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An Uncertain Future for Conservative Christians: An Interview with Rod Dreher by Gergely Szilvay

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An Uncertain Future for Conservative Christians: An Interview with Rod Dreher

SZILVAY: You were born and live in Louisiana, part of the southern United States. In fact, in Hungary, some scholars have found interesting similarities between the ‘Southern Agrarians’ and the early Hungarian peasant writer’s movement. Does such agrarianism still inform Southern Conservatism?

DREHER: A Russian-American woman I know moved from New Jersey to the American South after her husband, an Orthodox priest, died. She wanted to study Southern literature. She told me that the classic literature of the American South is a lot like Russian literature. This no doubt has to do with agrarianism, with aristocratic values, and with a hierarchical social system, as well as the fact that the South is more robustly Christian than the rest of the U.S. But those days are long gone. Agrarianism is dead because the way of life that produced it is dead.

In the year 1900, 38% of American workers labored on farms or elsewhere in the agricultural economy. Today, it is less than 2%. Rural towns all over America are dying because there is no economy to support them. I was born in 1967 and raised in a rural part of Louisiana. Already the farm economy there was beginning to die. Today it is gone. The young people growing up there today are socialized according to the values of the Internet and the mass media.

Wherever the Internet is, there is modernity, and there is no safe space. Some years ago, after my younger sister died, my wife and I moved with our children to my hometown. My town is considered to be an ideal place to raise children. It is beautiful, people are kind and welcoming, and the country air is clean.

My wife and I homeschooled our children in those days, so when we arrived in the town, my wife searched to see if there were other homeschooling parents in the town. She found one couple and asked them why they had removed their children from the town’s public school. It is thought to be one of the best public schools in the state, and it is at the center of the community’s life. The mother of that couple said that one day, her 12-year-old son came home from school and told her that his friends at school were watching hard-core pornography on their smartphones. She and her husband decided that they had to take their kids out of that school.

Wherever the Internet is, there is modernity, and there is no safe space.

To be clear, this was not the fault of the school, which banned smartphones on campus. It is the fault of local parents, who buy their young children smartphones and give them total freedom. This is a small town in the Deep South, a place where most people would consider themselves to be quite conservative. They have no awareness of how they are undermining their own children, as well as the things they claim to value. This problem is everywhere in the U.S. today.

All of this has had a powerful effect on Southern conservatism. The South is the stronghold of the Republican Party, but the conservatism there has become a strongly nationalistic, populist kind. As I said, this isn’t always a bad thing. What concerns me is that too many Southern conservatives today reject the conservatism that is characterized by respect for tradition, for religion, for hierarchy, and for moral restraint. They have instead chosen a form of right-wing politics that pays no attention to tradition, that embraces a vulgar form of religion, that rejects all hierarchy, and that sees moral restraint as useless.

Southerners used to have strong families, and to believe in the family as an institution. Today, though, the white working class—which has long been a bulwark of Southern conservatism—is suffering a collapse of family life. It is remarkable. I was raised in the working class, and I tell you, the kind of moral collapse we are seeing today did not exist fifty years ago. Honestly, I don’t know what is going to come next. Traditional conservatism—Southern or otherwise—is based on a shared sense of an enduring moral order. We are fast losing that.

R.R. Reno of First Things once said that the main concern of Americans is not freedom but security—and that this goes to the heart of American conservatism. Do you agree with him?

Yes, to a point. Popular American conservatism doesn’t know how to speak meaningfully except in terms of “freedom”. But then, this is more generally true of America, a truly liberal country in the sense of believing that exalting individual freedom is the greatest good. The problem is that the loss of security among the people is tied to the expansion of individualism. The left wants sexual freedom, but prefers not to see the broken families, the fatherless children, and the poverty that comes with single parenthood. The right wants economic freedom but prefers not to see the social consequences of liberalized economics.

On the right, the leaders of the Republican Party, as well as the right-wing intellectuals of the older generations, are without vision. All they can think to do is to revive the corpse of Ronald Reagan. Reagan was a great man for his time, and exactly the man America needed. But an entire generation has passed since he left the White House. Conditions have changed—but American conservatism has not changed with it. The 18th century British statesman Edmund Burke said that a state without the capacity to change is without the capacity to conserve itself. The same is true for political parties.

