If the spiritual crisis in America is to be thwarted, Christians must strategically withdraw from politics and form communities patterned after St. Benedict, a monk born in 480 A.D., says Rod Dreher, author of The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.
The "Benedict Option" is Dreher's prescription for the preservation and renewal of the Christian faith in a contemporary society that — including churches and groups that promote distortions of the Gospel — stands fiercely at odds with Orthodox Christianity's core tenets. This requires a deliberate, intentional separation from the culture for a time and to do this, Dreher draws upon the wisdom and life of Benedict of Nursia, who is considered the founder of Western monasticism.
As both the Left and major cultural institutions moved aggressively against conservative Christians and their freedoms in recent years and show no signs of stopping, he says Christians in the United States will inevitably experience an "internal exile" in a country they thought was their own. But this is a necessary thing, he believes, particularly in light of the havoc the sexual revolution has wrought.
Yet the suggestion of utilizing the Benedict Option and withdrawing from society causes unease for many Christians, especially among conservative evangelicals, Dreher explained in an interview with The Christian Post last week.
His book and previous writing on this subject is dismissed by some progressives as a "fantasy" stemming from a white Christian persecution complex while others regard it as doomsday fear-mongering. Readers will observe, however, that he's not saying Christians should relinquish political life altogether. The author does not refuse the "alarmist" label but insists he has to shout since still so many are deaf to reality, metaphorically speaking.
Dreher, 50, who is the senior editor of The American Conservative and an Eastern Orthodox Christian, told CP that Christians simply cannot offer the world what they themselves do not have. And that is because, to a large extent, American culture and politics has captured the Church. Churches have ceased being salt and light and the Gospel message, including how it is to be lived, has been "hollowed out from within."
To retrieve this, his alternative "option" calls for an intentional separation from culture for a time to build vibrant communities ordered around prayer and time alone with God, as well as fresh thinking about building conscience-shaping institutions that are distinctly Christian.
While he has never belonged to an evangelical Christian tradition, Dreher said evangelicals have told him that great concern is present in their ranks about disengaging public life because of the not-so-distant memory of Christian withdrawal from culture in past decades.
"They don't want to repeat what they believe was a big mistake," Dreher said. "And I get that."
"But I think that part of it, too, is a less respectable reason, which is that people don't want to give up status. They don't want to give up the things that they crave. Because all of us are in this culture, we want to be part of things. We don't want to be the sort of people who are looked down on as outsiders."
The election of President Donald Trump and the Republican majority might be a temporary reprieve from secular leftist attacks on Christians' rights, he said, but more nefarious forces are at work and faithful Christians would do well to prepare for what appears to be evil times ahead. Given that Jesus withdrew from the public eye from time to time, His followers need to find a way to do likewise.
In 2004, a friend recommended to Dreher that he read Alasdair McIntyre's 1981 book, After Virtue, in which McIntyre argued that the West was at a moral crossroads in civilization, that it mirrored the Roman empire when it fell in 476 A.D.
"McIntyre said that back then there were men and women of virtue who quit trying to shore up the falling empire and instead devoted themselves to building new forms of community within which the tradition of the virtues could survive the dark age to come," Dreher recounted.
Benedict was one such virtuous person, a pious Christian layman who abhorred the rampant immorality he encountered in Rome where he had been sent to finish his education as a young man. Benedict wrote, in Dreher's words, "a rather boring" guidebook called The Rule, which describes how to run a monastery. The Rule outlines how Christian life together should be lived, ordered around prayer, contemplation, and hospitality.
Because of the moral chaos of the European continent at the time, the Church not only preserved the faith but was the only refuge of stability for people. Benedict and the monastic movements in the subsequent centuries after him ultimately paved the way for the rebirth of civilization.
"So, I asked myself, 'What would a Benedict of our time have to say to us, to Christians today?"
To that end, Dreher offers The Benedict Option as a multi-faceted formula for Christianity's renewal in modern times, paving the way for a rebirth of its own. In each chapter he explores how Christian participation in every sphere of society should be radically reconsidered, eloquently articulating his ideas for the way forward.
