Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre closed his 1981 book After Virtue by posing what might be called the St. Benedict option. As a society, we retain the vestiges of traditional moral language but not the communities and practices that produced that language. Moreover, our elites think that justice has no grounding apart from individual feelings. The Enlightenment project of replacing tradition with self-grounding moral rules has failed, and no grand replacement has emerged. According to MacIntyre, such a society is "not waiting for Godot, but for another--and doubtless very different--St. Benedict."
To conservative American Christians--evangelical Protestants and orthodox Catholics--MacIntyre's diagnosis sounded right. Christendom, the res publica Christiana inaugurated by the Emperor Constantine and (so it had been thought) carried on by the American Founders, appeared dead, and what had replaced it was not clear: perhaps a centerless web of individuals; perhaps a welter of groups holding incommensurate values; perhaps an aggressive secular empire. Conservative Christians saw that they had been routed from the commanding heights of culture, including the media, the academy, the state, and in particular the courts.
Whatever MacIntyre's intent, his line about St. Benedict was often taken to mean that people adhering to traditional moral norms should withdraw to some extent from the corrupting influences of American society and into their particular communities. This communal turn was reflected in many of the books conservative Christians read in the 1980s and '90s. Lesslie Newbigin's work counseled them to abandon the old propositional apologetics and instead to evangelize through living as the Christian community, for "Jesus did not write a book but formed a community." Quasi-Anabaptist writers such as Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, for whom Constantinianism had been a colossal error all along, told a newly receptive audience that they had been making the correlative mistake of thinking of themselves as Americans before Christians. Thus Hauerwas, writing in 1992: "To become a disciple is not a matter of a new or changed self-understanding, but rather to become part of a different community with a different set of practices." At the same time, the localism of Wendell Berry and the Southern Agrarians became plausible for many.
Christian social practices changed accordingly, most strikingly in the rise of home schooling. Many also expressed a desire to stop watching television, even if they found it difficult to do so. Paul Weyrich declared in 1999 that Christians had...