Everything you say can and will be used against you.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Why the Benedict Option isn't an option

Nancy Bauer/Shutterstock
Journalist and blogger Rod Dreher has for awhile been proposing an idea for Christian engagement with the broader culture, an idea he labels "the Benedict Option." It's an interesting concept -- one based on the old example of how monks and local communities in the late Roman Empire dealt with the collapse of Imperial institutions and the influx of barbarians into what had been the settled polity of the Roman world. The idea is for Christians and other traditionalist believers take a defensive withdrawal from the public square to fortify themselves within their families, houses of worship, and other institutions (schools, hospitals, etc.). Strengthening their faith to withstand the onslaught of a hostile culture, the Benedict Option is designed not to signal an abandonment of the world by people of faith, but rather a defensive option designed to enable believers to withstand the criticism & attacks of secular cultures growing ever more hostile to the values & virtues of traditional religious believers.

[Dreher has a FAQ webpage on the Benedict Option for those interested in reading about his proposal in more detail.]

Let's applaud Dreher for thinking constructively about how people of faith can cope with a situation where a thick understanding of religious liberty is undergoing rapid erosion within liberal frameworks of secular society. I think, though, that there is a linked set of real-world objections to the Benedict Option's viability. The first and most fundamental objection is the most direct: the Benedict Option assumes that those who take the option will be left alone by an antagonistic state seeking to impose values & practices that contravene the values & practices of a dedicated Benedict Option community.

As various recent court cases demonstrate, the current regnant leftist approach to culture war issues does not provide for private space where religious believers can live out their values & virtues without interference from state action. The Arlene's Flowers case from Washington State (where the State government seeks to punish an evangelical Christian florist who would not provide flowers for a same-sex wedding) and the Little Sisters of the Poor case at the federal level (where the Obama administration first sought to force a Catholic community of vowed women religious to provide artificial contraception in their health insurance plan) are representative of this reality. So long as the left holds government power, its current ideology simply will not countenance leaving religious believers and communities alone. A strategic retreat by religious believers is unlikely to be possible as a result.

The second objection builds off the first. There is an assumption behind much of the talk about the Benedict Option that believers will be able to concentrate themselves into like-minded communities, either isolated communities or communities in cities & suburban areas. How many people can afford to uproot themselves to do this? Given the economics of the country right now, having religious believers decamp to live next to monasteries or in rural enclaves or in dedicated urban communities is unlikely to be a successful strategy. Further, even it was possible on a large scale, once believers attempt to create communities of scale that reflect traditionalist values, such communities won't be left alone.

Despite its flaws, the Benedict Option remains a serious proposal, and one that can provide perspective for traditionalists moving forward. Without robust institutions & clear principles, traditionalists & other conservatives will not be able to pass on their virtues & values in the face of hostile culture. Yet, the Benedict Option, unfortunately, fails to understand the moment. Given the hostility of the regnant liberalism of American elites, it is highly unlikely that the Benedict Option will be given space to allow traditionalists to flourish. Absent active political & economic engagement by traditionalists & other conservatives, efforts to protect the integrity of traditionalist institutions & private spaces will fail. Given the day, politics remains a necessary avenue of engagement. Unfortunately, as I will detail soon, in the political arena traditionalists & other conservatives are now facing a situation of fragmentation between conservative elite opinion and the positions of the working & lower middle classes that have been a key part of the conservative movement. These are interesting times.


Thanks to fellow New Reform Club blogger and lawyer extraordinaire Tim Kowal, who passed along this discussion from Dreher's FAQ page on the Benedict Option's concept of dedicated communities in some detail:
Do you really think you can just run away from the world and live off in a compound somewhere? Get real! No, I don’t think that at all. While I wouldn’t necessarily fault people who sought geographical isolation, that will be neither possible nor desirable for most of us. The early Church lived in cities, and formed its distinct life there. Most of the Ben Op communities that come to mind today are not radically isolated, in geography or otherwise, from the broader community. It’s simply nonsense to say that Ben Oppers want to hide from the world and live in some sort of fundamentalist enclave. Some do, and it’s not hard to find examples of how this sort of thing has gone bad. But that is not what we should aim for. In fact, I think it’s all too easy for people to paint the Benedict Option as utopian escapism so they can safely wall it off and not have to think about it.
Tim noted that not only does this statement fail to address the problem of the Left not leaving traditionalists and conservatives alone, it prompts another objection to the Benedict Option, as Tim put it, that it "basically requires 'no-go zones'"—"self-policed communities that forcibly exclude outsiders." Not a viable or desirable outcome by any means. 


Tom Van Dyke said...

Oh, well. Back to the catacombs. Nothing good lasts forever.

Mark D. said...

Not necessarily the catacombs -- something more like a retreat with honor, like what the Ukrainian Catholic Church did during the Soviet era. And there is always the possibility that traditionalists can engage the culture and polity productively to attain the space necessary to be able to function. Don't give up hope!

Tom Van Dyke said...

America's Soviet era. Sounds about right. If you're in a department store and your daughter has to go potty, head for the nearest gas station.

Tim Kowal said...

Our circumstances are the reverse of the historical examples. The early Church was a subculture that slowly gained ascendance. The current Church was, until recently anyway, a predominant source of cultural authority, but is now on the decline. Thus, the Church is a conspicuous target -- not (yet) an obscure subculture that can avoid detection -- and so absorbs every blow the ascending leftist power structure deals it.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Does it absorb these blows because it's...I dunno...Christian?

Because I don't see cultural Marxism or secular humanism or omnisexualism or Islam for that matter absorbing squat.