Skip to main content

🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

Polis/Counter-polis: On the Civic Benedict Option

April 18th, 2017 | 47 min read

By Susannah Black Roberts

October 2016 was a simpler, more innocent time. We were all youths, wet behind the ears; we look back at ourselves with a kind of bemused affection. Rod Dreher assumed, surely—we all assumed—that Hillary Clinton would win in November, that all would continue as it had been. This was the context for Dreher’s specific fears about the infringement of religious liberty, the legal whittling away of conscience protections, and so on.

He was, of course, worried about things like Zubik v. Burwell; let this stand for many other such instances. This case, in which the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Roman Catholic religious order, was potentially going to be required to pay for contraception as part of the health coverage it offered its employees, was a touchstone of the legal battles over conscience protection in the context of religious liberty. If this had been decided against the Sisters, what was next?  If Hillary won, what would be next?  That was the cultural moment in which much of the book was written.

There was another aspect to The Benedict Option’s original appeal as well, to those who followed Dreher as he blogged his way towards the book. And that was a horror at the vision of a great behemoth of a warfare-and-advertising state, a culture-flattening empire that imposes its values, its cheap goods, and its cheaper culture across the globe and heaps contempt on those who dare object either at home or abroad.

But the Little Sisters’ case was not decided against them, though the victory was not unambiguous. And Hillary didn’t win.

And so, what now?  Is The Benedict Option a relic?  Should religious conservatives somehow consider Trump’s victory a rescue from all the cultural ills that the book catalogues?

To those who find themselves asking this question, I would pose a question of my own. And that question is: Are you kidding me? Trump is an avatar of exactly the high-sleaze commercial culture that Dreher deplores; to see him as a rescue is to indulge in the blinkered (and extremely short-term) thinking at which Americans excel. He is not #actuallyhitler, but he is certainly capable of a new- doubtless very different- brutality and recklessness. I write this, for example, less than 48 hours after he has launched a missile strike against Syria, after having been elected as the less-interventionist candidate and the one most likely to put us on a normal footing with Russia rather than insisting on reliving his beloved 1980s to the point of rebooting the Cold War.

But we are in a different place, and it is foolish to pretend that we know exactly how this will all play out.

Pick Your Own Dark Age

The sixth century world of the original St. Benedict, as Dreher describes it, is a world where a great unified cosmopolitan syncretistic imperial internationalist power, a great empire, had fallen, and what would come next was uncertain. Semi-Christian, semi-pagan, Rome had sprawled across the world, taming tribalism and erasing local difference, imposing cultural uniformity, moral laxity, and vague tolerance in order to hold together its trade routes and taxes. Sound familiar?

In reality, things were not quite so parallel as all that—the Empire, ruled from Constantinople, was officially and thoroughly Christian.  The Western portion of the Empire, the collapse of which Benedict was responding to, was lost even as Justinian made the attempt to bring it back into that Empire. There are other parallels that may be differently apt—the anti-Christian empire of the time of Polycarp, for one, as Douglas Wilson has highlighted (though Wilson ultimately sees the Western empire of Benedict’s time as a better parallel).

But Dreher is not writing a book about Byzantine or Western European history, or the origins of monasticism, and to criticize him for not doing so is to miss the forest for the trees rather radically, to fault him for not writing a book that he did not intend to write. He is instead using Benedict as a framing device to ask a question: In what way can Christians be involved in the public life of an increasingly anti-Christian society, and how can we most effectively be disciples of Christ in the context in which we do now live?

When Dreher wrote the book, it seemed as though America would continue its run as a great internationalist imperial power for another couple of years at least. One possibility is that he may have written more truly than he knew. Whatever the Trump victory–and the parallel victories of nationalist parties throughout Europe, and Brexit, and the rise of a great illiberal power to the East–whatever these things mean, it is manifestly true that the world looks more like post-Roman Europe than it did before Hillary’s loss: for good and for ill.

The Dark Age that Dreher was anticipating was one of new moral regimes imposed by imperial fiat. The Dark Age we may now be facing is one that maps quite a bit more easily on to Benedict’s own. Our cultural and moral disintegration has not stopped– the consumer culture of which Trump is an avatar still colonizes our minds– but the cold civil war in America has put an end to the norms of liberal debate and civil politics; neither side is particularly motivated to or equipped to have conversations rather than shriek and throw rocks.

In the face of this new state of affairs, it is worth considering the degree to which we must seek to preserve not just moral life, not just religious life, not just family life, but civil life as well. It may be that we find, in this newly tribal and radically uncivil world, that it is only through building on pre-liberal foundations that we can preserve the best of liberalism.

To think that we are now safe, is to fall prey to the very short-term thinking that is the hallmark of modernity. It is not the case that all aspects of the modern world are wretched and that we should all yearn to be back in the fourteenth century when things were harmoniously as they ought to be, except for a couple of details. Certainly there are some ways in which contemporary America is a genuinely more just place than the America of the time before the Civil War, for example: that recent past offers some support to the idea that it is possible for crying injustices in a society to end, though they are rapidly replaced with others.

