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Crunchy Culture

Rod Dreher, center, and his children Matthew, 6, left, and Lucas, 2, enjoy a pre-dinner snack
Rod Dreher, with sons Matthew and Lucas in their Dallas home, has written a manifesto for granola-eating conservatives who want to save the planet. (Courtney Perry for The Washington Post)

"Are these, like, the 'organic' Peeps?" he marvels, holding up a purply-green package of awfully correct candy. He squints at them through squarish, thoughtful specs.

'Hurtful' Criticism

"Crunchy Cons" is riven with the careful ambivalence of a seeker.

Dreher will make an argument for the environment or against capitalism and then sugar it with waitaminnit paragraphs that begin with the folksy "now" and "look" (as in Look, don't get me wrong. Or Now, I'm not saying . . . .) He realizes that others have been living politically conservative, back-to-the-land lifestyles years and decades longer than he has, which fascinates him.

In the book, he sets out to find and talk to them. There are farmers and home-schoolers and theological rebels. There are charismatic Catholics living in an "intentional community." There are prayerful, hardworking families that never buy anything. Some of them he finds through people who e-mailed him to huzzah about the original crunchy manifesto; some he finds at the co-op, where they're selling organic meat. The result is an often tangential journey, with a sometimes naive air about it, which Dreher's critics have noticed:

Dreher is "weighed down by self-referentialism and a worrying tendency towards self-congratulation," one reviewer sniffed in the conservative Washington Times. "A somewhat arbitrary launching pad for a variety of fairly tepid critiques against mainstream conservatism and the modern world." (The New York Times, predictably, sorta dug it, man: "Makes a convincing case that there is a market for his brand of half-hippie traditionalism, even if it is not exactly the conservatism we know today.")

Others have decried crunchy conservatism as pure fad, a folly of book marketing. "Some of it was hurtful," Dreher admits, "because it was coming from people I consider to be my friends."

This seeking seems to never end. He was a typical, left-leaning undergrad at Louisiana State in the late '80s. Yippie activist Abbie Hoffman came to campus, and Dreher volunteered to escort him around town. A wigged-out Hoffman demanded to be driven to Jimmy Swaggart Bible College so he could yell obscenities out the car window and maybe pick a fight. There was an arrogance to it. It was a small moment in a Dreher's journey rightward, toward something that seemed more sensible, upstanding.

"Julie said something to me on the same lines not long ago, in response, I seem to recall, to how once I get fixed on a new idea, or set of ideas, I allow them to take up every spare space in my mind as I follow them wherever they lead. My ninth-grade English teacher told me back then that I reminded her of 'The Elephant's Child' in Kipling, full of 'insatiable curiosity,' " Dreher says, later, by e-mail.

Their devotion to Catholicism is strong, but Mr. and Mrs. Crunchy Con have had problems with the church of late, over its handling of its priestly pedophilia scandals. They even considered converting to the Eastern Orthodox church, with its incense and icons. It had a liturgical and communal vibe that "was so much more crunchy than any parish I'd been to," he says. "Though Orthodoxy feels right, the main obstacle for us is the question of capital-T truth. . . . If I come through this and stay Catholic, I'll be a much different Catholic, that's for sure."

Julie took a play-date trip with another home-schooling mom to one of Dallas's megachurches recently, where she discovered "the best food court I've ever been to in my life." Rod says he's never been to a megachurch, and in his book he criticizes what defines the spirituality and politics there: "Almost all on the religious right are Christians -- and in this broad sense, I am on the religious right -- but it's odd how we limit our political concern to sexual issues," Dreher writes. "Jesus had as much or more to say about greed as he did about lust. But you will not find most American religious conservatives worrying overmuch about greed."

Dreher prospered as a film critic at a few papers in the 1990s, but he recalls sitting in a festival screening of indie filmmaker Todd Solondz's 1998 movie "Happiness," in which, among other things, a pedophile rapes his young son's friend at a slumber party. The critics and cineastes around him swooned over and praised it, and Dreher sank into his chair with a growing alienation from the pop machine. Not long after that, he became a conservative op-ed critic of cultural and social mores. He thrived as a pro-Bush, pro-war pundit. (His views on the war now? Changed; and certainly crunchier.)

Jangled by 9/11 and feeling cramped, the Drehers moved in 2003 to Dallas, where she grew up.

It didn't, he sighs, "seem very crunchy."

Soon he was pontificating online against sprawl: "In my part of town, developers are tearing down older houses left and right, and putting up McMansions on small lots. . . . [T]he developers invoke the Free Market, as if it were the Magisterium of the Church. I remember watching on the late local news one night not long ago a developer saying that if people didn't want to buy these kinds of houses, they wouldn't be building them. As if consumer desire was its own justification. . . ."

"Seems the folks in God's Country -- well, now don't git him wrong, they got plenty of them seeds o' faith and virtue, but they jes' don't share ole Rod's sophistercated view of housing preservation," slammed Roy Edroso, a frequent Dreher critic who writes hilariously sharp liberal screed at Alicublog. He has called Dreher "a professional Ned Flanders impersonator," and the Crunchy Con concept a "revival of Jesus Freaks as home-schoolin', homo-hatin' yuppies. . . . I liked hippies better when they had weed.

"You made your bed, hoss," Edroso railed, about Dreher's ooky feelings of dislocation in Dallas. "Now die in it."

One for the Road

The chickens are perfect.

Julie has made a loaf of pumpkin bread with chocolate chunks in it.

Driving away from the house of the Crunchy Cons, go ahead and eat the slice you took along in a paper towel. Eat it before the first stop sign. It is warm and comfortable. It's the bread of the new right. God, we think, merging onto the freeway, those people sure seem happy.

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