I had a long lunch today with a great group of conservative Evangelical Christians. We talked about the Benedict Option, mostly, but also a bit at the end about the Nashville Statement. I’ll be thinking about all of our conversation for some time. It is impossible to separate the Nashville Statement part from the Ben Op part.
Here’s what I mean. I updated a previous blog with this:
The ones [at the luncheon, including some pastors] who spoke up emphatically called [the Nashville Statement] a pastoral disaster. Among the criticisms:
- The fact that it focused so narrowly on homosexuality and transgenderism, and including nothing about divorce and other faults of heterosexual Christians, makes it look like the signers are plucking the speck out of LGBT eyes while ignoring the log in the church’s own eye
- Objection to what they view as rejecting the Spiritual Friendship way of being a chaste Christian living with same-sex attraction (Article 7)
- Objection to what they view as Article 10’s telling Christians who affirm LGBT that they have left Christian orthodoxy
- The conviction that fair or not, the Nashville Statement looks like more culture-war red meat, especially to younger Christians
- The Trump factor: so many white Evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Trump that they surrendered the ability to speak with moral credibility on anything having to do with sexuality
That last one — the Trump factor — deserves some commentary. A couple of people in college ministry were at the table. They said that it is impossible to overstate how alienating the enthusiastic support their parents gave to Donald Trump was to their students. A number of college students have left the church entirely over it.
“How is that possible?” I asked one of the campus ministers. “How do you decide to leave Christianity altogether over who your parents voted for? That makes no sense to me.”
He said that in Evangelical circles, it’s common for college students to be skeptical at best of their parents’ theological views. For a lot of them, their parents’ backing of Donald Trump made everything they had been taught as kids about Christianity a lie. Their parents were the primary face of Evangelical Christianity to them, and to see this happen was shattering. They concluded that Christianity must be all about the economy, or tribalism, and so forth. One pastor said that a young man he ministers to in college posted a criticism of Trump on Facebook, and was cut off financially by his parents because of it.
Listening to these pastors and laypeople talking about the Trump effect on younger Christians was quite sobering to me. An older pastor said that it is impossible to separate the Nashville Statement from the massive support white Evangelicals gave to Trump. Impossible to separate, I mean, in the mind of the young.
“But Russell Moore signed it, and other Trump critics among Evangelicals,” I said.
“I know, and I’ve tried to tell people that,” said this pastor, a conservative Evangelical. “It doesn’t matter to them. All they see is a bunch of leaders of a movement who voted for a sexually corrupt man like Donald Trump are now trying to take a public stand on sexual morality for gays. It’s totally hypocritical to them. I don’t know how the Nashville Statement drafters and signers didn’t see this coming.”
Well, I wouldn’t have seen it coming quite like this either. The thing that blew me away, really, was the Trump Factor. All those who spoke up at this meeting said that the overwhelming support Trump received from white Evangelicals (everyone at this meeting was a white Evangelical, btw) destroyed the moral authority of the Evangelical church to teach on sexual matters. Again, these people are conservative Evangelicals.
A Millennial woman at the table said that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism was what their parents generation gave to them. That was their inheritance. You can’t really blame Millennials for falling away from the church, or from Christian orthodoxy, when that’s the church culture in which they were raised. She wasn’t defending MTD — far from it. She was simply saying, if I understood her correctly, that the whole problem of homosexuality, gay marriage, and the like, cannot be separated from the failures of the church for a generation or two.
The thing is, every single one of the signers of the Nashville Statement that I know personally would emphatically agree with that. We’ve talked about it at length in the past. They are not intending to single out LGBTs for special scrutiny or condemnation, though that is how the Nashville Statement has been interpreted by many. I really enjoyed myself being around faithful, believing Christians at this lunch, but I came away from it with a realization that the challenge small-o orthodox Christians face is even more stark than I thought.
One bright note: a young campus minister told me that The Benedict Option has given him a positive vision for organizing going forward through the ruins of Christian culture. I’m grateful to him for telling me so, and invited him to e-mail telling me more when he has the chance. If he does, and allows me, I’ll share it with you readers.
In light of all that, let me share with you this reflective 2015 post on marriage by Father Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest in Tennessee. It was e-mailed in by a reader this afternoon. Excerpts:
Those manning the barricades describe themselves as “defending marriage.” That is a deep inaccuracy: marriage, as an institution, was surrendered quite some time ago. Today’s battles are not about marriage but simply about dividing the spoils of its destruction. It is too late to defend marriage. Rather than being defended, marriage needs to be taught and lived. The Church needs to be willing to become the place where that teaching occurs as well as the place that can sustain couples in the struggle required to live it. Fortunately, the spiritual inheritance of the Church has gifted it with all of the tools necessary for that task. It lacks only people who are willing to take up the struggle.
