Chapter One: What Are Crunchy Conservatives?
When we were young, the countercultural people had long hair, no socks, and didn't trust anyone over 30. Now, we are the countercultural people. —John Buck, Arkansas psychologist and crunchy conservative
A few summers ago, in the National Review offices on the east side of Manhattan, I told my editor that I was leaving work early so I could pick up my family's weekly delivery of fruits and vegetables from the neighborhood organic food co-op to which we belonged.
"Ewww, that's so lefty," she said, and made the kind of face I'd have expected if I'd informed her I was headed off to hear Peter, Paul and Mary warble at a fund-raiser for cross-dressing El Salvadoran hemp farmers.
Lefty? Moi? But on the subway home to Brooklyn, I had to admit she was right.
A taste for organic vegetables is a left-wing cliche, and here I was, a writer for the premier conservative political magazine in the country, leaving my post on the front lines to consort with the liberals in my neighborhood as I filled my rucksack with the most beautiful and delicious broccoli, carrots, greens, and whatnot in the city. What's up with that?
And come to think of it, what's up with those Birkenstock sandals on my feet? It just about killed me to buy them the summer before, given what Birkenstocks symbolize (you know, patchouli, pot, and ponytails on men). But New Yorkers walk a lot, and my sensible wife persuaded me that durable, comfortable Birks made sense for hot summer sidewalks. She was right. So that's how a pair of hippie shoes found their way onto my right-wing feet, which—alas!—had begun marching to a different beat than many of my conservative chums. Funny, I didn't feel any more liberal.
The summer before, I had been just like my editor, making fun of my wife's friends from her neighborhood moms' group for going once a week to a local church to pick up their vegetables driven in from farms in rural New York State. Just like liberals, I thought, having to have their politically correct eats. And then one day, one of Julie's friends told her that we could have her family's delivery that week, because they would be out of town. Julie and I were knocked flat by the freshness and intense flavors of the co-op's produce. Who knew cauliflower, the Sansabelt slacks of vegetables, could taste so good? I had always thought of it chiefly as a delivery platform for ranch dip and cheese sauce.
We were no doubt responding to the just-picked freshness of the produce, not its organic status, but no matter. At some point, I started hearing more about the kind of lives the farmers who supplied us were living, and the values of simplicity, community, and self-reliance they honored. In all candor, these people were probably to the left of Ralph Nader, but they reminded me of the kind of older farmers and gardeners I grew up around in rural southern Louisiana—deeply conservative folks whose last Democratic presidential vote likely went to JFK.
As city people who nevertheless dislike factory farms, shopping malls, cookie-cutter chain stores, and all the pomps and works of mass consumerism, we admired what the scrappy New York farmers were trying to do. In my Louisiana hometown, some farmers spent the go-go nineties selling their pastures to developers, and the torrent of cash caused McMansions to pop up like toadstools after a summer rain. It's hard to blame folks for cashing in, I suppose, but the community in which I was raised was changing rapidly as economic growth caused it to become a bedroom suburb of Baton Rouge. In their own way, the New York farmers were doing what farmers in my Louisiana birthplace were not: conserving agrarian communal traditions by, to paraphrase William F. Buckley describing the founding mission of the National Review, "standing athwart history yelling Stop!"
Besides, their produce was vastly superior to what was available in the local supermarket. We didn't mind paying a little extra for food this good. The next summer, we joined the co-op, and Julie got a kick out of picking up our weekly deliveries in her National Review tote bag. When you get to our age, you have precious few opportunities to shock the middle class, so you take them where you find them.
Now, it had never occurred to me, except in a jokey way, that eating organic vegetables was a political act, but my editor's snarky remark got me to thinking about other ways my family's lifestyle was countercultural, and why, though we were thoroughly conservative in our morals and our politics, we weren't a good fit on either the mainstream left or right.
