Rod Dreher at The American Conservative in response to significant losses on cultural issues in the US suggested that social conservatives should adopt what he calls the Benedict Option. More or less it means those who cease trying to make the public sphere what they consider moral and instead create more local and self-contained communities. Last week Hal Boyd at the Deseret News talked of this option for Latter-day Saint communities.
Whether you agree or disagree with Dreher I think Boyd makes a good point by noting that the central grievance of those with no religious affiliation is politics. (Typically conservative politics) I am skeptical this move away from the public sphere to private community would help though. As I’ve argued, I think we’re seeing a broader social shift where people simply don’t trust institutions or experts. This is part and parcel of the general social distrust in schools, government, science and much more. My guess is that we’ll find populist alternatives are far worse for all the very legitimate problems in our institutions. Possibly, somewhat as happened after the turmoil of the late 60’s and early 70’s, we’ll rediscover the value in our institutions.
One might well argue that Mormons have spent most of their time living the Benedict Option in that we largely pulled out of society to make our own. Even though perhaps we’ve not pulled out of politics, especially local politics, enough for truly adopting the Benedict option. Still, I’m not sure our time in the wilderness was all good. I think Pres. Hinkley’s great effort to reach out both to other religions as well as the larger secular society was inspired. It’s something we ought be doing.
The problem is that as soon as you work in the public sphere even to aid the poor and afflicted, you face the problem of politics. People simply don’t all agree upon solutions. As we’re seeing in Salt Lake Cities with efforts to better disperse the burden of caring for the homeless, NIMBY drives slow efforts to help the poor. Politics is unavoidable. Thinking we can avoid it is a fool’s errand.
Politics is the art of making compromise. What we’ve somehow lost in recent years is the recognition of the importance of pluralism. That is an ability to think someone is wrong, disagree with them, yet respect them as people and provide them a place for their ideas. While there are good reasons to distrust politicians, my sense is that the increased hate by all sides to politicians is due to a loss of respect for pluralism. And it’s most definitely not just one side doing it. Fewer and fewer want compromise.
The Benedict Option really arises out of a failure to ‘win’ in the public sphere. It’s a kind of pulling back but one that misses the fundamental problem of pluralism. When many aspects of social conservative ideas were dominant they could have made more space for those who disagreed with those views. For instance insuring that the rights of those in non-standard relationships were held. At the time the eventual triumph of those views seemed unlikely to most, but inevitable to me. It was a time when those in power could easily have protected their view of the sacredness of traditional marriage and relationships while making space for others. They didn’t and then when inevitably power shifted social conservatives didn’t know what to do.
If we pull back from society we will hurt us all. There are very real issues that still remain in society dealing with the weakest in society from the long term unemployed to the unborn. The religious have to have their voice heard. However I fear that America is being presented with a false dichotomy of pulling back too much or supporting populist movements hoping its leaders will protect our space while turning a blind eye to how they flout our very values.
None of this is to say we shouldn’t be focused on the local. We should. It’s there where we can make the greatest change. The government that in many ways arguably affects us the most is the government that most people ignore. Few people know the problems in their community let alone are working for solutions. Local elections can be swayed by a tiny number of activists precisely because so few vote in an informed way let alone work to ensure good candidates. (Often by the time the election rolls around it’s too late to have real change)
It’s true our practices of home teaching, visiting teaching, leaders who worry about the practical problems of members and just helping our neighbors is important. It’s sad that so many people in America lack that sense of community. But perhaps rather than pulling back the solution is to expand what we’re already doing. Become more informed about your state, city and county representatives. Make sure you do good deeds for the non-members around you not because you’re trying to convert them but because they are your brothers and sisters. And most important listen to and respect their choices even if you think them wrong.
 For the record while I find him consistently interesting to read, I also find he frequently overstates his case as well as the problem he is seeking to address. Although one might well argue a good pundit’s skill is in making people think often by way of hyperbole. So this isn’t necessarily a critique. Just that one should read him carefully.
 Had social conservatives more clearly separated the state and religion in the 90’s I think many of the current issues could have been avoided. Both in terms of how so many look down on religion precisely because of these social issues but also in terms of providing a solution all could agree upon. I favored separating out marriage from state legal issues, but it was a very unpopular view at the time. Now we’re stuck in a place where people seriously pose the Benedict Option.