Is the ‘Benedict Option’ a Real Possibility?

Is the ‘Benedict Option’ a Real Possibility? May 26, 2015

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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