Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre closed his 1981 book After Virtue by posing what might be called the St. Benedict option. As a society, we retain the vestiges of traditional moral language but not the communities and practices that produced that language. Moreover, our elites think that justice has no grounding apart from individual feelings. The Enlightenment project of replacing tradition with self-grounding moral rules has failed, and no grand replacement has emerged. According to MacIntyre, such a society is “not waiting for Godot, but for another—and doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”
To conservative American Christians—evangelical Protestants and orthodox Catholics—MacIntyre’s diagnosis sounded right. Christendom, the res publica Christiana inaugurated by the Emperor Constantine and (so it had been thought) carried on by the American Founders, appeared dead, and what had replaced it was not clear: perhaps a centerless web of individuals; perhaps a welter of groups holding incommensurate values; perhaps an aggressive secular empire. Conservative Christians saw that they had been routed from the commanding heights of culture, including the media, the academy, the state, and in particular the courts.
Whatever MacIntyre’s intent, his line about St. Benedict was often taken to mean that people adhering to traditional moral norms should withdraw to some extent from the corrupting influences of American society and into their particular communities. This communal turn was reflected in many of the books conservative Christians read in the 1980s and ’90s. Lesslie Newbigin’s work counseled them to abandon the old propositional apologetics and instead to evangelize through living as the Christian community, for “Jesus did not write a book but formed a community.” Quasi-Anabaptist writers such as Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, for whom Constantinianism had been a colossal error all along, told a newly receptive audience that they had been making the correlative mistake of thinking of themselves as Americans before Christians. Thus Hauerwas, writing in 1992: “To become a disciple is not a matter of a new or changed self-understanding, but rather to become part of a different community with a different set of practices.” At the same time, the localism of Wendell Berry and the Southern Agrarians became plausible for many.
Christian social practices changed accordingly, most strikingly in the rise of home schooling. Many also expressed a desire to stop watching television, even if they found it difficult to do so. Paul Weyrich declared in 1999 that Christians had lost the culture wars: “We need to drop out of this culture, and find places, even if it is where we physically are right now, where we can live godly, righteous, and sober lives.”
Christians were not alone in turning from the general to the particular. In the academy, so-called perspectivalism took root, as postmodern theorists denied the possibility of a “metanarrative,” a master interpretation of the world such as the ones claimed by modern science or revealed religion. In political theory, communitarians faulted liberalism for its assumption—long uncontroversial in America—that people were at bottom individuals rather than members of communities. On a popular level, Americans began emphasizing their ethnicity in ways that would have baffled their grandparents. Whereas in 1900 most European-Americans strove to fit under the mythical, ethnicity-free American umbrella, in 2000 many were desperate to discover or invent for themselves some colorful ethnic heritage. Just about everyone outside the natural sciences and analytic philosophy turned with ferocity on the Enlightenment for its claim to have discovered rational foundations of knowledge: what one “knew” was now said to be chiefly a function of one’s race, class, or gender.
Conservative Christians did not abandon what they understood to be the Founders’ idea of America, a nation designed above all to protect liberty so as to allow the flourishing of Christianity. In principle they remained the most patriotic of Americans. But they did begin to turn away from the America as it was, with its high rates of abortion, divorce, and illegitimacy; its courts and public schools that seemed bent on extirpating religion and undermining traditional morality; its debased popular culture; and, in the late 1990s, its widespread indifference to the degeneracy of its President. Whereas post–World War II Christians had identified with America because of its liberty and self-government, post–Cold War Christians were prone to distance themselves from it for its depravities. Some thoughtful Christians also began to distance themselves from some of its institutions, particularly capitalism. What Berry, Hauerwas, and others had long been saying began to make sense to more Christians—that America’s free market and pursuit of ever-greater prosperity were not biblically authorized and might actually undermine community by encouraging people’s basest appetites.
It is clear that the deepening secularization of society just described bore some responsibility for American Christians’ disenchantment. Yet an additional cause is plausible as well: America’s lack of a serious foreign enemy. A well-developed body of social theory holds that group cohesion varies directly with external threat. Georg Simmel, Lewis Coser, and others long ago noted that a group that is externally threatened will typically exhibit more solidarity than a group that is externally secure.
American Christians are, by definition, members of two important social groups: the United States and the Church. Like all members of multiple groups, their identity and way of life fuses norms promoted by these as well as other groups; they are adept at discovering ways to harmonize their group affiliations. But at a given moment they will identify most strongly with the group most threatened. In the 1950s and ’60s the Communist menace was most dire, and America, the chief bulwark against communism, was the most salient group. In the 1980s and ’90s the threats of secularism and moral relativism began to dominate just as the threat from communism diminished, and so the conservative churches became more salient than the nation.
