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Crunchy Culture
Author Rod Dreher Has Defined A Political Hybrid: The All-Natural, Whole-Grain Conservative

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 3, 2006

DALLAS

Two succulent, naturally raised chickens with good farm references are in the oven, snuggled up in a roasting pan like doomed lovers. Fat, perfect carrots are peeled, chopped, seasoned and ready to simmer.

"Notice that I am literally barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen," observes Mrs. Crunchy Con, and perhaps, she quips, she should have done her hair for the occasion like Phyllis Schlafly's. The li'l Crunchy Cons, boys ages 2 and 6, are out back in the warm Wednesday afternoon sun, making sculptures out of a bowl of ice cubes -- something constructive and home-schoolish, something very We're Not Watching TV.

In fact, if it weren't for their right-wing politics, the Crunchy Con family could be roasting organic chickens in Berkeley, or Takoma Park. It's that kind of house.

Wearing a faded green henley shirt, jeans and sandals is Mr. Crunchy Con, named Rod Dreher.

By day he is a right-leaning pundit and opinion editor at the Dallas Morning News -- grappling with his disappointment with how the war in Iraq is turning out. At night he comes home in a used 1993 Mercedes sedan with 109,512 miles on it, to live, like Thoreau at Walden, deliberately . (Oh, to hear him spill apologetically on about the car, how he didn't mean to wind up driving something so un-crunchy, so perceptibly fat cat, but really, when you compare it value-wise to a used Honda, and anyhow, please note that the AC is always broken . . . roll down your window and feel that? It's the cool breeze of intentional livin'.)

The Dreher family lives in a smallish, 1914 Craftsman bungalow near downtown Dallas -- a contradiction to the exurb-centric, sprawly-mall Republican ways of the megalopolis that surrounds them.

"A house like this, in a lefty city?" Dreher asks. "We would never be able to afford it. But here? In 'the hood'? We got this so cheap. We like it aesthetically. That's not always valued here."

In his recent book, the grandiloquently titled "Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, Gun-Loving Organic Gardeners, Evangelical Free-Range Farmers, Hip Homeschooling Mamas, Right-Wing Nature Lovers, and Their Diverse Tribe of Countercultural Conservatives Plan to Save America (or At Least the Republican Party)," Dreher, 39, describes his little house as the perfect expression of his politics.

He and his wife, Julie, 31, put up religious art -- Orthodox icons, prints of divine old paintings. Days after they moved in, he writes of standing at the kitchen window at morning, "wondering what the peaches and figs would taste like later that summer," frozen in a prayer of gratitude to the Lord.

Mmmm, Organic Food

Now is the political season of the marginal, the other, the Odd Fit, and it's a fantastic time to try on new stereotypes. In lulls like these come constructs like Soccer Mom and Patio Man and Bobos in Paradise, and people fight on blogs and in book reviews about whether they really exist. Now is when pollsters and opinionistas seem able to construe any demographic reality you can conceive, calibrating the political nomenclature at will: Anti-war peaceniks and eco-activists are springing up in the swamps and rururbs; evangelicals are preaching green; lefties in Whole Foods aren't so sold on a woman's right to choose anymore.

So perhaps you are a Crunchy Con?

Do you shop organic, live closer in, recycle, hike 'n' bike -- yet oppose things such as abortion and gay marriage, on deeply held, faith-based principles? Did your pastor lose you as soon as he donned low-rise jeans and started getting all Dr. Phil and self-love on the congregation, via his Kelly Clarkson microphone headset? Do you sit in your Chevy Meanderthal, with Dan Zanes on the stereo to lull the toddlers, and really, really wonder WWJD?

Crunchiness, and its potential to both irk and challenge the Republican Party, has become Rod Dreher's central preoccupation: In the summer of 2002 -- not long after he'd discovered that Birkenstock sandals make his achin' dogs feel better and that the stuff from the co-op tastes even better than the No. 2 combo at his beloved Sonic Drive-In -- Dreher wrote a brief essay for National Review's Web site, which grew into a 3,000-word manifesto for the magazine.

"We made fun of our liberal friends," he originally wrote of his newfound love for organic food, "until we actually tasted the vegetables they got from the farm. We're converts now, and since you asked, I don't remember being told when I signed up for the GOP that henceforth, I was required to refuse broccoli that tastes like broccoli because rustic socialist composters think eating it is a good idea."

The essay ran, and though his right-wing friends mostly hated it, he got more positive responses from readers than for anything he'd ever written, all on a variation of "Me, too."

A broader manifesto began to take shape. Crunchy Cons prefer smaller houses, older things, the musty truth of Scripture. "Culture is more important than politics and economics" is a bullet-point, as is "Beauty is more important than efficiency. . . . Small, Local, Old and Particular are almost always better than Big, Global, New and Abstract." Meanwhile, "The relentlessness of media-driven pop culture deadens our senses to authentic truth, beauty and wisdom."

The Dreher family likes its comfy, Ikea living-room sofa and nights spent reading. It's about front porches, not Porsches. They like jazz on (yechh) public radio. They are committed to saving the planet. They closely scrutinize what their kids watch and read, and Dreher brags that his sons routinely ask to hear his old college-radio faves on the stereo, the good stuff -- U2 and XTC. What might strike you as sort of post-hippie strikes them, paradoxically, as intrinsically conservative. It's God, family and Elvis Costello. And speaking of kooky old GOP furnishings, they like Peggy Noonan, too. (And she likes them; she's a godmother to their youngest child.)

