I’ve been going on about the decline and fall of the old order for some time now; The Benedict Option is a book for Christians, trying to wake them up to the changes underway, and urge them to prepare. It is interesting to me to see other people — substantial scholars, not just a curious journalist like me — grappling now with the ongoing collapse of the old order.
Here, for example, is a long essay, well worth your time, by the social scientist James Davison Hunter, who came up with the term “culture war” back in the early 1990s. Hunter says that everybody knows that something is seriously wrong with our society, but most people still believe that it can all be fixed somehow. Excerpts:
Yes, our republic is deeply fractured and Washington is profoundly dysfunctional. Yes, there is a vast depletion of social capital. Yes, our public discourse is debased. Yes, for all of its power, late-modern capitalism has failed to maintain a steadily rising living standard for average people, making them fearful and politically angry. And yes, the culture of democracy, which has long been the glue holding Americans together, has begun to dissolve. But if we eschew the ideologies of left and right and focus instead on pragmatic solutions to core problems, we can find a way forward.
So, whether from the left, right, or center, the various analyses of contemporary political life unfailingly offer practical, sensible-sounding, step-by-step suggestions for fixing the problems: “If we just try harder, we can set things aright.” Such pragmatic optimism is, of course, a widely acknowledged American trait. As the historian Arthur Mann observed forty years ago, the people of the United States have long had confidence that American know-how can always convert problems into opportunities.
Nevertheless, while institutions tend to be stable and enduring, even as they evolve, no institution is permanent or indefinitely fixable. The question now is whether contemporary American democracy can even be fixed. What if the political problems we are rightly worried about are actually symptoms of a deeper problem for which there is no easy or obvious remedy?
Now we’re talking. Hunter says that we are living through the political consequences of the unraveling of “the Enlightenment project.” He continues:
Any possibility of “fixing” what ails late-modern American democracy has to take the full measure of this transformation in the deep structures of American and Western political culture. While politics can give expression to and defend a particular social order, it cannot direct it. As Michael Oakeshott famously said, “Political activity may have given us Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights, but it did not give us the contents of these documents, which came from a stratum of social thought far too deep to be influenced by the actions of politicians.”
What I am driving at is made clearer by the distinction between the politics of culture and the culture of politics. The politics of culture refers to the contestation of power over cultural issues. This would include the mobilization of parties and rank-and-file support, the organization of leadership, the formation of special-interest coalitions, and the manipulation of public rhetoric on matters reflecting the symbols or ideals at the heart of a group’s collective identity. This is what most people think about when they use the term culture war. In this case, culture war is the accumulation of political conflicts over issues like abortion, gay rights, or federal funding of the humanities and arts. Though culture is implicated at every level, the politics of culture is primarily about politics.
The culture of politics, by contrast, refers to the symbolic environment in which political institutions are embedded and political action occurs. This symbolic environment is constituted by the basic frameworks of implicit meaning that make particular political arrangements understandable or incomprehensible, desirable or reprehensible. These frameworks constitute a culture’s “deep structure.” Absent a deep structure, certain political institutions and practices simply do not make any sense.
This distinction is essential to making sense of our political moment.
Alasdair MacIntyre got to this point nearly 40 years ago. He said then that the Enlightenment project had failed because it proved unable to come up with a binding sense of morality based on Reason alone. As a result, our civilization, lacking a transcendent and shared source of morality — a “deep structure” and “basic frameworks of implicit meaning” as Hunter calls it — is dissolving. People don’t want to recognize this because it is frightening. But it’s still happening.
Here’s the political aspect of the problem, according to Hunter:
All of the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were premised upon a commitment to a social order rooted in the accessibility and reasonableness of truth, the possibility of genuine human justice, the guarantee of individual freedom, and the protection of tolerance. But whose truth? Whose justice? Tolerance of whom? And where lay the boundaries between individual freedom and the public good?
Those questions have always been contested, but within an epistemological and ethical framework that constituted a legitimate authority for working through such conflict. Any legitimate exercise of political power has depended upon some shared authoritative institutions—elections, legislatures, courts—and undergirding these, some more-or-less authoritative values, standards, and narratives.
But we no longer share a sense of authority. Americans have lost faith in their institutions. Hunter offers a detailed analysis of why the Enlightenment’s ideals worked out best in America, not Europe, and he concludes that they proved unable to meet the radical challenges of the 20th century, especially the wars. More:
Despite efforts to revive it and despite the general peace that characterized the West in the second half of the twentieth century, the tensions and contradictions inherent in the Enlightenment project only deepened. How is political equality possible in a world of growing economic and enduring racial inequality? Given the seemingly infinite expansion of pluralism, including moral pluralism, are there any limits to tolerance? On what basis can private interests, often incorporated into influential, highly factional special-interest organizations and powerful corporations, be reconciled with the public good? What is the public good, anyway? The forces that were unraveling the Enlightenment project have since only intensified.
