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Rusty Reno & The Benedict Option

First Things editor thinks my vision is too pessimistic
Rusty Reno & The Benedict Option

My friend R.R. “Rusty” Reno, editor of First Things, gives in the new issue his opinion of The Benedict Option. It begins like this:

There’s something very right about Rod Dreher’s call to action in The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. He urges us to ask if we have “compromised too much with the world” and suggests ways to renew the integrity of our religious communities. Yet there’s also something wrong. A rhetoric of crisis runs through The Benedict Option. The dire picture of our present challenges is likely to confuse Christians rather than help us discern the way forward.

Unless you subscribe to the magazine, you can’t read the whole thing; it’s paywalled for now. I don’t want to quote too much from the review, but I will cite a bit. Here’s Rusty’s basic complaint about the book:

In his account of our circumstances, however, Dreher goes wrong. He makes astute observations about particular challenges, including an important warning about our captivity to the screens we seem always to have in our hands (on this spiritual threat, see Patricia Snow, “Look at Me,” May 2016). The problem is that he gathers them up and frames them as an apocalyptic threat to the very survival of Christianity. The millennial generation is abandoning Christianity, and “if the demographic trends continue, our churches will soon be empty.” Those who remain are uncatechized and captive to a paper-thin, pseudo-Christian deism in which the cardinal virtue is being “nice.” The sexual revolution is everywhere triumphant. Gay marriage is the law of the land. Florists and bakers are being persecuted. Religious liberty may soon be extinguished. “We’ve lost on every front,” and “nobody but the most deluded of the old-school Religious Right believes that this cultural revolution can be turned back.” At times, The Benedict Option can read like Breitbart with incense.

That’s a funny line. More:

We need to beware of exaggerating our peril and misjudging our circumstances. We have not “lost on every front.” A commitment to the sanctity of life has risen gradually over the last generation. Recent studies show that millennials have less sex than their parents or grandparents did at their age—a sign, perhaps, that the sexual revolution isn’t moving from strength to strength. Gay marriage is a marginal phenomenon, and transgenderism, the latest stage of the LGBT movement, faces grassroots resistance by no means limited to religious conservatives. The Obama administration used executive orders and other techniques to impinge upon religious liberty, but when the core question was raised of whether religious communities have complete discretion in their choices of ministerial leadership, the Supreme Court was unanimously opposed to the administration’s efforts to diminish constitutional protection of religious freedom.

OK, let’s stop here for now. I don’t agree that “a commitment to the sanctity of life” has risen. Here’s a link to Gallup polling on abortion since 1973’s Roe v. Wade decision.  The numbers haven’t moved significantly. Further down the page, you do find that since 1996, a lot more people have been willing to accept the “pro-life” label … but support for abortion rights is holding steady (though it’s important to note that most Americans want some restrictions on abortion). And here are Pew’s most recent data on abortion rights support among various age demographics:

Even if numbers were more encouraging to pro-lifers, the “sanctity of life” covers a lot more than what happens in abortion clinics. You tell people that human embryos have to die in the lab for research on healing ourselves to progress, people will be for it.  In vitro fertilization typically results in the creation of more unborn children than the fertilized mother can carry, and those embryos — human persons to those who believe life begins at conception — either live in frozen limbo, or will be destroyed. In Britain, 93 percent of embryos created in the lab are never used; 1.7 million of them have been discarded since the early 1990s. The numbers must be much larger in the US.

But nobody protests this. Few people think about it. The commodification of the creation of human life is just the way we live now. The genetic experimentation coming via CRISPR is likely to redefine what human beings are, and usher in an age of eugenics. Where is this rising reverence for the sanctity of life? I wish it existed, but I don’t think it does.

Are Millennials having less sex than their parents and grandparents at the same age. Yes, but social scientists aren’t quite sure how to interpret the data.  If this is the result of males preferring to watch pornography, or of social media making it hard for men and women to know how to talk to each other, is this really moral progress? The overwhelming presence of pornography in the lives of younger Americans is a scourge. Go talk to campus ministers, and you’ll find that porn is by far and away the biggest problem they see among the students who come to church.

Gay marriage may be a “marginal” phenomenon, but that misses the point of its cultural significance. As I’ve said many times here, a society that embraces same-sex marriage, as ours has, first has to change the older idea of what marriage is, which is to say, what marriage is for. The Sexual Revolution accomplished this long before same-sex marriage became a real possibility. In France, Christians and others took to the streets to demonstrate in favor of the natural family. In the US? Nothing.

Over the past 15 years, Gallup found that the American public flip-flopped on whether or not it was morally acceptable to have a baby outside of marriage. Now, most Americans think it’s fine. This is connected to the gay marriage issue in that it shows that most Americans don’t understand, or don’t accept, the connection between marriage and childbearing. This is about the fragmentation, the break-up of the natural family. Gay marriage may remain a marginal phenomenon, simply because there are so few gays, but the fruits of a culture that has lost the Christian meaning of marriage are all around us — especially among poor and working class people of all races, and their children.

