Six years ago, writer Rod Dreher, in his book Crunchy Cons, described what he called a “counterculture” within the conservative movement. What made the people Dreher described “counter-cultural” wasn’t the food they ate or their preferred footwear – it was their rejection of the radically individualistic and libertarian worldview that dominates so much of modern conservatism.
Dreher’s “crunchy cons” placed a much greater emphasis on community and sense of place than other conservatives, who were primarily driven by economic concerns. At the time he wrote the book, Dreher had most recently lived in New York and Dallas, which were, culturally speaking, worlds apart from his hometown of St. Francisville, Louisiana, population 1,700.
That recently changed and the story of why and how beautifully illustrates the principles he articulated in his book.
The catalyst for the change was his younger sister, Ruthie Leming, being diagnosed with cancer. From the start, the people of St. Francisville rallied around Ruthie, who had returned home after college. A few months after her diagnosis, the town celebrated “Ruth Lemming Day” and held a benefit concert.
For Dreher and his parents, their concern was accompanied by a sense of awe and gratitude at the outpouring of love and support. Rod compared it to a scene from a movie, only this one was real.
And it continued after Ruthie died. At her funeral, the pallbearers went barefoot because she loved to do that. They literally and figuratively supported her husband, Mike, and the kids.
All of this prompted Dreher and his wife, Julie, to move to St. Francisville. He’s is clear-eyed about. He’s the first to acknowledge that his hometown isn’t Mayberry. Far from it. He still remembers why he left it in the first place.
But he also knows what he has been missing all those years: a sense of place and of belonging to a flesh-and-blood community, made up of real people living real lives.
The late Russell Kirk, who had such a formative influence on my life, would approve. Kirk, the godfather of the modern conservative movement, kept his home in Mecosta, Michigan, where his family had come from. A small town with a crossroads and a truck stop. He didn’t want to abandon his roots – it was part of his respect for tradition, custom, precedence, and the debt he owed to those who had gone before him.
Kirk understood what was later proven scientifically: We are wired for connection. Genuine human flourishing is only really possible in community. Of course, real communities are messy and involve compromise and even sacrifice, which is why we try to make do with substitutes like the Internet.
As David Brooks noted in his recent New York Times column, Kirk and Dreher are part of the communitarian strain of conservatism, which emphasizes the importance of community, tradition, and place. They are also, not coincidentally, Christians who understand that we wired to connect because we were created by a God who calls us to fellowship with Him and with each other.
This connectedness is at the heart of Christian teaching about love: both for God and for each other. In our radically individualistic culture today, embracing that connectedness is maybe the most countercultural thing we can do.