Letter From A ‘Benedict Option’ Convert
I received this wonderful letter today from Michael Warren Davis, editor of the Catholic magazine Crisis. I publish it with his permission:
I first read The Benedict Option when it was first published, back when I was still riding the high from President Trump’s 2016 victory. Honestly, I wasn’t impressed. I was probably one of the many Trumpists who dismissed it as defeatist and retreatist. (I’m sorry to say that I even wrote one of those dreadful “The So-and-So Option” copycat articles.) Crunchy Cons I loved, and The BenOp sort of felt like a regression.
Just after Halloween, two of my wife’s friends came to visit us at our home. One night we all huddled in the living room, drinking cider and brandy and talking about… well, politics, of course. At one point, the conversation went like this:
Me: “I really don’t see the point in any of this. The idea that re-electing Trump will solve anything just strikes me as ridiculous. I mean, he’s not even trying anymore. What’s with that slogan, ‘Keep America Great’? Are we really supposed to think he’s solved all of America’s problems in three years?”
Friend: “What do you want to do about it?”
Me: “I don’t know. Move back to New Hampshire, for starters. Reconnect with the Thomas More College community. Get more involved with Winthrop House [a new homesteading non-profit started by a good friend]. Have a bunch of kids, and homeschool them. Buy some land and work it. Smash my laptop. Go to daily Mass.”
Friend: “That’s the Benedict Option.”
Me: “No—I mean, rebuilding Christendom from the ground up. Ignoring think-tankers’ grand strategies, the hack journalists’ hot takes, and the politicians’ empty promises. Pulling my head out of the toxic swamp of mass culture. Withdrawing from consumer capitalism. Rolling up my sleeves and actually making a tangible difference, even if it’s only a small one. Staking out a bit of territory where Christendom can survive until the West is ready to take it back. Leading by example instead of tweets and op-eds.”
Friend: “Yeah, Michael… that’s the Benedict Option.”
Intrigued, I pulled The Benedict Option off the shelf and started reading it again. It’s like I have new eyes.
I don’t know what’s changed in the last two and a half years. I think a lot of it is just “Trump Fatigue.” The schtick is really getting old. Part of it is probably the getting married and starting a family, which shatters many illusions about one’s own powers. It forces you to think seriously about how you can make the world safe for the people you love. Part of it, too, I suppose, is that I—a reactionary from boyhood, when I insisted on going to preschool in tweed and a bow tie—lived to see illiberalism become quasi-mainstream, or at least kosher. Only once I heard my own arguments in the mouths of smarter people than me did I started to notice chinks in the armor.
How on earth are we supposed to erect a Catholic state when the percentage of Catholics is only shrinking? How many of the remaining Catholics would even be open to integralism if they can’t even comply with Catholic moral teachings that are relatively easy to comply with—for instance, the mere 13 percent of Mass-goers (or about one percent of all Americans) who accept the Church’s teaching on contraception? It’s like hanging a new air freshener on the rear-view mirror when the car is on fire. We’re lightyears away from having a population that might even consider adopting some kind of illiberal or traditionalist political program.
It’s amusing to hear myself making arguments that, just a few months ago, I would’ve dismissed as defeatist. I guess it’s kind of like what St. Thomas Aquinas says about faith: To one who gets it, no explanation is necessary. To one who doesn’t, no explanation is possible.
Of course, I don’t find it defeatist anymore. Just the opposite, in fact. Even before I became a political journalist, I felt as though there was something deeply shallow about our politics, and something at once vain and futile about our attempts to solve our problems through policy papers and senate bills. It seemed to me that the more important questions were cultural: our collective addiction to technology, the hideousness of modern architecture, the omnipresence of pop music in public spaces, the decline of regional accents… things that most people, and even most influential conservatives, don’t really think twice about. I assumed I was just a naive, nostalgia-addled fogey. Actually, I think I was right.
I also feel a tremendous sense of relief. I don’t feel like I have to rely on my own powers to save the world. I don’t feel like I have to win 51 percent of the country to my view in order to feel like I’ve made a difference. I don’t feel like I have to sell out my principles and priorities in exchange for a nosebleed seat to root for the Winning Team.
That’s something equally daunting and liberating about the BenOp: it’s by definition not majoritarian, and the object isn’t to be the most popular guy on the block. In fact, as I gather from reading your blog, you actually take quite a lot of heat for rejecting the ideological solutions and abjuring personality cults. Nobody wants to believe they’re actually quite powerless in the face of the cultural/political/corporate/media elites. They want to believe their hashtags and hyperlinks are going to win the day. Nobody wants to humble themselves and do the difficult, tedious work of rebuilding Western civilization from its very foundations. That’s the defeatist attitude. It’s born of despair.
I’m sure there are others like me, who will become disillusioned with the various conservative establishments (pro-Trump, anti-Trump, whatever) and find direction in The Benedict Option. We’re only just beginning to realize the significance of this extraordinary book.