Where is the resistance to the transgender movement? I know it’s there, but is it effective? Big business held the state of North Carolina in a full Nelson until it gave up its law governing transgender bathrooms. And on the religious liberty front, it is certainly important that SCOTUS unanimously affirmed the right of religious organizations to choose their own ministers. But that ought not be too surprising, considering the narrowness of the issue. What’s going to matter is how the Court rules on broader issues, such as whether or not a Christian college that discriminates in any way against gays can still receive federal funding, however indirectly (e.g., through federally backed student loans). I talked not long ago to a senior administrator at a prominent Christian college who said that a Court ruling that went against Christian colleges would either shut his down, or compel them to violate their consciences. “It is an existential threat to us,” he said.

With this current Supreme Court line-up, how do you think a case like that would go? It would all come down to Justice Kennedy. A few weeks back, I talked to two religious liberty advocates who work on the front lines, in state legislatures. They are both deeply pessimistic, and explained to me why. Mostly it’s because big business is now driving this train, and state legislators inclined to support religious liberty find it harder to do so. And where are the churches — that is, the local congregations — on this? Silent, for the most part.

More Reno:

Although church attendance has not declined in any significant degree over the last three generations, our public culture has become more secular. During those same decades, however, Christianity grew at rapid rates in Africa and elsewhere in the world. By some accounts, Pentecostal Christianity is the most powerful force in Latin America, transforming the deepest currents of culture there. Even in the secular twenty-first-century West, the notion of a post-Christian culture obscures as much as it clarifies. Ancient Rome would not have anguished over countless migrants drowning in the Mediterranean.

Well, yes, Christianity is booming in the Global South. But my book explicitly addresses the problem of Christianity in the West. And by “post-Christian,” I mean that the Christian era is over (that is, the era in which the West understood itself through the Christian story), but it has not yet been fully erased from our cultural memory. We are not like a pre-Christian culture, but rather as post-Christians, we have gone through the experience of Christianization, and are now rapidly de-Christianizing. Europe today may anguish over drowning migrants, but will a Europe that is a couple more generations divorced from Christianity? In the 19th century, Nietzsche saw that God was dead in the hearts of Europeans. He would not have been surprised by the rise of Nazism to fill the void. Even a comparatively robust Christianity — Germany’s in the early 20th century — did not protect the nation from giving itself over to that false god, Hitler. Today, what moral or spiritual force among us could resist the allure of a new — and doubtless very different — Adolf Hitler?


Dreher says that the “Judeo-Christian culture of the West” is dying, superseded by a therapeutic culture of self-realization. That’s right at one level. But the vanguard institution of this new therapeutic culture—the university—is in crisis, not churches and synagogues. I have confidence that religious institutions, however constrained or impaired in the future, will be living, vital institutions for my grandchildren. I don’t believe the university will survive. The distinctive tradition of higher education that emerged in the Middle Ages is being absorbed into the corporate-bureaucratic structures of our society. By contrast, monasteries, missionary movements, and storefront churches are not. Yes, our religious communities are influenced by that therapeutic culture of self-realization, as Dreher points out. It provides the logic for too many sermons that preach the false gospel of self-acceptance. But we should not be blind to the fact that this false gospel weakens secular institutions much more than religious ones. People still join churches. They’ve stopped joining Masonic lodges, political parties, and bowling teams.

I don’t understand how the crisis of the university negates the crisis among the churches. As I report in The Benedict Option, Christianity in America faces two enormous crises.

The first is its loss of numbers, as much fewer younger people come into the church to replace the generation dying off now. Last year, David Voas and Mark Chaves, two of the leading sociologists of religion, analyzed the latest data and concluded that the United States is now on the same track of religious decline that Europe pioneered.  The rise of the Nones is central to that secularization process. And it is devastating the churches. For example, sociologist Christian Smith, in his long-term study of youth and religion, found that 50 percent of his subjects who identified as Catholic as teenagers abandoned their faith in their 20s.

The second crisis is in the content of the Christianity taught to the rising generations. Readers surely don’t need me to trot out again the statistics from sociologist Christian Smith and his collaborators, showing how thin and vapid is the Christianity of young Americans today. You know by now the “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” study showing that the vast majority of American youth believe that God is there to help us when we need him, and wants us to be happy, to feel good about ourselves, and to be nice — but that’s about it. Smith et al. theorized that these young people came to think this way about religion because that’s what their parents and maybe even their churches taught them.

In a follow-up study (2011) focusing on American Catholic youth, Smith and his team reached very grim conclusions. In this review in America, Fordham professor Thomas McGovern quotes the Smith team’s finding of what works best to keep young people in the faith:

“Committed and practicing Catholic emerging adults are people who were well formed in Catholic faith and practice as children, whose faith became personally meaningful and practiced as teenagers, and whose parents (reinforced by other supportive Catholic adults) were the primary agents cultivating that lifelong formation.”

