Rod Dreher and the Benedict Option

Conservative American Christians have lost the culture war, according to Rod Dreher.  While the United States may have a Christian veneer, American society is not based on Christian values.  True Christians are becoming a minority group.

Dreher’s best-selling book, THE BENEDICT OPTION: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (2017), is about how Christians can survive and thrive as a minority.

American society is being shaped, or rather dissolved, by what the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called “liquid modernity,” Dreher wrote.   There are no stable structures—political, economic, social or moral.  Everything is changing, so nobody can commit to a fixed role or even a fixed identity.

The result, according to Dreher, is moral disintegration.  Some 41 percent of American babies are born out of wedlock.  Pornography is everywhere.  Materialism and consumerism prevail.  The educational system is geared toward teaching how to achieve personal economic success, and nothing more.

The election of “someone as robustly vulgar, fiercely combative and morally compromised” as Donald Trump is not a solution to American’s moral decline, Dreher wrote, but a symptom of it.

The churches by and large do not resist this because they have been hollowed out.  He said this is true not only of the liberal churches (which he mostly ignores), but Evangelicals and Catholics.  Few young people have any understanding of the religious doctrines they supposedly believe in.

The prevailing implicit religion is what another sociologist, Christian Smith, called moralistic therapeutic deism—his term for what he found to be prevailing beliefs among young 21st century Americans.

Its tenets are (1) God created you, (2) God wants you to be a nice person, (3) the main goal in life is to be happy and feel good about yourself, (4) you can call on God when you have a problem and (5) good people go to heaven.

The problem for this for Dreher is not just that it ignores basic Christian teachings, such as sin and the need for repentance, and the need for prayer and worship.

It is the absence of understanding that there is a social order, a natural order and a supernatural order of which the individual is only a part, and that individuals cannot flourish if they cut themselves off from the order of things.

Dreher wrote that Christians today need to do what Saint Benedict did at the dawn of the 6th century A.D.  Benedict withdrew from the Roman society of his day and organized a new community based on a balance of work and prayer.

The Benedictines did not withdraw from society.  Hospitality was one of their principles.  But neither did they allow themselves to be absorbed by the prevailing society.  Instead they created an alternative that, in due time, became an example to others.

Most of The Benedict Option consists of reporting on contemporary Christians who are trying to do in our time what Saint Benedict did in is.   He begins with the Monastery of Saint Benedict in Norcia, Italy, which was suppressed by Napoleon in 1810, but revived by Father Cassian Folsom, a 61-year-old American, along with others in December, 2000.

Not everybody is called on to be monks, but all Christians can learn from their practice, Dreher wrote.  Families should set aside specific days and times for prayer, Bible study and serious religious conversation, and stick to that schedule, even when inconvenient.

He interviewed Czech and Polish Christians about how they survived under Communism, not by fighting the Communist governments directly, but by manifesting an alternative to life based on materialism.

He wrote about efforts large and small by Evangelicals and Catholics in the United States to build community and preserve authentic Christianity.

The sexual revolution constitutes the battle front between Christianity and secularism in the United States, according to Dreher.

Christian teaching is that marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman for the purpose of having and bringing up children.  Sexual intercourse outside marriage is a sin—maybe a forgivable weakness, but still a sin.

Dreher said too many Christians have succumbed to the prevailing modern belief that marriage is an expression of love, an individual feeling, and need not continue if love fades.  The result is easy divorce and acceptance of sex outside marriage.

Christianity is incompatible with gay marriage, he wrote, but the previous erosion of Christian commitment to marital fidelity makes Christians seem like hypocrites when they criticize gays.

Dreher believes abortion is murder.  He believes destruction of fertilized embryos as a byproduct of in vitro fertilization or scientific research is murder.

But, for now, that argument has been lost, he said.  American public opinion accepts the rights to abortion and to gay marriage.   The best Christians can hope for is to preserve the right to dissent and to not be sued or excluded from the professions because of their views.

Pornography and pornography addiction, Dreher wrote.  They give young boys a warped idea of sex and interfere with a healthy development from adolescence to maturity.   Thanks to the Internet, there is universal access to pornography.  No Christian parent should allow their children unsupervised access to a smartphone.

The main duty of Christian parents is to give their children a Christian education, Dreher wrote.  This means, if possible, either home schooling or enrollment in a private Christian school.

