This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
The American writer Rod Dreher is an unfamiliar figure in Britain, where his diagnoses of the problems ‘“liquid modernity” presents for moral living are incomprehensibly alien to most Tories. Conservative electoral success, allied to the natural Blair-style social liberalism of its parliamentary leadership, has seen conservatism fade away here as an explicitly creedal enterprise. Since the death of Roger Scruton, no one figure writes in a language Tory politicians want to or can speak. But abroad these conversations are happening, and Rod Dreher has been at the centre — or in front of them — for most of this century.
The experience of going home was bittersweet
These ructions are often labelled “populism” (or worse) by many British commentators, who dismiss or demonise them and move on. But what is actually going on is far more complex, with parallel revivals of religious conservatism, communitarianism and nationalism. The Reagan-Thatcher consensus on economics is under serious question, and it is now the right, not the left, that is seeking to offer a serious challenge to globalisation.
Small town roots
Dreher first came to widespread attention in America with the publication of his book, Crunchy Cons: The New Conservative Counterculture and Its Return to Roots, in which he called for a return to an older (and more European) mode of conservatism which questioned the libertarianism of the modern right, and looked to a religiously-informed localism.
Born in 1967, he was brought up in St Francisville, a small town in Louisiana, by conservative Methodist parents. In America, small town origins are either romanticised as pastoral cradles of future greatness or as close-minded hick villages to be transcended by the triumphant individual.
Dreher movingly speaks of a far more ambiguous relationship with his roots, however. He describes a troubled relationship with a family that could never quite forgive him for leaving, and making it in the big city — he’d got above himself as far as they were concerned. But at the same time he felt a deep longing for the sense of structure, community and belonging he grew up with.
A formative experience was being bullied at school, and the failure of the adults of his tight-knit community to do anything about it. On one field trip he was attacked by a group of other boys, and describes his teachers stepping over — and past — him as he was pinned to the floor crying for help. They, the responsible adults, didn’t want to offend the cool kids. Is this a conservative story, or a liberal one? Did he witness the harms of conformity and hierarchy in a closed community, or a crisis of adult responsibility and a lack of discipline and authority?
The more I spoke to him, the more I got a sense of two insights, held in productive tension: a deep love and reverence for community and tradition, yet an intense awareness of its fallibility in practice.
Some conservative careers are a squalid succession of ideological trends, naively embraced with equal enthusiasm. Dreher’s trajectory is something much more interesting — a series of disillusionments driven not by cynicism, but by a burning desire for an ideal community: a vision of the good life and the good society.
The first and greatest disillusionment, and one that still troubles Dreher to this day — he calls it a “spiritual wound that will never heal” — is his falling out with Roman Catholicism.
In 2001 Rod Dreher was comfortably ensconced in the world of political Catholicism. He and his wife were converts, and loyal adherents to both a John Paul II-style Catholic faith, and American conservative Catholicism.
This faith provided an alternative to the small town Methodism he grew up with, one that had the broad horizons, and maybe ambitions, the former lacked, but shared its deep roots. It was a path he felt drawn to ever since visiting Chartres Cathedral as a 17-year-old — here it seemed was a living symbol of a faith and a civilisation that could answer every human need and question, a home for a homeless soul.
It was this influence that gives a specifically European flavour to his conservatism, and it is Catholicism that has been one of the main vectors by which anti-capitalist and anti-globalist ideas have entered the discourse of the US right. Dreher, like others, was strongly influenced by Catholic social teaching — the communitarian and distributist challenge to both communism and capitalism offered by texts such as Rerum novarum.
He’d found a faith, a community and a worldview, and was meeting with ever greater professional success. He talks about being “almost militant, in the way that converts can be” and that he “felt like part of a tribe” of religious conservatives. It could easily have been the end of the story. But like many awkward souls, Dreher has always had an issue with tribes.
It’s a world that’s easy to get lost in, politically and spiritually
He was covering a topic that was then still only on the boundaries of public consciousness: sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. He spoke to one Father Thomas Doyle who said to him “if you keep going down this path, it will take you to places far darker than you can imagine”. But he kept going, even though this was “like [being] the hobbit who looks into the Palantir and fries his brain”. Dreher always thought that if he had the “syllogisms” of his religion straight, the intellectual coherence of his faith, nothing could shake it. But by 2005, as the abuse scandal continued to break, he and his wife found themselves losing their religion.
