Is the ‘Benedict Option’ a Real Possibility?

Damon Linker, a writer I rarely take seriously, has a long and interesting article about the Benedict Option, which is apparently now under discussion among the Christian right. The basic idea is that Christian conservatives should withdraw from the culture wars and focus on building “communities” (you’ll see why I put that in quotes later) that help preserve themselves ideologically.

Have you heard of the Benedict Option? If not, you will soon.

It’s the name of a deeply pessimistic cultural project that’s capturing the imaginations of social conservatives as they come to terms with the realization that the hopes and assumptions that animated the religious right over the past 35-odd years have been dashed by the sweeping triumph of the movement for same-sex marriage…

Before the present moment, the one flicker of genuine gloom came in 1996, after a series of court rulings seemed to signal that secular liberalism was using the judiciary to thwart the will of the people. That inspired the conservative religious magazine First Things (for which I later worked) to run a notorious symposium titled “The End of Democracy?” An unsigned editorial introducing the symposium suggested that religious Americans would soon have to decide on options ranging “from noncompliance to resistance to civil disobedience to morally justified revolution.”

The incendiary rhetoric sparked a firestorm among conservatives, but it’s important to recognize that it followed directly from the most fundamental premises of the religious right. If it was in fact true that social conservatives were the American majority, and if it was also the case that the judicial branch of government was actively and undemocratically impeding the majority, then it did indeed follow that religious conservatives were faced with (as the editorial put it) “the prospect — some might say the present reality — of despotism” in the United States. And that called for a radical, perhaps revolutionary, response.

Gosh, that sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Now the pessimism is back — though with a twist. The mood among social conservatives has been darkening for years, as a liberal Democrat has taken and held the White House, as the Republican Party has placed greater emphasis on economic concerns than culture-war issues, and (most of all) as same-sex marriage has come to be accepted by more than half of the country and Democrats have begun to embrace it without apology.

But nothing compares to the gloom that’s set in during the weeks since the passage of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act sparked a rapid and widespread condemnation of religious traditionalists, not only by gay activists and liberal Democrats, but also by a number of Republicans with national stature and high-profile members of the business community. Suddenly social conservatives began to think the unthinkable: Is it possible that we’re now in the minority, with our freedoms subject to the whims of a hostile majority that will use the power of the modern liberal state (especially anti-discrimination laws) to enforce public conformity to secular, anti-Christian norms?

That’s where the Benedict Option comes in.

Conservative blogger Rod Dreher (a friend) has been writing about it for years, though with rapidly increasing intensity over the past few months. The idea was inspired by the famous concluding paragraph of Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 book After Virtue, in which the conservative philosopher wrote about waiting “for another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict,” who, like the founder of Western monasticism during the waning days of the decadent and declining Roman Empire, would help to construct “local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages.”

In Dreher’s hands, this haunting image has become the Benedict Option — the idea of traditionalist Christians choosing to step back from the now-futile political projects and ambitions of the past four decades to cultivate and preserve a robustly Christian subculture within an increasingly hostile common culture. That inward turn toward community-building is the element of monasticism in the project. But its participants won’t be monks. They will be families, parishes, and churches working to protect themselves from the acids of modernity, skepticism, and freedom (understood as personal autonomy), as well as from the expansive regulatory power of the secular state.

Over the past couple of years, but especially since the RFRA conflagration, this idea has caught on among social conservative intellectuals, especially those in the circles around The American Conservative and First Things. And it makes perfect sense that it would. After all, if social conservatives are indeed a minority in a hostile secular culture, and if they have therefore lost any reasonable hope of gaining and wielding political power, then cultivating and preserving the faith would certainly seem to be a pressing priority — perhaps the most pressing one of all.

But it’s quite unclear what this means. What does it mean to build a “robustly Christian subculture” or a “community”? If it means an actual municipality, they’re going to run into the same problem. Under the 14th Amendment, state and local governments are as forbidden from violating the rights of individuals to the same extent the federal government is. Tom Monaghan found that out when he tried to create a Catholic city in Florida, complete with a ban on selling contraception or selling or renting videos that offend his delicate sensibilities. People are, of course, free to choose to live their lives according to the dictates of their religious beliefs, but only so long as doing so does not violate the right of other people not to live their lives in that manner.

