Why “The Benedict Option” Is Not Enough to Save Christian Culture


“There is some criticism of me for being alarmist,” author Rod Dreher noted last night at the Union League Club in New York, where hundreds gathered for the launch of his new book, The Benedict Option, but he wasn’t backing down an inch. “I am alarmist about the state of our culture and our civilization and of the Church within it.”

He means what he call the “small-o” orthodox Christian community. “If you aren’t alarmed, you aren’t paying attention.”

Even Christians at evangelical colleges, he notes, know very little of classical Christianity, as the latest phase of the sexual revolution (gay equality) has taken hold and “moral therapeutic deism” has widely replaced the actual religion of Christ, especially among the latest generation.

The Benedict Option is more a metaphor than a 20-point plan, as Dreher himself readily admitted, a call to action the details of which are far from clear but the outlines of which involve creating more intense, more intentional, and more communal Christian communities in America in order to ensure Christianity survives in the West.

The accolades are pilling up and from some surprising sources. David Brooks, a man more moderate in tone and in most other things than Dreher, called it “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.” Damon Linker, who was in attendance last night, pointed me to his own reaction: ‘the most important statement of its kind since Richard John Neuhaus’ The Naked Public Square, the 1984 book that Dreher’s implicitly seeks to supplant. Like Neuhaus, Dreher provides devout Christians with a gripping metaphor that both describes the present moment and sets out a course of action in response to it.”

The Benedict Option is really not so much a course of action as an impulse — a direction, not a destination.  Grasping for another Christian metaphor to explain his Benedict metaphor, Dreher poetically explains we are facing a political, cultural, and spiritual tsunami. “This Flood cannot in my view be held back. The best we can do is build arks” like Saint Benedict did, “to carry us across the dark seas” to a better time when Christian memory and culture can revitalize some future version of the West.

Creating a safe space to carry Christian memory, heroes, saints, rituals, customs, and practices to the future is his central preoccupation and why politically he calls on Christians to fight for the religious liberty and conscience protections necessary to this project.

And as for Donald Trump? He, at best in Dreher’s view, buys a little more time to face what the secular liberal culture has in store for us.

Rod Dreher is a great gift to the American Christian community and to the nation. But he and all of us need to think a little deeper and little harder about what we’ve learned, both from our successes and our failures.

Take for example Neil Gorsuch, whom Dreher lauds. For decades, Republicans nominated alleged conservative justices who got to the Supreme Court and “grew” in the genial estimation of the dominant liberal legal culture to be good, moderate liberals. So where did Gorsuch come from? And why isn’t there another David Souter being nominated for the Court, or another Sandra Day O’Connor?

There are many answers, of course, but to me the most important one is the Federalist Society, which against the same hostile intellectual and moral trends has managed to create a legal and intellectual subculture big enough for brilliant minds to live in and to grow in fidelity to the Constitution and not the accolades of The New York Times.

Faced with a crisis of culture, and deeply understanding and calling for stronger Christian community, Dreher and most of the all-star panel assembled last night reverted to a primitive, pre-James Davison Hunter conception of how an ark capable of withstanding the seas can be built: one individual heart and mind at a time, starting with our own. That culture is created this way appears to be an assumption too deep within the American Christian DNA to discard. But I think Hunter is right that every cultural — or subcultural — strategy based on this model will fail.

Here’s the second thing we need to do: contemplate more clearly the political failure of the religious right — not so we can abandon politics, but so we can adopt more successful strategies for political engagement.

It took a Federalist Society village to raise up a Neil Gorsuch, but without a Republican Party to nominate such judges and confirm them, it wouldn’t matter. Politics is key to even sustaining a subculture of Christianity. And we have yet to learn from our failures in this regard.

Damon Linker and Rod Dreher are both right: the defeat on marriage reveals how weak the religious right is as a political force. Trump’s election may save the courts and buy us more time. But Christian conservatives’ important but marginal role in electing Trump may prevent us for another generation from rethinking how politics works and what is necessary to gain political influence. I’m not sure we have another 20 years to get this right.

The problem with Christian conservatives is not that we are too involved in politics, but that we now hardly get involved at all. We go on TV and talk like we are in politics, generating the partisan hatreds that politics brings, but unlike the LGBT community, we never really have gone on to build actual political institutions that can funnel resources to protect our political heroes (like Rick Santorum or Pat McCrory) and defeat our political enemies. The exception — the pro-life community — proves the rule. Republican elites and progressives would both have loved to kick the abortion issue to the side, to downplay and downgrade it. But pro-lifers have built a political movement that matters, to accompany their deep moral and intellectual movement.

Unless and until something of the same kind happens, Dreher’s call to fight for religious liberty is going to (as he knows) fall on deaf political ears. Calling for a “strategic retreat” — by which he doesn’t really mean getting out of politics — is, I fear, going to actually serve to hasten the demise of religious liberty.  What is needed instead is a serious re-evaluation of what political power is and how even minorities can exercise it to defend their interests and the common good.

Rod Dreher deserves our gratitude for assembling the kind of influential network of minds James Davison Hunter points to as the prime carrier of culture. But he has no clue, no strategy, and no model for how politics works. But then, why should he know and do everything? As Prof. Hunter taught us, it’s not the individual genius that counts; it’s the network.

Maggie Gallagher

Maggie Gallagher is a senior fellow at the American Principles Project.

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