Conservatives should rejoice knowing cultural restoration is possible

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The pretty austere-looking fishing village of Cellardyke was known as the drunkest place in Scotland during the first half of the 19th century. Its sudden turnaround in 1860 shows conservatives in the 21st century that society can stop ruinous trends and regain its status as a city upon a hill.

How rough was Cellardyke? A typical newspaper story from 1856 — recounted in Harry D. Watson’s “Kilrenny and Cellardyke: 800 Years of History” — has Penelope Barclay taken into custody after an unprovoked, alcohol-induced assault on her husband.

“The unfortunate victim had been seated at his dinner after a day at sea when his wife, under the influence of drink, hurled a plate at his head, severing an artery in his temple.”

{mosads}”The East of Fife Record” was able to report a few days later that a doctor had been summoned in time and Barclay’s husband “is now progressing favourably.”


Why talk about this 161 years later? Because Cellardyke was able to stop drunkenness and the attendant street fighting and sexual harassment of women in public view. It was able to clean up, prosper economically and by 1868 regain the full local democracy it had lost four decades earlier through corruption.

It is possible to turn things around. Even when a polity is at its lowest — as this town was sometime in 1857 when “an 8-year-old boy was seen crawling along the gutter on hands and knees, dead drunk, mouthing oaths and obscenities” — even when it looks impossible to undo the damage, rehabilitation is possible.

This is a lesson we need to hear now. Conservatives despair that soon it will be too late to stop sexual depravity, the breakdown of the family, the disappearance of patriotic feeling and the weakening of faith. So concerned are they about the urgent need to restore nearly every aspect of society that the strongest intellectual argument made last year for voting for a man many had personal reservations about was that “we are headed off a cliff” and he was the only change agent available. Of course, some now wonder if that investment will pay dividends. 

For other conservatives, it is already too late. They discuss a “Benedict Option” of withdrawing from the political world altogether and forming isolated cells of virtuous behavior. The “Ben Op” is named after St. Benedict of Nursia, who according to this reading, found the Dark Ages irredeemable and advocated for the virtuous to form secluded communities.

As the journalist Rod Dreher, who has popularized the notion, describes it, “The ‘Benedict Option’ refers to Christians in the contemporary West who cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire.”

Dreher’s article quotes the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s wise admonition that “It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another.” But MacIntyre also adds that “nonetheless, certain parallels there are” between the Dark Ages of Benedict’s sixth century A.D. and our present age in Europe and North America.

Having been forewarned both ways, let’s go ahead and state that the Ben Op despair is unwarranted, as Cellardyke shows.

What turned the village around was a religious revival. It was sparked by the sinking of a fishing boat, The Heroine, on December 8, 1859, which left many widows and orphans. A minister was called in from nearby Anstruther to hold a prayer meeting. As Watson relates: “On arriving at the hall he was taken aback to find a crowd of some two hundred people, most of them men, and an atmosphere of strained emotionalism which was wholly new in his experience.”

Crowds grew at successive prayer meetings, which themselves multiplied until they had to be held daily, as did the “highly-charged emotional atmosphere in which worship was conducted.” The villagers began to take stock of their past sins. The preacher from Anstruther wrote, “There is a visible change on the town: there’s less drinking.”

The revival could not sustain the high pitch for too long, and not all the “negative aspects of fisher-life were wiped out overnight,” observes Watson. “Yet the events of that turbulent year of 1860 left a permanent mark on the town.” The impact was felt from education to politics and other aspects of everyday life.

Do we need a similar Awakening here — one that echoes the powerful Awakenings in the 18th and 19th centuries — to fix the things that conservatives believe are broken now? The political and religious thinker George Weigel thinks it’s a must.

“Politics and law cannot resolve the crisis, because politics and law, of themselves cannot revitalize the cultural subsoil of American democracy from which grow the habits of mind and heart that turn democratic self-governance from an aspiration to a capacity,” Weigel wrote in an essay in the Spring 2017 issue of National Affairs.

Weigel hastens to add that though a renewal of Christian vitality will be needed, the new Awakening “will not be exclusively the project of believers.” This echoes what Watson wrote about the awakening at Cellardyke in 1860: “even those who did not share in it were shamed into examining their consciences.” 

In fact, while waiting for a catalyst like The Heroine, non-religious entities can prepare the ground so that when the time is ripe, the seed grows. Temperance societies filled Cellardyke with abstinence literature for years, and the writers of the East of Fife Record obviously did their best to bring iniquities to light.

Weigel calls for a “Gregorian Option,” which he names after Pope St. Gregory the Great, in which rather than withdrawing from the world, communities “become the launch-pads for education, cultural and social renewal.”

The important thing is to spread the word that all of us have a built-in human dignity and value, which imposes on everyone “certain moral obligations and responsibilities, including the obligation to the common good and the responsibility of living in solidarity with others,” Weigel writes.

Government can use its bully pulpit (and others, such as newspapers, universities and even think tanks can as well) to spread Weigel’s truth that “the good life is not measured solely, or even primarily, in financial terms.”

Spreading the word of human dignity while waiting for a new Awakening in the West to prod people into examining their conscience, as Cellardykers of all persuasions began to do in the winter of 1860, is a better option than withdrawal.

Mike Gonzalez (@Gundisalvus) is a senior fellow in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags America Cellardyke Culture George Weigel Mike Gonzalez Scotland United States

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