The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation
by rod dreher
sentinel, 272 pages, $25
Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World
by charles j. chaput
henry holt, 288 pages, $26
Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture
by anthony m. esolen
regnery, 256 pages, $27.99
Looking back on the rise and influence of the Christian right in American political life in the latter part of the twentieth century, Jerry Falwell said, “I was convinced that there was a moral majority out there among more than 200 million Americans sufficient in number to turn back the flood tide of moral permissiveness, family breakdown, and general capitulation to evil and foreign policies such as Marxism-Leninism.” Formally established in 1979, and credited with mobilizing millions of Evangelical voters to support the election and re-election of Ronald Reagan, Falwell’s Moral Majority was disbanded in 1989 with the claim that it had achieved its goals.
The Moral Majority was organized to be an electoral force, animated by the implicit belief that America’s ailments were limited to Washington, D.C., and elite institutions. Liberals were using the levers of political power—especially the presidency, the courts, and the administrative state—to advance policies that contradicted the basic Christian and conservative instincts of middle America. For about half a century, in the aftermath of the Scopes trial, Evangelicals had remained politically dormant, and leaders like Falwell believed that America now balanced on a razor’s edge. Quiescent Christians silently watched an aggressive political class redefining America through the promotion of abortion, feminism, gay rights, cosmopolitanism, and socialist economics. If a “silent” moral majority engaged more directly and enthusiastically in national electoral politics, the nation would get leaders who reflected the virtues of the citizenry and values of the Bible.
This project reflected a kind of optimism: America is seen as a decent, faith-filled nation that can be restored with the ejection of a corrupt leadership class. The Moral Majority wasn’t claiming to change the nature of America, but to allow its true nature to reassert itself. Though the religious right sometimes engaged in jeremiads, reproving America for falling into sin and vice, the focus was on restoration. Ronald Reagan—cheerful, optimistic, and imbued with a spirit of American progress—promised not to raze Sodom and Gomorrah, but to right the course toward Zion. Combining Winthrop’s call for America to be a “shining city on a hill” with FDR’s belief that America’s path was toward a “rendezvous with destiny,” Reagan embodied the confident hope of an American renewal.
Thirty years later, the mood has changed. Three books have appeared almost simultaneously that assume the opposite of what Falwell believed: America is populated by an immoral majority. Not only is its leadership class dominated by progressive elites, but the American public more generally has been corrupted by constant saturation in a media of skepticism and irony, pervasive consumerism, unavoidable pornography, and incessant distraction fostered by entertainment centers in every person’s pocket. America has lost its faith, and so the faithful have begun to question their belief in America.
Published within months of each other—by a popular blogger and author who has journeyed from Protestantism to agnosticism to Catholicism to Orthodoxy, Rod Dreher; by one of America’s most prominent and intellectually accomplished Catholic bishops, Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles J. Chaput; and by a Catholic professor of English at Providence College and renowned translator of Dante, Anthony Esolen—the books share the belief that traditional Christians are a moral minority. All three books were written in the midst of a political campaign that was expected to result in the election of Hillary Clinton. All three reflect the pessimism that accompanied that prospect.
The outcome of that election, surprising as it was, does not change the argument of these books: Politics will not save us. What is first of all necessary is to rebuild a culture in disarray. Compared with recovering the basic requirements of virtuous civilization—healthy communities, flourishing family life, sound education, a deep reservoir of cultural memory and practice, and formative religious faith—remaking the Supreme Court is a cinch. Philosophers who have described culture as the first requirement of a healthy civilization, from Plato to Burke to Tocqueville, have generally believed that the most one can consciously strive to achieve is preservation of a healthy culture, should one be fortunate enough to possess one. Once a culture is corrupted from within, however, they saw little hope of reversing its decay.
Modern American conservatism has generally assumed the persistence of a healthy culture. The social conservative movement that began in the wake of Roe v. Wade in 1973 sought political and legal victories: winning elections and replacing liberal Supreme Court justices. By many measures, the effort was a resounding success. Between 1980 and 2008, Republicans held the presidency for five terms, interrupted by two terms of a centrist Southern Democrat. During these years, Republicans appointed seven Supreme Court justices, with just two appointed by Bill Clinton. While control of Congress swung during these years, Republicans enjoyed more years of control of both houses of Congress as well as more years controlling both the presidency and Congress than did Democrats. All told, for nearly thirty years, from the rise of the Moral Majority until the election of Barack Obama, Jerry Falwell appeared to have been correct to conclude that his work had been successful.
