As I see it, the crunchy con ethos can be understood as an attempt to bring to bear a traditionalist religious (or philosophical) sensibility to bear on the modern world and finding that it doesn’t match up with the kinds of positions usually labeled “conservative.” Dreher himself expresses surprise at the extent to which religious commitment informs the choices of the crunchy cons he interviewed.
In one sense, this shouldn’t be surprising. Popular American conservative ideology as we know it, rather than being an organic and coherent worldview, was in many ways a reaction against Communism. During the Cold War we seemed to need an ideology to pose against that of the godless communism of the Soviets, and this ended up being something like “God + Patriotism + Democracy + Capitalism” (not necessarily in that order). But a commitment to “democratic capitalism,” or at least actually existing democratic capitalism, is not obviously congruent with the values found in the Western religious and philosophical tradition. Any reader of the Gospels (or Plato or Aristotle for that matter) will quickly discover that the pursuit of wealth, for instance, is eyed with considerable suspicion.
So it makes sense to me that people who are strongly committed to a fairly traditional religious worldview would grow uneasy with consumer capitalism, disregard for the integrity of the environment, and vulgar or vacuous pop culture. For the crunchy con, the good life is defined by the pursuit of virtue and fidelity to tradition, even when this conflicts with the values that prevail in American society. The “con” part is the fidelity to tradition, and the “crunchy” part is the unorthodox (from a mainstream conservative perspective) stance with respect to capitalism, the environment, consumerism, etc.
This sensibility is given more concrete shape through Dreher’s discussion of his own family’s experience as well as through interviews with other crunchies. The organizing principle he offers for the crunchy view of the world is “sacramentalism.” In short, this is the idea that holiness or spirit is mediated through the physical.
The best explication of this that I’ve seen is in Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World. Fr. Schmemann says that there are two basic ways of looking at the religious life. One sees religion as a “spiritual” realm removed and separate from ordinary life, a sanctuary to which we retreat from the mundane physical world. The flip side of this spiritualized religion is the “activist” type which embraces the secular, focusing everything on politics, social justice, etc. and basically ignoring the spiritual aspect of existence. We work to feed the hungry but forget to tell them about the Bread of Life.
Only in the Bible, he says, is this dichotomy overcome:
In the Bible the food that man eats, the world of which he must partake in order to live, is given to him by God, and it is given as communion with God. The world as man’s food is not something “material” and limited to material functions, thus different from, and opposed to, the specifically “spiritual” functions by which man is related to God. All that exists is God’s gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man’s life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man. God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation: “O taste and see that the Lord is good.” (p. 14)
For crunchy cons, this sacramental view of the world can and should carry over into areas like how we spend our money, how we prepare and consume food, how we educate our children, and our attitude toward the environment and technology. In Dreher’s view mainstream American conservatism has largely abandoned this outlook in favor of a utilitarian devotion to the free market. This is combined with a view of the material world as a sheer resource to be consumed, rather than something to be received as a gift.
For instance, if the natural world is a gift from God with its own integrity, then practices like large-scale industrial farming and fast food suddenly come into question. This isn’t because it’s wrong for us to use nature for our own benefit, but because these practices tend to reduce to the natural world to a commodity to be exploited rather than a gift to be received in gratitude. Though Dreher doesn’t mention him, the insights of philosopher Albert Borgmann seem pertinent here. Borgmann is a critic of technology, but not a Luddite. His worry is that technological exploitation of nature threatens what he calls “focal things” and “focal practices.” At the risk of seeming pompous, I’ll quote what I wrote about Borgmann last year:
A focal thing is something that calls forth our attention and engagement rather than being immediately available for our use. Focal things are real in their own right, rather than being commodities produced for our effortless consumption. And a focal practice is the activity whereby we engage with this reality. Paradigm instances of focal things for Borgmann are wilderness, musical instruments, the written word and the communal meal. The corresponding focal practices might be hiking, learning to play music, reading to each other and preparing the meal. These all require an active understanding and engagement with the underlying reality and the development of certain skills and virtues.
Technology threatens focal practices because it attempts to make everything available and pliable at the push of a button or flip of a switch. It’s much easier to turn on the CD player and hear a flawless performance than to practice my own halting efforts at learning to play an instrument. But Borgmann thinks that focal practices are precisely what give life its meaning – a life reduced to an endless variety of consumption is unbearably banal.
Crunchy cons worry that a world where everything is available as a commodity is one where we risk losing meaning and virtue for the sake of ease and convenience. Dreher writes about the family of evangelical Christians who started their own organic farm in order to raise food and animals in a way that more closely mirrors the way they believe God intended. To do this is to renounce the attitude that would turn the natural world into a commodity in favor of one that respects nature’s own integrity.
To use Borgmann’s terminology, crunchy cons think that too many of our focal practices have been “outsourced” to corporations and the state. That’s why growing and/or preparing one’s own food, avoiding mass-produced culture, and homeschooling are central crunchy con endeavors.
The political implications of all this are never made entirely clear. Dreher emphasizes that crunchy con-ism is more of a way of life than a political program. Though he does offer near the end of the book a tentative (and somewhat vague) crunchy con platform that includes reform of agricultural and health policies that make it easier for small farms to compete with agribusiness, zoning laws that favor historical preservation and high aesthetic standards, laws that make it easier to homeschool, and an energy policy aimed at reducing our dependence on foreign oil, along with more traditional social conservative concerns like restricting abortion and pornography, banning cloning, and tighter regulation of the biotech industry. He emphasizes, however, that not all crunchy cons would sign on to this; many, in fact, seem to have a strong libertarian streak and would be wary of using the government to instill “crunchy” virtues.
I have to say that I’m generally sympathetic to many of the crunchies’ concerns, but there are some points of weakness. The most glaring, in my view, is that Dreher presents a lot of false dualisms. There are, on the one hand, virtuous crunchies, and on the other soulless, fast food munching, McMansion-dwelling mainstream conservatives. There are traditionalist religious believers who submit themselves to something greater than themselves, and “progressive” religious believers whose religion is little more than a projection of the needs or desires of the self. There is the wicked world of decadent American pop culture, suburban subdivisions, SUVs and consumerism versus the crunchy enclaves of quasi-monastic preservers of high culture (the last chapter is called “Waiting for Benedict”, a nod to Alasdair MacIntyre’s call for new forms of community that can uphold virtue in an increasingly barbarous world), Arts-and-Crafts urban bungalows, Volvos and bicycles, and self-sacrificing homeschoolers.
Needless to say, there are a whole bunch of people who don’t fall into either of these stereotypes. And I can’t help but wonder if Dreher (unconsciously?) exaggerates how bad American culture is in order to validate the rebellious, “countercultural” (a word he uses with annoying frequency) self-image of the crunchy cons. Are most people in America really mindless consumerist drones driving their SUV’s to their bleak suburban subdivisions only to flop on the couch in front of the TV with their frozen pre-packaged dinners?
After all, things like enthusiasm for organic food, environmentalism, “smart growth” and so on are hardly fringe movements anymore. Not to mention that many of the social problems that conservatives are worried about (teen pregnancy, abortion, school violence) have actually been getting better in recent years. And, personally, I think popular culture still has lots of bright spots (even TV!). Granted it’s tempting to think of oneself as part of a virtuous remnant in Babylon, but wouldn’t it make more sense for crunchy cons and their fellow travelers to encourage these positive trends by participating in and building up a common civic culture that can respond to crunchy concerns?