Several days after I posted my last blog I noticed a sharp uptick in viewers. In 24 hours I got over 400 views. For a small time blogger like myself that is unusual when I have not posted anything new. Occasionally I get a larger than normal number of “hits” either when my blog is translated into Russian or when another site picks it up. Neither of those had happened. I discovered the blog had been mentioned in the comments to an article, “An Expatriate of the Heart,” by Rod Dreher in The American Conservative. https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/an-expatriate-of-the-heart/
Rod Dreher is widely known in Christian circles from his book, “The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.” The book was published in 2017, but his idea had been discussed in print long before then. While Dreher is an Eastern Orthodox Christian, his book was widely acclaimed not only in Orthodox circles but among Protestant Evangelicals and traditional Roman Catholics. The book extends some of the thought of Roman Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue” and examines virtues in “post-Christian” America. Dreher contends the traditional Christian world-view has been all but excluded from both the pop-millennial culture and the halls of Western academia.
Dreher decided to take up MacIntyre’s challenge to pioneer a new way of following Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s counsel to live out the Christian tradition in Christian communities that are in many ways socially detached from the larger communities in which they are geographically located. (The idea goes back to Benedict of Nursia.) In his preface Dreher recalls how in 1999 at the birth of his first child his thoughts on American culture began to change. Before then he had thought of himself as a Christian and also a conservative. Dreher, like many new parents, began to think more about the future culture in which his son would grow up. He began to notice disturbing trends in American culture and wondered “what, exactly, it was that mainstream conservatism was conserving.” For Dreher, the days of depending on changing America’s moral and spiritual values through electing a new slate of politicians are over. Dreher’s call to arms is not about resurrecting the “Moral Majority” of Jerry Falwell. The ballot box is no longer an effective means of cultural transformation.
Dreher’s book both enlightens “orthodox” (little “o” is emphasized) believers about the current cultural and social trends and calls those believers to unite in “counter-cultural” communities. America’s education system, like its political system, can no longer be trusted. It is not so much a criticism of “dumbing down” educational expectations, as getting parents to recognize that the loss of classic educational principles in American school systems is often matched with a desire to “socialize” the students in ways that run counter to basic Christian values. I recall before we moved from America seeing the public education videos proudly showing trans-gender individuals being brought in early grade school classes to interact with the students and ostensibly lower their apprehensions about such individuals. Conservative Christianity is no longer part of mainstream America. Dreher follows Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore in saying the church must “lose its cultural respectability to become radically faithful.”
Others, not writing from a Christian perspective, have also noted major changes in American culture and the inability of much of “the public” to change those trends. In his recent book, “The Great Delusion,” noted political scientist John Mearsheimer discusses how difficult, nay impossible, it is for people in a liberal culture to agree on what “the good life” is. Mearsheimer is not using the word “liberal” in the way we often do to describe someone who holds to a certain set of political perspectives, e.g., women rights, gay rights, pro-choice, etc. He is using “liberal” to refer to belief in the importance of the individual and individual rights as opposed to, say, a monarchy or some other system that devalues the place of the individual in the political and economic destiny of a nation.
Despite the emphasis on individual rights, Mearsheimer contends we are profoundly communal in nature. We are born and raised “in community.” Society and culture are essential factors in our self-definition. He defines a major dilemma the liberal state faces: “For a society to hold together, there must be substantial overlap in how its members think about the good life, and they must respect each other when, inevitably, serious disagreements arise.” I doubt anyone reading or watching the debates about our cultural values in America would conclude there is a whole lot of respectful debate going on over our deep divisions in defining “the good life.”
In the sense that Mearsheimer defines “liberal,” the Constitution of the United States outlines a liberal nation. America was founded on individual rights, e.g., freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to engage in business without governmental controls. That would be what Mearsheimer calls “modus vivendi” freedom. That is the kind of “liberal” thinking that characterizes the views of more traditional, usually Republican, Americans.
Another major group in American culture which is also liberal is categorized by Mearsheimer as “progressive liberals.” They agree on the importance of individual freedoms. They point out, however, that we all are born with different opportunities to realize those freedoms. Most people would concur that certain factors about one’s birth–whether you are white or black; poor or rich; Protestant or Jewish—can and often has impacted the American experience of freedom. Progressive liberals today include such factors as sexual orientation and gender identity. “Racism” is extended in a number of ways which vivendi liberals find confusing. Thus, according to progressive liberals, the government must engage in social engineering to make sure those individuals who sometimes were denied their rights get full access. What this approach means is that the rights of those who have traditionally enjoyed “privilege” over others should be stripped of any possible advantages. Thus, preference may be given to others historically denied full access. The government must intervene to balance the scales. Currently, the progressives are in charge culturally and politically. Mearsheimer, like Dreher, believes the modus vivendi liberal adherents cannot win the cultural battle at the ballot box. He states:
“To understand how thoroughly progressivism has triumphed, consider how liberalism relates to the major political parties in the United States today. The Democratic Party’s ruling ideology is clearly progressive liberalism, and it acts accordingly when it controls the key levers of power in Washington. If you listen to Republicans, you might think they follow the dictates of modus vivendi liberalism. That is usually true of their rhetoric, but it is not how they govern. In office, Republicans act like Democrats” (p.69).