It’s not clear what else this Benedict Option might be referring to. If it only means a voluntary community of like-minded people who seek to live religiously but not impose those beliefs legally, they already have those. They’re called churches. Of course, I’d be more than happy if the Christian right would withdraw from politics and concede that they’ve lost the culture wars. That’s a prediction I certainly hope will prove true.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/teve.tory Teve Tory

    Someone recently said that this is just the fundie version of Going Galt.

    If so, it won’t happen, because ‘Going Galt’ doesn’t actually work outside of poorly-written SF.

  • RickR

    Is it possible that we’re now in the minority, with our freedoms subject to the whims of a hostile majority that will use the power of the modern liberal state (especially anti-discrimination gay laws) to enforce public conformity to secular, anti-Christian norms?

    Because in the “mind” of a conservative christian, there must always be a persecuted underclass, and if it isn’t “them”, it’s going to be YOU.

    working to protect themselves from the acids of modernity, skepticism, and freedom (understood as personal autonomy)

    HORROR!!!

  • Sastra

    It’s not clear what else this Benedict Option might be referring to.

    Probably home schooling, with outside contact limited to other home schoolers. It’s already been done, mostly by Protestants.

    They don’t really fear legally enforced “public conformity to secular, anti-Christian norms.” They fear moral progress in the culture and children who don’t see what the big deal is.

  • Randomfactor

    Is it possible that we’re now in the minority, with our freedoms subject to the whims of a hostile majority

    “Oh noes! They’re going to treat us the way we treated them!”

  • http://twitter.com/#!/TabbyLavalamp Tabby Lavalamp

    if it was also the case that the judicial branch of government was actively and undemocratically impeding the majority

    Of course they are. It’s the judicial branch’s job to curtail the worst aspects of democracy.

    Suddenly social conservatives began to think the unthinkable: Is it possible that we’re now in the minority, with our freedoms subject to the whims of a hostile majority that will use the power of the modern liberal state (especially anti-discrimination laws) to enforce public conformity to secular, anti-Christian norms?

    Like this, for example. And of course these people have no such problem subjecting the freedoms of women and the LGBT community to their hostile whims.

    Anyway, when they talk about retreating I wonder if they mean trying something along the lines of Amish communities, or maybe like the Ultra-Orthadox Jewish community in places like New York.

    social conservative intellectuals

    Huh?

  • Larry

    In other words: We’re not a popular as we’ve led ourselves to believe and we need to get the fuck out of Dodge before they start doing to us what we’ve been doing to them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1017276335 Strewth

    I imagine they’ll take cues from the Hasidim, much like Sastra says: Home schooling, limitation of contact with the wider community, and so on. No word yet if they’ll invest in vision-distorting glasses to wear when walking outside their enclaves to avoid being tempted by things (women).

  • theguy

    There’s a lot of things I could say about this.

    First, Christians are still a majority in America. If most of them have turned their faith in a pro-gay direction, would that become the dominant form of Christianity? I would say that would be a good thing for Christianity itself, but it seems that the liberal churches are losing followers too.

    Second, the article seems to imply that the removal of tax exemptions from religious institutions is a move more in line with the French Revolution’s anti-clerical radicalism. My reaction to that was a sarcastic “yeah, loss of tax exemptions is totally like getting your head chopped off.”

    Third, this part – “genuine gloom came in 1996, after a series of court rulings seemed to signal that secular liberalism was using the judiciary to thwart the will of the people”

    Which court rulings are they referring to? In the 90’s, some states still criminalized sodomy, and yet the religious right was freaking out even then?

    Last, insular religious communities won’t be very inspirational if they end up like the Duggars – cultish, homophobic, extremely lenient towards molesters in their ranks. Given that we are indeed talking about right-wing religion, I’d expect more cases like that to occur.

  • Alverant

    Why are they worried about their freedoms being subject to the whims of the majority? Does the majority have a history of restricting the freedoms of the minority?