As he wrote at The American Conservative in February, the visceral hatred conservative Christians in Western societies endure whenever human sexuality issues arise is one of the strongest reasons a rebirth of this kind is sorely needed.
Nowadays, the author argues, left-wing sexual revolutionaries enjoy overwhelming economic and political power and they will not tolerate even the most gracious dissenting voices.
That a Baptist grandmother named Barronelle Stutzman stands to be ruined financially because the ACLU and the state of Washington targeted her for declining to provide custom floral arrangements for a gay wedding ceremony is proof positive of this, Dreher noted last month.
With the 2015 Supreme Court decision declaring same-sex marriage constitutional in all 50 states, Christians who hold the historic, biblical view of marriage and sexual ethics are now seen as "the functional equivalent of racists," Dreher told CP.
The prevailing mindset for decades that underpins all this "is that sexual desire was at the center of who you are," Dreher said. He adds that this mentality was not challenged by the variety of Christianity of both his and the millennial generations, a watered-down version of the faith where personal well-being and happiness is the highest goal of life.
"If that's the case and you're formed by a culture that tells you that indulging your own desires, especially your sexual desires, is the way to realize your true self, real Christianity is going to be evaporated," he said.
Dreher delves into these themes extensively in Chapter 9, titled "Eros and the New Christian Counterculture," the framework of which was based on "Sex After Christianity," a prophetic essay he penned in April 2013. Christian conservatives who approached the culture wars with a moralistic tack were ineffective because they misunderstood the nature of the fight, he argued at the time. The fight was not so much moral as it was but cosmological, he reasoned.
"Gay marriage and gender ideology signify the final triumph of the Sexual Revolution and the dethroning of Christianity because they deny Christian anthropology at its core and shatter the authority of the Bible," he writes in the book.
While rightly ordered sexuality is not the absolute center of the Christian faith, it strikes pretty close, he maintains. Christians who reject biblical teaching on sexuality inexorably "end either by rejecting Christianity themselves or by laying the groundwork for their children to do so," he continues.
When Dreher himself was being drawn to faith in Christ as a young adult the one thing that he didn't want to give up was his sexual freedom. He met liberal pastors who would tell him that it did not matter but deep down he knew he could not withhold this from Jesus if he was to follow him.
Upon finally surrendering his sexuality to God, his faith became real.
If Christians cave to mounting pressure to compromise here, Dreher believes "they have given the store away."
"The essence of the cross is being willing to die even to yourself and all your desires for the sake of love, the love of Christ, and the love of His people," Dreher said.
"And if we can't put every one of our passions, whether they are sexual passions, the desire for money, the desire for fame, the desire for status, if we are unwilling to lay all that at the foot of the cross, then we are like the Rich Young Ruler. We want to go to Heaven but we don't want to die."
Dreher has visited the monastery in Benedict's hometown, Nursia, which is now Norcia, Italy. Although the monks live a highly regimented life, most of which occurs behind walls and is full of scripture study and prayer, hospitality is a central feature of their community as they frequently host visitors on pilgrimage.
"But the monks will tell you," Dreher said, "the only way we can be for those pilgrims who God calls us to be as monks is by spending so much time away in prayer and contemplation.'"
The same principle applies to Christians living in the modern world, he asserted.
"If we are going to hold on to what it means to be a true authentic Christian and present the light of Christ to this darkening world, we're going to have to spend a lot more time away from that world in prayer, in scripture study, learning the practices of discipleship."
And as a practical matter, that means parents doing things like taking away Smartphones and turning the TV off a lot more than they are, he added.
Giving into fear and regarding the world as a irredeemably dirty place from which to stay isolated, he notes, is a mistake.
"More than being happy, [God] wants us to be joyful. And we can have no true joy without obedience."
He also mentioned a group of Christians he met while in Italy who lead obedient, prayerful, faithful lives. And they do not just fast, but they feast. And they are full of joy.
"When you meet them, you want what they have. You want to know the Lord that they know. And at our best that is what the Benedict Option has to be in all our churches."