Find essays by keyword, title, or author name

Saving the ‘Benedict Option’ from Culture War Conservatism

Alasdair MacIntyre famously ends his assessment of the modern moral condition in After Virtue by lamenting the impossibilities of sustaining a coherent moral culture. His call to action in the last pages of the book presents the fall of the Roman Empire as an age similar to our present day. During that time, “men and women of good will turned aside from the tasks of shoring up the Roman imperium” to build local forms of community in which intellectual and moral life could be sustained. For MacIntyre, the preservation of civilization today depends upon the emergence of “another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict” who can begin the same sorts of local communities that sustained civilization and moral life through the Dark Ages.

At the same time, over the last year or so, MacIntyre’s prognosis—now popularly called the “Benedict Option”—has gained prominence among a subset of conservative and religious writers, mostly associated with The American Conservative and senior contributor Rod Dreher. Dreher’s work has consisted largely in aggregating various strands of the expanding conversation and offering a working thesis as to its cohesion; and he and several other writers (among them Patrick Deneen and Michael Hanby) have articulated nuanced explorations of what MacIntyre’s assessment might mean for the present political landscape. Yet in the larger conversation the Benedict Option—pitted against calls to “stay the course” of the Culture War—has become almost synonymous with an acceptance of defeat and subsequent withdrawal from the public sphere.

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?

There’s good reason to believe that the popularized Benedict Option diverges from MacIntyre’s understanding in several crucial ways. Take, for instance, the basic timeline. 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.”

A proper understanding of MacIntyre’s larger argument can save After Virtue’s Benedict Option from being reduced to conservative Culture War retreatism. While After Virtue‘s conclusion may stand out for its “Dark Ages” imagery and grim diagnosis, MacIntyre’s body of work reveals a consistent predilection for particular localized forms of shared moral life. This is often confused with contemporary conservatism or communitarianism, two traditions from which he distances himself. Understanding his vision of localized communities requires also a broader engagement with his ongoing interactions with Marxism, his criticism of contemporary communitarianism, and his more recent political thought in the 2011 volume Virtue and Politics.

Briefly stitching together this vision allows us to see that some Benedict Option advocates have diverged from MacIntyre in three crucial ways: conflating contemporary electoral gains and losses with centuries-long conditions of modern culture; endorsing a form of “conservatism liberalism” denounced by MacIntyre; and falsely creating an either/or of engagement and withdrawal efforts that misses the “radical localist” push of MacIntyre’s political project. Briefly exploring each of these points supports a clearer evaluation of how MacIntyre’s work might serve the particular needs of our current political and moral predicament.

First of all, MacIntyre’s concerns are largely detached from national electoral politics and the gains and losses of the Culture War. The timeline of his work is more than sufficient evidence here. MacIntyre’s Benedict Option first appeared in the early 1980s, just as the Christian Right began to establish itself on the national scene to “take back America.” Yet neither the growth of the Christian Right nor the rise of Reagan-Thatcher neoliberal economics would do anything to offset MacIntyre’s dark assessment of the “barbarians governing us,” which he reaffirms in the two editions and the 2007 prologue published subsequently. His uninterest in either 2004 presidential candidate confirms the conflict. MacIntyre’s focus has consistently been on sustaining “practice-based communities” amidst cultural conditions that transcend court rulings, electoral cycles, and partisan gains and losses.

Secondly, MacIntyre’s Benedict Option is not a blueprint for piecing together utopian societies built around the modern conservative agenda. He explicitly distances his work from the contemporary “conservative moralist” who imports his “inflated and self-righteous unironic rhetoric” to a set role established for him among the ruling liberal elite. Much of modern social conservatism envisions shoring up particular values—whether personal, patriotic, or sacred—through means of the modern liberal state, displaying a confidence in the modern state not shared by MacIntyre.

