The Benedict Option, or Benedict Arnold Option?
Rod Dreher ought to know: When the church is being persecuted, surrendering amounts to switching sides.
Last week, the Supreme Court redefined both liberty and marriage, and opened the door to punitive taxes, crippling lawsuits and criminal prosecutions against orthodox Christian churches, schools and hospitals. During President Hillary Clinton’s first 100 days in office, the U.S. would likely move toward a two-tier religious system, with faithful churches banished to the fringes of society along with the white supremacists. And the media will present it as progress: Love has won, now it’s time to shoot the prisoners.
That’s not the script for a paranoid, low-budget Christian film. It’s what many progressives plan. Pundits are already calling for the end of tax exemptions for churches — not on a fringe website, but in TIME magazine. That same magazine features a call by Rod Dreher for conservatives to drop our cooperation with Republican politicians who promise to protect us from persecution. Instead we should withdraw into apolitical enclaves of like-minded fellow believers and hope that the gay totalitarians and their fellow travelers decide to let our kids alone.
So is it time to give up, hide, and hope for the best? Should we throw down the weapons we still have, which God provided us? Shall we surrender America to the sex radicals, and leave our children with none of the liberty that we inherited from our parents? Is it moral to abandon our fellow citizens and neighbors to the ever-escalating demands of the secular culture of death? Is it time to dissolve all activist divisions of the pro-life movement, which has made so many strides, and accept that abortion on demand, for nine months, for any reason, will be legal here forever?
All of these outcomes would flow from the misnamed “Benedict Option,” favored by Dreher, who for years has advocated a sort of apolitical Christian separatism. I am not surprised that the same magazine that publishes a piece from a writer wanting to crush the churches with the tax code has given Dreher a venue to counsel surrender. Any conquering army hopes to sow defeatism in the enemy. Remember all those leaflets in Arabic we dropped on Saddam’s troops in 2003, promising good treatment and hefty rations for those who defected? Think of Marshal Petain’s appeal to the French Army in 1940 to throw down their guns and collaborate. The Germans were happy to broadcast it.
This is no time to back down. We still have legal options, including The First Amendment Defense Act, which would strip the federal government’s power to wield such penalties. A major candidate and big-state governor, Scott Walker, has called for a constitutional amendment to reverse the Court’s deranged decision. Christians retain political clout, in the upcoming Republican primaries. The candidates, as good politicians, are watching to see how much fight is left in America’s Christians: Will we make religious liberty a litmus test for our support? Will we set aside our differences on other issues — from national defense to immigration policy, from poverty programs to Obamacare — and unite as a powerful bloc in defense of our children’s freedom of faith? Some politicians, including Walker, Ted Cruz, and Mike Huckabee, appear to be stepping out and offering to fight for us. Others, like Jeb Bush and Rand Paul, are kicking back and counting on our passivity and exhaustion.
Should We Find Some Hole to Hide In?
I understand battle fatigue. I started exercising Christian citizenship thirty-nine years ago, when at age 11, I rang doorbells collecting signatures for New York’s Right to Life Party. I have been active in one way or another ever since — earning ostracism at Yale for defying gay-rights groupthink; facing down most of my grad school professors across the picket line at an abortion clinic while one of them recorded each of our faces with a video camera; leading a successful fight (with a budget of $100) against a state-wide multiculturalist pro-gay brainwashing mandate for the entire LSU system; and so on, ever since. I am sure that many readers have similar stories to tell.
And like you, I am bone tired. Worn-down, frustrated and tempted to curl up in apathy and just binge-watch Daredevil on Netflix. But as that show reminds us, “The world is on fire.” I won’t just hunker down and watch Rome burn. I am not fireproof and neither are you. Nor are your kids. You may decide that you’ve had enough, that you’re tired of worrying about other people’s unborn children and their marriages and their intergenerational dependency on welfare programs and the wretched public schools that dumb down their kids and the low-skill immigration that drives down their wages. You’re sick of it all. You just want to hang around with your fellow Christians and live your life in peace. You’d like to find an enclave where you can hide.
There is nowhere to hide, no ghetto so obscure that the gay totalitarians will leave you alone. Think of all the money that Germany spent persecuting a single homeschooling family. Laws like Germany’s are coming here soon, if we don’t fight them tooth and nail. Remember the thousands of bureaucrats who dutifully audited Tea Party groups for the IRS. Soon thousands more will be scrutinizing your church, its school and every Christian organization in the country. The Left has tasted blood, and intends to feed. Even if you piously decide to turn the other cheek, and congratulate yourself on being persecuted for Christ, you have no right to make that decision for your children or your neighbor.
Persecutions Have Consequences
Philip Jenkins’ brilliant The Lost History of Christianity makes for a wrenching read. It chronicles the vast and vibrant Christian churches that once extended from Antioch to China, whose well-schooled believers as late as 1000 AD almost equaled the number of recently baptized Western barbarians. All that is gone now, with the last few brave, abandoned believers cowering on mountaintops hiding from ISIS while the West concentrates on creating “safe spaces” free from “transphobia.”
What happened to the great churches of the East? As Jenkins reports, one church after another lost the protection of the government. At first persecution was mild, and tolerant Muslim or Confucian rulers would sometimes leave breathing space for local Christians. But finally, over centuries, the slow drip of humiliation, of punitive taxes and periodic massacres, ground down all the Christians, till no one was left. Once-mighty monasteries are now dusty masjids, or abandoned ruins. Cathedrals are mosques or museums. Once-Christian cities from Constantinople to Mosul are now almost purged of Christians.
Churches can withstand a lot — even the 60-plus years of Communist oppression in China. And Christ has promised us that the Church universal will prevail to the end. But we know from history that Christianity can be purged from entire regions. Should we invite such appalling circumstances, by retreating to holy enclaves?
It is inhuman to expect generations of Christian families to pass along the faith in wartime conditions. It almost certainly will not happen. God can grant a miracle, but as Our Lord made clear in the desert, we should not test Him by climbing the Temple Mount.
Here let me anticipate and knock down the straw man that Dreher trots out every time he is contradicted: No, it is not enough to simply vote for pro-Christian conservatives. No one has ever claimed that it was. We must witness our faith in dozens of non-political ways, by building strong Christian families and institutions, caring for the poor, sick and dying — exactly the kinds of institutions that progressives intend to co-opt or close, using same-sex marriage as the steamroller in a war on civil society. If we let them get away with that, by abandoning our solemn responsibilities as Christian citizens to defend human rights and the common good, then we act like hirelings and abandon our lambs to the wolves. We will answer for it to the Good Shepherd who laid down His life to save them.