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Nativism & the Benedict Option

Helping Christians and cultural conservatives keep their heads and their hearts amid contending extremisms in a dissolute time
Nativism & the Benedict Option

A new Reuters/Ipsos poll reveals a powerful feeling running deep in the culture of America at the moment, one it pejoratively describes as “nativism.” More on this judgment later, but first, the details:

Simply put, Trump’s candidacy taps into a deep, visceral fear among many that America’s best days are behind it. That the land of freedom, baseball and apple pie is no longer recognizable ; and that ‘the other’—sometimes the immigrant, sometimes the Non-American , and almost always the nonwhite—is to blame for these circumstances. This pure unabashed nativism is Trump’s brand of populism and is fit for purpose in 2015. It both gives him electoral strength and popular appeal.

To understand this, we conducted a recent poll on nativist sentiments and the 2016 election. The results are striking.

  • Strong nativist tendencies in America . More than half (58%) of Americans don’t identify with what America has become. Almost as many (53%) feel like a “stranger in their own country”. This sense of loss is particularly pronounced when we look at party identification: while 45% of Democrats don’t identify with what America has become, a whopping 72% of Republicans don’t. Trump’s populism speaks to this real and emotional sense of economic and cultural displacement.

  • A significant plurality of the electorate holds nativist attitudes. To get at this, we combine three attitudinal statements in a summated index[i]: “I don’t identify with what America has become,” “I feel like a stranger in my own country,” and “America is [NOT] a place I can feel comfortable as myself”. What do we find? Specifically, 18% agree with all three of these statements and 28% agree with two out of the three. Taken together, 46% of the American public holds some degree of nativist sentiment—not a majority but a significant plurality (see below).

  • Nativism is (much) stronger in the Republican Party. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Trump has found a willing audience among Republicans. Indeed, fully 64% of Republicans are moderately or strongly nativist, including over a quarter (26%) who agree with all three of the nativist statements (compared to only 31% moderately or strongly nativist among Democrats). Such trends clearly show Trump’s appeal among the Republican base.


So what are the implications? What does this all mean?

In our opinion, Trump’s rise in the polls can only be understood in context of the profound economic and cultural change in America. And his strength, like that of the tea party, is emblematic of deeper felt concerns within the Republican party. On the one hand, many people are scared about their economic future and that of their children as the rate of economic displacement increases with the globalization of cheap labor and technological innovation. The America Dream for many is a distant, foreign concept (See here or here). On the other hand, many people no longer recognize the America of their grandparents—an increasingly nonwhite and correspondingly more liberal country (see here or here). This is scary for many Americans. These concomitant trends are driving an increased sense of economic and cultural displacement among a large chunk of voters—making them prime hunting ground for populists of Trump’s ilk (like Carson).

Read the whole thing — it’s important.

Now, before I discuss the details, I want to register an objection to the use of the word “nativism” here. It is always a negative word in American political use. The word is defined as:

1. the policy of protecting the interests of native-born or established inhabitants against those of immigrants.
2. a return to or emphasis on traditional or local customs, in opposition to outside influences.

What I object to is not the fact that the word denotes a real cultural and political phenomenon, but rather the presumption that it is always a negative thing. The way we use the word in common political discourse assumes the goodness of liberal, cosmopolitan ideal of progress. Whatever is foreign to our established ways is good; whatever defends tradition is bad. The point I wish to make here is not that tradition and the status quo is always good — it is not always good — but that so-called “nativism” is invariably seen by cultural liberals (whose number includes many pro-business Republicans) as a negative phenomenon.

Well, as a Christian with fairly cosmopolitan tastes who strongly opposes Trump and what he stands for, I deeply do not believe that what goes by the label “nativism” is always a bad thing (versus being sometimes or often a bad thing; it all depends on the context). And I would invite cultural liberals (again, including many Republicans) to consider how construing the beliefs of those cultural conservatives (whose number includes huge numbers of Democrats, according to the poll) as “nativist” prevents them — liberals, I mean — from considering the possible validity of their position.