They turned to orthodoxy, attending an Eastern Orthodox church, and converting in 2006. But, “I had to make a conscious decision not to be the sort of Orthodox that I was a Catholic.” For him, his Catholicism had become about intellectual pride and an excessive idolisation of religious authority.
Midway through his story, and beset by crisis, Rod returned home. The event that precipitated this return was his sister’s battle with cancer and eventual death. 2011’s The Little Way of Ruthie Leming beautifully and sorrowfully recounts their childhood in Louisiana and the end of her story. Yet the challenges of faith were matched by the experience of family life.
Dreher had left his DC Catholic conservative bubble, hungry for something simpler and more grounded, and, in the midst of family tragedy, hoped to repair frayed ties. Dreher had never got on with his working-man father: “He wanted to be in the woods,;I wanted to have my head in a book.” John Paul II served as an alternative father figure, one who “embodied all the good things about my own dad, but who was more compassionate and intellectual”.
But the experience of going home was bittersweet: “My family was not what I thought it was”. His sister had taken the path he had not. She stayed in her home town, married her high school sweetheart, and became a teacher. He felt constricted by his community, bullied and oppressed by it, and got out as soon as he could. Ruthie was beloved by the community, of whom she was an active and generous member, and in which her family had lived for five generations. But she was the one who got cancer and died.
When Ruthie fell ill, a thousand people turned up to fundraise for her medical bills. They were all there: the bullies who had tormented him, the teachers who had let it happen, giving their time and money to help his sister. After he and his wife moved in 2011 to support his grieving family, they found themselves mysteriously rebuffed by his sister’s daughters. Eventually one of them explained why: “Listen Uncle Rod, our mother raised us to think you went to the city and got above yourself and you’re not to be trusted.” For them it wasn’t just a matter of inherited prejudice, it was a question of honouring their mother’s memory and thus her feuds.
Honour culture is almost impossible to understand for those who haven’t experienced it, but it runs deep in the US South, especially rural areas. Dreher’s corner of the South was settled by Tories fleeing the American Revolution, with a mixture of English planters and Scots-Irish: “The one thing we know how to do better than anyone else is hold a grudge.” Part of the genius of watching Dreher relate life and death lies in seeing his struggle to transcend such honest bitterness.
Re-engage with conservatism
Dreher has long written about what we would call class politics. He recommended that US conservatives, who associate environmentalism and high culture with effete leftist elites, should re-engage with those things as naturally conservative — going back, essentially, to William Morris and John Ruskin. His small town, big city divide is our Great Expectations fable of struggling with humble origins.
But in America, and increasingly worldwide too, class is becoming geographically concentrated, with urban elites allying with the ethnically diverse urban poor to push a cosmopolitan form of politics, whilst rich suburbanites and the rural poor drive a more parochial conservatism.
It’s a world that’s easy to get lost in, politically and spiritually. Dreher’s story raises hard questions. Are history, tradition and community the problem, or the solution? Are they an escape from a modernity, or do they trap us in the past?
Reeling from the “double blow” of losing confidence in both his religion and his patrimony, Dreher contracted a chronic case of mononucleosis — a rare form of the disease, exacerbated, his doctor believed, by extreme stress. “You’re never going to be well unless you move away.” But he stayed — his parents were old and needed his help.
Dreher’s mix of apocalyptic diagnosis and achievable small-scale treatment is compelling
He sought help from his therapist, he turned to his priest and to prayer. But what ultimately got him through this part of his life was a fourteenth-century poet: Dante Alighieri. Like a lot of us, he’d always been aware of The Divine Comedy as something he ought to read, but had never actually picked it up. But one day he saw it in a bookstore and read the opening lines: “Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark / For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”
He saw himself in it immediately, and read it “not like a literary exercise” but “like a map that could read me to rescue”. He came to believe that he’d placed family and a sense of place above God himself, especially in the form of his father. In the end, he deepened his faith, reconciled with his dying father, and forgave him.
