In his much-anticipated new book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, Rod Dreher proposes that serious Christians can “no longer live business-as-usual lives in America,” and “that we have to develop creative, communal solutions to help us hold on to our faith and our values in a word growing ever more hostile to them.”
Dreher’s book is the latest in a series of books warning that secularism will not be kind to Christians in the years ahead—and some of his proposals have sparked a national debate on how believers are to engage in the public square.
Taking his inspiration from Benedict of Nursia, the 6th century saint who withdrew from the world and pioneered a way of life for monastics, Dreher advocates for a withdrawal from the mainstream and a renewal of Christian counterculture.
But if Christians are busy fighting for self-preservation, what might this mean for the gospel command to care for the homeless, the hungry, and the destitute members of our society—and our neighbors of other faiths? How does embracing exile square with Pope Francis’s call for the Church to be a field hospital?
I recently spoke with Dreher to discuss these questions and other concerns raised by The Benedict Option.
Crux: The Benedict Option is a proposal on how a particular group of people (i.e. Christians) should live in a particular place (in your view, a nation or world that is hostile to them). Do you think that in America today—where we often hear statements like “America first”— that patriotism has become idolatrous for some Christians?
Dreher: Absolutely, that’s true. And I think that for a long time devotion to the nation has served as a substitute for religion and has become parasitic on Christianity—at least conservative Christianity—and it’s been concealed for various reasons, but I think with the Trump victory it has come out in the open.
Now, I say that as someone who did not cast a vote in this presidential election. I can see the justification that some of my conservative Christian friends had who did vote for Trump. Their concern was that whatever bad things Trump could do, Hillary would be worse for religious liberty. I see that. At that same time, Trump and “Make America first” are symptoms of the problem, not the solution. You didn’t see St. Benedict going out the woods shouting, “Make Rome great again!”
The Benedict Option offers some strong proposals—such as homeschooling or pursuing classical Christian education, relocating to live in more intentional Christian communities, and rethinking employment so as not to compromise religious commitments. Does this limit the Benedict Option to a very wealthy and privileged group of Christians that can afford to take such measures?
That’s a good question, and it might well could do that. For example, homeschooling is not exclusively the province of the well-off middle class, but it does take having one parent at home to be able to pull this off successfully and one parent with a high enough income that can support the family, so that does limit it.
At the same time, I think that we have to start somewhere, and it can’t be the case that we have to wait to come up with a Benedict Option proposal that can suit everyone in all places before we start doing some small things. I think we have to work outward and make this something that can take in more people, such as the working class and the poor.
I’m thinking now of this classical Christian school in Dallas—the West Dallas Community School—it’s in the poorest part of Dallas and it brings classical Christian education to the poorest of the poor, almost all of whom in that neighborhood are African American or Hispanic. The school exists primarily out of the generosity of white Christians who are well-off in another part of Dallas and are reaching out to the poor and supporting them with their donations, expertise, and all kind of things. So, that’s a start—that’s one Benedict Option community that is a good example for the rest of us.
I think that ultimately, just as the church is not “the middle class in prayer” or “the upper class in prayer,” so too, the Benedict Option must avoid the same thing. But, we have to start somewhere and I don’t want people to get so discouraged that they don’t try to be creative and to be what Pope Benedict called us to be: “creative minorities.”
On the whole, you have a pretty grim outlook on national politics—but at the same time you’re gravely concerned about issues such as abortion and gay marriage, which require national engagement on some level. How would you respond to the charge that you seem to want to have it both ways: a federal government that supports Christian morality when it comes to traditional sexual ethics, but is pretty hands off and laissez-faire beyond that?
My own personal politics are probably more aligned with Catholic Social Teaching. I would like to see a government that is more involved in making the market work for people, and not just leaving it to itself in some sort of laissez-faire way. However, I’m also a strong social conservative on pro-life issues, marriage, and things like that.
The point of the Benedict Option is that for all kinds of reasons, cultural conservatives lost this culture war and that we conservative Christians have to stay involved in politics to fight for the things that we care about—we don’t suddenly cease to be citizens of this country—we have to fight for the right to life, for religious liberty, and we have to fight for a clean environment and good healthcare for all of us, etc.
What I’m calling for Christians to do—for those of us who are orthodox Christians—conservative Catholics, evangelicals, Eastern Orthodox, etc., we’re not going to win this thing politically. We don’t have the numbers anymore. Our culture is post-Christian, and we’re going to have to figure out what we’re going to do.
I think we have a really impoverished idea of politics in this country if it only has to do with campaigns, numbers, and elections. We have to stay in the public square as much as we’re allowed to, true, but we should take a lesson from the Czech dissidents under communism who when they weren’t allowed to participate in the actual governing of their society, didn’t give up or retreat. They started doing things like creating a parallel polis, which is to say, they tried to create parallel institutions to keep the tradition of western civilization and Christian civilization alive during a dark age.
I think also of something Michael Hanby, the philosopher at The Catholic University of America in Washington, told me at the outset of this project. He’s a friend, and I asked him for advice and he said, “What you should do is ask yourself what would Karol Wojtyła do?” I said, “What do you mean?” and he said, “When the Nazis occupied Poland, they set out destroy Polish national consciousness and Polish Catholicism. What Wojtyła and his circle knew is that the most important thing they could do in resistance was to keep Polish cultural memory alive and so they formed a theatrical troupe and performed at great personal risk plays to remind people of what Poland was as a nation and what it meant to be a Catholic.”