    When I hear “Benedict”, I don’t think of monks, I think of either eggs or Arnold. The latter seems to fit in better with their goals.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    …as the Republican Party has placed greater emphasis on economic concerns than culture-war issues…”

    What? Even the “economic issues” are directly related to the Culture War subgroup, The Undeserving Poor (Medicaid, Obamacare, SNAP and taxing “Makers” to pay for them).

     

    Of course, I’d be more than happy if the Christian right would withdraw from politics and concede that they’ve lost the culture wars. That’s a prediction I certainly hope will prove true.

    Hope springs eternal. On the other hand, there are still Muslins and Hispanics to regulate. Plus, ladyparts.

     

    Tabby Lavalamp “And of course these people have no such problem subjecting the freedoms of women and the LGBT community to their hostile whims.”

    It’s not oppression when I use the Levers of State to stand on your neck. It is oppression when you use them to stop me. That’s just common sense.

  • http://nwrickert.wordpress.com/ Neil Rickert

    LOL.

    Let’s see:

    (1) they abandoned the moral teachings of Jesus;

    (2) they joined forces with the capitalists whom Jesus condemned;

    (3) they abandoned the US constitution (the non-establishment clause);

    all for the sake of political power. But now it is all the fault of the gays.

  • http://dharmaubuntu.wordpress.com/ Aspect Sign

    “like the founder of Western monasticism during the waning days of the decadent and declining Roman Empire, would help to construct “local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages.””

    Also proving for the umpteenth time christians can’t grasp history as Benedict lived in a time of increasing christian hegemony not declining and the “dark ages” interestingly arose and spread concurrently both temporally and geographically with the spread of that christian hegemony.

  • thebookofdave

    as the Republican Party has placed greater emphasis on economic concerns than culture-war issues

    As always, American Conservatism’s laser focus on the economy correctly identifies the problem between everyone’s legs.

  • eric

    They will be families, parishes, and churches working to protect themselves from the acids of modernity, skepticism, and freedom (understood as personal autonomy),

    I love that last one. Hey, at least they’re being forthright: join our community, and we will save you from the evil of personal autonomy.

  • raven

    Is it possible that we’re now in the minority,

    1. They have always been in a minority. The moral majority has never been either moral or a majority. The fundies have never been a majority of US xians and in fact, a lot of other xians don’t like them at all.

    Don’t forget, most of the Democratic and Obama voters have been xians, who elected a xian president, Obama instead of the noxian GOP candidate, Romney.

    This is what happens when you deny reality and forget how to do first grade math.

    2. This is just some loon babbling. The vast majority of fundies aren’t going Galt. They are just going to do what they have always done. Go to work, go home, turn on the TV, spend time with their friends, relatives, and pets. Like all people do.

  • raven

    Conservative blogger Rod Dreher (a friend) has been writing about it for years,…

    Who????

    Wikipedia: Dreher is working on another book. He has said on his blog that it will center on “the Benedict Option”, the idea that those who want to live with traditional morality should separate themselves to some degree from mainstream society and try to live in intentional communities or other subcultures.

    Sounds like what the Reverend Jim Jones did in Guyana. And look at how well that turned out. Same with the Branch Davidians.

    Fundie xians do this occasionally. It often ends up with the cult leader in prison for child sexual abuse crimes. Look up Tony Alamo, Josh Duggar, or the Mormon equivalent, the FLDS.

    If the fundies were serious, we could raise millions of dollars to buy them one way tickets out of the god forsaken USA, if they would renounce their US citizenship.

  • D. C. Sessions

    The whole “Benedict” thing is actually a coded admission that it’s all much ado about nothing.

    The plan itself is taken from Warren Jeffs’ FLDS.

  • zenlike

    St. Benedict,” who, like the founder of Western monasticism during the waning days of the decadent and declining Roman Empire

    Maybe I’m mistaken, but to my knowledge St Benedict was born after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. History? How the fuck does it work?

  • anthrosciguy

    How can we miss them when these Galt going goofuses never go?

