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Wilberforce vs. Benedict

Evangelical anti-slavery crusader William Wilberforce (MorphArt Creations/Shutterstock)

My friends Michael Gerson and Pete Wehner have a cover piece out in the new issue of Christianity Today, in which they argue for a new model of Christian political engagement that they call “the Wilberforce Option,” after the great English Evangelical abolitionist. Excerpt:

What is needed is not a full-scale retreat, but prudence. We must adjust our angle of vision in significant ways, and to discern how best to leverage this moment rather than lament it. Rather than raging or making grudging concessions to modernity, we might take this moment to display the essential character of Christianity, one that wins people over.

We start with the practical. This model will require not the white flag of surrender, but a dose of realism. Christians will need to adjust to living in a same-sex-marriage world. This does not mean they have to endorse it. But they need to learn to live in a world where gay marriage is constitutional. Making gay marriage the hill for Christians to die on is a strategic and substantive mistake. However important the legal definition of the family, returning to the traditional conception would require reversing decades of social change, of which same sex marriage is the latest (and not last) outworking. This is a massive cultural project, not a realistic immediate goal.

They’re right about this. I wish they weren’t, but they are. They go on to say that conservative Christians will need to learn how to work with gays and those who support gay marriage. This is also true, and the pair is right to say, “this is not a form of compromise; it is the normal practice of democracy.”


But if common ground is possible in some areas, political disagreements will be necessary in others, especially on issues of religious liberty. Some versions of secularism believe individuals need protection against oppressive religious institutions–such as a religious order that doesn’t provide contraceptives, or a Christian college that upholds traditional sexual standards. Yet most Americans don’t hold this view, and it cannot become our government’s view.


Religious liberty is vital. It’s vital not only as a core human right, but also as a way for Christians to live by their beliefs, without having to bend to the will of the state. Christians have every right to create sub-cultures in which they live out their faith – and parents can raise their children in ways that reflect their values rather than the values of dominant culture.

And a genuine pluralism is good for other faiths and the broader society.


But if Christians are known primarily for defending their institutions and ideals, they will look like one aggrieved minority among many. The legal culture is changing in alarming ways – perhaps moving away from accommodating religious practice and institutions. But the face of Christianity can’t be the face of fear and resistance. Evangelicals will fail if they are mainly seen as scrambling to defend their prerogatives. This is a danger, a trap. It would mean fighting defensive battles on terrain staked out by others.

The focus of Christian social engagement is not pluralism; it is personalism. We should be known for, and distinguished by, protecting human beings, their rights and their dignity, even and especially those beyond the Christian fold.

Read the whole thing, if you can; it’s behind a paywall. Their main point is to argue for continued, vigorous Christian social engagement, despite a huge defeat on same-sex marriage.

Because Gerson & Wehner criticize the Benedict Option, CT asked me to respond to their essay. That response is here. In the 750 words the magazine gave me, I identified to major flaws in their piece. Excerpt:

First, it is naïve to believe that if only Christians stop making a big deal about homosexuality, LGBT groups and their allies will partner with us in other areas. Many people on the other side see orthodox Christians as the equivalent of straight-up white supremacists.

It’s outrageously unfair, but that’s the world we live in. As long as we hold to traditional biblical teaching on sexuality, all the winsomeness in the world won’t make them like us.

Second, I sense in Gerson and Wehner’s essay a veiled willingness to compromise on Christian sexual orthodoxy. They blame “some Christian leaders” for “associating Christianity primarily with sexual morality.” That’s true, to an extent, but the secular world, especially the media, has played a far more consequential role in this distortion.

Our news-entertainment media have for the past two decades obsessively promoted the LGBT cause. It has been the sole standard on which many outside the church judge us. Why should those who stand on the issue where all Christians stood for nearly two millennia surrender to the radical innovators?

To elaborate, what I sense from their essay — and I could be wrong about this — is that Gerson & Wehner are eager to put the issue of gay marriage behind the church, so we can get on to other things. An Evangelical woman I know put it like this in a conversation to which I was party: “When can we get past this so we can get back to preaching the Gospel?” The thing is, you can’t separate out “the Gospel” from the received body of Christian teaching, and what it means to be holy. Like it or not, chastity (the right use of sexuality) is an inseparable part of that package. True, God, in His mercy, may well grant some who failed in this area a crown in heaven, and send to eternal darkness those who were perfectly chaste but who did not love. That doesn’t give us the right to diminish the importance of upholding the Biblical standard on sexual behavior, any more than it gives us the right to diminish the importance of holding ourselves to account for greed, anger, or any other deadly sin.

The world doesn’t hate Christianity because of what it teaches on greed, though it does find our teaching largely irrelevant. It does hate Christianity because of what it teaches about lust, and despite what Gerson & Wehner want, it will become our government’s view — and there’s a good chance that it will also become the American people’s view before much longer. G&W don’t want Christians to be known “primarily for defending [our] institutions and ideals,” but it’s not clear to me that we are going to have a choice in the matter.

Like I said, I could be wrong, but my basic disagreement with my friends is because I think they are too hopeful about how accommodating mainstream culture will be of dissenting Christians. It is hard for many Christians to understand that many, many on the other side see us as no different from racists. It makes no logical sense to them, and it makes no intuitive sense to them. But that’s how it is. Ask yourself how accommodating our society is of open racists, and that’s the position orthodox Christians are in now in some places (ask Brendan Eich about this), and will be in more places before much longer.

This is a post-Christian culture. It doesn’t mean the world has come to an end, but it does mean that we need to be more realistic about where we are.

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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