Q: What is the Benedict Option?
A: I’m not sure. Neither is its popularizer, Rod Dreher. (Dreher didn’t invent the idea, but borrowed it from the quasi-Marxist/Catholic philosopher Alasdair Macintyre.) Dreher waffles whenever anybody tries to pin him down, then sniffs that they can “bloody well do the research” by reading the tens of thousands of words’ worth of emotive blog posts he has spilled on the subject. The closest Dreher has come to a definition is an “inchoate phenomenon in which Christians adopt a more consciously countercultural stance towards our post-Christian mainstream culture.” Whatever that means, Dreher is definitely FOR it.
As far as I can puzzle out, the Benedict Option is an attempt by Rod Dreher, a former neocon Catholic and former liberal Episcopalian, now an environmentalist convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, to suggest ways that faithful Christians can hunker down and survive in the current hostile environment by withdrawing from society and networking with each other to form some kind of loosely defined communities.
And Dreher wants Christians to drop our involvement in pro-life and pro-family politics and get busy doing . . . whatever it is. Except that when you confront him about how suicidally crazy that idea is, he pivots on his heel and insists he never meant that at all. All he meant was that we can’t save our souls and bring our children to God by voting Republican. When you ask him who ever said that we could, he never gives an answer. Because no one since AD 33 has ever made such a claim.
The Benedict Option—which Dreher is touting as the only possible option in this desperate historical moment for American Christians—is a subject he wants to get a book contract to write about, a contract he told me he was seeking way back in 2008, when George Bush was still president and same-sex marriage was a crackpot notion that even Barack Obama claimed to oppose. (In that same year, the man who now funds Rod Dreher’s job as a full-time blogger, Wick Allison, endorsed Barack Obama for president.) Dreher complained to me at the time that no publishers were interested.
This moment seems more . . . opportune. Time magazine thought so, and was happy to publish Dreher’s article entitled “Orthodox Christians Must Now Learn to Live as Exiles in Our Own Country” in the same week it ran an op-ed calling for taxes on all our churches. Now we’re waiting to see when the IRS will revoke the tax exemptions of faithful churches and whether our churches will fight or fold.
Q: OK, so maybe we shouldn’t trust the messenger, but what’s wrong with taking St. Benedict as our inspiration?
A: St. Benedict himself would find the idea puzzling. That mystical ex-hermit never tried to organize laymen, but monks—men who could live and work together only because they took vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience. Benedict drafted his famous Rule to teach monks how better to obey these particular, difficult vows. Married people make very different promises. They don’t obey an abbot but are subject to each other. They’re called to be fertile, not celibate; thrifty and prudent, not poor. The proper bourgeois virtues of responsible Christian parents are almost the diametrical opposite of monastic communalism. Most historical attempts to found such communities among married couples have ended in farce or disaster.
Q: But aren’t we in a similar historical moment to St. Benedict on the verge of the Dark Ages?
A: We should have such luck! Benedict’s monks were fleeing the chaos of a collapsing empire, which had for almost two hundred years ceased to persecute Christianity. The Visigoths and Lombards invading Italy had no interest in hunting down bands of monks. The worst thing Benedict and his followers had to fear were bandits—and renegade monks.
Today Christians face something that behaves much more like Islam. It is a rising empire of aggressive secularism, with a deep historical grudge against our faith. Gay activists, New Atheists, radical feminists, population controllers, multiculturalists, and other powerful interest groups see orthodox Christianity as their enemy. We once wielded power throughout the culture as they lived on the margins, and now they are looking for payback. They will know where to find us. Subjecting faithful Christian churches to a crushing, punitive tax is just the beginning. Think of it as the jizya.
Q: So who would make a more appropriate model than St. Benedict?
A: If we’re looking for a saint, why not St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei? He taught ordinary laymen to live out their faith in the world, taking care of their primary responsibilities first: being good spouses, good parents, good employees or employers. We should gently attract souls to Christ by modeling the natural virtues. As he taught, in a society where sin and chaos are draining unbelievers of courage, prudence, temperance, and justice, virtuous believers will attract people—just as Christians drew converts in pagan Rome because they were faithful to their spouses, neither lied nor stole, and didn’t destroy their infants.
We must fight for our freedom from an increasingly arbitrary and all-encompassing government. We must defend our property rights, our religious rights, our right to defend ourselves and raise our children with our beliefs. All those fights are political, and to say otherwise is simply slothful and escapist.
At the same time, we must fight for internal freedom from the deep addiction to sin. Otherwise, all the civic freedom in the world won’t save our souls.
Q: What practical advice do you have for Christian young adults in this current frightening environment?
A: Get out of debt and stay out. Do that first, before you make any other plans. Stay off public assistance, which makes you a client of the government. Don’t think of yourself as an intellectual, an apologist, or a culture warrior. Think of yourself as a future parent and prepare yourself for that taxing, magnificent vocation. Don’t rush into marriage and parenthood, and don’t imagine that you’ll be able to support a family by doing something “fun” and “cultural.” The chances are slim. Don’t be ashamed of taking any honest job—be grateful, and every day give your employer an honest day’s work for his money. Remember that the example you set for your kids will have far more impact than anything you ever say or write. And by the way, watch out what you say on social media, which future employers will be scanning. Just delete that Facebook account. Why write for free?
This plan isn’t glamorous, and adopting it won’t make you feel like you’re part of a gnostic elite. But it’s the only one suited for life as a Christian today.
Q: So do you think the Benedict Option idea has any relevance for college students at all?
A: You are at the only stage of life where it might in fact be relevant. You probably don’t have a spouse or kids for whom you’re responsible. You really do need to network and make like-minded friends. So yes, by all means, make a point of connecting with fellow believers. If your campus chapel is a social-justice theme park, ditch it and find a local congregation that’s faithful. Join your campus pro-life group and meet other people who care about the Permanent Things. Check out College Republicans, where you might meet some thoughtful folks who share your worldview, at least in part. If your school has an ISI group, use that to dive into serious reading of classic books on human flourishing. Take hard courses that include the Great Books—and for heaven’s sake do the reading.
But don’t entertain the fantasy that after you graduate, you’ll be able to form some kind of lasting community based on shared ideas or beliefs. Unless you are called to monastic life, that’s simply not going to happen. If you’re called to marriage, you must go wherever there’s paying work that will support your family, and you’ll have to mix all the time with people of very different views. There is no escape. The only option is witness. It worked for the early Church. It can work for us.