As a long time reader of Alasdair MacIntyre, I have been interested in the debate surrounding the Benedict Option since it started to intensify two summers ago. I first came across MacIntyre’s Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry at a Barnes and Nobles in Baton Rouge while I was an undergraduate at LSU in 2004. I happened to be taking a class on ancient and medieval philosophy and picked up the book to supplement the course.
At the time I was a convinced Catholic neocon but little did I know that MacIntyre’s arguments would lead me to question my facile commitments. The argument of this text is at times dense and complex, but, summarized briefly, it amounts to the claim that liberalism is a false universalism. Where various Enlightenment philosophers claim to have uncovered principles of rationality that any sensible adult must assent to, MacIntyre argues that these principles are parochial, representing the idiosyncratic beliefs of secular Europeans. In making these claims, MacIntyre echoes a familiar postmodern line, famously voiced by philosophers such as Nietzsche and Foucault, but rather than adopt their ultimately relativistic conclusions, MacIntyre proposes a third way.
A Tradition with No Rivals
MacIntyre argues that Thomism provides the only viable alternative to these rival traditions. He highlights two key aspects of this “tradition of enquiry.” First, Thomism is self-consciously historical. It builds upon previous achievements without claiming an a priori grasp of the truth.
Second, Thomism provides a rational justification for authority, the authority of both teachers and past masters of the tradition. Since these forms of authority are necessary to make progress in inquiry they are, therefore, rationally justified. So, contrary to the claims of Enlightenment intellectuals (sapere aude) or postmodern radicals of ‘68 who rejected their professors’ demands, MacIntyre defends the authority of well ordered traditions of inquiry.
But MacIntyre goes further than this. He argues specifically that the success of the Catholic Thomist tradition depends upon its commitment to realism and theism, its foundational beliefs concerning metaphysics and natural theology. Similarly, MacIntyre not only defends the rationality of authority, but he also defends Augustinian claims about the rationality, specifically, of ecclesiastical authority. Noting that reason is fallible — always liable to go astray as a result of pride and other vices — MacIntyre argues that ecclesiastical authority has played an important role in the history of the Thomist tradition in promoting progress in inquiry by ensuring that adherents to this tradition maintain their commitments to its fundamental principles.
I will not discuss the cogency of any of these arguments, but, instead, I want to highlight their political importance. What MacIntyre has effectively done in this text is to provide legitimation to a distinct segment of conservative American Catholics who had grown increasingly disillusioned with perceived failures of the Republican party and the growing commitment to identity politics of the Democrats. His arguments provided the rationale conservatives needed for an increasingly vocal assertion of the relevance of papal teaching (especially the major documents of John Paul II) for the American political debate.
But American conservatives were never really interested in MacIntyre’s politics. There was no discussion of MacIntyre’s extended account of the social relationships and political institutions of local communities in Dependent Rational Animals (published in 1999) nor was their any consideration of his earlier text Marxism and Christianity. Instead, conservatives Catholics were reinterpreting MacIntyre’s brief discussion of St. Benedict in the closing pages of After Virtue — a passage intended to highlight the importance of a local politics of community building — as a call for fidelity to the Magisterium after Vatican II. In other words, they were equating MacIntyre’s brief sketch of a renewed politics of community building with his later defense of the Catholic intellectual tradition (primarily outlined in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? and Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry).
A Turn Away from the Republican Party
Like many other conservative American Catholics, MacIntyre articulated the rationale that legitimated my growing disdain for the Republican party. I had been a soldier in Afghanistan, and I could not understand why Bush was pursuing a seemingly unnecessary war that was condemned by both John Paull II and Benedict XVI. I also had come see the pro-life rhetoric of the Republican party as just that — empty rhetoric. Rod Dreher’s book Crunchy Cons served a similar political purpose. Where MacIntyre provided the intellectual legitimation for a distinct conservative Catholic identity that included both a commitment to the authority of the Magisterium (an identity shared in different ways by other conservative Christians) and a growing skepticism of neoliberalism, Crunchy Cons provided the social imaginary necessary for this renewed identity. In this way, Dreher went beyond other conservative commentators by realizing the radicalism of MacIntyre’s claims and their practical implications for new modes of community of life.
Crunchy Cons was powerful in that it provided live portraits of conservatives who did not fit in with the increasingly narrow vision of neo-conservatism, with its commitments to militarism and the gospel of free markets. First published in 2006, Crunchy Cons was especially powerful amongst the group of Catholic students who frequented Christ the King, the Catholic parish on the LSU campus. At the end of the book, Dreher linked MacIntyre’s discussion of the crumbling of civilization at the time of St. Benedict with the chaos that followed in the wake of hurricane Katrina. Only a short time before the book was published, those of us living in Baton Rouge had watched with horror as New Orleans descended into anarchy while it seemed that no one was willing or able to do anything about it. By making this link betwen After Virtue and contemporary events, Dreher reinforced the idea that the only thing conservatives could count on were the permanent things, not political parties or presidents.
