Can The Religious Right Retreat From Democracy?

Why setbacks over gay marriage don't justify the "Benedict option."

By Nathan Pippenger

Surely one of the most remarkable stories in American politics over the last decade is the drastic shift in the fortunes of the Christian Right—best illustrated by opposition to gay marriage, which has steadily waned since propelling President Bush to reelection in 2004, and is now a position that even many Republicans are reluctant to tout. Shocked and demoralized by this reversal, many conservatives are now convinced that the “Moral Majority” has become an embattled, threatened minority. This helps explain growing support for the “Benedict Option”—“a deeply pessimistic cultural project,” as Damon Linker explains, named for the founder of monasticism. Proponents of this idea, such as The American Conservative writer Rod Dreher, suggest that Christian traditionalists should “step back from the now-futile political projects and ambitions of the past four decades to cultivate and preserve a robustly Christian subculture within an increasingly hostile common culture”—not, Linker supposes, on the model of the Amish, but perhaps more like ultra-Orthodox Jews (albeit in far greater numbers).

It hardly needs to be said that, as a collective reaction to losing one part of the culture war, this is overblown. More intriguing is its unfortunate resemblance to the recent surge in voter ID laws, another case in which conservatives responded to adverse demographic changes in pointedly antidemocratic fashion. The new impulse seems to be: if we can’t win the game, we’ll either change the rules or go home. This is more or less a renunciation of what sympathetic observers once lauded as the Christian Right’s “democratic virtues”: a willingness to deliberate earnestly over the public good, an ethic of participation, a commitment to civility towards citizens who disagree. (Obviously, not everybody recognized this description of the Christian Right.) But in any case, while withdrawal from wider political life is not on the same order as attempting to block the voting rights of other citizens, it’s still a dispiriting rejection of democratic politics.

Actually, it would be more precise to say that 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.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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