In the wake of the Obergefell decision, Rob Dreher of the American Conservative and others are discussing what they call the “Benedict Option.” To be perfectly honest, I’m still trying to figure out what Dreher means by the term. He calls for Christians to withdraw from the world and its concerns and focus instead on forming intentional Christian communities, but then objects when someone suggests this position is isolationist and insists that it’s not.
Here is the most clear summary I’ve seen so far:
I appreciate the opportunity to clarify, once again, that I’m not in favor of creating “sealed-off Christian communities.” I don’t think that’s either possible or desirable. Rather, when I think of the Benedict Option, I think of creating stronger, thicker communities within which traditional Christian life can thrive. That will require some separation from the wider world, and the creation of de facto barriers. A Catholic school, for example, that wanted to form Catholic children according to orthodox Catholic teaching may want to exclude non-Catholic students, and to expect parents to participate more directly in their children’s education than is usual with parochial schools. But the way I see it, if we Christians are to be salt and light to the world, we have to first learn to be real Christians, not Moralistic Therapeutic Deists with a Christian-ish gloss.
That will require rebuilding a thick Christian culture in which we and future generations can be formed. To the extent that secular modernity dissolves and assimilates Christian belief and practice, we must stand against it, creating the institutions within which we can build resilience, and developing the personal and communal habits that build resilience.
The reason I find this confusing is that what Dreher describes already exists. In fact, it’s closer to the current status quo than it is to anything new.
I grew up in an evangelical megachurch full of real Christians, not “Moralistic Therapeutic Deists with a Christian-ish gloss.” Our pastor preached the Bible, and he preached judgement alongside love, grace, and mercy. Part of the Benedict Option, in Dreher’s telling, seems to be a shift in focus from politics to personal spiritual growth, but unless evangelical megachurches have completely changed in the last ten years, that’s where their focus has been for decades. The evangelical megachurch I grew up in rarely if ever had a political sermon. Instead, the focus was on building Christian community, helping those in need, converting the lost, and forming small groups for Bible study and accountability.
While culture wars issues may catch the headlines, these issues don’t tend to be at the front of evangelical and fundamentalist churches’ agendas. When Dreher talks about a focus on creating Christian communities that support “traditional” Christian life without sealing themselves off completely, all I can see is communities that already exist. And no, the evangelical megachurch I grew up in wasn’t an oddity. It was the same model I saw followed all across the midwestern city where I grew up, a city that is typical of much of the Midwest.
Maybe Dreher is talking about a greater degree of separation. He mentions the idea of Catholic schools potentially expelling non-Catholic students, so maybe he means things like parents not sending children to public schools. I would argue that this level of separation de facto enters the isolationist and “sealed-off Christian communities” Dreher says he’s not advocating, which is why I’m still not entirely sure what Dreher wants, but we’ll leave that aside from now. Let’s assume, for a moment, that the Benedict Option means this greater degree of separation from the world. Well, as a homeschooled child, I grew up with this greater degree of separation, and it didn’t work. Let me explain why it didn’t work.
On the surface, it probably looked like it worked. As a child, my life revolved around church, Bible study, Bible club, homeschool co-op (you had to sign a statement of faith), homeschool debate club (another statement of faith), and children’s choir at our church. We had a large number of families in our social circle, and all were evangelical or fundamentalist Christians like us. All of the other children I was friends with were homeschooled, and all integrated religion into their curricula. My mother read the Bible aloud to us every morning after breakfast, and we were required to read the Bible to ourselves before breakfast as well. My father prayed with us before bed, and we memorized hundreds of Bible verses and studied theology and apologetics. All of our subjects were taught from a Christian perspective.
Growing up, we each made a profession of faith and we were each baptized. We were isolated from the influences we might have received had we attended public school. We didn’t date, we didn’t party, we never tried smoking or drugs. By all appearances, we were good Christian kids. In fact, at our evangelical megachurch—where we eschewed youth group as too worldly, because there were public school kids there—we were seen by many as the quintessential example of a godly Christian family. Our faith was woven seamlessly through our lives.
