I heard a man say once that one’s entire response to Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option hinged on how one thought about the sustainability of the current social order. That the existing social order is hostile to orthodoxy is obvious. But is that order sustainable, such that Christians should head to the catacombs?1 Or, on the other hand, is this order, which is so hostile to orthodoxy, itself incoherent and thus likely to unravel in the near future? If you take that approach, then not only do you not head to the catacombs, you may actually double down in your arguments for a Christian society because you believe it is entirely possible that we could realize some tangible, wide-ranging victories in the not-that-distant future.

Something like the same test applies to the debate over incrementalism and abortion. Unpleasantries aside, the point at issue in the dispute between Jonathan Last, Ramesh Ponnuru, Rachael Larimore, and Philip Jeffrey seems to be chiefly about whether or not we should take small steps working within the system to reduce the number of abortions over time or if we should push more aggressively, in an echo of the left on several social issues, and try to secure a more decisive victory.

As with Rod’s book, one’s general sense of where things are in the republic would seem to be a determinative factor in how one thinks tactically about this debate.

If you suppose that we have a mostly sustainable order with citizens who are mostly persuadable on the issue, then the case for incrementalism writes itself. You win the big battle eventually. You just do it over 50 years instead of whatever highly condensed timeframe the accelerationists in the debate envision, perhaps unrealistically.2

On the other hand, if you suppose that our current order is generally unsustainable, that the prevailing social narratives that shape our life together are incoherent, and that there is opportunity for a better story to replace it in the near future—and thus for fairly radical political change to follow—then the case for incrementalism is much less obvious. Why chase small victories that are only “victories” at all to the extent that they are recognized by a legal system when the ongoing sustainability of that system is in doubt?

Admittedly, this is a more radical critique of the entire debate and one might, understandably, object that arguing on the basis of such radicalism is unhelpful as one can always imagine fanciful revolutions in service of one’s own extremism. Yet though that may be a fair dismissal of accelerationist approaches more generally, I’m not sure it’s a good response to the current situation in the United States.

During a moment of greater upheaval, our nation’s second president, John Adams, wrote to a general in the continental army that, “the middle way is no way at all. If we finally fail in this great and glorious contest, it will be by bewildering ourselves in groping for the middle way.” This is precisely the danger inherent in incrementalist approaches to political reform.

In stable societies, of course, incrementalism often makes sense. But in less stable societies, it probably makes more sense to reject pivots toward centrism3, reject incrementalism, and push for reforms that will more immediately reflect our political vision.

Certainly, it is possible that this all backfires spectacularly and Roberts or Kavanaugh (or both) side with the court’s progressives in maintaining some degree of commitment to legalized abortion.

But the accelerationist response to this is to point out that the risk is not all on one side of the debate. The risk is on both sides: It is equally possible that the incrementalists will move more slowly within a rapidly declining society with a political process that has ceased to function and in so doing cost themselves a chance to call their fellow citizens to a vision of political society that is more interesting, more pervasively Christian, and more capable of addressing the actual crisis before us today.

Given the many crises facing the United States at present—a collapsing birth rate, delayed family formation, fractured social trust, an utterly broken political system, looming challenges posed by climate change, the opioid crisis, and an economy that has left millions of Americans behind—it is not at all clear to me that we win anything by working slowly. Nothing about our current order suggests “sustainability” to me and a great deal suggests “imminent transformation.”

To be sure, our aggression should not be stupid and some of the state-level bills are. So there is a critique to be made there. But it is possible that the problem here is not accelerationism that needs to be corrected by incrementalism, but rather that the accelerationists are right on the big-picture strategy and simply need to get better at executing on their tactics.

If that is true, then the incrementalists are not only wrong, they are “bewildering themselves” in a moment of great opportunity. And if that is indeed what they are doing, then they may well face the same imagined fate described by Adams.

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  1. This is obviously not quite Rod’s argument, but I’m exaggerating the claims here to make the point more clear.
  2. Do note that the incrementalists and accelerationists have the same goal. They differ on a question of political judgment, but that is not the same as differing about desired political outcomes.
  3. That is not exactly what the incrementalists are endorsing, of course: Their end game is the same as the accelerationist’s, after all. But to the extent that incrementalism shares a general aversion to rapid change, it shares a common spirit with many centrist projects.

