For those who do not follow such things, “the Benedict Option” is the name used by Rod Dreher of The American Conservative for his proposal that American Christians in particular deemphasize political engagement in favor of building local communities of faith and fellowship to best preserve and renew Western civilization in our secular age. In discussing the proceedings of a recent conference considering his proposals, Mr. Dreher referred to me as having “touched that third rail of the Benedict Option: if the Ben Op critique is correct, does that require us Americans to abandon belief in liberal democracy?” Mr. Dreher goes on to express concern over how such an abandonment would affect conservatives; he wants to avoid this conclusion, he says, because of the pain it would cause so many people, including himself. I think this concern stems from a (common and far from baseless) misunderstanding of the nature and grounding of ordered liberty, including in the United States. I also believe it has an unfortunate tendency to divert attention from the more salient issue of how to address the decay of our constitutional order and structure.
The source of the conceptual problem is the modern insistence that all good things are liberal. A number of important thinkers of good will hold to this view and it does not stop political philosopher David Walsh, for example, from arguing that liberalism must be deepened and made more spiritual so that it may reflect and enforce our higher natures. But such a position confuses undeniably good things (most prominently the rule of law, constitutionalism, and recognition of rights rooted in the fundamental nature of the human person) with a particular ideology that speaks in their name. Moreover, that modern ideology—liberalism—from the beginning has imposed a vision of human progress that denies the true nature of the person.
Recognition of the true nature of the person serves as the only sustainable grounding for genuine, sustainable rights. Its denial by modern liberals has led, especially as liberal democracy has come to be seen as the only alternative to some form of dehumanizing tyranny, to two dangerous assumptions. First is the assumption that “progress,” defined as the continual improvement of human wealth and material wellbeing, is desirable always and at all costs and that it is inevitable under (and only under) liberal democracy. Second is the determination to make of the particular political mechanism of democracy a full-fledged ideology of its own. Thus, from a useful recognition of human dignity and the ability of peoples to engage in meaningful self-government under law, government by consent has become an unhealthy, irrational demand for radical equality that empowers the state as provider of all good things, including equality itself.
Mr. Dreher recognizes the dangers of liberal democracy—at least in its overtly secular form. Commitment to individual flourishing through political means, and especially to religious and moral neutrality in the name of individual autonomy, brings cultural splintering and hostility toward any real form of community, particularly in its spiritual form. It is important to note in addition that we do not owe to the contemporary ideology of liberal democracy the goods we all value in it—goods liberal democracy itself has been undermining for many decades. Constitutionalism, for example, has its roots in ancient Greece and, more constructively, ancient Rome. In addition, the rule of law has been recognized as at least an aspirational good also from ancient times, taking root under the Roman republic, where it buttressed but also outlasted the constitution. As to rights, in recent decades an entire literature of legal history, in which the work of figures including Harold J. Berman, Richard Helmholz, and Brian Tierney has figured prominently, has shown that rights predate modernity by centuries, developing in nature and circumstances that were decidedly unliberal and often aimed at nonliberal goals. Again, with Roman antecedents, it was in particular the medieval lawyers, arguing on the basis of canon law provisions concerning the status of various groups within Christendom, who developed a theory and practice of rights respectful of individual persons and the common good. They bequeathed to us a practical understanding of persons and communities as requiring, in their nature, various rights necessitating that the claims of persons and associations be heard through means aimed at vindicating the reasonable expectations of all parties to a given dispute.
Particular rights were seen as rooted in a fundamental human dignity that demanded respect. This respect produced, by nature, procedures and even institutions devoted to the defense of primary goods and relationships. Among the goods that developed in this tradition was government by consent. Thus even democracy, seen in its truly necessary aspect of limitations on the state and congruence of political actions with cultural expectations, also long predates the modern ideology of liberalism.
It was in fact secular liberal democracy, formed and developed particularly in the French Revolution, that sought to undermine the republicanism of American constitutionalism. Sadly, this ideology, for the last century and a half generally going under the moniker of “progressivism,” has largely succeeded in rendering the American constitutional order dysfunctional at best. Our constitutional order was a combination of legal and cultural institutions and customs focused on maintenance of the rule of law, on justice as vindication of the reasonable expectations of parties to particular disputes, and on the limitation of government through the separation and enumeration of powers among various branches and levels of government. It failed, as all human institutions must, to eliminate all forms of injustice, even furthering, as all human institutions will, some evils. But it provided a means by which the conflicts among various more primary, fundamental groups might be mediated in the interests of a common peace and certain, limited common interests.
The American constitutional system was not the product of liberal democratic ideology. It was, rather, a largely natural outgrowth of a set of concrete, historically grounded traditions. These traditions included that of English charters (including the Magna Carta), colonial practices deeply influenced by the Protestant covenantal tradition, and a body of thought as Roman as English, as Christian as rationalist, and as concerned with power’s threat to preexisting communities as with its necessity in preventing chaos. The real question faced by Americans of faith and tradition is how to retain the possibility of a decent life after many decades in which our political classes have worked to destroy the political traditions that constituted our liberties and the cultural traditions that sustained them. The promise of Mr. Dreher’s arguments for a Benedict Option is that it may help show the way to recognition that culture cannot be valued for its political benefits, lest both be lost. The danger, as always, with a program rooted in a lowering of political expectations is that it will end, whether intentionally or not, by encouraging quietism in the face of a still-hostile and vengeful revolutionary movement. To prevent the second, tragic result, it is crucial, at the least, that those who recognize that times have changed make clear what exactly has changed, what has not and cannot change, and what we must work to preserve and restore. And part of this task involves separating out, in our own minds and practices, what institutions, beliefs, and practices mark our true political inheritance, and what mark the very misunderstandings that brought us to our current, tragic state of affairs. This requires separating in our own minds the ideology of liberal democracy from the goods of our own constitutional tradition, with its many sources in Western civilization.
Bruce P. Frohnen is Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law.