Basilica of St. Benedict in Norcia, Italy prior to 2016 earthquake. (Umbria Tourist Authority)
"The culture war as we knew it is over,” writes the conservative Christian blogger and author Rod Dreher in his new book, The Benedict Option. “The so-called values voters—social and religious conservatives—have been defeated and are being swept to the political margins.” The election of Donald Trump, Dreher argues, is no solution. “The idea that someone as robustly vulgar, fiercely combative, and morally compromised as Trump will be an avatar for the restoration of Christian morality and social unity is beyond delusional,” he writes.
Dreher sees threats everywhere—secularization, individualism, changing sexual mores, a decline in religious liberty protections—and his diagnosis is grim. He writes that “we in the modern West are living under barbarism.” Dreher’s solution is a kind of civic retreat.
Enter the Benedict Option, as Dreher has branded it. He takes the Benedictine order of Catholic monks as inspiration for a kind of DIY monasticism (the subheader for one of the book’s sections is “Turn Your Home into a Domestic Monastery”). Conservative Christians, Dreher argues, should pull their kids from public schools and “mediocre Christian schools,” expend less energy on national politics, “secede culturally from the mainstream,” and work to build strong, tight-knit Christian communities that can ride out the coming secular storm. The image on the book’s cover is of Mont Saint-Michel, a fortified island monastery in France.
Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative, where he has been writing regularly about the Benedict Option. After years of living on the East Coast, he now resides in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, near where he grew up. His influences span Christian traditions: Raised a Methodist, he converted to Catholicism in his twenties and later joined the Orthodox Church, where he is still a member. His blend of localism, anti-consumerism, and conservative sexual politics can make him seem like a hybrid of Wendell Berry and Pope Benedict XVI, at once skeptical of modern capitalism and opposed to modern sexual mores.
Reached by phone on the morning of his 50th birthday, Dreher spoke with R&P about pluralism, the alt-right, and why he’s not a Marxist revolutionary. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
R&P: The Benedict Option is a dramatic option. What went so wrong?
RD: Christianity and the West lost the view that the world is sacred. We lost a sense of the givenness of the world—the fact that the world is charged with divinity.
Most of us who are alive today could probably look back to the ’60s and ’70s as a time when sexual mores and the traditional family began to change rapidly and fall apart. Also, we can look back to the ’80s and ’90s as a time when the economy and society became even more mobile and unsettled with the advent of globalization. That has made communities fragment.
What’s wrong, I think, is that the ongoing individualism—or the atomization of society as the power of the individual has grown, both in law and in culture—has severed us from our roots in the faith and also severed us from each other.
I think you’d be very hard pressed to find a group of, say, 10 people who could agree on what the common good is anymore. And this is the problem. Whether you’re religious or not, it’s a real problem.
R&P: Do you think that there have been effective cultural responses to this rise in individualism, either from within the church or from outside the church?
RD: I think generally the responses of the churches to this deep crisis have been abysmal. We don’t seem to know what hit us.
R&P: So are other Christians not seeing the problem?
RD: Generally speaking we’ve been very comfortable in the United States, because Christians have felt like this is our home, that this is a place that is comfortable for us, where things operate more or less according to Christian values, even though the United States is a secular nation.
A lot of people who have been going to church and counting on the church being there are going to be really shocked when suddenly those churches aren’t there.
People like Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention—he gets it. He sees that we are living in a post-Christian culture, and we in the church have to prepare for that, and have to prepare for being faithful in a time of exile in our own country. But this is a very hard thing for most Christians to accept.
R&P: Another way to tell this story is that, for a long time, a white Christian group effectively kept certain people out of the public conversation—especially black Christians, religious minorities, and people whose sexual lives didn’t conform to certain standards. What has changed is the capacity to keep the public conversation on those white Christian terms.
RD: Well, this country hasn’t been driven by a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite for a long time. I did not grow up in a country like that, and I was born in 1967.
Christians—white Christians, Asian Christians, Latino Christians, black Christians—have got to realize that the mainstream in America is not driven by Christian values anymore. That’s not the end of the world, but it’s the end of a world.
R&P: Are there ways in which it would enrich Christianity not to have that kind of cultural dominance? Some Christians seem to have a real ambivalence about this power.
RD: I completely agree. Russell Moore has talked about that—about where’s the blessing losing power and being pushed to the margins of society. We American Christians have gotten fat and happy and lazy in a culture that came from us, broadly speaking. It’s no longer our culture anymore. Now we’re going to have to reacquaint ourselves with what it means to be truly Christian.
We need to be willing to suffer social rejection, loss of jobs, loss of opportunities. I really do believe this is coming. And this is not unprecedented in the history of the church. It’s happening to Christians in other countries right now. And yet they’re remaining faithful. This is a skill set—if that doesn’t sound too trivializing—that we American Christians have got to learn. And if we don’t, we’re going to be assimilated. There’s no two ways about it.