  • colnago80

    Re zenlike @ #18

    Benedict was born in 480 CE so, depending on when one chooses as the date of the fall of the Roman Empire (e.g. 476 CE or 493 CE) was after or near then end.

  • eric

    @19: Another un-Galtish thing about them is that they won’t be taking the super-genius inventors with them. In fact, once they leave, I’m guessing the ratio of genius’ to normal folk in the remaining population goes up.

  • Who Cares

    @zenlike(#18):

    Well you provided your own answer there. The Eastern Roman Empire limped along for quite a while. Technically it controlled the western part from 480 on and even got some of the outer territories back in the century after that.

  • abb3w

    My suspicion is that this may be an attempt to rationalize having to withdraw from the culture wars, back to the pre-civil rights era stance when the evangelically religious tended to stay the hell away from involvement in politics as being too corrupting.

  • raven

    back to the pre-civil rights era stance when the evangelically religious tended to stay the hell away from involvement in politics as being too corrupting.

    Way too late for that.

    They have been corrupted. Fundie xianity is just right wing extremist politics and hate with a few crosses stuck on for show. The crosses aren’t important any more. It’s been hollowed out.

    Which makes sense. Gods and souls might exist but probably don’t. Power and money definitely exist, are highly sought after, and quite useful.

  • Hoosier X

    The phrase “social conservative intellectuals” made me laugh.

    Do they debate how many Islamofascist cultural Marxists can dance on the head of an “I love Stalin” pin?

  • Kermit Sansoo

    the Republican Party has placed greater emphasis on economic concerns than culture-war issues

    .

    It’s so cute how they thought their secular right wing allies gave a rat’s ass about anything but money.

  • Michael Heath

    I’ll make one prediction with supreme confidence. Nearly all the children whose parents participate in this Benediction Option will be abused more than they are now.

  • Michael Heath

    Damon Linker states:

    . . . the Republican Party has placed greater emphasis on economic concerns than culture-war issues. . .

    Wildly untrue. The GOP has been extremely successful since the 2010 elections in rolling back the ability of women to exercise their rights. The GOP may be losing when it comes to gay rights, but there’s vastly more territory now where women don’t have access to reproductive healthcare, including screenings to prevent disease. So their privileges are also declining.

    The GOP’s priorities are also quite clear. When state legislatures open their sessions, much of the first bills passed through various committees are bills to infringe on women’s rights and to provide them with reduced government benefits.

    As the GOP becomes more dominated by conservative Christians, the level of misogyny seems to me to have also gone up accordingly. I think this is also partly driven by conservative Christians becoming more misogynistic than they were in past decades. That’s probably driven by the less devout abandoning their faith along with the rise of the right-wing media and Internet forums.

  • thinkfree83

    The “Benedict Option” isn’t going to happen for a variety of reasons:

    1. Conservative white Christians have a pathological need to be in control, and despite claims of oppression by people like Linker and Dreher, they control most of red America and will for the foreseeable future.

    2. Despite Rod Dreher’s hysteria about people who oppose same-sex marriage being painted as the moral equivalent of Bull Conner, the fact is that almost all of the politicians and pundits who supported segregation and racist policies remained in public life until they died, including William F. Buckley, Jerry Falwell, Ronald Reagan, George Wallace, and Strom Thurmond. There are still many monuments and public buildings named after Confederate generals to this day, including those who were instrumental in the founding of the KKK like Nathan Forrest Bedford. Bull Conner himself was elected to President of the Alabama Public Service Commission and remained there until he died in 1974.

    3. These tiny insular religious communities do a really bad job of self-policing, whether it’s the old-school Catholic ghetto, the Amish, Hasidic Jews, Christian homeschoolers, or the Hari Krishnas. All of these groups have had instances of sex abuse covered up so the community would look good at the expense of the victims. It’s a lot easier to drop out of society so your kids won’t be exposed to Adam and Steve and their adopted kids at the grocery store than it is curb the evil intents that lurk in the minds of predators who use the insularity of the religious communities to get away with their crimes.

