It has been just over a year since Rod Dreher published The Benedict Option as a prescription for how Christians should respond to “liquid modernity.” The phrase is critical to Dreher’s analysis, even if he only employs it a few times. Borrowed from Zygmunt Bauman, it refers to the fragility of institutions subject to modernizing processes that inculcate a mentality that change is the only constant.
This idea supplies the background to Dreher’s early analysis of our current cultural context, and it informs his call for a different kind of politics. Given that everything is liquid, Christians must rebuild and renew cultural structures that bring stability and order. Dreher’s age of liquid modernity has the following features:
- atomization, individualism, and rootlessness, due to the industrial revolution, which uprooted persons from agrarian and local modes of existence;
- autonomy, authenticity, self-fulfillment, and eros, due to the sexual revolution, technology, and consumer society;
- Moral Therapeutic Deism as the theological support for individualism.
Over against this new age, Dreher proposes the model of Benedictine life, with its commitment to order and place. By calling this option “Benedictine,” he offers an image for rebuilding the “mediating structures” that sustain Christian culture. As he states, “Benedictine spirituality is good at creating a Christian culture because it is all about developing and sustaining the Christian cultus.”
I intentionally used the phrase “mediating structures,” which comes from Richard John Neuhaus and Peter Berger, because it clarifies Dreher’s proposal for renewing Christian culture as a counterweight to liquid modernity. Mediating structures are the small associations that make up civil society. They serve as conduits between private life and public life by embodying the values and beliefs of individuals and transmitting them to mega-structures, such as the modern state, economic conglomerates (corporations), and large professional organizations in education, labor, and other sectors (think of the American Medical Association and other such associations).
Michael Novak argued that mediating structures, the modern analogues to Burke’s “little platoons,” allow for subsidiarity and reinforce Alexis de Tocqueville’s law of association as a principle of self-governance. The four basic forms of mediating structures identified by Neuhaus and Berger are neighborhood, family, church, and voluntary association. These structures reflect the values of individuals and mediate them to the public, allowing individuals to find meaningful places in civil society.
Neuhaus and Berger also claimed that American liberalism had become blind to the important role of mediating structures and, instead, vigorously defended the rights of individuals over against them. Individuals were elevated over family, neighborhood, and the small town, becoming subject to mega-structures that actually alienate most of the middle class. Dreher’s analysis flows along similar lines. Dreher sees the alignment of mega-structures around LGBT, abortion-rights, and other issues as an attack on mediating structures that translate Christian values from the private to the public sphere.
His solution combines a political minimalism with a cultural maximalism. Contrary to some analyses, Dreher does not call for a retreat from political life at the state or federal level. Instead, he proposes narrowing the agenda to focus on preserving the freedoms that will allow Christians to rebuild mediating structures. The building of these structures is at the heart of Dreher’s call for a cultural maximalism. In Dreher’s mind, Christians should renew their commitment to church and family and begin building new forms of voluntary association through professional and social networks. Most of his examples are forms of voluntary association.
In the middle of the book, Dreher discusses three forms of life: personal life, church life, and the life of the neighborhood or village. Undergirding these discussions is a call for localism over nationalism. In the final third of the book, Dreher argues for constructing mediating structures that will embody, preserve, and transmit Christian beliefs and values.
His rhetoric sometimes outstrips his proposal, but to focus on his metaphors of a “great flood” and a new “ark” is to miss the book’s central proposals. This is where Jamie Smith’s initial analysis went awry, in my view. Chosen for their vividness, these metaphors don’t fit Dreher’s analysis very well. The “ark” in question is not the church or any single institution; rather, it’s a fleet of life boats, Burke’s “little platoons,” which together make up Christian culture.
Given the divisions among Christians, Dreher knows that he cannot simply appeal to the church as such; in fact, his chapters on the personal and the church may be understood as a call to evangelical Protestants to leave behind their free-church ways and recognize tradition and liturgy as weapons against liquid modernity. Dreher implicitly suggests that the variability in free-church Christianity is part of liquid modernity.
Though I cannot explore it in this piece, the connection between Neuhaus’s and Berger’s call for mediating structures and Dreher’s “Benedict” model reveals some of the weaknesses of Dreher’s approach. For example, it’s clear from the analyses of mediating structures that protecting them will require much more political involvement than Dreher admits. The existence of Christian neighborhoods will almost certainly lead to involvement in politics on city boards, which, in turn, will require more involvement at the state and federal levels. Moreover, a question constantly hanging over mediating institutions is whether they should take federal, state, or even local government funding, and what demands such funding might make upon them. Finally, the constant challenge of voluntary associations that embody Christian values is their being subject to erosion of Christian commitments when they themselves become large (think the YMCA).
Still, it strikes me that the connection between mediating structures and the Benedict Option offers a fruitful point of convergence. It brings Dreher into conversation with those who, following Neuhaus and Berger, call for such structures in order to secure subsidiarity and maintain the local associations necessary for self-governance.
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University.