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Real Politics After the Culture Wars

“[W]hat we confront today is a new leviathan, the-state-and-the-market, a monstrous amalgam of the public and the private, of interlocking and interacting corporations and government agencies of heterogenous relationships.” — Alasdair MacIntyre

Damon Linker is right: Conservatives have lost the culture war and many are not hopeful about the future. “Have you heard of the Benedict Option?” asks Linker. “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.”

But this realization need not lead social conservatives to despair. Rather, it offers an opportunity to rethink the nature of politics and to develop a more holistic vision of political engagement. Co-opted by the state and market, conservatives have lost the culture war and failed to protect families because many stopped engaging in real politics decades ago.

Rod Dreher’s proposal of a Benedict Option is an attempt to take a different tack, but despite disclaimers otherwise, he has yet to show how it will amount to anything more than a withdrawal from politics into the private sphere. Dreher describes the Benedict Option as the “communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life.” And despite his frequent invocation of Alasdair MacIntyre, he has yet to articulate the connection between modern ethics and modern economics.

Dreher offers examples of families that have established communities near monasteries or parishes, and he presents discussions that focus heavily on the role of liturgy in BenOp communities. Chad Pecknold responded to Dreher’s proposal with what he calls “the Dominican Option.” Arguing that the imagery, if not the intent, behind the Benedict Option smacks of retreat, Pecknold says:

Better, therefore, to speak of the Dominican Option. When I see them in the white habits at prayer, or giving lectures, or playing guitars and banjos on the subway, I have a plausible image of a “contrast society” that is very much engaged with the world—an evangelistic witness which is joyful, intellectually serious, expansive, and charitable.

Despite this turn towards the public sphere, Pecknold’s proposal remains fundamentally  apolitical. Neither option examines the intimate link between the family and local-level social, economic, and political institutions.

*                    *                    *

Conservative politics has focused almost exclusively on the national level and has been conducted in gloriously abstract terms. The nuclear family, a mainstay of conservative political discourse, has been abstracted from its social context and treated as a timeless ideal that is largely unaffected by politics, except insofar as it is harmed by state interference.

In a recent article in National Review, Chad Pecknold argues that marriage is a “pre-political” good that ought to limit the state, meaning that marriage is a natural good, one that the state should recognize but not encroach upon. One should ask, though, whether such an argument concedes too much. By endorsing a liberal division between the public and private spheres, accounts like Pecknold’s may perpetuate the misguided focus on national-level politics to the detriment of local political engagement. The liberal division between public and private spheres encourages the conclusion that politics is primarily electoral and obscures the primacy of local political activity.  It’s not that national politics are irrelevant but that, as MacIntyre has argued, “all politics must begin on the level of local problems.”

What is remarkable about the recent interest in MacIntyre’s work is the degree to which the conclusion of After Virtue has been read without reference to the claims that lead to this conclusion. In the opening chapters, MacIntyre describes the shrill assertiveness of contemporary moral discourse. “From our rival conclusions,” he says, “we can argue back to our rival premises; but when we do arrive at our premises argument ceases and the invocation of one premise against another becomes a matter of pure assertion and counter-assertion.”

MacIntyre describes the competing moral claims of modern social and political debate as incommensurable. This is evident in Linker’s response to Pecknold. Where Pecknold appealed to the family as a natural end to which the state must defer, Linker denied the normativity of such natural ends and appealed instead to popular opinion.

MacIntyre points to the creation of new forms of community precisely because communities based upon commitments to a concrete and largely local common good provide opportunities for rational political debate. Local problems serve as a focus for political debate when they are encountered in the midst of shared projects directed towards common goods. The biggest argument in favor of the Dreher’s proposal is the fact that contemporary moral and political debate is largely ineffective. However, the project will only succeed if  proponents of the Benedict Option can link their dissatisfaction with contemporary culture to concrete political projects aimed at creating and sustaining the conditions necessary for families and local communities to achieve their common good.

Dreher himself offers a particularly pertinent example of way in which contemporary political debate fails to connect ethical and economic concerns and in so doing ignores the local context of political questions. In two aptly titled articles, How Bobby Jindal Wrecked Louisiana and Destroying Louisiana’s Public Universities, he outlines the destruction left in the wake of Jindal’s fiscal policies. As Louisiana’s governor, Jindal was an outspoken proponent of conservative social causes, a veritable “family values” politician, but he also adhered to a radical neo-liberal agenda. Jindal failed to connect his concern for the family—his recognition, in Pecknold’s sense, of the family as a natural end—with his economic policies. One challenge for Dreher, as a resident of Louisiana, is to draw a connection between the Benedict Option and his concerns about Bobby Jindal’s policies.

