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Saving the Benedict Option from the Culture War

The BenOp cannot be merely the GOP's social and religious conservative wing in exile

Andrew Lynn has a really good column about how we should, and how we could, protect the Benedict Option from being just another iteration of the same old culture war. I appreciate this piece because he makes some helpful points that I have struggled to clarify in my own blogging about the BenOp. Most of them have to do with the radical nature of the BenOp.

Matt K. Lewis has a piece up today talking about Caitlyn Jenner and why conservatives keep losing battles in the culture war. Here’s his basic argument:

Depending on your background, what is to follow might sound either obvious, or profound, but stick with me. From Aristotle to Edmund Burke, a fundamental tenet of conservatism is the notion that family and society didn’t just randomly happen, but that they evolved because a). they were based on a priori truths about human nature, and b). they worked.

Western civilization, and the freedoms we enjoy, were, as such, not the product of luck, but rather, the result of preserving time-tested institutions.

If you’re having a hard time following this — or if it simply sounds like bullsh*t — then that speaks to a fundamental problem that that conservatives have in communicating their philosophy in a 21st century world where individual liberty trumps old fashioned values like virtue, community, tradition, etc.

Much of conservatism is based on the notion that society is fragile. And if we start tinkering with some fundamental pillars — redefining marriage, here, redefining gender, there — it could have dire, if long-term, unintended consequences.

Again, though, the cultural conservative has a real problem here. First, short-term problems always feel more real than long-term ones; the urgent almost always overcomes the important. Second, what if you simply don’t believe these rather esoteric long-term “doomsday” warnings will ever manifest? What if you believe that freedom and prosperity are a given, and that the notion that allowing two people who love each other to marry could somehow bring about the second coming of the fall of the Roman Empire is absurd?

Well, then you’d be like the vast majority of Americans living in the 21st century.

Yes, that’s the gist of it. There’s more to Matt’s column, and you should read the whole thing, but that’s the heart. The thing that many, many social and religious conservatives fail to understand is that things like same-sex marriage, polyamory, transgender, are not perversions of the classical liberal principles on which America was founded, but are logical extensions of them. Justice Anthony Kennedy spoke for many, probably most, Americans when he said, in an incoherent passage in the 1992 Casey ruling:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

This is the logical end point of liberalism, the point at which it dissolves into atomism and incoherence. That liberalism and modernity cannot help reaching this dead end — that is, for example, that the ongoing deconstruction of marriage and family in the face of militant individualism — is the contention of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, from whose work the “Benedict Option” takes its name.

Yesterday I overheard Rick Perry making his presidential announcement, and blathering on about how we need to “return freedom to the individual” and so forth, and I thought man, it’s no wonder these Republicans have nothing to say when confronted by things like same-sex marriage. They already accept the rhetoric and cast of mind that leads to it. Caitlyn Jenner, in other words, is baked into the cake of classical liberalism, and that includes the Republican Party’s understanding of liberty. Religious and social conservatives are now divided between those who believe that Caitlyn Jenner (I use Jenner as an iconic example) is a betrayal of the idea of America, and those who believe that she is a fulfillment of the idea of America. Without broadly shared religious conviction, which is to say a common sense of virtue, the liberal American order cannot sustain itself. As John Adams famously said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

To the extent that Justice Kennedy’s definition of liberty is widely shared today is the extent to which we have ceased to be a moral and religious people, in the sense that Adams meant. Many Americans are moral, obviously, and many Americans are religious. But Adams was a man of the Enlightenment, and the Enlightenment, as MacIntyre argues, has failed in its goal of establishing a justification for morality in Reason alone. Liberalism has evolved into the incoherence of Justice Kennedy’s idea of liberty: the individual emancipated from any authority except himself.

This is not the definition of freedom — liberty divorced from truth — that any traditional conservative, or any orthodox Christian, can agree to. To accept MacIntyre’s diagnosis has more radical implications than many conservatives interested in the Benedict Option may grasp — and that’s the basis of Andrew Lynn’s piece. Excerpts:

There is a sense among many conservatives that the Benedict Option is really just a more sophisticated “I’m moving to Canada” lament by those who lost the Culture War. But is this white-flag-waving, defeat-and-retreat “Benedict Option” the same vision we find in the final pages of After Virtue? Or is it—as several interlocutors at Dreher’s blog have begun questioning—a repeat of the “take to the woods” strategy of American Protestant fundamentalism in the early 20th century?