Marriage laws were once the legal framework of a Christian culture. Despite the ravages of the Enlightenment and Reformation, the general framework of marriage remained untouched. The Church, in many lands, particularly those of English legal tradition, acted as an arm of the State while the State acted to uphold the Christian ideal of marriage. … [M]arriage as an institution was never traditionally about romantic love: it was about fidelity, stability, paternity and duty towards family. The traditional Western marriage rite never asked a couple, “Do you love him?” It simply asked, “Do you promise to love?” That simple promise was only one of a number of things.
Father Stephen lists the changes in law and culture that destroyed traditional marriage in the postwar era. Then:
These are clear reasons for understanding that “defense of marriage” is simply too late. The Tradition has become passé. But none of this says that the Tradition is wrong or in any way incorrect.
Of course, there are many “remnants” of traditional Christian marriage. Most people still imagine that marriage will be for a life-time, though they worry that somehow they may not be so lucky themselves. Pre-nuptial agreements are primarily tools of the rich. Even same-sex relationships are professing a desire for life-long commitments.
But all of the sentiments surrounding life-long commitments are just that – sentiments. They are not grounded in the most obvious reasons for life-long relationships. Rather, they belong to the genre of fairy tales: “living happily ever after.”
And then this:
It would seem clear that a legislative option [for restoring a healthy marriage culture] has long been a moot point. When 95 percent of the population is engaging in sex outside of marriage (to say the least) no legislation of a traditional sort is likely to make a difference. The greater question is whether such a cultural tidal wave will inundate the Church’s teaching or render it inert – a canonical witness to a by-gone time, acknowledged perhaps in confession but irrelevant to daily choices (this is already true in many places).
The “Benedict Option” can only be judged over the course of centuries, doubtless to the dismay of our impatient age. But, as noted, those things required are already largely in place. The marriage rite (in those Churches who refuse the present errors) remains committed to the life-long union of a man and a woman with clearly stated goals of fidelity. The canon laws supporting such marriages remain intact. Lacking is sufficient teaching and formation in the virtues required to live the martyrdom of marriage.
Modern culture has emphasized suffering as undesirable and an object to be remedied. Our resources are devoted to the ending of suffering and not to its endurance. Of course, the abiding myth of Modernity is that suffering can be eliminated. This is neither true nor desirable.
Virtues of patience, endurance, sacrifice, selflessness, generosity, kindness, steadfastness, loyalty, and other such qualities are impossible without the presence of suffering. The Christian faith does not disparage the relief of suffering, but neither does it make it definitive for the acquisition of virtue. Christ is quite clear that all will suffer. It is pretty much the case that no good thing comes about in human society except through the voluntary suffering of some person or persons. The goodness in our lives is rooted in the grace of heroic actions.
In the absence of stable, life-long, self-sacrificing marriages, all discussion of sex and sexuality is reduced to abstractions. An eloquent case for traditional families is currently being made by the chaos and dysfunction set in motion by their absence. No amount of legislation or social programs will succeed in replacing the most natural of human traditions. The social corrosion represented by our over-populated prisons, births outside of marriage (over 40 percent in the general population and over 70 percent among non-Hispanic African Americans), and similar phenomenon continue to predict a breakdown of civility on the most fundamental level. We passed into the “Dark Ages” some time ago. The “Benedict Option” is already in place. It is in your parish and in your marriage. Every day you endure and succeed in a faithful union to your spouse and children is a heroic act of grace-filled living.
We are not promised that the Option will be successful as a civilizational cure. Such things are in the hands of God. But we should have no doubt about the Modern Project going on around us. It is not building a Brave New World. It is merely destroying the old one and letting its children roam amid the ruins.
I’ve been saying all along, and I say in The Benedict Option, that gays didn’t wreck traditional marriage, straights did decades ago. Still, I am often surprised to learn just how far the rot has spread. I brought up at lunch today something a professor at a conservative Evangelical college once said to me: that he worried if most of his students would be able to form stable families, given that so few of them had ever seen that modeled. I understand better now what Father Cassian Folsom on Norcia meant when he told me that the only Christians and Christian families that are going to make it through what’s upon us, and what’s to come, are those who do some kind of Benedict Option. The most important statement about what it means to be a faithful small-o orthodox Christian is not what you say, but what you, your family, and your church do.