Rod’s forthcoming book, The Benedict Option, is beginning to attract some considerable press attention. The Wall Street Journal has recently featured the book as part of a profile of the Clear Creek Catholics in rural Oklahoma. (I visited them last summer to attend a conference they held and was quite impressed by their hospitality and the amount of work a relatively small group of people have managed to do in a fairly short time.) Then yesterday the excellent religion reporter Emma Green reviewed the book for The Atlantic.
I will be reviewing the book more extensively next month when it releases. For now, I wanted to make a few notes on how the book is being read and received by a larger audience as the ideas begin to find life outside the relatively small readership of trad Christian blogs.
This project is about far more than the posture Christians ought to take toward mainstream culture.
The idea of being a religious minority that selectively secludes itself from the mainstream in order to protect its religious life is a very comfortable one for many American Catholics and, I would think, many Orthodox as well. Both of these groups have been minorities in America from the beginning and have at times faced severe opposition from their neighbors precisely because of their religious faith. For them, the sort of selective, strategic withdrawal that Rod is proposing makes a great deal of sense and, indeed, fits quite well with their own experience.
Evangelicals, however, hear the same language and react quite differently. There are a couple reasons for this: Partly, it is due to an understandable reaction against more schismatic fundamentalist versions of evangelicalism that seem to have done the same thing Rod is proposing. The consequences were frequently disastrous. (As someone who grew up in such a church, I understand this concern.)
A second motivating factor, I am increasingly convinced, is a classically evangelical craving after the approval of our peers. For 30 years we have been trying to tell the world “no no no, we aren’t weird like those other Christians,” we say with our voice dropping on the word “other.” “We’re normal people like you.” The ways our parents did this differ from how millennials tend to do it, but the end result is the same.
That said, I am increasingly convinced that Rod’s project (and it’s one that I am deeply committed to as well) has much less to do with the question “how can orthodox Christians create thick communities to preserve the faith in a post-Christian world?” and is much more about “how do we rebuild civil society at a time when most of the west’s social institutions are in decline?” I have more to say on that which I cannot get to at this point, but I think this point is a key one to understand as this conversation continues.
Rod, as well as the many Catholic writers working in a similar vein, have mostly approached this in the way you’d expect traditional religious minority groups to do so. The result of this is that I think the full scope of the project hasn’t really become apparent until more recently.
There are rival conceptions of reality in play, which means that misunderstanding and confusion is almost inevitable.
Perhaps the thing I found most odd about Green’s piece is that she granted that Dreher is coming at the issues he talks about in the book from a fundamentally different worldview that than of most modern Americans, writing that “He is working from a different frame of reference, one that is increasingly out of step with Americans’ ways of thinking about culture.” But then she went ahead and judged the book on the basis of those, from Dreher’s standpoint, foreign moral norms anyway.
In one sense, this isn’t a problem: I don’t know Green’s own religious beliefs, which is to her credit as a reporter, but certainly the beliefs of many of her readers will overlap far more with the mainstream progressive American views on sexuality, which tend to emphasize individual autonomy, non-binary understandings of sexuality, and a high value on acceptance and inclusion. Critiquing the book in terms that your readers will find familiar and agreeable makes sense.
That said, I wish Green would have given more attention to what she called Dreher’s “frame of reference,” because it would have helped her get at one of the key points behind Rod’s book. As more and more polling numbers make plain, we increasingly live in a country that has multiple nations within it. The idea of a cultural consensus that exists across most of the population is increasingly foreign and even non-sensical. Americans increasingly do not simply have disagreements on select matters of public policy; they have disagreements about what goods public policy ought to be oriented toward and even about the basic nature of reality itself.
One of the points that the WSJ profile of Clear Creek made quite plain is that the people drawn to the sorts of religious communities Rod is describing are not typical Atlantic readers. Having visited Clear Creek, I can vouch for the accuracy of Lovett’s portrayal of the community there.
If the reviews of this book are going to be valuable and promote greater understanding, which is a worthwhile goal for any book reviewer, then I think they will need to do more than what Green has done in her piece. Note that I’m not saying they should do less—Green’s piece does a good job of highlighting key points of tension that many non-religious people and more liberal religious people will feel as they consider Dreher’s project.
But it would have been helpful for Green to try and say more about Dreher’s fundamentally different point of reference. What is that point of reference? How do people who share it end up believing the things they believe? She’s an excellent reporter and I’ve always found her to be fair-minded so I would have enjoyed seeing her delve more into this specific point.
Pluralistic public squares are not self-generating goods.
One point that all sides need to understand is that “pluralism” is not a public good that drops from some kind of invisible skyhook down to us with a predefined objective definition on which all sides agree. It has to be defined. More fundamentally still, it has to be justified.
Every community has to somehow define the amount of diversity of thought it is prepared to tolerate as well as the basis for tolerating that diversity. This is extremely complicated even in relatively homogeneous societies. If you study early American history, for example, you quickly realize how difficult these questions can end up being. Depending on how particular you want to be about the word, you could argue that Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island were all “puritan” colonies, which is to say they are colonies whose founders descend from a relatively narrow branch of a particular Christian tradition.
Yet even here the three colonies, who in the big picture one would expect to agree on a great deal, adopted radically different ideas about what sort of diversity they could allow in the public square. How much more, then, should we expect to find difficulty and division amongst a group of citizens as diverse as those we find in the contemporary United States?
This is yet another reason that I wish Green had spent more time considering the “frame of reference” angle. To take only one example, both the defenders and critics of someone like Barronelle Stutzman would say they want a diverse, pluralistic public square. But they define those terms in different ways and they expect that diversity to reflect itself in different ways. Stutzman’s defenders would say that a commitment to pluralism means we are committed to, within reason, letting business owners run their businesses in ways consistent with their conscience.
The way the various religious liberty restoration acts have parsed this is by saying that the state can only require someone to violate their conscience if there is a, a legitimate social good to be achieved that requires them to act in that way, and b, if there is no way of securing that social good without requiring the individual to violate their conscience.
In practice, this might mean that someone like Kim Davis should be required to violate her conscience because the social good to be obtained is legal same-sex unions and that good can only be obtained by having county clerks who sign marriage licenses sign the license, even if it violates their conscience. (I’m not sure that reading is actually correct and am more sympathetic to Davis than other religious liberty advocates have been, but her case is more complex because of her status as a state employee.)
On the other hand, someone like Stutzman should be protected under the law because social acceptance of same-sex unions can be achieved without requiring individual business owners to violate their consciences, particularly since other business owners in the same industries exist that will provide the desired service.
On the other hand, Stutzman’s critics would argue that a commitment to pluralism means a commitment to non-discrimination and to a fully open public square, otherwise it isn’t actually pluralism. If you wish to participate as a business owner in the public square, you must be willing to behave in that arena as someone committed to inclusion and affirmation, even if it violates your private religious belief.
All of this is to say that questions about pluralism are quite complex and do not resolve themselves. This is true even in societies where the members of the community share many presuppositions about the basic nature of reality, the good life, and so on. We should not be surprised, then, to find that the questions are even more complex in a society like ours, where we cannot even agree on basic questions of what human beings are or what the world is for.
There’s much more to be said, but we’ll stop there for now. No doubt we’ll discuss this more in the future.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).