Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option and Our Fractured Society

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Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option Concerns All Moderates

The societal fissures of our times are demonstrated in Rod Dreher’s recent book The Benedict Option, in which Dreher puts forth a two-part thesis. Firstly, the worldview of small-o orthodox Christians not only no longer occupies a privileged place in western culture, but is actively under assault from mainstream society.  Secondly, Dreher holds the appropriate response to this situation is for orthodox Christians to retreat to smaller, more self-contained communities, akin to the eponymous St. Benedict’s foundation of Christian monasteries in the Dark Ages as bulwarks of faith and classical learning.

Critics have taken issue with Dreher’s thesis, arguing that Christian claims of persecution are overblown and that a Benedict-style retreat is inappropriate.  Many of the criticisms are merited.  Yet the reality remains that orthodox Christians would be dangerously complacent to assume that their faith will survive in its traditional form.  While there may be too many obstacles for believers to adopt the Benedict Option on a meaningful scale, moderates should be alarmed by the merits of Dreher’s points.

To begin, many critics of Dreher’s thesis have a hard time understanding why some orthodox Christians feel like victims.  Such criticisms are many:   that the First Amendment appropriately relegates religion to the fringes of public life for the freedom of non-believers, that traditional Christian teachings on women and sexuality propagate hate, that Christian marginalization is merely a consequence of the triumph of scientific progress, or that (white) Christian claims of marginalization are ludicrous and inappropriate given the discrimination faced everyday by other minorities.

While these arguments are not all without merit, many traditional Christians see things much differently.  For them, their faith is gravely threatened from within and without in a way unknown since pagan times.  Some of these concerns are familiar and long-standing  – for example, the decades’ long lament over abortion and a hostile mainstream media with its paucity of programming supportive of a traditionalist Christian worldview.  The rise of smartphones and internet pornography has heightened this trend.

Recent legal and political events have caused many traditionalist Christians even greater concern.  Notable is the famous case of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado, which supposedly threatens religious freedom and for traditionalists raises the spectre of an activist judiciary rooting out traditional elements of the faith.  Then there is the perceived sudden and aggressive explosion of the transgender movement, including in schools, which many Christians fear takes power away from parents in favour of a new and not-up-for-debate ideology.  Elsewhere, British Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, though he voted in favour of gay rights and abortion, was still grilled and criticized severely over his Christian faith, a fact which played no small part in his resignation.  It’s difficult to overstate how much these trends have freaked out traditionalist Christians.

Another area of concern for Dreher is the erosion of the faith through popular indifference and a poorly catechized faithful.  The indifference is evidenced by statistical decline in the numbers of traditional Christians in the US.    For those who do call themselves Christian, the lack of education in the fundamentals of the faith gives rise to a variety of heresies, most notably “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (MTD).   In a nutshell, MTD is the belief that God basically wants us to be happy and good to each other, but does not place many further demands on us.  To outsiders, this may be a viewpoint more compatible with our 21st century liberal society, but it is decidedly not traditional Christianity.  Finally, there are the problems of the prosperity gospel and the subordinating of Christian teachings to the Republican Party.  Most of these are problems for which Christian communities only have themselves to blame.

Regardless, whether one is sympathetic or not to the orthodox Christian worldview, by putting oneself in their shoes (an increasingly difficult thing for many of us nowadays), it is not difficult to understand their concern over the erosion of faith.   Yes, we do not know the path of future events and what seems alarming today may in a decade prove to have been a flash in the pan.  However, given the above concerns, there is simply no reason to assume the orthodox Christian worldview will survive.

What then about the proposal of an orthodox Christian withdrawal from society?  Dreher has used a Dunkirk analogy to explain this – a strategic withdrawal and strengthening so as to prevail in the long-term.  Parallels can also be drawn to other groups who live in small, tightly-knit religious communities, including Orthodox Jews or Amish communities.

Realistically, however, Dreher’s proposal faces a number of huge obstacles.  Mainstream Christians have not been isolated and marginalized for centuries the ways many Jews have and so to come together in smaller communities like Dreher envisions would require a serious shift in Christian culture unseen since the early days of the faith.  Retreat also appears to contradict the demands of Christian evangelism and the Great Commission and will no doubt be opposed by some on these grounds.  There is also the danger that such communities would be isolated, intolerant of new ideas, or unappealing places to live.   Lastly, such communities would need to be economically viable in a 21st century economy, an enormously difficult task.  Though possibilities discussed include a more economically traditional community, this could be tough to achieve.   Of course,  alternatives to the Benedict Option, like an increased emphasis on a more rigorous catechism and evangelization through social media, face their own uphill struggles.