But we have, even in the short time since the end of slavery, and the shorter time since the Civil Rights movement, repudiated the very natural law arguments on which the antislavery activists and Martin Luther King, Jr. made their public cases, and repudiated the Christian conviction that drove them. And inasmuch as America was founded on a contractarian vision rather than a more classical vision of how public life ought to work, they were even then fighting an uphill battle against an incoherence at the root of the country whose good they sought. In many ways we are at the far end of a long process of cultural and philosophical forgetting and disintegration, and that’s not going to be changed by a Republican in office. We may, however, be in a new regime. What that regime is remains to be seen. And, perhaps, to be shaped.

But it is also the case that whether or not there is some kind of world-historical change underway—a move to a different kind of settlement in America and in the world than that which has prevailed since, say, 1945 or 1989—we are not actually at the moment in a complete state of neo-tribalist anarcho-fascism (as the anti-Trumpers fear, and as a very small percentage of Trump’s supporters hope). Nor are we in the grip of the kind of progressivist totalitarian neoliberalism against which, had Hillary won, those on the right would be writing their Hot Takes; we may revert to that in three and a half years, but that’s not what’s going on now.

And that is why, as Christians in America consider the challenges of and ideas around The Benedict Option, we must take seriously our role in and responsibility to the existing order. And that’s what I want to focus on in this piece: There is an aspect to Dreher’s book that has been under-noticed, and it is the part that to me is the most interesting. And that’s the idea of the counter-polis.

The Polis and the Common Good

Dreher has—endlessly—clarified that he is not arguing for a complete withdrawal from the world. Indeed, we must not withdraw. That’s because we have responsibility not just to and for ourselves and the good of our families and churches, but, as citizens, according to our different roles, to and for the nation which still exists, and the political communities in which we do in fact live.

Let’s start at the beginning. It is right and natural for humans to live in communities. These come in many kinds, levels, sizes: families, universities, businesses, clubs, companies of actors, religious communities, and so on. The members of a community share with each other a common good: the kind of thing, as Augustine says, which “is by no means diminished by being shared… on the contrary, the possession of goodness is increased in proportion to the concord and charity of each of those who share it.” 

You know you’ve got a community, in other words, when people share something which they can’t take their own bit of and go off and enjoy by themselves: a husband can’t take his bit of the marriage and go off with it; invoking arguably hostile witnesses, John Rawls cannot go into his office, shut himself away from his students and colleagues, and enjoy his own part of the university; Sutton Foster can’t take her tap break from Anything Goes into her dressing room and delight in it all by herself: she needs the chorus, she needs the dancing sailors, she needs the orchestra and the audience, in order to play Reno Sweeney.

A common good is not a pizza, where my enjoyment of a part decreases the amount there is for you to enjoy. The opposite is true: The more I participate in the common good, in a certain way, the more of it there is for you to participate in. It is distinctive too in that what gives delight to the sharing of a common good, what makes it joyful and fulfilling rather than burdensome, is the mutual love that the sharers have for one another. This is nothing exotic or strange to us: We can see this kind of love and solidarity grow organically every time we get together with others to do any kind of group project, really, so long as it’s not aimed at something horrible. (I would imagine that S.S. guards’ enjoyment of their common project and mutually-developing love for each other was somewhat impaired by the nature of the project that they were undertaking.)

Classically, the highest level of these communities-of-good have been called cities, polities or commonwealths; the political common good is that which such communities share; it is not ordered to the private goods of families and households or companies of actors or businesses (that is, the city does not exist as a kind of tool for families to have better lives) but it is instead something quasi-transcendent: the virtuous life of the citizens, lived out together, ordered by just laws given by those who are themselves (or one who is himself) just and has the authority and responsibility to give these laws. The life of the family is not enough to draw men into this kind of “political happiness,” to fulfill their natures. The life of other kinds of common bodies—sodalities, guilds, fraternities, businesses—is not enough either. The political common good is something distinct from any of these.

With the coming of the Gospel, of the Church, and of the hope of the Kingdom of God, things got interesting, and we have been sorting out how the human cities in which we now live are and should be related to the New Jerusalem ever since. Because of course one reads a description of the classical idea of the complete community, the well-governed city where the laws are just and where the thriving of each citizen is caught up in a kind of mutual service and friendship, and one sees clearly that here, as in other cases, these Greeks were up to their old habit of anticipating the truth of the Gospel, though in a hazy form. This was– of course it was– a picture of the New Jerusalem. There are those who have loved political philosophy as a way of loving the Kingdom of God.

