The amount of discussion, both pro and con, generated by Rod Dreher´s proposed Benedict Option of tactical withdrawal from the public square by orthodox religious people is a sign of how well he has captured the magnitude of change being imprinted on our culture. Having argued that this option is in effect impossible given the aggressive stance, intentions, and unchecked power of antireligious people, laws, and institutions currently ascendant in our nation, it seems incumbent upon me to present a reasoned alternative to Dreher´s very reasoned proposal. To do so requires recognizing that in a nation as far gone as ours in rebellion against its fundamental nature and purpose, there are an infinite number of things that need doing, but that they must be addressed in different ways according to circumstances, priorities, and the necessity of making other good things possible.
First, to points of agreement. Dreher certainly is correct that people of faith must protect their children and families from the morally toxic culture in which most Americans now live. This almost certainly means removing any children we might have in public schools, save in those very few regions free from Common Core and from the control of the ideology of the mainstream educational establishment. I hasten to add that the number of such schools is far fewer than most parents realize and excludes many rural schools where parents currently believe their children are safe from indoctrination. Here there is no substitute for close scrutiny of curricula and extra-curricular materials and pronouncements. In addition, as a Catholic, I am well aware that most parochial education is in a terrible state. I would not send my children to most parochial schools and had to search far and wide before moving close to an hour from my place of work to find a high school where a sufficient number of teachers, administrators, and religious were working hard to properly catechize and educate their students. And there are other struggles as well, having to do with money and the commitment of students and parents to a genuine Catholic education and culture. While homeschooling is an obvious and crucial option (and one we should be thankful, and watchful, exists in our country) it is one not all families can exercise for a variety of reasons and, of course, takes a great commitment of time and effort to make successful.
In addition, Dreher certainly is correct that the rebuilding of faith communities is crucial to any attempt to live a good life today. I cannot help but think that an honest, forceful reaction within the Catholic hierarchy to the scandal of priestly child abuse would have made a significant difference in the culture wars. Sadly, a plethora of bad motives, from fear to arrogance, misplaced sympathy for child molesters (and lack of sympathy for their victims), as well as clericalism and a cult of obsequiousness among “conservative” Catholic intellectuals, delegitimized Catholic and other religious institutions and positions far more than even most Catholics seem to recognize. What this means, though, is that Dreher´s program of rebuilding, while certainly as necessary as he avers, will be extremely difficult and even dangerous if taken on through isolated communities. If the various churches and denominations will not get their own houses in order, it is up to us laymen to form associations that promulgate standards and means of publicizing them among the faithful to reestablish moral order within the church.
All this sounds, I know, very difficult, and also very cultural. What, then, does it have to do with a web magazine dedicated to “nomocracy in politics”? That is, what does such cultural discussion have to do with the attempt to promote an understanding of the limits of law and politics in establishing and maintaining any good society? The question is fair but almost answers itself. For one central purpose of limited government is to allow people to go about their own lives unmolested. And this definitely will not occur under our new regime. The Benedict Option will not work for this very reason. Thus, to make possible any substantive renewal of culture we must act, politically, in the public square, to stem the tide of law and quasilaw aimed at eliminating our way of life. We will lose many of these battles. But the last six years have shown that the “social justice warriors” who wish to strip Christians of their public voice, their jobs, and even their freedom from incarceration for failing to actively affirm their new regime in all its particulars are aided immeasurably by having ideological zealots with no commitment to the rule of law running the executive branch of our government.
In a regime as divorced from fair standards of law and justice as ours has become, personnel really does, to a substantial degree, equal politics. As bad as the George W. Bush administration was for America, the damage done by its lack of focus, intelligence, vision, and discipline was as nothing compared with the havoc wreaked by the hard-left determination of the Obama administration, or indeed of any likely Clinton or Sanders administration. Moreover, we know from experience that a Reagan administration, as disappointing as it was to most of us, was far less likely to aim state power at our way of life than even a Bush, let alone a Clinton or Obama administration. And this means that it does, indeed, matter whether we elect an almost certainly flawed and perhaps even less than fully sincere conservative candidate or a “moderate” establishment candidate from the Bush clan or some corrupt northeastern state.
Christians cannot afford to withdraw from politics any more than the tenets and spirit of their religion allow them to withdraw from the public square. We have a duty to work to put as many people into office as possible who will serve our interests as well as possible in our difficult circumstances. This is no call to triumphalism; but the vice we most need to combat at this point is defeatism. We will continue to lose many battles. As Dreher himself has pointed out, the supposed party of limited government (the Republicans, as we have reason to have forgotten) for decades has betrayed its supporters by helping construct and expand a system of lifetime employment at high wages for a b-partisan class of politicians, lawyers, and financiers connected to the welfare and administrative states. Its members persist in making deals that go against its public promises, secure in its belief that, in the unlikely event of an electoral uprising in any given area, its leaders will quickly find highly profitable employment in some lobbying organization and the machine will go on.
But this means only that we cannot take at face value the words of those in power—something we should have known to begin with. It means that Christians must be willing to do the supposedly foolish thing and vote out incumbents of “our” party if they show themselves unreliable. The defeat of former Representative Eric Cantor by a conservative candidate is evidence that such a strategy can sometimes work. Just as important, we must recognize that we will never be able to trust those with political power to keep our interests in mind. And what this means is that we have yet more reason to seek a federal government that simply does far less than it does today.
In response to the same-sex marriage fiasco, presidential candidate Rand Paul declared that government must “get out of the business of marriage.” Clearly this is wrong from a moral point of view. The job of the state is to support the fundamental institutions of society, including most importantly the natural family. That said, Paul’s libertarianism captures an important aspect of politics as it must be pursued today by Christians in particular. At the federal level especially, there simply is too much being done. Christians often complain that various agencies and bureaucrats are by nature hostile toward their institutions and beliefs. And this is true, for the good reason that those who serve in government tend to believe that governmental rules are more important than norms, customs, and civil social institutions. This being the case, it is imperative that we take down much of the state that has been built, often in the name of “helping” families and citizens. A smaller government by nature will do less damage; it will have fewer troops and tools to undermine our way of life. Undoing Obamacare is important, both because that program aims to force religious people and organizations to fund and otherwise promote the culture of death and because it sucks the life out of civil society and into the machinery of centralized power.
For decades, now, Republican candidates have promised such actions, secure in the knowledge that their constituents, while calling for reductions in regulation and spending, are too attached to the benefits they receive from Washington to really mean it. It is time to really mean it. Tocqueville once observed that any man who asks of liberty anything other than itself is fit only to be a slave. Simply put, we must determine to vote for limited government, and follow through. Will we get it? No. But we may slow down its growth and buy some political room in which we may conduct our real work of cultural renewal. All this is to say that Dreher is correct in the larger sense that the real work of forming a decent culture is, well, cultural. That said, cultural work requires a political and legal regime that leaves room for communities of faith, family, and freedom to operate relatively unmolested, something we have no hope of securing without a fight in our current climate. There is even more to be done to take back our cultural institutions, from universities to primary schools, from newspapers to television; and much of that work will involve weaning ourselves as well as our fellow Americans off forms of “news” and entertainment that are by nature spiritually debilitating. But we can achieve none of this if we attempt to withdraw from the political fight at a time when politics is swallowing all other aspects of public and private life in the name of a totalitarian vision of equality, autonomy, and especially emotivism as the highest goods.
Bruce P. Frohnen is Professor of Law at The Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law.