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All Politics (Henceforth) Is Local

Vaclav Havel: though an atheist, a patron saint of the Benedict Option (Rey Kamensky / Shutterstock.com)

Reformed pastor Steven Wedgeworth, a conservative, says the Trumpening offers a good opportunity for Evangelicals to formally leave the GOP. He calls on fellow conservative Evangelicals who are 40 and under to “admit it. We voted Republican because of the issue of abortion and a desire to protect our religious values against government coercion.”

Well, now that you put it that way, Pastor, I’m 49, and that’s the only reason I have voted Republican at all for the past 10 years. Wedgeworth continues:

The creation of more-lasting institutions will have to be taken care of on a different level than presidential politics. Churches, school, and other community and civic groups need to continue these projects with a new intensity. They need to also see this current crisis as an opportunity to chart a third way between the two dead-ends that our political landscape has presented us for the last quarter-century. Pastors and teachers should prepare their people to withstand the social temptation to fall in line with one of the two undesirable options forced upon them and instead to be satisfied with searching for a truth not yet fully embodied. Instead of a rear-guard action which incrementally slows the inevitable, we have to consider a dramatic change of course which opens up new possibilities in the distant future.

This means that thoughtful Christians should begin seriously thinking about and constructingan alternative to the Republican Party, and this alternative should be really different. It may even break with what most people consider pure “conservatism” in many ways—and that purity strategy has already been rejected this cycle, by the way. Instead, we need to introduce people to historical Christian principles of ethics and jurisprudence, more recent historical political movements like Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and Abraham Kuyper’s Christian Democracy, as well as contemporary suggestions like Ross Douthat’s “Reform Conservatism.”


This will allow us to question certain common talking points of American politics, particularly its simple binaries and reductionism, and we might even pick up some moderate and left-wing sympathizers along the way (though this must be done by way of shared principles). We need to reclaim political recognition of and protection for the institution of the family, and we need to recognize that we can really only achieve these sorts of things on the local level. We should begin withdrawing from large federal programs and networks (including schools), all the while calling on government, even federal-government, protection of local programs and networks (including schools). This isn’t exactly the Benedict Option, since it can’t exist without some sympathetic government agreeing to not harass it (and perhaps even incentivize it through mechanisms like friendlier tax policies, zoning laws, and liability protections), but it is a call for the rejection of the managerial state in favor of a more open political landscape that allows a variety of civil-society institutions to cultivate the people.

Read the whole thing.  I can’t find much to object to here, except that a third party is a fantasy, and I have less confidence than the author does about the government leaving us alone.

(Side note: it always puzzles me when people think they’re making an argument against the Benedict Option when they say, “But the government will never let you get away with that.” Really? The less free we believe the government will let us be, the more we need the Benedict Option. Do you really think when the government says to traditional Christians “thou shalt not,” that we are going to be at liberty in our hearts to say, “Oh, OK, whatever you say”? No. We are going to have to find ways to resist no matter what the government says. The harder you anticipate government will make it on us, the more you ought to be all in for the Benedict Option.)

Anyway, I agree with him that we should be as involved as we can be in local politics — especially insofar as that means we back candidates, including Republicans, who can be counted on to defend our religious liberty interests. What this means, though, is that we are going to have to surrender any hope of changing the world through politics, at least for the foreseeable future. This is going to be hard for many, many politically engaged conservative Christians to accept.

In my own case, it means that henceforth, absent some black swan event, I am effectively a single-issue voter: religious liberty. In practice, that means I am a default libertarian. If a politician wants to liberalize laws on drug use, LGBT, et cetera, but he is the strongest and most reliable candidate on protecting religious liberty, including things like the sphere within which religious schools and homeschooling can operate, then I am going to have to tamp down my objections and vote for him. Think about it: society is going the way of radical individualism anyway — faster with Democrats than with Republicans, but they’re both on the greasy slope down the side of a steeply graded mountain. At least with principled libertarians, we stand to get some protection. With these Big Business Republicans, at least at the national level, I think we don’t have much reason to hope. I’m willing to entertain contrary arguments, though.

By far the more important part of Wedgeworth’s proposed strategy is his counsel to “get serious about the meaningful non-political institutions which you participate in” — this, because that is the only real way to catechize our kids properly.

If it’s not clear to religious traditionalists now, it will be very soon: we are going to have to raise children who, if they are faithful to their God, are going to have to learn how to thrive in a society that thinks of them as repugnant, and possibly even the enemy.

Some people will regard this as alarmist scare talk. I hope they are right. I don’t believe they are, and in either case do not believe we can afford to place our hope on the possibility that things will return to “normal” soon enough. For Christians, the Indiana RFRA debacle was the Rubicon.  As the elite legal scholar “Prof. Kingsfield” said at the time, “The constituency for religious liberty just isn’t there anymore.”

Nothing that has happened in the past 13 months since Indiana has done anything to invalidate his alarm. The Trumpening shows that a man can clinch the GOP nomination despite the fact that most prominent religious conservative leaders oppose him, and most churchgoing conservative Evangelicals do too. Religious and social conservatives are the biggest losers.

I am not going to blame Christian conservatives who vote for Trump in November, out of a desperate hope that a President Trump will not appoint liberal justices to the Supreme Court. Nor am I going to blame Christian conservatives who withhold their vote, as I will almost certainly do (a luxury I have because I live in a deep red state, one that’s going to go Trump no matter what). You do what you need to do regarding the presidential contest. From now on, for us, all politics is local — and nearly all politics is going to be anti-political.

If any Christian conservative readers of this blog want to make a case for staying in the GOP (which I left years ago), please do. Seriously, I want to hear it.

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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