Well, that is certainly true. But is that all that’s true? Now that we know about the New Jerusalem, shall we not simply give up on the idea of a political common good in our polities here? They will, after all, always be imperfect: Athens will never live up to the City-in-speech; there will always be disagreement on how the city should be governed. There will always be the danger that, loving the polity, we will make an idol of it: certainly the nationalism of the 19th century in Europe begins to look like something not that far distant from a death cult: perhaps most paradigmatically in the French revolution, la patrie has demanded great libations of blood, and liberty has been a hungry queen.

Moreover, there is always the danger that to pursue a common good will become an authoritarian enterprise, driven too much from the top, stamping out dissent and individuality in a way that becomes monstrous and results in the warping of those very people it is meant to serve. The great blessing and joy of human variety and weirdness seems to be threatened by any actual attempt to seek a political common good. God knows how to bring forth our individual good in a way that contributes to and is not in competition with the common good; we are not that great at it and tend to flop back and forth between being libertarians and authoritarians, between assigning everyone a role at birth such that your one job is to become a blacksmith like your father, and refusing to recognize any unchosen role at all such that you can opt out of your own body, or have no duties to a child you bore. We’re not good at wisdom and balance, we humans, especially when you bring power into the equation. Why not simply admit that this classical city was a shadow of the New Jerusalem, and leave it at that?

But the problem is that the same can be said of the family. God is the Father “from whom all Fatherhood gets its name;” the family of God that is the Church is the true thing to which human families point; the marriage of Christ and the Church is the real thing of which our human marriages are allegories.

The family itself can become an idol: Chesterton himself, that great defender of the family, warned of this, and thought that this is what the Edwardians of his childhood had done, replacing Christ with a sentimentalized religion of the hearth. He would say that the honor given to Mary, with her specificity and her insistence on pointing to her Son, was replaced by a generalized cult of motherhood and domesticity. But nevertheless we marry and form families; we honor our mothers and fathers; we seek to govern our children, to bring them up, and to love them well. Why would this pattern not be repeated in the political realm? And why would it not be the case that is such a political common good not only possible, but indeed something which we are required to pursue, as we are required to care for our families well?

In thinking this through as a part of the conversation surrounding The Benedict Option, the crucial question to ask is, what does it mean for the Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven?  Does this involve our renouncing of political life, or of attempting, shakily, to live it out better?  

Three Questions on the Need for a Hidden Public Square

Dreher does not advocate that we renounce what is called political activity (voting and so forth). But in the chapter that deals directly with politics, he gets at something more interesting. In that chapter, Dreher advocates for engaging in practices of sociability and debate, to remind ourselves of our natures as political animals with rational souls. He discusses the work of Vaclav Benda, who during the years of Soviet domination of central Europe saw groups that deliberately engaged in such activity as a “counter-polis,” a much-needed forum for exercising the rudiments of political thinking and action, in the midst of a totalitarian state that did not allow for this part of human nature to be exercised: a sort of secret public sphere.

Is this necessary—yet?  To answer that question we need to look at the state of the common good in America today.

In condemning the religious individualism that has taken hold of American Christians, Dreher notes that churches fail when they become “loosely bound assembly of individuals committed to finding their own ‘truth.’” A way into exploring this idea of the counter-polis might be to note that this is true of our visible congregations, but that it is is also the case with all other societies, including nations.

This individualistic commitment to finding one’s own truth in a national context is perhaps most clearly seen in Justice Anthony Kennedy’s notorious defense of the right to abortion in the Supreme Court’s plurality decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. “At the heart of liberty,” he wrote, “is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” It sounds good, in a way: it sounds like liberation.

But by surrendering the idea that there is a real meaning to human life (or at least surrendering the hope that this meaning should be publicly discoverable) such that there might be a real injustice involved in taking one, Kennedy has in fact given us what might be called the Billy Flynn vision of the legal process.  His famous dictum might be paraphrased in those other famous words: “It’s all a circus, kid.  A three-ring circus.  These trials, the whole world– all show business.” Effective legal positivism of Kennedy’s stripe gives us the ol’ razzle-dazzle, but it doesn’t give us justice. It is not simply a matter of abortion: Kennedy’s dictum would of course render the law toothless against slavery, against the establishment of concentration camps, against any wrong, any oppression. “Though you are stiffer than a girder,” one might say, “they’ll let you get away with murder.”

Should we care? It seems impossible that we should not. Though we are members of the Body of Christ, and though our primary citizenship is in the Kingdom of God, still, our life and sanctification is properly worked out among many such bodies– among congregations, yes, but also among families and cities and workplaces and clubs; for some of us, among religious communities; for some of us, in universities. The Holy Spirit is not limited in his remit to our congregations, and Christ is the King of all these bodies– and it is not entirely clear (or at least, it is not clear to me) what precisely it means to pray that God’s kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven.

In this context we can begin to make sense of the classical (and classically Christian) idea that political communities themselves are—must be—things aimed at a common good, and a common good of a particular kind: the political common good.

Can America be such a political community? There are really three questions here.

