Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Benedict Option After The Election

Little has changed for orthodox Christians in our Post-Truth Culture
The Benedict Option After The Election

I keep getting e-mails from people asking what I think the Trump victory means for the Benedict Option. I’ve tried to answer that inside much longer, and more rambling, posts, with no luck. Let me be as clear and as succinct as I can manage in this one.

The good news from the Trump victory is that the progressive assault on religious liberty has probably been halted for a period, or at least slowed down. I share Ryan T. Anderson’s hope. Excerpt:

Donald Trump promised that he would make America great again. If he is to make good on that promise, he’ll need to start by robustly restoring our first freedom: the free exercise of religion.

Unfortunately, under President Barack Obama’s administration, it came in for attack as never before. Thankfully, many of those attacks can be rectified in the very first days of a Trump administration.

Trump should commit to protecting the free exercise of religion for all Americans of all faiths. In her concession speech, Hillary Clinton referred to the “freedom of worship”—piety limited to a synagogue, church, or mosque. But what the American founders protected was the right of all to live out their faith every day of the week in public and in private, provided they peacefully respect the rights of others.

The reduction of religious liberty to mere freedom of worship is a hallmark of the Obama years. Houses of worship, for example, were exempted from the Department of Health and Human Services Obamacare contraception and abortifacient mandate.

Trump is not a religious man, but I hope that with Mike Pence whispering in his ear, he will make good on these hopes. It is also to be hoped that a Trump administration, which will replace Scalia, can also replace one or more other SCOTUS justices, and lock in a court majority solidly in favor of strong religious liberty protections. So far, so good, I think.

But this surprise Trump win in no way obviates the need for the Benedict Option. All it does is buys us a little more time, and maybe a little more space within which to build it. My great concern is that conservative Christians who were beginning to perceive the danger to our faith coming from an aggressively secularist government will now allow themselves to believe that everything is fine, because we are going to have a GOP president and a GOP Congress.

Nothing could be further from the truth! In fact, one of the reasons the church is in the perilous place it’s in is because far too many conservative Christians were complacent about the culture, thinking that all we had to do was to vote Republican and get “good” judges in place, and everything would be fine. Wrong, wrong, wrong. A change of administration in Washington is not going to change historical currents that have been desacralizing the Western mind for at least 200 years. To the extent that conservative Christians believe this lie, they leave themselves wide open.

If you are under the impression that the chief threat to Christianity is the power of the state as embodied in the person of Hillary Clinton, you are seriously misreading the times. Here’s a small but telling example. The other day, the influential Evangelical leader Gabe Lyons tweeted this:

This is basic orthodox Christianity. It would be extremely unrealistic to expect no one to object to it. What’s interesting — and characteristic of our time — is the kind of responses Lyons got, especially this one:

No, it’s not. Not remotely. Well, let me back up: yes, it’s possible (even likely) that some Christian leaders who oppose same-sex relationships are doing it purely out of prejudice, and haven’t thought it through. But Scripture is very clear about this, and the belief that Christianity forbids homosexual conduct was unquestioned for nearly 2,000 years. So if a Presbyterian pastor in Deepest Jesusland hasn’t worked out a sophisticated theological answer to the challenge posed by homosexuality, that does not mean that he is wrong. It only means that he accepts the authority of Scripture and the weight of nearly every generation since apostolic times believing without question that Scripture is true on this point. If you are going to say that Scripture is wrong, and the church’s interpretation of Scripture for nearly two millennia was wrong, you’re going to have to do a lot better than this.

What Powers is doing here is more straightforward than that, I believe. She’s saying that the answers to the theological challenge posed by contemporary views of homosexuality are culturally conditioned, and therefore “just as likely” to be matters of opinion, nothing more. That’s simply not true. If it were true, wouldn’t it be at least as true for the proposition, “It’s just as likely that Christian leaders who believe in the Trinity are doing so because of their own cultural biases”? In Powers’s case, she wrote a decade ago, quite movingly, about her conversion from atheism to Christianity, and how one of the first obstacles she had to overcome was her own closed-mindedness, summed up in this question she posed to herself: “What if this is true, and I’m not even willing to consider it?”

