Home/Rod Dreher/For Millennial Conservatives, The Enemy Is Us

For Millennial Conservatives, The Enemy Is Us

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away... (Reagan Library screengrab)

Here’s an interesting thought from Micah Mattix, who offers it on his Prufrock daily e-mail newsletter, via The Weekly Standard:

Sometimes reading younger writers on Twitter makes me feel like Nikolai Petrovitch in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. If you haven’t read the novel, Nikolai’s son has returned home from university for the summer—an event Nikolai had been anticipating with great excitement—only to have his son arrive with a friend, a “nihilist” named Bazarov, who knows everything and scoffs at everyone who disagrees with him (particularly at Nikolai’s brother, Pavel Petrovitch, for his outdated way of life). Nikolai’s son, Arkady, like a mindless Twitter follower, loves everything Bazarov says and does.

This leads Nikolai to a hard conclusion that he nevertheless accepts: “‘So that,’ began Pavel Petrovitch, ‘so that’s what our young men of this generation are! They are like that—our successors!’ ‘Our successors!’ repeated Nikolai Petrovitch, with a dejected smile. He had been sitting on thorns, all through the argument, and had done nothing but glance stealthily, with a sore heart, at Arkady. ‘Do you know what I was reminded of, brother? I once had a dispute with our poor mother; she stormed, and wouldn’t listen to me. At last I said to her, “Of course, you can’t understand me; we belong,” I said, “to two different generations.” She was dreadfully offended, while I thought, “There’s no help for it. It’s a bitter pill, but she has to swallow it.” You see, now, our turn has come, and our successors can say to us, “You are not of our generation; swallow your pill.”’”

It may seem that Nikolai is giving up too easily, but there’s wisdom in his resignation, and it’s this: The younger generation will replace you whether you like it or not and espouse ideas you find foolish or horrendous, and one day there will be nothing you can do about it. Yes, young people can be brash and stupidly self-confident (so self-confident, in fact, so afraid of appearing not to know something, that they don’t realize how obvious the charade is). One day, they too will be replaced. At the same time, not everything is a posture. Real differences exist and won’t always be resolved in this life. (Though, if you’ve read the novel, there’s hope.) Don’t take me to mean that older writers or thinkers should give up. Not at all. Nikolai doesn’t, but his discourse is seasoned with the salt of this reality.

(You really should subscribe to Prufrock. It’s free, and there’s always something interesting to read there.)

Here’s a theory. The thought occurred to me the other day, wading through the slough of sex abuse scandal sewage, that the best hope for reforming the Catholic Church is going to come from Millennials, and with the help from some of us in Generation X. I say that even though I can’t stand the Boomer-era fetishization of youth — you know, the idea that youth is a font of wisdom.

Why do I think the younger Catholics are going to be the ones to solve this problem, if it can be solved? It has to do with the ability to perceive the nature of the crisis, and to act on it. Hear me out.

It’s a general rule of thumb that one’s view of How The World Works is formed in one’s twenties, and doesn’t usually change. I’ve told the story many times here about being at a seminar in 2014 in which most of the people present were conservative Catholic intellectuals. The topic at hand was what role do Catholics have to play in the public square today. It became apparent after some time that there was a genuine generational divide in the room.

The Boomer Catholics had been formed intellectually in a time when the Catholic tradition was more or less coherent, and had something distinct to offer to American public life. The embodiment of this attitude was the late Father Richard John Neuhaus. The Boomers in the room seemed to think that the orthodox/conservative forces had suffered some serious setbacks, but that things were still fundamentally sound, and could be improved with different tactics.

But the Gen X Catholics in the room, most of whom were professors teaching undergraduates, kept saying, one way or another, that there was no Catholic tradition left to build on, because the Catholic students that come to them are blank slates. Their parents and their parishes have utterly failed to pass along the tradition to them. You might say that in their eyes, the Boomers were trying to defend ground that had already long ago been lost. It wasn’t that the Gen Xers had any good ideas themselves. But at least they had a clearer idea of the nature of the crisis.

I noticed the same dynamic in France, when I’ve been there promoting The Benedict Option. The book’s audience is heavily among Millennials. Boomers and older Gen Xers don’t get it at all. They still believe that if only the Church tweaks this or that, it will regain its footing and have a meaningful role to play in French society. Millennials understand that this is false hope. And yet, they are not gloomy at all. In fact, having given up that false hope seems to have encouraged them in their faith.

