She BenOpped. It Didn’t Work
A thoughtful, moving letter (slightly edited by me for privacy) from a reader, responding to my post about the new Pew numbers on the collapse of Christianity in America:
I’ve just read your Christianity Collapsing in America post. I’d like to speak to your frustration or desperation at the end about the importance of working out a response. People for whom their Christian faith is a very, very big thing—the biggest thing of anything in their lives—are and have been working to defend and pass it on to their children for several decades now, but I think you underestimate how high the number of the “fallen” (using a battlefield metaphor more than a wages of sin metaphor) is likely to be even with intensive Ben-Oplike action.
This is not to counsel giving up but to emphasize how much more insidious and seductive the West’s soft atheism/agnosticism/scientism/religious mush is. I think it may be worse for the faith than Communism was in Eastern Europe and Russia, because, though the stakes then compared to now (this likely will change some at least) were much higher for Christians in such societies, the seduction factor was less. Also, many people who didn’t have the heroism to remain practicing Catholics or Orthodox or whatever were not convinced into atheism or agnosticism but internally tilted with greater or less slant to the side of the angels.
I sound defeatist, and in part it is because, personally, as a parent of now-grown children, I have been defeated. That is, my two sons are agnostic at best; my two daughters are vaguely spiritual/Christian without, as far as I can tell, doctrinal content, except that God is chill with whatever makes us happy. Nobody goes to church or identifies particularly with any faith. In college, my youngest briefly attended a sort of cool, interdenominnational church called either Liquid or Fluid—I could never remember which, which she found annoying.
I was very consciously contending with the culture while I brought them up. I was quite aware that we needed community to support us, and for 8 years I belonged to a terrific home-schooling group of interesting, faithful, intelligent Catholics having lots of kids and loving and enjoying them while remaining quite firm about what they believed and how they and their children were to live. We talked about the Faith, tried to live the Faith, provided counter-arguments to what was wrong. We celebrated holidays and events together, even had intramural sports together.
Now, I know that a couple of important factors specific to our situation influenced my kids to defect. My husband, though Catholic and technically conservative doctrinally as well as politically (I am not sure even now, however, to what extent he really believes in the truth of God and all that), [had some severe personal problems]. Eventually (when the oldest kids were high school age) things got really bad, we separated, and the kids went to (Catholic) schools since I was working full-time to support everybody. So I can see those fault lines quite clearly. But, not to normalize our experience, there are A LOT of broken marriages, abusive marriages, and alcoholic marriages even among the fervently religious, so there are many people reading BEN OP stuff or in the category that should who also live with the kinds of major dysfunction that don’t make handing on their religion easier.
But additionally, as I said, the softness of the current atheistic/agnostic/pantheistic/fill-in-the-blanks Western society is extremely hard to push or pull against. As you know, everything the surrounding culture produces proselytizes with greater or lesser subtlety for secular materialism, scientism, whatever you want to call it. As the children grow older, realistically speaking, being a traditional, orthodox Christian in this polarized climate begins to drastically reduce your friend pool, your potential romantic partner pool, your potential employer pool, your odds of getting stellar recommendations from professors, etc. I don’t say that the kids do a cost-benefit analysis—I am sure though that the idea of writing off most of their peer group and many of their potential mentors is unappealing.
And that is when “ideas” and thinking even come into it! The biggest barrier to keeping the next-generation believers, I think, is the seeming monopoly on tolerance that the surrounding liberal secular world persuades people it has. You still have younger children, and from what I can tell there has been no slippage yet, but once someone’s children have slipped into questioning-the-faith-of-their-fathers mode (not in the way all people do at some point to make a faith their own, but in the way someone beginning to break off from family to sidle over to the culture does), then it is almost impossible (at least, I found it so) to make arguments for the faith that aren’t immediately dismissed because we “won’t just let gay people be happy too” or we’re ignoring the latest research on transgender people. And don’t even start on contraception, or the indissolubility of marriage, arguments about not living together beforehand, etc.
