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The Liturgies Of Secular Democracy

Not the Shining City on a Hill I had in mind (Songquan Deng/Shutterstock)

What a terrific, provocative, and intelligent e-mail from an Australian reader, responding to Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig’s review of The Benedict Option:

Reading Bruenig’s review, I’m going to stick my neck out and offer some longish integrative thoughts:

The liberal-democratic order is founded on suspending the question of whether God exists or not (and has authority over human life) and relegating that to the level of personal opinion. This means that democracy itself functions as though atheism is metaphysically true—there is no God whose demands on people must be embraced—but gives people the freedom to shape their own lives around theism (or deism, or polytheism etc). In the short term this is a great solution to the problem of religious wars, by simply punting ultimate questions of morality and metaphysics and seeking to create a society where people can live together despite deep differences.

The problem is that this arrangement is unstable for two reasons. First, living in a western democracy catechizes people into practical atheism. Because the underpinnings of society forecloses the question of God and makes material reality the ultimate horizon, then society itself is run on atheistic presuppositions. The more you invest in being a good citizen and are part of democratic public life, the more you are shaped by the rituals of democratic life into thinking, dreaming, desiring, acting, as an atheist.

Second, as democracy goes on its horizons are increasingly limited to the individual and the state—the individual as the reason and justification of all social life, and the state as the ultimate horizon of human experience and life, accountable and subordinate to nothing beyond it. Hence why ‘government is just the word we use for things we do together’ is thought to be just common sense, and why politics is considered to be *the* vehicle for human flourishing. Everything is politics, because politics is the final horizon that shapes the conditions for individual liberty.

But making everything base around the individual will (almost) inevitably make everything be reduced down to hedonism—happiness through pleasurable experiences, and the pursuit of wealth and social status that preserves the maximum kind of individual freedom that liberalism recognizes and esteems. Increasingly democracy gains confidence in its metaphysical position (this world is the only meaningful horizon) and begins to move from a naked public square to enacting its vision of the good that expresses that metaphysical position (the good life has to be justified entirely within the constraints of this life).

As a consequence increasingly democracy actively seeks to form people as little more than worker-bees, consumers, and pleasure seekers and begins to use its authority to maringalize and harass those groups that seek to create a social life that catechizes people into a different vision of the good life based on different metaphysics. That is increasingly incomprehensible to them—simultaneously irrational and abusive. At most it can be permitted as an individual choice, but not at the level of a social choice within democracy – unless the group basically removes itself from broader social life almost completely (the Amish option). It also fuels new wars of religions—really weird ones because they are so secular, where the goal is to impose our practical atheism and vision of the good life on the world—killing people to bring our version of the triumph of the individual, to promote hedonism, to push countries towards democracy. These are crusades fuelled by the same underlying convictions that give rise to more overt religious wars.

Bruenig’s review shows just hard it is for people inside that framework to see it in these terms—even as an empathic and imaginative act of walking in someone else’s shoes for a mile. She’s a good reviewer, and been thoughtful and fair, but she just can’t ‘get it’. Precisely the points at where she thinks your positions are incoherent are the places where she needs to grasp them in order to have any chance of getting your position as a whole. What she fixates on is the political dimension because that’s the ultimate horizon for democratically shaped people. The idea that you might somehow contribute to the common good by disengaging from politics a bit and putting something non-political up as the ultimate horizon of social life just can’t even be heard.

Because (like most of your other critics) seem to think the only problem to be addressed is the last one—the implementation of an ethical vision of the good life arising out of a metaphysics through the agency of state coercion—their reaction falls into two camps. The group you tend to lose your temper with and call ‘jacobins’—who say, nothing must impede the enshrining of an atheistic and hedonistic vision of the liberated individual as the framework of our social life, and any dissent is asking for special legal privileges that are irrational and abusive. And then people like Bruenig who say—too pessimistic, you can accomplish your goals through politics, you have more political power than you realize.

