Postmodern Conservative

Rod Dreher’s Misguided Take on American Liberty

Thoughts on the Benedict Option and Christian Political Responsibility

I’m with Rod Dreher on a lot of things, and I’m not relishing the task of this post.  I’m with him in thinking that Dante can save your life, that Walker Percy is worth celebrating, that Catholics and Protestants have much to learn from the Eastern Orthodox, that the times-they-are-a-changin’ in ways that threaten the marginalization and perhaps even the persecution of American Christians, and that it is pretty lame when Republicans “blather on,” as he charges Rick Perry with doing, about the need to “return freedom to the individual.”

It’s true that typical Republican politicians don’t grasp that increasing numbers of Americans now understand that freedom as the personal autonomy that requires us all to affirm, among other things, that Bruce is now Caitlyn.  It’s true that they don’t grasp the problem that poses to again trotting out the Reagan-aping rhetoric of optimism, America, and liberty.

But when Dreher says things like the following, in a post from last week titled “Saving the Benedict Option from the Culture-War,” it’s major face-palm time for me:

Caitlyn Jenner…is baked into the cake of classical liberalism, and that includes the Republican Party’s understanding of liberty. Religious and social conservatives are now divided between those who believe that Caitlyn Jenner (I use Jenner as an iconic example) is a betrayal of the idea of America, and those who believe that she is a fulfillment of the idea of America.

Dreher, of course, is the latter kind of religious social conservative, the kind who sees that

…Liberalism has evolved into the incoherence of Justice Kennedy’s idea of liberty: the individual emancipated from any authority except himself.

Those who have read the best thing I’ve ever written, my National Affairs essay, “The Five Conceptions of American Liberty,” know that this conception of liberty as personal autonomy has roots in the American regime that go way back.  Men like Whitman held it, and men like Paine and Jefferson affirmed certain key aspects of it.  And there is no denying that today, more and more Americans are regarding it as the American conception of liberty. 

That said, my more immediate reaction to these Dreher quotes is to say really?!?  Is this what Rod honestly feels?  That America’s fulfillment, and capital-L Liberalism’s fulfillment, is the personal autonomy understanding of liberty?  By saying this, after all, he has posed his brand of American “conservatism,” and his advocacy of the Benedict Option for American Christians, up against America itself, and against any creed of Americanism.

He can’t really be meaning to do that. 

To refer back to his deeply personal books, he must sense that there are many Ruthie-Lemming-like and Uncle-Jimmy-like paragons of unsophisticated American decency out there, and that when they’re conservative and Christian, they often express their patriotism in the simplistic vocabulary of “taking back America” and “God-given rights” and “American exceptionalism.” He must know that he isn’t willing to look such persons in the eye and say “What your beloved America really means is…Caitlyn Jenner.”

Incidentally, if you watch the Rick Perry speech criticized by Dreher here, you’ll notice that it didn’t address the threats that the pro-SSM and pro-transgender movements are posing to religious, associational, and free-speech liberty.  It was an announcement speech noticeable for its focus on the economy.  So while I’m no student of Perry’s rhetorical record, it feels unfair to make his single mention of “returning freedom to the individual” in that speech suggest as much as Dreher intends.  And it is also regrettable that he didn’t notice that Perry made that remark right after he had indicated we need to return freedom to “communities and states.” Perhaps Perry thinks that a certain degree of individual freedom from the national government in economic matters is merely one aspect of freedom, and that not all freedom is of the individual kind.  That wouldn’t make Perry a Porcher, not by a long-shot, but it would mean he doesn’t neatly fit Dreher’s characterization.

But let’s get to the theoretical level.  Let’s say you thought, as Dreher apparently does, that accepting the basics of natural rights theory from Locke eventually led the American people to understand liberty as personal autonomy and to value this above every other value.   There is something to that story, even if it is not the whole story.  But what I would say to you is that there is no way to isolate the Lockean elements and tissues interwoven throughout the body of America and tear them out.  To be “Burkean” about America, any vision we have for it must plan upon leaving a good deal of the “Locke” in there.  I don’t care how many times various Christian thinkers demonstrate that “Liberalism’s” understanding of the human things is not really the Biblical one, that is that. 