A Crunchy Prologue to a Present Conversation
It is precisely in the light of this history, the history of the political reception of MacIntyre’s work that we must understand Dreher’s most recent book The Benedict Option. A number scholars have argued that Dreher has failed to understand MacIntyre properly, offering what they take to be a more adequate exegesis of final pages of After Virtue. For the most part these scholarly criticisms are correct, but they miss the point. The Benedict Option is neither a scholarly book nor a popularization of MacIntyre’s work. Instead it is political statement designed to impact the current political debate amongst conservatives.
In The Benedict Option, Dreher has continued the project that he began with Crunchy Cons by attempting to solidify a conservative identity that is unified by a commitment to orthodox Christianity, traditional moral norms, and unwillingness to accept the legitimacy of any part of the progressive agenda. Dreher has called the Benedict Option a strategic retreat. Accordingly, it is mistake to assume that he has forsaken party politics. Instead, he hopes that by shoring up the identity of conservatives, by focusing on things other than politics, he can ultimately promote a renewed commitment to conservative politics. (I do not mean to suggest that Dreher is instrumentalizing Christianity rather he thinks that conservatives will get politics right only after they get the more important things correct).
As such, The Benedict Option must be seen as another episode in the political reception of MacIntyre’s work among American conservatives. Ironically, as I have noted, this reception has involved the least political portion of MacIntyre’s work, his defense of the Thomist tradition, rather than his explicit discussions of local politics (which seems to be largely irrelevant to the American conservative political project). This is why academic critics of Dreher are mistaken to think that it is sufficient to argue that Dreher has misunderstood MacIntyre. To criticize Dreher’s use of MacIntyre, one must explain why the parts of MacIntyre’s work that he has ignored are relevant to his practical political project. One must explain why MacIntyre has something to say to contemporary political debates.
Similarly, academic critics of Dreher must realize that he has accurately drawn upon a central strand of MacIntyre’s work, his defense of the rationality of authority, the Catholic tradition, and especially ecclesiastical authority. Dreher, like a number of American Catholics, has picked up this Augustinian element of MacIntyre’s work and has used it to legitimate an American Catholic identity that strives to be neither Republican nor Democrat (but in practice is often the former) and that unabashedly acknowledges the importance of recent papal teaching (especially the writing of JPII and Benedict XVI) as a compass in contemporary political debates.
Ignoring MacIntyre at Our Own Peril
Undoubtedly, Dreher and other conservative commentators have missed important elements of MacIntyre’s work, but, more importantly,the elements of his work that have been ignored speak directly to Dreher’s project. If MacIntyre is correct, the type of identity that Dreher is seeking to solidify, an identification with orthodoxy, traditional morality, and culture, cannot be achieved without a much more in-depth engagement with the politics of local community building. MacIntyre maintains that this must be a secular politics focused on the common good not a sectarian project. Although there are some brief indications along these lines, The Benedict Option fails to even consider many of the most important questions. What is worse, it fails to provide a positive vision of the secular common good that necessarily underpins the flourishing of families and religions congregations (the primary subject matter of the book).Dreher will surely suggest that this was not his aim for the book but if MacIntyre correct one cannot neatly separate formation within a religious tradition from more worldly concerns related to basic needs and community life.
If MacIntyre is correct, American conservatives will not be able to develop a coherent and plausible identity without rediscovering a local politics of associations, municipalities, and activism within social movements. (See MacIntyre’s recent defense of municipal government as an important locus of political activity.) Dreher’s vision in The Benedict Option is too narrow because it fails to recognize the relationship between local politics, issues-based activism (fighting for labor rights or health care), and national party politics. MacIntyre expresses his vision of politics succinctly in his recently published, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity,
“But a concern for the common goods of the family that is not also at some times and in some ways a concern for the common goods of school and workplace will be a diminished and ineffective concern. Such caring involves concern that there is adequately paid employment and adequate housing for parents and adequate training and provision for teachers. It therefore requires strong political commitments, expressible in action through a variety of local organizations, trade union branches, community organizations, town meetings, parent teacher associations, and the like. It will often be a politics of single issues, but of issues whose importance is their bearing on the common good of the local community. So in attempting to bring into being a political society in which individuals understand their individual goods as achievable only in and through directing themselves toward their common political good, such individuals act for the sake of the goods of political society, giving contemporary form to a distinctively Aristotelian politics.”
I close by making a modest plea to conservatives. Put down After Virtue and Three Rival Versions (undoubtedly two essential texts) and turn to MacIntyre’s nearly forgotten Dependent Rational Animals and his recently published Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity. What is needed now is a broader vision of practical politics stretching from local associations to single-issue activism that creates and sustains the common goods required for individuals and families to flourish. This will be a radical change for contemporary conservatives but will amount to rediscovering a venerable tradition most famously recounted by Tocqueville in Democracy in America. Rather than a dismissal of The Benedict Option, this would be a realization of the impetus behind it, the aims linking Crunchy Cons and Dreher’s latest book.