Inclusion in the news pages of the Sunday Times is a neat test for whether something is considered mainstream-relevant in the UK. So readers might have been a bit surprised yesterday to be learning about groups of American Christians who are turning their backs on wider culture and forming small monk-like communities in rural parts of the country. The reporter, Josh Glancy, is refreshingly free of the common prejudice against anything religious-sounding, and rightly thought the story relevant to his readers:
Such communities are springing up all over America, from Alaska to Texas to the suburbs of Washington.
Rod Dreher, senior editor at The American Conservative magazine, describes this trend as taking the “Benedict option”, also the name of his 2017 book, one of the most talked about religious publications of the decade.
This may all sound very alien to British ears, particularly as the UK is now one of the most secular countries on the planet. Nobody realistically thinks Brits are about to repair to monasteries in significant number (although both the Guardian and BBC reported in depth this past summer on a vibrant Bruderhof community in Sussex.)
But the instinct behind these movements — to turn your back on the shared culture because it feels so far away from what you believe that it feels futile to even engage — is a powerful force in today’s politics. If we have learned anything from the Brexit experience it was that people feel alienated by structures that are too distant, and global value systems that don’t feel relevant. Brexit has given some people hope that they can reclaim them.
The funny thing is that the surge in people taking the ‘Benedict Option’ is happening because of, not despite, contemporary liberal society: value questions have gradually been removed from the public sphere and become private concerns, confined to religious communities, the nuclear family, or increasingly just the individual. If you want to live among people who share similar values, you have to seek out or create that world for yourself.
Perhaps the biggest political question of the next decade is whether we can refashion a shared public square that actually feels relevant to most people, or whether people will simply give up on it, and retreat to their own little worlds, Benedict-style. I understand why the people featured in the article have decided to turn inward, but personally I still hold a naive hope that we can revive the public realm so as to rediscover some of what Hannah Arendt calls the “vita activa” — the shared project of creating a good society.