Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Benedict Option & Antipolitical Politics

Why rebels like Karol Wojtyla, Dorothy Day, Wendell Berry and Vaclav Havel are our models

My friend Damon Linker writes today about our little project:

Have you heard of the Benedict Option? If not, you will soon.

It’s the name of a deeply pessimistic cultural project that’s capturing the imaginations of social conservatives as they come to terms with the realization that the hopes and assumptions that animated the religious right over the past 35-odd years have been dashed by the sweeping triumph of the movement for same-sex marriage.

He talks about how the standard base for Religious Right political activism over the past generation was a view that they stood for a “moral majority,” and if only they defeated the liberal elites controlling institutions of law and government, they would restore health to the body politic. It didn’t work. Despite the hope the George W. Bush presidency gave to many religious conservatives (both Evangelical and Catholic), they were dashed by reality. More Linker:

The mood among social conservatives has been darkening for years, as a liberal Democrat has taken and held the White House, as the Republican Party has placed greater emphasis on economic concerns than culture-war issues, and (most of all) as same-sex marriage has come to be accepted by more than half of the country and Democrats have begun to embrace it without apology.

But nothing compares to the gloom that’s set in during the weeks since the passage of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act sparked a rapid and widespread condemnation of religious traditionalists, not only by gay activists and liberal Democrats, but also by a number of Republicans with national stature and high-profile members of the business community. Suddenly social conservatives began to think the unthinkable: Is it possible that we’re now in the minority, with our freedoms subject to the whims of a hostile majority that will use the power of the modern liberal state (especially anti-discrimination laws) to enforce public conformity to secular, anti-Christian norms?

That’s where the Benedict Option comes in.

He talks about the politics of all this, pointing out that this inward turn toward “community building” within Christianity does not require, and will almost certainly not occasion, Amish-style political quietism, and will not be like the Fundamentalist withdrawal from public life of the early 20th century. He’s right about that, in my view, for reasons I have explained earlier on this blog, and will no doubt explain again. The headline for the essay overstates the case, though, saying that religious conservatives are considering “all-out withdrawal from politics.” No, that’s not true.

Here, in Linker’s words, is the radicalism of this present moment:

Then again, this may be the first time in American history that devout Christians have been forced by events to accept without doubt that they are a minority in a majority secular nation.

We have entered uncharted territory.

Read the whole thing.

This offers me the opportunity to clarify something. The legalization of same-sex marriage, and the clear and irresolvable conflict it poses to religious liberty in our liberal order, has sharpened the vision of some religious conservatives. It has made clear how far the secularizing culture has moved away from its general Christian framework, and reveals how when it comes to a question of religious liberty versus gay rights, the elites in this culture — even Republican ones — will always side with gay rights. And increasingly, so will the public. The shock of Indiana to people like me was what it revealed about the state of the religious sense, and Christian conviction, in this country — not just within the Republican Party.

The point here is to make crystal clear that the Benedict Option is not a reactionary response to same-sex marriage. As I have said, if same-sex marriage were not an issue, and if the Republicans were running all branches of government, the Benedict Option would still be necessary for small-o orthodox Christians, because the logic and progression of secular modernity has hollowed out the Christian faith from within. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, as sociologist Christian Smith has written, is the de facto faith of most American teenagers — and, let us be honest, of most Americans. It is a counterfeit form of Christianity, the form of the faith that secular modernity produces. It is our form of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer condemned as “cheap grace … the deadly enemy of the church.”

Though it has political implications, the Benedict Option is not primarily a political project. It is primarily a theological and cultural project. It requires not a withdrawal from political life, but a strong recalibration on the part of Christians of what is possible through politics in a liberal order, and what is necessary to do for the sake of the preservation, over time, of authentic Christianity in a post-Christian and increasingly anti-Christian culture.

In fact, it is an example of what Vaclav Havel once dubbed “antipolitical politics.” The writer Robert Inchausti, in his great book Subversive Orthodoxy: Outlaws, Revolutionaries, and Other Christians in Disguise, has a good take on this:

Modern novelists may have diagnosed our current spiritual situation with clarity and power, but their visions must be transformed into practice if we really want to test their value as criticisms of life. The Christian social activists examined in this section [e.g., Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Merton, E.F. Schumacher, Wendell Berry] bring visionary standards to bear on the social realities of their times. Each of them advocate what Vaclav Havel calls “antipolitical politics,” politics not as an art of manipulation or rule over others, but as a way of achieving meaningful lives together, politics as “practical morality, as service to the truth, as essentially human and humanly measured care for our fellow humans.” Their collective work constitutes the beginning of a unified front against the “political politics” of both left- and right-wing ideologues, carrying forward Chesterton’s notions of decentralization and “distributism” into the twenty-first century. At first glance, this road not taken may seem a bit anachronistic and nostalgic, but for those for whom the Beatitudes still remain the last word in social ethics, it deserves a hard and close second look.