The sexual issues, and particularly the newer same sex marriage/transgender ones, are like an enormous dike walling them off from Christian belief. It is not that there aren’t arguments and there isn’t a vision of life that makes sense of Christianity, as you know, but that they are impervious to these—they won’t listen to these, they discount all of it in their heads as a holdover from past prejudices and tribalism. They are similarly largely impervious to history, or to classic literature, which becomes a storehouse of outmoded, superseded beliefs. And they believe so firmly that science explains everything they need explained. And this includes social science. I know that whenever I say something along traditional lines they are with greater or lesser patience or hostility thinking, “You have nothing to say to me: You come from a place that history and society have rightly and thankfully journeyed beyond.”
I know it is not impossible for strong Christians to emerge in this culture—I have seen some of them in my children’s generation and under. But there aren’t many, and even in the non-dysfunctional smart, strategic, and heroically faithful families, even in those who surround themselves with supportive families and friends for their children, there is no guarantee that all or even most of the children will enter adulthood faithful.
I say this not to dissuade or dishearten you, but to ask you to be more aware of how much people can be doing and trying even when the desired result does not occur. Just don’t conclude that they didn’t, so to speak, do Ben Op right—don’t be like those test pilots in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff who, when someone crashed a test plane, were driven to coming up with a theory about why, if the pilot had only done this or that, the crash would not have occurred. Sometimes, in some cases, if nothing has worked, it is possible that nothing would work.
Oh, and one observation I had about the PEW figures and tables you showed—though you correctly mentioned that the largest drop occurred in the Northeast, the percentage drop in the South was quite close to it and was I think much more significant, since in the Northeast religious belief and influence have been tanking for some time, but the South is where everyone counts on seeing Christian affiliations.
I am grateful to this reader for her remarks, however depressing. It sounds like she did the very best she could — better than many of us could have done — and still, as she put it, she “was defeated.”
I have always said that there are no foolproof solutions, and that the Benedict Option is at best a strategy that can improve the odds that our kids will hold on to the faith. But anybody who thinks that they’ve got the Plan is at risk of being humbled by reality. One of my oldest friends has a family I have always regarded as just about ideal in terms of Christian family life. Their kids are all grown now. Two are very faithful members of the church. The third left Christianity behind.
There are no guarantees. If you read The Benedict Option looking for the perfect solution, the 10-point plan that will keep your family Christian, you’re not going to find it. That’s because it doesn’t exist. I’d probably sell you more books if I said it did exist, and that I had found the recipe for the secret sauce, but that would be a lie, and it would be giving you false hope. There are things that we can do to make ourselves and our communities more resilient — and I talk about them in the book — but unless you are willing to go full-on Amish (which is a possibility!), there is no escape from modernity. Read what Alan Jacobs said about the Ben Op in 2016, to its critics among Christians.
Reader Ryan commented on that earlier post:
You are definitely correct in thinking that Christians shouldn’t place their hopes for a religious resurgence in Gen Z. I do university ministry at an Ivy League school and the numbers there are pretty sobering. Only 31% of students identify as Christian – less than half the national average of 65%. Now, there are admittedly some demographic quirks (my school has a very large Jewish population and a large number of international students who come from majority non- Christian countries). But still, those numbers point to something.
Also, these numbers don’t reflect the fact that even those who identify as Christians (or regularly attend services) don’t hold traditional Christian views on a gamut of issues – e.g. sexual ethics, the nature of salvation, the reality of hell, etc. The Christian label hides a lot of fragmentation and diversity underneath.
And in a very different context from mine in the Northeast, there is a similar syncretism that occurs between orthodox Christianity and the prosperity gospel. Before working in university ministry, I worked at a medium-sized church in a small town in the Midwest. People expected Christianity to be a Joel Osteen/Oprah Winfrey “inspirational” experience. The picture in “orthodox” Evangelical churches is even depressing, since commitment to Trump/nationalism basically blurs together with evangelical faith.