Dreher supports the classical Christian school movement, whose teachings are based on Christian doctrine and the classics of Western civilization.  His own three children are enrolled in Sequitur Classical Academy in Baton Rouge and his wife, Julie, is a teacher there.  The children attend classes in the morning and are home schooled in the afternoon.

This requires considerable sacrifice, both of time and money, which not everybody can manage.  Private schools require considerable fees.  Home schooling requires a one-income family, since one parent has to stay home.

The benefit, according to Dreher, is that children are educated in a Christian environment and they are shielded from the prevailing teenage culture of sexting, hookups and Internet pornography.

Rod Dreher is a senior editor of The American Conservative magazine.  He has a blog, which I read every morning.  Born in Louisiana in 1967, he was raised a Methodist and converted to Roman Catholicism in 1993.  Disillusioned with the child sex abuse scandals in the Catholic church (which he says are ongoing), he converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in 2006.

Dreher in some ways reminds me of my literary hero George Orwell, in his clarity and honesty, wide range of interests, and willingness to speak inconvenient truths about his own faction.

I learn more from his blog about corruption and hypocrisy among Evangelicals and Catholics from his blog than I do from all the rest of my reading put together, and also more about outrages committed in the name of identity politics and “political correctness.”

Like me, he thinks leaders of both political parties are captive to Wall Street and the Pentagon.  He finds Republicans preferable to Democrats on cultural and moral issues, but not to be depended on because their ultimate loyalty is to corporate business, and corporate executives care only for the bottom line.

The Trump administration’s Supreme Court appointments may be favorable to conservative Christians, he says, but what’s important is public opinion and the culture, which increasingly reject traditional Christian values.  He predicts that Christian apologists for Trump will live to regret what they said.

Dreher is no theocrat.  I think he is more of a modernist and live-and-let-live liberal than he admits.

He traces contemporary philosophical confusions to a series of missteps beginning with William of Occam in the 14th century. That is the “calamitous 14th century” that Barbara Tuchman wrote about in A Distant Mirror.

I don’t think Dreher would have wanted to live in that era, any more than I would, and not just because of the Black Death and the absence of antibiotics, electricity and indoor plumbing.  It was not a time of social harmony.

It was a time of lawlessness, peasant revolts, pogroms against Jews, torture and burning of heretics and the so-called Babylonian captivity of puppet Popes in Avignon, France.

It is never possible to return to the past.  What’s needed is to preserve the best of the old and combine it with the best of the new.

I can’t argue directly with Dreher’s ideas about sex because I don’t share his religious views.  The gay couples I know, and my one transgender friend, are as moral as anybody I know.

In any case, as a childless divorced man, who spoiled his marriage through blindness, selfishness and indifference, I don’t have standing to criticize others on this point.

I agree with my friend Walter, who says the ideal family consists not just of a father, a mother and their children, but of two sets of grandparents and assorted uncles, aunts and cousins.  A child growing up would have a range of adult behaviors to observe and different kinds of adults to turn to in time of need.

But I know of many children who were raised by single parents without much backup, and who turned out all right.

I don’t think traditional families are threatened by the existence of unconventional family structures.  I think the threat is the lack of a morality of adult responsibility.  Behind this is the constant and systematic stimulation of unrealistic sexual fantasies by the advertising, entertainment and pornography industries.

The connection between prevailing religious or philosophical belief and individual morality is complex.  Some of the best people I know are religious, others have no religion at all.  One thing I’m sure of is that it’s a good thing, not a bad thing, for people of good will band together to give each other moral support.


[Added 7/30/2018]  Just to be clear, I do not believe in Christianity or any other religious doctrine, and I do not believe that abortion, homosexuality or transgenderism are sins.  I do believe that the religious way of life is a good one, which is why I am a Unitarian Universalist, and I do agree with Rod Dreher about the contemporary commodification of sex and sexualization of culture.


Benedict Option Frequently Asked Questions by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative.

The Benedict Option As Preparation by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative.

MacIntyre Is Ben Op & Doesn’t Know It by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative.

The Sanity of Classical Christian Education by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative.

Tech Hates Your Kids by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative.

Living In Liquid Modernity by Chris Kutarna for Psychology Today.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism—the New American Religion by Albert Mohler.


[Headline changed 7/21/2018]

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