Been there, done that. In fact, the greatest obstacle in the end to my own conversion back in the early 1990s was not wanting to accept the church’s teaching on sexuality, period. I finally surrendered, because it was obvious to me that the only reason I was refusing it was that I did not want it to be true, because if it was true, then I would have to change my life in ways I did not want to change. I was being an intellectual and spiritual coward, refusing to recognize what I had come to recognize as truth, because it was a hard teaching. So I surrendered.

Why am I bringing all of this up here? Not to pick on Powers, certainly; her way of reasoning is quite common today. It’s to say, though, that this way of approaching the Christian faith is characteristic of our emotivist era, and is a far, far greater threat to Christianity’s integrity and resilience than anything that President Clinton, President Trump, or President Anybody could possibly do to the church. We are living in a “post-truth” era, one in which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of the term (it’s Word of the Year 2016), “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

This is in large part what the Benedict Option intends to resist. Yes, it’s to help ground orthodox Christians more firmly in the truths of the faith and in Christian community and culture, in part to make us more resilient from attacks from the outside (e.g., a hostile state). But it is also, and even moreso, about making us more resilient in the Post-Truth Culture.

What will become more clear in the next few years is the irreconcilability of our differences. With luck, we will work out a way to live together in peace, but we had better be clear and sober-minded about the challenges ahead.

Here’s an important truth that will help you make sense of where we are now, and where we are going: social order is sacred order.

That is, society is ordered by what its people consider to be sacred.

Jonathan Haidt, in a 2012 New York Times essay, spoke to this point:

Despite what you might have learned in Economics 101, people aren’t always selfish. In politics, they’re more often groupish. When people feel that a group they value — be it racial, religious, regional or ideological — is under attack, they rally to its defense, even at some cost to themselves. We evolved to be tribal, and politics is a competition among coalitions of tribes.

The key to understanding tribal behavior is not money, it’s sacredness. The great trick that humans developed at some point in the last few hundred thousand years is the ability to circle around a tree, rock, ancestor, flag, book or god, and then treat that thing as sacred. People who worship the same idol can trust one another, work as a team and prevail over less cohesive groups. So if you want to understand politics, and especially our divisive culture wars, you must follow the sacredness.

A good way to follow the sacredness is to listen to the stories that each tribe tells about itself and the larger nation. The Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith once summarized the moral narrative told by the American left like this: “Once upon a time, the vast majority” of people suffered in societies that were “unjust, unhealthy, repressive and oppressive.” These societies were “reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation and irrational traditionalism — all of which made life very unfair, unpleasant and short. But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies.” Despite our progress, “there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation and repression.” This struggle, as Smith put it, “is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving.”

This is a heroic liberation narrative. For the American left, African-Americans, women and other victimized groups are the sacred objects at the center of the story. As liberals circle around these groups, they bond together and gain a sense of righteous common purpose.

Haidt goes on to characterize a conservative narrative, one that emerged in the Reagan era. It’s fascinating to read this 2012 piece, and to observe how dated the Reagan narrative has now become in Trump’s America. Anyway, Haidt’s conclusion is even more relevant today than it was when he wrote it back then:

America faces multiple threats and challenges, many of which will require each side to accept a “grand bargain” that imposes, at the very least, painful compromises on core economic values. But when your opponent is the devil, bargaining and compromise are themselves forms of sacrilege.

It’s hard to overstress the truth of that last line, and how it applies to everybody, not just to our political, religious, and cultural opponents.

Even a devout atheist has sacred values — that is, beliefs that he holds to be non-negotiably true, beliefs that cannot be proven objectively (often about the way reality is constructed), but that he considers to be self-evident. In fact, there are very few self-evident truths, not even “all men are created equal.” That may be true, but it is by no means self-evident. To consider it so is to proclaim that one holds it as a sacred value.