Yet over that same span, the culture changed, and not in Jerry Falwell’s direction. Measures of community strength, volunteerism, neighborliness, and civil society declined. Family breakdown increased, especially among the economically disadvantaged of all races. Divorce rates skyrocketed, and though they later leveled off for the wealthy, they remain high, especially for the poor. At the same time, rates of marriage have declined, and American birth rates have begun to resemble those of an aging and childless Europe. A holocaust of unborn children continues unabated. Findings by both conservative and liberal social scientists such as Charles Murray and Robert Putnam show an extraordinary erosion of social norms and expectations—familial, educational, legal, and professional—especially among those who make up the working class of America. Social mobility has become a taunt rather than a real possibility for many Americans, replaced by a self-perpetuating new aristocracy that congregates in the wealthiest urban areas of the country. Trust in all the main institutions of American society—both public and private—has declined, as has trust of citizens toward each other.
Findings by the Pew Research Center about religious belief and practice show an ongoing decline in religious belief and membership, including a dramatic rise in nonbelievers, especially among the millennial generation. Even where religious faith persists, Christian Smith suggests that religion for many Americans is individualistic and therapeutic rather than a source of discipline and moral norms. For nearly thirty years, conservatives have triumphed politically amid a catastrophic breakdown of social and cultural norms, especially those that foster an ethic of self-sacrifice, commonweal, and practices that inculcate duty, discipline, respect, civility, and obedience.
After some thirty years of conservative ascendancy, it is difficult to proclaim the existence of a moral majority. If anything, the most recent election points not to hope for “morning in America,” but despair among those fearful of what comes after twilight. Calls for restoration of family values were nowhere to be heard among the cheering throngs at the rallies held for a serial adulterer and crude showman. The president secured the support of a number of prominent leaders in the Evangelical churches as well as majorities of Christian voters who viewed him not as the champion of a renewed Christian America, but as someone who could hold at bay a ruling class that is openly hostile to Christianity. The aspiration of those who voted against another four years of progressivism was not to restore political order but to smash Washington.
And so here we are. The long-standing conservative narrative held that America is fundamentally decent but that those decencies are being eroded by an elite that subscribes to non-American, and even anti-American, values. The simultaneous political success of conservatism and ruination of American culture has made this view untenable. Now, a more radical possibility is opening up. Traditional Christians now wonder if a just and righteous society must be built in opposition to a national creed that has led inexorably to libertinism.
This conclusion has become harder to avoid. If the conservative political movement animated by a belief in a moral majority was born out of Roe v. Wade, it died with Obergefell v. Hodges. It died especially because, unlike Roe—which was decided while public opinion was divided, inchoate, and moveable on the question of abortion—Obergefell was decided with the backdrop of consistently growing popular support for marriage between homosexuals, with particular enthusiasm among a younger generation that will inherit the nation. Obama’s war against traditional Christians paid electoral dividends, supported all the while by the media, schools, universities, and even corporate America. This has caused a growing number of Christians to conclude that the nation is no longer a Christian nation, if it ever was.
All three of these books make reference to the decline and fall of Rome. Esolen’s Out of the Ashes begins with a quote from Livy lamenting the eclipse of the Roman Republic, followed by lines from St. Jerome after the sack of Rome in 410. Esolen writes that America, like Rome, declined not ultimately “from without,” but instead fell by “sagging into lethargy and indifference from within.” Both Dreher in The Benedict Option and Archbishop Chaput in Strangers in a Strange Land devote pages to the famous closing lines in Alasdair MacIntyre’s sweeping critique of liberal modernity, After Virtue, in which MacIntyre concludes:
A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead . . . was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. . . . This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless quite different—St. Benedict.
These lines are the original inspiration of Dreher’s project—an attempt to understand what Christians should do now that they can no longer “shore up the imperium,” and, indeed, now that the imperium is hostile to the Christian faith. His book and the other two are haunted by these questions: How are Christians to live now that their efforts cannot be understood to be synonymous with electoral politics or even continuous with the basic commitments of the American regime?
Comparisons of America to Rome are as old as America, but the comparison takes on a distinctive cast for these authors. Rather than using the trope of Roman decline as a means to encourage recovery of republican virtues, the authors are in general agreement—with some interesting differences of emphasis as well as substance—that the task at hand is the creation of a distinctive Christian culture amid the ruins of the American republican experiment. If there is to be a recovery, it will have to take place during the decline of the American imperium. Perhaps, if some restoration of culture is successful, a political remedy may present itself. But all agree that any national political recovery is secondary, and perhaps ultimately unrelated, to the effort to build Christian communities in a corrupt social order.
