WASHINGTON — Scholars and defenders of religious liberty are responding to a bestselling book that argues Christians should strategically and temporarily withdraw from politics, calling its implications "spiritually lazy."
At a panel discussion sponsored by The Institute on Religion and Democracy at the National Press Club Wednesday night before a crowd of 75 people, five panelists offered both praise and criticisms of Rod Dreher's book The Benedict Option, which has received considerable buzz this year.
The book explains at great length how dramatically American culture has shifted away from Judeo-Christian norms and argues that Christians who value theological orthodoxy must create conscience-forming communities patterned after Benedict of Nursia, an Italian monk who lived from 487-547. Such an effort is necessary if the Christian faith is to survive the onslaught from an increasingly hostile secular progressives.
Dreher posits that two recent events in modern history have represented catastrophic defeats for the Christianity in America and may signal the end of Christianity as we know it here. One is the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, and the other is capitulation of conservative politicians under pressure from big business in not backing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
"They are, of course, significant moments," said Joseph Capizzi, a professor of moral theology at the Catholic University of America during the presentation. "They are significant losses, from a Christian perspective on these kinds of issues."
"But to be honest they seem to be somewhat provincial as inflection points animating this kind of conclusion, his conclusion, that conservative Christians have been routed, and now living in a new country."
He cited similarly troubling moments in history that arguably could have been worse like the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade which legalized abortion or Reagan signing legislation in 1970 allowing no-fault divorce. Moreover, other historical figures like Konrad Adenauer, who was the first Chancellor in post-World War II Germany have faced arguably far deeper challenges than those facing America today and they have prevailed, Capizzi maintained.
While Dreher disputes the charge that he is advocating a complete withdrawal from society, he does urge Christians take a step back and radically reconsider their approach to public affairs.
"I know it has become fashionable in some circles for Christians to talk about how much Christians have messed up their politics," said Cherie Harder, president of The Trinity Forum in her remarks, citing calls for Christians to rethink their political involvement.
"And certainly Christians have messed up their politics. But you also think, compared to whom? Californians?" she asked, noting that no one thinks to suggest that they withdraw and learn from states like North Dakota.
While Dreher is to be commended for raising important questions in a creative way and praised him for penetrating the public conversation, she offered that he tends to overemphasize "sins of license" in the United States over "sins of oppression," such as the mistreatment of racial minorities that have occurred at the highest levels throughout America's history.
In both The Benedict Option and his blog on The American Conservative, Dreher writes extensively about the aggressive encroachment of the sexual revolution into nearly every aspect of life and why it necessary for Christian parents to take dramatic steps to shield their children from it.
CP asked the panel to speak to Dreher's reasonable concerns about this in light of the fact that a popular magazine for girls recently featured an article encouraging minors to engage in anal sex, and with every passing day the levels of sexualized content become increasingly extreme.
"Rod's concerns are imminently reasonable and spot-on," Harder clarified.
"One of the things I appreciate about The Benedict Option is the extent to which he talked about some of the new technologies that enable forms of perversion to be much more widespread and much more distorting and corrupting in many ways."
Dreher has a section in his book explaining the scourge of pornography, she continued, adding that some churches have not talked about porn's insidious effects enough. But she further explained that in addition to the licentiousness that is rampant in culture, America has known sins of systemic oppression that have dehumanized groups of people, holding them down through no fault of their own.
"Part of our challenge as Christians is trying to look critically and with humility and trying to discern how God would think about the sins in our own history and in our own lives," Harder said.
"You don't have to emphasize one over the other to acknowledge the potency and the corrupting power of both."
Alison Howard, director of alliance relations for the religious liberty advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom said she is a fan of Dreher's and has enjoyed his writing over the years. But she takes issue with some of the prescriptions set forth in The Benedict Option especially given what her organization has achieved in the public square. ADF has won over 80 percent of their legal battles both domestically and internationally, and has secured 51 victories at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Dreher's focus on more reverential, pious and meditative life of worship is a good thing, she noted, "and the more we do that the more what we do will separate us from the world."
"Hopefully we truly are other-worldly in our work and the way we live our lives," Howard said.
Yet the work of ADF and other like-minded groups has in some ways "shielded our country from seeing the true contempt that's out there amongst political elites and cultural elites for Christians," she said.
She noted that some have found within The Benedict Option permission to withdraw and retreat.
"Many of us have thought about retreating," she added, referencing the tumultuous 2016 election season, "and maybe just raising our kids in Wyoming with no access to television or cable — that's still an option for me — but I would argue that is a spiritually lazy option."
"In some ways I think The Benedict Option can be a refreshing reminder that we do need to separate at times from the stressors of this world. I don't think that means running off to a monastery for most of us. I think for most of us that means putting our phone down, taking a moment with the Lord and being more reverent of the fact that we have another chance at life today."
Additional panelists included, Bruce Ashford, a theology professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Joseph Hartman an attorney and adjunct professor at Georgetown University.