I just had an interesting conversation with one of my friends from college. We always talk politics when we chat, and one of the things we talked about was the upcoming presidential election and the state of the political parties. Both of us in different ways count ourselves conservatives and inheritors of the traditionalism eximplified by Russell Kirk among others. But my friend said something in regards to US party politics: “unfortunately, Kirk is dead. Around in a few educated, semi-libertarian circles–but on the national level: dead.” This made me think a bit of Rod Dreher’s book “Crunchy Cons” because he deals with what one could call either a reemergence of (neo)traditionalism or a diaspora of neotraditionalists out of party politics. And if the realignment that seems to be taking place in the Republican party comes to pass, it won’t be long until the denizens of the Christian Right find themselves out here in the wilderness with us.
in regard to the million-dollar industry of “conservative” talk, Dreher wants to edge out the predominance of “market-mad consumers who vote Republican . . . whose commitment to conservative ideals ends the moment it costs us something.” He proposes a sacramental vision, something akin to Vaclav Havel’s antipolitical politics, whereby individual ethical choices, discerned and hashed out within communities (families, neighborhoods and churches), might somehow serve to transform the collective.
The revolution might be nothing more than a determined witness in which people choose lifestyles of mindfulness and communal consideration, an art of being in the world. Dreher notes that joining the volunteer fire department or a local farmers’ food co-op might be more authentically conservative than joining the Republican Party.
Compared to the conditioned reflexes of today’s politics (our values versus their values, or our Swift Boat Veterans against their Swift Boat Veterans), there’s something noteworthy and redemptive in the character type that Dreher sketches. It reminds me of many Protestants my age (I’m 36) whose dabblings in Dostoevsky and other Russian writers eventually took them toward Eastern Orthodoxy and homeschooling or whose discovery of Flannery O’Connor or Walker Percy as they emerged from Baptist youth groups took them all the way to G. K. Chesterton and Roman Catholic catechism.
As I read the book, I kept a list of potential honorary members of the Crunchy Cons. It was headed by Dorothy Day, followed by Daniel Berrigan, William Stringfellow, Martin Luther King Jr. and Will Campbell (with folks like Cornel West, Bill McKibben and Brian McLaren as more contemporary candidates). And I kept wondering what Dreher would say about such people. With my more obviously Crunchy Con peers, names like these sometimes lead to a strain in the conversation, a parting of the ways.
Like Dreher, these figures conspire toward or hope for a socialization of conscience even when they’re skeptical as to how much their moral vision will be popularly realized. They are also remarkably vigilant against the Manichean impasse whereby we assume that our kind of people with our values (homeschoolers, soup kitchen workers, draft-file burners) are the only ones who are really trying to do something to change the world. They don’t bother much with liberal or conservative labels.
“We don’t want our kids to be in a school where they’ll pay a price for being a nonconformist. We want them to learn in an atmosphere informed by our religious, moral, and philosophical values,” writes Dreher. While I’m very sympathetic to Dreher’s hope (I teach at a school that advertises itself as Christian), I see something problematic in a kind of greenhouse theory of conservative education in which students are reared and taught within an engineered, not-in-the-world atmosphere. This isn’t to say that any old public school will do. But there is tension between the biblical imperative of receptivity toward the ostensible outsider and the ethic of the enclave—between love and safety. I don’t pretend to have resolved this tension.
Dreher reports the following conversation:
“What will happen to the public schools if good people give up on them?” a liberal friend asked me one night. She was near to tears trying to convince me of the moral offensiveness of choosing to homeschool. She said it was un-Christian, and implied that there was something racist about our decision. All I could say was that our first responsibility as parents was to our children’s welfare, and we would not put them at risk for the sake of living up to a political or social ideal that we believed, rightly or wrongly, conflicts with what’s best for our kids.
I’m not sure where I’d land as a partaker in this particular conversation or what label might be added unto me at its conclusion, but I’d want to throw in, as an attempted testimony, that the coming kingdom of God is an appropriate hope within which to place our hope for our children’s welfare. What it will mean to try to bear witness to it in various contexts (to homeschool or not to homeschool?) will always be the work of communal discernment.
More than any explicit reference to the kingdom come, Dreher refers throughout the book to Russell Kirk’s “permanent things”—”those eternal moral norms necessary to civilized life and which are taught by all the world’s great wisdom traditions.” I can imagine a great deal of common ground in conversations relating Jesus’ gospel to the “eternal moral norms” of Dreher’s Crunchy Cons, but I sense some tensions too. Are the norms whatever should be obvious to all sensible people of good will? Might the gospel occasionally be foolishness to the Greeks and the world’s great wisdom traditions? Might Day and the Berrigans and Will Campbell prove scandalous in their attempted multipartisan, enemy-loving witness? Aren’t we all only now (and still and later) coming to the faith?