The Christian Retreat From Public Life

Rod Dreher makes a powerful argument for communal religious life in his book, The Benedict Option. But he has not wrestled with how to live side by side with people unlike him.


Donald Trump was elected president with the help of 81 percent of white evangelical voters. Mike Pence, the champion of Indiana’s controversial 2015 religious-freedom law, is his deputy. Neil Gorsuch, a judge deeply sympathetic to religious litigants, will likely be appointed to the Supreme Court. And Republicans hold both chambers of Congress and statehouses across the country. Right now, conservative Christians enjoy more influence on American politics than they have in decades.

And yet, Rod Dreher is terrified.

“Don’t be fooled,” he tells fellow Christians in his new book, The Benedict Option. “The upset presidential victory of Donald Trump has at best given us a bit more time to prepare for the inevitable.”

The last few years have confirmed an extraordinary cultural shift against conservative Christian beliefs, he argues, particularly with the rise of gay rights and legalization of same-sex marriage. “Christians who hold to the biblical teaching about sex and marriage have the same status in culture, and increasingly in law, as racists,” he writes. Their future will become increasingly grim, he predicts, with lost jobs, bullying at school, and name-calling in the streets.

This, Dreher says, is the “inevitable” fate for which Christians must prepare.

There was a time when Christian thinkers like Dreher, who writes for The American Conservative, might have prepared to fight for cultural and political control. Dreher, however, sees this as futile. “Could it be that the best way to fight the flood is to … stop fighting the flood?” he asks. “Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles, we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation.” This strategic withdrawal from public life is what he calls the Benedict option.

Dreher’s proposal is as remarkable as his fear. It is a radical rejection of the ties between Christianity and typical forms of power, from Republican politics to market-driven wealth. Instead, Dreher says, Christians should embrace pluralism, choosing to fortify their own communities and faith as one sub-culture among many in the United States.

But it is a vision that will not be easily achieved. Conservative Christianity no longer sets the norms in American culture, and transitioning away from a position of dominance to a position of co-existence will require significant adjustment, especially for a people who believe so strongly in evangelism. Even if that happens, there are always challenges at the boundaries of sub-cultures. It’s not clear that Dreher has a clear vision of how Christians should engage with those they disagree with—especially the LGBT Americans they blame for pushing them out of mainstream culture.

The Benedict option is not a new proposal. Dreher has been tossing around this idea for roughly a decade, drawing from Alasdair McIntyre’s argument that “continued full participation in mainstream society [is] not possible for those who [want] to live a life of traditional virtue.” It takes its name from St. Benedict of Nursia, the sixth-century priest who created a network of contemplative monasteries in the Italian mountains and inspired generations of monks to seek lives of quiet reflection and prayer.

“Americans have come to rely on middle-class comfort … That is the way of spiritual death.”

Dreher is not suggesting everyday Christians live in poverty and seclusion. “We’re not called to be monks. Monks are called to be monks,” he told me in an interview. “What we have to do is have a limited retreat from the world … into our own institutions and communities.” While some might see this as a means of running away from culture, Dreher argued that the Benedict option is not about bunkering down and waiting for the end times. It’s about “building ourselves up spiritually,” he said, “so we can go out in the world and be who Christ asked us to be.”

The first step, he says, is to recognize that “politics will not save us.” While many Christians have sought defenders and champions in the Republican Party, including Trump, Dreher is skeptical of this model. “Neither party’s program is fully consistent with Christian truth,” he argues.

Instead of looking to elected officials to create their communities, he says, Christians should do it themselves. This means getting involved: “Feast with your neighbors,” he writes, or “join the volunteer fire department.” It requires “[seceding] culturally from the mainstream,” including turning off smartphones and watching only movies and television that are consonant with Christian values. It even means deprioritizing work in favor of richer communal life. “Given how much Americans have come to rely on middle-class comfort, freedom, and stability, Christians will be sorely tempted to say or do anything asked of us to hold onto what we have,” he writes. “That is the way of spiritual death.”

This emphasis on localism extends to worship life. Prayer should guide the rhythms of the day and week, he says. Christians should view church as an opportunity to build communities and find fellowship, not just pray on their own. Even living in close proximity to church can help, he says. When the Orthodox Christian parish in Dreher’s small Louisiana town closed, his family moved to Baton Rouge. “We knew that there would be no way to practice our faith properly in community while living so far from the church,” he writes.

Above all, Dreher advocates institution building. He encourages his readers to pull their children out of public school and enroll them in “classical Christian schools,” praising a model developed in part by the North Carolina-based CiRCE Institute. Such curricula, which can be used by teachers or homeschooling parents, covers “the canonical Western texts” alongside the Bible, sometimes in direct cooperation with churches. Dreher envisions a more robust and sustainable Christian system of higher education, but for now, many students have created intentional communities on their campuses where they can live according to their shared interpretation of the Bible.

The Sexual Revolution has “[deposed] an enfeebled Christianity.”

As Dreher notes, a number of these practices are already embraced by other religious communities. “We Christians have a lot to learn from Modern Orthodox Jews,” he told me in an interview. Many of Dreher’s suggestions appear to echo Orthodox Jewish life, including daily prayers, restrictions on diet and work, and extensive educational networks. “They have had to live in a way that’s powerfully counter-cultural in American life and rooted in thick community and ancient traditions,” he said. “And yet, they manage to do it.”

This comparison is telling about how Dreher perceives the status of Christians in American society. Jews make up less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, and Modern Orthodox Jews are a tiny minority within that group—Pew estimates that they account for 3 percent of all American Jews, or roughly .06 percent of Americans. While it’s impossible to estimate the exact number of Americans who would identify with the ecumenical, theologically conservative Christianity Dreher describes, it is far bigger than the number of Modern Orthodox Jews.