An example of this fact is that most Republican candidates campaigned as “anti-abortion.” Republicans held majorities in the House and Senate, as well as the White House, from 2016-2018, but absolutely nothing was done to reduce government funding of Planned Parenthood. https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/report-government-funds-largest-source-of-planned-parenthood-revenue-66930. This funding continues even after videos showing members of Planned Parenthood selling fetal body parts were proven authentic. http://thefederalist.com/2019/01/18/court-rules-undercover-videos-planned-parenthood-selling-baby-body-parts-authentic/.
In Dreher’s article, “Expatriate of the Heart,” to which I referred in my first paragraph, he ventures a bit further than “counter cultural.” He gives a lengthy quote from a reader in Atlanta who had “played by the rules” of how to succeed in America. He was an Eagle Scout growing up, served in the military, sent his daughters to Christian colleges and worked hard. He ended up losing the business he helped build to hostile investors, his wife left him “for another woman,” and the court took his house. From his struggle he found his place in the Orthodox faith, but realized how American culture had changed in ways that contradicted his faith. He began to travel and came to see his homeland differently. He gave up on America. Dreher was obviously impacted by this man’s letter as well as other information he has been receiving from followers.
While the seed for “The Benedict Option” was the birth of his son, Dreher relates another parental “ah ha” moment. His 14 year old son mentioned his interest in someday joining the military. Dreher was surprised at his own response. He does not look down on the military, but he winced when he thought of how the U.S. forces are involved in perpetual wars all over the globe. He did not want his son to participate.
I don’t have space to treat Mearsheimer’s discussion of this issue thoroughly. Suffice to say he documents how fruitless and devastating our wars have been since WWII. My father’s generation was told Korea was important enough to fight over. After many lives were lost, little was accomplished. The next generation was told Vietnam was worth fighting for in order to stop the growth of Communism. It took many years before the U.S. admitted it was a lost cause and left the country in a far more decimated condition than when we arrived. Many lives—both American and Vietnamese—were lost. The North Vietnamese moved back in after the U.S. pulled out, and today a united Vietnam has one political party—which is Communist. The Vietnamese economy seems finally to have recovered from the American intervention.
From Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other places Mearsheimer shows how ill-informed our attempts to export “liberal democracy” have been. We were told how awful Gaddafi was in Libya and felt no remorse when “we came, we saw, he died.” Now, Libya, which was once prosperous, is devastated by an ongoing civil war and human marketing. Our government lied to us. It has been lying to us a long time. The sad irony is, says Mearsheimer, liberals know very little about how to do the almost impossible job of regime change, but they refuse to stop trying. They were unable to accomplish the regime change they wanted in Syria, so now they want to try again in Venezuela. I don’t know much about Venezuela, but I have read enough to see the “Western info machine” is already producing plenty of false information. We have heavily and unfairly sanctioned the Venezuelan economy, fed lies to the American people about our activities, and now want to use Venezuelan poverty as an excuse to intervene. Leaders like John Bolton have evidenced no understanding of how to be authentic diplomats. Bolton wrote in his Yale “reunion” yearbook 25 years after the event how he had joined the National Guard as a young man to avoid going to Vietnam. His reason: “I didn’t want to die in some Southeast Asia rice paddy.” While Bolton himself was a coward when it came to going to battle, he thinks nothing of sending our military men and women to die in battles that are just as meaningless.
Dreher points out other examples that are deeply disturbing. He documents how the United States government has used tax dollars to spread pro-gay rights literature in other countries. The U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine marched in a gay rights rally in that country last year. The U.S. Embassy in Ukraine ran the following statement from U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, on its web-site, “The United States joins people around the world in celebrating Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex (LGBTI) Pride Month, and reaffirms its commitment to protecting and defending the human rights of all, including LGBTI persons.” This is now our mission around the world. Can one truly be “counter-culture” when our tax dollars are used to support everything from Planned Parenthood in America to gay rights in Ukraine?
Many of us resonate with Dreher’s words and feelings when he confesses that he had always thought of America as a force for good in the world, but, sadly, he can no longer say that. He concludes, “Personally, I don’t know what it would mean to ‘give up’ on America. That said, I find our country to be an increasingly hostile, alien place, in terms of the direction of the culture, and the lack of a sense that there is anything left to restrain its descent.”
He invited readers to respond with their own ideas on leaving America or the experiences of those who have left. There were many responses. You can access those on your own (see the link in the beginning), because I do not have the space to discuss them. I was surprised that there were few respondents who disagreed over the basic point about the lost virtues of America. The best a few could say was that it is no better anywhere else. I hear this kind of response frequently. The belief is still strong in America that since the West is imploding culturally and morally, the whole world is without hope.