According to these religious theorist-practitioners, the primary threat to human autonomy no longer comes from “nature” or from “tyrants” but from economic, political, and social systems of our own making that have become increasingly powerful, increasingly self-perpetuating, and increasingly out of control. The men and women who operate these systems benefit by them and defend them with their lives but don’t really understand the impact they have on other individuals or cultures. And even if they did, they wouldn’t be able to do much about it given the complexities of the systems they serve and the enormity of the problems they face.

The response, these thinkers broadly indicate, is moving toward a smaller, more local economy. That is a political vision, but not one that fits into standard American ideology. As elite law professor “Prof. Kingsfield” said to me in our must-read interview, the legal revolution in gay and transgender rights is going to have dramatic impact on Christians, including at the economic level. This is not theory; this is happening now, and will expand greatly after the expected SCOTUS decision constitutionalizing same-sex marriage. As Kingsfield said, we are now at the point at which it is legitimate to ask if sexual autonomy is more important than the First Amendment.

In a 1984 essay, the Czech dissident Havel — who was not a religious man — wrote:

I am convinced that what is called ‘dissent’ in the Soviet bloc is a specific modern experience, the experience of life at the very ramparts of dehumanized power. As such, that ‘dissent’ has the opportunity and even the duty to reflect on this experience, to testify to it and to pass it on to those fortunate enough not to have to undergo it. Thus we too have a certain opportunity to help in some ways those who help us, to help them in our deeply shared interest, in the interest of mankind.

One such fundamental experience, that which I called ‘anti-political politics’, is possible and can be effective, even though by its very nature it cannot calculate its effect beforehand. That effect, to be sure, is of a wholly different nature from what the West considers political success. It is hidden, indirect, long term and hard to measure; often it exists only in the invisible realm of social consciousness, conscience and subconsciousness and it can be almost impossible to determine what value it assumed therein and to what extent, if any, it contributes to shaping social development. It is, however, becoming evident—and I think that is an experience of an essential and universal importance—that a single, seemingly powerless person who dares to cry out the word of truth and to stand behind it with all his person and all his life, ready to pay a high price, has, surprisingly, greater power, though formally disfranchised, than do thousands of anonymous voters. It is becoming evident that even in today’s world, and especially on this exposed rampart where the wind blows most sharply, it is possible to oppose personal experience and the natural world to the ‘innocent’ power and to unmask its guilt, as the author of The Gulag Archipelago has done. It is becoming evident that truth and morality can provide a new starting point for politics and can, even today, have an undeniable political power. The warning voice of a single brave scientist, besieged somewhere in the provinces and terrorized by a goaded community, can be heard over continents and addresses the conscience of the mighty of this world more clearly than entire brigades of hired propagandists can, though speaking to themselves. It is becoming evident that wholly personal categories like good and evil still have their unambiguous content and, under certain circumstances, are capable of shaking the seemingly unshakeable power with all its army of soldiers, policemen and bureaucrats. It is becoming evident that politics by no means need remain the affair of professionals and that one simple electrician with his heart in the right place, honouring something that transcends him and free of fear, can influence the history of his nation.

Yes, ‘anti-political politics’ is possible. Politics ‘from below’. Politics of man, not of the apparatus. Politics growing from the heart, not from a thesis. It is not an accident that this hopeful experience has to be lived just here, on this grim battlement. Under the ‘rule of everydayness’ we have to descend to the very bottom of a well before we can see the stars.

When Jan Patocka wrote about Charter 77, he used the term ‘solidarity of the shaken’. He was thinking of those who dared resist impersonal power and to confront it with the only thing at their disposal, their own humanity. Does not the perspective of a better future depend on something like an international community of the shaken which, ignoring state boundaries, political systems, and power blocs, standing outside the high game of traditional politics, aspiring to no titles and appointments, will seek to make a real political force out of a phenomenon so ridiculed by the technicians of power—the phenomenon of human conscience?

