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Life In ‘The City Of Rod’

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig reviews 'The Benedict Option'

I didn’t know Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig was going to review The Benedict Option, but she has, in the progressive journal Democracy. I would have expected a negative review, and indeed I got one. But I also would have expected a really thoughtful pan, and I got that too — and for that, I genuinely thank her. All an author has the right to expect is that critics will engage intelligently and honestly with his work. ESB has done that, and this pleases me. (The title of the piece, “City Of Rod,” is pretty clever.)

I want to respond to certain parts of her review. Excerpts:

Indeed, liberalism and Christianity are in conflict; there really is an irresolvable kernel of discord between them, and in that respect Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is not exactly wrong. Yet it’s not exactly right, either. But as I hope to demonstrate, some level of wrongness does not preclude value or insight, which is, incidentally, where I disagree most with Dreher, whose response to the wrongness threaded into liberalism is essentially to abandon modernity altogether.

Emphasis mine. This is the thing that ESB and I agree on, but the conclusions we draw from that agreement are very different. This is a valuable insight for the Ben Op conversation going forward, though, because so much thoughtless opposition to these ideas seems to me premised on the idea that there is no meaningful disagreement between Christianity and liberalism. To the extent that there is disagreement, the liberal churches side with liberalism, and have hollowed themselves out because of it. The ugly truth that conservative churches hide from themselves is that deep down, many of us side with liberalism too, though we don’t want to admit it.

This is not always bad. Liberalism has brought us some good things, things worth conserving. But if we are not going to lose amid the triumph of secular liberalism the things we Christians must hang on to at all costs, we are going to have to be more self-searching and honest with ourselves about what we are doing.


Suffice to say, some find the moral landscape of modernity rather impoverished, and the options for pursuing it in a liberal world frustratingly limited. One can chase what one believes to be the good life, but one cannot place moral claims on others. This is the “catch,” as it were, of liberalism: “Liberalism,” political theorist Judith Shklar wrote, “has only one overriding aim: to secure the political conditions that are necessary for the exercise of personal freedom.” Or, as Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain had it: “Obey none but yourself.”

Thus ardent Christians who believe that a life modeled after Christ’s is not best for them but simply best have little room to advance their case in public life. To do so would be to infringe upon the liberties of others, and liberalism cannot abide such a violation. (It’s no accident that the earliest liberals had a special contempt for Catholics, who are especially inclined to protest the reduction of the faith to a private sentiment.)

This is good. She understands what’s at stake here. If the absolute telos of liberalism is to free the individual to do what he or she wills, then not only is that the “irresolvable kernel of discord” between Christianity and liberalism, but it also explains (as ESB does above) why liberalism now pushes Christians who dissent from liberalism out of public life.

ESB takes note of the prevalence of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in our life, and says:

Even where Americans are Christian, then, they’re only nominally so in Dreher’s imagination.

And without their ancestral faith to guide them, these demi-Christians are as vulnerable to the libidinal indulgences of modernity as any secular person.

Couple things here. For one, the urges are not merely sexual. They have to do with all our desires. In The Benedict Option, I say:

MTD is not entirely wrong. After all, God does exist, and He does want us to be good. The problem with MTD, in both its progressive and its conservative versions, is that it’s mostly about improving one’s self-esteem and subjective happiness and getting along well with others. It has little to do with the Christianity of Scripture and tradition, which teaches repentance, self-sacrificial love, and purity of heart, and commends suffering—the Way of the Cross—as the pathway to God. Though superficially Christian, MTD is the natural religion of a culture that worships the Self and material comfort.

As bleak as Christian Smith’s 2005 findings were, his follow-up research, a third installment of which was published in 2011, was even grimmer. Surveying the moral beliefs of 18-to-23-year-olds, Smith and his colleagues found that only 40 percent of young Christians sampled said that their personal moral beliefs were grounded in the Bible or some other religious sensibility. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that the beliefs of even these faithful are biblically coherent. Many of these “Christians” are actually committed moral individualists who neither know nor practice a coherent Bible-based morality.

An astonishing 61 percent of the emerging adults had no moral problem at all with materialism and consumerism. An added 30 percent expressed some qualms but figured it was not worth worrying about. In this view, say Smith and his team, “all that society is, apparently, is a collection of autonomous individuals out to enjoy life.”

These are not bad people. Rather, they are young adults who have been terribly failed by family, church, and the other institutions that formed—or rather, failed to form—their consciences and their imaginations.

MTD is the de facto religion not simply of American teenagers but also of American adults. To a remarkable degree, teenagers have adopted the religious attitudes of their parents. We have been an MTD nation for some time now, though that may have been disguised.

“America has lived a long time off its thin Christian veneer, partly necessitated by the Cold War,” Smith told me in an interview. “That is all finally being stripped away by the combination of mass consumer capitalism and liberal individualism.”

I don’t know ESB, but I’m pretty sure she would be as alarmed as I am by those numbers on consumerism and materialism. They are the logical outcome, though, of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the pseudo-Christianity that sociologist Christian Smith and his colleagues have documented is the de facto religion of Millennials (and, I would say, most Americans middle-aged and younger). Smith has distinguished it from orthodox forms of Christianity like this (from a PDF version of a Smith essay):

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is also about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherents. This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God’s love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, etc. Rather, what appears to be the actual dominant religion among U.S. teenagers is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace. It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people.

He says this is a lot like the bland American civic religion that the late Robert Bellah documented in the 1960s. But MTD is different in an important way. Smith:

Like American civil religion, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism appropriates, abstracts, and revises doctrinal elements from mostly Christianity and Judaism for its own purpose. But it does so in a “downward,” apolitical direction. Its social function is not to unify and give purpose to the nation at the level of civic affairs. Rather, it functions to foster subjective well-being in its believers and to lubricate interpersonal relationships in the local public sphere. [Emphasis mine — RD] Moralistic Therapeutic Deism exists, with God’s aid, to help people succeed in life, to make them feel good, and to help them get along with others—who otherwise are different—in school, at work, on the team, and in other routine areas of life.

This distinction matters for democracy. In the Fifties and Sixties, however shallow civic religion was, it at least held the country together and gave people reason to get involved in their communities, engaged in public purpose. MTD is rather about making sure we all get along, end of story. That’s a meaningful shift.

It’s a civic religion for an America that bowls alone. Look at this story, about how Villanova University built a pedestrian bridge over a street in the Philadelphia suburb where it’s located, at the town’s request, to make it easier for students and others to cross the street. Villanova, which is Catholic, made the terrible, horrible, no-good mistake of erecting crosses on either side of the bridge — on its own property. This caused controversy in the town:

Roberta Winters, president of the Radnor League of Women Voters, read a letter from the league that she had earlier presented to the Design Review Board, raising concerns about the crosses. At the end of the meeting, she spoke to the BOC as a resident, saying, “Just because something is legal, it may not be the right thing to do. I can think of many things that I can do legally but they are not consistent with my values and beliefs. As an Augustinian institution, I would hope that Villanova University would embrace and celebrate diversity as has been repeatedly done by Pope Francis in these troubled times.“ She quoted the pope, who called diversity “one of our greatest riches.”

“Do we really need these four crosses as large as I am towering over the roadway, and facing head on drivers of all faiths and cultures? We should be welcoming and celebrating diversity in our community… (Villanova) can act to enforce what is legal. I pray they do what is right.”

Got that? In the name of liberalism and diversity, these opponents tried to get this shut down (they failed). This is the illiberal liberalism that is displacing the older version.

Anyway, I’m not sure that ESB has fully confronted what the effect of MTD on Christianity is, and therefore what it says about Christianity in the public square. One more time, here’s Christian Smith:

It is not so much that Christianity in the United States is being secularized. Rather more subtly, either Christianity is at least degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith.

The importance of this cannot be overstated.

ESB says it’s not clear why I chose St. Benedict to focus on. I thought it was clear: because Alasdair MacIntyre, in After Virtue, held him up as an exemplar for forming little countercultural platoons amid cultural breakdown. What would a “new — and very different — St. Benedict,” to use MacIntyre’s phrase, look like if he appeared among us?

More ESB:

Dreher provides two separate, but apparently mutually exclusive, accounts of what the Benedict Option is supposed to accomplish: “[T]he Benedict Option,” Dreher writes in his first chapter, is “a strategy that draws on the authority of Scripture and the wisdom of the ancient church to embrace ‘exile in place’ and form a vibrant counterculture” which requires “focusing on families and communities instead of on partisan politics, and building churches, schools, and other institutions within which the orthodox Christian faith can survive and prosper through the flood.” Later, he advises Christians to “see their Benedict Option projects as building a better future not only for themselves but for everyone around them.”

Not mutually exclusive. As I say in the book, if we Christians are to be for the world who Christ calls us to be, we are going to have to take a couple of steps back from public engagement to thicken our communities and strengthen our identities. It sounds contradictory, but it is actually a paradox. As Robert Louis Wilken has written (and I quote this passage in the book):

Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin. At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture.

To use Scriptural terminology, we cannot be salt and light to the world if we have lost our savor, and are fumbling around in darkness about what Christians believe. You cannot give what you do not have. Smith’s research shows that most Americans, at least of the coming generations, do not hold the Christian faith in anything but a nominal sense. If you want to see an America where more Christians reject consumerism and materialism in favor of deeper values, you will need a Christianity that is authentic, not MTDeist.

The reason I say in the book that we need to go back to pre-modern sources (patristic and otherwise) in search of authentic Christianity is because the privatization of religious belief, which is at the core of liberalism, has led to the dissolution of historic Christian orthodoxy. But this is a theological point that I don’t want to get into here, in this discussion of a review of the politics of the Ben Op.

More ESB:

In his last chapter, however, he reflects on a conversation with a pastor who said: “The moment the Benedict Option becomes about anything other than communion with Christ and dwelling with our neighbors in love, it ceases to be Benedictine…It can’t be a strategy for self-improvement or for saving the church or the world.” One is then left unsure what this Benedict Option is, if not a strategy for saving the church, given that Dreher has already stated rather plainly that it is a strategy for saving the church.

The paradox here is that we cannot “save” the Church or the World if we set out to save the Church of the World. Those outcomes will only be possible as secondary to the end of pursuing life in Christ. I tried to make it clear that St. Benedict and his monks “saved” Christian civilization in the West not because they were trying to save Christian civilization in the West, but because they sought nothing more than fidelity. Yet the way they found to live in community had a tremendous effect in the world beyond the confines of the monastery. The two were connected. Over time, what took place behind the monastery walls had an indirect but profound effect on the world outside. I believe it can be the same way with our Ben Opped churches, schools, and other communal institutions, because we live out lives that are visibly different from the world around us, and attractive.


Intentions aside, the concrete requirements of the Rule of Rod are rather more prosaic: form communities oriented to the worship of God; eschew sloth and take up manual labor; homeschool or school privately in the classics and Bible; support unmarried Christians in their chastity and oppose, on all fronts, pornography, fornication, and other forms of excess and vice. No Evangelical living in my hometown of Arlington, Texas would find any of these directives remotely surprising or particularly new.

Exactly right! I did an interview today with some Christian podcasters in north Texas. They made the same point. I said this is true: that the Benedict Option is little more than a call for the Church to be the Church. If we had been doing that all along, MTD would not have taken over the Church. We would be smaller, no doubt, but we would be stronger disciples, more sure of what we believed and why we believed it. Our daily practices would be more formative. We wouldn’t be getting divorced as much. And so forth. What I try to do in The Benedict Option is to put our lukewarmness in a historical, civilizational context, as part of an exhortation to deeper conversion and more intentional Christian living.

Here is the core of ESB’s disagreement with the Benedict Option:

Christians who engage in politics have reason to engage beyond their own interests; politics can’t save one’s soul, but it can decree that children receive health care, or that poor families be able to purchase food, or that mothers can take time off work after a birth without suffering poverty or unemployment. Building communities of virtue is fine, but withdrawing from conventional politics is difficult to parse with Christ’s command that we love our neighbors. Politics order our society on every level, from deciding property laws to housing codes to social welfare policy to war and foreign intervention. An individual Christian might comfortably abandon the whole filthy mess of it, but she can’t do so cleanly: Her neighbors still need her, and not just personally, but politically. So long as we live in a democracy, each of us has agency and a responsibility for the stewardship of our fellow citizens, and though we may not succeed in all our goals, we are obligated to try.

As I say in the book, Christians have to stay engaged in ordinary politics, if only to protect our religious liberty interests. (I believe we have to stay involved for other reasons too, but even if you don’t agree, you can at least agree that religious liberty is absolutely vital.) But we cannot put as much trust in politics as we have in past eras. The great error of the Religious Right over the past 30 years or so is not to have gotten politically involved. It’s to have thought that advancing the Kingdom of God was more or less synonymous with helping the Republican Party ascend to power. Our leaders (and a lot of us followers), often without knowing what we were doing, put way too much focus on political engagement, and way too little on personal spiritual formation, and what the Benedictines call “conversion of life.”

Right now, a lot of Christian conservatives believe that we dodged a bullet with the election of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. I agree that things aren’t as dangerous for us now as they would have been under Clinton. But it’s simply delusional to think that Trump is going to turn things around. Even if he were a saint, he couldn’t do that. As Bruenig makes clear early in her review, there is increasingly little space for us Christians, at least those who don’t go along with the latest iteration of liberalism, in the public square.

Richard John Neuhaus hoped that we would have a place there. That project has failed, it seems to me. What now? Yes, we still have to be engaged in politics, but what happens when and if we lose? We don’t suddenly cease to be Christian, or to have the obligation to serve Christ, even if we have to suffer for it. How are we going to do that? How will we find the faith and the courage within us to know when we are being asked to believe or to accept something that we cannot if we want to be faithful? Where is our “Here I stand, I can do no other” line? How will we know when we are being asked to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, living as we must as resident aliens in Babylon, and how will we find it within ourselves to go into the furnace singing, as did Shadrach, Meshech, and Abednego?

These are not fanciful questions. These are questions that countless Christians have faced over the years. These are questions that millions around the world face today. We have not had to face them in our country. But we will. Fear the Brave New World dystopia as much as you fear the 1984 dystopia — if you want to save your soul, that is.

Finally, ESB writes:

Because I believe all of nature does point to God, just as the Medievals did, I can’t seal myself away from society.

The good news is that you don’t have to. But if you are going to maintain your faithful presence as a Christian within the broader society, you are going to have to go more deeply within your faith, its teachings, Scripture, and traditional practices to keep your lamp lit amid the howling gale and the dark night outside.

Once again, I thank Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig for a fine critical review.



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