R&P: Members of minority religious communities might hear this and think, “But the culture still feels so Christian!” To you, it feels like the opposite is true. I think there’s a real disconnect there.
RD: Yeah, I can see that. I think that this is rapidly changing. Just because you see churches everywhere doesn’t mean those churches are full, or that they’ll be there in ten years.
Same-sex marriage, the divorce rate, and sexual individualism—that is part and parcel of American culture now. It is even practiced among younger people in the church. That is a post-Christian development. So when members of minority religions say, “This seems very Christian now,” I say, just hang around a bit, because it’s fading fast.
Ross Douthat once said, “If you don’t like the Religious Right, wait until you see the post-Religious Right.” That’s the alt-right. And they’re pretty scary. The people who are on the alt-right can’t stand Christians.
R&P: During the election it was often difficult to see where the Trump campaign ended and Breitbart News, an alt-right platform, began. Trump won 81 percent of the white evangelical vote anyway. Is there really that big of a gulf between the so-called alt-right and the Religious Right?
RD: I think there is. The alt-right, as far as I understand it—and I don’t spend a lot of time reading them, because I am really bothered by their racial rhetoric—you don’t see that among Christians. Or at least you should not see that among Christians. If you do see that among Christians, then they are not Christians.
But I think it is true that there is some crossover with the alt-right, insofar as there’s maybe a questioning among a lot conservatives, even conservative Christians, about the feasibility of liberal democracy.
Trump is in fact no answer to the crisis. He’s a symptom of the crisis we’re in. I think that the extent to which Christians are still involved in partisan politics—I’m speaking of the old-guard Religious Right—to the extent that they allow the church to be entwined with Trumpism, they’re really going to hurt the church. Because I don’t think this is going to work out well for the United States.
R&P: Outside some common cause on abortion and sexual politics, do you feel like you have much in common with the mainstream Religious Right?
RD: People say, “Are you on the Religious Right?” I say, “Well, I’m a religious conservative and a political conservative, but I don’t say I’m on the Religious Right, because that term has for me become tainted with Republican Party politicking.”
Christians should refocus their efforts not only the local church, but the local community—working with other Christians, and others who are not Christian, to build up the local community. If tough times are coming, economically and otherwise, we’re going need each other. I look at what’s happening in Washington, and I feel so powerless. But I don’t feel powerless in my local community.
St Benedict statue in Norcia - Photo by diabolique04
R&P: How much is this an abandonment or disillusionment with the American project?
RD: I really don’t know if America is going to make it. God knows I don’t wish for America’s demise. It’s all I know, and it has been and continues to be a force for good and a safe haven. And it’s home.
We as a society have lost a sense of inner order. We’re seeing this more and more in the economic order, in the cultural order, with the dissolution of the family and the atomization of the individual.
The greatest thing [the Benedict Option] can do politically is teach us how to rightly order our hearts toward service of God and service to others, and to turn away from this radical individualism which has torn and will tear our country apart. Whether America can make it through, I don’t know. But that’s not as important to me as whether or not the church can make it through.
R&P: America is a pluralistic, multicultural democracy. How do kids growing up in a Benedict Option community learn to deal with people who are different from them?
RD: I don’t think most of us who do the Benedict Option are going to be retreating anywhere. I don’t think it’s feasible for most people, and probably not even desirable.
What’s important is that parents approach the Benedict Option not by simply saying noto bad things or harmful things, but by saying yes to good things. That means, in part, finding the good in other people and people outside our own tradition. For example, we have a lot to learn from our Orthodox Jewish brothers and sisters. They have been living as minorities in a hostile culture for a long, long time (sadly, hostility coming from Christian anti-Semitism).
I did talk to a young woman, about 18 [years old], whose parents ran to the hills to keep their kids from being polluted by the evil world outside. And their fanaticism, their paranoia, ended up strongly alienating their children from the faith. Every one of their adult children no longer practices the faith. That is a strong warning to the rest of us.
R&P: The Benedict Option still seems like a shrinking away from the basic, messy work of pluralism. Are you shying away from this uncomfortable reckoning with how to deal with people who think very differently from you about what it means to build a family or a culture?
RD: The fact is, it’s more important to be faithful Christians than it is to be good Americans. That’s the bottom line. And I would think that anybody, from whatever religion—Islam, Judaism, whatever—would place fidelity to what God expects of them above conforming to a culture.
There has never been a Christian utopia, and we can’t delude ourselves into thinking that it was. Look, I come from the Deep South, at a time when Christian faith was much more robust, and a lot of white Christians were severely oppressing black Christians. We can’t idealize the past.
That said, I wonder if your question is not so much that orthodox Christians don’t know how to deal with people who are different from us as that we are not changing our minds. People who are liberal on sex or whatever, in a time when the culture was more conservative, they had to figure out how to deal with the conservative majority too. And a lot of them did. I would hope to be in a time when we can find a lot more tolerance for each other’s difference, across both left and right.
