This is the fourth entry in our Free Minds series.
Alisdair Macintyre once told the theologian Stanley Hauerwas that he regretted writing that famous last passage of his great 1981 work of moral philosophy, After Virtue. Nonetheless, it was that book, and its stirring final call to action, that summoned together a very diverse collection of admirers. To many of us, that last paragraph felt like a dark prophecy, a warning from history, and a vague, sketchy outline of what the coming resistance might look like.
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In terms of its practical effect on me, it was the single most important piece of philosophical writing that I have ever read. And it remains so to this day.
We are entering a time of crisis, claimed Macintyre. The Enlightenment destroyed the idea that human life is imbued with purpose and direction. It took morality away from the community and made it a matter of individual choice, thus replacing morality with individual self-assertion. The final passage reads:
If my account of our moral condition is correct we ought to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.
And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St Benedict.
Rod Dreher’s best selling The Benedict Option (2017) is the latest in a long line of reactions to this passage. Christians, he argues, have lost the culture wars in the United States. And a new form of resistance is called for.
In this country, Macintyre’s philosophical cry bounced around in academic circles during the back end of the 20th century, emerging into mainstream politics during the beginnings of this one. It was John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory (1991), heavily influenced by Macintyre, that led to the whole Red Tory then Blue Labour movements. It was Macintyre’s analysis that inspired the theologian Philip Blond to help persuade David Cameron to start talking about “the big society”. Likewise, the thinking of people such as the excellent Maurice Glassman still owes a great deal to the debates that a number of Cambridge theologians (including Rowan Williams) had in the 1980’s following After Virtue.
But Macintyre’s reception in the United States has been very different. Whereas in Britain, the political influence of After Virtue has been on those who have been seeking to bring new life to society in general, with the conservative Christian Rod Dreher (and with Stanley Hauerwas too), the After Virtue legacy has taken on a more sectarian and inward-looking turn.
Public culture has become irredeemable, Dreher argues, it has been captured by the forces of individualism and liberalism, and there is no way to build communities of moral purpose in such hostile territory. The Benedict Option represents a tactical withdrawal, an attempt by serious Christians to regroup in community, to construct an ark with which to ride out the storm and from there to present a challenge to mainstream culture.
This is why I admire Dreher: he is one of the few conservative Christians to recognise and publicly to admit that the United States is not really a Christian country at all, that it worships a god that has been made in its own image – that is, it worships itself. And that capitalism and a belief in the total freedom of the individual is not the unmitigated good that the Christian Right has so often trumpeted.
All this is very brave of Dreher. I just watched an interview he gave to Fox News explaining his position. The interviewer wore a look of total confusion, failing completely to understand how a conservative Christian such as Dreher could think of the United States as enemy territory. Such has been the elision of Christianity and American nationalism for so many.
As Dreher rightly argues, much that passes for orthodox Christianity in American life is really a moralistic version of Deism. And this pale reflection of traditional Christianity has itself been hollowed out by the continual march of market-driven acquisitiveness. It is good that conservatives are beginning to wake up to the fact that that the market is not their friend. And I don’t suppose the interviewer from Fox would be any better disposed to the Benedict Option if he were to discover that Macintyre was originally a Marxist.
Of course, things are considerably worse for religious believers here in Europe. Different, but worse. Iceland is now preparing to make circumcision illegal – and a survey out this week by the National Secular Society indicates that 62% of Britons agree with them. In France, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands, the burqa has been banned. Ofsted the UK education inspection body, now wants to regulate what is taught at Orthodox Jewish schools in North London. Halal meat is being banned. Christians are sacked for wearing the cross as jewellery at work.
Throughout Europe, the state, under the increasingly confident influence of secular liberalism, continues a malign programme of interfering in the lives of religious believers and seeking to marginalise them from the public sphere. Perhaps more religious believers on this side of the pond, too, should wake up and appreciate that the modern liberal state is no longer a friend to religious belief. Liberal in both the social and the economic sense, the modern social consensus is built around the freedom of the individual.
That is why Christians in America couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary. And they were right not to. But Trump is clearly not the answer either. Indeed, as Dreher rightly insists, Trump is just another symptom of the deepening problem. There are no good options left. And so all people of faith have to prepare for the dark days that are to come.
Dreher is wrong about a lot, though. Like so many American conservatives, he is creepily obsessed with homosexuality. His analysis of Freud is risible. And unlike the pacifist Hauerwas, he doesn’t understand that the greatest corruption of public Christianity in the US comes from the American war machine. Jesus didn’t care all that much about sex. And said nothing whatsoever about homosexuality. But he cared a great deal about loving your enemies.
The fixation that American conservatives have with sex is a convenient way for them to avoid a much harder and challenging question: the unchristian obsession they have with guns and bombs. I would prefer my Benedict Option to look a bit more like that proposed by the extraordinary Dorothy Day who founded a number of Catholic communities of resistance committed to non-violence and feeding the poor. But in the context of the scale of the incoming crisis, this may look like haggling over the details.
It is indeed odd that a socialist like me finds common cause with an American conservative like Rod Dreher. But the faith we share is under threat. We both diagnose liberalism as the common enemy. And opposition makes for unlikely bedfellows.