What popular Benedict Option accounts also leave out is MacIntyre’s critical view of certain economic configurations in advanced capitalism that are equally culpable for producing our current moral condition. Though MacIntyre left behind organized Marxism over fifty years ago, his work still takes seriously the interrelationship between economic systems and flourishing moral culture. Modern conservatism often fails to connect the two. Contemporary Benedict Option advocates could recover this interrelationship by turning to the careful empirical work of several sociologists attuned to the moral consequences of neoliberal capitalism: thinkers such as Richard Sennett, William Julius Wilson, and even Christian Smith’s wider contextualization of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, a frequent subject of Dreher’s work. Such work reinserts into this discussion an examination of economic configurations compatible and incompatible with the pursuit of particular forms of flourishing.

Finally, MacIntyre’s wider work envisions thick moral communities that are as revolutionary as they are retreatist, and that encompass both inward-facing and outward-facing virtues and practices. In Dependent Rational Animals MacIntyre develops from Aquinas the virtue of just generosity, a form of solidarity that extends to those with needs outside one’s immediate community. This openness to and concern for the outsider reflects the practices of Benedictine monasteries themselves.

So is this retreatist? 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 “grassroot 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.

Conservatives have rightly recognized that these “cracks and niches” have shifted in recent years, but there is no shortage of public arenas severely lacking in and desperate for “just generosity” and other practices oriented toward human flourishing. Dreher has rightly found resonance with his vision among New Monastic efforts that build communities in areas marginalized economically, culturally, and socially—“places abandoned by the empire.” Both MacIntyre and Wright argue that such efforts—in forming people’s imaginations counter to the dominant culture while still spatially located within it—can lay necessary groundwork for wider social transformation.

We are at a time when a growing number of observers have recognized the prevailing political structures are unable to produce particular moral results, whether greater economic justice, a non-racialized policing and justice system, decisive environmental policy, or the preservation of privacy rights. MacIntyre’s work, saved from a retreatist Culture War conservatism, can speak to a variety of efforts and traditions that seek ends of justice and flourishing that counter the dominant social order. Whether this initiates the building of rural communities, urban places of refuge, or new social movements, the shared underlying vision for such projects is purposeful pursuit of types of human flourishing that have become marginalized within our current political and cultural setting.

 

Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • Gary Houchens

    Mr. Lynn makes excellent points here, but it’s not clear to me who he considers “popularizers” of the Benedict Option who might need this correction. It would take a very superficial reading of Rod Dreher or Patrick Deneen to think that either one of them assumes the present crisis emerged in the post-Bush era, or that either of them might quickly fall prey to the temptation of getting sucked into Republican party politics. In terms of building local communities (versus “retreatism”) this has been a key theme of Mr. Dreher’s work for many years now.
    Again, great essay, but the reader just coming to the Benedict Option could be easily misled here to think that folks like Mr. Dreher need this sort of clarification.

    • Dan C

      Dreher is not particularly deep, nor is he particularly attached to economics. Dreher’s stance is the cultural moral stance that distanced itself from others and speaks only rare sentences to economics.

      Dreher’s next essay on the BO will be with the next sexual matter in the public eye that offends him. As a consequence, one can only understand Dreher as pursuing a retreatist goal pursuing purity as the only virtue.

      Dreher is the worse advocate for any sense of community-building.

      • Gary Houchens

        Dan, what is it about economics that you want Mr. Dreher to address?
        In terms of the role of sexuality morality in this issue, Mr. Dreher has articulated why the current problem isn’t sexual immorality per se, but why sexual immorality is such a key symptom of the larger problem. Read almost any post on this and you’ll see aspects of his point.

        • Dan C

          I guess you have not read McIntyre and his economics. Or even this post which clearly states how this all binds.

          There is a conservative argument that Reno offers and Dreher offers which is “Culture First, last, always!” and have chosen to ignore the economic underpinnings of communal structures.

          If you want a “Follow me boys” culture in which a grocery clerk earns enough money to support his family on one salary and volunteer as Scoutmaster, then the economic order needs to change.

