Conservative Christians in America are enjoying fresh winds of political favor. In his first month in office, President Trump upheld his promise to nominate a conservative Supreme Court justice. Last week, his administration rescinded former guidelines allowing transgender students to use the public school bathrooms of their choice. And evangelical leaders report having direct access to the Oval Office. For all his clear foibles, Trump seems to be heeding concerns that drew much white evangelical and Catholic support during the 2016 election.
So it’s an interesting time for conservative Christians — traditional Orthodox, Catholic, and evangelical Protestants — to consider withdrawing from American public life.
And yet in the coming weeks and months, expect to hear a lot about the Benedict Option. It’s a provocative vision for Christians outlined in a new book by Rod Dreher, who has explored it for the past decade on his lively American Conservative blog. To Dreher, Trump’s presidency has only given conservative Christians “a bit more time to prepare for the inevitable.” He predicts for traditional Christians loss of jobs, influence, First Amendment protections and goodwill among neighbors and co-workers. Even under Trump, says Dreher, the future is very dark.
The Benedict Option derives its name from a 6th-century monk who left the crumbling Roman Empire to form a separate community of prayer and worship. Benedict of Nursia founded monasteries and a well-known “Rule” to govern Christian life together. By many accounts, Benedictine monasteries seeded the growth of a new civilization to blossom throughout Western Europe after Rome’s fall. In his book for a mainstream publisher (Penguin’s Sentinel), Dreher insists that conservative Christians today should likewise withdraw from the crumbling American empire to preserve the faith, lest it be choked out by secularism, individualism and LGBT activism.
Dreher draws on the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, a philosopher who said the modern West is in “the new dark ages” and that those who want to lead a traditional life of virtue will have to form countercultural communities. “We are waiting . . . for another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict,” MacIntyre famously wrote in “After Virtue” (1981). In many ways, says Dreher, conservative Christians today should be little Benedicts, investing in churches, schools, and other institutions that will incubate their faith against a corrosive mainstream culture.
In many ways, the Benedict Option is simply a call for Christians to invest in the communities that sustain historical faith, or the church. Leah Libresco Sargent, an atheist turned Catholic, is quoted in the book: “This is just the church being the church. But if you don’t call it the Benedict Option, people aren’t going to do it.” Dreher laments that many contemporary churches act in attendees’ lives like a mall or a pep rally: God exists to make you feel happy and good about yourself. This is what sociologist Christian Smith described as moralistic therapeutic deism in 2005. The Benedict Option calls Christians to root themselves in time-honored theology and spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, fasting and confession.
But beyond a call for Christians to be Christians, the Benedict Option is also, it appears, a call for Christians to be culture warriors, albeit via stealth defense tactics. Dreher at once laments that “the culture war as we knew it is over.” He says conservatives “are being swept to the political margins” by activists who want them to be treated the same as racists under law.
Yet Dreher also encourages readers to “get active at the local and state level.” He writes, “Don’t fight the culture war . . . on meaningless and needlessly inflammatory gestures,” and elsewhere, “We can no longer rely on politicians and activists to fight the culture war alone on our behalf.” Elsewhere, Dreher calls Christians to build Christian institutions “that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation.” “The Benedict Option” is nothing if not embattled. Readers are left to wonder if military metaphors are the best way for Christians to think of relating to non-Christians — that is, their neighbors.
On the national level, at least, the political engagement Dreher advocates for extends primarily to the concerns of conservative Christians. He is pessimistic about such Christians having much influence in Washington and despairs that Washington politics can stop America from sliding farther into post-Christian decadence. Yet he insists that conservative Christians must keep defending religious liberty. Religious liberty here is framed as important insofar as it lets traditional Christians be traditional Christians, not because it’s core to American democracy or because Muslims, say, deserve the same freedom as Christians to practice their faith in peace.
Meanwhile, Dreher overlooks the importance of Christians working in mediating institutions that protect the most vulnerable from being crushed by violence or greed. Take groups such as World Relief, an evangelical relief agency that has resettled more than a quarter million refugees in the United States since 1975. Most of the refugees are women and children who have uprooted their lives to flee violence and persecution. World Relief and other faith-based resettlement agencies receive grants from the State Department to do the difficult work of compassion that few Americans can do.
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SOURCE: The Washington Post