And that also points to a truth which American Christians attracted to Dreher’s thinking really need to understand: either your plan is to give up on America entirely, perhaps as part of a broader giving up on politics, or your political plan/hope is for an America configured and understood in a way that can keep the poisonous aspects of Locke/Liberalism that are inherent to it mitigated and under control. 

Do I need to justify my assumption about the inevitability of everyone aiding some vision for politics, even when a Christian’s primary hopes must (Matt. 6:33) be placed elsewhere?  Probably so—here’s a sketch of the argument.  Either you endorse a political vision and contribute something to its furtherance, or, you are leaving the determination of the vision that will politically govern you and yours to the competition between others.  Implicitly, that latter choice involves a judgment, either that those who have the better vision will win without your help, or that the differences between the viable visions on offer are too insignificant to matter. 

Yes, a decision to place no hope in politics is able to draw upon support from some famous Christians—I think of Pascal especially–but it always must be weighed in the context of the times since it always involves a certain measure of political judgment.  (A decision that one has received a calling from God that requires one to refrain from political activity or concern, such as that made by St. Francis, is another matter.)  Moreover, while the command to obey the “governing authorities” (Rom. 13.1, NIV translation) applies in all times, the decision to place no (secondary) hopes in politics can have a different moral weight for the Christian who is a subject of an imperial or royal governing authority, and the one who has a citizen’s part in regularly re-constituting and indirectly directing a republican governing authority.  And have there been instances of untimely decisions to abandon political engagement by Christian citizens helping to pave the way for a tyranny’s earthly triumph?  I’m sure there have been.

What Rod is teaching about the Benedict Option, insofar as it fights against the temptations and dangers that political hope and involvement pose to Christians in all ages (such as when he helpfully says that Christians should never be so focused on being “knights” who defend the faith that they forget the greater task of being “gardeners” who cultivate it and pass it on), is one thing, but when he conflates this with a particular theory about the hopelessness of America now, hopeless because it has always been thoroughly Liberal and is finally experiencing the fulfillment of that, well, that is another thing indeed.  What is more, if America’s present situation is actually one in which it is in danger of becoming purely Liberal, but can still be kept from taking decisive steps in that direction, then Dreher’s theory might recommend to its Christians precisely the opposite of what political prudence guided by a determination to apply the Golden Rule to future generations would recommend. 

Rod certainly ought to know that America has never been anywhere close to being purely Liberal.  Here’s what our Peter Lawler has said on the subject:

Our political fathers, [as] Murray said, built better than they knew. Not only were their practical accomplishments better than the Lockean theory they often affirmed, they didn’t really build as theorists, but as statesmen. Deneen dismisses this theory as the ridiculous view that our founders were superior instinctively to who they were consciously. My view…is that, as statesmen, they consciously engaged in legislative compromise. And their compromises can be understood in terms of a theory better than their own.  …America at its best is a kind of genuine compromise between wholly Lockean and Christian (meaning Puritan, Calvinist, Augustinian, Protestant) views of who we are.

But if he hasn’t read this (“Building Better than They Knew: a Response to Patrick Deneen,” from 2013, which also provides links to other solid conservative responses to Deneen’s categorical attack on Liberalism) we know that he has carefully considered what Dante Alighieri said about medieval Europe’s political situation in the Divine Comedy. 

Stay with me here.  Obviously, one of Dreher’s big concerns is in the way American Christians can put too much hope and energy into social conservative politics, even to the extent of making an idol of America.  And of course such idolatry is a real danger and problem.  But consider Dante:  he felt compelled to strongly recommend a particular political plan for his Italy and Europe, the rule of the Holy Roman Empire free from Papal interference, and to do so even after his expulsion from Florence had caused him to recognize the sin in his previously putting too much hope into politics. 

Well, if Rod can abide Dante advocating that political vision in Cantos scattered throughout The Divine Comedy, he should not let himself be so repelled in retrospect by those 1990s or 1950s instances when Richard John Neuhaus or John Courtney Murray were offering their best understandings of and strategies for our arriving at a more Christianity-leavened America, and really at a greater sustainability of the American regime itself.  Dante’s vision for Europe required the strategic grubbiness of working through the German emperors; RJN’s vision for America required the strategic grubbiness of working through the G.O.P., in coalition with folks like the neo-cons, the old business lobbies, the conservative movement, etc.