Why should the rest of society care what happens to traditionalist Christians?  The answer is this:  Dreher’s thesis was not part of mainstream Christian thought even fifteen years ago and highlights the extent to which our society is fracturing.  One may cheer Christian marginalization as the victory of science, freedom and equality, but there is no doubt that that faith has shaped our civilization deeply and that its disappearance would lead us down unchartered paths.  The history of twentieth century atheist states and the current trajectory of an increasingly post-religious USA should at the very least give one pause.  Nor does it seem clear that an increasingly post-religious US population is any more “rational” and “tolerant” than before.   If this historic element of our society does go into full retreat – and with it potentially a minority that no longer feels it has a home here – is that really a “win”?

Traditionalist Christian communities have much to grapple with and, yes, atone for, as their treatment of gays (frequently hypocritically elevated above all other “sins”) has often been shameful and destructive.   Their own internal struggles in navigating the sexual revolution and balancing the sensitivity they show to those who are different while still maintaining their core beliefs will be very difficult.  Many such communities must also disentangle themselves from the Republican Party.  But extremist hyperbole aside, orthodox Christians aren’t ISIS, whose destruction would be an obvious societal good.  Dreher’s solution may not be the correct one, but its popularity and degree of merit – even if his is ultimately not the correct answer – must be viewed with alarm by all moderates.

Knowledge at the Modern University

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A couple weeks ago, Damon Linker wrote an article attempting to explain why there are so many fewer conservatives in the faculties of American humanities and social science departments.  Linker’s explanation only served to highlight the heavily ideological character of  many modern humanities departments.

Linker writes:

Professors are trained as graduate students to become scholars — and scholarship in our time is defined as an effort to make progress in knowledge. The meaning of progress in the hard sciences is fairly obvious. But what does it mean to make progress in our knowledge of, say, English literature? One possibility is to find obscure, previously neglected authors and make a case for their importance…

Another possibility is to bring new questions to bear on old, classic texts. But where will those new questions come from if not the concerns of the present? This is how professors end up publishing reams of studies (and teaching gobs of courses) on such topics as “Class in Shakespeare,” “Race in Shakespeare,” “Gender in Shakespeare,” “Transgender in Shakespeare,” “Intersectionality in Shakespeare,” and so forth. To tease out those themes in texts that have been read, studied, and debated for centuries certainly constitutes progress in knowledge, since those who publish the research have said something genuinely new about something old and familiar.

Conservatives, by contrast, he says, are more interested in:

Such topics as “Love in Shakespeare,” “Friendship in Shakespeare,” “Justice in Shakespeare,” “Death in Shakespeare,” and “God in Shakespeare”…

These are classical subjects that centuries of people have written and thought about while reading the great playwright and poet. What’s new to say about them? Probably nothing.

Implicit in this argument are several large assumptions.  One of them is that studying, say, “Intersectionality in Shakespeare” is a subject that truly advances human knowledge.  On the contrary, I would suggest that such a topic has limited enduring value for human knowledge and is instead almost exclusively a masturbatory vehicle to peddle an in-vogue ideology.

The reality is that heavily ideological readings degrade the humanities’ pursuit of knowledge.  Firstly, the range of conclusions and richness of opinions arrived at by studying “Death in Shakespeare” is bound to be far richer than “Intersectionality in Shakespeare”, given that the latter topic is pre-designed as a tool used by cultural Marxists whose aims are already pre-determined before the text is even opened.   The topic may advance the righteous struggle, but not human knowledge.

Secondly, by presenting such ideologies as the knowledge worth pursuing, humanities departments succeed only in enervating themselves, since such topics do not speak to anyone but “social justice warriors.”  In a course on “Queerness in Jane Austen”, only students who are highly politicized and support the ideological end to which Ms. Austen’s works are being turned would be interested in attending.  The conclusions arrived may be slightly different in degree, but identical in kind.  The predetermined nature of the inquiry is the very antithesis of scientific knowledge.  After all, do you expect to discover from a course in “Gender in Shakespeare” that traditional gender roles are worth reinforcing?

“Justice in Shakespeare”, by contrast, could easily speak to issues of contemporary justice to people on all ends of the political spectrum.  Just a couple months ago, a production of Julius Caesar portraying Trump as the would-be dictator made international headlines, proving the enduring relevance of contemporaries of such themes.  Traditional topics allow us to tease out and play on ideas from Plato or Kant, enriching the human mind’s ability to draw parallels and arrive at unexpected conclusions.

