In response to my review of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, reader Sawbuck suggested I read Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. So I did.
On the plus side, Mr. Dreher’s book is the more well written of the two, and he’s for the most part intellectually honest about history, including the negative aspects of Christianity after Constantine when the church was recognized as Rome’s official religion and the persecuted became the persecutors. He also, unlike Dr. Deneen, does not rely on dog whistles. The thing he most emphatically does not approve of is anything that allows LGBT people any rights, unless they abide by rules he believes will allow them to sneak into heaven (but they’ll probably have to be discreet there, too). Believe me, we’ll go into this later. He’s almost as opposed to public schools as he is to LGBT rights.
The Benedict Option is named after a young man who, near the turn of the sixth century left his hometown for Rome and, seeing the vice there, moved first to a nearby forest and then to a cave for three years, after which he founded twelve monasteries.
Rod Dreher sees parallels to Rome in today’s society. For his brand of Christians (small “o” orthodox Christians) he sees removing themselves from society as a viable means of preserving orthodox Christianity and possibly making it attractive to those turned off by other brands of Christianity.
He doesn’t advocate moving to a forest or a cave, but he does advocate that the orthodox form churches and then communities in and around those churches. He recommends living within walking distance of the church and forming tightknit self-policing communities. (He tells how one couple was excommunicated for getting a divorce after being married more than forty years—I guess marriage is, indeed a life sentence in orthodoxy). The orthodox should secede culturally from the mainstream, turn off the television, put the smartphone away, read books, play games, make music, feast with your (presumably orthodox) neighbors, start a church (or a group within your church), open a classical Christian school, plant a garden, participate in a local farmer’s (sic) market, etc.
He criticizes consumerism and materialism, and he won’t get any argument from me there. He believes things have been going downhill since the fourteenth century, which would make me wonder how the Benedict Option could possibly stop a movement that is more than six hundred years old.
He discusses how until the sexual revolution every culture had its “thou shalt nots” that were needed to restrain individual passions and direct them to socially beneficial ends. I suspect that as DNA analysis and genealogy research become more widespread, people are going to discover just how much of a myth that statement is. My own genealogy research revealed a tremendous amount of hanky panky in my family, and the results I got from 23 and Me had a bit of a surprise as well. In the days before television there just wasn’t much going on in small towns, and the towns were small, so our ancestors didn’t have to walk too far to find privacy. To paraphrase one of my German lessons, in theory everyone was chaste, but in practice… .
Even though Mr. Dreher moved around in his career (before returning to his hometown after his sister’s death), he is not in favor of mobility. Unlike so many religious conservatives, he’s no fan of Donald Trump, describing him as “not a solution to the problem of America’s cultural decline, but a symptom of it.”
He claims a “corrosive anti-Christian philosophy” has taken over American public life. I don’t buy this. I live across the street from a mainline Protestant church. I have never seen anything that would indicate anyone wishes that church or its worshippers anything but the best. As I’ve discussed in a previous post, I became a lapsed Unitarian because in part that church was implicitly (if not explicitly) anti-Christian, even though many Unitarian churches in other parts of the country remain Christian. Perhaps there is the odd person here and there who objects to being wished a “Merry Christmas,” but I dare say they are few and far between. Besides, Christmas has become so commercialized that its raison d’etre seems almost to be an afterthought.
He has positive views (in my opinion) of work. Don’t let it become your life. He suggests rediscovering the trades, which I think is an excellent idea. We’ll always need plumbers, carpenters, etc., whereas a lot of white collar work can be and is being farmed out to the cheapest bidders overseas. He advises that the orthodox prepare to be poorer and more marginalized. I think he’ll find the former a tough sell, and I find the latter a symptom of paranoia. Mr. Dreher lives in Louisiana, for heaven’s sake. How anti-Christian is Louisiana, anyway?
OK. Now we’re going to get to what seems to have set Mr. Dreher off. The Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage in 2015. As I said, there are no dog whistles here. It’s more like a fire alarm.
As I’ve said before, gay marriage was not a frivolous “Oooooh, we want to have a wedding” issue. The issue was financial. Over the years our government gave benefits to married couples that were not available to people who were not married while restricting who could marry. These include Social Security Survivor benefits, favorable treatment of inherited assets, a lower tax table, etc. At one time it was estimated there were 1,100 benefits available to those who were married that were not available to those who were not. In short, gay people were being required to subsidize married people. I would think any objective person would be able to see this is unfair, and the Supreme Court eventually decided it did, indeed violate that pesky Fourteenth Amendment.
My solution would have been to eliminate all benefits married couples had that unmarried people did not. Had this been the solution the government followed, there would never have been a need for gay marriage (and I suspect the number of heterosexual marriages would have gone into a precipitous decline as well). The current system is an improvement, but single people of all persuasions are still left out of the loop.
As for the “religious liberty” laws and forcing people to provide services that violate their religions, I agree with Mr. Dreher up to a point. As long as it does not involve employment or housing, I believe anyone should be able to refuse business. If someone does not want to bake you a cake, do your floral arrangement, cater your wedding, take your photographs, etc., for heavens sake, find someone who appreciates your business. Do you really want someone who hates you for who you are anywhere near your wedding or especially anywhere near your food? On the other hand, it's only fair that gays have the right to spread the word and advocate that such businesses be boycotted. Caveat venditor, in other words.
Mr. Dreher says the church must own up to its past mistreatment of gays, but his solution for gays is a bit of a conundrum. First of all, in spite of the Supreme Court’s decision, in Mr. Dreher’s world, gay Christians cannot get married. “Gay Christians, like all unmarried Christians, are called to a life of chastity. This is a heavy cross to bear, but one that cannot in obedience be refused.” I would like to see his biblical reference for that rule, and I’d certainly be interested if he can find any examples of Jesus saying such a thing. I’ve listened to many of Bart Ehrman’s Great Courses and read some of his work. The Bible was put together in the first century, and much of it may or may not be authentic. But if you’re a gay person and willing to live by Mr. Dreher’s rules, he says there is a Spiritual Friendship movement for those caught in this celibacy quandary.
My solution would be if you’re in an organization that won’t accept you as you are, find another organization. After all, isn’t that what Mr. Dreher is recommending for himself and his fellow believers?
© 2018 Larry Roth