I think of myself, and my generation—most of us, even we who are conservative Christians, would never want to go back to a time when gays and lesbians have to be back in the closet. I don’t want that at all. At the same time, I don’t want the state compelling religious institutions—churches, hospitals, schools—to violate our conscience on what sex is for and who the human person is and what marriage is.
I could be wrong about a lot of things, and I probably am. But that’s just life in a pluralistic culture, and if we start out with the presumption that people who don’t think like us are bad, there’s just going to be more and more warfare on both sides, and I think we’re seeing that.
R&P: That seems to be the question these days: What are the public spaces? Where does everyone feel like they can meet?
RD: It’s hard for me to think of a place where we can come together and affirm the things that bind us are stronger than the things that separate us. I think we have to look for those places and support them and uphold them whenever we can, but when the culture is just fragmenting more and more and more, it seems like a process that cannot be easily stopped.
This is what you get with consumerism, too. When expressive individualism is at the center of the culture, and the cultural liturgy of being an American, and being part of a market, forms your soul into thinking of yourself as a free and unencumbered individual who is defined by his own choices, that is going to catechize and form your hearts in ways that are not simply in the shopping mall, but also in your approach to religion, your approach to politics, your approach to friends, and your approach to the possibility of civic obligation.
R&P: You criticize consumerism a lot. While reading the book, I started to wonder: Why aren’t you a Marxist revolutionary?
R&P: Seriously, why don’t you make a full-throated left-wing critique of capitalism? You seem to nod in that direction.
Hey, Marx had some good points. His diagnosis was more right than a lot of conservatives wish to acknowledge. But his prescription was the problem.
We and the church—the Christian conservatives—have greatly deluded ourselves by thinking that the market itself is its own justification. Pope John Paul said that the market was made for man, not man for the market, and I think that on a macroeconomic scale right now in our country, we’re seeing the very, very bitter fruits of the market uber alles philosophy.
R&P: Some Christians on the left are saying that because they are theologically serious, they’re making racism and the consequences of capitalism their overwhelming focus.
You express skepticism in the book toward people who focus on social justice and not on sexual politics. Why do you feel like sexual politics should be the focus, rather than these other parts of the tradition?
RD: I want to underscore that it’s not an either/or for me. It should be a both/and. But I find often that those Christians who do want to focus on social justice want to leave Christian sexual orthodoxy behind, and act like it’s no big deal. You can’t do that. Scripture is way too strong on that. The Christian teaching is way too strong on that.
I find sexual behavior to be the more important thing right now—and notice I said moreimportant, not only important—because I believe the family is the building block of social order, and sexual individualism works like an acid on that.
We can have a society that is cohesive even if there is economic injustice that we have to fight. And we can have a society that is cohesive even if there is racial injustice, which Christians should be fighting. But if the family disintegrates, and men can’t be counted on to take care of the children they sire, and the women who are the mothers of their children, then we’ve got real chaos.
R&P: So you’re saying that there’s a stability in economic and racial injustice that is different? Am I understanding the distinction here?
RD: No, I’m just saying that there has been racism and economic injustice in almost every society since the beginning of time, and yet those societies have managed to reproduce families and hold on to faith and moral order. If you lose the family, though, that’s the most important thing.
Family is the most important thing to conserve. Not economic justice or racial justice. Those things must be fought for, but they’re not as important as the family and the faith. Or rather they come from faith and family.
If you have an economic order, or a racially unjust order, that hurts the faith and hurts the family, and tears the family apart, then to fight against racism and to fight against economic injustice is to protect the family and therefore to protect the faith.
R&P: There are these deep ways in which these things are connected—the extreme example would be slavery ripping families apart. I’m not sure how easily you can separate them out.
RD: Well, slavery is the perfect example of that, and yet the black churches helped the slaves overcome even that injustice. It was in the name of Jesus that the black pastors and the civil rights leaders fought against that injustice. So you can’t separate these from Christianity. Christianity doesn’t exist outside of society.
I would just say that the right order of things is, if we lose the family, we lose everything else. I believe that we can’t have economic justice, and it’s a lot harder to have racial justice, if we don’t have the family.
R&P: Where is this all heading? Do you think secular mainstream culture will collapse, and then the Benedict Option is waiting?
RD: I expect things to continue to unwind. If we have an economic crash, a serious economic crash, I think then we will come to understand how much of our society was held up by money, and how the loss of social bonds and social solidarity has cost us. It’s made us much less resilient and much less likely to care for our neighbors.
Even if economic times continue to be good, I think that we’ll see the public square becoming ever more toxic, certainly more hostile to Christian conservatives. I don’t know that we’ll ever reach the level in this country of secularism that they have in Europe. We may, and we have to prepare for that.
We just have to hope that we do the best we can at the time God has given us, and hope that the church can be an ark for people who are refugees from however the culture war turns out.