The societal fissures of our times are demonstrated in Rod Dreher’s recent book The Benedict Option, in which Dreher puts forth a two-part thesis. Firstly, the worldview of small-o orthodox Christians not only no longer occupies a privileged place in western culture, but is actively under assault from mainstream society. Secondly, Dreher holds the appropriate response to this situation is for orthodox Christians to retreat to smaller, more self-contained communities, akin to the eponymous St. Benedict’s foundation of Christian monasteries in the Dark Ages as bulwarks of faith and classical learning.
Critics have taken issue with Dreher’s thesis, arguing that Christian claims of persecution are overblown and that a Benedict-style retreat is inappropriate. Many of the criticisms are merited. Yet the reality remains that orthodox Christians would be dangerously complacent to assume that their faith will survive in its traditional form. While there may be too many obstacles for believers to adopt the Benedict Option on a meaningful scale, moderates should be alarmed by the merits of Dreher’s points.
To begin, many critics of Dreher’s thesis have a hard time understanding why some orthodox Christians feel like victims. Such criticisms are many: that the First Amendment appropriately relegates religion to the fringes of public life for the freedom of non-believers, that traditional Christian teachings on women and sexuality propagate hate, that Christian marginalization is merely a consequence of the triumph of scientific progress, or that (white) Christian claims of marginalization are ludicrous and inappropriate given the discrimination faced everyday by other minorities.
While these arguments are not all without merit, many traditional Christians see things much differently. For them, their faith is gravely threatened from within and without in a way unknown since pagan times. Some of these concerns are familiar and long-standing – for example, the decades’ long lament over abortion and a hostile mainstream media with its paucity of programming supportive of a traditionalist Christian worldview. The rise of smartphones and internet pornography has heightened this trend.
Recent legal and political events have caused many traditionalist Christians even greater concern. Notable is the famous case of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado, which supposedly threatens religious freedom and for traditionalists raises the spectre of an activist judiciary rooting out traditional elements of the faith. Then there is the perceived sudden and aggressive explosion of the transgender movement, including in schools, which many Christians fear takes power away from parents in favour of a new and not-up-for-debate ideology. Elsewhere, British Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, though he voted in favour of gay rights and abortion, was still grilled and criticized severely over his Christian faith, a fact which played no small part in his resignation. It’s difficult to overstate how much these trends have freaked out traditionalist Christians.
Another area of concern for Dreher is the erosion of the faith through popular indifference and a poorly catechized faithful. The indifference is evidenced by statistical decline in the numbers of traditional Christians in the US. For those who do call themselves Christian, the lack of education in the fundamentals of the faith gives rise to a variety of heresies, most notably “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (MTD). In a nutshell, MTD is the belief that God basically wants us to be happy and good to each other, but does not place many further demands on us. To outsiders, this may be a viewpoint more compatible with our 21st century liberal society, but it is decidedly not traditional Christianity. Finally, there are the problems of the prosperity gospel and the subordinating of Christian teachings to the Republican Party. Most of these are problems for which Christian communities only have themselves to blame.
Regardless, whether one is sympathetic or not to the orthodox Christian worldview, by putting oneself in their shoes (an increasingly difficult thing for many of us nowadays), it is not difficult to understand their concern over the erosion of faith. Yes, we do not know the path of future events and what seems alarming today may in a decade prove to have been a flash in the pan. However, given the above concerns, there is simply no reason to assume the orthodox Christian worldview will survive.
What then about the proposal of an orthodox Christian withdrawal from society? Dreher has used a Dunkirk analogy to explain this – a strategic withdrawal and strengthening so as to prevail in the long-term. Parallels can also be drawn to other groups who live in small, tightly-knit religious communities, including Orthodox Jews or Amish communities.
Realistically, however, Dreher’s proposal faces a number of huge obstacles. Mainstream Christians have not been isolated and marginalized for centuries the ways many Jews have and so to come together in smaller communities like Dreher envisions would require a serious shift in Christian culture unseen since the early days of the faith. Retreat also appears to contradict the demands of Christian evangelism and the Great Commission and will no doubt be opposed by some on these grounds. There is also the danger that such communities would be isolated, intolerant of new ideas, or unappealing places to live. Lastly, such communities would need to be economically viable in a 21st century economy, an enormously difficult task. Though possibilities discussed include a more economically traditional community, this could be tough to achieve. Of course, alternatives to the Benedict Option, like an increased emphasis on a more rigorous catechism and evangelization through social media, face their own uphill struggles.
Why should the rest of society care what happens to traditionalist Christians? The answer is this: Dreher’s thesis was not part of mainstream Christian thought even fifteen years ago and highlights the extent to which our society is fracturing. One may cheer Christian marginalization as the victory of science, freedom and equality, but there is no doubt that that faith has shaped our civilization deeply and that its disappearance would lead us down unchartered paths. The history of twentieth century atheist states and the current trajectory of an increasingly post-religious USA should at the very least give one pause. Nor does it seem clear that an increasingly post-religious US population is any more “rational” and “tolerant” than before. If this historic element of our society does go into full retreat – and with it potentially a minority that no longer feels it has a home here – is that really a “win”?
Traditionalist Christian communities have much to grapple with and, yes, atone for, as their treatment of gays (frequently hypocritically elevated above all other “sins”) has often been shameful and destructive. Their own internal struggles in navigating the sexual revolution and balancing the sensitivity they show to those who are different while still maintaining their core beliefs will be very difficult. Many such communities must also disentangle themselves from the Republican Party. But extremist hyperbole aside, orthodox Christians aren’t ISIS, whose destruction would be an obvious societal good. Dreher’s solution may not be the correct one, but its popularity and degree of merit – even if his is ultimately not the correct answer – must be viewed with alarm by all moderates.