Can anybody really doubt that America has changed greatly and with astonishing rapidity over the last decade or two? It’s not just cultural, but economic. The globalist ideology of our elites, both Republican and Democratic, has made huge numbers of Americans more vulnerable economically. The America that gave people a sense that education, hard work, and perseverance would in most cases open a pathway to middle-class stability is going away; this is not an illusion. I have three kids who will enter the workforce over the next 15 years, and I have little confidence that there will be a secure path for them to building stable careers and families.

On the immigration front, I don’t feel this anxiety, because I don’t live in a part of the country that has been overwhelmed by immigrants. But this is not the experience of tens of millions of American natives, and it is arrogant to tell them that their concern, and even their anger, over what they are losing and have lost is nothing but bigotry. What bothers me about the immigration situation is a sense that the US cannot control its borders, and more, that elites in both parties and their money men (in the GOP, the business lobby) don’t think this is an important issue.

From the religious and cultural conservative viewpoint, the displacement and alienation is radical. You’d have to be a fool not to see it and take it seriously, even if you approve of the changes. We all know how swift and overwhelming the changes on LGBT issues has been. A friend of mine who is a strong secular liberal, and who welcomes these changes, told me that she has never lived through any change so total and swift — not even the Civil Rights movement, in which her family was active. It’s obviously true, and again, you would have to be a fool to imagine that millions of Americans would find themselves wondering what happened to their country.

The President of the United States recently came out in support of legislation that would effectively put Christian churches that hold to a belief about homosexuality that was commonly held the day before yesterday as on a moral level with racists. The US Supreme Court found in the Constitution a right to same-sex marriage. The federal government is going after public schools that do not allow teenage boys who think they are girls to use the girls’ locker room without restriction. Increasingly, there is no tolerance, only bitter condemnation, in the public square for anyone who refuses to accept the complete LGBT line — which is always shifting, and always to the left.

Caitlyn Jenner is a condensed symbol for what America has become: an all-American Olympic champion who, late in his life, decided that he is really a woman, and is celebrated by our news and entertainment media as a reborn American hero for our time. What do I mean by “condensed symbol”? Please read this past post by the commenter Raskolnik, who explains the term and how it applies here. Excerpt:

So: the thing to understand here is that the vast majority of Christians are not “freaked out about homosexuality above and beyond” every other sin, sexual or otherwise. I understand that from your perspective it may appear to be so, but please understand that this is simply a false impression driven by the media and various political interests. Most of the Christians I know, for example (myself included), are far more concerned about the extreme prevalence of pornography than they are about homosexuality. However, pornographers and pornography consumers are not a politically powerful lobby, and as yet there is no one who identifies as “pornosexual,” thus there is no narrative of the oppression of the poor pornosexuals to tap into Selma envy.

Back in the 60’s, the sociologist Mary Douglas came up with the idea of a “condensed symbol.” The idea is that certain practices or ideas can become a kind of shorthand for a whole worldview. She used the example of fasting on Fridays, which the Bog Irish (generally lowerclass Irish Catholics living in England) persisted in doing, despite the fact that their better-educated, generally-upperclass clergy kept telling them to give to the poor or do something else that better fit with secular humanist mores instead. Her point was that the Bog Irish kept fasting, not due to obdurate traditionalism, or some misplaced faith in the “magical” effectiveness of the practice, but because it functioned as a “condensed symbol”: fasting on Fridays was a shorthand way of signifying connection to the past, to one’s identity as Irish, as well as to a less secularized (or completely non-secular) vision of what religious practice was all about. It acquired an outsized importance because it connected systems of meaning.

I bring up the notion of “condensed symbol” because I think that’s the best way to understand what’s going in (what you perceive to be) the “freakout” about homosexuality. The freakout isn’t about homosexuality per se, it’s about the secular world shoving its idea of sexual morality down the throats of orthodox Christians. If you haven’t read Rod’s piece Sex After Christianity, you really should, and if you haven’t, I think you should be able to connect the dots between the Christian cosmology of sex and the Christian opposition to same-sex marriage as a “condensed symbol” of Christian resistance to secularism writ large.

