Conservatism After Trump
David Brooks says that he’s not taking Donald Trump’s march to the nomination lying down. He confesses that he has spent too much time inside bourgeois circles, talking to people like himself, and hasn’t spent enough time out with the kind of people who respond to Trump’s message. A lot of people don’t like David Brooks (I am not one of them; I’m very fond of him), but you have to give the man credit: it’s very hard to find another prominent columnist at his level who will admit he was wrong, especially in that way, and who vows to get out of his office and into the country to see what’s going on.
Anyway, this part of the column is especially interesting:
We’ll also need to rebuild the sense that we’re all in this together. The author R. R. Reno has argued that what we’re really facing these days is a “crisis of solidarity.” Many people, as the writers David and Amber Lapp note, feel pervasively betrayed: by for-profit job-training outfits that left them awash in debt, by spouses and stepparents, by people who collect federal benefits but don’t work. They’ve stopped even expecting loyalty from their employers. The big flashing lights say: NO TRUST. That leads to an everyone-out-for-himself mentality and Trump’s politics of suspicion. We’ll need a communitarianism.
Maybe the task is to build a ladder of hope. People across America have been falling through the cracks. Their children are adrift. Trump, to his credit, made them visible. We can start at the personal level just by hearing them talk.
Then at the community level we can listen to those already helping. James Fallows had a story in The Atlantic recently noting that while we’re dysfunctional at the national level you see local renaissances dotted across the country. Fallows went around asking, “Who makes this town go?” and found local patriots creating radical schools, arts festivals, public-private partnerships that give, say, high school dropouts computer skills.
Then solidarity can be rekindled nationally. Over the course of American history, national projects like the railroad legislation, the W.P.A. and the NASA project have bound this diverse nation. Of course, such projects can happen again — maybe though a national service program, or something else.
He may be right. I hope he’s right. This has implications, obviously, for the Benedict Option.
As I see it, the Ben Op is, as someone here put it the other day, a form of “Christian localism,” one that would inspire exactly the kind of thing Brooks is talking about here. One gives up much hope of changing the country, and focus on what good one can do locally. As I will never tire of saying, the best example I have yet encountered is the Tipiloschi, the lay Catholics in San Benedetto del Tronto, Italy, who built a community school that also serves kids outside their own community, who reach out to local kids who are falling through the cracks and helps them, and who even launched a solidarity program with the Chesterton Center in Sierra Leone (fellow distributists!) to send them used equipment and other supplies needed to support their own local community. The Tipiloschi are ardently local, but because they are ardently local, they find the resources to reach out beyond their town.
I spent hours interviewing Marco Sermarini, the leader of the group, this past February, finding out how and why they succeed so brilliantly. Alas for you, you’ll have to wait for my book to come out next year to hear what he has to say. For now, I will say that the Tipiloschi are defiantly countercultural. They see the contemporary world as badly misguided, and don’t want to conform to it. The key is that they are not simply against something; if they were, they would be stuck in a defensive crouch. Rather, they are for something, and for it with joy and energy.
The main lesson I took from my short time with them is evidence that it’s simply a false choice that if one thinks of one’s community as separate from the world in a serious sense, that one has by that fact turned one’s back on the world. Granted, it’s a hard thing to pull off, I imagine, but they could not imagine being faithful Christians without doing both. That is, they know that in order to hold on to their faith in the world today, they have to adopt certain practices that build internal solidarity, deepen their roots, and that set them apart from the mainstream. But they also know that the very faith that holds them together and gives them a reason to live both commands and inspires them to serve others. How they do so is a fascinating case study. I hope David’s travels take him to San Benedetto del Tronto, because we Americans have a lot to learn from those Italians, for sure.
The great challenge orthodox American Christians face in our fragmenting society is one that the Tipiloschi have somehow mastered: managing to be in the world but not of it. That’s not just a saying with them; they live it. From what I can tell, the Tipiloschi, all of whom are orthodox Catholics, know exactly how far their religious beliefs put them from the mainstream of Italian society. They don’t feel beaten down or abashed by that, but embrace their difference. They are open to the outside world, but confident enough in their own beliefs and practices not to want to compromise with the world for the sake of getting along. If the world wants to join them, great, come on in. But they’re not going to water down their Catholicism for the sake of being seeker-friendly. In fact, they consider their faith the primary good that they have to share with the community, but not the only good.
When I visited the Tipiloschi “clubhouse,” as I call it, on top of a hill overlooking the Adriatic, I saw three teenage boys, all of whom had been involved in one way or another with juvenile crime, who had been drawn into the community and were now a part of it, working with its adults and its young people to improve the site. The Tipiloschi gave them a ladder of hope. It was a beautiful thing. They’re doing small but effective things too, like trying to keep the tuition low enough at the community’s school, the Scuola G.K. Chesterton, so that working families outside the community can afford to send their kids. But here’s the thing: they insist that the school’s mission to educate kids in a classical manner, according to the Catholic faith, cannot succeed unless the parents are also part of the mission. In other words, people in the community cannot sit on the outside, partaking of its goods as consumers. Real solidarity requires them to assume a role in the overall mission.
To pull this off requires immense confidence, and that’s what they have, for sure. It’s going to take the same kind of confidence here. One of the big lessons I took from the Tipiloschi is a very Benedictine one: by focusing first and foremost on serving God as Roman Catholics committed to their local community and its practices (frequent mass, Scripture study, prayer, confession, at least once a week having a communal meal, etc.), they find the strength to be of real service to others. The difference between this and what I’ve observed in (non-Benedict Option) American Christian communities is that Americans tend to believe, mistakenly, that the fundamentals of the faith are solid in themselves and their own young people, such that they can spend most of their time focusing outward. That’s not how the Tipiloschi are. Everyone in the community, even the adults, participates in Bible study and the like. Learning about the faith is a lifelong project, one that provides the fuel for the light that they bring to others outside the community.
This is an example of anti-political politics in action. They all vote, and in fact many of them went earlier this year to a big demonstration in Rome in favor of traditional marriage. But the national political scene is not really their concern. Localism is.
In our country, I wonder to what extent laws and public sentiment will allow Benedict Option Christians to do what the Tipiloschi do, given the growing move to demonize orthodox Christians. No doubt things are going to tighten up on us, and we need to give up hope that we are going to solve this through political engagement. What we need to do is to build strong internal resistance, by putting down deeper roots in our faith (through study and practices), and by building thick relationships with each other and our local communities.
Some people say that the state is bound to forbid Benedict Option communities like the Tipiloschi from operating in this country. Maybe that will come one day. Who knows? In the meantime, we have to do what we can with the time and the resources we have. The Tipiloschi suggest what can be accomplished by religious conservatives locally.
[Note to readers: I am not posting or approving comments on Friday, which is Holy Friday for the Orthodox. Leave a comment if you like, but I won’t approve it until tomorrow. Thanks for your patience. — RD]