  1. Do its philosophical  foundations preclude this?  
  2. Have the moral visions of the Red Tribe and the Blue Tribe diverged to such an extent that, if this was once possible, it no longer is?  
  3. Is it simply too big– was it perhaps always too big– to be the kind of thing that a polity, a community aimed at political happiness, is?

Question One: Eudaimonia in America

The first of these questions has to do with what Thomas Jefferson meant by the “pursuit of happiness,” when he said that it was to secure this end (among others) that governments were established among men. There are three kinds of happiness he could have meant; given that he did not mean the Beatific Vision, there are two. The first is the liberal or Whig version: happiness as personal good. Governments are put in place to provide for a kind of detente in the war of all against all, and they allow us within this to pursue our private individual or family or group projects as seems best to us.

This will (in Mandevillian fashion) perhaps lead to an emergent good order, and private vice will bring forth public virtue. Or in a less cynical fashion, virtuous citizens pursuing private goods well will produce public good, or (this is the New Natural Law take) the real life of the human being precisely is in these private (business and family and artistic) ends and in the spiritual realm, and government is an instrumental good, which at least does not stifle people from pursuing these real goods.

The second kind of happiness that Jefferson could have been talking about was the kind that another Thomas identified as the proper end of government: political happiness, the life of the man in the complete community:

As one man is a part of the household, so a household is a part of the state: and the state is a perfect [complete] community, according to Polit. I. 1. And therefore, as the good of one man is not the last end, but is ordained to the common good; so too the good of one household is ordained to the good of a single state, which is a perfect community. Consequently he that governs a family, can indeed make certain commands or ordinances, but not such as to have properly the force of law. (Ia-IIae Q 90, A 3, ad 3)

Let’s not play silly buggers. It was not this kind that Thomas the Younger had in mind: It was the first kind.

What is the political common good? It can be called freedom-in-order: the ordering of a polity to reflect the harmony of the cosmos and the harmony in the soul of a just man. This sounds abstract and strange, but it’s not. If we are Christians at all, we see this: God gives life and is not a murderer; men should not murder or (with the ramp-up involved in the Gospel’s demands on us) harbor hatred; and there should be laws against murder. There will be no theft in the New Jerusalem; men should not steal but should engage only in honest dealing; there should be laws against theft in our human communities.

Moreover, there are all kinds of different communities and people who exist within the political community, and their distinct characters and the order that they bear to each other should be reflected in the laws, as appropriate: the law of the larger community should promote and protect the right of the family, of the town, of the university, of the small business; it is appropriate that there should be a law that requires men who abandon their families to pay child support; etc.

This does not mean that every aspect of every decision be planned out or dictated by state law: that would be its own kind of disorder, a usurpation of the area of sovereignty of smaller communities and of the sovereignty that men do have over their own lives. We do, in fact, have very significant delegated sovereignty over their areas of responsibility: we are not self-owners in the Lockean sense, as though men and women owned their lives absolutely, but we are sons of Adam and daughters of Eve: We are kings and queens in our own domains, under the High King, and laws that impair our ability to exercise this responsibility are in fact unjust. We have a kind of dignity, a responsibility for our own lives, which demands appropriate liberty in a way that is far more effective than the asocial or Whiggish anthropology at preserving a sphere of free human agency from potentially tyrannical government.

And there is in this way of understanding things room as well for the kind of emergent order which, for example, Jane Jacobs sees in cities, and even a kind of emergent market order too. There is in fact a great deal of room for such things: if we believe that a city, for example, may have a sort of self, a nature, which it ought to be encouraged to develop, then our urban policymaking will be a kind of understated husbandry rather than a heavy-handed attempt at topiary. It is simply that what leads to public virtue is not private vice operating freely, as in Mandeville, but private virtue within the bounds of publicly-virtuous policy.

It’s a commonsense kind of thing: goodness and order and justice operate on the cosmic, personal, and civic level, so aim to (as best you can) frame laws that reflect that. One can get very high-flown in the language one uses to describe this, and begin to point out the parallels between even the physical natural laws that keep the stars running in course with the laws that a good lawgiver frames for the state, and the parallel of both of those with the balance and harmony of well-designed buildings, and the balance between freedom and order in a well-tended garden, and the need for practical wisdom and skill by the gardener who sees where a rose bush needs to be supported and fertilized, to be cut back, or simply to be given room and air.

But we are so unused to thinking this way that it starts to sound silly rather quickly, and so I will limit myself to this, which will sound banal and almost tautological, but which is profoundly subversive of the modern liberal order: In those places where the law can legitimately touch, there human law should be really just, should reflect natural law; in the places where policy can legitimately touch, it should promote the good of the kind of thing it is aimed at promoting, taking into account specific circumstances.

So in addition to specific prohibitions against murder and theft etc., men should also not be held accountable for things which they are powerless to affect, men should not be imprisoned arbitrarily, and state policy should—where it is appropriate for policy to speak at all—promote the thriving of human beings and human families and subsidiary communities according to the kinds of things they are. This might look different in different communities and at different periods in history: This is not a one-size-fits-all prescription. But, for example, it is not out of the question that the state should provide health insurance to its citizens, or education.