But this changed again on September 11, 2001, when America suddenly found itself again facing a serious foreign enemy. Islamist terrorism, of course, threatened all Americans, not just orthodox Catholics and Evangelicals. So conservative Christians in large numbers, like most Americans, suddenly began identifying more strongly with their country—not just with that historic Christian America that they remembered or imagined, but with the America they actually had. As in the Cold War, they were determined to defend not only their nation’s borders, property, and people, but also its institutions and way of life. Complaints about decadence and secular imperialism were quickly supplanted by once-familiar assertions about liberty and democracy.
Only things were not so simple. Social theorists also note that sometimes an external threat can aggravate divisions within a social group, as one side makes common cause with the foreign enemy against the domestic one. Some conservative Christians and some of their secular opponents immediately engaged in this sort of polemic, recruiting September 11 to fight the domestic culture wars. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson agreed that it was at least possible that God allowed the slaughter of 3,000 people as a demonstration of His wrath against apostate America. Some secularists retorted that September 11 proved that politics must be entirely free of religion—as if Falwell and Robertson might have hijacked the jets if only they had thought of it first. Each side accused the other of being a sort of Fifth Column, thereby dividing the country and making a unified response to terrorism more difficult.
In the ensuing months, a minority of orthodox Christians have refused to allow September 11 to dissuade them from their more communal visions of America. Right-wing writers such as Joseph Sobran and left-wing writers such as Stanley Hauerwas and Wendell Berry agree not only that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were dead wrong, but more broadly that the America we have—an empire determined to remake the world in its image—provokes terrorism and makes the world generally more dangerous. These ideas have their difficulties, as Jean Bethke Elshtain has made clear, but at least their propagators can claim consistency across time: their message was the same a decade ago.
Not so for most of the rest of us. Most Evangelical and orthodox Catholic Americans find ourselves loyal not only to what ought to be our most important spiritual community, the Church, but also to the community that God uses to keep us secure, prosperous, and free to worship Him—namely our country. We know that we must defend our homeland and sense that that defense must involve some degree of affirmation of American culture and institutions. If one’s country is wicked enough, if its institutions and practices are evil, as in the perennial limiting case of Nazi Germany, one should pray for its defeat in war. America is not nearly so wicked as that. It continues to be good to us and to the Church more generally, not just by shielding us from foreign threats but by allowing Christian life, and life in general, to flourish as it rarely has in history. The Islamists are wrong to regard the United States and the West more generally as thoroughly corrupt and worthy only of destruction.
But the Islamists are right that our society is ailing. Many of their complaints about America—that it produces selfish, decadent, impious people, weak families, and corrupt religious communities, not only at home but increasingly abroad through its cultural exports—are also our complaints as Christians. Hence our dilemma, for many of those who join us in defending America against Islamist terrorism have in mind a different America. Their America is the one from which we had begun to recoil and withdraw—until September 11.
Our task, then, is to defend two things simultaneously: the America we have and the Church to which we belong. Fighting for the first may tempt us to set aside the defense of the second for the sake of national unity; defending the second may compromise our battle for the first by weakening that unity. No clear solution to our dilemma exists. What we can do is remind ourselves and one another that we do face a dilemma and must not rush to grasp either horn: we must neither identify America with the Kingdom of God and thereby confirm the Islamists’ accusations nor leave our decadent nation to defend itself without our help. Beyond that, we must make clear to ourselves, our secular fellow citizens, the Islamists, and the wider world what it is about America that continues to hold our loyalty as Christians. Unless we were wrong in the 1980s and ’90s, it cannot simply be individual liberty. It must also include America’s continuing toleration of institutions that mediate between the individual and the state, institutions such as the Church itself.
September 11 has clarified matters. Though American society may deploy many corrupting influences against the Church and its members, the American state, by the grace of God, mostly continues to allow the Church to do its thing. The state, being the supreme coercive power in any country, is capable in theory of forcing the Church (and other communities) to change their practices or suffer punishment. America’s religious toleration is a reason why America not only deserves our loyalty, but also merits our continuing involvement. In a democracy the state is in principle responsible to the society it governs. Were Christians to cease being Americans in any meaningful sense, to withdraw completely from society, the state would be less responsible to us, and maybe less hospitable. God may use state persecution to purify His Church, but it is a perverse and unbiblical ethics that teaches that the Church should try to force God’s hand by enabling the state to become more oppressive.
In the end, the same trends that prod us to look for another St. Benedict require that we not follow him all the way into the cloisters, at least for now. Our love for the Church, our families, and other communities demands our continuing engagement in, and defense of, the America we have.
John M. Owen IV is an Associate Professor of Politics and a Faculty Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.