Crunch Time 

Dreher, a journalist who has worked at the National Review and the Washington Times, serves on the editorial staff of the Dallas Morning News. He's proud to call himself a conservative, a claim I haven't made since the Reagan Revolution redefined that term out of all reasonable coherence.

But that's not our only difference.

He's a Gen-Xer, and I'm a boomer. In the '80s, I taught history to maybe a thousand of his generation, but I never really expected to learn anything from them.

He was raised Methodist and has become a devout Roman Catholic — so much so that he and his wife practice "natural" birth control. I was raised Methodist and am so badly lapsed I'm easily mistaken for a pure secularist.

He votes consistently Republican. I'd sooner die.

For all that, Dreher's new book, "Crunchy Cons,"* is one of the most exciting, thought-provoking and hopeful commentaries I've read since, well, "The Greening of America." Whether you're conservative or liberal — if you view contemporary America with alarm, disgust or merely vague unease — I strongly encourage you to stick a bookmark in whatever you're reading, stroll to your local bookseller and purchase a copy today.

This is an important book.

By crunchy cons, Dreher refers to a growing body of countercultural conservatives who, not fitting into our standard categories, are ignored by the mainstream media. These are the Hobbits of American politics, easily overlooked, but responsible for such unexpected phenomena as the occasional fuel-efficient car, bearing a Bush-Cheney bumper sticker, in the parking lot of Ellwood Thompson's.

Dreher, himself a crunchy conservative, has set out to introduce this strange tribe of right-wing nonconformists. In his pages, we meet a corporate executive who dropped out of the rat race to raise free-range livestock and home-school his kids. We encounter gun-loving NRA members who ally with left-wing greenies to defend our increasingly fragile environment. We become acquainted with a generation of new urbanites who have rejected surburban McMansions to reclaim old neighborhoods filled with smaller, architecturally interesting houses.

In a mere 250 pages, Dreher challenges many ideas most conservatives — and their most ardent critics — take for granted. He questions the gospel of efficiency and its deleterious impact on quality craftsmanship, neighborhood retailers and the family farm. He celebrates the value of home-schooling as a response not to Darwinism, but to the materialism and hedonism of modern youth culture. He challenges the virtues of individualism and the cult of libertarianism, proposing instead a greater emphasis on family and community.

There are surprises aplenty in Dreher's book. He praises Jimmy Carter's 1979 "malaise" speech as a serious attempt to address America's excessive materialism and spiritual emptiness. He indicts Ronald Reagan for driving environmentalism out of the party of Theodore Roosevelt. He even finds kind words for Hillary Clinton's claim that "it takes a village to raise a child."

All of this might seem comforting to liberals, but Dreher's crunchiness remains distinctly conservative, rooted in a convert's commitment to a deeply traditional Roman Catholicism. While he leaves room for the possibility of secular conservatism, this seems little more than lip service. Dreher is a "true believer," and this blinds him to the possibility that the eternal verities — he uses Russell Kirk's term, "Permanent Things" — can be found in Homer and Shakespeare as well as in the Bible.

Liberals will squirm at Dreher's rejection of not only abortion and genetic engineering, but also birth control and small families. Many on the left and right will be troubled by his deep suspicion of the very idea of progress.

That said, I am struck by how often I find Dreher a kindred spirit. As a longtime public school teacher, I particularly applaud his critique of our modern schools, dominated as they are by the toxic combination of youth culture and the low expectations bred by standardized testing.

In the end, Dreher's little book offers hope that there are others, in a most unexpected quarter, who share my rejection of modern materialism, corporatism and cultural crassness.

This is a book that cries out for stars and exclamation points in the margins, as when Dreher quotes Thomas Merton's rejection of "a certain set of servitudes that I could no longer accept — servitudes to certain standards of value which to me were idiotic and repugnant and still are."

For some time now, I have wondered if the popular conception of American politics as a left-right spectrum isn't a convenient device for preventing people of intelligence and goodwill from banding together to address our culture's fundamental problems.

In these pages, I found people who share my disdain for suburban sprawl, vast, impersonal public schools and the culture of the automobile, people who reject the products of factory farming and the impact of Wal-Martization on small-town America.

What care I if they call themselves conservatives? These could be allies in battles far more fundamental than partial-birth abortion or same-sex marriage.

Allies good liberals could count on — in a crunch! S

* The complete title is "Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and the diverse tribe of countercultural conservatives plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party)."

'Rick Gray is a writer who lives in Chesterfield County.

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