America toggles back and forth between understanding itself as a nation governed by an instrumentally-good kind of government which allows each person to pursue his own self-willed ends without reference to other people, and as a nation aimed at a truer sense of the common good. The first mode leads us towards our libertarian mood, where we hate things like Obamacare and love things like small businesses. The second leads us towards our New Deal expansiveness, leads us to embrace Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms and not just the freedom from constraint represented by the first handful of constitutional amendments.

Question Two: Moral Tribes

Let’s look at the second question now: assuming that this second kind of self-understanding, the understanding of the Elder Thomas, could have prevailed in the United States at some point, are we now too morally divided for this to be the case? That seems to be potentially true. Times, after all, have changed, as even some of the Blue Tribe’s own poets have said, and we’ve often rewound the clock since the Puritans got a shock when they landed on Plymouth Rock. And, today, even as we are divided, we are massively confused: It’s not as though “the Right” in America has got everything correct, and the problem is that it has to share a continent and a national government with the deluded Left. That’s not the case at all: It’s much more screwed up than that.

The way things have shaken down, it is the more socially nontraditional and libertine portion of the  American electorate—Team Blue—which has embraced most fully the more politically traditional version of the common good. That is at least true on the official party-platform level: Team Red equals Republican equals (at least until recently) libertarianism equals social conservatism. Considered from the perspective of a more thoroughgoing Thomism, this is richly bizarre. We have two parties, each of which seems to specialize in its own vice: the Party of Lust and the Party of Greed.

That’s the standard snarky meme, but it’s not quite right: It’s more that each party has failed at some basic level in human solidarity. The Democrats, in general, seem to have undermined the solidarity that we are meant to have with our families, with the next generation, with the very old and the very young, and to have uprooted our understanding of what it means to be a man or a woman in a human body; the Republicans, in general, seem to have undermined the solidarity that there is meant to be between employer and employed, and between different classes. On some basic level, the libertarianism to which Republicans are addicted rejects the concept of relationships outside the family but which are yet not purely financial, whether those are relationships of peer-friendship or of hierarchy.

It may be that somehow this very fact could be the source of renewal: that as left and right in America fought their way towards having to talk to each other, they could set each other straight. But if this is the case, it may be that it simply can’t happen on the scale of a continent. And that leads to the third question: is the United States too big?

Question Three: Size Matters

Before any of you secessionists get too excited, it’s arguably the case that even each of the United States is too big; that my own private project of Brooklyn/Queens secessionism (what Bill Kauffman has referred to as a reversal of the Mistake of ‘88) would still not leave us with a small enough community to allow each citizen to perceive his own participation as making a difference, or to have the experience of “ruling and being ruled in turn.”  

It may be that to live a properly political life, one has to be a member of, say, a council of 500; it may be that even if we allowed only the heads of households or property owners to be political in this way, there is no place, no city which has few enough families to allow this to work. And in any case, there are aspects of political life which every person, every human being, property owner or not, head of household or not, ought to participate in. It is ἄνθρωπος which is by nature a political animal, not ἀνήρ: women have after all the power of speech, which “is intended to set forth the expedient and inexpedient, and therefore likewise the just and the unjust.”  

This may not be an insurmountable problem; Fr. Edmund Waldstein representatively argues here, contra Michael Hannon’s classically Aristotelian case here, that face-to-face participation is not the crucial aspect of a polity which aims at a genuine political common good; there can be such a thing as a larger imperium that does so, which is good news for those of us who hope for a non-Live-Action-Role-Playing-Game approach to Making America Political Again.

Another string for the Don’t-LARP bow is this: Whatever the theoretical constraints on a polity are, the political community that we actually find ourselves in, the government to which we are obligated, against which it would be wrong of us to rebel, is the one in Washington; we can’t pretend our way into smaller face-to-face polities. There is a real public sphere in which we still can speak freely, more or less. There is a real state that still has legitimate authority: the specific kinds of sovereign right that states do have. No group of friends meeting in a coffeehouse will thereby gain the right of the sword, the right to try criminals, and so on.

The Benda Option

What can such groups then do?  And how can our proper political natures be expressed, given that casting one vote in 219,000,000 once every couple of years is not really going to cut, exactly, the mustard?

Given the profound breakdown in civil communication and discussion that so many have noted, especially in this most recent election, and given the incoherence, lack of memory, and rejection of solidarity at the heart of both the left and the right branches of the American political community, what these groups can do is precisely what Benda himself called for them to do: to remember how to think and debate, to remember the deep origins of the best of even the liberal political idea, to fight for “the preservation or the renewal of the national community in the widest sense of the word.” As Dreher puts it, “dissident Christians should see their Benedict Option projects as building a better future not only for themselves but for everyone around them” (93-94).