It’s the Gen X Catholics — and Gen X Christians in general — who puzzle me, even though I’m one of them (I was born in 1967). We Xers are supposed to have seen through the hollow idealism of the Boomers, but we haven’t been able to come up with a response to it any stronger than irony. That’s the cliche, anyway, and like most cliches, there’s something to it. However, there’s more to it than that.

Many of us conservatives were formed intellectually in the era of Ronald Reagan and John Paul II. Boomer conservatives — religious and secular alike — knew how bad things had been before, and what a difference these two figures made. For us young conservative intellectuals, our hostile irony was aimed at liberal Establishment figures who set their jaws against Reagan and Wojtyla. In my years as an LSU undergraduate (1985-89), the College Republicans were a powerhouse that dwarfed the College Democrats, and the Catholic Student Center was considered to be a stronghold of dopey Boomer liberalism.

No joke, when I went there in 1991, two years out of college, to enroll in RCIA classes, I finally left after I got tired of touchy-feely guided meditation exercises. John Paul II might have been an old man by then, but his kind of vigorous Catholicism seemed so much more alive than what the Spirit Of Vatican II establishment had to offer.

For us, the battle lines were clear. The enemies were political and ecclesial liberals, with their backwards ways of thinking. Sweep them out, and the restoration would be at hand.

Well, we pretty much got what we hoped for. The 1994 GOP takeover of Congress brought a new kind of politics to Washington, and a new kind of Republican leader: Newt Gingrich. In 2000, we elected a Republican president. Meanwhile, John Paul had been pope for over 20 years, and would go on to be the second-longest serving pontiff in history. Nearly every bishop in the Catholic Church was appointed by him.

The 2002 sex abuse scandal revealed how poorly John Paul had governed the Church. The Iraq War was the GOP’s Waterloo, in terms of its credibility. I don’t know how general this feeling is among other Gen X conservatives, but that was a very hard decade for me, given that I had been shaped by confidence in political and religious conservatism, and by the institutions (and personalities) that advanced them.

I don’t know enough about Evangelical religious life to say, but it’s clear to me that conservative Catholicism, as well as political conservatism, has been drifting along without purpose or leadership since the implosions of the last decade. Is there anything more dead than a Boomer GOP politician who invokes Reagan these days? Or a Boomer Catholic who hearkens back to the glory days of JP2?

My view is that neither Boomers nor Gen Xers, as a general rule, really have the imaginative capacity to think beyond the boundaries set by the world we have lost. It will take conservatives who were formed by the shatterings of the last decade to discern a way out of the ruins. I too find the callow posturing of some of the younger writers on social media to be both amusing and annoying, but the truth is, the most serious of them are living in the real world in the way many of us older conservatives are not. This First Things essay this morning by Catholic philosopher John Schwenkler, a Millennial, gets to my point. Excerpt:

I need to think about my children. We want to raise them in the faith—yet not without telling them of the abuse that children have suffered at the hands of Catholic priests or how our bishops have tried to cover up those crimes. Bishops are supposed to be the successors of Jesus’s apostles, who were commissioned by Christ to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” But their contemporary successors often behave as though they were running a corporation, minimizing liability and keeping the shareholders happy with legalistic statements and polished publicity campaigns to help them combat bad press.

Yet if the Catholic Church were a corporation, the leaders of its American branch would surely have been fired long ago for incompetence—even if the corporate mission didn’t include the salvation of souls. …

What to do? Where to turn? Having long been convinced of the Church’s claim to truth, lately I have been recalling Peter’s words to Christ: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” I understand that the demand for morally perfect leadership cannot be satisfied by any institution staffed with fallen human beings. But I can no longer comfort myself with an argument I used to find convincing: that the Church has always been filled with sin, even at the highest ranks; and that since I knew this before, my faith should not be shaken by these revelations now. However dark the past may have been, I am not sure it was much worse than this. It looks as if the gates of Hell have prevailed.

Emphasis above mine. Schwenkler, who used to blog for TAC, finished his undergraduate degree a decade after I did, and technically may be in the youngest Gen X cohort. It doesn’t matter. The point is that he, and those his age and younger, have been formed much more by a world of disappointment and disillusion than we older conservatives. That line of his that I boldfaced suggests to me that he has the youthful capacity to cope with the loss of the old verities, and to forge forward in the face of that catastrophe, unburdened by the illusions that many of us older conservatives can’t quite rid ourselves of, because they are knitted into our bones.

