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Benedict Option I: Dreher’s Plaintive Call

Editor’s note: See the second part of our Benedict Option coverage here.

Americans are bred to be political idealists. Their catechisms declare that the United States is the Novus Ordo Seclorum, the “shining city upon a hill,” the “last best hope” of mankind. But idealism cuts both ways: it can motivate one to fight the good fight, or it can turn one away from the fight when the ideal seems no longer possible.

Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option seems to some critics to counsel the latter. Dreher calls for a “strategic withdrawal” from the mainstream of American life and a “decisive leap into a truly countercultural way of living Christianity.” Others have made the same call for decades. Some have actually done what Dreher recommends. (His book is based in part on their examples.) But two things make Dreher’s call stand out.

First, there’s Dreher’s attention-getting use of St. Benedict of Nursia, the sixth-century founder of monastic communities in Italy. Dreher casts Benedict in the role of a refugee who hies to the hills to preserve what’s left of classical civilization from the Goths who had destroyed the Roman Empire. It’s an image borrowed from the closing lines of Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 book After Virtue, but it doesn’t fit the facts then or the situation now. Benedict wasn’t fleeing the Goths to save civilization; he was fleeing the good life in Rome to save his soul, and his flight was part of a much larger movement toward monasticism that began two centuries earlier, not in response to persecution but in response to the mundanity of Christian life in the absence of persecution.

More to Dreher’s credit is the second distinctive aspect of his call—its timing. Others over the years have watched the gathering clouds and warned of the need to take shelter; now the storm is upon us and people are paying attention. The mere fact that the Benedict Option has excited such controversy both before and after the book’s release proves one of Dreher’s key points: the nation has experienced a “watershed event” that has caused many Christians to fear they face an existential threat that may require a radical reordering of their priorities.

The event Dreher names is not the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision making gay marriage the law of the land. (Americans are accustomed to their courts issuing outrageous decisions when democracy doesn’t give the people what the courts want.) Instead, Dreher points to Indiana’s humiliating flip-flop on religious freedom two months earlier, when the state first enacted and then immediately repealed a law providing a religious-liberty defense in discrimination cases.

When a solidly red state headed by a conservative Republican (then Gov. Mike Pence; now Vice President Pence) can be made to heel on order by the business lobby, acting on behalf of the gay lobby, is it not a sign of the extreme political weakness of Christians in America?

To this, Dreher adds signs that the weakness is increasing, including the precipitous decline in self-identified Christians among the nation’s young (one in three profess no religion) and the tendency of younger Christians to side with the business lobby on gay rights. He concludes that traditional Christians committed to making a principled stand against the Sexual Revolution are an endangered species, declining in numbers and more vulnerable than ever to social pressure and official persecution.

To survive they will have to work harder at cultivating a consciously Christian way of life and passing it on to their children. They must, he says, “Secede culturally from the mainstream. Turn off the television. Put the smartphones away.” They must also build new communities based on traditional churches, schools, networks, and neighborhoods—a “parallel polis,” in the words of Czech dissident Vaclav Benda.

The objective of the Benedict Option is not to win the culture wars, which Dreher thinks already lost, but to preserve traditional Christian culture in the new Dark Age. That’s not enough for Dreher’s more militant critics, who are fixed on the fight and don’t want to see allies fleeing the field. It also doesn’t sit well with more pragmatic critics, who doubt that the drastic actions Dreher recommends are helpful or necessary.

The pragmatism of Dreher’s critics ranges from capitulation to resistance. Among the capitulators is David Brooks of the New York Times, who concludes his review of Dreher’s book by declaring that “the real enemy is not the sexual revolution” but “a form of purism that can’t tolerate difference because it can’t humbly accept the mystery of truth”—by which words we know that Brooks and Dreher are ideological enemies. Never mind that they refer to each other as “my friend.”

At the other end of the spectrum, we have pragmatic resistors like the author, journalist, and screenwriter John Zmirak, who was raised on Catholic “separatism” and doesn’t recommend it, except for those called to the monastery. For families, Zmirak writes, “a much saner Christian option is to support and make use of solid institutions, without making them fetishes, or pretending that some imagined goal of ‘community’ absolves you from the rules and limits of our still-fallen world.”

