Ross Douthat writes today about the Benedict Option, saying that the Age of Trump puts conservative Christians in an unusual position. He says The Benedict Option is the book to read right now for several reasons. Excerpt:
[The Benedict Option] begins in sweeping pessimism, describing a Western Christianity foredestined to all but disappear, collapsing from within even as its institutions are regulated and taxed to death by secular inquisitors. Then it pivots to a more practical how-to guide for believers trying to build religious communities — churches, schools, families, social networks — that are more resilient, more rigorous and more capable of passing on the faith than much of Christianity today.
If I were giving “The Benedict Option” to religious readers, whether conservative or progressive, I would almost urge them to save the opening for later and just approach the how-to guide with an open mind.
That’s because prophecy is hard, and as the last two years have reminded us, history’s arc bends one way only until it doesn’t. So I can’t say whether the recent decline in American religiosity will become an unstoppable collapse, as Dreher argues, or if it’s just the evaporation of nominal Christianity that will leave a churchgoing core intact. I can’t say how far liberalism will go in forcing religious traditionalists and their institutions to bend the knee to the sexual revolution: For every instance of successful sexual-revolution Jacobinism, there’s one that’s fizzled out. And I can understand why progressive Christians dealing with the reality of President Trump would find the persecution narrative of their conservative co-believers less than persuasive at the present time.
But Dreher’s deeper, “how to build a counterculture” argument matters regardless of whether his prophecies are accurate, because it matters in the polarized, fragmenting America that exists right now. Whatever comes in 2030 or 2040, whether or not a once-dominant Christianity is doomed to marginalization or merely in decline, we have a severe problem of rootlessness, hyper-individualism and anomie already — how do you think we got Trumpism? There is blame enough to go around, but the weakness of religious community is an important part of the story; strong religious bonds were often an antidote to rootlessness and dissolution in America’s more Tocquevillian, communitarian past, and they remain so in certain present-day case studies (Mormon Utah, most notably).
The Trump era, in this sense, has not made “The Benedict Option” and the other books like it less timely, but more so. Thanks to Trump’s unlikely rise, religious conservatism has temporarily regained influence that its younger leaders and thinkers assumed was all but lost. But at a price — the price of being bound to an unstable and semi-competent form of right-wing nationalism, and suspended over the abyss by the not precisely Godlike hands of Donald Trump.
Conservative Christians active in politics have no choice but to do the best they can from that unsteady, wavering position. But only a robust counterculture, a healthy sense of their own freakishness and, yes, a few St. Benedicts will save them if they fall.
Read the whole thing. Conservative Christians who think we’ve all dodged a bullet with Trump’s election, regarding religious liberty, had better not fall into complacency. The deep cultural forces that have scattered and secularized us are not going away. Even if Donald Trump were a saint, he couldn’t stop them. Use this time to prepare. Politics cannot save us.