Let me put it like this: for us Boomer and Gen X conservatives (religious and secular), we knew who the enemy was, and where the battle lines were drawn. Millennials, though, have to live with the knowledge that the enemy of our ideals and interests is often … us. That’s the chief difference.

Thoughts on my theory? I know the same thing is happening on the left. I am interested to hear from the left-liberal readers of this blog, as to how they see this dynamic playing out on their side.

UPDATE:Alan Jacobs doesn’t agree with the generational divide concept. Excerpt:

  1. I believe that thinking in terms of generations is far more likely to lead us astray than to help us understand. It encourages us to ignore a whole series of factors (class, region, religious belief or unbelief, level and kind of education, etc.) that are at least as important as date of birth.

  2. If you must think in generation terms, then use Joshua Glenn’s more fine-grained and thoughtful scheme. Otherwise you’ll use absurd categories like “Boomer,” which has Donald Trump and Barack Obama in the same generation, which is manifestly absurd.

Fair enough. I just got back from lunch with an old friend. She’s a middle-class Catholic, and we got to talking about the scandal. She told me that three of the priests who were closest to her family in her youth were all eventually revealed to have been abusers. Plus, in a previous job, she had done some investigative work on clerical sexual abuse, and discovered first-hand how easily chanceries lied about this stuff. She said that her children, all of whom are college age, are far more devout than she is — so much so that she worries that in their sincerity, they’ll be taken advantage of by dishonest priests. So, right there my theory is blown: my friend is far more skeptical of the Church, but her Millennial (post-Millennial?) kids are idealists eager to believe the very best, because (in her view) they love the community they’ve found in church.

Like I said in my initial post, it’s impossible to do anything more than generalize about this topic. My mom graduated from high school in 1961, but she was a working-class white Southern woman in a small town. “The Sixties” didn’t arrive in our town until the 1970s, and certainly passed her by. She had far more in common with my father, who came of age in the 1950s, than with what popular culture associates with her generational cohort. So it’s tricky.

I still think that some useful things can be said, though, about how experiences of people in their teens and twenties give them a baseline for judging what is “normal.” For example, there’s a significant overall difference between the attitudes towards homosexuality of my generation, and the generations on either side of us. This is measurable.

UPDATE.2: Reader Walker:

I work in a Manhattan financial consulting firm. I hate it and will hopefully quit soon,, but, all things considered, it’s a decent company that cares about serving its clients well and providing stable, long-term employment to those that serve it. This is the first job I have had out of college, but I am reasonably sure that it is much better than most of its type. Coming here, I was a good liberal who loved Obama, disliked Hillary but supported her over Bernie and never considered voting Republican no matter how much I disliked her and Bill. (One of my formative political memories was how terribly she and Bill and their people treated Obama in the 2008 primary. Indeed, their treatment of Obama was far, far worse than Bernie treated her.)

However, in the three years I’ve worked here I’ve moved much further left to the point where I now call myself a Democratic Socialist and rue supporting Hillary over Bernie in the 2016 primary. Although I believe in the mild version of the Dem Socialist platform – far higher taxes, universal healthcare, cooperative/collectively owned housing for the poor and working classes, New Deal for green jobs/energy, more worker input into corporate boards a la the recent Elizabeth Warren proposal, partial or complete nationalization of Facebook/Google/tech in general, etc. – these positions have largely followed, rather than led my movement left.

What has led my movement left is my bosses. There is, obviously, a healthy contingent of conservatives here – including Trump voters but mostly Romney-style Reaganites – but, the directors and upper management of the firm are mostly liberal. These are the kinds of liberals who see no contradiction in the financial activities that led to the crises and their politics. These are the kinds of liberals who think it’s OK that a massive percentage of the country lives paycheck to paycheck because it helps financiers like them get rich. These liberals worry about the costs of college and healthcare and housing but are fundamentally secure. They are comfortable with bureaucracy, for reasons unimaginable to me, because they cannot see how things that seem annoying but relatively simple to them – e.g., health insurance forms, school-choice forms – wreck havoc on working people who simply do not understand the absurd hoops of modern life and do not have time or energy to learn them if they weren’t taught by their parents.