Whenever you hear a liberal say that religious people have no right to impose their religious beliefs on everybody else, you are hearing the liberal state one of her sacred values. The fact that so many liberals fail to understand that they are not operating from a position of neutrality, but are taking sides on subjective grounds, accounts for their inability to understand why so many people oppose them. That so many conservatives fail to understand that liberals, despite what they like to tell themselves, are generally no less driven by their own ideas of the sacred accounts for why conservatives remain confused about what liberals want and why they want it — though, as Haidt’s research has shown, conservatives are far more likely to understand the liberal mind than liberals are to understand the conservative one. Look:

Based on painstaking cross-cultural social-psychological experimentation, Haidt establishes that the moral foundations of liberals and conservatives are not just different, they are dramatically unequal. The liberal moral matrix rests essentially entirely on the left-most foundations; the conservative moral foundation—though slanted to the right—rests upon all six.

This is a stunning finding with enormous implications. The first is that conservatives can relate to the moral thinking of liberals, but the converse is not true at all. Haidt, who is liberal himself, elegantly explains how and why conservatives will view liberals as merely misguided while liberals tend to view conservatives as incomprehensible, insane, immoral, etc.

Another implication is that liberal prescriptions tend to be incredibly single-minded as compared to those of conservatives. Haidt uses the metaphor of a bee hive to illustrate. A liberal, finding a bee in the hive suffering from injustice, is motivated more or less exclusively by the desire to get justice for the bee. A conservative, being partially driven by the Care/Harm foundation, also desires to alleviate the injustice, but tries to find a solution that also contemplates the survival of the hive itself.

Liberals seek to create justice and equity; whether doing so harms core institutions simply doesn’t enter into their moral reasoning. Conservatives, in contrast to their typical caricature, do care about justice and fairness, they merely cherish vital institutions relatively more. If there’s a conflict, conservatives will err toward protecting institutions.

And this is precisely why the “conservative advantage” is a far bigger deal than Jonathan Haidt had likely envisioned. Everyone cares about suffering and injustice. But most everyone (except liberals) also believes that maintaining core societal foundations is a legitimate, reasonable moral value.

That makes a lot of sense to me, but I’m wondering how true it remains in the present moment. Trump is an incredibly disruptive figure — disruptive of institutions, for sure. The question is whether by voting for him in the GOP primaries and then in the general election, people were casting a conservative vote (that is, saying that the politicians and institutions of the current order are not working to conserve customs and institutions under attack, and need to be replaced by a new order that will), or casting a revolutionary vote for throwing out the old and replacing it by “let’s see what happens.”

The point I want to make here is that the social order will be something over which we contend heatedly for the foreseeable future, because we cannot reconcile clashing visions of sacred order. We cannot even get many on the left to recognize that they have a sacred order, in the sense that many of their premises are not self-evident, but simply asserted. Philosopher Ryszard Legutko, who is emerging as one of the most important voices of our time, has written:

A liberal is someone who takes a rather thin view of man, society, morality, religion, history, and philosophy, believing this to be the safest approach to organizing human cooperation. He does not deny that thicker, non-procedural principles and norms are possible, but believes these to be particular preferences which possess validity only within particular groups and communities. For this reason he refuses to attribute to such principles and norms any universal value and he protests whenever someone attempts to impose his profound beliefs, however true they may seem to him, on the entire social body. Liberals might have divergent opinions on economic freedoms and the role of government, but they are united in their conviction that thinness of anthropological, moral, and metaphysical assumptions is the prerequisite for freedom and peace. Whoever would thicken such assumptions generates ideological conflicts and is believed to undermine the basis of peaceful cooperation and open the door to unjust discrimination.

Can one have non-liberal or even antiliberal views today without becoming, at best, a laughing stock, or at worst, a dangerous supporter of authoritarianism? Is the thinness of basic assumptions indeed the only way to secure liberal ends? I, for one, think that the identification of liberalism and liberty, so characteristic of modern times, is largely unfounded. Liberalism is one of several systems whose aim is to establish a certain ordering of the world. Whether this ordering is good, or preferable to other orderings, or to what extent this ordering increases our freedom, are open questions, and no definite answer seems compelling.


Obsessed with the specter of discrimination and enslavement looming within every social practice, philosophy, or moral norm, liberals fall prey to the rhetoric of emancipation and are helpless when faced with modern ideological mystifications, which are often created in bad faith and from evidently erroneous assumptions. During the last century there have appeared many ideologies that proclaim their noble aim of opposing unjust discrimination. There is practically no minority today that, making recourse to these ideologies, cannot make a convincing case that it is a victim of a particularly sinister form of discrimination.