When we say that these groups can help us exercise our political natures, this must be understood as politics in the broadest sense: They can teach us once again to be social in a rational way; they can certainly sometimes be fora for considering properly-political questions, but also for organizing beneficial projects of all kinds.

Such groups, which can (at least in theory) include both left and right, both Christians and non-Christians, can be means of blessing to both the local and the national communities. They can be training grounds for civility and reasoned debate. And these groups, too, can be a kind of salt-and-yeast in the body politic– even a kind of apologetic. Because the very process of debate, of discussion, of life in the public sphere in the liberal tradition, is one which rests on assumptions that are not those of materialism.

Those are things like the fact of a common human nature, of might that should be in service to right rather than defining it, of the value of protecting the weak, of politics that goes beyond the definition of a tribal enemy, of the possibility of rational discussion and the need to convince each other rather than to force each other to believe or do things.

All these bits of the liberal tradition were undermined by the Rousseauian/progressivist idea of the general will, which allows people now to shut down debate with those who are “on the wrong side of history.”

They were undermined too by the rejection of the idea of human nature: If we do not have rational souls as those made in God’s image, and if we are not political animals who are prone to friendship, whose telos is to live in peace with each other, then the best of liberalism has no foundation. To those who value freedom of speech, for example, we must say: Think about what that means. Why is it important that we be able to speak freely? What is it about human beings that makes discussion rather than coercion a just way to go about political life?

To those who fear a resurgence of white supremacism under Trump, we must be able to say: That kind of tribalism is only possible if one denies the vision of the world and of human nature which many secular liberals (though not all) also deny. A thoroughgoing white supremacist or neo-fascist (though the two are not identical) worldview rests precisely on a denial of the good, of true human nature and the dignity of each person, and of the possibility of real human political friendship. It’s only with a robust sense of what we share with and owe to every other person made in God’s image that we are able to also love our particular tribe, our nation, or our family, in the right context– otherwise we become pagans, who worship only the gods of the tribe.

There’s more: more ways in which such groups, and the political discussion they entail, can become a kind of evangelism. Political discussion is inevitably the discussion of the common good; we direct each others’ attention to the good that we share, and that directing is a kind of contemplative delight–and the ultimate common good is God.

And these groups can be the source of not just discussion, but of action as well: If it’s true that we do still have responsibility for and to the polity in which we live, we’ve got to see the utter necessity of doing projects for the common good, whether properly speaking the political common good or not– i.e. of making things, from parks to policies, that are not just for you and your family, but which aim at a common benefit, and which cannot properly be enjoyed alone.

These projects call out of us the kind of exercise of practical wisdom that helps form us in virtue, and requires us to act with tact and graciousness; public life together can become a kind of dance, the exchange of gifts and reasons and honor and deference and command according to the good of the one commanded; obedience in recognition of just authority, and criticism where authority is exercised unjustly. If every level of being can, in some way, reflect the divine order of the cosmos, then our job is to reflect that order as best we can—we won’t do it well, really, but we can maybe improve—in the order of each nonprofit we start, each CSA, each theater company, each neighborhood association.

That sounds grandiose, but there’s really no other way to think about how to organize such things: one wants to be gracious and fair and kind and not exploit one’s employees or volunteers, one wants to make things that are worthwhile, to cultivate the eggplants in the CSA according to the nature of eggplants rather than according to the nature of kale, and basically to show up and do well and be decent. And if one is the head of such an organization, then taking a kind of architectonic care to make sure as best one can that all these things are carried out well– delegating as appropriate– well, that’s just being a good manager. This is how we live together and do projects together; it is purely normal, as normal as planning a dinner party.

It is also in sharp contrast to the liberal vision of social life, which is inherently combative: men are not by nature political animals, in liberalism, but are naturally solitary and must be brought into relationship only by the loss of their freedom and by an artificial social contract. This loss might be worth it, but it constrains people; it’s another kind of fall. But that’s not the case: the constraint on us that enables us to live together is the constraint of the natural law, played out in particular and in many cases varied circumstances.

Political life is not possible if men do not share a common rational human nature. If we are non-rational animals, we may be subject to conditioning; if we are machines, we may be programmed; either way, with such things no political discussion and no communal life is possible.The fact that it manifestly is possible– that it happens every day– that we see it in the city around us and in our workplaces and in our friend groups and, yes, in the thick Christian communities that Dreher profiles in the book– is a strong apologetic argument in favor of a traditional Christian (and classical) anthropology. It is not only Christians, after all, who are by nature political animals, and the road to the truth of the Gospel can run through a reflection on and participation in political life of one kind or another, in seeking the good of a polity that in its own way points towards the true complete community that is the New Jerusalem.

Is building these groups, then, a way of “shoring up the imperium,” as MacIntyre puts it– that shoring up the abandoning of which is a crucial step in Benedict Option wokeness?  I don’t think so. If the American imperium is already too far gone to be shored up by a relearning of civility, or if it turns out that it never was, even implicitly, even in possibility, something that could admit the idea of a common good, then having these discussions, attempting to do projects together, will help to clarify that; if it turns out that we do not share enough agreement on things like the existence of human nature and moral facts and so on, that will also emerge.

