Why Many Conservative Christians Feel Like a Persecuted Minority In America
This is largely the topic of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, which may be the most important statement of its kind since Richard John Neuhaus’ The Naked Public Square, the 1984 book that Dreher’s implicitly seeks to supplant. Like Neuhaus, Dreher provides devout Christians with a gripping metaphor that both describes the present moment and sets out a course of action in response to it.
Written in the wake of Ronald Reagan’s first successful presidential campaign, in which evangelical Protestants played a decisive role for the first time, The Naked Public Square aimed to lend theological heft to an ascendant religious right. Jerry Falwell was correct: Devout Christians did constitute a “moral majority.” But if they hoped to truly gain, hold, and wield political power, they needed to make their case in more sophisticated and civically appealing terms.
Neuhaus provided those terms. “We insist,” he wrote, that “we are a democratic society, yet we have in recent decades systematically excluded from policy considerations the operative values of the American people, values that are overwhelmingly grounded in religious belief.” That’s because a narrow elite of secular liberals had begun to insist, against all evidence, that the United States is a secular society. This elite actively worked to thwart democracy, creating a “naked public square” that has been thoroughly stripped of religiously based moral arguments. What was needed, then, was a movement to fight back against this elite — to win elections, appoint judges, pursue policies, and deploy rhetoric that would reclothe the naked public square.
It didn’t work out that way.
During the Obama years, the religious right began to suspect that it had decisively lost the culture war. Secular liberal elites had finally succeeded in stripping the public square of religiously grounded moral arguments — and their victory was accomplished not by thwarting democracy but by riding it to power. The moral majority had become a moral minority, with devoutly religious voters hemmed in on all sides, immersed in an increasingly hostile secular culture and incapable of mustering the votes to fight back at the national level. If the U.S. wasn’t a secular society in 1984, in 2017 it apparently is.
Dreher’s The Benedict Option is very much an expression of this bleak outlook — and it goes far beyond the United States. In his opening pages, Dreher informs his readers that “the light of Christianity is flickering out all over the West.” “There are people alive today,” he writes, “who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization. … This may not be the end of the world, but it is the end of a world, and only the willfully blind would deny it.”
Nothing in the surprise election of President Trump, who was strongly supported by the remnants of the religious right, changes this doleful situation. In Dreher’s view, Trump’s victory “has at best given us a bit more time to prepare for the inevitable.” That’s because “secular nihilism has won the day.” And its triumph isn’t a product of a liberal elite imposing it on the country so much as it is a consequence of the fact that “the American people, either actively or passively, approve.”
That’s where “the Benedict Option” comes in. Having lost the culture and the country, devout Christians need to realize that looking to ordinary politics to reverse secularizing trends is futile. Instead, Christian conservatives need to practice “a new kind of Christian politics” — or an “antipolitical politics” — that follows the example of the religious order that St. Benedict of Nursia founded in the 6th century to preserve and foster Christian civilization as the Roman Empire decayed and crumbled around it.
This means, specifically, that Christians need to turn inward, steeling themselves against the pernicious moral influences swirling around them by adopting a “rule for living” that turns their faith into the orienting focal point of their lives. Roughly half of Dreher’s book offers practical suggestions for how to live out this vision of deep piety amidst the ruins of Christian civilization: Attempt to live in proximity to like-minded Christians; pull children out of aggressively secular public schools; recover liturgical worship; tighten church discipline; devote family time to studying scripture; place strict limits on digital technology in the home; and so on. Only when a comprehensive form of Christian living has been recovered and instantiated in concrete communities will believers be equipped to begin the daunting task of attempting to win back the wider culture from the forces of secular nihilism.
Dreher’s pervasive pessimism might make it seem that he and the far more optimistic Neuhaus have little in common. Whereas Neuhaus tended to affirm the enduring goodness of America’s democratic experiment and follow theologian John Courtney Murray in tracing its roots back to medieval theories of natural law, Dreher claims that contemporary godlessness is the inevitable consequence of the West’s embrace of the pernicious theories of another medieval theologian, William of Occam.
But Neuhaus and Dreher don’t just share a tendency to find the sources of contemporary hope or despair in the pages of old books. They also perceive themselves as standing on the same side of a cultural fissure. Both look back to an era of Christian political and cultural hegemony in the United States and lament its loss, which began to take place during the middle decades of the 20th century. Their disagreement has to do with whether the loss of power was contingent and reversible (Neuhaus) or inevitable and, at least for the foreseeable future, permanent (Dreher).
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SOURCE: The Week