          The BO proponents today are mere refugees of a beating in the Culture Wars and are circling the wagons.

          I have little respect for that form of community and suggest it fails to really embrace any sense of the relationship of man, his family, his faith, and the Christ in the surrounding community. The BO as formulated by Dreher is an attempt to avoid being unclean. It’s not so much a devotion to purity as an avoidance of impurity.

  • NDaniels

    “Man exists as an extension of The Love of God, as His Invention, yet His Invention is simultaneously singular and plural. God created each individual but clearly relates each man to every other. In the proper order of things, Business and Economic Systems are intended to serve man, and not the other way around. Man has not always adapted economic activity to his needs as he should. What needs to be arrested is the growing gap between Business accomplishes and human progress.” -FXD

    Without freedom, there would not be innovation, but this does not change the fact that without the desire for innovation to serve The Common Good, capitalism can easily morph into atheistic materialism.

    “As the Family goes, so goes the Nation.” – Saint John Paul II
    http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a4.htm

    We certainly cannot blame President Bush for The Great Falling Away.
    Although “The Benedict Option” is one option for some, but there is another Benedict option. Our Holy Father has read the entire Message from Our Lady at Fatima. If there is nothing that precludes him from consecrating Russia to Our Lady’s Immaculate Heart, as Our Lady requested, why would he not do it?

    There Is only One Word of God Made Flesh, our Savior, Jesus The Christ, thus there can only be One Spirit of Perfect Love Between The Father and The Son, Who Proceeds from both The Father and The Son, in The Ordered, Communion of Perfect Love, The Blessed Trinity.
    To Love one another as Christ Loves us, is to desire Salvation not only for ourselves, but for our beloved. We must be in the World to lead others to Christ.

    God Is The Author of Love, Life, and Marriage.

  • Thank you Mr. Lynn for bringing my attention to a valuable resource in McIntyre’s ethos which as you describe it points us straight in the direction of true conservatism. Obviously McIntyre has been misunderstood by those who cannot get past an imperial mindset e.g always “finding a way to win”. Community should be the priority for the true conservative, following faith and family, but not grand struggles. In fact, localism is an ethos we share with our brothers and sisters on the far left, and as many realize on both sides, the final breaking of the neoliberal dragon will come only through the forging of common bonds between true conservatives and true liberals. The essential bond we have though, is NOT one of grabbing the mantle. It is one of turning away.

    P.S. Minor quibble– please do not propagate the Middle Ages as “dark ages”. The conversion of the Germanic tribes to Christianity and the melting of classical Roman imperatives into the polyglot Holy Roman Empire, was not particularly dark– it was the only epoch when the Word of our Lord governed the hearts of men! And neither dark will be, the abandonment of our own hideous, centralized structures of alienation and violence, which also operate through remote ownership and control.

    • NDaniels
      • Indeed Daniels– it is all right there in the CCC, straight from the Gospels!

        The sad fact is that bringing people back to the front door of Jesus can take a bit of groundwork, especially our tech-centered, younger person who still may think he is somehow living during the pinnacle of civilization and never thinks about his Creator. If I can get some recognition of basic truths from him, it is then that I point out, “By the way, there was a man who told us all of these things a long time ago, even though He never had any idea about the details of our current problems… His name was Jesus!”

        • NDaniels

          🙂

          The Good News Is, He Who Was In The Beginning, Is Now, and Forever Will Be, Is Risen!

  • Gary Houchens
    • Dan C

      And he can’t help himself by referring to sex.

      Not community. But Sexual ethics and the media.

      Also, his experiential and empirical reflections are bare and limited- his profession is a lonesome one, his books reflect his role in communal life as critique and observer.

      Dreher is a family-first/Fortress Family religious conservative in which the family is the center of centripetal forces and resources. The example of the Holy Family is exactly not that. The force must be centrifugal. Love is outward. This column above reflects that.

