Straussians Vs. The Benedict Option
I had an interesting exchange this past weekend at Benedictine College with Prof. Susan Traffas, who argued that conservative Christians cannot abandon politics. In the Q&A, I pointed out that in The Benedict Option, I explicitly say that we cannot abandon politics entirely, mostly because we have to stay in the game to fight for religious liberty. But I also argue that we should reprioritize our approach to public engagement, and spend more time and effort trying to shore up the church and its internal culture — this, because our losses in politics on the issues that mean the most to us are the result of our having lost first the culture. My contention is that conditions have changed on the culture war battlefield, and that means we have to change the way we resist. That is very much not the same thing as surrender.
In the discussion afterwards, Prof. Traffas said a line at the end that I didn’t really understand at the time, because I don’t know a lot about political theory. It was something to the effect of, “I am a die-hard Straussian,” which she meant as a way of explaining her position. I did some research this morning, and I think now I better understand what she meant by that.
First Principles, a website of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, offers an explanation for how Straussian conservatism differs from traditional conservatism. Excerpt:
Harry Jaffa is the most prominent conservative to interpret the American Founding period as an unprecedented act of establishing a philosophically egalitarian government founded upon self-evident and universal principles. Unlike the traditionalists, Jaffa claims that the American Revolution formed a radically new polity and radically new way of thinking about political life. In works like How to Think About the American Revolution and American Conservatism and the American Founding, Jaffa expounds the notion that the United States was created as a creedal nation founded on philosophical principles. He has written that, “the American Revolution represented the most radical break with tradition…that the world had ever seen.” For West Coast Straussian conservatives, including American neo-conservatives, the United States is a creedal nation united not necessarily by a common history and common set of beliefs, practices, and institutions, but instead by a common philosophical commitment to the creation and sustenance of political equality.
Because of their commitment to an egalitarian reading of the Founding period, the West Coast Straussian conservatives understand the Declaration of Independence as the American civil form of the Apostles’ Creed. The Declaration is the statement of the fundamental principles on which the regime is founded. There is a special emphasis on the second paragraph in which Jefferson declares that “all men are created equal.” For the West Coast Straussian conservatives, the Declaration asserts a set of God-given natural rights which serve as the civil theology or political religion which defines the character of American citizenship and the telos of American political activity. Jaffa, among others, also offers a critique of the traditionalist reading of the Declaration, suggesting that the traditionalist reading necessarily misses the ideological power which actually motivated the revolutionaries.
Assuming that this is an accurate characterization of the Straussian view, it explains in part why so many politically oriented conservatives (not only those who affirmatively identify as Straussian) react strongly against the Benedict Option. America is not a state so much as it is a religion. To give up on the liberalism that created this creedal nation is, to use New Testament language about the Church, to allow the gates of Hell to prevail against America. It would invalidate their political religion. Therefore, they cannot admit the possibility that the American experiment might be failing, or can fail.
If the Fifth Republic falls, France remains. If the constitutional monarchy collapses, England will still be England. But if the novus ordo seclorum in the United States wastes away, who will we be? This fear drives a lot of the reflexive opposition to the Ben Op among conservatives, I think.
I think that most Christian political conservatives who react so strongly against the Ben Op have no idea who Leo Strauss was, but they nevertheless share these sentiments. Someone at the conference last weekend, characterizing one negative review of The Benedict Option, said the reviewer was incensed at the book for inducing political despair among Christians, such that they will no longer want to fight for the pro-life cause and other political goals long cherished by conservative Christians. I did not read the review in question, but I hear this kind of thing quite a bit. Where does it come from?
In charity, I assume that it is sincere. If it is, I respond like this:
- The good news is that the Benedict Option does not say we have to become political quietists. It says we should stay engaged. You are simply not telling the truth if you say I advocate abandoning politics entirely. You should deal with the argument that I actually make, not the one you think I am making.
- But I do say that the political victories we have been hoping for all these years are simply not going to be possible going forward. We have fought very hard since 1973 against legalized abortion, and we have seen some real victories over the last decade. We should keep at it! Nevertheless, abortion remains legal in this country. If Roe v. Wade were overturned, that would only send abortion regulation back to the states. Most states would instantly affirm the Roe status quo. Some would expand abortion rights, and some would restrict them further. Overturning Roe would be serious progress for the pro-life cause, but it would not end abortion in this country.The more serious and pressing question has to do with gay rights, marriage, and religious liberty. Christians must understand that Obergefell is a popular decision that is not going to be overturned. If it were, most states would respond by passing gay marriage legislation instantly. This is a settled issue, politically. We are now fighting for our right to be left alone to run our institutions (especially Christian colleges and schools) as we see fit. This is a fight that most local congregations have chosen to ignore. It is an enormously important fight — but it’s one that we are not likely to win. I was talking the other day to two conservative Christian activists deeply involved in this political struggle, and they say prospects for our side grow ever dimmer. Republican lawmakers are highly susceptible to big business pressure, and terrified of being called bigots. And most Christians are saying nothing, either because they don’t know what’s happening, don’t care about it, or are too intimidated by accusations of bigotry.From a Benedict Option point of view, we conservative Christians simply must start thinking about and planning for the day when we lose these political and legal fights. The culture is moving swiftly against us. Look at the polling on US Christians and their beliefs. We cannot even keep our young people within Christian orthodoxy. We are fast moving into a world in which Christian orthodoxy will be seen legally and culturally as equivalent to racism. This will have far-reaching implications for the practice of Biblically orthodox forms of Christianity in America.
If you are a conservative Christian and are not preparing for that day, and the long aftermath, then you are being irresponsible. The Republican Party is a Maginot Line at best.