This is a new condition for American Christians. Like Augustine, who wrote his masterpiece City of God following the sack of Rome in 410, these writers take our time as a reminder that a Christian’s ultimate allegiance is to heaven above. That still leaves the question of how we will understand our civic duties here on this earth. With the notable exception of those brought in bondage from Augustine’s Africa, Christians of various stripes have mainly been deeply supportive of the American political order, viewing it as a work of providence. These leading Christians are now calling on their fellows to consider something new. Perhaps it is time to see faith as working against rather than for the American creed.
If our condition is comparable to that of Christians after the sack of Rome, it comes with an intervening millennium and a half of Christian civilization. In Augustine’s time, Christians did not have any expectation, much less memory, of Christendom. The builders of the monasteries were innocent of Dante and Chaucer and Shakespeare; Bach and Mozart and Handel; Michelangelo, Raphael, and El Greco. What can it possibly mean to build (or rebuild) “a new culture” in the ruins of what was arguably the greatest culture ever to have existed? If it could be eviscerated during the eight years of the Obama presidency, or the fifty years since the 1960s, or even the 230 years since the American founding, what chance do today’s pilgrims possibly have? Those who would create an alternative culture don’t create on a blank canvas, but with full knowledge of what has been lost, surrounded by the decayed ruins of their rightful inheritance. All three books offer a path forward, but with dim lamps, unable to discern the path more than a few steps ahead.
Rod Dreher’s much-awaited book on how to emulate the founders of Europe’s first monasteries, those institutions that sustained civilization during the collapse of the Roman imperium, summarizes American cultural devastation and offers a sweeping diagnosis of the historical sources of this decline. He traces contemporary cultural catastrophe back to the nominalism of Ockham, which advanced through the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and erupted into postmodernity. Dreher’s genealogy, while brief, presents a civilization that has effectively been in decline for centuries, and whose poisoned fruits have now fully matured. There is no “recovery” in Dreher’s narrative, only arks to be built amid the rising waters of liquid modernity.
His is mostly a practical handbook on how to cultivate a new counterculture resistant to the corrosiveness of modern culture. He distills themes often explored in his popular blog, especially a focus on schooling and the care that must be taken selecting an uncorrupting university, especially in light of the spreading madness that has overtaken campuses. Among his most instructive, if most challenging, chapters is one that seeks to prepare Christians for persecution not only through legal mandate, but in the workplace. Christians may find certain careers closed to them, the consequence of a “civil rights” movement that has with considerable success redefined religious faith as discrimination. He concludes this chapter with the bracing observation that the seed of the Church in modern America will not necessarily be the blood of martyrs, but a smaller paycheck from a less prestigious job, a path to neither reputation among one’s secular peers, nor perhaps even sainthood among the faithful.
His advice is directed especially toward families seeking to protect children from the anti-Christian culture. Dreher recognizes the difficulty of this project, and parents who read his book should be especially attentive to the warnings he gives about how putting up too impervious a barrier around one’s monastic home will not infrequently induce children to rebel. What happens to families when children refuse to be governed by the norms of the monastic community is only hinted at in passing, but one suspects that a child’s rejection of an intentional counterculture will be potentially ruinous for the family.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput is less pessimistic than Dreher. Though he takes a darker view of the American political order in this book than he did in his last one, Render Unto Caesar, he remains confident that, by living their faith, Christians can contribute to the health of the nation. At points he explicitly rejects “withdraw[al] from public affairs,” reminding us that for every St. Benedict, there was a politically engaged bishop like Augustine. Yet as the book proceeds with a bleak analysis of America’s cultural rot, Chaput calls for the cultivation of an ability to live psychically, if not physically, apart. Christians may well have to live as a “conscious minority in a nation whose beliefs, culture, and politics are no longer their own”—that is, as strangers in a strange land. Like Dreher, he invokes the example of Vaclav Havel, who dissented against a “culture of lies.” The comparison is telling: Havel did not appeal to the better version of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia or seek to reform it from within, but to “expose its unstable foundations” by refusing to pretend that its lies were true.