      Dreher is seeking a way to remained untouched by the impurities of the world. Anyone in community- especially monastics from the era of Benedict will tell you that is not how a monastery works.

      • NDaniels

        The reordering of man according to sexual desire/inclination/orientation, which sexually objectifies the human person and demeans our inherent Dignity, is a denial of the fact that God Is The Author of Love, Life, and Marriage. With God, all things are possible, apart from God, anything can become permissible.

        • Dan C

          Is that all there is? No.

          This sex nonsense is so obsessive that you cannot even grasp any other aspect of communal existence.

          The grave disruption of economics on family life is being ignored because of the obsession with sex.

          You are ignoring the obviosu

          • NDaniels

            Apart from God, anything can become permissible.

          • Dan C

            This is a non-answer and inconsequential to the questions and dynamics of community.

          • NDaniels

            Apart from The Truth of Love, anything can become permissible. How is Love inconsequential to the dynamics of community? Authentic Love serves for the Good of all persons..

          • Dan C

            Yes.

            Where did I say anything apart from that. Yet, you keep relating that the sole communal concern is something about sexual.

            Then God!

            You clearly are not one who has lived in community.

          • NDaniels

            A community that condones identifying persons according to sexual desire/inclination/orientation, which demeans the inherent Dignity of the human person, who is created in The Image and Likeness of God, denies God.

          • Dan C

            Where did I say such was condoned. I noted Dteher has only a reactionary “against” position. And he is “fo little but routine reflexive conservative economics. You need to do better than presuppose my positions in sexual ethos. Because you make my case that outside of sex you have no interest in a Bo. It’s just about sex

          • NDaniels

            “Man exists as an extension of The Love of God, as His Invention, yet His Invention is simultaneously singular and plural. God created each individual but clearly relates each man to every other. In the proper order of things, Business and Economic Systems are intended to serve man, and not the other way around. Man has not always adapted economic activity to his needs as he should. What needs to be arrested is the growing gap between Business accomplishes and human progress.” -FXD

            Without freedom, there would not be innovation, but this does not change the fact that without the desire for innovation to serve The Common Good, capitalism can easily morph into atheistic materialism.

            “As the Family goes, so goes the Nation.” – Saint John Paul II
            http://www.vatican.va/archive/

            We certainly cannot blame President Bush for The Great Falling Away.
            Although “The Benedict Option” is one option for some, but there is another Benedict option. Our Holy Father has read the entire Message from Our Lady at Fatima. If there is nothing that precludes him from consecrating Russia to Our Lady’s Immaculate Heart, as Our Lady requested, why would he not do it?

            There Is only One Word of God Made Flesh, our Savior, Jesus The Christ, thus there can only be One Spirit of Perfect Love Between The Father and The Son, Who Proceeds from both The Father and The Son, in The Ordered, Communion of Perfect Love, The Blessed Trinity.
            To Love one another as Christ Loves us, is to desire Salvation not only for ourselves, but for our beloved. We must be in the World to lead others to Christ.

            God Is The Author of Love, Life, and Marriage.

          • NDaniels
          • NDaniels

            There is a direct correlation between the break down of the family and poverty in the United States.

          • Dan C

            Absolutely.

            And there is a direct correlation between the economic injustice of corporations and the breakdown of family.

            You only see some sexual libertines as the enemy of family.

            The real enemy is poverty and injustice and war. You have been fooled by the Devil to fight an ant while a giant ruined the home.

          • NDaniels

            The objectification of the human person is consistent with atheistic materialism, which has had a giant impact on poverty and injustice, and the break down of the family.

      • NDaniels

        Love is ordered to the inherent personal and relational Dignity of the human person thus Love is relational, not “outward”.

  • Mr. Dreher is referring to the so-called Benedict Option as the BenOp now, a moniker provided from a lesbian friend. Just thought I’d point that out.

  • cestusdei

    The question is whether the culture will even permit us to exist in these “cracks.”