- This is not a counsel of despair, but a counsel of realism. I believe that a lot of conservative Christians are desperately attempting to fight the last war, because the last war was one in which we had a chance of winning. To change the metaphor, increasingly our side is like sending the Polish cavalry out to face the Panzer blitzkrieg. All the valor and courage in the world cannot compete against the kind of political, economic, and cultural firepower being thrown at us — especially when the churches have grown so feeble in their witness.
- The churches have grown so feeble in their witness because they have assimilated modernity to an astonishing degree. This is why the Benedict Option is so badly needed among Christians: because it champions the traditional Christian model of the human person, and advocates for practices that incarnate it within our own communities. The book presents the Czech Catholic anti-communist dissident Vaclav Benda as a model for how to live in public as faithful Christians when the regime disempowers you politically. From The Benedict Option:
Benda’s distinct contribution to the dissident movement was the idea of a “parallel polis”—a separate but porous society existing alongside the official Communist order. Says Flagg Taylor, an American political philosopher and expert on Czech dissident movements, “Benda’s point was that dissidents couldn’t simply protest the Communist government, but had to support positive engagement with the world.”
At serious risk to himself and his family (he and his wife had six children), Benda rejected ghettoization. He saw no possibility for collaboration with the Communists, but he also rejected quietism, considering it a failure to display proper Christian concern for justice, charity, and bearing evangelical witness to Christ in the public square. For Benda, Havel’s injunction to “live in truth” could only mean one thing: to live as a Christian in community.
Benda did not advocate retreat to a Christian ghetto. He insisted that the parallel polis must understand itself as fighting for “the preservation or the renewal of the national community in the widest sense of the word—along with the defense of all the values, institutions, and material conditions to which the existence of such a community is bound.
I personally think that a no less effective, exceptionally painful, and in the short term practically irreparable way of eliminating the human race or individual nations would be a decline into barbarism, the abandonment of reason and learning, the loss of traditions and memory. The ruling regime—partly intentionally, partly thanks to its essentially nihilistic nature—has done everything it can to achieve that goal. The aim of independent citizens’ movements that try to create a parallel polis must be precisely the opposite: we must not be discouraged by previous failures, and we must consider the area of schooling and education as one of our main priorities.
From this perspective, the parallel polis is not about building a gated community for Christians but rather about establishing (or reestablishing) common practices and common institutions that can reverse the isolation and fragmentation of contemporary society. (In this we hear Brother Ignatius of Norcia’s call to have “borders”— formal lines behind which we live to nurture our faith and culture—but to “push outwards, infinitely.”) Benda wrote that the parallel polis’s ultimate political goals are “to return to truth and justice, to a meaningful order of values, [and] to value once more the inalienability of human dignity and the necessity for a sense of human community in mutual love and responsibility.”
In other words, dissident Christians should see their Benedict Option projects as building a better future not only for themselves but for everyone around them. That’s a grand vision, but Benda knew that most people weren’t interested in standing up for abstract causes that appealed only to intellectuals. He advocated practical actions that ordinary Czechs could do in their daily lives.
That is the model of political engagement I believe Christians will have to embrace in the years to come. I could be wrong about this, certainly, and I invite counterarguments to my pessimistic take. But I also urge people who think I’m wrong to examine their own prejudices, and to inquire of themselves as to whether or not their position comes not from analysis of the facts on the table, but rather from an act of faith — especially of an idolatrous faith in the American ideal.
We must understand that you cannot have a suburban version of the Benedictine [sic] Option. Place, habit, economy and a host of “unintentional” things will overwhelm every counter-intention, no matter how well-grounded in Christian teaching. Practices always do their work. The practices of suburban life are not productive of Christian virtue. They were designed to serve a different God.
Are there Christian options for healthier communities more suited to the nurture of virtue? Dreher offers a number of suggestions that are worth considering. But we will make little headway unless and until we recognize that the modern American suburban life (in its many aspects) is a moral choice. Living a half-hour away from a parish, isolated from fellow believers, may very well be the most serious moral choice we make after Holy Baptism, despite how innocuous it may seem.
Virtue is a very natural thing. It is acquired slowly, frequently without great intention, through repeated practices and habits. Those who worry about the collapse of civilization have become too lofty in their thoughts. It is the collapse of the parish that matters just now. For only in the parish will a new St. Benedict get anything done. The origin of the word, “parish,” says a lot. It is derived ultimately from paroikia (“near the house”). That pretty much says everything Benedict needs to say. I will add that Benedict never had it in mind to save or restore the Roman imperium. The American imperium should hold no particular value for Christians today. The outcome of history is the work of God, not of the Church. It is the task of the Church simply to bethe Church. The consequences of that reality belong to God, not us.
He’s right. If you worry about the collapse of Western civilization and the American political and cultural order, the best thing you can do is to strengthen your own parish community, and other little local platoons, in the teachings of the Christian faith and in practices of Christian discipleship. I emphasize in The Benedict Option that St. Benedict did not set out to Make Rome Great Again. He only wanted to figure out how he could best serve God in community. To the extent that the Benedictines did lay the groundwork for the rebirth of civilization (if not the Empire), they did so by placing serving God and His people first, as monastics. If we traditionalist Christians want to make America great again, the best way to do it is to be more faithful to the Church, and let God do the rest through us.
The old way of conservative Christian thinking about politics is no longer adequate to the enormous challenge facing us. It is not a question of whether or not we can be involved in public life as believers. We have to be. The question is about which forms that involvement will take, and can take in this post-Christian — increasingly anti-Christian — new order for the ages.
Whether this degeneration was baked in the cake from the Founding is a fascinating question of political theory, one well worth discussing. But that does not change the grim facts on the ground.