I doubt that Dreher would disagree with those words, though I am sure he would question the solidity of the available institutions. (His book includes a section under the heading, “Don’t Kid Yourself About Christian Schools.”) I also suspect that Zmirak’s reaction to the Benedict Option is based less on Dreher’s book than on Dreher’s past praise of Christian communes. While still writing his book, Dreher was often criticized for his enthusiasm for Christian communes and at times could be heard protesting, “I’m not talking about heading to the hills!” This seems to have made a difference in his book, where communes receive rather brief treatment.

None of Dreher’s recommendations is all that shocking or unreasonable: don’t be afraid to be a nonconformist; live close to like-minded others; make your church’s social network real; buy Christian even if it costs more; build Christian employment networks; pull your children out of public schools, start a classical Christian school, or homeschool. These are serious commitments, and they are commitments that more and more Christians are already making. 

Some of his recommendations are especially insightful, such as his lengthy discourse on the importance of liturgical worship and sacramentality, a no-brainer for Catholics and Orthodox Christians but a possible stumbling block for Evangelicals. He also recommends fasting, tightening church discipline, and focusing less on evangelism and more on strengthening the faithful. “We should stop trying to meet the world on its own terms and focus on building up fidelity in distinct community,” he writes. “Instead of being seeker-friendly, we should be finder-friendly, offering those who come to us a new and different way of life.”

Other recommendations give evidence of a sentimental longing for a simpler life, characteristic of the localists at Front Porch Republic, but the book does not prescribe a single solution or insist on going whole hog. The overall tone is surprisingly moderate and at times almost squishy for a book considered so subversive. Dreher doesn’t damn political involvement; he merely warns that it won’t save us and that efforts are needed elsewhere. What he advocates, in his book at least, is not “purism” or “separatism” but a more imaginative pragmatic resistance, one that rightly marks recent changes and looks ahead to future challenges.

In three ways, The Benedict Option does not go far enough. First, in his chapter titled “The Roots of the Crisis,” Dreher follows Richard Weaver in blaming William of Ockham, the Franciscan philosopher and theologian who lived from c. 1285 to 1347, for destroying the supposed harmony and certainty of medieval scholasticism. This is disappointing because Dreher is now an Orthodox Christian (as am I), and Orthodox scholars take a very different view of where the West went wrong, faulting the West for a longstanding tendency toward excessive rationalism, beginning with St. Augustine and producing both the rigid edifice of medieval scholasticism and the ideas that were its undoing. There is no hint of this complex historical critique in the book, which might leave readers with the notion that things were fine until Ockham erred. 

Second, Dreher overlooks entirely and inexplicably the experience of Christians under Islam. There is today still a very large Christian minority in Egypt despite nearly 14 centuries of oppression, and until the 20th century there were also large Christian minorities elsewhere in the Middle East, including Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. Dreher refers instead to the weak analogy of our present plight to sixth-century Italy and to the brief experience of Czechs under communism. He even writes that Christians “have a lot to learn” from Orthodox Jews about surviving as an oppressed minority, as if Christians have never had that experience, but he doesn’t have much to say about the Jewish experience either, just that they are determined to survive as a people, live close to one another, value education highly, and teach their children scripture.

Third, had Dreher delved deeper into what it takes for oppressed minorities to survive through the ages, he would have found that high rates of fertility are absolutely essential. Orthodox Jews have large families. So did Christians until recently, but among American Christians today there is little pressure to marry, and those who do marry are having fewer children, often stopping at two, which isn’t even replacement. Some children will not live to adulthood, some who live will not marry, some who marry will not be able to have children, and some who are able will not keep the faith and pass it on. For these reasons, a population in which the norm is two children per couple is on the road to extinction.

Dreher has a lot to say against the Sexual Revolution, but he has nothing to say about its impact on fertility. He does not tell his readers to have more children, even though having more children is the surest means of survival. There is safety in numbers. More children mean more voters in the next generation, more wealth from more workers, more support for new churches and schools, more like-minded people to constitute the community and carry on the culture.

Without more children, the Benedict Option is doomed to fail. Christians must either choose life, and choose it more abundantly, or follow the world in committing what George Gilder, in 1973, prophetically called “sexual suicide.”

Brian Patrick Mitchell is the author of Eight Ways to Run the Country.

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