This is the general orientation I have in mind when thinking about the Benedict Option: not a fearful fundamentalist withdrawal from culture, but a new and concentrated inwardness so that we can strengthen our communal lives and our outward witness and service to the broader culture. The urgency of this project, and the radicalism of the present moment, is captured by the Catholic philosopher Michael Hanby, in his First Things essay about the civic Christianity project. Excerpt:

[T]here can be little doubt that we live in revolutionary times, even if this revolution is the full flower of seeds planted long ago. What availed as the common wisdom of mankind until the day before yesterday—for example, that manwomanmother, and father name natural realities as well as social roles, that children issue naturally from their union, that the marital union of man and woman is the foundation of human society and provides the optimal home for the flourishing of children—all this is now regarded by many as obsolete and even hopelessly bigoted, as court after court, demonstrating that this revolution has profoundly transformed even the meaning of reason itself, has declared that this bygone wisdom now fails even to pass the minimum legal threshold of rational cogency. This is astonishing by any measure; that it has occurred in half the time span proposed by Jonas makes it more astonishing still.

Such are the logical consequences of the sexual revolution, but to grasp more fully the meaning of its triumph, we must see that the sexual revolution is not merely—or perhaps even primarily—sexual. It has profound implications for the relationship not just between man and woman but between nature and culture, the person and the body, children and parents. It has enormous ramifications for the nature of reason, for the meaning of education, and for the relations between the state, the family, civil society, and the Church. This is because the sexual revolution is one aspect of a deeper revolution in the question of who or what we understand the human person to be (fundamental anthropology), and indeed of what we understand reality to be (ontology).

All notions of justice presuppose ontology and anthropology, and so a revolution in fundamental anthropology will invariably transform the meaning and content of justice and bring about its own morality. We are beginning to feel the force of this transformation in civil society and the political order. Court decisions invalidating traditional marriage law fall from the sky like rain. The regulatory state and ubiquitous new global media throw their ever increasing weight behind the new understanding of marriage and its implicit anthropology, which treats our bodies as raw material to be used as we see fit. Today a rigorous new public morality inverts and supplants the residuum of our Christian moral inheritance.

This compels us to reconsider the civic project of American Christianity that has for the most part guided our participation in the liberal public order for at least a century.

In other words: this is not a Christian nation anymore, meaning a nation that is guided by fundamental Christian ideas of what it means to be human, and what it means to be just. What Hanby calls the “civic project of American Christianity” is the attempt to harmonize Christianity with the liberal political and social order. It has always been in tension, but now that tension has reached the breaking point, says Hanby:

This [philosophical] rejection of nature is manifest in the now orthodox distinction between sex, which is “merely biological,” and gender, defined as a construct either of oppressive social norms or of the free, self-­defining subject—one often finds protagonists of this revolution oscillating back and forth between those polar extremes. And this sex–gender distinction, in turn, is premised upon a still more basic dualism, which bifurcates the human being into a mechanical body composed of meaningless material stuff subject to deterministic physical laws and of the free, spontaneous will that indifferently presides over it. This anthropology denies from the outset that nature and the body have any intrinsic form or finality beyond what the will gives itself in its freedom, and thus it fails to integrate human biology and sexual difference into the unity of the person. Indeed, the classical Aristotelian nature and the Christian idea of the human being as body and soul united as an indivisible and integrated whole are excluded from the outset.

Whether this is the logical outworking of the metaphysical and anthropological premises of liberalism or a radically new thing—and Hans Jonas’s analysis would suggest that these are not mutually exclusive alternatives—it marks a point of no return in American public philosophy. And it effectively brings the civic project of American Christianity to an end.

He says — rightly, in my opinion — that we cannot pursue an all-out withdrawal from politics, as so many people (including The Week‘s headline writer) wrongly think we advocate, but we do have to radically rethink our place within this order. More Hanby:

Yet something greater than liberal freedom is at stake. There seems to be a prevailing sense that this moment is something of a kairos for American Christianity, a moment of deep change in the public significance of Christianity and a moment of decision in the life of the Church. When George Weigel concedes his naivete over the possibility of a “Catholic moment” in America and concludes that the West no longer understands freedom, or when Robert George solemnly declares to the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast the end of “comfortable” Christianity, then you know that the times they are a-changin’. Perhaps this kairos is a chance for some sort of synthesis rather than a showdown, for an opportunity to rediscover those dimensions of Christian existence that comfortable Christianity has caused us to neglect, and an opportunity not simply to confront but also to serve our country in a new and deeper way.