McGovern adds: “The rest of the book maps why there may be so few of them.”

He goes on, summarizing the Smith team’s findings:

Baby boomer readers may gasp at the historical analysis of their parenting summarized in Chapter 1. Centrifugal forces from 1970 to 2000 generated increasing pluralism in American thinking, labeled by these authors as a “vulgar version of post-modernism.” (One of my true-believer science editors labeled postmodernism the “anthrax of the intellect.”) With truth and standards fragmented in the larger culture—the center did not hold—its effects exacerbated values conflicts within the church in the United States. The authors declare at fault “the inability, and sometimes unwillingness of the parents of the Catholic and ex-Catholic emerging adults we studied—and those half a generation earlier—to model, teach and pass on the faith to their children. At precisely the same moment, older, more communal, taken-for-granted forms of religious practice and catechesis were eroding and sometimes collapsing in American Catholicism.”

This is still going on. One way to think of the Benedict Option is as an urgent call to parents and churches to take seriously the Christian formation of youth. Because it has been a rolling disaster. Again, Smith is just talking about Catholic youth in this follow-up study, but his broader findings regarding MTD still hold. In a 2009 book about the spirituality of “emerging adults” (18 to 23 year olds), Smith found that they were still overwhelmingly MTD. In statistics I quoted in the book, he found that 60 percent of those studied see no conflict at all between their faith and consumerism and materialism. Thirty percent of those see a conflict, but don’t think they can do anything about it, so it might as well not exist. Only nine percent saw a problem and were committed to doing something about it. In this 2009 interview with Christianity Today, Smith explained his findings in greater depth.  Excerpt:

What are the traits of religious American teenagers who retain a high faith commitment as emerging adults?

The most important factor is parents. For better or worse, parents are tremendously important in shaping their children’s faith trajectories. That’s the story that came out in Soul Searching. It’s also the story that comes out here.

Another factor is youth having established devotional lives—that is, praying, reading Scripture—during the teenage years. Those who do so as teenagers are much more likely than those who don’t to continue doing so into emerging adulthood. In some cases, having other adults in a congregation who you have relationships with, and who are supportive and provide modeling, also matters.

Some readers are going to be disappointed that going on mission trips doesn’t appear to amount to a hill of beans, at least for emerging adults as a whole. For some it’s important, but not for most. But again, we emphasize above everything else the role of parents, not just in telling kids about faith but also in modeling it.

Note that the serious believers are a small minority of the whole. The church overall has a massive problem — and the problem, note well, is not simply within the institution and its functions, but is also within the family and among the laity. I would say it’s primarily within the family and among the laity.

The point is, I strongly disagree with Rusty that churches are going to be okay because they’re not collapsing as fast as Masonic lodges and bowling leagues, or they don’t have the same problems as universities. The crisis of our churches is in truth a crisis of the church in a post-Christian culture. Most Christians are go-along-to-get-along types who either don’t see the depths and the essence of the crisis, or don’t want to see it, because it would oblige them to do things that are hard, that we naturally don’t want to do. I get that. I struggle with it in myself. But really, we don’t have a choice. It’s not for nothing that Pope Benedict XVI said that the West is facing its most serious spiritual crisis since the fall of the Roman Empire. If you don’t believe me, believe him.

I do write with alarm in The Benedict Option, because I believe there’s a lot to be alarmed about — and because we can and must do things to get through this crisis. It’s not going to be easy, but what else is there?

UPDATE: This letter just in:

I went into the local Catholic grade / middle school yesterday (same grade school that my sons went to long ago) on behalf of the Knights of Columbus to speak about the Knights and charity (our most important principle) in general.   I spoke to 7th and 8th graders, and generally we had an excellent class filled with questions and discussion and thought about charity, serving as Christ and initiatives that the Knights are involved with charitably an otherwise.

I outlined to each class about the qualifications to join the KofC; be a male, aged 18 or older, and in communion with the Catholic Church (we call it being a practical Catholic).  I of course got the question in both classes that I was expecting, “why don’t you let women be members” which is simple enough to answer and explain, especially since we are so family oriented and most of our events involve spouses and family.

Well…..you guessed it, one 8th grade young lady piped up, “what about transgenders, are they allowed to be members?”.  I was floored.  I shouldn’t have been, but I was, even though it was obviously a “challenge question”, it still stunned me.  We have a pretty firm statement against gay marriage and such, and being male and a practical Catholic are how I framed my answer in the short time allowed and seeking to get back on topic, and I am quite sure that she was not satisfied with that answer, we moved on and had a great rest of the discussion about the Knights and charity.

Sigh, what the heck is this world coming to?   These kids should have been interested in Christian service and charity, not challenging the Knights on transgender rights.



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