I don’t think we should quite despair yet. One must not become blinded by a common-good based ideology: one must not refuse to recognize the possibility of, and thus to seek, genuinely unlikely friendships, for one thing, across “officially disagreeing” left and right camps. And where these friendships exist, it is precisely the case that somehow– by some unlikely common grace– a shared good has been found, something beyond just toleration and forbearance. And this is something on which we might be able to build: we must in any case keep trying, and these groups might be a venue in which to try.

On the Need for Communities With Chores

Such groups are not, however, quite the same as the subsidiary communities which it is the role of a polity to harbor and protect. Because after all, even in the most ideal of Greek city states, even in the most Thomistic miniature commonwealth in the world, set in a visionary, sparkly fourteenth century, still, a complete community aimed at political happiness is a community of communities, and it is these smaller ones (whether formal or informal) where, often enough, the hard work of life-alongside actually happens. It is simply that they are not the ones whose job it is to wield the sword; while they can give law to their own members, they cannot give law to the whole.

Without these groups, though, the polity is not enough of a lived experience of community, still less of Christian love. One does not, after all, make a dishwashing rota with a polity, nor have personal feelings, affectionate or otherwise, for every member of it, nor get the kind of everyday training in forgiveness-seeking and -giving, that one has in both families and in smaller communities.

The existence and the intrinsic value of these communities is one major thing that prevents a non-instrumental view of the polity from becoming totalitarian: a man in a polity is a citizen, but that is not all he is. The existence of the polity is intrinsically good, but it is not the only good.

The sheltering of these smaller subsidiary bodies is in fact one of the jobs of the laws of a polity; one of the things that would lead a person to think that a state had become unjust is if it attempted to erase all such intermediate communities. This is perhaps particularly obvious to traditional conservatives if they think about state attempts to take over parental authority, but the dignity and existence of other bodies too, with their own particular areas of authority, must not be overlooked. If a polity attacks these bodies– religious communities, guilds, fraternal organizations, universities, nonprofits and, yes, even business corporations– and seeks to hollow itself out such that only the citizen and the state exist, you’ve got a pretty definitional case of totalitarianism, and a strong indication that something has gone wrong.

Of course, these subsidiary organizations have their own proper ends, and when they become destructive of those ends—when parents abuse their children, when a corporation decides to make a profit by manufacturing burglar’s tools or weapons that can have no conceivable licit use, or abuses its employees– it is part of the role of the polity to step in. Parents’ rights over their children, if this is even the proper way to speak, are not absolute, but are implications of their duties towards them and towards God– implications of the name Mother, or Father.  (This is not, however, because children in any way belong to the state, of course, nor because parents receive their rights over their children from the state– and the state must be particularly cautious in interfering in the sphere of the family.)   

Work to Do

Where, then, are we left in considering Dreher’s caution about investing in politics? Everything I have said here implies a commitment to political life as part of the human good, as long as we are able to engage in it—as long as there is a kind of public sphere in which to operate. What I have asserted here is something like the legitimacy and importance of the secular, of that which is not the church; not of ideological secularism which denies the reality of God, or which rejects his authority over all aspects of life, both clerical and lay.  

Benedict’s own day saw an evisceration of the secular in the West, and many of the functions that had been performed by the state, the imperium, would come to be performed by the Church. America is not heading towards being a “failed state” as the Western Roman Empire was, probably; to take up the clericalization of society as a cause does not make sense , and it was only a stopgap anyway. There are things that societies must have that simply should not be the job of the church, or of sub-communities. There are ideas, aspects of culture, aspects of truth, things to be done, that are not specifically found in the Bible and are not the proper concern of the institutional Church and that are yet at once human, good, true, and ultimately part of God’s reality and of a Christian culture. The rediscovery of classical learning and the strengthening of political structures in the high middle ages were not another kind of fall, were not a turn to a secularized society in the modern sense. They were a good broadening of the horizon of human concern, precisely that for which the dark-ages stopgap had preserved aspects of the earlier civilization, and the lives of the families of the West.

Moreover, the stopgap worked not just as Benedict’s monastics preserved aspects of culture. “The medieval flowering of Christendom,” notes Matthew Dal Santo, “was due not to monks who turned their back on the messy post-Roman world but to the very much in-the-world labours of the offspring of the old Gallo-Roman senatorial class who stepped with gusto into the power vacuum left by the fifth-century implosion of the Roman state and incorporated its responsibilities into those of episcopal office.” Bishops, and not just monks, brought Europe through the darkest of these years.

