In his recent article on the Benedict Option, which I have argued in the past bears little resemblance to the historical basis it purports to stand on, Jeff Guhin puts the challenge thusly: “Liberalism has won,” he writes. “The sort of gemeinschaft for which communitarians yearn was marked by the absence of choice. People grew up amidst practices and boundaries that helped them habituate certain implicit understandings of what is good and true.” However,
We just don’t have that anymore, except to the degree that liberalism itself is what Charles Taylor calls a moral imaginary, a way of perceiving the world that comes to feel obviously and necessarily true. Even intentional submission to another’s power—described by anti-liberal leftists like Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood—is ultimately rooted in a mature adult’s autonomous decision to do so. You might choose a more serious community—as Dreher himself has done—but you do so as a liberal who could also leave that community (even if you couldn’t leave liberalism).
Guhin, a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, concludes: “liberalism is hard to shake.”
I can’t say that I disagree. Liberalism is hard to shake. But what puzzles me is why so many think it must be shaken.
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Now, of course, I’ve read Rod Dreher’s column, and I’ve read After Virtue. But the base assertion that our current era is one of a “new dark ages” has always seemed to me like more hot air than a paradigm-shifting revelation. It requires a myopia with regard to the present: only ever and always seeing what’s wrong (if it rightly sees that in the first place), and by and large overlooking what’s gone right.
The facts of the matter are quite mixed. As Yuval Levin observed last September in First Things,
Public opinion has moved in favor of same-sex marriage … and some drug legalization, and the most important of all social trends (out-of-wedlock births) has grown worse. But social conservatives have also had some causes for cheer: Teen pregnancy has declined dramatically, divorce and abortion rates have fallen, too, and public opinion has turned modestly more critical of abortion.
Based on this, Levin recommends that conservatives “see themselves fighting not against the liberal society but for it.” Call me utilitarian, but I’ll take less divorce and abortion with more sexual libertinism any day over the opposite, the way things were in the 80’s and 90’s. Consequences aren’t everything, of course. But they are the only measurable aspect of morality, our only source of actual facts. By that data, on balance, moral progress is not only possible in a liberal society, we’re living it.
Indeed, Dreher’s response in Time magazine to the recent Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage is characteristic. “[C]onservatives,” he writes, now need “a realistic sense of how weak our position is in post-Christian America.” He claims that “the sky is not falling—not yet, anyway,” but he’s ready to run and hide just the same, proposing, “It is time for what I call the Benedict Option.”
How have social conservatives like Dreher so quickly forgotten last summer’s major Supreme Court ruling, the Hobby Lobby case? The sky isn’t falling. One failure on one issue isn’t the failure of a whole position or movement. In just the last two years, conservatives can fairly say, “You win some, you lose some.” But all I’m hearing is, “We’ve lost!”
Liberalism is both the best and worst scapegoat a social conservative could muster. It is broad enough an intellectual tradition to include Edmund Burke, Lord Acton, and Thomas Payne. More recently, in economics it includes both F. A. Hayek and J. M. Keynes, in politics both John Rawls and Robert Nozick, not to mention many more on the right, the left, in between, and beyond.
So in one sense Benedict Option enthusiasts are not all wrong. Liberalism is the problem the same way “culture” is the problem, or “society,” or “religion,” or “secularism,” or any other general noun that mutually admits of several concrete forms with varying degrees of moral worth. And it’s everywhere.
Which is what also makes it the worst scapegoat. As it is used by Guhin et al., it has no significant correspondence to any actual, concrete reality. Guhin himself admits we live in a web of different liberalisms. Even our anti-liberals are liberals. Long ago, most gave up on their respective utopias and decided that reform from within liberal societies was a more prudent path than violent revolution or quietist withdrawal. So Guhin is right when he says, “We are all liberals now.”
Why, again, is that a bad thing?
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Liberalism, at its most basic, universally-applicable definition is a broad tradition of social thought that centers on the problem of pluralism. People are different, and not so long ago (and, sadly, today as well) that led them to commit acts of violence against one another. The thoroughly imperfect liberal solution is—in thirty-one flavors of variety—to find a way to carve out the space, otherwise known as freedom, for peaceful coexistence among all the different sorts of people in the world.
There are conservative liberals and left-wing liberals. There are monarchist liberals and anarchist liberals. There are interventionist liberals and free market liberals. And many, many more.
The great thing about a liberal society is that, despite its very real flaws, all these different people have mechanisms to exercise a small degree of social influence. It can feel miniscule at times, because it is miniscule at times. But it’s there for anyone who wants to do the hard, boring, and sometimes dirty work of using it. And if they’d rather head for the hills, either literally or metaphorically, they are free to do that, too!
Liberalism is a messy form of peace. It does not in itself produce a society that pursues the good as social conservatives understand it. The Benedict Option is not the only alternative, however. One other option, employed by most everyone else, is to attempt to use moral suasion to get a significant number of people to gather around any particular, realistic policy that would slightly change our social contract in a direction with greater affinity to the good life as one or one’s community sees it. Then it requires doing the hard work of implementing such a change.
It is messy, and does not always work out to our satisfaction, and requires compromises we will not like, but liberalism may be the best form of peace we’ve got. And despite the mess, it has the benefit of being a real option with a recent history of moral progress to commend it.