Back when I subscribed to the American Conservative, Rod Dreher was one of their stable of interesting writers. He was a self-styled "Crunchy Con" who shared that magazine's often-critical attitude toward capitalism and the culture it created, while of course looking to religious traditions for answers. Dreher is profiled in the latest New Yorker because his latest book, The Benedict Option, has received a lot of attention in the world of opinion. It's not a Robert Ludlum pastiche, nor has it anything to do with the Pope Emeritus. Instead, Dreher has called on conservative Christians to give up on the culture wars and focus on building their own faith-based communities, not so much to be doctrinally pure but in the hope of achieving a greater sense of community than modern American culture allows. Dreher is critical of a "liquid modernity" that leaves everyone supposedly rootless, and he doesn't see Donald Trump as the answer. In Joshua Rothman's paraphrase, Dreher believes that Christian support for Trump "suggested a weakness in their faith." He finds many Christians self-centered in a way he dates back to the 14th century, blaming this on "nominalism," the idea that the things God says are good -- and by secular extension, the things men say are good -- are good simply because God says they are, not because the good is a reality God is bound to respect. Some of this is obscure stuff that readers can pursue further with Google's help if they wish. I only bring it up to set up something telling Dreher said in his interviews with Rothman. It's not so much telling about himself -- make of Dreher and his ideas what you will -- but pretty accurately describes a reactionary, envious, hopelessly bitter sort of conservatism that I hear expressed almost daily, which Dreher had to deal with, to his horror, from his own family.
After his sister's death, Dreher moved back to his home town of St. Francisville LA, hoping that the close-knit traditional community he'd rediscovered there might provide greater spiritual satisfaction. He found that, as far as St. Francisville was concerned, he'd been in the big city (Philadelphia) too long. "They just wouldn't accept me," Dreher says, "They just could not accept that I was so different from them....All that mattered was that I wasn't like them." The problem, dating back to his student days, was that Dreher was making his living as a writer.
"They had this idea that, if you did what you were supposed to do, you would succeed," Dreher continues. So far, so much like Barack Obama, actually. Here's the difference: "I didn't do those things, but I didn't fail, and that drove them crazy."
It drives a lot of right-wingers crazy. It fuels their resentment of programs or proposals to make future generations' lives easier. They cry that it's unfair that they as taxpayers may have to subsidize those programs, but it's the idea that people might not have to work as hard or sacrifice as much as they did that really enrages them. It's probably an unfair way to describe them, but they seem resentful that younger people might not live lives as miserable as theirs seem to have been, as if history itself could prove unfair to them. Add to that the feeling that some higher power requires every generation to live the same way and you have the makings of a great toxicity of spirit in this country. From what I read of Dreher now, I'd guess, since he still believes in religious obligations, that materialism is the real problem. That materialism may be what he means when he criticizes "an individualism at the center of both parties ... that I find really incongruous with what I believe to be true because of my religion." Dreher is so committed to a sacralized, ritualized life that he has converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, but only one with a dangerously romanticized sense of history could think that that or any form of Christianity or monotheism somehow made life in, say, the Middle Ages okay or at least bearable for ordinary people. He seems to be looking for something that he expects to find only in revealed religion. But taking his thought out of the religious context, it may be possible to agree with him when he says, "People today ... want close community without sacrifice. They want the good things, and they want to edit out the bad things," by which Dreher means those aspects of communal life ("being up in each other's business") that are uncomfortable for individualists. But it need not be a sacrifice to the past, and probably it should not be, for that would likely be in vain.