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy as well as the Vice President of the Davenant Institute. 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 and Austin. Jake's writing has appeared in Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play. His first book, "In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured Age," will be published summer of 2019 by InterVarsity Press.

  • hoosier_bob

    In what way is our current culture more hostile to orthodoxy than any other age?

    I suspect that such a sweeping conclusion comes down issues concerning the place of non-heterosexual people in society. It’s somewhat myopic to suggest that such an issue constitutes something central to Christian orthodoxy. After all, despite the fixation of conservative Christians in the Anglosphere with the proper performance of something called “heterosexuality,” the Scriptures and church history are silent on this. Never mind that the concept of heterosexuality is an invention of the late 1800s, and didn’t come to the forefront in the US and UK until the late 1940s. Not until that time was there any concerted effort to pathologize non-heterosexuality, to identify those who suffer from it, and to push them to the margins of society. And nothing about that campaign—led, as it was, by conservative (mostly) white Christians—was necessitated by Christian orthodoxy.

    Our culture has largely come to reject that episode is a mistake. And certain approaches for making social amends are more wise than others. But, given the role of conservative Christians in promoting the errors that led us to this morass, it’s hard to conclude that the culture has stopped listening to you simply because it’s hostile to orthodoxy. Perhaps the culture is hostile to you because you spent decades promoting an unorthodox, secular doctrine borne out of the eugenics era that caused millions of people needless pain and suffering. Perhaps the current hostility is a form of righteous, although imperfect, judgment. The closest thing I’ve heard to an orthodox approach to these questions is put forth by Revoice and Spiritual Friendship. Even so, these folks have faced relentless attacks from the mainstream conservative evangelical groups. Consider that the PCA General Assembly is addressing a raft of Overtures next month, all borne out of bigoted and homophobic reaction to Revoice. Unorthodoxy is alive and well within American evangelicalism on these questions. When you guys succeed at cleaning up your act and uprooting homophobia from your churches, you may credibly suggest that you’re facing difficulty in the culture because of your orthodoxy. Until then, I’d suggest that you withhold proffering such sweeping judgments as to why the culture has turned against you.

    • Cal P

      I gotta admit that I only check MereO for hoosier_bob comments anymore. While I agree with almost none of your positions, it’s nice to see the saccharine romanticism, the high-ground claiming faux-theology, and aw-shucks conservatism deflated.

      • hoosier_bob

        Glad to keep you entertained. Now you can rejoin your fellow travelers at Warhorn Media.

  • Simply thinking the current order is unsustainable wouldn’t be enough to warrant an accelerationist’s tactics. What if what makes the current order unsustainable is the greater and greater instability which accrues to it as it moves freely to its logical conclusions? In that case, it may be that the accelerationist provides the current order an opportunity to stabilize itself: maybe draw back on the radical abortion bills of states like NY, but maintain the current status quo of however many thousands of unborn are killed each year in the U.S. Or, at least, move more slowly in the direction of NY-type bills.

    As for the idea that incrementalists will miss the opportunity “call their fellow citizens to a vision of political society…” — how would this be the case, since the incrementalist is, to my knowledge, only an incrementalist in terms of legislative attacks on the current status quo? It is not as the though incrementalist is also an incrementalist when it comes to setting forth pro-life arguments. These terms, I thought, referred to tactics of legislation pushing back on judicial activism. . . not the broad cause of pro-life engagement.

  • Relevant Neil Hamburger Jokes

    There’s something left unsaid about acceleration when it comes to abortion: what to do about the forces that are contributing to the hostile social order that you speak of.

    Is accelerationism worth it if you compromise your values in pursuing it? Also, in today’s climate, how can you “do” accelerationism without supporting political actors who compromise your Christian witness?

    • hoosier_bob

      What is accelerating? The number of abortions has been trending in a downward direction for decades. Yes, white evangelicals are probably just a generation away from losing most of their political influence. So, it seems like a last-ditch effort to achieve some legislative victory before the movement fritters away.