*                    *                    *

If local communities seek to preserve their common good, they must pay more attention to practices. For MacIntyre, practices refer to those forms of cultural activity that resist the utilitarian logic of the market and the state: the arts, sports, and meaningful work, as well as the family and the school. These are activities where people seek shared goods of excellence and first learn to practice the virtues. It is at this level that the problem of incommensurability can be overcome through the shared pursuit of common goods.

But such activities are always threatened by instrumentalization in various forms, by commercialism, commodification, and efficiency. In order to engage in a politics of the common good, efforts must be made to create and recreate institutions that preserve the integrity of such cultural activities at the local level. This is the primary locus of political struggle that will determine the fate of families and local communities in the United States.

Many conservatives, by contrast, have seen in the present moment nothing more than an opportunity to recommit themselves to the culture wars. Ryan Anderson suggests that “pro-marriage citizens should follow the example of pro-life citizens,” but this suggestion simply ignores the relationship between economics and ethics, and is an example of the same approach to politics that resulted in Bobby Jindal’s gubernatorial record.

David Brooks asks social conservatives to put the culture war on the back-burner—not to relinquish moral commitments but to focus on their social expression in the manner of Albert Schweitzer and Dorothy Day. “It’s doing purposefully in public what social conservatives already do in private,” Brooks says. The danger of his approach is that it devolves into an apolitical charitable effort. What is essential is that the connection between a radical approach to the works of mercy and the need for radical political action, primarily at the local level, be maintained. As MacIntyre himself argues, this can only be realized by taking seriously how the good of the average citizen is tied up with the good of the poor and marginalized.

There are a variety of examples of political programs relevant to Dreher’s proposal. Michael Baxter, referring to MacIntyre’s claims, notes:

Providentially, this task of constructing local forms of community has been taken up by increasing numbers of Catholics. Troubled by a sense of political homelessness in America, disaffected with both liberal and conservative ideologies, they have turned from state-centered, partisan politics and devoted themselves instead to the political life of local communities wherein the common good may be embodied: unions, worker co-ops and neighborhood organizations; agrarian projects and charter schools; ecclesial communities of prayer, friendship and works of mercy; houses of hospitality for the poor, unemployed, elderly, disabled, unwed mothers and immigrant families.

Baxter, as a long time member of the Catholic Worker movement, has combined radical ecclesial action for the poor with political action at the local level. The example of his work demonstrates how local problems necessitate political engagement.

Another contemporary—but very different—example is provided by Mondragon. Inspired by a Catholic priest, as an attempt to implement papal teaching on economics, it the largest cooperative in the world and an a modern example of a community grounded in a shared vision of vision of employees’ common good that resists the instrumentalization of work. Establishing a regulatory environment hospitable to cooperatives, as well as establishing or converting existing firms into cooperatives, provides a second example of local-level political activity that may directly contribute to the common good of families and local communities.

John Medaille’s proposal for a radical renovation of the tax code, in a manner that would empower local communities is a third example (see his Toward a Truly Free Market). The Institute for Family Studies also provides numerous examples of the way in which existing social structures impact the wellbeing of families (for one example, see this post at the IFS blog) and because of this, offers insight into further opportunities for political engagement.

These sorts of proposals are only possible insofar as politics begins at the level of local problems. They necessitate engagement with the state in varying degrees and, because of this, they avoid the shortcomings of a purely localist perspective but they would never be part of either party’s platform. The idea of politics aimed at the common good of local communities challenges us each to approach social questions at the level of real practice.The common good of family life, as well as the common good of communities, can only be achieved through the struggle of real people joining others in efforts to solve everyday problems.

A new approach to politics grounded in local questions should be construed as neither a retreat nor a rejection of the need for evangelization. Party politics must not be conflated with prophetic witness. What is needed is a politics of the common good and the witness of groups such as the Dominicans who can serve as a “contrast society.” It is also important to remember—with St Ignatius—that “love ought to be put more in deeds than in words” and that charity is often the most powerful witness.


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.

  • augustinus

    I think that one of the main problems with all of these Benedict Option affirmations, critiques, think-pieces, rejoinders, parleys, is the failure to appreciate the eschatological assumption that undergirds Dreher’s articulation of it.