Three years earlier, Julie had left a fulfilling position as a magazine editorial assistant to stay at home and raise our young son, Matthew. As much as she loved her job, as useful as that extra paycheck was, and for all the grief she took from other New York women who disdained her for "wasting" her college degree, we both felt strongly that we had a responsibility to our son to put his needs first, as much as we were able.
Once, when Matthew was still an infant, a kind woman in late middle age stopped us to offer admiring comments about our son. She talked about what a disappointment her son was to her, how she and her husband had put him in an expensive private school, but he had become a pothead and a troublemaker. The poor woman lamented how she fought with her husband over disciplining their son, with the boy's father insisting that kids will be kids, and besides, dear, didn't you and I fool around with drugs back in the day? After all that, she asked Julie and me if we had made plans for Matthew's schooling yet—a perfectly rational question in New York City, where parents put their child's name on private-school waiting lists as soon as the blessed babe is conceived. We replied that we were strongly considering homeschooling. The woman recoiled.
"Isn't that what right-wing Christians do?" she spluttered.
The conversation went downhill from there, and we found a way to excuse ourselves as gracefully as we could. A few minutes later, walking home, I remarked to Julie that here was a woman whose heart was broken over what her child had become, and that all the money in the world spent at that posh private school couldn't make up for what permissive parenting and a lax educational environment had done to the boy. Here she was longing for the kind of self-disciplined, responsible son that religiously conservative families tend to produce—but she'd die a thousand deaths before actually making the kind of countercultural sacrifices many such families make for the sake of their children's character and future.
We didn't want to be like this sad woman. In fairness, there are conservative families who find themselves in the same despairing position, having thought that having the correct attitudes, the best of intentions, and enough income to pay for private school would be sufficient to raise good kids. We heard all the time—and still do—from fellow conservatives who are not shy about telling us that our kids are going to be socially maladroit freaks if we don't put them in school. "What about socialization?" they ask anxiously, to which we reply, "Well, look at youth culture today; do you really want your kids socialized into that?"
As he got older, Julie started making plans to homeschool little Matthew, and was delighted to discover that there was a small but vibrant homeschooling association in New York City. Unlike homeschooling parents in her native Texas, most of whom do so out of conservative religious conviction, these were primarily secular liberals who had nonetheless concluded that they could do a better job teaching their kids than the schools. In New York, at least, homeschooling was not what right-wing Christians did. Julie was startled to discover that she shared many of the same concerns about primary education with moms whose views on many political issues were diametrically opposed.
Because our faith is at the center of our lives, and because we believe proper Christian worship should honor both truth and beauty, we committed ourselves to an "ethnic" Catholic church in our neighborhood. The people of Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Church are of Lebanese descent, and speak Arabic in the main. Going there the first few times was an eerie experience, because we naturally associated that language with Islam; it sounded to our untutored American ears like the PLO at prayer.
Yet these people's ancestors were worshipping Jesus Christ when our European ancestors were still praying to trees. Besides, where it really mattered, we all spoke the same language. It was an Eastern-rite parish, where the aesthetically rich, awe-filled fifth-century liturgy was celebrated partly in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, and the priests were decidedly uninterested in the trendiness. We couldn't take the smarmy, white-bread, middle-class American masses at the Roman-rite parishes around us, where the liturgies were washed out and banal, and the moral and theological grandeur of the historical Christian faith was discarded in favor of a piety that demanded no more of you than that you feel good about yourself. This was a form of Catholic Christianity that demanded more from us, and because of that, it was more rewarding. And it seemed so much more solid than Our Lady of What's Happening Now around the corner, where the priests embarrassed themselves trying to be hip and relevant.
The key thing is, we didn't become members of Our Lady of Lebanon parish because it sounded like a neat experiment in religious tourism. We did so because we are conservative Catholics, and we were hungry for worship in a parish where we could find the real deal, be it in English, Latin, or Aramaic.