Again, to monkishly withdraw is not what Dreher is arguing for; this is not a criticism of the premise of the book; rather I am using this history, these tropes, as Dreher himself used them: as lenses through which to examine our current state.  And that examination points to one way in particular that we must drop out entirely: If what I have said is true, then we must utterly renounce what might be called the standard model of American libertarian or neoliberal politics, which sees the polity as a merely instrumental good, and which sees the role of “Christians involved in politics” to be something like “making sure Christians get their share of the favors of the state,” or even “making sure that the ‘Christian’ point of view and that ‘the rights of Christians’ are given equal time and equal care.”

This is a nonstarter. The “religious right” has operated on precisely these culture-warring grounds since it began its career. America was a battlefield, not a polity, and was to be approached as such. As Dreher says, this cannot go on. It trained a generation to understand politics in what was fundamentally a partisan way, and was at its heart a deeply asocial, deeply anti-political, and very American vision.

We must renounce as well the temptation to identify Christians as a victimized group: this temptation is the keener since, in modern American anti-politics, the status and identity of victim is a morally and politically powerful status and identity to cultivate. And we must not limit ourselves to being advocates for areas in which we disagree with secularists—it’s absurd to think of abortion as a Christian issue and urban policy or environmentalism as secular issues.

Above all, we must not regard Christians as a tribe, whose tribal interests are opposed to those of the the non-Christians who share their territory. Christians are not an identity group according to the modern practices of identity politics, in which each group seeks legal favors and status with the state, seeks market share. Political life proper is that which precisely does not operate on this basis, but operates as we seek the common good. The feuding of families in a thirteenth century Italian city that tears apart the fabric of that city is not, shall we say, the all-time best model for contemporary politics.

Even if this were a proper way for tribes to behave in political life, Christians are not an ethnicity. They are not the same as The West, a deadly confusion which we must be careful to avoid. They are simply humans who have accepted what Christ has done for the whole of the human race. And here, as Christians in the West, we live as men and women among those who don’t share our beliefs, and we are not aliens to them, nor they to us. They are our friends and our families, and our fellow-citizens, and we have to them all the ties of affection and friendship that common grace and human nature have given. And while the cities in which we live are not the New Jerusalem, still, what they are, they are: each, potentially, an icon of it, as each human family can be an image of the family of God. None of the good that we do here will be lost.

Therefore what we can do as Christians if we are involved in politics is precisely to do the real work of politics, and not the sham-work of some of what passes for politics in the modern state. We must, that is, care for the common good. If we are not legislators, we ought to make arguments in favor of laws and policies that promote the kind of order-in-freedom that I have described above as the nature of the political common good, the kinds of policies that allow things to be themselves, the kinds of laws that are in accord with natural law. We must protest injustice and the abuse of authority and of human beings, and not stop simply at protesting the bad, but offer a vision of the good.  We must be prudent and humane in approaching the fact that we do live in a country that is ideologically divided, and we must regard those with whom we disagree as fellow citizens, and as people beloved by God.  We must refuse, even if the libertarians squawk, to regard government as a merely instrumental good.

In his Beyond Radical Secularism, Pierre Manent calls for something similar among French Catholics: “I have tried to explain why” he writes,  “although Catholics seem to be pushed even further towards the periphery of public life… French Catholics have a special responsibility for the common good.”  I would not put it quite this way. Humans have a responsibility for the common good; those Christians who know their own tradition are the ones who, in the contemporary world, have a memory of what this means, along with a dozen or so woke classicists who aren’t too embarrassed to take their studies seriously. It would be wonderful if this were not the case– if those who aren’t Christians remembered as well. Perhaps we should remind them.  Perhaps part of the praeparatio evangelica that we do should be precisely this reminding. We should certainly remind those Christians who have, themselves, forgotten, and who are in thrall to the liberal model of politics.

This actual political activity can be, and perhaps must be, complemented by the work of Benda-groups such as those I’ve described above, but it is not the same thing; each kind of work has its own place.

One of the most useful of the BenOpHotTakes has gestured towards this kind of activity with reference to James Davison Hunter’s concept of “faithful presence;” elsewhere, the same author has noted the degree to which, if one simply culls the book for prescriptions, the things that Dreher recommends end up looking like an eminently sensible list of to-dos that are just what churches and families ought to be doing anyway. To this I would add the to-dos implied by a reflection on the Counter-polis chapter: we must– as humans, not just as Christians– re-learn to do politics well, according to both the philosophy and practice that are a great part of the tradition that Dreher champions. And we must take up the responsibility of both parts of our dual citizenship, loving and seeking the good of our fellow citizens with that love-of-friendship that is the leaven both of Athens and Jerusalem.

I am indebted to Matthew Dal Santo of the University of Copenhagen for the excellent points about the triumph of Christianity in Justinian’s Empire and the context of the loss of the West, and the clericalization of society after the Western Empire’s fall.  

Enjoy the article? Pay the writer.

Personal Info

Donation Total: $0

Susannah Black Roberts

Susannah Black Roberts is senior editor at Plough. She is a native Manhattanite. She and her husband, the theologian Alastair Roberts, split their time between Manhattan and the West Midlands of the UK.