It is not true. The fact that progressively liberal values and war-mongering are predominant in America and Western Europe does not mean it is like that everywhere. No country could have qualified as more “godless” than the USSR. Today, however, the traditional morals which Dreher and many others long for are alive and well in Russia. I know Americans are being told Russia is a terrible non-democratic aggressive nation run by a thug. I live here and have often wondered why these lies are passed on so casually. Mearsheimer points out that one way to keep a society intact is to “create a foreign bogeyman sufficiently fearful to motivate the society’s members to work together to defend against the threat” (p. 38). I firmly believe this is a major motive for the lies about Russia in the American political and media establishment. They need to direct the attention of Americans away from the real corruption and division within its own borders. If Vladimir Putin is the personification of evil in the world, then perhaps Americans will unite around a corrupt and corrupting circle of power within the beltway of Washington, D.C.
Further, Russia is not the world’s aggressor. A recent article appeared in Consortium News about U.S. military bases. https://consortiumnews.com/2019/01/16/bases-bases-everywhere-except-in-pentagons-report/. The Pentagon’s Base Structure Report reported there were 514 U.S. military bases outside its borders. Knowledgeable observers noticed that bases in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other places were not in the report. Actually most experts put the number of bases outside American borders at about 800―but many are kept off the “official” list. Not even members of Congress know about some of them and certainly exercise no control over them. They are accountable to no one but the generals. The U.S. has not officially declared war since 1942, but we continue to send men and women in uniform to other countries to die if necessary “defending our freedom.” Mearsheimer stresses that we have two oceans on each coast which act as natural defenses. Neither Canada to our north nor Mexico to our south has the will or the economic and military means to challenge our hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. We have an arsenal of nuclear weapons and have declared the Western Hemisphere off limits to any hostile power. In what possible sense are American troops fighting for our national security in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria? We have been involved in wars all over the world and have pushed NATO up to Russia’s borders, but we insist that it is really Russia who is aggressive.
The traditional values, the loss of which many in America are lamenting, are largely the values of the Russian culture in which I live. I do not write as someone who has been told this. I live here. The Russian Orthodox Church has a strong influence on local life. There are also active Catholic and Protestant churches in my town. The Church and State work together at a national level. For example, both want to reduce the numbers of abortions which skyrocketed during the Communist era because abortion was commonly used for birth control. The Church has made a strong commitment to help women in “crisis pregnancies.” The laws are more restrictive now about when and for what reason abortions can be performed. Watching the news here after Gov. Cuomo signed the bill in New York permitting late term abortions, I was struck by the contrast between the agony of my Christian friends’ posts on Facebook and the smiles and celebrations of the governor and legislators in New York. Abortions are still performed in Russia, but the numbers are steadily declining and no one smiles, laughs or brags about them.
I realize many in America are very glad that the American government is intervening and the understanding of “morality” has changed radically. They applaud freedoms won for gay, lesbian, trans-gender and many other Americans who have been oppressed. They have the right to rejoice: They won. The Benedict Option is one way for those on the other “side” to adapt. Many have been and are living it out. Others, like me, decided it was not in our family’s best interest to risk the future of our children to stay. After the New York decision on abortion I received an e-mail from an American Orthodox mother asking questions about moving to Russia. She realized the struggles involved in such a move. She wrote, however, “We have to move. No matter how well we are doing in home schooling and church, we cannot keep the government out of the lives of our children.”
I never try to convince anyone to come to Russia. I do receive frequent inquiries. I try, as best I can based on my experiences and research, to give honest descriptions and answers. I will repeat what my regular readers have heard me say many times. Despite the bad political relations between the U.S. and Russia neither I nor my family have ever been treated in a bad way. Our children attend public schools. They have to study harder, but they have learned the language and are doing well. Sometimes we do not agree with what is taught in a science class (for example), but nothing is ever presented in such a way as to tear down what we teach at home. The views of the parents are respected. There is essentially no debate here over gender issues or traditional male/female roles. Some of my American friends will see this as horrible, while others will be envious. Life in Russia is certainly not without challenges and difficulties. I continue to struggle with the language and other aspects of life here. Nevertheless, I do not sense the deep seated alienation living in this culture as Dreher and many others sense living in America.
America has long regarded itself as a “shining city set on a hill.” We stood for freedom both within and outside our borders. In some ways I fit into two groups that bemoan the current conditions there. First, many respondents to Dreher’s article were baby boomers. I am one, too. We watched Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best on TV. We laughed at the humorous problems and felt moved by the love of “traditional families.” It was not an ideal world, however. There was ugliness and real racism, but we kept pushing until we improved the culture we thought worth saving. And it did improve. Now, the very culture we wanted to save is seen by many as a sad remnant of an immoral and nasty life. Second, I am also a member of the group with young children. I have a teenager, a 10 year old and a four year old here. Saying goodbye to my other world and knowing it was impossible for my children to have what I had had was traumatic. Embracing that far-away cold land of Russia was intimidating. We made the choice. We’re glad we did. Life here is far from perfect, but the trends are definitely positive. The future looks bright and refreshing. People have hope. Sadly I cannot say that about my native land.