You have advocated a “green conservatism”. Many European conservatives find sympathy with this. In fact, some even view the Republican Party in the U.S. with suspicion—as exponents of neoliberalism. Why does the idea of “green conservatism” seem so strange for mainstream American conservatives?

American conservatism is, in fact, neoliberalism. The anti-environmentalist sentiment within American conservatism is almost fanatical. We believe that we should have the right to do anything we want to the natural world. It is bizarre to anyone who knows anything about philosophical conservatism, or European conservatism. Here’s something even stranger: generally speaking, American liberals favor protecting the environment, but believe that they have the right to do anything they want with their own bodies. American conservatives are the opposite. I cannot find a good explanation for this, but if you speak to your average American liberal or conservative about it, they don’t understand what you are talking about.

It wasn’t always like this. In the 1950s, when conservatism was a minority position in U.S. politics, there were two basic schools of American conservatism. Traditionalists—people like me—were more interested in matters of culture, society, and religion. Libertarians were more interested in protecting the individual from statism. We realized that the rise of the powerful central state was a common threat to us, as well as the presence of world communism. So, we formed a practical alliance, called “fusionism” by its advocates on the Right. In time, though, libertarianism came to dominate thoroughly, and to crush traditionalism. A big reason this happened was because the faction that ought to have been advocates for traditionalism—namely Christians—were heavily dominated by Evangelical Protestants, who believed that capitalism in all its forms was entirely consonant with the will of God.

More deeply, though, I think this has to do with the way American culture has changed since the 1960s. We have become far more consumerist and individualistic than we ever were before. In 1966, a great cultural critic, Philip Rieff, wrote a prophetic book called The Triumph of The Therapeutic. Rieff was a secular Jew who had deep insight into Western culture. He said that the West had cut itself off from its own traditions, and unable to deal with the death of God, had turned to a “therapeutic” remedy for its anxiety. That is, the West no longer aspired to live by any higher values but decided that the best way to deal with its anxieties would be to find ways to feel better about itself, through comfort or other forms of distraction.

Rieff said that this narcissistic way of life was doomed in the long run. Interestingly, he said that Western liberalism in this way was a more radical philosophy than Soviet communism, in that it dissolved all morals, traditions, and values that stood in the way of serving the Self. In this sense, the United States may well be the most radical nation in history. We never think about our past, and rarely think about our future. We live in the everlasting now, heedless of the destruction we cause to our families, our communities, to the world God has given us, to our traditions, and so on.

In his Green Philosophy, Roger Scruton said conservatives need to take back “green” topics. He wrote: “You can’t globalize the old rural economy. By its very nature, it’s a local thing.” Do you agree with him?

There’s an American writer named Wendell Berry, now quite an old man, who has been arguing the same thing all his life. Berry considers himself a man of the left—in the sense of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt left—and he can’t figure out why younger conservatives like me have discovered his work, and champion it. We do so because we recognize, as does Scruton, that a proper conservatism has to conserve what is local. You can’t do that without first learning to love it. This is a big reason that I love Europe so much: the diversity of local cultures, especially food cultures, delights me. I grew up in a country where local cultures did not run very deep—ours is a young country, after all—and were being obliterated by mass culture propagated through mass media.

We have become far more consumerist and individualistic than we ever were before

Some years ago, I was trying to understand why my mother, born in 1943 into rural poverty, hated cooking with things from the garden, and with meats raised locally. It made no sense to me. My wife’s mother, in Texas, is the same way. Then I discovered that in the postwar era, the food industry launched a propaganda campaign to convince American women that home-cooked food was in some sense “dirty,” and that if they loved their families, they would trust industrial food, because it was more hygienic. It was insane, really, but it had a tremendous impact on my mother’s generation. When my wife and I had our first child, we prepared his baby food at home, using ingredients from the farmer’s market. My wife’s mother expressed great concern that the food would not be healthy or safe for the baby, because we didn’t buy it already prepared, in a jar, at the supermarket.

By the way, my mother and my wife’s mother are both conservatives, or at least would call themselves conservatives. There is also a weird class conflict here. The kinds of Americans who have embraced farmer’s markets, local food traditions, and meat raised on local farms, tend to be a certain kind of urban middle class person … people like me, actually.