    Let’s put aside for a second the question of whether the Benedict Option as posited sufficiently accounts for political engagement at a more local level. Let’s put aside the question of whether there’s a misreading of Alasdair MacIntyre’s position.

    Despite the historical Orthodox allergy to Augustine of Hippo, he is instructive here. Let’s look at what the Doctor of Grace has to say in Book XIX, 4 of The City of God:

    For how can a life be happy which is not yet saved? That is why the apostle Paul. . .says, ‘For we are saved by hope. But hope that is seen is not hope. For why would a person hope for what he already sees? But, if we hope for what we do not see, then we look forward to it with patience.’ Just as it is by hope that we are saved, therefore, so it is by hope that we are made happy; and, just as we do not yet possess salvation in the present but look forward to salvation in the future, so we do not yet possess happiness in the present but look forward to salvation in the future, and we do this with patience. For we are in the midst of evils, which we ought patiently to endure until we attain those goods where everything will afford us inexpressable delight and there will be nothing left that we have to endure. Such is the salvation which, in the world to come, will itself also be our ultimate good. But these philosophers refuse to believe in this happiness because they do not see it; and precisely for this reason they try to contrive for themselves, here in this life, an utterly false happiness based on a virtue which is as fraudulent as it is arrogant.

    [XIX, 5:] The philosophers also hold that the life of the wise man is social, and this is a view that we much more fully approve. For we now have in hand the nineteenth book of this work on the city of God, and how could that city either make its start or proceed on its course or reach its due end if the life of the saints were not social? But who could possibly enumerate all the grinding evils with which human society abounds here in this mortal condition? Who is adequate to weigh them all up?

    And he goes on, but my point is this: the Benedict Option is not ultimately about anything that happens here. It’s about preparing ourselves for the next life. There’s an important way in which the Benedict Option as construed presently is bound to justification that’s grounded in Christian revelation, and that necessarily points towards the end of the Nicene Creed: I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Dreher has pointed toward that when he has said that other faith traditions can articulate their own version of the Benedict Option. Sure, the goal might be to offer a Benedict Option that avails itself of purely philosophical foundations that are severed from revelation-grounded reasoning, but that’s a tall order, and one that might foreclose the eschatological foundations.

    John Finnis is helpful in identifying one of the major problems with our unconscious assumptions in entering into these discussions. From a lecture/article called “Religion and State” in The American Journal of Jurisprudence:

    Beginning about 120 years after John Henry
    Newman’s conversion, the Church which he joined and adorned experienced a severe and still ongoing loss of faith among its members and of political and other influence in many parts of the world where it had been well established. Though the main
    causes of this are complex, and that Church’s demanding moral teaching is prominent among them, they centre, in my estimation, on the loss of confidence in the truth of those Gospel teachings that warn insistently of the utterly grave and unending consequences of one’s seriously wrongful and unrepented choices. And in turn this loss of confidence derives, in some large measure, I believe, from the weakening of belief that in the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles we have, albeit in theologically inflected form, a truthful and sober account of things actually said and done by a man whose divine authority and, indeed, nature was attested not only by his moral authenticity and virtue but also by his transcendence to the laws of time and nature. And this weakening of belief in the historicity of the testimony of the apostles and their confidantes has
    among its primary causes the adoption by many of that Church’s scripture scholars, and accordingly by those whom they teach and advise, of a philosophically unsound presumption against that transcendence to laws of nature–against the miraculous.

    Grave and unending consequences of seriously wrongful and unrepented choices. The Benedict Option in its original form would want to create spaces where people can escape from what it might call contemporary culture’s ignorance of the grave and unending consequences of seriously wrongful and unrepented choices.

    As to Pecknold’s article, I would want to argue that when he applies the label “pre-political” to marriage as a good, he is conceding absolutely nothing to the liberal distinction between the private and the public. In fact, quite to the contrary. He’s saying, as he points out, that marriage is of divine institution and therefore exists conceptually prior to any political arrangement established by humans.

    • Richard

      Very interesting. By pointing to Augustine, are you suggesting that the only real solution to societal ills is inevitably and necessarily linked with the communal pursuit of sanctity (that is, conversion, perseverance, etc.) and that any proposed “option” that ignores man’s final end in God is bound to failure precisely because it ignores that eschatological dimension?

      • augustinus

        I would not want to commit to saying that the only real solution to societal ills is inevitably and necessarily linked with the communal pursuit of sanctity, but only because I don’t know precisely what you mean by “societal ills.”