This is not to say that the topics that Linker highlights as advancing human knowledge have no place at a university.  Clearly, they can play a useful role in the exploration of a number of contemporary topics.  But their role is highly limited by their strong ideological character which inherently limits free thought and the arrival at a diversity of conclusions.  Even worse, the preponderance of social justice-theme courses at universities is so overwhelming that it reaches far beyond merely diminishing returns in human knowledge to the point of negative erosion.

In twentieth century communist states, art and literature was held to be of value only when it advanced human progress, i.e. where it depicted the struggles of the workers and the peasants against the bourgeoisie.  It appears Mr. Linker – and so, so many of his academic contemporaries – are riding the same ideological train, albeit one newly painted for the twenty-first century.

Nazis, Antifa and Our Mutual Fears

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President Trump’s incompetent and mealy-mouthed equivocations of Nazi and Antifa violence in Charlotesville have furthered the already substantial American political divide.  While many Americans were alarmed to see Nazi thugs excused by the President of the United States, other Americans were relieved to see Antifa condemned, which they view as a significant threat to democracy and freedom.  In this view, Trump’s response is explained not so much by racism or widespread support for the KKK, as by a fear of what Antifa is believed to stand for.

There is first considerable convergence among the respectable left and right.  Nazis, Klansmen and other actual white supremacist organizations are the avowed enemy of society and harbour ideas that are destructive to human decency and to the fabric of society.  It is understood that our current peaceful and prosperous international order (by historical terms) emerged precisely from the crushing defeat of such a movement.  That movement, whose aspirations are indelibly burned into our collective conscious in the hideous images of the concentration camps, can never again be allowed to approach power and influence.  In that sense, the need to “keep the lid on” right-wing extremism is justified given its historic crimes and potential for destruction, as well as the fact that many of its current members continue to use the symbols and language of fascism.

However, there is a key difference between the left and right.  For many on the left, white supremacist organizations remain a continued threat to democracy, freedom and equality.  Groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League must be constantly vigilant to monitor society for hate.  The current structures of American society today are thought among many progressives to consistently reinforce white supremacy, and help foster unequal economic outcomes between white and black Americans.

For many on the centre-right, however, white supremacists, while disdained, have also been something of a bogeyman in recent decades.  In this view, the actual numbers of modern Nazi party or other race-oriented white supremacist organizations have continued to see their numbers decline and their ability to influence policy in their favour has seemed virtually non-existent. Notwithstanding the lurid wishful-thinking of many social studies departments, the evidence that societal structures remain racist seems unconvincing, considering for example how Asian Americans have the highest average income or why people of so many races still want to move to the USA.

However, when actual, bona fide Nazis marched this summer in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us!” and the President of the United States of America did not immediately and unequivocally denounce them, many people rightly found it alarming.  For many on the left Trump’s attempts to mollify right-wing extremists confirmed their fears that there truly are many Americans who support Klansmen, Nazis or a white supremacist society.

Without question, white supremacist groups have seemed emboldened to speak out under Trump.   Much of Trump’s rhetoric on immigration is seen as dog-whistling to large swaths of the population who want to “make America white again.”

However, the evidence that there are large swaths of the US population supporting Nazis or the KKK a white supremacist society is at best spotty given the past thirty years of US political history.  That thesis is also unsupported by the voter support given to Barrack Obama.   The question of institutional racism is a more complicated one, and certainly the swath of police violence against law abiding African Americans suggests this is still a very significant problem.

However, I believe Trump’s tactic to condemn Antifa in the same breath as Nazis reflects not so much dog-whistling to a massive, racist base as a deeper unease on the right at what they think the Antifa stands for.

The divide in the political spectrum again causes mutual incomprehension here.  To most people on the respectable left, Antifa are viewed as criminal troublemakers who use the occasion of protesting to further their own anarchist agenda of violence and vandalism.  Their presence is generally not welcome, as it foreshadows the degeneration of peaceful protest into tear gas, batons, and smashed chain store windows.  However, Antifa is ultimately a small and inconsequential group whose threat pales in comparison to that of white supremacists.