I am humbled by this letter, and thank Michael for it. I think the “Trump fatigue” he’s talking about is very real. It is hard for Christians to give up the idea that if only we vote for the right person, everything is going to be made right. Once you give up that (false) hope, it sets you free to live in reality. It’s better to live in the truth, however confusing and unpleasant, than to live in a soothing falsehood.
This is not Donald Trump’s fault, mind you. The other day, I was e-mailing with a couple of Christian friends, and we were talking about my observation on this blog that a Russian Christian audience stared at me with incomprehension as I told them about Drag Queen Story Hour, and the way US culture catechizes little children into gender ideology — without much resistance at all. One of my correspondents wrote:
I was thinking about how astonished the Russians you met were that American conservatives just roll over when the alphabet people hold a DQSH etc. You can see how the Muslim parents in Britain resisted, so why don’t American conservatives do that?I think you can make a solid charge that it’s due to the stance promoted by opponents to Ben Opt, presented as “fighting back.” But for virtually everyone, it’s sending out other people to fight these battles for us. We could call it the “Representative” approach, just like representative democracy. We don’t engage personally; if you read an essay someone else wrote that states your views, you did your part.Though this alternative to the Ben Opt describes itself as fighting back, for nearly everyone it amounts to watching someone else fight back, while they go on doing whatever they are doing. This is obviously appealing because it’s hard work to actually go out and fight battles. It’s demanding, people hate you (and possibly threaten you), and it makes it hot for you locally if people recognize you. It’s much safer to keep a low profile. And why bother to get involved in any practical way, if you can read a blog post that already says everything you think?As you say so often, Rod, what they don’t notice is that their children are drifting from these values and even from faith. And that’s it’s easy even for themselves to be gradually being turned into something indistinguishable from the world.
In heavily secular France, almost a million people turned out in Paris to demonstrate against the proposed gay marriage law. [This was the 2014 Manif Pour Tous. — RD] They didn’t prevail, in the end, but a million freaking people came out to protest it. Not all of them were Catholic. Many were just ordinary people who believe that children should have a mom and a dad. Meanwhile, in the US, which is comparatively more religious and more conservative … nothing.
My other correspondent in this conversation said that she works in a progressive office space, and that if the people around her knew what she really believed, her job might be at risk, and she would certainly face harassment. She said that the fear of being called a “bigot” is very real, and it has real-world consequences (job loss) for many people.
I know that’s true. I know it’s true in part because I hear from you readers every day, testifying to it. Let me ask you, though: is anything that Donald Trump has done since taking office in 2017 made it less likely that you will be harassed in the workplace or at school for your beliefs, and safer for you to say what’s on your mind? Has the Trump presidency made it more likely that your children will accept and live out the faith? If Trump is re-elected next year, and serves out a full second term, will Christians, and the Christian faith, be better off?
Of course they won’t. This is not a reason to vote Democratic in 2020, of course, or to have voted Democratic in 2016. For all Trump’s many failings, there’s a lot to be said for a president who doesn’t despise one and one’s beliefs, especially on abortion and religious liberty. And judges really do matter. I wish Trump were less vain, less easily distracted, less corrupt, and so forth — because my kind needs him to be good at what he does. He’s not, and we now know that he’s never going to be any better than he has been so far. At some point, endless recitations of “but he’s better than Hillary would have been” are irrelevant, even if true.
Still, even if he were at the top of his game, Trump would at best be a holding action. As I wrote in The Benedict Option (which came out in early 2017, two months after Trump’s inauguration):
No administration in Washington, no matter how ostensibly pro-Christian, is capable of stopping cultural trends toward desacralization and fragmentation that have been building for centuries. To expect any different is to make a false idol of politics.
What’s more, to believe that the threat to the church’s integrity and witness has passed because Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election is the height of folly.
One reason the contemporary church is in so much trouble is that religious conservatives of the last generation mistakenly believed they could focus on politics, and the culture would take care of itself. For the past thirty years or so, many of us believed that we could turn back the tide of aggressive 1960s liberalism by voting for conservative Republicans. White Evangelicals and Catholic “Reagan Democrats” came together to support GOP candidates who vowed to back socially conservative legislation and to nominate conservative justices to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The results were decidedly mixed on the legislative and judicial fronts, but the verdict on the overall political strategy is clear: we failed. Fundamental abortion rights remain solidly in place, and Gallup poll numbers from the Roe v. Wade era until today have not meaningfully changed. The traditional marriage and family model has been protected in neither law nor custom, and because of that, courts are poised to impose dramatic rollbacks of religious liberty for the sake of antidiscrimination.
Again, the new Trump administration may be able to block or at least slow these moves with its judicial appointments, but this is small consolation. Will the law as written by a conservative legislature and interpreted by conservative judges overwrite the law of the human heart? No, it will not. Politics is no substitute for personal holiness. The best that orthodox Christians today can hope for from politics is that it can open a space for the church to do the work of charity, culture building, and conversion.
