According to a growing number of Christian leaders and thinkers, America in 2015 looks a lot like the declining, dissolute Roman empire. Conservative blogger Rod Dreher, a Protestant-turned-Catholic-turned-Orthodox Christian, has introduced what he believes to be the best way forward for Christians embroiled in the culture wars: The Benedict Option. Dreher asks whether Christians ought to emulate the 5th-century Roman saint, and undertake “communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life?”
Saint Benedict was born around 480 AD in Nursia, Italy, an area of southeastern Umbria now best known for its wild-boar sausage. He lived at the time of the rise of Christian monasticism, a tradition founded several generations earlier that encouraged Christians in Europe (and, eventually, the Middle East) to leave their families of origin and trade communal life in society for monastic life in the desert, either alone or in small clusters led by abbots. Benedict’s studies took him from Nursia to Rome, a city he found degenerate and full of vice. Repelled by the licentiousness of urban life, Benedict retreated with his family servant to the Sabine Mountains, where he became a monk, led a monastery, and eventually wrote the Rule, a 73-chapter handbook on prayer and work that led to the founding of the Order of Saint Benedict, a group of monastic communities.
Dreher first issued his call back in 2013. Since then, and especially in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that gay marriage is a constitutional right, things have only gotten worse. “[O]rthodox Christians must understand that things are going to get much more difficult for us,” Dreher wrote in a recent op-ed for Time. “We are going to have to learn how to live as exiles in our own country. We are going to have to learn how to live with at least a mild form of persecution. And we are going to have to change the way we practice our faith and teach it to our children, to build resilient communities.”
At First Things, a journal of religion and public life, philosophy professor Phillip Cary asks whether now might be the time for evangelical Protestants to call a timeout for a while. “The evangelical team is playing defense, and they have a major theological weakness. They’ve adopted a version of the liberal Protestant turn to experience … This theology will hardly help them resist a culture that is all about celebrating the desires we find within us.” Cary teaches at Eastern University in Pennsylvania, where Shane Claiborne studied.
This call for societal withdrawal marks a new turn for American evangelical Christianity, which for several decades had been mostly aligned with the political right. Increasing support for gay marriage, the declining rates of marriage, and the rise of the “nones,” all seem to indicate waning evangelical influence on American culture. In the fight-or-flight response to feeling threatened, more and more Christians are taking (or at least talking about) the road out of Rome. They want to regroup, immerse themselves in communities that share their values, develop more robust theology, and emerge, in a sense, stronger than before.
In this way, the Benedict Option could be just the thing evangelicals need. With their public influence waning, withdrawing from the political conversation, at least in part, and adopting a strategy of re-entrenchment could help both fortify Christianity and engage the public. Certainly, things are starting to look bleak for evangelicals who remain in the public square. Recent efforts to defund Planned Parenthood via a Senate vote failed, and some evangelical leaders are disavowing the culture wars altogether.
On the other hand, it is difficult to influence society from a position of defeat. Those who follow the Benedict Option and create sealed-off Christian communities will find themselves frustrated in their attempts to influence not only politics but also art, literature, media, science—any areas shaped by meaningful public conversation. There may be room for lament, like there was around Obergefell, but the ability for the larger church to offer its prophetic voice to the culture would be damaged.
Other Christians want to use the Supreme Court’s decision as an opportunity to redouble their efforts in shaping the culture. Ryan T. Anderson, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, recently wrote that “there is urgent need for policy to ensure that the government never penalizes anyone for standing up for marriage.” The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the cultural-engagement entity of the Southern Baptist Convention, issued a statement titled “Here We Stand: An Evangelical Declaration on Marriage,” which dissented from the Obergefell decision and called on readers to “[r]espect and pray for our governing authorities even as we work through the democratic process to rebuild a culture of marriage.” Pastor and blogger Denny Burk captured the feelings of many conservative evangelicals post-Obergefell when he wrote, “Although I am disappointed with this decision, I remain confident that Christians will continue to bear witness to the truth about marriage—even if the law of our land is now arrayed against us.”
Burk and the ELRC hail from the Southern Baptist tradition, as did Jerry Falwell and Robert Grant, two of the early figures in the Moral Majority.* Southern Baptists—and many other Protestant, evangelical Christians—view the Benedict Option as an unappealing form of surrender, a disobedience of Jesus's command to “go and make disciples of all nations.” A common refrain among culturally engaged Christians is the call to be “counter-cultural,” which most often involves taking stances they understand to be politically unpopular but indispensable to the practice of the faith. This case that the Benedict Option is actually anti-Biblical could be its kiss of death within these communities.
But if the Benedict Option might be unappealing to culture warriors, it could have a revivifying effect on some Christian communities, many of which find themselves exhausted by their constant effort to row against cultural tides. In his 2013 article, Dreher talked about the Eagle River community outside of Anchorage, Alaska, a group of evangelical-turned-Orthodox Christians who live together in the shadows of the Chugach Mountains. The heart of the community is Monastery Drive, along which sit homes for approximately 75 families, schools, a residence for single young adults, and St. John Orthodox Cathedral. “Christian love can be expressed in very practical ways when people are close by,” archpriest Marc Dunaway told Dreher. “Also, community relationships can help people rub off their rough edges. This is necessary for spiritual growth.”
Rough edges have always been part of the evangelical experience in America. For some, the solution has been to fight back against the secular mores that govern the country. Others are now advocating strategic withdrawal. Wesley Hill, a gay evangelical Christian and author who has written a book about his choice to remain celibate, reflected on his blog: “How is that … Christians’ strategic withdrawal from mainstream culture and our commitment to our own re-conversion will prove attractive to an indifferent, or hostile, pagan world?”
Hill suggests that this re-conversion is possible, and that Christianity might emerge from a time of monastic introspection and fortification to become a more dazzling force for good in the world. Growing up in an evangelical community, I heard a lot of this kind of talk around the issue of abortion. Can we be so supportive as a community, the thinking went, and so highly value the sanctity of life, that we make it almost unthinkable for a woman to choose to have an abortion? The Benedict Option imagines that this kind of community is possible, after all. But it requires withdrawal. American evangelicals have been on a trajectory of increased public engagement in recent decades, so to change course would be challenging.
Dreher’s vision of religious separatism isn’t unique to him; America was founded by people seeking exactly the same kind of safe-harbor he now describes. The Mayflower was almost half-full with members of the English Separatist Church, who were seeking to distance themselves, in more ways than one, from the insufficiently Reformed Church of England. Rather than becoming a nation of Christian separatists, America became a pluralistic democracy.
Other sects within Christendom have broken off, some entering into the public sphere and some circling ever tighter around their own tribe. Even within evangelicalism, comprehensive political activism was a somewhat recent development linked to the advent of the Moral Majority. Southern Baptists and other evangelicals have not always been unequivocally opposed to abortion, and the Christian Left—although not as powerful a bloc as the Right—has existed in some form since the days of the social gospel. Political involvement, it would seem, has been as varied in Christianity as in any other religious persuasion.
Some Christians have criticized the Benedict Option for exhibiting a moral priggishness. David French, a columnist for the National Review, wrote that "[i]n reality, Christian conservatives have barely begun to fight. Christians, following the examples of the Apostles, should never retreat from the public square." The impact of Obergefell remains to be seen in most Christian communities, and even if the Benedict Option is adopted by some, Christians in America are not nearly well-coordinated enough to all agree to the same way forward. But for some, who have seen a new Rome, the way forward leads back to Benedict.