Of the three authors, Chaput is the most confident that Christian belief and practice can exist in close proximity with, and even transform, the contemporary liberal order. His most constructive chapter presents anew the “Letter to Diognetus,” a Christian apologetic written in the second century. It explains how Christians can live and even thrive amid a pagan civilization. As Chaput points out, the “Letter to Diognetus” describes Christians willing to criticize the lies and sinfulness of their fellow citizens, yet calls them to remain engaged with a hostile world, albeit perhaps not in a directly political way. “They didn’t abandon or retire from the world. They didn’t build fortress enclaves. They didn’t manufacture their own culture or invent their own language. They took elements from the surrounding culture and ‘baptized’ them with a new spirit and a new way of living.” Only by transforming what a corrupt culture offers can Christians engage an always fallen world.
Anthony Esolen is a man of immense learning, lightly worn. Unlike Chaput, he does not wish to “baptize” contemporary practices, and unlike Dreher, he does not believe that a counterculture will arise from intentional communities. Instead, he thinks it will come from unintentional practices. Esolen believes that a good culture accords with what is natural. Men should be men and women should be women, and perhaps most importantly, children should be allowed to be children. The hallmark of modernity is the effort to manipulate, master, alter, and even expunge nature—particularly human nature. In this book as well as previous ones such as Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Esolen decries the denaturing of children as the visible sign of a civilizational suicide. Culture arises not from planning, but from playing. In what is one of the most charming passages of the book, Esolen reflects on a series of Winslow Homer paintings portraying scenes in the everyday lives of children: away from adults, they are immersed in the natural world, and they are together, face to face. “When children come together to play, we see in miniature the very art of culture itself.” Perhaps less than forming our children through a strict plan that ends up resembling the modern belief in our ability to master nature, we need to allow our children to educate themselves in the natural world and in the company of other children, at times out of the watchful eyes of parents: “Liberty is to be measured not by what the law permits you to do, but by—to use a whimsical criterion—how far from your house you feel comfortable allowing your child to play.”
This last line brings us back to a hard truth: It takes a village, or better put, it takes a polis, to raise a child well. The liberty of a child to wander freely through fields, over bridges, and along streams is a gift of ordered liberty, arising from trust and neighborliness. Esolen concludes his book by recalling the Greek origins of the word “politics.” It comes from polis, a political community of relatively small scale in which citizenship is defined by the activity of shared self-governance based on familiarity and common history, not a noun that denotes one’s abstract relation to strangers.
The American Founders rejected the polis as a model. They adopted instead the contemporary ideals of Enlightenment freedom, the idea that liberty is the absence of obstacles. It is what the law permits one to do. This laid the foundation of a national political order which, in the words of the Federalist, has as its “first object” the protection of liberty for men who possess a “diversity of faculties.” The practical consequences of this definition were long obscured by the fact that Americans had a rich and sustaining Christian culture that was older and deeper than the political structure.
When Alexis de Tocqueville toured America in the 1820s, he was amazed that township democracy was the center of shared civic life, while interest in the federal government was nearly nonexistent. But he worried that, over time, our individualistic political beliefs would redefine all aspects of our life, such as neighborhoods, townships, even families, eventually leaving us in such a state of complete “liberty” that only the central government would remain as the guarantee of our freedom and assistance in times of need. He wrote Democracy in America as a warning. Over time, our political order would shape our culture, or more accurately, it would eliminate traditional culture in favor of a liberal anti-culture. These three books are a postscript to Tocqueville, describing not the betrayal of our political origins, but the fulfillment of its logic.
“Politics will not save us,” Dreher concludes. Perhaps—but in the absence of a good polity, it’s unlikely a healthy culture can be cultivated and sustained. The monasteries were not only religious institutions, but also served as the center of political life for many medieval towns, with abbots functioning as civic as well as religious leaders. The Church was the source of Christian culture in no small part because she developed systems of law and courts, in addition to rules and practices governing markets. Aristotle understood that law and culture, like ethics and politics, must be mutually reinforcing. (One of the marked shortcomings of MacIntyre has always been his greater attentiveness to Aristotle’s Ethics than to his Politics, a reflection of MacIntyre’s Marxism rather than his Catholicism.)
Christianity is inevitably political. If Christians are to eschew Washington, D.C., as a lost cause, they should not imagine they can just build familial monasteries. Instead, we need to focus on our town and city halls, our neighborhood associations, seeking to foster the kinds of communities where our children can—and will—roam the fields again. At some scale, however small, the moral minority must become a majority again.
Patrick J. Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame.