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At Home In Helm’s Deep

Aragorn and Theoden, preparing to ride out of Helm's Deep (Source)

I was on the phone with a conservative Christian friend this morning, talking about the state of things in our country. We are both pretty downcast about what these last few weeks have revealed about contemporary conservatism, and the Christian church in America.

To summarize our conversation, what grieves us is this:

  1. The belief among many of our fellow conservative Christians that the only meaningful measure of Christian presence in the world is power; and
  2. The inability to come to terms with the fact of Donald Trump’s election loss, such that it compels people to believe things that are demonstrably untrue

Let me say a few things about both points, which are related.

A fairly common critique of my 2017 book The Benedict Option is that it is quietist in the face of cultural attack. Most of the people who say this, like most of the people who accuse the book of advocating heading for the hills, give no sign of actually having read the book. But let’s say that they did read the book, and do believe genuinely that my program amounts to surrender. How do I respond?

First, I do not counsel abandoning politics. Right now, there are pro-Trump conservatives telling Georgia voters to stay at home on January 5, withholding their votes in the two Senate runoffs to punish the GOP for supposedly not fighting hard enough to defend President Trump in this allegedly stolen election. This would be a monumentally self-sabotaging move. The Democratic Party holds the House, and it will also have the White House soon. If it can claim the Senate, there will be nothing to stop the Democrats from enacting their agendas. A Republican-controlled Senate is the only restraint. You may think ill of the GOP, but if you are any kind of conservative, I see no alternative but to vote Republican in Georgia — and at the same time, work to reform the party from within.

Second, the problem with so many Christian conservatives is that they are far too involved in politics, wrongly seeing gaining political power as the summum bonum of our lives. What good does it do to have politicians who vote as you like if you have failed to pass on the faith to your children? Look at these data from the Pew Center, on the rapid decline of religious belief and observance in America. The decline has been underway since the early 1990s, through both Republican and Democratic administrations. Overall it is better to have a government that is favorable, or at least not hostile, to religious belief and practice than one that is not. But it profits a church nothing to gain all the political power in the world, but lose the next generation to Christ.

Philip Rieff made clear in The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966) that a social order begins to die when its older members cannot transmit its values to their young. This is America today. How can we possibly hope to evangelize the nation if we cannot even hold on to our own children? You may wish to believe that the main fight facing the churches is political, because that is the one you are most prepared for. But I am telling you that it’s not. It’s spiritual and cultural. The tide has turned against Christianity in Western civilization, and we Christians must face the hard fact that it will require heroic sanctity just to hold the ground we have. Politics are part of that struggle, but they aren’t the main part of it, and anyone who believes that is deluding themselves. This is Maginot Line Christianity: a Christianity that is prepared to fight the last war instead of the one actually upon us.

The Duke of Wellington is reputed to have said that the Battle of Waterloo was won upon the playing fields of Eton. The meaning is that the moral and intellectual formation of the British Army officer corps that took place in Britain’s elite schools provided the skills that proved decisive in the victory over Napoleon. Whether that is true or not, the battles, both miniature and epic, that lie ahead for the church will be won or lost based on the kinds of formative institutions — families, churches, Christian schools — that we establish now.

In Nashville recently, I met an Evangelical pastor from Portland, Oregon, who told me that three years ago, when The Benedict Option was published, he recalls many in the Evangelical world dismissing it as alarmist. What you wrote in that book, he said, is now our reality. In just the past three years, he said, he has seen the atmosphere in his city shift from one of tolerating the church as weird but essentially harmless to regarding it and its members as evil. “What we’re living through today is going to be reality for the rest of America tomorrow,” he warned.

Recently I was in touch with a young Evangelical pastor in Austin, Texas, and brought up what the Portland pastor told me. The Austin pastor said yes, they have seen the same thing in that liberal city, in the same period of time. “It’s incredible how fast this is all happening,” he told me.

I would point out to you that this has happened with Donald Trump in the White House, and Republicans in control of the Senate. In the first half of Trump’s presidency, Republicans also controlled the House of Representatives. If you think political power is sufficient to stop the Endarkening of Wokeness, you are dreaming.

There are a lot of conservative Christians in America who dream. They cannot bring themselves to accept that Donald Trump lost this election. I was on the phone the other day with a friend who insisted that Trump had this election stolen from him. What’s the evidence? My friend had none. I pointed out that I sort of know through Orthodox church circles Judge Stephanos Bibas, the Philadelphia federal judge who authored the opinion dismissing the Trump legal team’s challenge to the vote there. I told my friend that Judge Bibas is a brilliant man, profoundly conservative and morally upright. If he says there is no evidence to back Team Trump’s claims, then you can take that to the bank.

My friend insisted that no, Biden stole the election.

“But why?” I said, exasperated.

“It’s just a feeling.”

At which point I gave up. In Live Not By Lies, I quote Hannah Arendt on the reasons why people accept totalitarianism. One of the reasons is that people affirm as true whatever suits their emotional needs:

We are being conditioned to accept as true whatever feels right to us. As Arendt wrote about the pre-totalitarian masses:

They do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience; they do not trust their eyes and ears but only their imaginations, which may be caught by anything that is at once universal and consistent with itself. What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.

In my book, I talk about how this mentality has conquered the woke Left, and how old-fashioned liberals who know better are collapsing in the face of these ardent mob assaults. But let’s be honest: we have this on the Right too. If we give ourselves over to believing that our instincts alone reveal truth to us, we will believe any passionate liar whose rhetoric strikes a resonant chord. We can see this so clearly on the Left, but many of us are blind to the same fault within ourselves.