I could go on and on and on, but, in sum, these folks have absolutely no idea what life is like out there. (I’m from the Midwest, my mom is from the South and a first-generation college grad so I have lots of memories visiting the poor, rural South.) They have no understanding of what gutting the industrial base did to people, how many fundamental and systemic aspects of modern life are destroying the planet (they believe in global warming but, because they are rich, are mostly insulated from the dire consequences that await), and of how bewildering the constant changes capitalism – combined with the incredible pace of social changes – are for so many.

Again, these people have no clue. They are not fit to lead us. Much of me regrets how extreme the Dem Socialists are, but unfortunately I don’t see another choice. I refuse to support Trump or anyone/anything like him for a million reasons (primarily because I will not abide mothers being separated from their children by the government), but blame Clinton-ism and the failures of Obama almost as much as the Republicans for doing this to us.

There’s a cliche story of two fish swimming. Another fish swims by and asks “how’s the water?” After he’s gone, the two others look at each other and one asks “what the heck is water?”

It’s kind of a stupid story I know, but the point is that liberal leaders have lost the ability to know what water is. They have no idea how to stop Trump and still have the gall to tell us to sit down and shut up. No more.

It strikes me as similar to the Baby Boomer and some Gen-X Catholics you describe, who simply have no understanding of how the culture of faith has deteriorated in this country and how that loss negates so many assumptions they didn’t even know could be altered.

Reader Spencer:

As a 25 yr. old Montanan who was raised in the Roman Catholic Dioscese of Helena, MT I can absolutely sympathize with your views on the generational divide currently happening in the faith. Our own family has shown itself to be a classic example unfolding across rural MT.

Each generation has gotten more-progressive and less-religious in their values. Now, pretty much none of us kids attend church outside of christmas and easter mass, and nobody certainly has a close connection with any organized religion. Attendance and participation is done merely to appease the elder generations during family gatherings.

My mother believes that our current generation is simply “lost”, and will come back to the faith eventually. Her faith is so entrenched that the mere thought of clergy abuse has really been challenging to discuss. How does one deal with the fact that some of the leaders in your religion have committed horrible crimes? I try and comfort her feelings as best I can, but the writing has clearly been on the wall for some time.

In way it sucks for our generation to realize that the traditional religions have become compromised by their own actions and sheer size. They’ve corporatized themselves, and it’s easy to see how similar their PR is from an oil company like British Petroleum. It devalues the church and disillusions the young. It was especially acute in my case where I was raised in a small, yet close catholic community.

Organized religion works best when it’s on a local-level, because it allows people the opportunity to feel more valued when they participate in the faith. I had already been struggling with my relationship with Catholicism in high school, and seeing how a region can so easily be wrecked by scandals in such a small state diminished what belief I had left in organized religion.(the Helena Dioceses finally reached a $20 million settlement in May 2018 for abuse going back as far as the 1950’s).

There’s simply no trust these days for an organization that claims moral authority over your soul. Faith is personal, and any religion that views itself as infallible should be shunned.

The only way I’d ever consider raising my future kids Catholic would be if I could find a local community of faith that espouses “local” and “community”, much like the one I grew up in. But recent events have made it clear that my trust is too shaken to even have the willingness to look.

UPDATE.3: Reader RDB:

Rod, as a Gen X priest/seminary professor who has spent considerable time in ministry to higher education at a public university, I want to reaffirm your point and thank you for reaffirming what I have been teaching to my seminary students (mostly Millennials) for the last few years – that we have moved beyond modern problems, questions, and debates and are now in an emerging post-modern world.

Many Millennials find modern solutions deeply unsatisfying.

As I like to tell the aging boomers in the Church – your problems are not my problems. And if they aren’t my problems, then they certainly are not a younger generation’s problems. We are no longer modern, the modern questions are no longer interesting and the modern answers are no longer satisfying.

In the context of the Catholic Church in the US, a Millennial is only offered three alternatives – conservative(Weigel, St. Pope John Paul II, CL), traditional (SSPX, FSSP) or liberal (Bergoglio, Cupich, James Martin). All the debates and battles waged in the Church are written along these battle-lines yet not one of these positions can adequately respond to the reality the Church finds herself in today.