I remember a decade or so ago having an argument with my sister in her kitchen. She lived in the countryside, where we both grew up, and I lived in Dallas at the time. She considered me to be a big snob because I bought beef and chicken from a local Texas farmer, and shopped for fruits and vegetables at the farmer’s market. It is true that this kind of food is more expensive than what you buy at the supermarket, but my wife and I saved money by not buying junk food. We could afford to buy higher quality meats and vegetables because of it. The point is that it wasn’t so much more expensive to buy from farmers directly, and anyway, I didn’t care how my sister chose to buy her groceries. But she saw our food-buying habits in terms of class conflict. If it doesn’t make sense to you that a right-wing housewife who lives in the countryside considers city people who buy their food directly from rural farmers to be snobbish elites, well then, welcome to the crazy mental world of American conservatism.

One more story helps illuminate the mindset of Americans. My parents were working-class people who lived in the countryside outside the nearest village, which had less than 2,000 people in it. As a child, I was raised by them in the 1970s to dislike the rich old women in town who advocated for historical preservation, including the preservation of old buildings. Our town is a beautiful village of the Deep South, with real charm. It was only when I became an adult that I realized how much our town owed to those rich old women.

If it had been left up to people like my mom and dad, all those old buildings would have been torn down to build strip malls, to increase the possibility for shopping convenience. To be honest, those old women did not always get it right, but I am very grateful for their vision, and for their profound conservatism. They saved so many beautiful old buildings. In the U.S., among most conservatives, especially populist conservatives, there is an innate hostility to aesthetics. Walmart is beloved, and they also like their churches to look like Walmarts. This is a radical difference from European conservatism, and why in some respects my conservatism is much more European than American.

Isn’t it utopian to think that Christians can separate themselves from the rest of society, as you seem to argue in The Benedict Option?

I am against utopia. Man is not perfectible, and the testimony of 20th century communism shows that those who believe they can create heaven on earth will actually create hell. I don’t believe that it is possible to create the perfect Christian society, even in microcosm. I also don’t believe that most Christians can or should choose to live like the Amish, living in radical separation from the rest of society. In the US, some of my Christian critics falsely accuse me of advocating this isolationism, even though the actual text of my book is very clear on this point.

But shouldn’t Christians live in society as the “salt of the Earth”?

Well, yes, but as Our Lord also said, if the salt loses its taste, then it is useless, and should be thrown out. The problem with Christians today is that far too many of us have assimilated into post-Christian modernity. We try so hard to make ourselves acceptable to the secular world that we lose what makes us distinct. In turn, we surrender the things that we, as followers of Jesus Christ, have to give to the world. The Benedict Option is a call to return to our roots, to be authentically and distinctly Christian, even if the world hates us for it. We have no choice but to be in the world, but if we are to be in it as faithful Christians, we must devote more time and passion to formation and discipleship. To say it is an “either/or” is to present The Benedict Option as a false choice. It is, rather, a “both/and.”

What do you think of Pope Francis?

I want to answer this carefully, because I am no longer a Catholic. I left the Catholic Church for Orthodoxy just as Benedict XVI’s papacy began. I have long been an admirer of Ratzinger and was heartbroken to see him abdicate. About Francis, I am skeptical towards him. It seems to me that he generates far too much confusion, and is far too unconcerned with tradition and Catholic orthodoxy.

The problem with Christians today is that far too many of us have assimilated into post-Christian modernity.

In any case, it is clear what Pope Francis thinks about me. His close adviser, the Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, gave a speech at the University of Notre Dame in October, saying that The Benedict Option was against Francis’s principles. Spadaro mischaracterized The Benedict Option as nothing but a strategy of retreat, and he put this in opposition to Francis’s message, which is to send Catholics out into the world. Well, aside from being an incorrect characterization, I must ask of Father Spadaro (and the Pope): send them out to do what? In the U.S., very few young Catholics know anything substantive about Catholicism. I’m afraid the Pope preaches an emotional form of Catholicism that lacks weight and rigor.

It grieves me to see that many of the Catholics who are most faithful to the Church’s teachings, and who will remain with the Church no matter what happens, are those who he treats the most badly. Plus—and I know this is a vitally important issue to Hungarians—I think the Pope is catastrophically wrong about migration to Europe. His is the kind of sentimentality that will result in the destruction of European Christianity, or what is left of it.

What is your opinion about Viktor Orbán?