What that latter group just don’t get (partly because you Americans have postmillennialism deep in your DNA, whatever your faith and theological commitments are, and so you really do think that history’s arc bends towards justice, and so you are so insufferably pollyannaish that you think all stories can have a happy ending if we just tried harder. I’m not sure there has ever been a culture as resistant to being theologians of the cross rather than theologians of glory as Americans) is that their advice is going to make another part of the problem worse under your diagnosis. Throwing oneself even harder into rituals of social life in a democracy on democracy’s terms will just increase the catechizing and formative effects of those rituals and liturgies. You might shift the external pressure of the state trying to forcibly encode its view of the good life, but at the cost of being subverted from within. That’s the key part of your analysis that they just seem unable to get their heads around at this point in the conversation.

The interesting thing will be if initial miscommunication produces a deeper understanding as engagement continues. That really will be undiscovered territory, and I can’t predict what the outcome of that would be – good or bad. But it would be something genuinely new.

I thank the reader for his reflection. I was thinking last night about Bruenig’s review, and puzzling over the fact that she, like many others, can’t seem to see beyond politics regarding the Ben Op project. There is one chapter on politics in the book. There are other chapters on education, the workplace, church, technology, family and community, Benedictine virtues, and a couple others. I can’t fault people for focusing on what they’re most interested in, but I would caution the reader that it’s not a long book. I had between 6,000 and 7,000 words for each chapter. Each one of these chapters could have been a book on its own.

In any case, the reader above is onto something. In America today, we only seem to be able to think of politics in terms of what happens in legislatures or at the ballot box — that is, in terms of what the government can do for us, and what we do for the government. In The Benedict Option, I write:

What kind of politics should we pursue in the Benedict Option? If we broaden our political vision to include culture, we find that opportunities for action and service are boundless. Christian philosopher Scott Moore says that we err when we speak of politics as mere statecraft.

“Politics is about how we order our lives together in the polis, whether that is a city, community or even a family,” writes Moore. “It is about how we live together, how we recognize and preserve that which is most important, how we cultivate friendships and educate our children, how we learn to think and talk about what kind of life really is the good life.”

The Scott Moore book from which I took that quote is The Limits Of Liberal Democracy: Politics And Religion At The End Of Modernity. 

The book to read, one that brilliantly illuminates the Australian reader’s point, is Ryszard Legutko’s The Demon in Democracy. I blogged about it here and here.

UPDATE: Great comment by reader Annie:

Eric Mader’s take strikes me as very good. The problem as posed by Bruenig is how can we achieve Christian socialism? The problem as phrased by others like MacIntyre is: how can we define the good, and whether or not Christian socialism is a path to the good, in a world dominated by emotivism?

All this concern over “Should we be socialists? Should we be alt-rightists? Should we be free-market libertarians? Should we be technocrats?” leaves aside that all of these are attempting to immanentize the eschaton. It seeks to bring the universal truth which belongs only to God, and hand it to one manifestation of earthly governance. The free-market touts rising standards of living, the socialist touts UBI & end of scarcity, the transhumanist promotes a future with no death or pain. We can argue any of them are manifestations of “taking care of our neighbor,” though it should be instantly clear that the presence of an intention does not logically require the desired outcome.

The best reason to argue for Tolkien’s “anarcho-monarchism” or Jacques Ellul’s anti-technique philosophy/Christian anarchism is that these views leave space for people to exercise the free will granted them by God. It leaves room for people to pursue the good. The Benedict Option involves the recollection of natural law and the gift of free will endowed to us by our Creator, as opposed to restricting our moral, cultural, and religious life to those terms acceptable to the State.

As always, the Catholic Church has been there already, and stated it definitively in her Catechism:

“The Church’s ultimate trial

675 Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the “mystery of iniquity” in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh.

676 The Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the “intrinsically perverse” political form of a secular messianism.”


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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