I have never read Rod Dreher and have no particular insight on how American conservative Christianity should respond to secularism. If Mormons look to medieval clergy for a model of forming intentional communities, however, I think a better option than Benedictine monasticism is that of the Canons Regular.
The geography, history, daily life, and mission of Canons were quite different from that of monks. Benedict of Nursia, author of the Benedictine rule, lived in the sixth century, a genuinely bad period in European history after the fall of the Roman Empire to which I won’t object applying the term “Dark Ages.” The rule of St. Benedict foresees a life of cloistered isolation and individual contemplation for its followers, and this was primarily realized in rural monasteries.
The Canons Regular usually followed the older rule of St. Augustine, however, written by a citizen of a functioning empire whose career took him to the urban centers of northern Africa and southern Europe. When canonical foundations began to flourish in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, they were typically in urban centers. Canons lived in a community bound by the rule and by vows of chastity, common property, and obedience among others, but their ministry and liturgical performances were on behalf of the public, and they played a key role in transmitting education and professional skills to European towns and cities.
Ivan Ilich’s In the Vineyard of the Text is a study of the Didascalion of Hugh of St. Victor (1096-1141), a manual for the training of new Canons. As Ilich states: “The Canon Regular edifies by his lectio.” The Latin term lectio might be simply translated as “reading,” but the use of the Latin term emphasizes that the reading of Canons Regular in the twelfth century involved different cognitive practices and occupied a different social and religious space than it does today. In contrast to monastic reading practices, the textual performance of the Canon Regular took place both before God and man, and was meant to be exemplary in a way that monastic life wasn’t. “In his studium the novice is responsible not only for the state of his soul; by the example he gives through the manner in which he studies, it is his special task to ‘edify’ the town community.” In Hugh’s view, the duty to learn was universal, not only for clergy, but the Canon had a corresponding duty to teach “by his way of life and his wisdom, by his words and his example.”
This is, I think, a model of intentional community that better fits the Mormon experience, where withdrawal from the world has always been a simultaneous part of engaging with the world: the pioneers march out of America at the same time that the Mormon Battalion is helping to expand its borders. The Word of Wisdom might be a special rule for our community, but we also expect ourselves to be exemplars of industry and sobriety. We put on our Sunday best and go to church for all to see because public performance is part of our worship and our message is urgent and the rest of the world can do what it wants but our neighbors need to see that somebody, somewhere, still cares about observing the Sabbath (or whatever it is they see us doing).
Hugh’s model of canonical life might also have particular relevance for Mormon scholars with respect to the broader church. I would like to see less reading – of texts, of documents, of scripture – in splendid isolation, governed only by academic discipline, leaving narratives problematized and meaning indefinitely postponed while the yokels in the pews are left to fend for themselves. I would instead like to see more acknowledgment of responsibility towards the community as a whole, more exemplary modeling of scholarly habits, and more pastoral edification through academic lectio.