Before Texas, Rod and Julie Dreher made a really good stab at being Brooklynites. He was a film critic and later columnist at the New York Post. Dreher says he was always the most conservative person at cocktail parties in Manhattan, "unless someone named Podhoretz was in the room."

Since "Crunchy Cons" was published earlier this year (it has gone back for two additional printings, according to a publicist at Crown publishers), Dreher has also taken a drubbing from his punditry cohort, including National Review's Jonah Goldberg, who views "Crunchy Con" as heretical to the "big tent" ideals of the one true Republican faith. Goldberg bites at "Crunchy Con" with occasional essays and blog entries of his own.

"To Rod's credit, he doesn't claim that 'mainstream conservatives' are racists; but he does claim that they are uptight, blue-blazered, two-dimensional men motivated by greed. They are Godless materialists, unthinking dupes of Madison Avenue, with no connection to spirituality or religion unless, that is, you think being an idolatrous votary of the free market counts as being religious," Goldberg wrote in March.

"Crunchy conservatism strikes me now -- as it did back when I first heard about it -- as a journalistic invention, a confabulation fit for some snarking liberal reporter at the Washington Post 'Style' section."

Breaking Bread

Ding-dong, we're here, a smidge late.

Forgot to bring wine, and we are perfectly okay with the idea that most people don't give the tiniest, insignificant poops about what Jonah Goldberg thinks.

The Drehers are funny; they like to laugh at themselves, and they will talk about their ideas and politics and religion (and yours) long into the night. Their older child, Matthew, buries his nose in automotive magazines; the younger one, Lucas, delightfully smears himself with macaroni and begs for sips of white wine. As the night wears on, both will be relocated to the living room for approved media intake (the original 1974 version of "Benji").

The Drehers are self-conscious and good-natured about living the "sacramental" life described in his book: Dreher writes in a breezy, slightly Southern style that is less dogmatic than a reader of political tracts might expect. He essentially lays out his family's entire domestic process, from their practice of natural family planning over birth control (Julie's expecting their third child in October), to what they eat, to Julie's decision not to work, to how they home-school their boys with help from a parents cooperative.

In the book he goes on at length about their religious beliefs, and what particular strains of conservative Catholicism appeal to their spiritual sensibility, and why. Theologically, they are a few clicks left of Opus Dei, but they are not fans of bland, mainstream parish Masses; nor are they interested in whatever remains of folksy Vatican II reforms and flying-saucer-shaped churches of the 1970s.

"We'll need bread," Julie announces, from the kitchen.

"Just bread?" Rod asks her. "Not water?"

"Just bread," she affirms, and off he goes to a Whole Foods several blocks away.

We find the Whole Foods blessedly empty, almost private, before the 5 o'clock rush. We walk the aisles and Dreher says that even this, the country's most successful crunchy-grocery chain, can unnerve him, makes him think too hard about the surface details of moral value. "There's still something holier-than-thou about this place," he says, passing the homeopathic aisle with its herbs and echinaceas and all-natural Tom's toothpaste. "When I'm sick, I want Sudafed. I'm a skeptic on all this stuff."

On food, however, he speaks with the zeal of a convert -- though he discourages putting gourmet ecstasies up there with religious experience. A good meal is nothing like the way the Virgin Mary acknowledged his 30 days of prayer to her, back when Dreher, raised Methodist, was in his twenties and looking for enlightenment after too much partying and drinking. The Virgin answered, in her way, and he later converted to Catholicism. Julie, raised Baptist, converted too, after the couple met.

Growing up in St. Francisville, La., a town of 1,700 people about an hour north of Baton Rouge, Dreher says he was a chubby, junk-food kid who got to watch as much television as he liked. Despite a world of hunting and fishing, he became (and remains) "an avid indoorsman." He turned his nose up at the vegetables that came out of his mother's garden. A buck-hunting episode with his father was successful, but fills him with existential dread in the retelling. He ached for his town to get its own McDonald's. (It eventually did; as crunchy as Dreher considers himself, he confesses still to an inappropriate but ongoing affair with the snack machine at his office.)

"My God, our moms were all told that it's better for you to open a can!" he says, retrieving a whole-grain Tuscan loaf from the bakery counter. "It would be overstating it to see them as victims, though. The fact is, if you're going to cook a lot at home, it takes time." Which is another benefit, he says, of Julie's decision not to work. In the middle of "Crunchy Cons," apparently with a laptop in bed so he can take notes, Dreher coaxes his wife into what is essentially a verbatim exposition of her take on the Mommy Wars. Short version: She opted out -- way out -- and left her job as a magazine editor and never looked back.

"My folks think we eat the weirdest stuff," Dreher says. "These are people who suck the fat out of the heads of crawfish, but still. . . . People have the strangest class associations on food. It's a difficult conversation to talk about the virtues of certain foods or certain kinds of housing. Pretty quick someone is saying you're an elitist, you're a snob."

He has seen something among the whole-grain muffins:

"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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