For many on the right, including respectable conservatives who despise Nazis, they see something quite different.  They observe how Antifa uses the lexicon of progressives (“Anti-Hate!”) and how Antifa has targeted a variety of conservative speakers at universities, not only Nazis.  In short, they see in Antifa their fear of progressive capture of intellectual space, particularly at universities, and the perceived willingness among progressives to use intimidation or violence to enforce it.  Those who view Antifa in this way are almost certainly many of the same people who, in Ross Douthat’s words, feared giving progressives the political power to match their cultural ascendency, and thus voted Trump to avoid a Clinton presidency and her attendant Supreme Court choices.   For these folks, Antia may represent a similar if not greater threat to democracy than that of white supremacist organizations.

If one believes there is a method to Trump’s madness, this is likely it:  Trump was reassuring a base that is not so much racist as it is afraid of progressive ascendancy.  Of course, Trump is singularly unskilled at making coherent arguments and distinctions and his response served only to deepen the political and cultural divide.

Unfortunately, the tenor of the conversation and the quality of the current generation of US political leaders is likely to only lead us further down the abyss.

The Centre Will Hold: The Purpose of Moderate Might

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Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”  Almost one hundred years later, Yeats’ pessimistic observation seems as relevant as it did in 1919 or 1968.  The increasing lack of social consensus, the growing wealth gap, and the increased presence of extremists in the streets and at the ballot boxes have furthered our unease.  The post-war consensus appears to be unravelling, no longer bringing the economic returns to many it once did.  It is challenged by visions of Islamists, utopian progressives, and reactionary proponents of closed societies and is still unsure of how it will accommodate the rise of China or respond to post-Soviet Russia.  In the United States, both the popularity of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump’s decimation of the Republican establishment and defeat of Hillary Clinton reveal a population increasingly looking to perceived outsiders for more extreme solutions.  In an echo of the frayed political culture of Weimar, today’s Nazi and Antifa radicals are willing to use street violence to achieve political ends.

Yet contrary to Yeats’ gloom, the centre can and must hold.

What exactly is the centre?  The center does not necessarily define itself either by simple maintenance of a status quo or by constantly readjusting itself in comparison to the major political forces of the moment.  If the Democrats tomorrow announce their program is “2”, and the Republicans that theirs is “3”, “2.5” does not somehow become the correct position.  The center arrives at “2.5” only if it makes sense, not out of a robotic desire to hew towards the middle under the mistaken belief that “the truth is always somewhere in between”.

Instead, what makes the centre dynamic is that it does not need to adhere to a particular tribe.  Ideally, the centre will instead evaluate each issue on its merits, allow for free and robust discussion, and arrive at a careful conclusion, supported by the evidence.  In practice, this will not always happen; after all, nobody is free from bias, self-interest or the influences of culture and era.  However, the centre is decidedly non-utopian, recognizing that almost all policies come with certain trade-offs and that knee-jerk ideological solutions are dangerously simplistic.

This is why the centre tries to hold a minimum of ideological positions.  It acknowledges the obvious superiority of democracy, rule of law, and at least a certain degree of market economy.  It understands that, with the exception of a well-trained police and army subordinate to elected officials, political violence is anathema to democracy.  Even these beliefs are grounded in overwhelming empirical evidence.   After all, the superiority of the democratic system is evidenced every day by global immigration patterns while that of market economies – which would include both Sweden and Hong Kong – is proven by hard economic data.

On more specific topics, such as immigration, the centre is open to continued discussion and analysis.  It studiously avoids both the ideological magic-thinking that leads to conclusions like “the need to protect the race” or “borders are racist” as well as the fear of thought-crimes that would discourage frank discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of the various forms of immigration.  It may recognize the many advantages that free trade brings, while remaining acutely aware of the arguments of its critics and of the potential need to consider remedies or even a degree of recalibration to better serve the many communities left behind.  It understands black communities in the United States have been horribly disadvantaged by historic abuse and inequality (and that there is very good evidence some degree of this still maintains) and therefore there may well be a continued need to redress this, but could still remain skeptical of the efficacy of many of the individual attempted solutions or actors.

This website is unabashedly centrist as defined above.  It holds with the power of free speech to arrive at conclusions not already predetermined by tribe or ideology.   It does not live in fear of offending the sacred cows of left or right and has no need to “dog whistle” to racist fools or “virtue signal” to censorious social justice warriors.  Its only program is to facilitate dialogue and to serve as a moderate-but-firm voice in today’s marketplace of ideas.  Both its leanings and its goals are moderate – hence the website’s name, Moderate Might.

The website itself will be updated with a new posting at least once a week.  Topics discussed will include culture, media, politics, and education.  Your comments and support are appreciated in keeping the project continued and dynamic.  If the worst are indeed “filled with a passionate intensity”, it is imperative for us in the centre to reassert our convictions with purpose and with courage.