I went on to say that “Christians cannot afford to vacate the public square entirely,” and that we have to stay involved in politics for the sake of defending our liberties, and the common good. (This is something that many critics of the Ben Op seem driven to ignore about my book). But we have to do this differently than we are accustomed to:
Above all, though, [the times] require attention to the local church and community, which doesn’t flourish or fail based primarily on what happens in Washington. And the times require an acute appreciation of the fragility of what can be accomplished through partisan politics. Republicans won’t always rule Washington, after all, and the Republicans who are ruling it now may be more adversarial to the work of the church than many gullible Christians think.
Many Christians are so discouraged by the political situation that they have resolved to disengage from
partisan politics or at least to care less about it than they once did. This need not mean a retreat into quietism. Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs magazine and a fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, contends that religious conservatives would be better off “building thriving subcultures” than seeking positions of power. Why? Because in an age of increasing and unstoppable fragmentation, the common culture doesn’t matter as much as it used to. Writes Levin:
The center has not held in American life, so we must instead find our centers for ourselves as communities of like-minded citizens, and then build out the American ethic from there. . . . Those seeking to reach Americans with an unfamiliar moral message must find them where they are, and increasingly, that means traditionalists must make their case not by planting themselves at the center of society, as large institutions, but by dispersing themselves to the peripheries as small outposts. In this sense, focusing on your own near-at-hand community does not involve a withdrawal from contemporary America, but an increased attentiveness to it.
Thus, the Benedict Option as a political response to our relative decline in power and influence. If you think Robert Jeffress’s invitations to the White House, and prosperity gospel charlatan Paul White-Cain’s new appointment as Trump’s top religious adviser, mean anything substantive or good, you are in for a very hard fall. In fact, as Michael Warren Davis avers, believing that we can vote and emote our way to renewal and revival, instead of doing the long, hard work of repentance and rebuilding, stone by stone, is the real response of despair.
Last year, a prominent conservative Christian academic told me that he doesn’t think that The Benedict Option is done. I asked him what he meant. He said that when Trump leaves office, the scales will fall from the eyes of many traditional Christians, and they will wake up to the seriousness of our common crisis. I told him I hope he’s right. Reading Michael Warren Davis’s letter helped me understand what the professor was talking about.
I leave you with this passage from St. John Henry Newman, on what the early Benedictines accomplished:
St. Benedict found the world, physical and social, in ruins, and his mission was to restore it in the way not of science, but of nature, not as if setting about to do it, not professing to do it by any set time, or by any rare specific, or by any series of strokes, but so quietly, patiently, gradually, that often till the work was done, it was not known to be doing. It was a restoration rather than a visitation, correction or conversion. The new work which he helped to create was a growth rather than a structure. Silent men were observed about the country, or discovered in the forest, digging, clearing and building; and other silent men, not seen, were sitting in the cold cloister, tiring their eyes and keeping their attention on the stretch, while they painfully copied and recopied the manuscripts which they had saved. There was no one who contended or cried out, or drew attention to what was going on, but by degrees the woody swamp became a hermitage, a religious house, a farm, an abbey, a village, a seminary, a school of learning and a city.
We can do this! What choice do we have? I am reminded of this fragment from an e-mail I received in August 2018 from a rock-solid conservative Catholic priest, lamenting the spinelessness of the “good bishops”, who believed all the right things, but did nothing when they had the chance:
They will not act. They just talk and wait. Meanwhile the “New Paradigm” spreads ever further so they move from Communion for a few divorced/remarried folk, to homosexuals, to protestants, to preparing to relativize Humanae Vitae, to these games with the death penalty. At any point had the progressives faced bold apostolic witness and determined resistance, they could have been checked. But no, because bishops are chosen to be passive men when it comes to such things, only acting the way every other one acts and always with deference. That may be fine when all is well in the world, but it is catastrophic when things are under threat.
We beg for help from them. Shoot, we even show them how to do what must be done by doing it ourselves. And still they do not act. Just like the abuse victims asking for help and getting nothing. We ask for bread, they give us stones, accuse us of being impatient or disloyal, or charge us with being rigorist Pharisees nostalgic for a Church we never knew.
[The ‘good’ bishops of the John Paul II era] thought they could finesse the situation, gain control, and move things in the right direction. It was all just a matter of time. They did not realize the nature of the war that was being waged.
They did not realize the nature of the war that was being waged. This is not only true of Catholic clerics, and it is not only true of the clerical class. All of us small-o orthodox Christians have to wake up and understand the nature of this war. As it is, we are not going to survive it if we fight it by the old rules.
Lots of Christians have the false idea that The Benedict Option foresees the greatest challenges to the faith coming from state persecution. Though I do believe that is coming, by far the greater threats to the churches come from the culture in general, and from internal collapse.
In my view, Michael Warren Davis now realizes the nature of the war being waged — and because of that, realizes the nature that the resistance has to take. That doesn’t mean changing the way one votes. It means recognizing that voting correctly may be necessary, but it is just about the least meaningful thing we can do for ourselves, and the future of the faith.