Who is today a liberal, and who is not, is often difficult to say since emancipatory rhetoric has become so omnipresent. The true-breed liberals—for whom the idea of freedom is so dear—are extremely generous in co-opting new groups into the everexpanding circle of freedom fighters. But their generosity is not always reciprocated. Such radical groups as homosexual activists or feminists do not have any profound sympathy with liberalism, but they use its tools to promote their own goals. In fact, they are egalitarians, and the idea of equality, not liberty, is their principal value. The problem is that the liberals cannot reject the claims of such groups because they are paralyzed by the rhetoric of liberation and by their own conviction—which I find rather silly—that saying “no” to these groups would amount to the renunciation of the liberal creed.

Sometimes the desire to co-opt everyone may express itself in a vision of society which is infinitely spacious—a utopia of utopias, as Robert Nozick once called it—which could be compared to a department store where all possible goods are available, and where people are not forced to buy only those that are currently fashionable or recommended by some authoritative agency. In a department store there is no ethical hierarchy that would tell producers what to produce and customers what to purchase. A society which is modelled on the department store is said to stock goods for hedonists and spiritualists, for Jews and Muslims, for illiterate pleasure-seekers and for refined intellectuals; there is pornography and the Bible, Plato and Stalin, communism and laissez-faire. No one is deprived of the opportunity to find what he is looking for. Muslims are not coerced to accept the Christian faith, homosexuals are not forced to marry the other sex, monks are not distracted from their search for the absolute, and usurers are not constantly reminded about the Sermon on the Mount. The diversity produced by these arrangements eliminates any need for the distasteful logic of political trade-offs.

The problems with this vision are two. The first is conceptual. Such a system is in fact egalitarian, not libertarian: a world of no discrimination is a world of perfect equality. It is an illusion to believe that the egalitarian logic of the whole will not influence what people think within each community. The entire system will either have to create a spontaneous acceptance of the assumption that all ethical creeds are essentially equal, or else a supreme authority will have to impose the rule of equality on all groups. In both cases we might talk of the emergence of a sort of multiculturalism, which—as some think— may be a good thing in itself, but this puts an end to a dream of real cultural diversity. Multiculturalism is always either a highly regulated system or a homogenizing ideology which conceals its homogeneity by selecting some fashionable minority “culture”— homosexuals, Africans, feminists— to which its adherents kowtow and make this kowtowing the criterion of “openness” to plurality.

The second problem is practical. The effect of the increasing number of individual and group claims and the supportive toleration of those claims by liberals creates social and political chaos. The liberals try to bring some order to the situation, but in practice they encourage new groups to make ever more claims and thus to increase the chaos. Liberals resemble a traffic specialist trying to find traffic rules that would enable an increasing number of cars to drive efficiently and without collision and who at the same time is an automobile manufacturer interested in selling as many cars as possible. This task is not feasible. The rules are more and more inclusive, but at the expense of being more and more remote from reality. The result is a loss of a sense of proportion.

Read the whole thing — and better, buy Legutko’s great new book, The Demon in Democracy.

For the reasons Legutko mentions, the situation we are now in is not resolvable. We cannot live without authority, but increasingly, attempts to impose authority will be seen by many Americans at all places on the political spectrum as illegitimate. It will also be the case that within their own groups, Americans won’t be able to agree on basic sources of authority. This is what the minor-but-really-major argument between Gabe Lyons and Kirsten Powers highlights.

This is the world the Benedict Option intends to help orthodox Christians navigate successfully without losing their faith. Trump’s victory changes almost nothing.  Calvinist theologian Carl Trueman writes today in First Things that two things that were true before the election still are: 1) the nation-state is in precarious shape, and 2) orthodox, traditional Christianity (of the sort he and I share, despite our different churches) is weak in our post-Christian culture:

So last week was a week in which everything changed and nothing changed. For all the hysteria on both sides, Christianity has no more and no less cultural credibility than it had before. But Christian life goes on. It would have done so if the election had gone the other way. It is time for Christians to put not their trust in princes—and return to business as usual.

Carry on, and keep building that Ark. It’s gonna rain. It already is.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jd3Fka2oISA&w=525&h=300]



Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here