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Patriotism & the Benedict Option

Here’s a thought-provoking First Things piece from 2004 by John Owen IV, a UVA political scientist, who analyzes Christianity and patriotism in light of After Virtue and 9/11. Remember, this was written in 2004. It begins like this:

Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre closed his 1981 book After Virtue by posing what might be called the St. Benedict option. As a society, we retain the vestiges of traditional moral language but not the communities and practices that produced that language. Moreover, our elites think that justice has no grounding apart from individual feelings. The Enlightenment project of replacing tradition with self-grounding moral rules has failed, and no grand replacement has emerged. According to MacIntyre, such a society is “not waiting for Godot, but for another”and doubtless very different”St. Benedict.”

To conservative American Christians”evangelical Protestants and orthodox Catholics”MacIntyre’s diagnosis sounded right. Christendom, the res publica Christiana inaugurated by the Emperor Constantine and (so it had been thought) carried on by the American Founders, appeared dead, and what had replaced it was not clear: perhaps a centerless web of individuals; perhaps a welter of groups holding incommensurate values; perhaps an aggressive secular empire. Conservative Christians saw that they had been routed from the commanding heights of culture, including the media, the academy, the state, and in particular the courts.

Whatever MacIntyre’s intent, his line about St. Benedict was often taken to mean that people adhering to traditional moral norms should withdraw to some extent from the corrupting influences of American society and into their particular communities.

(An interesting ancillary question — did Owen coin the term “Benedict Option”? Did I? Did Fr. Jape at New Pantagruel? I honestly don’t know.)

Owen then makes an interesting claim: that the end of the Cold War and the resulting lack of a foreign enemy made it psychologically possible for Benedict Option-oriented Christians to detach themselves from the American mainstream. The experience of 9/11, and the sudden appearance of radical Islam as a threat, halted and even reversed the trend. Owen:

Most Evangelical and orthodox Catholic Americans find ourselves loyal not only to what ought to be our most important spiritual community, the Church, but also to the community that God uses to keep us secure, prosperous, and free to worship Him — namely our country. We know that we must defend our homeland and sense that that defense must involve some degree of affirmation of American culture and institutions. If one’s country is wicked enough, if its institutions and practices are evil, as in the perennial limiting case of Nazi Germany, one should pray for its defeat in war. America is not nearly so wicked as that. It continues to be good to us and to the Church more generally, not just by shielding us from foreign threats but by allowing Christian life, and life in general, to flourish as it rarely has in history. The Islamists are wrong to regard the United States and the West more generally as thoroughly corrupt and worthy only of destruction.

But the Islamists are right that our society is ailing. Many of their complaints about America”that it produces selfish, decadent, impious people, weak families, and corrupt religious communities, not only at home but increasingly abroad through its cultural exports”are also our complaints as Christians. Hence our dilemma, for many of those who join us in defending America against Islamist terrorism have in mind a different America. Their America is the one from which we had begun to recoil and withdraw — until September 11.

Notice this part:

September 11 has clarified matters. Though American society may deploy many corrupting influences against the Church and its members, the American state, by the grace of God, mostly continues to allow the Church to do its thing. The state, being the supreme coercive power in any country, is capable in theory of forcing the Church (and other communities) to change their practices or suffer punishment. America’s religious toleration is a reason why America not only deserves our loyalty, but also merits our continuing involvement. [Emphasis mine — RD] In a democracy the state is in principle responsible to the society it governs. Were Christians to cease being Americans in any meaningful sense, to withdraw completely from society, the state would be less responsible to us, and maybe less hospitable. God may use state persecution to purify His Church, but it is a perverse and unbiblical ethics that teaches that the Church should try to force God’s hand by enabling the state to become more oppressive.

I encourage you to read the whole thing. Owen’s conclusion:

In the end, the same trends that prod us to look for another St. Benedict require that we not follow him all the way into the cloisters, at least for now. Our love for the Church, our families, and other communities demands our continuing engagement in, and defense of, the America we have.

A couple of thoughts.

First, it’s important that this was written in 2004, before things really went to hell in Iraq. It’s important also that it was published in First Things, which, under Richard John Neuhaus’s leadership, went all-in for the Iraq War. In retrospect, it seems to me that this mistake (a mistake I also made, let me be clear) cost the Neuhaus-Weigel-Novak vision of Catholicism profoundly in terms of influence. In my own case, the disillusionment over the war caused me to radically rethink my position on Christianity and patriotism, as well as the nature of my relationship as a Christian to both the government and the military. I totally bought into the war, and thought fellow Catholics like Pope John Paul II, Pat Buchanan, and others who opposed the war were either appeasers or pacifists. I did not share the David Frum/National Review stance that Buchanan et alia were “unpatriotic Americans,” but I saw no conflict at all between my Christian faith and America’s war policy.