    The problem the religious right is having right now is that the number of conservative white Christians (Protestants and Catholics alike) is starting to decline and they have done a poor job trying to attract conservatives in other communities because of their not-so blatant racism and Christian privilege. Whatever they might think about gay marriage or abortion, black, Hispanic, and Asian Christians aren’t going to link up with white religious rightists who look down on them because of their skin color or method of doing church (both Linker and Dreher are in liturgical churches and look down on other forms of worship, not just because they’re not their personal cup of tea, but because they think that they’re metaphysically inferior). Christians of color have no interest in “taking back America” because they know that they’re the ones the religious right think America needs to be snatched back from. Likewise, culturally conservative Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucians aren’t interested in joining a movement that is just one big Jesus movement. With the exception of the more media savvy Chabad, Orthodox Jews aren’t going to work with Christians out of a matter of principle. Big business used to find the religious right to be useful in pushing its anti-union, pro-capitalism , deregulation line, but many corporation are breaking rank and supporting same-sex marriage, if nothing else because it’s a pain to have to deal with different sets of benefits and paperwork for straight married couples and same-sex couples, especially given the patchwork situation of the latter. The inflexibility of the religious right will ultimately be its downfall.

  • martinc

    I can’t see this catching on. In my experience, those Christians ardent enough to be involved in this kind of thinking are invariably unable to accept that they are in a minority, and will do anything to believe that there is a silent majority out there backing them, that have been subtly misled into voting for one thing or another. Any theory predicated on Christianity having lost the mainstream is unlikely to win a lot of support.

    My first thought re the ‘communities’ idea was the Amish, which a couple of others have mentioned, and Ed’s comment about the legal failure of the ‘Catholic city’ piqued my interest. Theoretical question: if one were to decide to settle in Amish country, with one’s Hummer and one’s monster truck (one theoretically being an asshole and all), what right do the Amish have to stop that?

  • captain_spleen

    Ah. I thought it referred to Pope Benedict, in which case it would involve retreating to a palace with your hunky assistant.

  • sugarfrosted

    @30 I was thinking they’d try literal monastery, in order to try to get everyone a ministerial exemption. Given that the supreme court extended the scope of this, it’s not totally preposterous, but I don’t think Heritage could possibly bribe the conservative justices enough to go that far.

  • eric

    Theoretical question: if one were to decide to settle in Amish country, with one’s Hummer and one’s monster truck (one theoretically being an asshole and all), what right do the Amish have to stop that?

    Mostly none. That’s the point: the township of Ave Maria can’t prevent a gay couple or unwed mother from buying a house there. Can’t prevent non-Catholic children from attending public school or force prayer into public schools. Their shops may not stock porn, but the township can’t make it illegal to get and enjoy it in your home (the same way dry countries can prevent the sale of alcohol, but can’t prevent you from buying it elsewhere and bringing it in). No city ordinance can take away a constitutional right to public accommodation, equal treatment under law, etc…

    I say “mostly” because, as the public school situation shows, a majority can often get away with unconstitutional or illegal practices for a long time. So while state and federal law may be on the side of the gay couple, unmarried mother, etc…, whether equal rights laws are enforced in that locality is a different issue.

  • raven

    Theoretical question: if one were to decide to settle in Amish country, with one’s Hummer and one’s monster truck (one theoretically being an asshole and all), what right do the Amish have to stop that?

    None.

    In fact this is common. In a lot of places, the Amish live heavily intermingled with non-Amish. They quite often are a minority and a small one in the local area.

    I suppose it works sort of. I’ve always found it a bit unnerving. There are lots of signs saying to watch out for slow moving buggies drawn by horses. The locals are used to that but it takes outsiders a while to realize that they aren’t kidding. Horse drawn buggies and cars/trucks are an uneasy combination on the roads IMO.

  • Georgia Sam

    A lot of the most hardcore Protestant fundamentalists are already withdrawing from society. They exercise very strict control over the cultural influences to which their children are exposed, home-schooling them, allowing only “appropriate” media content (if any) to enter their homes, & sending them to fundie-controlled “colleges.” Their social lives revolve around the church, & they are steered away from marrying outside their sect. (One of the main functions of the “colleges” is to “help” young adults meet acceptable marriage partners.) They haven’t gone as far as the Amish, & I don’t think they will, but they are moving in that general direction.

