The Benedict Option:
A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian World
By Rod Dreher
(New York: Sentinel, 2017)
With his 2006 book Crunchy Cons, and a writer’s knack for identifying emerging currents in the zeitgeist, Rod Dreher drew attention to the emergence of a new cultural movement outside the post‒Cold War divide between liberal and conservative. Crunchy Cons identified people who shared beliefs about autonomy, community, and a humane scale of living but who did not map onto then-current political or ideological categories. A growing number of more traditional conservatives had become disillusioned with the Republican Party in politics (especially its insistence on prosecuting wars in the Middle East and elsewhere after the Cold War), yet were also uncomfortable with the cultural leftism of the Democrats. At the same time, these conservatives became alienated from their own culture, as its largely Christian presuppositions were questioned, then rejected.
Dreher’s argument is that the left-right divide is outdated, an argument that is more common among conservative intellectuals and others now than it was in 2006. Both left and right share an anthropology that is essentially modern in character and constructed largely without reference to theological understanding of humanity. On the left, the liberationist rhetoric of the 1960s has led to an obsessive focus on the individual and its endless narcissism. Everything is rights all the way down, no matter the social cost. On the right, the obsession with global capitalism has made the morality of the market the standard measure of worth, and the individual a mere cog in an economic machine. This corrodes traditional bonds of community and family, and, combined with the conversion of the traditional Republican emphasis on a strong national defense into a mandate for endless war, in fact complements progressivism’s hostility toward those same things. Whether the government or the market provides the solvent for tradition, reverence, or preservation of local communities makes little difference in the end.
Along the way, Dreher has carved out his own space against that toxic culture and has called that space and that which he saw others creating “the Benedict Option.” The name is an homage both to Pope Benedict Emeritus XVI and the famous closing sentence of Alasdair MacIntyre’s influential book After Virtue: “This time . . . the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”
This is our cultural moment, despite who occupies the White House or Congress, and with his unerring cultural radar, Dreher has written the book for this new moment: a central point in The Benedict Option is “put not your trust in princes.” Culture is more important than politics, and the currents of modernity did not change on Election Day. And one thing conservatives, and especially Christian conservatives, should understand is that they have lost the culture war, and, indeed, it was their obsession with politics—and their assumption that the culture and major institutions such as big business would always support them—that partially caused that loss.
Dreher summarizes our current cultural barbarism with the phrase “moralistic therapeutic deism” (MTD). This he describes in the opening chapter of The Benedict Option as the operating morality of Americans, even those who describe themselves as Christians. This perspective is, in essence, all about the believer and not about God. Its main features include that “the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself” and has little about sin, obligation, or transcendent morality to which we as humans owe obedience. Dreher notes that “the problem with MTD, in both its progressive and its conservative versions, is that it’s mostly about improving one’s self-esteem and subjective happiness and getting along well with others. It has little to do with the Christianity of Scripture and tradition, which teaches repentance, self-sacrificial love, and purity of heart, and commends suffering—the way of the Cross—as the pathway to God.”
But why is this a problem? MTD doesn’t sound so bad—why shouldn’t people feel good about themselves and slough off the inherited worries that burdened our superstitious ancestors? Dreher has two responses to that. The first is a larger cultural point that conservatives have long made: MTD does not work. Our culture can be extremely corrosive and destructive of authentic human flourishing. MTD has no standard against which to judge—let alone “resist,” to borrow a cant phrase from today’s progressives—that culture’s imperatives. On issues ranging from stagnating wages to the attack on the family, Dreher argues that MTD makes us slaves rather than free persons, slaves to economic and political systems we cannot control and barely understand.
Second, in Dreher’s telling, there is a war against Christians to drive them out of public life and to stigmatize their beliefs. Christians should stop pretending that they live in a culture or a political system still sustained by Christian norms, even the attenuated Protestantism of the last century. MTD, it turns out, is not as tolerant as it proponents would like us to believe. It is in fact a totalizing ideology that has its own value system. That system cannot tolerate Christianity, which has claims beyond self-esteem and beyond any specific political system. What has surprised some on the right (though not Dreher) is that often big business—supposedly liberalism’s adversary—sides with cultural elites against local communities. For Catholics, the Obama administration’s campaign against the nuns who refused to sign on to the contraceptive mandate imposed by the Department of Health and Human Services was the clearest example that the cultural winds have shifted, perhaps permanently. (Not that Dreher, who left the Catholic Church because of the sex abuse scandals and is now a member of an Eastern Orthodox community, is blind to the many sins of religious institutions.)
But Christians are enjoined to be both in and of the world. The “Option” must include engagement as well as isolation. As an example, Dreher cites Václav Havel and other dissidents within communist countries who had to create “an antipolitical politics” in the face of an oppressive regime. This kind of “parallel polis is not about building a gated community for Christians but rather about establishing (or reestablishing) common practices and common institutions that can reverse the isolation and fragmentation of contemporary society.” This is a Christian moment, but one different from the height of the influence of, say, evangelicals, in the 1980s. This moment is about retrenchment and relearning, so as better to engage the world—a point lost on many of the book’s harsher critics. “In other words, dissident Christians should see their Benedict Option projects as building a better future not only for themselves but for everyone around them.”
Although the book contains a large amount of historical and cultural analysis, and reflects Dreher’s wide reading and deep thinking, it is not a work of intellectual history. Those who have read Dreher know that passion is not long concealed beneath analysis. Therefore, throughout the book Dreher offers admonitions, instructions, and suggestions about how to live out the Option. The book is really trying to be a new Benedictine Rule of how we should live in our age of liquid modernity, combined with a jeremiad about our dissolving culture. James K.A. Smith has called the Benedict Option a symptom of the “new alarmism”; in a sense, when has the Church not been at odds with the world? What may be passing is simply an age when the relationship was a little less contentious. As a matter of tone, perhaps the criticism is valid: the world described in The Benedict Option still has much hope in it, a hope that was more clearly expressed (and thus more open to those who did not share his thesis) in Crunchy Cons. But as Dreher explains, the Option, though it can be lived variously, is meant both to protect Christians and also to allow them to live in the world, but to do that, one must sound alarms when needed. The drop-off of church attendance and the simple lack of comprehension or acceptance of traditional Christian language and practice in contemporary culture are things about which one is right to be alarmed.
The Benedict Option is depressing and exhilarating by turns, sometimes on the same page. Depressing because Dreher shows how far we have fallen and how much work there is to be done, made more so because the cultural issues he describes are at times very personal, which affect every family in America. As a father in a post-Christian world, the stress and real presence of spiritual danger can be almost overwhelming. But the book also proves exhilarating because Dreher reminds us of the great history of Christianity in sparking renewal, and shows us how it is being done, today, now, in our own communities if we have but eyes to see. Hope, in the end, remains our most important cultural inheritance. In the catacombs of ancient Rome, in the Soviet-era Eastern Bloc, and in places like China today, the Church has modeled a society that is a witness to a different kind of polity. It is that moment again.♦