If 2016 proved anything to conservatives, it was that they haven’t been listening. While they’ve argued for economic solutions to inner city poverty rates in districts they don’t even control, a certain administration decided to mandate that boys be allowed to use women’s locker rooms in public schools. While they extolled the values of immigration from behind their gated communities in the columns of The Wall Street Journal, neighborhoods in southern California and Arizona decided to fly Mexican flags above the Stars and Stripes. And while conservative justices developed poor excuses for a misunderstood separation between church and state, gay rights activists sued small business owners into bankruptcy over refusing to make wedding cakes shaped like men’s genitalia. Something, clearly, went horribly, horribly wrong.
So agree Rod Dreher and Anthony Esolen in their most recent books that tackle the corruption and disintegration of the old American culture; both, also, attempt to provide a solution. Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation contextualizes the solution within the Christian framework, asserting the decline in modern values to be a problem that plagues the West in its entirety, originating from the Enlightenment and early-Modern attempts at removing teleology from the study of creation. Esolen’s Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, however, does not take quite as broad a perspective on the failures, looking only to reverse the damage done by the extreme and virulent strains of Leftism that became popular during the 60s.
Both books spend significant time on the main problems: the breakdown of families and fracturing of communities, the destruction of both primary and higher education systems, and how these have each been replaced with some sort of bureaucratic state apparatus. They each examine the relationship that strong families with solid moral and religious foundations naturally form strong communities, and specifically, how the intrusion of state-run regulatory bodies has destroyed much of this culture across the United States. Dreher suggests that the organization of people into communities remains fundamentally religious in nature, and that the maintenance—or formulation—of strong churches and church-related organizations will lead to communities strong enough to resist the totalitarian encroachment of the secular state. He calls this the Benedict Option, after the founder of the Benedictine Order, an institution that preserved Christian learning and knowledge for centuries after the fall of the Rome in the West. Esolen’s proposed solution is not quite so simply stated, nor as ambitious; due to the difference in how his thesis is presented, Esolen’s solution is oriented more toward action on a case-by-case basis: attacking the speech of political correctness where it pops up, working committedly and unreservedly toward one’s home and hearth, and the clear reestablishment of sensible gender roles in society. The validity of these two approaches is up for some debate.
Stemming from community, and in fact, of even greater importance than the community, is the education system. Dreher and Esolen spend significant portions of their books dwelling on the topic of the ironically labeled “education” system, pointing out its flaws and appropriately rebranding the entire public option as a prison that preaches secular propaganda rather than an institution that teaches critical thinking and Western civic values. Both books, also, offer what is essentially the same solution: pull your kids out of public schooling and look to alternative means for education. Home schooling, for parents who have the ability, is certainly optimal, and plenty of groups exist to help foster social skills among kids that don’t involve slaving away on pointless worksheets in an open classroom—especially for parents already tied into a church network. Dreher, however, offers something more: reinstitution of classical schools and his encouragement to open more of them. Dreher offers no consolation to parents considering Christian private schools, exclaiming that there is no real safe space for parents—the decline in modern values is a plague upon all of Western culture and it has infiltrated even those bastions expected to remain pure.
Dreher is very clear on this point. Numerous Christian institutions, no matter the denomination, have radically failed to remain moored to their foundations. It is not uncommon, he explains, to hear the secular buzzwords like equal rights come from the mouths of Catholics, or to hear of the confusion between a bureaucratic social welfare state and the charitable feeding of the poor from Evangelicals. Church-organized youth groups too often decay into bands of teenagers drinking, doing drugs, and having sex. All while the media, ever the swarm of sharks, attacks religion and paints church-attending Americans as imbecilic, hateful, and hypocritical. Part of the Benedict Option isn’t just to galvanize Christianity against the obvious forces of secularism and Leftism, but to galvanize it against the undermining of its own institutions. Much of that ground, he admits, has already been conceded.
This ties into his main thesis: the development of Christian communities and the overall retreat from popular culture and the secular world of urban, politicized, liberal coasts. The Benedict Option is a retreat, an acknowledgement that the culture war is lost, a consolidation of Christians in their fortified highlands above the horde of secularism that has swept the land like a modern Hunnic invasion. But any student of history knows that sieges—which is what the Benedict Option begs for—typically do not end well; even unsuccessful sieges often resulted in little more than pyrrhic victories. The Benedictine Order outlived the collapse of an empire into a paganism that was varying degrees of apathetic and preoccupied, too disorganized to combat Christian flourishing; when given the opportunity, Christianity spread by conversion quickly and readily. Modern post-Christian secularism is nothing so benign. Perhaps Dreher is looking to play the long game, to simply outlive secularism by virtue of secularism’s abysmal birthrates and propensity toward child-murder. Yet such a gamble ignores the incoming and inevitable demographic changes.
On the other hand, Esolen advocates fighting the secular blight upon American culture wherever possible. Refrain, he says, from using politically correct terminology, fight the public school system but remove your children from it, embrace typical gender roles, etcetera. But Esolen’s response lacks punch; if such rhetoric was enough to rouse the conservatives from their sleep to the palisades, the 1960s would have been reversed in the 1980s, but that didn’t happen. Fight political correctness where it surfaces? How, by losing your job? By losing custody of your kids? By losing your lease? Embrace traditional gender roles? Try explaining to a young college girl the benefits of home and hearth after four years of feminist indoctrination, free sexual license and hook-up culture, and easy access to Tinder, birth control, and therapists. The problem is more nuanced, more pervasive than what simple rhetoric can combat. Although a better diagnosis of the problem, Out of the Ashes’ attempts at providing solutions makes one pause to consider the Benedict Option more closely.
There is indeed something wrong with American society. Contemporary conservative writers have written so much on the subject as to have developed their own genre of apocalyptic nonfiction, keeping alive a market of presumed best-sellers that, ironically, contributes to the very decline of American culture that they lament. Yet, despite the growth of the genre, it remains clear that their ideas are no less reasonable; anyone who has even dabbled in history or politics can see for himself the state of American and Western decline.
But for all these books are presumably selling, will it make a difference? Conservative and traditionalist literature has been selling since the 70s, when the decadence of Western values first became abundantly noticeable after the violence of the 60s revolutions. But what has it gotten us? The Laschs and the Buchannans, the Enoch Powells, and the John Birch societies have not made any significant difference. The liberal elite have become more extreme, the conservatives more out of touch, and, as 2016’s election has proven, the traditionalist core of the right-wing more alienated from both. It’s conceivable that the library of literature published over the last fifty years is finally seeing its heyday now, when the culture is far enough gone that something like the Benedict Option is believable as an alternative. But we’ll have to see—a breakaway civilization is not an easy alternative to a life of comfort and instantaneous reward that has marked and made modernity.
Like so many others, I do not profess to know the answer for the longer term. Esolen and Dreher do not disagree on the diagnoses, nor do they disagree significantly on the proposed treatments. They’re both worth the read, particularly for people who have only vague inklings of the problems that surround the modern condition. Both propose something as a solution, though they’re hard pills to swallow. We’ll see how much of a difference any of it actually makes.