Conservative Christian communities are split between doubling down on their advocacy, or walling themselves off from mainstream culture.
According to a growing number of Christian leaders and thinkers, America in 2015 looks a lot like the declining, dissolute Roman empire. Conservative blogger Rod Dreher, a Protestant-turned-Catholic-turned-Orthodox Christian, has introduced what he believes to be the best way forward for Christians embroiled in the culture wars: The Benedict Option. Dreher asks whether Christians ought to emulate the 5th-century Roman saint, and undertake “communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life?”
Saint Benedict was born around 480 AD in Nursia, Italy, an area of southeastern Umbria now best known for its wild-boar sausage. He lived at the time of the rise of Christian monasticism, a tradition founded several generations earlier that encouraged Christians in Europe (and, eventually, the Middle East) to leave their families of origin and trade communal life in society for monastic life in the desert, either alone or in small clusters led by abbots. Benedict’s studies took him from Nursia to Rome, a city he found degenerate and full of vice. Repelled by the licentiousness of urban life, Benedict retreated with his family servant to the Sabine Mountains, where he became a monk, led a monastery, and eventually wrote the Rule, a 73-chapter handbook on prayer and work that led to the founding of the Order of Saint Benedict, a group of monastic communities.
At First Things, a journal of religion and public life, philosophy professor Phillip Cary asks whether now might be the time for evangelical Protestants to call a timeout for a while. “The evangelical team is playing defense, and they have a major theological weakness. They’ve adopted a version of the liberal Protestant turn to experience … This theology will hardly help them resist a culture that is all about celebrating the desires we find within us.” Cary teaches at Eastern University in Pennsylvania, where Shane Claiborne studied.
This call for societal withdrawal marks a new turn for American evangelical Christianity, which for several decades had been mostly aligned with the political right. Increasing support for gay marriage, the declining rates of marriage, and the rise of the “nones,” all seem to indicate waning evangelical influence on American culture. In the fight-or-flight response to feeling threatened, more and more Christians are taking (or at least talking about) the road out of Rome. They want to regroup, immerse themselves in communities that share their values, develop more robust theology, and emerge, in a sense, stronger than before.
In this way, the Benedict Option could be just the thing evangelicals need. With their public influence waning, withdrawing from the political conversation, at least in part, and adopting a strategy of re-entrenchment could help both fortify Christianity and engage the public. Certainly, things are starting to look bleak for evangelicals who remain in the public square. Recent efforts to defund Planned Parenthood via a Senate vote failed, and some evangelical leaders are disavowingthe culture wars altogether.
On the other hand, it is difficult to influence society from a position of defeat. Those who follow the Benedict Option and create sealed-off Christian communities will find themselves frustrated in their attempts to influence not only politics but also art, literature, media, science—any areas shaped by meaningful public conversation. There may be room for lament, like there was around Obergefell, but the ability for the larger church to offer its prophetic voice to the culture would be damaged.
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