Come to think of it, I see fewer reasons for the Christian American small-r republican to give up today on the basic RJN vision for America than for the Christian Italian empire-advocate to give up in Dante’s time on his vision for the Holy Roman Empire.  That is not to say that the Neuhaus political vision for America remains the best one, especially now that we are now in another season of declining Christian belief; but it is to say that, in the limited way of all political visions, it can make a compelling case for itself, and a far more compelling one than saying, “Well, the only truly Christian political plan is to have no plan for something as low-down as a mere nation, because otherwise we a) get sucked into Idolatry, b) get our eyes off the real prize for Christians in our times, the Benedict Option, and c) get Christianity too identified with the Culture War and the Republican Party.”

Too many times, Rod verges upon saying that.  I think the main problem is that he too often dodges talk about the broader political visions that we really always are making a choice about.  One aspect of this is that he doesn’t see, or at least hasn’t clearly said, that Christians could legitimately make a choice about the larger political vision distinct from any choice they might need to be making for the Benedict Option in church-practice, local-economy practice, etc.  That is, we shouldn’t see a contradiction in a Christian who on one hand is very Benedict Option in what she recommends for her church and for the Christian life generally, who even warns on that basis against putting too much time and passion into politics, but who on the hand other says, “For national and state elections, I support the G.O.P. and so should all Christians. Because we should want to keep the American regime tied to the Christian side of its heritage.”  Of course, I’d also want her to say, “Because of the horrible consequences this Carl Eric Scott guy warns us about if the Democrats keep winning the presidency.”  The negative visions matter also.

Rod’s aversion to talking about the big political panorama, however it might keep things more palatable for those in his blog’s audience who either are liberal, or believers in The American Conservative’s “anti-neo-con” line, is a real problem.  It keeps him from considering the drastic political impacts that would result if merely half of his pessimistic predictions about Christianity’s diminishment and marginalization in America were to come true.  It keeps him from weighing how much the contemporary Christian has a duty, in competition with other duties, to do what she can to perhaps help prevent those drastic impacts.  To maybe save little ol’ things like, you know, the Constitution. 

And yes, it has much to do with his deep feeling of ambivalence towards the Republican Party—Rod seems unwilling to admit that it offers us a significantly greater shot at keeping those bad aspects of Locke under control than what is offered by the other party.

For example, in this instance Rod said that Republicans said nothing about Jenner’s transformation, and knew that whatever they said about it would, politically speaking, turn out wrong for them.  Well, that is partly insightful, but it is mainly just far too resigned.  He could have highlighted what Republican politicians ought to be saying about Jenner, or what the best conservative thinkers allied with it really are saying, and in a manner that suggested “my criticism of the G.O.P. here is for the sake of making it better, of making it truer to its deepest principles.”  But instead he chose, once again, to distance himself from the Republicans and suggest that they’re hopeless.  Well, if one party is nearly entirely for the ascendance of personal autonomy liberty, and the other is so confused about it and partly caught up in it that it is apparently not even worth the effort of real conservatives to sympathetically prod them toward a better understanding, then it’s a done deal.   America = Caitlyn.  Christian, go “Benedictine.”

My own thinking on the five conceptions of American liberty, along with Lawler’s understanding of the Founding, points to a way out of the necessarily-opposed-to-America-itself trap that Dreher’s thinking is leading him into.  It shows how one can moderately love America, and how one can point to its best balancing of principles and understanding of liberty, while not resorting, as too many conservatives do, to the ahistorical, idolatry-tending, and in fact division-exacerbating assertion that America has always had one commonly agreed upon understanding of liberty.

But before I provide, in the next post, a few tastes from that essay, that is, tastes of the light that I have to offer, let me leave everyone with a little heat, in the form of a rhetorical question or two: 

Christians of small-o orthodox belief who are also aware of shortcomings of typical American conservatism, isn’t it finally time to GET OVER your denial-prone discomfort with the fact that you’ve been pushed into a corner wherein your only plausible political choice for the foreseeable future is to VOTE REPUBLICAN?  

And when a lesser evil has become pretty starkly lesser than the greater, isn’t a certain GRATITUDE for it, and a certain URGENCY to choose it while one still may, merited? 

More soon…

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