Well, that’s not how I see the BenOp, though I have appreciated warnings by several of you that I should learn about the history of 20th century Protestant fundamentalism so when I write the BenOp book, I can dig deeply into what they did and how they failed so we can avoid the same mistakes. My sense about the BenOp is that this is not a “take my football and go home until everybody agrees to play my way” kind of thing. It won’t do what it’s supposed to do if that superficial attitude defines it. Lynn rightly says those who woke up one morning, realized that America had embraced gay marriage, and wanted to head for the hills, are not understanding MacIntyre (or the BenOp):

MacIntyre sees our condition as the result of many centuries of development in moral and political thought, while those advocating the popular version pinpoint the origins of the decline within the last decade—in the post-Bush American political landscape. Such a hasty adoption of this “civilizational collapse” mentality should raise several concerns, most centrally whether such culture-despairers might—given the right set of platitude-spouting political candidates in the next election cycle—find themselves drawn back to the seductive hopes of “imperium maintenance.”

In my own work over the past 10 to 15 years, since I started working on the crunchy cons idea, I have dwelled on what separates traditionalist-minded conservatives from mainstream conservatives. MacIntyre’s claim that today, all Americans are liberals, but some are conservative liberals, immediately struck me as true. I don’t mean this in a status-seeking, “we are the only real remnant here” sense, but rather in an attempt to understand why the customs and institutions that conservatives of Burkean conviction esteem keep falling away, even when Republicans rule the country. MacIntyre forced me to go deeper into the roots of conservatism, especially its roots in a fundamentally religious and metaphysical way of understanding the world.

I don’t want to overquote Lynn’s piece, because I want you to go to Ethika Politika and read the whole thing. I do want to commend him for highlighting that a) the Benedict Option must address a cultural condition far deeper than the wins and losses of the culture war, or the fortunes of this year’s Republican Party; and b) that the MacIntyrean vision does not offer “a blueprint for piecing together utopian societies built around the modern conservative agenda.” The BenOp must be anti-modern to some extent. I hesitate to define (at this point) too strongly what that means, because we all live in modernity, and have been shaped by modernity. It would be unhelpful, to put it mildly, to make of the Benedict Option such an impossible-to-achieve ideal that most people despair of trying something different.

The essential point to grasp here is that the BenOp cannot satisfy itself with simply being the Republican Party’s social and religious conservative wing in exile. 

Finally, I am grateful to Andrew Lynn for pushing forward on how the BenOp cannot be quietist and strictly retreatist and be true either to MacIntyre’s vision or to the spirit of the Benedictine monasteries. I agree with him, and concede that my own weakness on thinking about practicalities has kept me from engaging this aspect of the BenOp as much as I should on this blog. Lynn writes:

Or could this vision entail bonds of solidarity that actually surpass the “contract of mutual indifference” found in liberalism? Turning away from “imperium maintenance” to the local politics of “grassroots organizations, trade unions, cooperatives, small businesses that serve neighborhood needs, schools, clinics, and transport systems” is hardly political quietism or indifference. Such activities work within the niches and cracks of existing structures to build alternative practices and social relations that resist dominant cultural norms—what Erik Olin Wright labels “interstitial” strategies of transformation.

Again, read the whole thing. It’s a welcome and much-needed addition to the growing body of journalism and commentary about the Benedict Option. I have a mounting stack of such things to post here, including pieces from Jake Meador, Joel Mathis, and Ben Boychuk, among others. I will let it ride till next week, though. We are having a festival this weekend in my town, and my presence is required.

UPDATE: I can’t let this go by without pointing you to Peter Leithart’s First Things piece about why it’s important not to ignore the Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner story. Excerpt:

Should pastors grease the Kardashian celebrity machine by mentioning Bruce Jenner from the pulpit? There are good arguments for ignoring the whole thing, but I think that’s a pastoral mistake. So much of our cultural trajectory converges on Bruce: our rampant Gnosticism, our confidence in technology, our moral libertarianism and determined flight from biblical standards, our cult of fame, our sexual self-contradictions. Bruce Jenner will be forgotten soon enough, but what he represents isn’t going away, because transgressiveness is one of the few cultural imperatives that we are not permitted to transgress.

Yes, exactly. And there are political questions here too. The Democratic Party openly embraces what Jenner has done (President Obama and Hillary Clinton both publicly congratulated him/her). The Republican Party doesn’t have any idea what to say, but knows that whatever it says will be the wrong thing. As I’ve written in this essay, Jenner and the movement he represents raises profound questions about the meaning of liberty. These are American questions.