This morning a publicist for Live Not By Lies sent me a copy of a forthcoming review in The Classical Difference, a magazine of the classical school movement. I don’t think the review (by Ty Fischer and Joe Gerber) is online yet, but I can offer you these excerpts. The reviewers say that LNBL should be read in conjunction with The Benedict Option:

Before diving into the books, a few caveats. First, the better things are culturally where you are, the more you need to read these books because you have more time to prepare for the fight. These books will serve as confirmation for people who see the smoke from Mordor when picking up the paper. For those immersed in nominal American Christian culture somewhere, these books are a healthy slap in the face.

Second, read Dreher’s books in reverse order. Live Not By Lies, his most recent book, digs into the problem that we are facing in the soft totalitarianism championed by the cultural elites. The Benedict Option, published a few years ago, dwells on the solution: intentional, thick, communities that are wedded to the historic Christian faith, mindful of Christian history, and addicted to truth. Both books are riveting.

Both of Dreher’s works point readers toward the unvarnished truth. Both state that we have currently lost the culture war. While there are still pockets of Christian culture in communities, the levers of power in American politics, entertainment, art, and industry are, for the most part, no longer moved by Christians. In fact, these switches are being thrown to crush Christians who happen to mention that the Emperor is nude.

Dreher’s warnings are grounded on his study of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose 1974 essay also inspired the book’s title and its epigraph: “There always is this fallacious belief: ‘It would not be the same here; here such things are impossible.’ Alas, all the evil of the twentieth century is possible everywhere on earth.”

The idea that the better off (culturally) you are, the more you need to read these books, is a good insight, one that had not occurred to me. It means you still have some resources to work with. Again, pastors and others who are living in the most aggressively post-Christian local cultures are telling me that it can and will get so much worse. If your local culture is relatively sane by comparison, by no means assume that what has happened to Portland and Austin can’t happen where you live. It can, and it probably will. Use the advantage of time to build resistance. Classical Christian schools are citadels of cultural memory, and absolutely vital to the future of the faith in the new Dark Age.

The reviewers write:

Live Not By Lies reminds us of Aragorn and Theoden riding out of Helm’s Deep. My sense is that failing to stand for truth with a readiness to face suffering will cause us, a generation from now, to long for the day when we could come back to this day and look falsehood in the eye, and stand for Christ, truth, our children, and our neighbor.

If you are reading Live Not By Lies with a church or school group, here is a link to the free downloadable study guide I prepared. I really do believe that we are in a critical period in which Christians cannot waste the liberties we have to make ready for the long trials ahead. By all means, let us fight for religious liberty and other rights! But let us not be sidetracked by delusions, whether it’s about the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, or by an eagerness to believe that political power is the key to defending the faith. If St. Benedict of Nursia, emerging from the ruins of the Roman Empire in the West, had built his mission on the political slogan Make Rome Great Again, and the mission that such a slogan entailed, we would never have heard of him again, and the future of the faith in the West would have been very, very different.

The battle we are fighting now is for the survival of the Christian faith in the West. Every man, and every woman, who professes the faith is needed, with clear eyes and brave hearts. We must put aside illusions, and strive to see the world as it is, not as we wish it were.

(By the way, readers, if you haven’t checked out my Substack newsletter, Daily Dreher, I invite you to do so. You can sign up to have it delivered every day in your e-mail. I usually post around midnight or later. It’s free for now; I work hard on it after my TAC workday is over, so I will eventually start charging a little something for it. Over there, I write more personally, and try to keep my focus on reasons to hope. It’s a good exercise for me, and I’m getting lots of positive feedback from readers.)

UPDATE: A reader who is part of the Anglican Church of North America sends this video address that his bishop gave to their recent diocesan meeting. In it, Bishop John Guernsey talks about the urgent need for the faithful to prepare for the trials ahead, and recommends Live Not By Lies as a guide. Thank you, Bishop Guernsey!

UPDATE.2: A reader writes:

Interesting video from an ACNA diocesan bishop today. Funny. A couple of years ago the then and current Archbishop of the ACNA came to our parish, talked to the congregation a bit after the evening service and took a few questions. Once things broke up and people started heading home I calmly asked him privately, gesturing toward the still largely filled parish hall, what plans were being made to instruct and prepare those people for when they start losing their jobs and can’t find any, losing their houses, losing their professions, losing their bank accounts, losing their young children, losing their reputations, perhaps their lives, and when they won’t be able to meet in our beautiful fourteenth-century-style building safely and quietly any longer.

He understood me. He answered, “Well, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

I was stunned by his answer and did not have the presence of mind to reply, “I wonder how many nervous and perceptive German Jews and Christians quietly muttered the same hopeful denials among themselves as they saw the powers of darkness coalesce in the 1920s and early 1930s?” The inevitable came. And it’s coming again–for us here in America. It’s our turn now. And it won’t feel very soft when it strikes. Many of us won’t make it. I wonder if I will. Perhaps the ACNA is awakening to the emergency at hand. However, I am not hearing about such things from the pulpit. Folks won’t like it. Lord Jesus, have mercy upon us and grant us thy strength and peace.

Is anybody hearing these things from the pulpit? Readers?

UPDATE.3: I just heard from Archbishop Foley Beach of the ACNA. He is the unnamed Archbishop mentioned in the reader’s comment above. He writes to say that he would not have said the thing the reader attributes to him. He writes, “I have been preaching since before I became the Archbishop on the theme: Wake Up America! pointing out just what [the reader] asked about in the question. ”

“Many of us in the Anglican Church in North America left buildings, salaries, pensions, insurance plans, and reputations for the Gospel in leaving the Episcopal Church when it gave into revisionism and liberalism,” he adds. “We would do so again.”

I see now that I should not have posted that comment from the reader without first reaching out to him. I apologize to Archbishop Foley Beach for posting the comment without at least first giving him a chance to confirm or deny it.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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