I don’t know about Orbán’s politics well enough to comment on specifics. Based on what he says, I would say that he is a prophetic, quite possibly heroic, leader. He has more vision than most of his western European peers. In general, I find the politics of the Visegrad countries to be fascinating, and a sign of what must happen elsewhere in the West. Liberalism is dying—that is clear.

In the autumn, I was visiting Paris, and had coffee with one of the country’s top intellectuals. He was in despair about the situation there regarding both the rise of Islamism and the inability of secular French society to find a reason to exist. I asked him where he found his hope. “I have no hope,” he said to me. I told him that my hope is in Jesus Christ. He told me that this hope is not possible for the French, “because we have decided that God does not exist.”

That man sees the future of godless Europe. Now, it is true that Hungary, like the Czech Republic and Slovakia, is as godless as western Europe. It is also true that you cannot return the Christian faith to a people by voting for certain politicians. Nonetheless, politicians can create an environment in which the faith can return and grow. It seems to me from the outside that this is what Prime Minister Orbán is trying to do, both by defending the country against an immigration tide, and by resisting the strategies of George Soros, European Union bureaucrats, and European media elites. It might not succeed, and in any case, much depends on the Hungarian people, and their ability to rebuild civil society and recover their lost faith.

It is not enough to say “no” to Brussels, to Soros, and to the current European elites. One must also say “yes” to a positive vision. Prime Minister Orbán is absolutely correct that Western-style liberalism will mean the death of Christianity, and that it must be resisted. But he cannot do it alone; politics is necessary, but not sufficient.

There are others like us—conservative columnists and journalists—trying to influence society. But aren’t we all just ‘tilting at windmills’?

Probably, but what else can we do? We have to be as truthful as we can, both with our readers and with ourselves. We are preaching a countercultural message. In my case, I am trying to talk to right-of-center Christians—my own tribe—and tell them that if we don’t change, and return in a strong sense to our traditions, we are going to be dissolved in liquid modernity. It is happening every day! But few people want to hear it because they don’t want to change themselves or their lives.

The propaganda barrage is very hard to resist

This is all too human. Some, however, will hear and act on it, and it is for them that we write. It is also for our children. I have three children, and one day hope to have grandchildren. I want them to know that their father fought as hard as he could, in the best way he knew how, to make it a better world for them. Not a calmer world, or a safer world, or a richer world—though peace, security, and prosperity are good things—but above all, a world in which they could live as faithful Christians.

How has gay and transgender activism become so influential?

There are several factors. First is the collapse of traditional sexual morality among heterosexuals in the wake of the Sexual Revolution, which began in the 1960s. The Sexual Revolution changed marriage from a covenant tied to procreation and made it a mere contract. It was easy, therefore, for gay activists to persuade heterosexuals that their opposition to gay marriage was based only on taboo.

Second, the Sexual Revolution also taught the West to believe that sexual desire is at the core of what it means to be a human being. It has therefore become inconceivable to many that denying sexual desire is possible, or even good.

Third, LGBT activists have total sympathy in the media. In 2015, a respected poll found that most Americans believe that the number of homosexuals in the country is well over 20 percent of the population. The true number is just under four percent, but the insane over-estimation did not surprise me. The media obsess over gays, lesbians, and transgenders. The propaganda barrage is very hard to resist. All of this fits perfectly with advanced liberalism.

In 1992, Anthony Kennedy, one of our Supreme Court justices, wrote in a decision affirming the constitutional right to abortion: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, and of the mystery of human life.” Kennedy, by the way, was appointed by Ronald Reagan! What he says is nihilistic, ultimately, but I am certain that nine out of 10 Americans would agree with it. LGBT activists know this and know that there is nothing to stand in their way. Those of us who do try to resist are denounced as bigots and haters—and because it’s hard for people to explain themselves, it looks like their views are nothing but blind prejudice.

I think the rapid growth of LGBT rights—indeed, LGBT privileges—is a symptom of some deeper disharmony in American society, and indeed in Western liberalism. It’s why I believe we are living in what you might call Weimar America. I see my task as helping my fellow conservative Christians to prepare for hard times ahead.

Gergely Szilvay is a senior fellow at Mandiner. He earned his Ph.D. in political theory from Pázmány Péter Catholic University.

This is an abridgement of an interview that originally appeared in Hungarian in the November 2018 edition of Mandiner. It appears by permission.

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