Because the fact of the matter is that, for a variety of reasons, some easily understandable from a non-religious perspective, some of them perhaps less so, participating in a same-sex marriage has become the 21st century equivalent of making offerings to Sol Invictus. A Roman might just have easily asked, “What’s the big problem? Why not just make the offerings? Don’t they want to be a part of Roman society?” A more intelligent Roman might even have asked, “They don’t even believe in the divinity of the Emperor anyway. Why can’t they just burn the incense, which they literally believe has no effect on anything whatsoever?” Hopefully you can see the connection here; Christian opposition to the Roman cult of Sol Invictus, like Christian opposition to same-sex marriage, is about a whole lot more than burning some incense or baking a cake.

This is true, and important. Note well that LGBT folks are also and at the same time a condensed symbol of cultural progressivism. In that “Sex After Christianity” essay, I cited a 1993 cover story in the left-wing magazine The Nation to this effect. The Nation’s essayist wrote.


All the crosscurrents of present-day liberation struggles are subsumed in the gay struggle. The gay moment is in some ways similar to the moment that other communities have experienced in the nation’s past, but it is also something more, because sexual identity is in crisis throughout the population, and gay people—at once the most conspicuous subjects and objects of the crisis—have been forced to invent a complete cosmology to grasp it. No one says the changes will come easily. But it’s just possible that a small and despised sexual minority will change America forever.

That was a prophetic essay. As we now know, its author was correct. The point to take from this clip is that the change was real, and that LGBTs are, on both sides, a “condensed symbol” of that cultural revolution. If cultural and moral conservatives “don’t identify with what America has become” and feel like “strangers in their own country,” it’s not because they are imagining things; it’s because they are simply paying attention to what has happened, and is happening before their eyes.  

A traditionalist Catholic blog draws on anthropologist Mary Douglas’s book Natural Symbols, which I’m reading now, to offer a helpful way of framing this situation:

Douglas believes that a society’s structure is reflected in its understandings of the cosmos and the human body.  The cosmos and the body are always symbols of society.  She credits Durkheim with this idea, but she seems to have the opposite preferences as Durkheim.  Douglas classifies societies according to two variables:  “group” and “grid”.  “Group” means the strength of group bonds, how much loyalty and sacrifice they command.  “Grid” means the importance of role differences, things like gender roles, age roles, and status.  This point, that social strength is two-dimensional, has certainly helped to clarify my thinking on these matters.  A people can have strong group and weak grid, and vice versa.  Based on these variables, there are four possibilities:

1)      Weak group, weak grid—the state of pygmies, university students, and the urban proletariat.  Since bonds are weak, people feel that their lives are controlled by impersonal (natural or bureaucratic) forces.  The world seems an amoral arena controlled by chance, and there is little interest in ritual or religion.  The case of such a people being embedded in a more structured society is considered below.

2)      Strong group, weak grid.  Here “us” vs. “them” is the category that eclipses all others.  Such peoples tend to have dualistic cosmologies (i.e. to see the cosmos as a battleground between a good and an evil power), and fear of contamination is the most potent bodily symbol.  People are particularly interested in rituals that ward off the influence of witches.

3)      Weak group, strong grid—the world of individualist capitalism.  Here status (often represented by wealth) is king.  The universe is seen as generally amoral, but it rewards hard work and cleverness.  Ritual magic is used primarily to get ahead.  The losers in this system tend to sink into a weak group, weak grid existence.

4)      Strong group, strong grid—the world of Catholic Europe.  Since people’s lives are controlled primarily by personal forces (i.e. authorities), the world is seen to be infused with morality—a good God or gods reward good, while demons and witches (if they exist) punish evil.  The body (representing society) is regarded positively as a mediator of spiritual values, so religion is strongly sacramental or “magical”.  Dogmas like the Incarnation and Transubstantiation also affirm the body’s role as mediator of God, and therefore symbolize society’s benevolent mediating role.


A particularly interesting case is what happens to the mass of losers in a weak group, strong grid society who fall into an undifferentiated (weak grid) existence.  These tend to be subject to millenarian fantasies.  The body (larger society) is contrasted with the spirit (the un-integrated minority), with the former despised and the latter extolled.  Douglas suggests that the best thing to do for these unfortunate souls would be to organize them so that they can have the spiritual benefits of a strong grid and so they can take effective collective action.  Instead, she points out that their leaders prefer to engage in mass marches and protests, to despise forms and hierarchies, and to harbor ridiculous fantasies of creating a utopia just by overthrowing the existing order.  What is going on here is that the alienated members of society are trapped in the bodily symbols of their alienation.  Rather than reintegrating “body” and “spirit”, they imagine that the latter can overthrow the former.