Conservative: I love (love, love,) St. Pope John Paul II. In the 1990s and 2000s, I devoured Weigel and First Things. But while much of what St. PJP II wrote and taught remains valid (he taught within the tradition, so it will always be valid), his pastoral mission was to speak to modern men and women. We can take St. PJP II as a model of engagement with young adults but we cannot simply parrot his pastoral talks the way an aging conservative today seeks to parrot Ronald Reagan. The conservative temptation is to take the Church back to 1993. *I do think RR Reno is trying to move First Things in the right direction and still offers very relevant and helpful articles.

Traditional: Traditional orders and groups are able to reach a certain segment of millennials because they are anti-modern. The Traditional Latin Mass provides them with what they cannot find in the banal Ordinary Form Masses found in most parishes. Yet, the traditional will only reach a small segment of the population. The temptation of the traditionalists is to take the Church back to the 1940s.

Liberal: Since they are enjoying power right now, they are the most hopeless and problematic. Pope Francis and those who have risen in power along with him, want to return to the battles of modernity. Their vision of the Church is completely modern. For Millennials (and many Gen-Xers) the liberals’ questions are not interesting and their answers are not satisfying. This is one reason why the upcoming Synod on Youth will be a disaster. It will be boomer bishops led by a Pope who wants to fight the modern battles (and eliminate the magisterium of PJP II)who will produce an unhelpful and uninteresting post-synodal document. The temptation of the liberal is to keep the Church in 1983, which is where most American parishes have remained.

As nebulous as this term is, we are now in a period best described as “emerging post-modernism.” Modern questions and modern answers are no longer sufficient. The Church has to stop fighting the battles of modernity, both outside and inside the Church). The world has moved on and could not care less what the Church has to say. And the same is true of millennials in the Church. The debates and answers of the conservatives, traditionalists and especially the liberals, is no longer interesting or sufficient to address a post-modern world.

UPDATE.4: Reader Axxr:

Katharine D. above says:

“Trust that belief- spirituality- is not the problem. The least religious young people are inevitably the most superstitious.”

I cannot echo this enough as someone that taught undergrads for years and that remains in touch with many of them now in their twenties or early thirties. They are fundamentally deeply, deeply religious. Uncritical and deeply convicted in the extreme. Far more religious than my generation was. It’s just that their religions are not Christianity, nor any of the other traditional faiths.

In addition to the New Age, Eastern Spiritualism, Wiccan/ Earth Magic/ Environmentalism/ Gaiaist/ Vegan groups that Katharine alludes to above, let’s not forget wokeism/ progressivism/ etc. What does everyone think this incredible absorption with LGBTQ, BLM, AntiFa, democratic socialism, etc. is? It’s religion; the behavior, feelings, and ultimate aim (salvation in one guise or another, of individual or of society, and resulting heaven/utopia, along with explanations for the fallenness of society on earth) are eminently religious according to any major sociological definition.

Yes, the young people are far more deeply religious today than they were throughout the second half of the 20th century. They are dying to die for a cause, and picking them essentially at random. They just don’t happen to believe that any of the religions of the book are populated with anything other than self-interested hypocrites and schemers.

I tend to agree that this is at the feet of the boomers. The implicit belief that “I ruthlessly can cast off any and all limits to my getting ahead, getting rich, and getting laid and at the same time *still* be a fundamentally good, spiritual, and uncompromised person”—that naive belief that runs through the boomer generation—is seen by the young as a pose and a scheme, not as a naive-but-honest belief. They simply don’t buy that the boomers ever really believed anything so obviously self-serving; it was all just to hide gluttony and vice, a way to lie to everyone to get away with things and steal as much as they could for as long as they could get away with it.

As a result, young people will happily spend thousands on trinkets designed to channel energy and help chakras and tell fortunes, and will happily spend thousands touring the country on pointless protests or going to weeks-long, full-silence “deep healing reiki retreats,” all while snickering at anyone that puts dollars on the donation plate or goes to church. Because those people—the “believers”—have, of course, been had by authority figures-cum-swindlers.

Not like the ones spending hundreds of dollars per pound for just the right species of matcha because it carries with it “vibrations” of ancient wisdom and extends life into the hundreds of years, there’s tons of scientific evidence for this online but the elites that came before us worked hard to suppress the knowledge… … …etc.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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