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More Benedict Option Criticism

There was so much Benedict Option commentary on the web while I was away in Italy and France last week that I’m struggling to keep up with it, and respond, when I can. Here’s a piece by Jacob Lupfer, a Georgetown political science doctoral student, arguing against the BenOp, saying, post-Obergefell, that losers in the culture […]

There was so much Benedict Option commentary on the web while I was away in Italy and France last week that I’m struggling to keep up with it, and respond, when I can. Here’s a piece by Jacob Lupfer, a Georgetown political science doctoral student, arguing against the BenOp, saying, post-Obergefell, that losers in the culture war shouldn’t retreat from public life. Excerpts:

The Benedict Option arises from a bunker mentality and an overwrought persecution complex.

Well, that’s a completely unserious remark. Lupfer lives and moves within the Georgetown community. Does he have any idea what dissenters within academic, legal, and other institutions are dealing with right now? And what they are likely to deal with?

This morning, I received an e-mail from the private account of a rather prominent college professor, a Christian, someone whose name I recognized. He said he would like to talk to me about the atmosphere within academia now, but wouldn’t put anything in writing. We agreed to speak on the phone.

His institution is not one most people would think of as liberal, but he said the ground is shifting under everybody’s feet now, and there’s no way to have confidence in the future.

“I’m a tenured full professor at [name of university], and I’m scared,” he said. “I can’t imagine what it’s like for Christian professors who don’t have tenure,” or whose colleges are more liberal than his own. I told him things I had heard from Christian faculty at other colleges, both secular and Christian, and these things were all quite familiar to him.

I told the professor that part of the strategy, conscious or not, of the progressives was to paint people like us as Chicken Littles, as people with “bunker mentalities” and “persecution complexes.” Whether by design or not — because I think many progressives genuinely don’t perceive what is clear to us — the effect is complacency among Christians who have no business being complacent. So it is, I believe, with the Benedict Option.

Lupfer again:

For one thing, Christians already have communities of faith in which capable leaders and like-minded believers teach and practice their faith. They’re called churches.

In theory, yes. But that’s not how it works in real life. Not remotely. If it were true, then Moralistic Therapeutic Deism would not be the de facto faith of American young people (and, I would say, quite a few older Americans). In my life, far more of the churches I have been part of have been MTD havens than otherwise. This is why I have been talking Benedict Option for over a decade. If there was no such thing as same-sex marriage, we would still need the Benedict Option, because modernity — a category that entails consumer capitalism, individualism, secularism, mass media, and scientism (which is not the same thing as science) — is dissolving Christianity in the West. Most churches you see today will not be here in 50 years. Churches that are not consciously and consistently countercultural will melt.


A number of socially conservative faith leaders are changing the Christian right from an angry band of crusty preachers and Republican foot soldiers to a more thoughtful and winsome movement. The Benedict Option seems to disregard and undermine that effort.

I am neither a crusty preacher nor a Republican foot soldier, but when I hear progressives use words like “thoughtful” and “winsome” to refer to Christian conservatives, I take their real meaning to be “tame.” As I told the Q Conference, all the winsomeness in the world is not going to save you when they demand that you repudiate what you believe to be true for the sake of saving your job or position. They don’t actually care how nice and likeable you are; you are just as much a bigot in their eyes as the pulpit-pounder of their fever dreams. In fact, they might actually despise you more, because you are educated and presentable, just like they are, so you don’t have an excuse. I’m all for being thoughtful and winsome — I honestly am — but if the Benedict Option undermines the efforts of those Christians who genuinely believe that being nice is going to appease those who hate their views, then I’m pleased.

I remain hopeful that our robust civic pluralism can accommodate traditional religionists even in a legal and cultural context that affords rights and protections for LGBT people.

That makes one of us. Seriously, where are the solid reasons to hope on this front?

Dreher is not advocating a complete withdrawal, but it is not clear how Benedict Option Christians will engage and evangelize when they are so inwardly focused.

By living in the world and talking to people? By being a good example to others? People keep acting like I’m talking about hiding out in underground bunkers. Nonsense. For most (but not all) of us, the Benedict Option is about strengthening our own institutions, and commitments to them, and to our communities, as a stronghold within which to grow in knowledge and love of our faith. The idea is to strengthen our resilience so we can stand firm in a world that is ever more hostile to us. It might be that a Christian family decides that the environment within a public or private (or even parochial) school is too hostile to the faith formation of their children to continue sending the kids there, and so they withdraw them to homeschooling, or to a different school. This doesn’t mean that the kids will have to work on the farm forever, but it does mean that the kids will have a better chance of holding firm to the faith once they go out into the world.

There are no utopias. But some places are better than others. An African-American friend of mine talks about growing up in the 1960s in a black middle-class neighborhood, one that emerged out of a last-gasp attempt of his city’s government to maintain separate but equal. He says every family in that neighborhood had two parents in the household, and the social environment was so close-knit that all the parents looked out for each other’s kids. These parents, says my friend, knew they were raising their children to live in a hostile world in which people who looked down on them for the color of their skin held nearly all the power. Inside the haven of that neighborhood, though, my pal and the boys and girls of his generation found nurture and peace. They were going out in the daytime to integrate local schools, and having to deal with the traumas of all that, but they found the strength to do so by the love and the safety they were given in their homes and within the bounds of their community. That’s what I’m thinking of mostly when I think about the Benedict Option.

We are also going to have to set up formal or informal business networks to help each other out when we or our kids are excluded from certain businesses or professions because of their faith. But that’s not at the core of the Benedict Option. At the core is going within to strengthen ourselves to be Christians in the world. A reader points to Toynbee’s concept of “withdrawal and return” as a way to understand the Benedict Option. The reader is correct.

At this point, the Benedict Option is more a thought experiment for hand-wringing conservatives than a concrete set of proposals or plan of action. But most conceptions of the Benedict Option emphasize home schooling.

The social isolation of children is not without risks and costs, however. It can be especially devastating for overzealous parents when their kids’ values or faith formation diverges from their preferences.

Oh, here we go. Yes, there are lousy homeschoolers. Homeschooling is not for everybody. But you know what? It can be especially devastating for Christian kids when the peer culture at their school embraces pornography, drinking, drugs, or promiscuity. It can be especially devastating for Christian kids when the curriculum at their school doesn’t give them a solid grounding in the classical Western tradition. And so forth.


Let’s not forget: Social conservatives in the U.S. lost a court case. Some Christians are losing their lives.

In the Middle East, ISIS is raping and beheading Christians. Pope Francis says these truly persecuted Christians are united in an “ecumenism of blood.” For many in that conflict zone, blood is not a metaphor.

This is one of the most tiresome progressive lines of attack: Until and unless they start cutting your heads off, you American Christians have nothing to worry or to complain about.

Well, guess what? ISIS is throwing gays off the tops of buildings. By that standard, no American homosexual has a right to complain about anything, ever. It’s a ridiculous standard.

I do agree with Lupfer on this point, and appreciate his speaking out:

I have urged toleration for people who continue to believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. Yet, as if on cue, we have seen calls in recent days to legalize polygamy, end tax-exempt status for churches and rewrite a major federal religious freedom law.

It is harmful to religion and to democracy when one group’s members are ready to turn their backs on civil society and another group is ready to push them.

If Jacob Lupfer (and my friend Damon Linker) were managing this, I wouldn’t worry. They’re not. They’re going to be steamrollered. When even Andrew Sullivan can’t speak on some college campuses because he defends Brendan Eich, you know we are in a strange new land.