  • thinkfree83

    @Georgia Sam This is exactly how the now disgraced Duggars live: a big, isolated homestead in the middle of nowhere, bare bones homeschooling, no higher education (except perhaps for an unaccredited “Bible college” for the boys) , courtship only, home church, extremely limited Internet access, etc. The most obvious problem with this lifestyle (other than the fact that it leads to intellectually and emotionally stunted adults) is that you can’t “take back America” with such poorly educated and poorly socialized kids. A bunch of volunteer firefighters and unlicensed handymen are ill-equipped to take over the reins of government, especially if they are weighed down with 10+ kids.

  • dingojack

    Given the ‘bleeding’ of religious types and the growth of ‘unaffiliateds’ from all demographic groups, especially those in the ‘Younger Millennial’ group (1990 onward), I can’t see this having any chance of working.

    If anything it’ll accelerate the losses, with the rump being increasingly hard-core, older, more poorly educated but largely irrelevant to US society as a whole.

    Dingo

  • raven

    They exercise very strict control over the cultural influences to which their children are exposed, home-schooling them, etc..

    True.

    But a lot of the kids realize they are being mind controlled by authoritarian cults that have nothing to offer them. And drop out, usually the best and brightest.

    I went to a wedding of two of these kids. A Pagan wedding. They had a xian one for the parents and another one for their friends. They never talk about their upbringing but seem to be glad to have moved to the west coast and escaped it.

  • raven

    Strangely, I was myself born into some weird Xian Reformed cult.

    I don’t remember too much about it though. My parents moved away soon and joined a Mainline church. A lot of my relatives were also born into the cult.

    None of them are members any longer except a few very old people in their 80’s. Two of them wrote and said they are blessed by god. Because they are still alive I guess. One has had an artificial heart valve implanted to rescue his failing heart and the other is being kept alive by cancer chemotherapy. More likely they are blessed by commie Medicare health insurance and modern medicine.

  • Georgia Sam

    @thinkfree83 (36) & raven (38): Good points. In my experience, children brought up in that mind-controlled environment tend to go toward one extreme or the other as adults. They’re either totally locked into the sect & its lifestyle, or they reject Christianity, or at least fundamentalism, altogether.

  • lorn

    They threaten to ‘go Galt’. I offer to drive them to the bus station as long as they agree to actually leave and not to come back. Nobody on the right has ever taken me up on the offer, or, as far as I can tell, ever really ‘gone Galt’.

    I really like the idea of them going Galt. Not because I savor the thought of concentrated enclaved of rubes, bigots, and nuts popping up across the nation. Rather, I like the idea because it is a dead end for their cause and philosophy and it seems to offer a respite for the rest of the nation as they moulder, rusticate, and internally thrash out their issues well away from the majority of the population. Getting them out the limelight would seem to be a step toward restoring enough serenity to allow us to make progress. The incessant and loud insertion of ‘What would God think’ and ‘More guns’ into the conversation hasn’t helped.

    Of course, as a friend pointed out, going Galt ain’t necessarily getting any easier as time goes on. The western states that seemed quite attractive to go Galt in are not what they used to be. Colorado and Idaho now have large urban centers and significant non-white and non-religious populations.

    The culture war was started by fundamentalists under Falwell over tax breaks for all-white religious schools with the intention of using outrage over abortion as their main lever. When anti-abortion fervor wasn’t enough they added the “gay agenda” to the array of evils to scare the rubes with. No matter the form it takes it pays to remember that its root the culture war was always about racism and money. Specifically the right of Falwell and his ilk to make money selling expensive and unnecessary all-white religious schools to bigots without having taxes cut into their profits.

    Most issues are, at their core, about race and money.

  • sigurd jorsalfar

    The rhetoric sounds identical to the white supremacist “plan” to create a new whites-only nation somewhere in the pacific northwest. A coincidence? I think not.