“The Benedict Option Means Precisely What I Choose It to Mean at Any Given Moment”

Rod Dreher's meme has become The Blob, engorging all it encounters, never assuming a shape you can nail down and consider rationally.

By John Zmirak Published on July 10, 2015

I wrote last week on the “Benedict Option,” a nebulous cultural strategy which its popularizer, Rod Dreher, describes as an “inchoate phenomenon in which Christians adopt a more consciously countercultural stance towards our post-Christian mainstream culture.” It’s named after St. Benedict, the father of Western monasticism, but Dreher isn’t recommending monasticism, or anything else that’s easy to pin down and examine. The concept’s nebulousness, I’ve come to realize, is not a bug but a feature. It allows Dreher an almost infinite freedom to imply whatever he wishes, without committing himself to a single logical or testable assertion from which he cannot backtrack when it’s contested. Nice work if you can get it.

Does Dreher counsel retreat from the public square, from civic life? It’s an urgent question because our First Amendment right to free exercise of religion is under sustained attack from the highest levels of government, the media and even many corporations. The clear-sighted, principled conservative Bruce Frohnen and I each took Dreher to task for waving the white flag in Time magazine just days after the Supreme Court’s same-sex ‘marriage’ decision. Dreher’s piece began with the boldface text: “Voting Republican and other failed culture war strategies are not going to save us now.”

So is dumping the “failed” strategy of voting Republican part of the Benedict Option? Time’s editors thought that this was what Dreher meant, which is why they used that headline — the author’s own words, excerpted from inside the piece. In fact, that call for surrender is surely why Time ran his column in the first place, in the same week that the magazine published an impassioned call for stripping churches of their tax exemptions. Time is not Christianity Today; it shows little interest in offering helpful essays for Christians in living out the gospel.

So Frohnen and I called Dreher on it. Now Dreher has a piece impatiently insisting that he never called for Christians to drop out of politics. In a Wednesday essay that either clarified or backtracked — depending on how charitably you read him — Dreher insisted that of course he wasn’t counseling surrender. He wrote:

We may have to vote Republican as a matter of self-protection, and for other important reasons (e.g., pro-life), but we should not fool ourselves into thinking that this is sufficient. …

Ah, I see. On June 26, voting Republican was a failed culture war strategy. As of July 8, we “may” have to vote Republican to oppose the government persecution of Christians and the killing of more than 1 million unborn children a year. But thanks to Dreher and the clarifying power of the Benedict Option, now we will do so realizing that voting alone is not sufficient.

If the contradiction didn’t magically disappear for you just then, maybe it’s because you realize that not one American Christian in a thousand fools himself into thinking that simply voting is sufficient. Here, as in nearly every other piece he writes concerning the Benedict Option, Dreher is boxing with an invisible, nameless straw man: Those stupid, shallow Christians who are so worldly and lazy that they believe they can save their souls and lead their children to Christ solely by voting for Republicans.

Who is he talking about? Nominal Christians who rarely ever attend church and live as pagans? But half of them don’t vote; more than half of the remaining half don’t vote Republican; and the half of the half who do almost certainly aren’t doing it to save Christendom. So who are his invisible villains?

Dreher certainly cannot mean the Rev. James Robison, the founder of The Stream, who speaks about politics in defense of religious and economic liberty, marriage and the sanctity of life. Robison also runs a ministry that has led hundreds of thousands of people to Christ while his organization’s unflagging work has helped missionaries dig thousands of wells for poor people across the developing world.

Dreher also can’t be talking about the Catholic Church, which lavishes millions yearly on educating non-Catholic poor children in schools across the country, runs non-profit hospitals that refuse to perform abortions, and sends medical missionaries across the world.

And he’s not referring to the Southern Baptist Convention, which pours millions into disaster relief around the planet, helping Christians in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans and Buddhists in places like Nepal.

Maybe Dreher is referring not to church leaders, but instead to believers. But who are these clueless Christians who spend all their time stuffing envelopes for Ted Cruz, and pay no attention as their children grow up to become meth addicts and porn stars? Do they even exist? And if they do, do they represent a position anyone is actually defending? Show me the essays that champion that.

If such Christians exist, then they absolutely need to know about the Benedict Option. As soon as we figure out what it means.

In the meantime, we should do what we’re all are called to do this side of glory: build up our churches, join hands with other Christians, love our neighbors, protect our freedoms and heal the societies where our children will face their future.

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