The record of intellectual life during the past half century is, in part, the record of those often brilliant minds who found the cultural logic of the Enlightenment project and its aspirations to a liberal democratic order vacuous. Yet the ability to interrogate and highlight the imperfections and hypocrisies of that order were a luxury that intellectuals could enjoy only so long as the rest of the citizenry did not. So long as the majority of Americans—even if some of them were “deplorable” or “clinging to their guns and religion”—continued to believe in the project, there would be relative political stability.
But now, the skepticism of intellectuals has percolated into the general public. Now, everyone is a postmodern skeptic. Now, everyone sees the hypocrisy, questions the efficacy of the government, doubts the goodwill and competence of their leaders. This widespread suspicion and, often, cynicism is in large measure what is so distinctive about our political moment.
The culture wars, he said, have intensified America’s “legitimation crisis.” That is, each side has come to think the other side and its values are illegitimate. That is not going to change. More:
The cultural logic of the Enlightenment project has lost credibility, and the liberal—genuinely liberal—regime it inspired is collapsing. The institutional structures we have built remain intact and they continue to give stability to the regime. But while the procedural republic can address certain matters of power, it cannot address matters of identity and collective purpose. It cannot tell a compelling story that binds a community in common purpose. The cultural logic that underwrote liberalism exists only in fragments, and it is not likely to come together again in any coherent way.
A common cultural logic is unlikely to return because there is no credible foundation of authority upon which to rebuild it. For all of its continued vitality in personal lives and local communities, religious faith has been thoroughly weaponized on behalf of partisan interests. In the civic or political realm, it speaks no universal truths. And for all of the achievements of science in so many different realms of inquiry, the credibility of science as an enterprise has been undermined by both the skepticism of postmodern theory and the weaknesses of “peer review.” Even in the popular mind, many believe that science itself is biased toward personal and political interests—that facts don’t matter.
Please, read the whole Hunter essay, and share it widely. It’s important. Hunter does not say that we are in a hopeless situation, but he does say if the “cultural logic” of “late-stage democracy” can be “fixed,” it will be accomplished “not easily and not anytime soon.”
Here’s why I think it’s not going to happen. Hunter says in his essay that the Enlightenment worked so well in America because it depended on a synthesis of Reformed Christianity and “Enlightenment traditions” of rationality. He goes on:
This synthesis represented a radical departure from traditional providentialist accounts of the ancien régime in which all authority in public and private life was mediated by the ritual practices, hierarchical structures, and institutional processes of Roman Catholicism or Anglicanism. This was a new model of the moral order in which authority was now grounded in a society of individuals (the meaning of popular sovereignty) who, in principle, shared the moral ties of sentiments and sympathy as well as a vision of universal truths. This applied as much to the strident Calvinist whose individuality (his life and conscience) was defined in an unmediated relationship to God as it did to the most skeptical freethinking deist, whose individuality was measured by the dictates of conscience and Right Reason. Not only was the status of the individual transformed by imbuing him or her with a new autonomy and agency, but the nature of the ties between individuals, that is, the nature of society itself, was also transformed. These ties were no longer defined by an ascriptive membership defined by geography, family, and the faith one was born into (as they had been in the ancien régime), but by the ties of moral sentiment, reason, and the common, though voluntary, belief in shared ideals.
This new kind of moral order was not a spineless civil religion based on a least-common-denominator faith arrived at through compromise for the purposes of political legitimacy. It was a synthesis informed by rich traditions of thought and practice.
Today, in 2017, we have lost that synthesis. It didn’t happen overnight, but it has happened, and it cannot be easily recovered, if it can be recovered at all. Many people are understandably alarmed by the decline of liberal democracy, but they would not be if they understood how much liberal democracy depends on Christian faith shared by its people. It is certainly true that one can be no kind of Christian at all, and still be a good liberal democrat. But that position is sustainable as long as a solid mass of the people live by the general cultural code that the Christian religion once provided. As someone once said, the Enlightenment is the secularization of the Christian religion. It went reasonably well as long as Enlightenment democracies remembered and tended their Christian roots. But we have not done that for a long time.
The collapse of Christianity in America — and in the West generally — will inevitably mean the collapse of structures built on Christian thought and practice. The Benedict Option claims that small-o orthodox Christians are at extreme risk for losing their faith in this post-Christian, and increasingly anti-Christian, culture, and that those who hold on to their faith are going to face great difficulties, even persecution. Christians who are not thinking hard about these coming trials, and working now to prepare for them, are foolish.