        I would happily suggest that the communal pursuit of sanctity—and all of its attendant practical implications such as shared pursuit of certain goods, the formation of healthy communities, etc.—is a way to combat societal ills of many varieties.

        I would further say that any lifestyle that ignores man’s final end in God, while perhaps not bound to failure temporally, might be bound to failure eschatologically (that’s not for us to say).

        But more importantly, with what I have said in the comment above, I want to suggest that discussions around the Benedict Option have largely dealt with it in temporal terms while I think that the Benedict Option as it has been offered by Rod Dreher necessarily involves preparing oneself for eternity because a large part of it is about preserving faith and religious practice and the goods associated with those. Because of that, attempts to offer critiques on or conduct discussions around the Benedict Option that treat it as merely one more view about the configuration of people in society fail to appreciate this important point.

        I don’t mean to suggest that the authors here head in that direction. To the authors’ point, “contrast societies” are important in the struggle to evangelize, and developing a local politics of the common good ought to be a component of these sorts of proposals. But any discussion that fails to view something like the Benedict Option against its ultimate horizon fails to apprehend a key point: the Benedict Option is not fundamentally political or economic, it’s fundamentally salvific.

        • Richard

          That’s a good response. I meant societal ills generally in the sense that these discussions are purporting to resolve, so I suppose that broadly covers economic, cultural, political, and ethical concerns (which doesn’t narrow it down in any meaningful sense I realize).

          You mention not wanting to commit to the pursuit of sanctity as being the only solution to societal ills without knowing what those ills specifically are. This raises the question–what societal ills do you believe are not soluble through the common pursuit of sanctity (if that is ever possible) and why?

          • augustinus

            To answer your question I would say something like this: at the local levels of society the common pursuit of sanctity can solve societal ills, but I doubt that it could ever work as a top-down proposal. Does that make sense? Sorry, I’m having trouble scaling an answer in my mind. In the end, I think I am probably committed to saying that the common pursuit of sanctity can solve society’s ills, perhaps with the additional statement that the common pursuit of sanctity usually issues in other contributions to the common good besides sanctity (generosity, consolation, friendship, etc.).

            So, for instance, a Benedict Option community, seeking to live the teaching of the Catholic Church in an orthodox way, might resolve to make efforts to eliminate the use of pornography among the teenage males in the community through a variety of means. That’s somewhere that the common pursuit of sanctity could solve a general societal ill in a particular case. Another might be when a particular member loses her job and the community chips in to contribute to her family’s well-being through assisting with the purchase of school supplies for her children. That would be a particular alleviation of the societal ill of unemployment/poverty.

    • Caleb Bernacchio

      One point of this article was to argue that the communities inspired by the Benedict Option cannot really be successful unless they engage in local political action. We need good jobs that enable people to cultivate virtues through work and to earn enough to be able to homeschool children; we need local policies more generally that are friendly to the common good of communities; that takes local political action.

  • I wish to offer many plaudits for the thrust and tone of this article. >>”Co-opted by the state and market, conservatives have lost the culture war and failed to protect families because many stopped engaging in real politics decades ago.”<<

    Indeed US conservatives were sidetracked by thinking they could overcome the public-private dragon of material and administrative efficiencies, when on the other hand they zealously support it, so long as the bureaucracies are on the "private" side. After all, if everyone agrees that corporate interests control Washington, and witnessing the fortune spent on banking bailouts (against all fairness and economic common sense), only to see millions of foreclosed houses consolidated as rentals under Park Avenue-based go-between's anyway, and how the ACA law served the insurance interests most handily, etc, isn't the real danger in Fascism not Marxism?

    Yes as the author shows, surely the answer is to go back to the drawing board, at municipal and town levels, and not to engage in a sort of Anarchism, which surely would be crushed without pity in the end.

  • NDaniels

    No, the battle has not been lost, we are in the midst of the final battle, between Christ and that which is anti Christ.
    The Catholic Church is under attack from all fronts, but we know how the battle ends. Only God can transform a hardened heart; but we must desire to bring others to Christ, The Word of Love Made Flesh.

    • Caleb Bernacchio

      I tend to think that it is not a good idea to interpret particular political events in apocalyptic terms. Without a doubt, Christians believe that ultimately all of history can be interpreted in terms of Christ’s victory over the world but the question of what we ought to do now, at this particular juncture in American political history, is not answered by appealing to theology.