This synthesis cannot be a political one, as if the civic project of American Christianity could be revived by rejiggered coalitions or a new united front. We must rather conceive of it principally as a form of witness. Here some elements of the Benedict Option become essential: educating our children, rebuilding our parishes, and patiently building little bulwarks of truly humanist culture within our decaying civilization. This decay is internal as well as external, for while the civic project has been a spectacular failure at Christianizing liberalism, it has been wildly successful at liberalizing Christianity.

A witness is, first, one who sees. And none of these efforts are likely to come to much unless we are able to see outside the ontology of liberalism to the truth of things, to enter more deeply into the meaning of our creaturehood. Only then can we rediscover, as a matter of reason,the truth of the human being, the truth of freedom, and the truth of truth itself. It is no accident that Benedict XVI placed the spirit of monasticism at the foundation of any authentically human culture. For nothing less than an all-consuming quest for God, one that lays claim to heart, soul, and mind, will suffice to save Christianity from this decaying civilization—or this civilization from itself.

This quest requires an internal renewal of theology and philosophy—not merely as academic disciplines, but as ways of life—and they need to be brought to bear on the governing assumptions, the unarticulated ontology of our culture. In other words, we will need a much more penetrating ontological engagement with the first principles of liberal and secular order than has heretofore characterized American Christian thought. We will need a deeper assessment of how liberal principles shape both the objects of our thought and the very form of our thinking. Only thus can we really hope to come to grips with the true depths of our predicament and help our liberal culture understand the truth about itself and the profound implications of its present course toward an impoverished absolutism now poised to seize control of the most primitive junction between nature and culture—the family itself.

Read the whole thing. 

A friend who is sympathetic to the Benedict Option tells me that it’s significant that Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, chose to respond to Nazi occupation by making theater with his friends. Curious as to the connection, I went back to George Weigel’s authoritative biography of the Pope, and read this:

This new form of drama was an artistic experiment but [Wojtyla’s theatrical comrade Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk] also saw that it could be “a protest against the extermination of the Polish nation’s culture on its own soil, a form of underground resistance movement against the Nazi Occupation.” As the Pope later recalled, what came to be known as the Rhapsodic Theater “was born in that room,” let by Karol Wojtyla to the refugee Kotlarczyks.

… The Christian subtext to the Rhapsodic Theater, which reflected the New Testament image of the world created through the Word, the Logos who was with God and who was God (see John 1.1-3), also found expression in Kotlarczyk’s understanding of theater as ritual. In the world according to Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk, one did not simply to to the theater to be entertained. Rather, Kotlarczyk deliberately crafted the dramatic method of the Rhapsodists to evoke sentiments of transcendence and patriotism in a quasi-liturgical atmosphere.

The word of truth, publicly, indeed almost liturgically, proclaimed was the antidote the Rhapsodic Theater sought to apply to the violent lies of the Occupation. The tools for fighting evil included speaking truth to power. That was what Kotlarczyk and his Rhapsodic Theater believed, and lived. That believe and that experience made an indelible impression of Karol Wojtyla, who would not forget when, on a different kind of state, he would confront another totalitarian power in the future.

Sone have suggested that, confronted by the horror of Nazi-occupied Poland, Karol Wojtyla retreated into a religious quietism. In the light of evidence, it is clear that the had a decision to make. Some young Poles chose armed resistance or clandestine sabotage. The evidence makes clear that Karol Wojtyla deliberately chose the power of resistance through culture… [Emphasis mine — RD].

The Benedict Option is absolutely not a retreat into religious quietism. Broadly speaking, it is a form of resistance through culture. It is not retreat from what is false, but an embrace — a joyful one — of what is true. And given the chaotic nature of the time, the church’s attention must be more focused on telling and living out our own story, which we are forgetting. Dorothy Day, for example, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, was anything but a religious quietist, but she had to go deep into Catholic thought, worship, and life to stay clear-eyed and stout-hearted.

It is a sign of how impoverished our thinking is that we can only conceive of resistance in terms of engagement in conventional politics. We can only begin to see things as they really are by giving up the impossible project of synthesizing Christianity with what the liberal, post-Christian order has become.

Is this “deeply pessimistic,” as Damon says? From a liberal (= conventional Republican and Democratic) point of view, yes. But I think of it as deeply optimistic, because it proclaims light and hope amid the darkness.