comment By charles cosimano On March 11, 2014 @ 5:46 pm

Doug is right. The number of children who retain the religious practices with the strengh of the parents is about one third. The others either leave the religion completely or just stay with the form but not the belief, out of habit. So the end result of the religious folks having more children is actually more secularists outnumbering them.

#25 Comment By Sean Scallon On March 12, 2014 @ 1:49 pm

I believe true libertarians are probably the only friends so-cons have right now just from the vantage point of free speech/free association questions but the Welchs and Gillespies of the world are not people you can either trust or form longstanding alliances. Judging by how they reacted to the whole Ron Paul/newsletters brouhaha, how they view their social standing inside the Beltway is more important to them than any ideology. In other words, they will stab you in the back so long as they still makes them “cool.”

We also have to remember that social conservatism has never been a long-sustainable political force in American politics. The last such period of time this was true was during the 1920s, the era of Prohibition and the Scopes Trial and the Ku Klux Klan and the similarities are indeed stark. The way a WASP majority dealt with the changes in the country which were going to take away their power was through political activism and agitation and religious fervor. The Great Depression ended that period and thus the Great Recession (and the GWOT which proceded it) has done much to reduce the power of trads from where it was say around 2004 and Bush II’s re-election. Indeed, this power was slipping away in the late 1990s before 9-11 revived it temporarily. Still, a period from 1979-2012 is a long, long time in politics and it main effect was to create the political alignments that we see today. Yet those alignments has done much to damage the nation’s middle class and its political economy to benefit of elites, both cultural and financial. The Benedict Option (or the catacombes or The Amish Option) may well be a smart way to deal with the loss of political/cultural power until another awakening (and don’t forget how such awakenings throughout U.S. history have created the conditions for traditional conservative movements. They cannot exist without them) takes place again in the future.

#26 Comment By mrscracker On March 12, 2014 @ 5:18 pm

charles cosimano,
If you take the premise that only 1/3 of religious folks’ children remain religious -& I’m just taking that at your word, I don’t have any data before me-& assuming those religious families have 6-12 children, then even if only 1/3 retain their parents’ beliefs, it’s likely to be a larger population than secular folk.Assuming, again without data, that the secular family follows a current trend of 1-2 children per couple & conservative religious continue to have larger families as do the Amish, Mormons, Traditional Catholics, etc.
Math isn’t my strong suit, but I know 1/3 of 6-12 is greater than 1/3 of 1-2.
I picked the 6-12 kids figure because that represents Catholic, Evangelical, & Mennonite families I personally know.Ultra Orthodox Jew’s, too.I’m sure there’s better data available & that would be preferable, but I’d have to hunt around online.Which I’ll try to do.Sorry.
I also read that atheism is the least retained belief .Again, I have no data & will have to locate the article, but you can’t assume that all secular kids will retain their parents’ beliefs(or lack thereof) either.

#27 Pingback By “Ad Fontes” Benedict Option!: From the World to the Word | theology like a child On July 14, 2015 @ 8:39 am

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