This is part of why I’m confused when Dreher writes as though the Benedict Option is a new thing, or something evangelical and fundamentalist Christians aren’t already doing. This is confusing to me because I grew in with the Benedict Option—at least, if I understand correctly what he’s advocating here. The entire rhetoric undergirding the homeschooling movement going back decades screams the Benedict Option. The idea is that the public schools are too far gone culturally, and that Christian parents should therefore remove their children from those schools to educate them at home, surround them with godly influences and examples, and teach them God’s truth.
So far, it sounds like the Benedict Option worked pretty well for my family, doesn’t it? Well yes, but there’s a problem. I’m no longer a Christian today. In fact, I no longer believe in a god. And I’m not the only one. I’m part of a large community of Christian homeschool alumni who have either left the faith entirely or have left our parents’ faith to forge our own. My parents thought that homeschooling me and raising me in Christian community would ensure that I would become a strong, upstanding Christian in adulthood—a Christian who would be salt and light in a dying world—but for several reasons, it didn’t work.
The Christian homeschooling movement purports to raise strong, upstanding Christians who will, upon adulthood, be ready to communicate the truth of Christianity and the value of the Christian way of life to the world. The Benedict Option purports the same thing. But how is this supposed to happen if these same Christians grow up so shielded from the world that they have no idea how to interact with it? Perhaps Dreher would say that the focus should not be on interaction but rather on a second generation of solid Christian living. That’s all well and good, but what happens several generations down the line when you have a Christian community that literally does not know how to communicate with nonbelievers?
There’s another problem, too. Growing up within Christian community, I only ever heard the other side’s arguments through a sort of filter. For example, I studied evolution out of creationist textbooks which explained evolution in an incomplete way and was full of straw men of evolutionary scientists’ positions. The same was true with basically everything. I didn’t hear the other side’s argument from the horse’s mouth, as it were, until I was in college, and when I did I was surprised, because what the other side actually said didn’t line up with what I’d been taught it said. This created a crisis of faith, because I no longer felt I could trust what my parents had taught me.
Because what I call the Christian bubble filter is so common across congregations and communities, raising children under a more separate Benedict Option could potentially mean that all of their information about the world outside the bubble would be filtered and thus distorted. This is a problem because when they eventually hear something from someone outside of the bubble, unfiltered—the moment they meet an ordinary gay couple happily raising children, or learn that using entropy to argue against evolution fails on the most basic level—-it won’t line up with what they’d been told inside the bubble. And frankly, postponing this moment until adulthood spells trouble.
Perhaps Dreher will object that this is not what he means by the Benedict Option, and that children should not grow up wholly within the Christian communities he describes. Well in that case, again, I would ask how his model is any different from that of the evangelical megachurch in which I grew up. Most of the kids there go to public school, and the church maintains an active youth group that works to engage these children in bold Christian living. Even the teens have weekly Bible studies. The church offers a robust array of ministries and programs and works to actively create Christian community—just like so many other evangelical megachurches. Perhaps I still don’t understand what Dreher means by the Benedict Option?
Here’s another of Dreher’s explanations:
I’m not asking you or anybody else to run off to the woods and build a compound to keep the world out. I think that is neither possible nor desirable for lay Christians. What the Benedict Option asks you to think seriously about is the extent to which all of us need to withdraw strategically, in a limited fashion, into our own communities — churches, schools, and so forth — not to keep ourselves untainted by the world, but so we can deepen our knowledge, practice, and commitment to the faith, and our bonds with each other, precisely so we can be the salt and light that Christ commanded us to be.
No, that really didn’t help clarify anything for me. This whole Benedict Option idea, as explained in passages like these, isn’t new at all. Depending on how much withdrawing Dreher means—I’m still not entirely clear on that point—the Benedict Option has existed for decades in evangelical megachurches (and other congregations) or in Christian homeschooling communities. I am a product of the Benedict Option. In my own case, the Benedict Option failed for two reasons—first, I didn’t know how to interact with the outside world when I reached adulthood, and second, I was given an inaccurate understanding of what the outside world was actually like.
If Dreher simply wants evangelicals to withdraw from politics, he might think about just saying that. But I would point out, as I did at the beginning of this post, that despite our public perception, the average evangelical or fundamentalist church spends very little time on politics as it is. The vast vast majority of their time is already spent on building Christian community. The Benedict Option label may be flashy, but what Dreher describes looks more like the status quo for the communities in which I grew up than anything new.