Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Leviathan vs. Benedict

The late historian Christopher Dawson says the Benedict Option will be hard to pull off in modernity

Brian Mattson quotes the historian Christopher Dawson (d. 1970) criticizing the possibility of the Benedict Option in modernity — that is, in a modern state. From Dawson:

So long as an overwhelming majority of member of the American Congress are at least nominal church members, there is little possibility of the State adopting an actively anti-Christian policy. But the prospect for the future is more disquieting. For the more completely secularized public education becomes, and the more the State acquires an educational monopoly, as it is bound to do, considering the growing cost of education, the more the Christian element in our culture will diminish and the more complete will be the victory of secularization as the working religion, or rather counter-religion, of the American people. Even today the public school is widely regarded not as a purely educational institution in the nineteenth century sense – that is, as an elementary introduction to the literary and scientific traditions of culture – but as a moral training in citizenship, an initiation and indoctrination in the American way of life; and since the public school is essentially secular this means that only the secular aspects of American culture are recognized as valid. It is only a short step from here to the point at which the Christian way of life is condemned and outlawed as a deviation from the standard patterns of social behavior.

Mattson adds:

You will not be left alone to huddle with like-minded people. You are an enemy of humanity and society, and you will be given no quarter. By all means, gather with other Christians and strengthen your community. But this is not and cannot be an alternative to social and cultural engagement.

I appreciate this very much. I really do. I have been kicking around Benedict Option notions for years, but have never felt compelled to think through it in a hard and systematic way, until recently. This kind of thing is very, very helpful.

I’ll say this, though. Not long ago, a senior figure engaged in legal strategy on religious freedom issues told me that we cannot disengage from court fights and politics, because we have no choice but to keep fighting to protect ourselves. But we should not be under any illusions about the prospect of any kind of solid or lasting victory, nor should we deceive ourselves by thinking that winning lawsuits and elections is any kind of alternative to doing the hard, long, necessary work of building a strong, resilient Christian culture.

Not “either/or” but “both/and”. What else is there to do?