Thursday was a good day for Little Sisters of the Poor and for anyone who cares about religious liberty. On one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, President Trump signed an executive order instructing the Lois Lerner types at the IRS to cease their ideological attacks on religious organizations while on the other end of the avenue, the House of Representatives passed a bill to repeal many of the most onerous provisions of ObamaCare. Hopefully these small victories will lead to still others, but as it stands, they are a rebuke to Rod Dreher’s vision which is profiled in this month’s New Yorker. However, to see why, we start in an unlikely place. Namely, the South Pacific, and specifically, last year’s Disney blockbuster, “Moana.”
The story of “Moana” is loosely based on Polynesian mythology as well as anthropological and historical evidence of the “long pause” period during which daring feats of blue-water seafaring were temporarily curtailed for nearly two thousand years. The contrasting themes of tradition and exploration at the heart of the plot are, in a way, very biblical, despite the pagan overlay. As with any Disney movie, there are many of the standard tropes of the adventure genre which touch on deep truths of the human experience. Unfortunately, it can be hard to see this beneath all the dizzying spectacle of musical numbers encouraging children to run away from their parents and otherwise misbehave, which is perhaps part of the reason why C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien hated the studio so much.
In their epic tales of high fantasy, the Inklings (as they called themselves) thought long and hard about what the point of such stories should be. The result was, of course, two of the greatest works of English fiction: the Chronicles of Narnia and the Lord of the Rings saga. Whether bickering schoolchildren or plucky Hobbits, the protagonists reluctantly leave their lives of comfort and plenty to embark on an uncertain quest beyond the farthest horizon as ominous threats of war gather unseen. On the other hand, the young Moana is unhappy in her tropical paradise and yearns for something more than her island home can give her. However, on her own, her sailing is clumsy and ineffective. Crucially, she sets out guided by the ancient wisdom and traditions of her forebears (sung by “Hamilton” superstar composer/playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda) as well as her wise grandmother who knows of the old ways.
Unlike the restless Moana, Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” is echoed more in the opening number which extols the virtues of the sedentary lifestyle of her tribe. They don’t seem to mind their isolation, but are cheerful in their self-sufficiency. On a different island, Shakespeare snarkily contemplates the blissful ignorance of this worldview through the words of a different Miranda:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!
PROSPERO: ‘Tis new to thee.
After contact with Americans and Europeans, particularly during the Second World War, some Polynesian tribes adopted a new form of worship which is theorized to be a sort of coping mechanism when confronted with the materialism of Western culture and the damage it did to their societal structure in which generosity is the basis of respect and authority. As a particular oddity, at least one tribe now believes that Prince Philip is a god who will someday return to deliver them wealth surpassing all Western riches. One supposes that they will be disappointed to learn that their messiah is in declining health and is no longer fit to make another journey to the other side of the globe.
Whereas the people of Vanuatu are spiritually rich and materially poor, Dreher correctly diagnoses the fault of Western society which is materially rich and spiritually poor. Although Christ promises us time and time again that God knows our needs and will provide for us, the temptations of materialism are immense, as Disney’s merchandising operation makes clear. Whereas the cargo cults modified their ancient faith to adapt to the unbelievable wealth of a foreign culture, the “Benedict Option” in its ideal form sacrifices material abundance (or perhaps overabundance) in search of more authentic faith. However, like the cargo cults, this way of life is only possible if outside forces preserve the freedom to practice it. Small outposts of holiness can only thrive if we have strong institutions to serve as a check on the decadence of society and the oppression of government.
In this sense then, the “Benedict Option” is a sort of naïve hope (which for Dreher is as much personal as it is philosophical) that we can return to a more innocent state of life far away from the kind of malevolent world-historical forces that unleashed the atomic bomb on the pristine Bikini archipelago. To Dreher’s credit, some Christians are undoubtedly called to vocations as hermits or monastics. Even St. John the Evangelist lived out the length of his days on the idyllic island of Patmos. However, for most people, there is a deep and instinctual yearning to seek new lands. As scripture tells us, “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, of them that bring glad tidings of good things!” The Word of God is written in our hearts and we are called to go out into the world to share our joy. In another passage, Jesus exhorts his disciples:
You are the light of the world. A city seated on a mountain cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but upon a candlestick, that it may shine to all that are in the house. So let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.
From America’s founding, we have seen ourselves as that “City on a Hill.” Whether as the Catholic Columbus or the Protestant Puritans, we have been guided by the faith and the stars of our fathers to cross an ocean in search of a better life. It is no coincidence that Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared in the New World just as the Reformation was unleashing centuries of bloody war and abject suffering in Europe. This is why religious freedom is so important. An intentional community of like-minded believers is well and good, but neither should we cede our rights to practice our faith in the public square–rights which were purchased so dearly–without putting up an almighty fight.
Dreher’s search for rootedness and community speaks to a very real need, like Moana’s tribe, to be secure in the certain knowledge of who we are and where we came from. In our modern age, this has only become more difficult, as people are often not who they seem. Without a firm reliance on the deposit of faith and the manifold graces of the sacraments, we can do nothing. The Church is–or ought to be–the center of our lives. We should all strive to build up strong communities within the bosom of Mother Church wherever we are, whether in the bucolic countryside or the bustling and decadent metropolis. As the Ecclesia Militans, we are engaged in spiritual warfare–if perhaps reluctantly, like Tolkien’s Hobbits–and as with any battle, we do not always get to fight on the ground of our choosing. Sometimes this is through prayer and works of charity. Sometimes this is through media and entertainment. Sometimes this is in the courtroom or the halls of Congress.
That said, one of the central roles in “Moana” is the demigod, Maui, voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson who was recently profiled by National Review as a conservative-leaning celebrity who, at least in public, tends to emphasize values over political positions. In a similar vein, the Washingtonian Magazine’s latest issue includes an interview with Fr. Scalia (son of the late Justice) who spoke about how religious freedom is not an end in itself, but only a means of reaching out to care for souls. While liberals tend to ruin entertainment and pervert faith by making everything about politics, the truest form of conservatism sees politics only as a tool, not a good of itself. Politics is a messy, obnoxious, and difficult business, but even so, it’s a game that we can and must play to remain an active and vigorous force for good in the world.
As the metaphysical poet John Donne famously wrote:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
As well as if a promontory were:
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were.
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
Which gets us back to the Little Sisters. The nuns in the grey habits show us what royalty looks like in the Heavenly Kingdom. To serve God, we must serve others, even those who despise us. Jesus tells us to gird our loins and be watchful. He says to his disciples, “And when they shall persecute you in this city, flee into another,” and then later, “Do not think that I came to send peace upon earth: I came not to send peace, but the sword.” The Little Sisters live this mission with heroic virtue, patiently and tenderly caring for the sick and dying who are ignored and forgotten by society at large, even as they have been persecuted by those in power. Unlike Dr. Pangloss’ utopian vision, just tending to our own garden is not enough. Our faith is a wonderful and precious gift, but if it is not shared and spread–despite all the hazards and uncertainties of our dangerous world–it is worthless.