We’re not in that situation, obviously, and it would be obscene to compare our situation in America today to what it was like under Nazi rule, but I take Hanby’s point that we Christians need to be about shoring up our cultural memory and living that out in our churches, our communities, and our schools. If we rely only on conventional politics then we’ve already lost the battle.
You advocate for concerning ourselves more with local communities than with centers of power—but you have a large online presence and through social media, in particular, you spend a lot of time in conversation with powerbrokers and cultural commentators in New York and Washington. What’s the balance for Christians trying to live out the Benedict Option?
You’ve put your finger on something that is a deep personal challenge for me. I sit there at my computer most of the day, writing and reading for my work, and I engage in this or that dialogue and every minute I’m doing that is a minute I’m not serving my community where I actually live. I know that’s a real problem for a lot of people.
I think back to when I was in my early twenties and coming into the Catholic Church. I was working as a journalist, and one of my colleagues at the newspaper said “Oh, I hear you’re becoming a Catholic. I’m a Catholic and I do volunteer work with the Missionaries of Charity center downtown at the soup kitchen. Why don’t you come this Saturday and work with me there?” I thought it sounded like a very Catholic thing to do and said I’d love to. I went there and spent the afternoon peeling potatoes and washing pots and pans and when it was over I thought, I guess that’s fine but I’m really more of an intellectual and my time would be better spent reading books on theology and things like that. I never went back to the soup kitchen.
Fast forward to twelve or thirteen years later, I’d been a Catholic and I’d lost my Catholic faith by writing about the sexual abuse scandals. I had thought that all of the syllogisms and the arguments for Catholicism I’d mastered in my mind would be enough to carry me through anything I’d discover writing about the abuse scandal.
I was very, very wrong in the end. Sitting there in the ruins of my Catholic faith, I had to realize that if I’d spent as much time—or even a meaningful fraction of that time that I’d spent reading about the Church and the faith—and actually getting out there and using my hands to serve other people, maybe I would have been more resilient. I did become Eastern Orthodox, and I did determine not to become so cut-off from the real world as an Orthodox Christian as I’d allowed myself to become as a Catholic.
I say all that to say that this is something I think about all the time and I have to struggle to get outside of my head and it’s a particular challenge for people who work in the ideas realm. I see it around me all the time—even with kids of grown-ups who don’t necessarily do the same kind of work I do and are still completely glued to their smartphones.
There’s a great book called The World Beyond Your Head by Matthew Crawford and he reminds us that there is a real philosophical and spiritual crisis by being so addicted to living in this virtual world. So, the goal I’ve set for myself going forward is to shut the laptop and put away the smartphone for serious and meaningful periods of time, just in the same way that, as an Orthodox Christian, we fast.
For me, a digital fast is a starting point not only for getting away from something I’m addicted to, but also a way of getting out and embracing the good of serving the community and being with people face to face. It seems so weird and inhuman that we have to think this way now but that’s where we are and that’s the reality.
How would you square the “Benedict Option” with Pope Francis’s call for the Church to be a field hospital for the world around us? Are these two visions of Christian engagement in the world fundamentally irreconcilable?
I think they’re two sides of the same coin. I do not call for withdrawal of Christians from the world into our own little enclaves, but what I do call for is a recognition that if we Christians are to be for the world what Christ calls us to be—and if our churches and our presence in the world is to be a field hospital—we have to withdraw from the world to a certain extent to build our own spiritual strength and form ourselves more faithfully in scripture and the teachings of the Church in prayer, fasting, and the traditions of the Christian life so that we can be effective. We can’t give the world what we don’t have. If we are nothing but active, salt will lose its flavor.
I think these things exist to create a tension with each other between withdrawal and faithful presence. We have to remember that Christ himself withdrew to the desert to pray and to fast before he began his public ministry. There’s an important role between contemplation and action.
The Benedictines talk about this—their spirituality is very practical in this way—and evangelicals, too, when I talk about the Benedict option they’re very sensitive to the whole withdrawal thing because many of them come out of fundamentalist backgrounds or are only one generation removed from it, and it scares them. I was raised Protestant but not fundamentalist and I was Catholic and now Orthodox, so I tend to be tone deaf on those issues, but what I tell them is that we’re called to be faithful like the Hebrews were in Babylonian captivity.
In Jeremiah 29, God, speaking to the prophet, told the Hebrews in Babylon to establish themselves there and he had reasons for them to be there—but he also told them, don’t listen to the prophets and dividers among them and not to follow their false gods. We see later in the book of Daniel, the great Hebrew men Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who were officials of the King, officials of the state, even though they were Jewish. King Nebuchadnezzar ordered them to bow down before the golden idol and they refused even to the point of being thrown into the fiery furnace.
We have to ask ourselves—we Christians today—even though we’re called to be in the world, how can we build ourselves up in such fidelity that if it came to that—that even if we were asked to give our lives for the sake of Christ—if we would be willing to do it in the same way that the faithful Hebrew men were. That makes it easier for people to understand what I’m talking about here.
I live in a city—the city of Baton Rouge—and we’re engaged in the world and its institutions—but I think that in order to be effective witnesses and effective ambassadors to the world from the Church, we have to redouble our efforts in spiritual formation, through the liturgy, and our own lives too.