The Benedict Option: Symptom of a Panic Attack

I decided I had to read The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher’s recently published book, which has received significant attention and praise. David Brooks has said The Benedict Option is “the most important religious book of the decade.” Dreher himself was just the subject of an extended profile in The New Yorker.

Besides the attention the book has received, there’s the book’s provocative thesis: Christians should withdraw from contemporary society, developing their own communities, complete with schools, businesses, and workplaces friendly to Christians. Dreher analogizes this retreat into communities that would protect Christians from the “barbarism” of contemporary society to the founding of monasteries during the early Middle Ages, in particular, the monasteries started by St. Benedict (hence the title). Furthermore, according to Dreher, Christians, at least those who want to remain faithful to their core beliefs, don’t have much choice whether to withdraw or not, because our society is determined to strip away their religious freedom.

Given Dreher’s bold claims, one might expect the book to provide some compelling arguments showing why contemporary society is so hostile to Christians.

It doesn’t.

To be fair, most of the book is not devoted to analysis of the ills of contemporary society. Instead, the book functions mainly as a kind of guidebook for conservative Christians, discussing the various practical steps they might take to form self-sustaining communities, with Dreher dispensing advice on a range of topics, including what videos families should watch.

But in the first couple of chapters and then later in chapters nine and ten, Dreher provides his analysis of how Christians have been slowly losing the culture wars and also argues that certain recent events have conclusively established that Christians can no longer live in a world of “hostile secular nihilism.”

According to Dreher, Christianity has been receding for a long time—since the late Middle Ages. But Dreher reserves special scorn for the Enlightenment, including the Enlightenment’s view that the state should not interfere with religion, and vice-versa, allowing religious belief to be “a matter of private, individual choice.” Incredibly, Dreher sees the separation of church and state as a bad thing, “unless a society is thoroughly Christian.” Indeed, Dreher offers a sweeping condemnation of Enlightenment values that competes in its scope with Pope Pius IX’s notorious 1864 Syllabus of Errors.

In light of Dreher’s troubled relationship with many aspects of modernity, what’s so special about recent events that has caused him to decide that now’s the time to sound retreat? Same-sex marriage. For Dreher, same-sex marriage is unendurable. That marriage is “between one man and one woman” is a “core teaching of the Christian faith” and the legalization of same-sex marriage demonstrates that our society is irredeemably hostile to Christians.

Really? That’s what Christianity is all about? I was raised as a Christian myself and apart from the obvious theological doctrines (Jesus is the Son of God, he died to save us, etc.), I was under the impression that the core beliefs of Christianity had something to do with the twin imperatives to love God and love one’s neighbor. Mark 12:28–31. Granted, the apostle Paul and other early Christians tended to view any sexual activity unfavorably (see 1 Corinthians 7:1–8), an attitude which has persisted among many Christians today, but apart from a couple of ambiguous references in the epistles, I don’t recall anything in the New Testament addressing same-sex conduct. Certainly, there’s nothing to suggest that refraining from same-sex conduct is at the core of Christianity.

Dreher, though, draws on a metaphysics that he claims is based on “the facts of our biology.” For him, the “reality” is that God created everyone either male or female, which leads him to this opaque assertion: “Marriage has to be sexually complementary because only the male-female pair mirrors the generativity of the divine order.”

But these are not the facts of biology. Research has established that the inclination to homosexuality is based at least in part on genetic factors—genes that presumably on Dreher’s cosmology are ultimately God-given. Moreover, Dreher just ignores the fact that a not insignificant number of individuals are intersex, that is, their sexual anatomy is neither typically ‘male’ or ‘female’ or they have both XX and XY chromosomes. When it comes to human sexuality, Dreher is like the Christians who long denied heliocentrism. Preconceived metaphysical categories prevail over scientific evidence—no need to pay attention to what is revealed in Galileo’s telescope.

But Dreher and those who agree with him are, of course, free to believe what they want to believe—or are they? Here we come to the crux of Dreher’s argument because even if same-sex marriage and other practices, such as contraception or abortion, offend some Christians, Dreher must establish that they pose such a threat to religious freedom that these Christians must withdraw from society.

Ironically, Dreher’s own book establishes the falsity of his claim that religious freedom is endangered. Dreher and others are free to pray and worship as they want. They are also free to hold whatever beliefs they want to hold about God, the universe, the morality of certain sexual relationships and so forth—and they are absolutely free to express those beliefs, in book form, as Dreher has, or otherwise. Precisely because of the Enlightenment values that Dreher disdains, and our society’s respect for individual liberty, Dreher can publicly make whatever religious claims he is inclined to make. (People in Dreher’s beloved Middle Ages were not so lucky.) So wherein lies the threat to religious liberty?

Dreher’s evidence consists principally of the handful of cases involving bakers, florists, and other vendors who have faced charges of discrimination because they have refused to provide services to gay couples. But this is no more an infringement of religious liberty, as it has been traditionally understood, than would a discrimination charge against a business refusing to provide services to an interracial couple on religious grounds.

In addition, Dreher’s expansive understanding of the scope of religious liberty has already gained partial recognition from the Supreme Court. In Hobby Lobby, the Court held both that corporations could have religious beliefs and that these beliefs could exempt them from providing certain types of health insurance coverage. And as I write this on the morning of May 4 (the National Day of Prayer—oh, the persecution of Christians!) the news is that the Trump administration is on the verge of issuing an executive order granting broad exemptions to religious persons and groups, which will allow them to refuse to engage in a wide-range of activities on religious grounds.

Whatever the final contours of the Trump executive order, and whether or not it withstands a constitutional challenge, the religious liberty of Christians in the United States is secure, and it has never been threatened. They remain free to hold and express their beliefs. What really has prompted Dreher to issue his alarmist warning is the fact that Christianity no longer has the privileged position it once had, functioning as the de facto religion of the United States. Dreher complains that Christianity has been removed from the public square. That’s false, as his book demonstrates. But Christianity now must share the public square with other beliefs. For Dreher and his cohorts, that’s what is really intolerable. If they can’t control our conversation, our public discourse, they’d rather leave.

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