In a review of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, Adrian Vermeule offers an alternative to Deneen’s plea for a renewed localism, and to the related counsel of Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option. Vermeule sees in a handful of biblical figures a model of civic engagement for Christians to follow:
Joseph, Mordecai, Esther, and Daniel, however, mainly attempt to ensure the survival of their faith communities in an interim age of exile and dispossession. They do not evangelize or preach with a view to bringing about the birth of an entirely new regime, from within the old. They mitigate the long defeat for those who become targets of the regime in liberalism’s twilight era, and this will surely have to be the main aim for some time to come. In the much longer run, it is permissible to dream, however fitfully, that other models may one day become relevant, in a postliberal future of uncertain shape. One such model is St. Cecilia, who, forced into marriage against her vows, converted her pagan husband; their joint martyrdom helped to spark the explosive growth of the early church. Another is of course St. Paul himself, who by the end of Acts of the Apostles preached the advent of a new order from within the very urban heart of the imperium.
Here too there is no hint of retreat into localism. There is instead a determination to co-opt and transform the decaying regime from within its own core. It may thus appear providential that liberalism, despite itself, has prepared a state capable of great tasks, as a legacy to bequeath to a new and doubtless very different future. The vast bureaucracy created by liberalism in pursuit of a mirage of depoliticized governance may, by the invisible hand of Providence, be turned to new ends, becoming the great instrument with which to restore a substantive politics of the good.
This is a powerful and in many ways beautiful vision. Perhaps the most attractive element of it, to me, is the commendation of limited goals on our part — the mere “attempt to ensure the survival of [our] faith communities in an interim age of exile and dispossession” — that may, in the providential wisdom of God, lead to something much greater: the transformation of a “decaying regime” into a “great instrument with which to restore a substantive politics of the good.” One should never expect something like that but it is meet and right to hope for it.
But I think Vermeule’s vision is missing one absolutely essential element. My question for him is: Where will these Josephs and Mordecais and Esthers and Daniels come from? People who are deeply grounded in and deeply committed to their faith tradition who are also capable of rising to high levels of influence in government and education don’t exactly grow on trees. Vermeule’s model reminds me of someone who says he knows how I can become a billionaire: “First, get a million dollars….” Josephs and Mordecais and Esthers and Daniels can indeed do great things — if we can come by them. But how are Josephs and Mordecais and Esthers and Daniels produced?
What Vermeule is overlooking, it seems to me, is the simple fact that the liberal order catechizes. One of the wings of the liberal order that does this especially effectively is graduate school. Time and again over the years I have seen idealistic young scholars-in-training say, “Oh, I don’t really believe all that stuff they try to inculcate you with in grad school; I’ll just learn the language and use it until I get my PhD, and then I’ll be free to be myself.” But then “until I get my PhD” becomes “until I get a job”; and then “until I get tenure”; and then “until I get promoted to full professor.” Sooner or later — and often sooner — the face becomes indistinguishable from the mask. And this kind of gradual transformation of personal sensibility happens in a thousand different ways, in a thousand different cultural locations.
So a key question arises: If you need people who are sufficiently skilled in negotiating the liberal order to work effectively within it, but also committed to its transformation, and who can sustain that difficult balance over decades, you have to figure out how to form such people. And it is just this that the churches of the West — all the churches of the West — have neglected to do, have neglected even to attempt. With the (in retrospect quite obvious) result: the accelerating collapse of participation in church life.
What is required, in the face of a general culture that through its command of every communications medium catechizes so effectively, is the construction of a powerful counter-catechesis. Who will do that, and how will they do it? The likely answer, it seems to me, brings us back to the very localism that Deneen and Dreher advocate and that Vermeule rejects. Though I also might reject certain elements and emphases of the communities that Deneen and Dreher advocate, I don’t see a likely instrument other than highly dedicated, counter-cultural communities of faith for the Josephs and Mordecais and Esthers and Daniels to be formed. Those who do see other means of such rigorous formation need to step up and explain how their models work. Otherwise we will be looking in vain for the people capable of carrying out Vermeule’s beautiful vision.