The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Christians have lost the culture wars. Should they withdraw from the mainstream?

(Washington Post illustration/iStock)

Conservative Christians in America are enjoying fresh winds of political favor. In his first month in office, President Trump upheld his promise to nominate a conservative Supreme Court justice. Last week, his administration rescinded former guidelines allowing transgender students to use the public school bathrooms of their choice. And evangelical leaders report having direct access to the Oval Office. For all his clear foibles, Trump seems to be heeding concerns that drew much white evangelical and Catholic support during the 2016 election.

So it’s an interesting time for conservative Christians — traditional Orthodox, Catholic, and evangelical Protestants — to consider withdrawing from American public life.

And yet in the coming weeks and months, expect to hear a lot about the Benedict Option. It’s a provocative vision for Christians outlined in a new book by Rod Dreher, who has explored it for the past decade on his lively American Conservative blog. To Dreher, Trump’s presidency has only given conservative Christians “a bit more time to prepare for the inevitable.” He predicts for traditional Christians loss of jobs, influence, First Amendment protections and goodwill among neighbors and co-workers. Even under Trump, says Dreher, the future is very dark.

The Benedict Option derives its name from a 6th-century monk who left the crumbling Roman Empire to form a separate community of prayer and worship. Benedict of Nursia founded monasteries and a well-known “Rule” to govern Christian life together. By many accounts, Benedictine monasteries seeded the growth of a new civilization to blossom throughout Western Europe after Rome’s fall. In his book for a mainstream publisher (Penguin’s Sentinel), Dreher insists that conservative Christians today should likewise withdraw from the crumbling American empire to preserve the faith, lest it be choked out by secularism, individualism and LGBT activism.

Dreher draws on the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, a philosopher who said the modern West is in “the new dark ages” and that those who want to lead a traditional life of virtue will have to form countercultural communities. “We are waiting . . . for another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict,” MacIntyre famously wrote in “After Virtue” (1981). In many ways, says Dreher, conservative Christians today should be little Benedicts, investing in churches, schools, and other institutions that will incubate their faith against a corrosive mainstream culture.

In many ways, the Benedict Option is simply a call for Christians to invest in the communities that sustain historical faith, or the church. Leah Libresco Sargent, an atheist turned Catholic, is quoted in the book: “This is just the church being the church. But if you don’t call it the Benedict Option, people aren’t going to do it.” Dreher laments that many contemporary churches act in attendees’ lives like a mall or a pep rally: God exists to make you feel happy and good about yourself. This is what sociologist Christian Smith described as moralistic therapeutic deism in 2005. The Benedict Option calls Christians to root themselves in time-honored theology and spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, fasting and confession.

But beyond a call for Christians to be Christians, the Benedict Option is also, it appears, a call for Christians to be culture warriors, albeit via stealth defense tactics. Dreher at once laments that “the culture war as we knew it is over.” He says conservatives “are being swept to the political margins” by activists who want them to be treated the same as racists under law.

Yet Dreher also encourages readers to “get active at the local and state level.” He writes, “Don’t fight the culture war . . . on meaningless and needlessly inflammatory gestures,” and elsewhere, “We can no longer rely on politicians and activists to fight the culture war alone on our behalf.” Elsewhere, Dreher calls Christians to build Christian institutions “that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation.” “The Benedict Option” is nothing if not embattled. Readers are left to wonder if military metaphors are the best way for Christians to think of relating to non-Christians — that is, their neighbors.

On the national level, at least, the political engagement Dreher advocates for extends primarily to the concerns of conservative Christians. He is pessimistic about such Christians having much influence in Washington and despairs that Washington politics can stop America from sliding farther into post-Christian decadence. Yet he insists that conservative Christians must keep defending religious liberty. Religious liberty here is framed as important insofar as it lets traditional Christians be traditional Christians, not because it’s core to American democracy or because Muslims, say, deserve the same freedom as Christians to practice their faith in peace.

Meanwhile, Dreher overlooks the importance of Christians working in mediating institutions that protect the most vulnerable from being crushed by violence or greed. Take groups such as World Relief, an evangelical relief agency that has resettled more than a quarter million refugees in the United States since 1975. Most of the refugees are women and children who have uprooted their lives to flee violence and persecution. World Relief and other faith-based resettlement agencies receive grants from the State Department to do the difficult work of compassion that few Americans can do.

And conservative Christian leaders have been some of the most prominent to speak out against Trump’s recent executive order on travel. Dreher writes, “Nothing matters more than guarding the freedom of Christian institutions to nurture future generations in the faith . . . other objectives have to take a back seat.” But what if “other objectives” are protecting and defending members of marginalized groups who can’t speak for themselves?

To be sure, the Benedict Option encourages Christians to show hospitality and charity to those outside the faith. But in many cases, vulnerable people need more than charity — they need advocacy. They need not a handout but a hand up toward a life of economic and cultural flourishing. And they need traditional Christians investing in national politics, not just to protect their own rightful freedoms, but also to protect the livelihoods of those who cannot speak up for themselves.

And this leads to the most glaring omission of the Benedict Option: its utter lack of engagement with the African American church. (Of note: Throughout the book, Dreher quotes only one person of color, an Indonesian monk living in Italy.) White traditional Christians who have lost cultural power can look back through history for models of resistance. But they also have models in their very midst: black Christians, who have lived for hundreds of years under state-sanctioned violence, who have their houses of worship vandalized, who continue to be victims of racially motivated shootings — and who attest to the enduring power of the gospel to heal divisions, forgive and live with countercultural hope.

Black Christians today share many of the same concerns as their white counterparts on matters of sexual ethics and religious liberty. But they are generally not mourning the loss of cultural power, and entertaining withdrawal, because they have never enjoyed much cultural power to begin with. The witness of the black church in this country has always come from the margins. And yet from the margins, black Christianity has provided the wind in the sails of civil rights gains in American history.

There is a reason that faith-based groups such as International Justice Mission, Catholic Charities, Bread for the World and countless others choose to be headquartered in Washington. They recognize that national politics, however imperfect, messy and frustrating, are sometimes the most effective means for loving neighbors on a scalable level. All Christians should certainly take up the Benedict Option’s vision of loving and serving flesh-and-blood people in their neighborhoods, through acts of charity and hospitality. But some Christians are wise to remain engaged in post-Christian politics, lest victims of sex trafficking, chronic hunger and a broken foster-care system fall through the cracks.

The image Dreher uses most to talk about Christian life in our modern dark age is that of the Ark (you know, Noah’s big boat). In the Bible, in the Book of Genesis, the Ark is where the righteous survive as the whole world is destroyed in a great flood. To extend the metaphor, Christians today may very well need to build Arks, or institutions, that help them preserve the faith in a culture that easily washes it away. The difference between now and the days of Noah centers on God’s promise in the Bible: He will never let a great flood destroy all of life.

Christians living in a post-Christian nation could withdraw to their Arks, waiting for their neighbors and their cultures to be destroyed in a flood of moral chaos. But if they believe God’s promises in Scripture, then they’ll get busy building communities that throw their neighbors a line of real hope amid the coming tide.

Katelyn Beaty is editor at large at Christianity Today magazine and author of “A Woman’s Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World” (Simon & Schuster).