The Pope and Pat were right, though. Dealing with the consequences of the failure in judgment made by Fr. Neuhaus, George Weigel, and so many other conservative Christians, including myself, pushed me very much towards the Andrew Bacevich camp of Christian skeptics of American foreign policy and militarism. Today, on that front, I am the kind of Christian I would have harshly judged back in 2004.

So there’s that. Second, note the part in that last block that I boldfaced. Both in culture and in law, America has changed significantly on religious liberty since 2004, and is changing even now. Post-Obergefell, to what extent should Christians remain engaged with and willing to defend the America we have? Mind you, the word “defend” poses a difficulty here; I believed in 2003-04 that the Iraq War was about defending America. I no longer believe that at all. If America herself, or her vital interests, were attacked, I would absolutely support defending her. It’s just that I no longer automatically trust my government to make that determination, because I believe the government will lie and manipulate the public to pursue its foreign policy goals.

That said, I no longer hold the view that America is a nearly unambiguous force for good in the world. In fact, I think American culture is in many ways poisonous, and a force for evil. I have said over and over again that I don’t believe we orthodox Christians should entirely disengage from the political process, if only because we have to do what we can to protect our religious liberty, and to act as a restraint on the worst impulses of the culture, politically expressed. But I find it much more difficult to have faith in America’s liberal order, and I have become one of the people MacIntyre talks about in this passage from After Virtue:

A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead … was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.

That’s not to say that I won’t participate in the civic order, and even defend it when warranted. It’s to say, however, that I believe that there is a meaningful difference between being a good Christian and a good American, and that this difference will grow quickly. It’s to say that my heart isn’t in it.

I hope First Things will reconvene its extremely controversial 1996 symposium on “The End of Democracy,” in which some of its writers speculated about the degree to which American Christians could be loyal to the government. From the introduction:

This symposium addresses many similarly troubling judicial actions that add up to an entrenched pattern of government by judges that is nothing less than the usurpation of politics. The question here explored, in full awareness of its far-reaching consequences, is whether we have reached or are reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime.

Americans are not accustomed to speaking of a regime. Regimes are what other nations have. The American tradition abhors the notion of the rulers and the ruled. We do not live under a government, never mind under a regime; we are the government. The traditions of democratic self-governance are powerful in our civics textbooks and in popular consciousness. This symposium asks whether we may be deceiving ourselves and, if we are, what are the implications of that self-deception. By the word “regime” we mean the actual, existing system of government. The question that is the title of this symposium is in no way hyperbolic. The subject before us is the end of democracy.

Since the defeat of communism, some have spoken of the end of history. By that they mean, inter alia, that the great controversies about the best form of governance are over: there is no alternative to democracy. Perhaps that, too, is wishful thinking and self-deception. Perhaps the United States, for so long the primary bearer of the democratic idea, has itself betrayed that idea and become something else. If so, the chief evidence of that betrayal is the judicial usurpation of politics.

Politics, Aristotle teaches, is free persons deliberating the question, How ought we to order our life together? Democratic politics means that “the people” deliberate and decide that question. In the American constitutional order the people do that through debate, elections, and representative political institutions. But is that true today? Has it been true for, say, the last fifty years? Is it not in fact the judiciary that deliberates and answers the really important questions entailed in the question, How ought we to order our life together? Again and again, questions that are properly political are legalized, and even speciously constitutionalized. This symposium is an urgent call for the repoliticizing of the American regime. Some of the authors fear the call may come too late.

Nearly twenty years on, concern about the judicial usurpation of politics remain, but the situation has become more radical. What happens when democratic politics itself produces results that orthodox Christians find not simply morally disagreeable (as happens all the time), but morally unacceptable? If memory serves, Father Neuhaus concluded in the End of Democracy symposium by saying that as long as we retain the capacity to work effectively for change within the regime, we must give it our moral assent, however grudgingly.

I wonder what Neuhaus would say today, though, if he were here. Is it possible for orthodox Christians to work meaningfully for change when the demos has become so post-Christian? After all, it won’t do to blame five unelected judges for imposing same-sex marriage on America. It’s true, but it’s also true that had the Court ruled the other way, we would have had same-sex marriage from coast to coast within 20 years, via democratic vote. The situation is far more radical than Neuhaus and his First Things cohort faced in 1996.

I don’t know what the definitive answers are. But I know it is time for serious orthodox Christians to start asking ourselves these questions. Both the Iraq War debacle and Obergefell — in their particulars, and in what they symbolize — are game-changers for Christian conservatives.

Have we reached a turning point? I’m asking this of conservative readers, and serious liberals who would like to talk about this in a constructive way. I’m not going to post troll comments.

UPDATE: Thanks for your patience, everybody. I’ve been away all afternoon. This e-mail came in, saying it was not fair for me to say that FT was “all-in” for the Iraq War:

This is something of a meme.

If memory serves, FT published two big essays in favor (Weigel and Elshtain) and at least three big essays opposing (Rowan Wiliams, Hauerwas, and Griffiths).

As the RJN bio reveals, RJN privately cautioned Weigel on this too.

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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