I contend that we are rapidly moving from a “weak group, strong grid” society to a “weak group, weak grid” one — and that the forces of liberalism (capitalism, individualism, sexual autonomy, etc.) are accelerating the disintegration of both group and grid. Liberalism cannot defend itself and its institutions against strong attack either from the outside — radical Islam — or from the inside, in the form of the racial essentialists’ assault on universities, the breakdown of the family, the ongoing collapse of religion, and so on. This is not a state of matters that can last forever. Something’s got to give.

I think Trumpism is more or less the response of those who live in a “weak group, strong grid” society, and I think it is a mistake (to say nothing of the fact that the “strong grid” is, in my view, in the process of breaking down). I do not worry about Donald Trump taking power. I worry about the intelligent and capable demagogue who speaks to the fears and concerns — both legitimate and illegitimate — of those who now look to Trump. That man is on the horizon, though he is not inevitable. Increasingly, however, the forces of liberalism — by which I mean not “the Democratic Party and its fellow travelers,” but the American establishment — are ineffective at stopping him. Most of them see the cultivation of habits and policies that undermine the possibility of a liberal society as victories for freedom and justice, and unsurprisingly, few if any of them have any plausible solution to offer. I consider the Christian religious leadership to be among those who are failing. They do not grasp the radicalism of the present moment, and so are content to occupy themselves with fighting the wars they know how to fight, whether on the religious left or the religious right, and not the war that is actually in front of us.

So: so-called nativists are not wrong to feel like aliens in their own country. Where they may be wrong is in their solution to the problem. Trump and what he stands for is a dangerous dead end. Thing is, Hillary Clinton only makes matters worse, and whoever the GOP nominee is will, at best, slow the trajectory. We are caught up by forces much, much deeper than the ability of any politician to control or direct.

Where is the Benedict Option in all this? From a Douglasian point of view, the Benedict Option is an attempt to instantiate a “strong group, strong grid” way of life among small-o orthodox Christians, in a time of widespread cultural dissolution. The first and primary goal is to give Christians what they (we) need to worship and serve God faithfully in emerging circumstances, according to the great tradition. The second goal is to provide sources of resistance and re-spiritualization, both for the sake of reintegrating body and spirit (in Douglas’s sense), and to provide a cohesive group capable of taking collective action to defend itself and its members.

The leadership we need will not likely come from establishment leaders, religious, political, or otherwise. We are going to have to do this ourselves, aligned with whichever men and women of good faith and humanity emerge from among us, and within those decaying and enfeebled institutions. If we really are living in Weimar America, then the Benedict Option is a plan to help Christians keep our heads and our hearts amid contending extremisms and the trials that may yet come as our civilization endures this transition from Christianity to whatever is coming next.

UPDATE: I would like to add, for the sake of clarification, that I conceive the Benedict Option as, in part, an antidote to a politics of scapegoating and violence. If it succumbs to that, then it will have failed to be truly Christian, and will deserve to fail entirely.

UPDATE.2: A (female) reader e-mails:

Although I’m not a Republican, I agree with all 3 of the statements in the survey. And to make matters worse, I’m a Roman Catholic. Not only did They take my country, They took my church. And nobody I know seems to care or even have noticed. It’s like a train is barreling down the tracks, brilliant white light, horn blasting. The engineers are an Islamist, a feminist, and an oligarch. I leave the track and everyone I know continues to sit on it, concentrating on football (I’m in Ohio) and the Kardashians and credit reports and TV shows and what’s on sale where, and it’s not possible to yell “Look! A train!” because they have blindfolded themselves and stuffed their ears with cotton, and even if I could get their attention it would do no good because they have all firmly tied themselves to the track, and as the train bears down they all wave little flags that say “America!” and “Transgender!” and “At least I know I’m free!”

It’s horrible. And I can talk to no one about it except some guy on a blog.



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