It seems as though Dreher is saying that Christians need to be ready to live as religious minorities. But he fails to acknowledge an important distinction between the two groups, beyond mere size. Jews act like a counter-cultural, marginalized group because they’ve been that way for two millennia—powerless, small in number, at odds with the broader cultures of the places where they’ve lived. The American conservatives Dreher is addressing, on the other hand, are coming from a place of power. For many years, they dictated the legal and cultural terms of non-Christians’ lives. The Benedict option is relevant precisely because America is becoming more religiously fractured, and Christianity is no longer the cultural default.

Dreher is not embracing this fact, or even accepting it peaceably. His work is largely a project of lament. He speaks about Christianity in apocalyptic terms: the Sexual Revolution has “[deposed] an enfeebled Christianity as the Ostrogoths deposed the hapless last emperor of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century,” and the greatest danger to Christians in the West “comes from the liberal secular order itself.” He prophesies dire scenarios for Christians in America: “We are on the brink of entire areas of commercial and professional life being off-limits to believers whose consciences will not allow them to burn incense to the gods of our age,” he says, warning that young Christians who dream of becoming doctors or lawyers may have to “abandon that hope.”

“As a Christian, I don’t see my sexuality as constitutive of who I am.”

Most importantly, he writes with resentment, largely directed at those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender and their supporters—the people, he believes, who have pushed Christians out of the public sphere.

“We are on the far side of a Sexual Revolution that has been nothing short of catastrophic for Christianity,” he writes:

It struck near the core of biblical teaching on sex and the human person and has demolished the fundamental Christian conception of society, of families, and of the nature of human beings. There can be no peace between Christianity and the Sexual Revolution, because they are radically opposed. As the Sexual Revolution advances, Christianity must retreat—and it has, faster than most people would have thought possible.

This has had far-reaching consequences in all spheres of life. In the professional world, “sexual diversity dogma” is pervasive, he writes—an attempt by companies to “demonstrate progress to gay-rights campaigners.” In the future, “everyone working for a major corporation will be frog-marched through ‘diversity and inclusion’ training,” he says, “and will face pressure not simply to tolerate LGBT co-workers but to affirm their sexuality and gender identity.”

In politics and culture, “we in the modern West are living under barbarism, though we do not recognize it,” he writes. “Our scientists, our judges, our princes, our scholars, and our scribes—they are at work demolishing the faith, the family, gender, even what it means to be human.”

And in the education world, “public schools by nature are on the front lines of the latest and worst trends in popular culture,” he writes. “Under pressure from the federal government and LGBT activists, many school systems are now welcoming and normalizing transgenderism.” He cites scores of parents whose children come home professing bisexuality and offering “a lot of babble about gender being fluid and nonbinary,” as one of his readers put it. “Few parents have the presence of mind and strength of character to do what’s necessary to protect their children from the forms of disordered sexuality accepted by mainstream American youth culture,” he writes.

Nothing in this language suggests that Dreher is ready to live tolerantly alongside people with different views. If progressives wrote about the Bible as “a lot of babble about Jesus and God,” using language similar to that of the parent Dreher cites, he would be quick to cry foul against the ignorance and intolerance of the left; his language is dismissive and mocking, and he peppers in conspiratorial terms like the “LGBT agenda.” At times, it seems like the goal of the Benedict option is just as much about getting away from gay people as it is affirming the tenets of Christianity. The book seems to suggest that mere proximity to people with alternative beliefs about sexuality, and specifically LGBT people, is a threat to Christian children and families.

These lives pose the question Dreher has not engaged: How should Christians be in fellowship with people unlike them?

Of course, it will be impossible for conservative Christians to fully escape any aspect of mainstream culture, including people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans. In fact, many of those people grew up in Christian households much like Dreher’s, or may identify with the feelings of cultural homelessness he describes. Their lives implicitly pose the hard question Dreher has failed to engage: How should Christians be in fellowship with people unlike them—including those who feel aggrieved by the church and its teachings?

To his credit, Dreher nods to this, ever so briefly. “The angry vehemence with which many gay activists condemn Christianity is rooted in part in the cultural memory of rejection and hatred by the church,” he writes. “Christians need to own up to our past in this regard and to repent of it.” He does little to specify these past errors, though, and he never tries to answer the broader question: how Christians can live as one people among many in America without learning how to respect and relate to those who challenge their beliefs.

It’s not hard to understand Dreher’s frustration and disorientation about America’s tectonic cultural shift. For many in the United States, “sexuality has become so entwined with identity,” he observed to me in conversation. This is what yields the comparisons to race: People who view sexuality as a fact of their identity may see Dreher’s beliefs as analogous to racism. But “as a Christian,” Dreher told me, “I don’t see my sexuality as constitutive of who I am.” He is working from a different frame of reference, one that is increasingly out of step with Americans’ ways of thinking about culture. The fear winding through his narrative is anxious anticipation of a future when fewer and fewer public spaces will be open to people like him.

And yet, Dreher begrudges a similar fear in people unlike him, including LGBT people who have long wanted to live freely in public—something that was largely impossible when conservative Christians dominated mainstream American life. From this vantage, his Benedict option seems less a proposal for pluralism than the angry backwards fire of a culture in retreat.

Dreher wrote The Benedict Option for people like him—those who share his faith, convictions, and feelings of cultural alienation. But even those who might wish to join Dreher’s radical critique of American culture, people who also feel pushed out and marginalized by shallowness of modern life, may feel unable to do so. Many people, including some Christians, feel that knowing, befriending, playing with, and learning alongside people who are different from them adds to their faith, not that it threatens it. For all their power and appeal, Dreher’s monastery walls may be too high, and his mountain pass too narrow.

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