What Christians Can Learn (and What They Can’t) From Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option

By Maggie Gallagher Published on March 21, 2017

Rod Dreher gets frustrated when people interpret his Benedict Option as a call for retreat from politics or evangelization or the broader culture. I say to him: This is what is bound to happen when you choose as your central metaphor St. Benedict, one of the founders of Christian monasticism. It doesn’t help that he borrowed the idea from Alisadair McIntyre who in fact called for a retreat to the catacombs so that a genuine Christianity can survive the mass culture of postmodernity.

I know that Rod Dreher wants less faith in politics, and more focus on building genuine Christian communities. He’s half-right: We need far more of the latter if we are going to survive.

Three Big Things Dreher Gets Right

We live as a minority in a post-Christian dominant culture that is increasingly anti-Christian as well. “Taking back the culture” may not be possible. It is far less important than building a vibrant and deeply Christian subculture. Let me put it this way: If we can’t do the latter, we have no shot at the former. Our failure to transmit our own faith to the people in our pews and in our own homes is our biggest failure and the biggest thing we need to change immediately.

Just taking your kids to church and sending them to a Christian school doesn’t mean they will end up Christian. The family is weaker than it has ever been as a transmitter of cultural identity. Church communities are simultaneously failing to pass on the basic beliefs of Christianity. At the same time, American culture is more hostile to core tenets of Christianity, especially around sex and marriage (and asceticism) than it has ever been and this hostility is likely to increase.

We need to up our own cultural production: more stories, more songs, more movies, more novels. These should not necessarily be “pious,” but should honestly reflect the struggles, the aspirations, the triumphs and the tragedies of trying to live as a Christian in America. The dominant culture is not going to tell our stories for us. We need to do far more ourselves.

Dreher has accomplished the Biggest Thing which none of the rest of us have done: build a high-value intellectual network through his  blogging that reaches intellectuals across partisan and ideological lines, from deep in the heart of the small-o orthodox community to Andrew Sullivan, Damon Linker, and even (I’m told) New Yorker writers sick unto death of the increasingly liberal (or illiberal) dogmatism.

The Christian Right Isn’t Too Political. We’re Just Bad at It.

Trying to do politics by indirect means doesn’t work. That’s why social conservatives lose battles that ought to be winnable, over and over again.

The Religious Right did not do too much politics. In fact, it barely engaged in politics at all, except to talk about it. With the exception of the pro-life movement and the homeschooling community, the Christian Right is a political failure. It has been almost 40 years since the Moral Majority burst into being. Where are conservative Christians’ actual political institutions — defined as institutions that can channel money and resources to elect their champions, and beat their opponents? They do not exist.

“How big is the [political] hole in the center of our movement?” I asked last year. “In 2014, pro-family social conservatives invested $251,633,730 in tax-deductible 501(c)3 efforts (excluding pro-life efforts). How much was spent on direct political engagement, counting both state and federal organizations? $2,484,359.” That’s a ratio of 100 to 1. Trying to do politics by indirect means doesn’t work. That’s why social conservatives lose battles that ought to be winnable, over and over again.

The contrast with the LGBT community could not be starker. For the primer on how the Left used politics to reshape culture (and shut up the Republican party) read “They Won’t Know What Hit Them.” Big gay donors learned to pool their money and target any Republican who lifts his head up on any issue they consider anti-gay. The gay Left went so far as to target Marilyn Musgrove, one of the chief sponsors of the Federal Marriage Amendments, with ads from a fake pro-life organization claiming she was insufficiently pro-life. Yes, they defeated her.

When religious conservatives wonder why Republicans are so silent, here’s the answer: It is a political disadvantage to be one of our heroes. Ask Rick Santorum. Ask Pat McCrory. Changing that equation is going to take a greater and more sophisticated and more serious commitment to politics, not any kind of retreat. Effective movements, like the pro-life community, organize around real political ideas — primarily single issues with a real legislative goal. Here are some political goals that can be accomplished by politics:

  • Funding new research on marriage benefits;
  • Passing conscience protections;
  • Protecting homeschooling families;
  • Defunding Planned Parenthood.

“Taking back the culture” is not a political goal.

We Need to Learn From the Mormons

Evangelicals are not the weak link. We Catholics are. In The Benedict Option, Rod suggests that deeper liturgical, historical and intellectual resources are needed to withstand “liquid modernity.” These point towards the Orthodox and Catholic traditions (although he believes all Christians should work together). I know many evangelicals who, aware of the weaknesses in their own tradition conclude something similar. A very prominent Baptist theologian came up to me at a conference and said “I find myself wishing the Pope would issue a strong pronouncement on marriage, a very odd position for a Southern Baptist.”

The central problem for most of us is transmitting a vibrant faith to our own children.

But whatever the problems within the evangelical community they are threefold worse among Catholics in America. This matters because if we are going to find solutions we have to look both at what is not working and what is. I find Rod’s explication of the Benedict Rule for lay people deeply attractive, but I find no evidence from experience that anything like this rule is the key to withstanding liquid post-modernity. The central problem for most of us is transmitting a vibrant faith to our own children. Dreher may be right about his solutions, but we should not bet our children’s future on Rod’s instincts or mine.

Instead, we should look to verifiable facts: Evangelicals are today doing a better job than Catholics at passing on the core tenets of orthodox Christianity to their own children. The LDS Church is doing better than evangelicals.

As I pointed out in December 2014, “Just 1 percent of Mormons who attend services at least three times a month agree that casual sex can sometimes be okay; 89 percent disagree (with 10 percent ‘neutral’). This is the strongest rejection of casual sex of any practicing religious group in America.” Eight percent of “Fundamentalist Protestants” who attend church regularly agree that casual sex is okay, for example, as do 10 percent of self-described “traditional Catholics.”

As I’ve written before, Catholic institutions are massively failing. Only immigration is keeping Catholicism growing in America. Pew Research separated cultural Catholics from Catholics who say they attend church at least weekly. Only 59 percent of regular mass-goers say homosexual behavior is a sin. Just 46 percent believe living together outside of marriage is a sin. And just 46 percent say it is a sin to remarry after divorce without an annulment. Only 54 percent of weekly mass-goers believe the Catholic Church shouldn’t recognize same-sex marriage. These are the people in the pews.

How Then Should We Live?

What do these facts suggest about the way forward? Here I think Rod would agree on the answer I came to. What Mormons do best is that they produce:

  • More babies;
  • Larger extended kin networks;
  • More catechesis at a simple level;
  • More emotionally warm but high-commitment congregations that provide practical and not just theological support to its members; and
  • A pioneer culture of craftsmanship, music and storytelling that produces an unusually high number of successful artists and storytellers, not just (or not even) philosophers and theologians.

If familial and communal ties are to withstand liquid modernity, then their values and practices must be clear and be repeated frequently, in age appropriate ways. The emotional tone of the family and the community has to be warm, not punitive or fear-filled.

But even more than my best intuition or Rod’s, we need more research into the “best practices” of families and congregations that are successful in transmitting Christian faith to the next generation.

The stakes are too high for hunches.

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