John Daniel Davidson, writing in the Claremont Review of Books, takes the measure of The Benedict Option, as well as related new books by Archbishop Charles Chaput, Anthony Esolen, and R.R. Reno — all of which imagine, in different ways, life for Christians in post-Christian America. Davidson:
These four authors take different approaches to the same theme—the aggressive secularization of mainstream society and its implications for the church—but they all arrive at a similar conclusion: a renewed church will see society safely through the dark times ahead, so Christians must begin renewing the church now. If there is anything wanting in these volumes, it is perhaps a more complete discussion of what all of this might cost individual Christians. The authors do talk about the sacrifices attendant to something like the Benedict Option—but not in detail about the possible future of persecution.
Dreher hints at this theme in a chapter titled, “Preparing for Hard Labor.” Christians, he argues, need to reconsider the role of work in their lives, not just because it has taken on an outsized role in modern life, but because Christians are not going to be left alone by the progressives that dominate our economy: “We may not (yet) be at the point where Christians are forbidden to buy and sell in general without state approval, but we are on the brink of entire areas of commercial and professional life being off-limits to believers whose consciences will not allow them to burn incense to the gods of our age.” It’s easy to think of recent examples pulled from the headlines—Christian bakers, florists, and wedding planners who decline to participate in same-sex weddings, foster parents who refuse to affirm the ideology of transgenderism at the behest of state agencies, employers who won’t provide contraceptives to their employees. The list of mandates, large and small, will surely grow longer as our progressive scheme of government persists.
Dreher does not say so explicitly, but it might be that Christians will have to reconcile themselves to a kind of second-class status that they have never really known in America. That means, to put it bluntly, preparing for relative deprivation and hardship. As these books make clear—and anyone with eyes to see already knows—the long peace that has persisted in the West between church and state is at an end. This will come as a shock to Christians who assumed their cultural dominance was permanent. Chaput, in his pastoral way, alludes to this. He writes about three different kinds of mourning that are unique to Christians: grief for our own sins, the grief we feel living in a world full of sorrows and suffering, and a third kind, which is measured in the cost of discipleship:
the sorrow of those who accept the cross of Jesus Christ in this life, die to the world, and prefer the joys of God to worldly offerings. This kind of mourning comes from those who hurt because of their commitment to Jesus. Being disciples makes their lives harder. Maybe it’s enduring ridicule from doctors because they’re not on the birth control pill and they’ve had a fourth kid. Maybe their tithing means they can’t take a vacation they hoped for. Or maybe it’s taking a pay cut because working more would take them away from their family.
Or maybe it’s something even worse. Maybe it’s losing your job. Maybe it’s having your business seized by the state. Maybe it’s going to prison because you refuse to obey laws that violate your Christian faith. Such things have happened before. What makes us think they will not happen again, here in America?
Pope Benedict XVI was right: it is time now to reconcile ourselves to a smaller, more faithful Church. For serious Christians—will there be any other kind before long?—that will mean integrating their faith so thoroughly into their lives that they risk being labeled a “zealot” or a “fundamentalist” by erstwhile friends and colleagues, and perhaps labeled something worse by the government. It will mean becoming rather strange in the eyes of the world. Benedict said as much in that radio address nearly 50 years ago, when he warned that the Church “will lose many of her social privileges” and “make much bigger demands” on believers. But he closed with these words of hope:
The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. It may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.”
The authors of these volumes do not say so in such plain terms, but their arguments in effect echo Benedict: the hardship to come is more than a necessity, it is a blessing.
Read the entire review. If you’ve already read my book, I strongly encourage you to read the other three. The signs of the times are clear — and they’re not just political and religious. Back in February, the demographer Nicholas Eberstadt wrote a strong essay in Commentary talking about how dire the economic and quality of life conditions have become for Americans living outside the elite bubble, and how they’ve been getting worse and worse since 2000. The good economic news obscures how insecure economically a massive and growing number of Americans are. This would be a lot more manageable if American society were more cohesive, united, and religious. But we’re not, not at all.
My TAC colleague Scott McConnell tweeted over the weekend that Trump has done nothing to address the critical problems Eberstadt identifies in his essay. That’s true, as far as I can tell. But even worse than those crisis-level economic problems are the religious and political ones. Like I said: the signs of the times are clear. I’m not saying that it’s unimportant to keep working to shore up the American imperium, to borrow MacIntyre’s term, but I am saying that in the long run, it’s probably futile, and you had better be working even harder on building monasteries to endure the chaos that is coming as the Empire disintegrates.