We try hard not to be cafeteria Catholics, picking and choosing what suits our tastes from a supposed menu of options. Because of that orientation toward our faith, Julie and I do not use artificial contraception (besides, Julie said after seeing how the Pill affected some of her friends, she didn't want to jack up her body with prescribed hormones; "Better living through chemistry" is not a popular phrase in our house). We mastered a church-approved system of regulating fertility called Natural Family Planning, and were surprised to discover that even secular couples who shunned artificial contraception for health reasons used the same method.
NFP required us to monitor Julie's temperature and other bodily signs of fertility. This meant learning to pay attention to the rhythms and demands of both our bodies, and for Julie, acquiring a new awareness of how the food we ate affected her. When we chose to conceive Matthew, Julie paid even more attention to eating healthfully, and we cut out processed foods as much as we could. Once he was born, she breast-fed him exclusively, continuing to maintain her healthy diet for his sake, and when he began to eat solid food, she made his baby food at home, so she could be confident that he wasn't getting junk. If you had told us when we first married that within two years, we'd be acting like, well, hippies, we'd have thought you were nuts. But we had begun to realize that even though we were conservative Republicans, this stuff made sense, and it didn't conflict with our moral or religious beliefs; in fact, it flowed naturally from them.
Here's the thing: we didn't turn into droopy, pale-skinned dullards who washed down our nightly tofu with wheatgrass juice. My wife and I are still enthusiastic eaters of meat and drinkers of wine—maybe more so now than when we first met. We discovered early in our marriage that both of us had grown up in a time and place in which cooking was seen primarily as a chore, and food as ballast. Living as newlyweds in New York, one of the great food cities of the world, we were surrounded by opportunities for culinary adventure, and we took them all. We taught ourselves how to cook simple but delicious meals using fresh ingredients, and took great joy in the act of preparing meals.
When Matthew came along, we didn't often have the opportunity or the money to go to restaurants, so we spent many a weekend night cooking dinners for friends at home. Out of sheer curiosity and the pleasure of discovery, we learned about cheese and wine, and began spending some of the happiest evenings of our lives in the basement living room of our little apartment on the Brooklyn waterfront, laughing and talking politics, religion, books, movies, travel, and everything under the sun amid steaming platters of garlicky roasts, tureens of peppery remoulade, crisp-crusted frittatas, tangy giambottas, napoleons of beefsteak tomatoes and basil from our own patio garden, and bottle after bottle of robust Italian and Spanish wine. For us, family, friends, and feasting was pretty much what the good life was all about. The food we prepared with such enjoyment and care was, at bottom, an expression of love for our companions, and our long suppers an occasion for communion.
Great, you say, but so what? Are there not liberals who like to cook good food and share it with their friends, just as there are liberals who disdain mass consumerism? Indeed there are, and we know liberal families who have decided television is by and large an unwelcome guest in their house, and for much the same reason as we conservatives.
But we are not liberals. For one thing, we don't share the liberal faith in the ultimate goodness and perfectibility of mankind. Because we believe in evil and the duty of good men and women to confront it with violence if necessary, we are not pacifists. We don't believe that morality is relative, and that each generation is free to find its own truths, and to adopt a moral code that suits its desires. We object to the idea that there's nothing wrong with our country that a new tax or a government program can't fix.
We don't believe it's the government's job to guarantee social equality, only equality before the law and, within reason, equality of opportunity. Guns don't bother us (unless they're in the hands of criminals), and neither, as a general rule, does capitalism (unless it, too, is in the hands of criminals). We prefer Fox News to CNN, think of Lucianne Goldberg as America's very own gimlet-eyed Auntie Mame, and count ourselves as members in good standing of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. On the occasion that we watched the CBS Evening News, it was only to make sure we were there in case Dan Rather finally cracked up live on national television. Like Bocephus, we say grace, and we say ma'am (we know who Bocephus is, by the way).
Excerpted from Crunchy Cons by Rod Dreher Copyright © 2006 by Rod Dreher. Excerpted by permission of Crown Forum, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.