Rod Dreher has a new book out, all about a new countercultural movement which he describes as “crunchy conservatism”–or, as his subtitle eloquently puts it, “How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers and their diverse tribe of countercultural conservatives plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party).” National Review is sponsoring a blog all about the book (full confession: I’ve been in correspondence with some of the authors), and it’s a place rich in reflection. If you have any sort of opinion about childrearing, farming, alternative energy sources, homeschooling, breastfeeding, global trade, popular culture, family size, suburbanization, civic religion, environmentalism, watching television, modern pedagogy, or the 1960s, then you’ll find something of interest there, as well as in the book itself. Especially, I think, if you’re Mormon.
Think about the superficial matters first. Dreher developed this argument, which he first expressed in an old National Review article here, in response to his realization that a lot of his and his family’s nominally “conservative” interests–in gardening, rural life, homeschooling, and so forth–were actually resulting in his associating more and more with people from the “counterculture.” In time, he came to realize that the counterculture consists of more than just the hippies he was taught to despise from his Republican youth onward; there was a deeply religious aspect to the counterculture, and the more he became familiar with it, the more he wanted to be a part of it. Yet a lot of what he describes as part of counterculture is pretty mainstream for many American Mormons. Grow your own food? Sacrifice work to spend more time with family? Dress modestly (and sew your own clothes if the stores don’t have anything up to your standards)? Avoid the degrading elements of pop culture (or just chuck the television set entirely)? Do genealogy and go to family reunions? Preserve and can your own fruit? Get married, stay married, and have a lot of kids? I suspect that relatively few of the American Mormons reading this blog have ever lived the full-blown, old pioneer ethic, close-knit, patriarchal, Utah Mormon communal/familial ideal, but I suspect that most of us are at least familiar with it, or embrace certain elements of it, or can point back at parents or grandparents who embraced even more than we did. Mormonism, in short, has a lot of Dreher’s “crunchy” counterculture built into it; when social trends have the result of leading those who dissent from the mainstream to embrace some countercultural practice–like, say, homeschooling–it doesn’t surprise me at all to often find many Mormons moving in the same direction, maybe even leading the pack.
Why is this? That leads us into deeper issues, which deserve exploration (and exploration that I don’t think Dreher himself does a very good job of providing). One could focus on the secularization and streamlining of American culture, the flattening and homogenizing of our society and indeed our whole world under the force of the free market and modern technology, and the resulting collapse of local exceptions to dominant cultural mores (which means, in particular, the increased diffculty religious communities had in preserving their cultural “borders” against the temptations and corruptions available just down the road, just through the cable televsion line, just over the internet). Faced with such, those who dissent from the dominant culture need to get more aggressive–pulling their kids out of public schools, getting more selective about where they shop, etc. Looking at it this way, you could say that American Mormons are present in this counterculture because we’re simply the most practiced dissenting community in American history; we’ve got more strategies for dealing with an invasive society, and more willingness to use them, then anyone else around. But that only tells you why the process has become particularly visible at this point in time–it doesn’t tell you why the process exists or why it is going in the direction it is.
In my view, the central issue is one of authority–modern social and economic patterns are all about liberating the individual, increasing their choices, reducing their costs, linking people up so they can more easily disconnect and reconnect as they please. Mormonism, by contrast, is an authoritarian movement, one that insists that certain choices are intrinsically necessary, right (or wrong) regardless of cost-benefit analysis. Living “authoritatively” in an environment that merely tolerates, and often is deeply hostile too, parental or religious or civic authority, is enormously difficult. So, these crunchy counterculturalists are, whether they realize it or not, recreating their own enclosed, authoritative networks. I’ll homeschool the kids, so I can have authority over what they learn, not some bureaucracy that I can’t interact with, can’t understand, and can’t predict. I’ll garden and buy free-range eggs and cut down on the meat because I don’t want my household’s health and habits to be subject to some vague and probably polluted economic process; I want to be able to have some authority over what’s going into our bodies. Maybe that’s a rather abstract way of putting it, but I suspect it’s close to the truth. And since Mormons have a much more intimate and common-sensical understanding of authority than the rest of (philosophically) liberal America, these communal countercultural practices fit like a hand into a glove. Which is not to say that most American Mormons are donning that glove; throughout our history, it’s been pretty clear that many Mormons have been both uncomfortable with and unsure of how exactly to act counterculturally, and sometimes have fled from that (sometimes financially burdensome, sometimes much mocked, sometimes outright dangerous) prospect into the hands of the mainstream. Still, the potential is there.
For me, being authoritative and communal and countercultural is exactly what makes Mormon economic communitarianism possible–surely the Mormon ideal of an egalitarian Zion has got to be among the most powerful “counter” visions to America’s capitalist culture ever. At the same time, our “crunchiness” might be best seen in our ability to question America’s meritocratic mentality. Of course, there are those who say that Mormonism’s countercultural potential is actually a countering of exactly the sort of deep, embedded traditionalism that Dreher thinks he has discovered through crunchiness; living a “tory” life outside the liberal market and the American mainstream, according to this line of thinking, is an impossibility for a revelatory religion, and results in bad economics to boot, so we ought to just thank goodness for pluralism and consumerism and not read too much into our (fast disappearing?) tradition of gardens and family reunions. As you might expect, I’ve written even more on the topic here. But do check out the blog, and the book if you have time. It ought to give all Mormons something to chew on, I think.