So how, I asked, had a man who went on this kind of intellectual journey not ended up a liberal? Why was he instead at the heart of European nationalism and conservatism, speaking up for tradition and community? How had this reader of Dante returned to the mortal city in his 2018 book, The Benedict Option, in which he calls for a new kind of “intentional community” of religious people organising locally amidst what he sees as the collapse of liberal modernity?
But the pessimism is the point. Like Tolkien, Dreher is quite prepared to see human history as a form of “long defeat”, and his The Benedict Option, which draws heavily on Alasdair Macintyre’s After Virtue, is optimistic about the possibility of the development of the human person through education and community, but sceptical about the overall state of the culture. For a European right that feels itself besieged, both literally and metaphorically, Dreher’s mix of apocalyptic diagnosis and achievable small-scale treatment is compelling.
After an invitation to the Hungary-based Danube Institute, Dreher took on a visiting fellowship and overnight Hungary was all over US right-wing media (thanks to the shared interest of Dreher’s friend Tucker Carlson). American conservatives were suddenly talking about a different kind of right-wing politics, and the liberal left furiously reacted with accusations of a worldwide fascist conspiracy.
In some ways he’s utterly at odds with traditional English sensibilities
I asked him how he reconciles his scepticism of authority, and the idolatry of family and place, with Orban’s Hungary, and nationalism in general. Dreher replied he was a “reluctant nationalist”, but “believes nations are important”. His defence of nationhood is not triumphalist, he suggested, but essentially conservative, praising the diversity of cultures in Europe, and opposed to what he calls “the McDonaldisation of Europe”, arguing that America has been turned into a “shithole” by relentless capitalism.
His perspective on state power is realist — it is always going to exist, and if it isn’t used to defend basic natural goods like the family, or religious faith, it will be wielded by those who are their relentless enemy. And if he’s sceptical of traditional authority, he’s even more wary of the panglossian narratives of modern liberalism. He’s determined to break the taboo on the right against using political levers to restrain the power of big business.
But having made the improbable leap from America to Continental Europe, can Dreher be translated into a British milieu? In some ways he’s utterly at odds with traditional English sensibilities. He’s disarmingly open, fluently and earnestly laying out his life story over the course of our conversation.
His religiosity, for all its fascination with Europe and tradition, is very American: apocalyptic and with a passionate, personal relationship with his saviour which he describes as “an active life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ”. There’s more than a touch of revivalist preacher to Rod.
But here is something we’ve lost: passionate self-expression and apocalypticism were once defining features of many religious communities in this country, and those passions still quietly burn away in the pages of Milton and Blake. His influence is already being felt in Britain, as I learned when I spoke to Daniel French, an Anglican priest and one of Dreher’s English supporters.
French believes that the shock of the pandemic, in which many ordinary Anglicans were horrified by the bishops’ willingness to close churches, and their increasingly managerialist agenda for the Church, has helped generate an appetite for something very different.
With the establishment apparently blind to, or complicit in, the dwindling of British Christianity, French believes The Benedict Option presents an alternative that meets the scale of the crisis: “It is naive to think that change in Christian fortunes is just one revival tent away. The Benedict Option points rather to our corporate journey out of exile requiring several generations of introspection.” Conservatism and Christianity alike may have to accept some time in the wilderness if they’re to recapture their soul, and to truly revive.
According to Daniel French there is an increasingly “underground” aspect to conservative Christian life in the UK — believers have woken up to the fact that the culture is against them, and in many cases even traditional religious leaders too.
Another of his UK allies, Dr James Orr, believes that Rod Dreher is destined to have a significant impact on our conservatism. “His insights are proving more salient with every week that passes, not only for Christians but for all those who are beginning to feel the consequences of rejecting the West’s Christian inheritance.
“As hyper-progressivism continues to colonise the UK public square with neuralgic imports from the US culture wars, I predict that more and more people in the UK will start to take Dreher’s jeremiads seriously and pay attention to his constructive proposals.”
Whether or not James Orr is right, Dreher is interesting not just for who he is, but for what he represents. He stands at a newly emergent nexus of traditional European conservatism, English realism, and American romanticism and religiosity. With an increasingly sterile politics, caught between technocratic centrism and the hollow battles of the culture wars, there’s a desperate need for new ideas, and fresh approaches. This is a man worth listening to.
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