Over at the American Conservative, Rod Dreher has been reflecting on how (small-o) orthodox Christians should respond to an increasingly hostile culture. Dreher’s ‘Benedict Option’ calls for Christians to–among other things–disengage from politics.
There’s something about this response that’s always bothered me, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Over at Democracy Journal, Nathan Pippenger articulated my concerns better than I could have:
Withdrawal would be a dispiriting rejection of democratic politics. There’s no evidence that it has begun in earnest, and it’s not exactly clear how it would work. I don’t think anyone is proposing a level of cultural separation on the level of, say, the Amish—conservative Christians would still live and socialize in mixed-religion neighborhoods and still be dispersed across the whole of the United States. Even the institutions devoted to internal forms of community-building—Linker mentions “families, parishes, and churches”—would not be able to seal off or separate their way of life to the extent implied by analogies to the Amish or the ultra-Orthodox, or for that matter by the monastic title of their movement.
What, then, would be the result of a quietist, separatist movement that could erect only ineffectual barriers against the forces of the majority culture? Probably not the comforting preservation of traditional ways of life, but an exacerbation of the alienation which motivated the separatism in the first place. And here is where all of us—or, at least, those of us not completely resigned to permanent fracture and division among Americans—have reason for concern. The success or failure of democracy depends, in large part, on the recognition of citizens that they all share a part in it. If one group of citizens feels completely, comprehensively walled off from the broader public, the reassurance that laws come from “We the People” will be cold comfort. And this problem will persist unless the group can truly make its life in isolation from the majority; unless it can educate, worship, and govern in its own corner of the world. Anything short of this is unlikely to satisfy the separatists, since the world they want to preserve will continue to face intrusions from a wider society they can’t really escape. We want to be able to justify the legitimacy of democratic government by affirming that it really does emanate, however imperfectly, from the will of the people. When a subset of the people intentionally wall themselves off, the legitimacy of the rest of us ruling over them is called into question, and their reasons for obeying us are weakened. A “Benedict option”-style retreat, then, might look like the obscure politics of an isolated minority. But in reality, it concerns all of us.
It concerns all of us indeed.