Is America a post-Christian nation? For many true believers, it certainly feels that way.
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).
Yet it's worth asking whether Christianity as both Neuhaus and Dreher understand it ever exercised rule in quite the way they imagine it did. Certainly it did in Puritan New England, and in certain regions of the country during the Great Awakenings of the 1730s and early 19th century. And clearly American civil religion, partly derived from Puritanism and reinvigorated countless times by various religious and cultural influences down through the centuries, has always had a broadly Protestant and deistic character.
But was this default Christianity anything like the doctrinally, liturgically, and morally rigorous forms of worship and belief that Dreher advocates? I don't think so. Yes, rates of church attendance were higher in the past, but those rates fluctuated quite a bit from time to time and place to place. And in many of those times and places, the forms of worship were decidedly low-church, with tent revivals, renegade preachers, and faith healers barnstorming the country, while in most white churches the message broadcast from pulpits either explicitly endorsed a racist status quo or passed over it in silence.
All of which is to say that American Christianity has always been imperfect, morally flawed, doctrinally heretical. I'm sure Dreher would agree. Yet it's also true that his judgments of contemporary forms of quasi-Christian piety are extremely harsh. He's especially tough on what he calls, following sociologist Christian Smith, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. That's the often vague universe of beliefs and attitudes affirmed by many Americans today, especially millennials. It holds that God exists, that he wants us to be good to each other, that the goal of life is to find happiness, that good people go to heaven when they die — and that's about all.
Dreher insists that this watery, undemanding form of faith is different in kind from Christianity at its most comprehensive, and I largely agree with him. But is it really different in kind and significantly debased in comparison to the quality of faith one would have found among a random sample of Americans during the 1850s? Or for that matter, in 17th century Prussia? Or 11th century France? I doubt that very much.
Except in one respect: sexual morality.
A Moralistic Therapeutic Deist will tend not to have strong opinions about sex, beyond affirming the importance of consent. Intercourse outside of marriage, masturbation, the use of contraception, homosexuality (including same-sex marriage), transgenderism — none of it will register as raising significant moral or theological issues and problems. That wasn't true in the 19th-century U.S., in 17th-century Prussia, or in 11th-century France. In all of those times and places, news of what growing numbers of people (including people who define themselves as Christians) think of as sexually acceptable behavior would have been received as inexplicable, and an abomination.
That is what makes our time decisively different from past eras in the history of the Christian West: We live on the far side of the sexual revolution. Neuhaus thought that revolution could be at least partially reversed through concerted democratic action. Dreher has no such hopes and so advises withdrawal and self-protection.
If traditional sexual morality is an absolutely necessary component in an authentic Christian life, then America may well be the post-Christian nation Dreher insists it is, with devout Christians reduced to the status of exiles within it and facing the prospect of outright persecution in the workplace and elsewhere. (Dreher's book discusses some of these persecutory possibilities, and he regularly highlights and ponders them in considerable detail on his blog at The American Conservative.)
Dreher's concerns about persecution may be somewhat exaggerated, but they aren't delusional. Now that same-sex marriage has been declared a constitutional right, the full weight of anti-discrimination law is poised to bear down on those whose faith precludes them from accepting the licitness of such arrangements. That has inspired many religious conservatives (and a few liberals, like myself) to demand new laws to strengthen the First Amendment's religious liberty protections, specifically to clarify that the "free exercise" clause is not limited to what takes place within the walls of a church.
Dreher doubts that such efforts will succeed. Gay rights activists, the Democratic Party, the media, universities, big business — all of them are arrayed on the other side.
But what if the efforts did work? What if Dreher and other conservative Christians could know that they would not be forced to bake cakes or provide other services for same-sex weddings, that religious colleges would not be forced to permit same-sex cohabitation, and that employees would not be fired or otherwise penalized for holding traditional views about sexuality? Would that render the Benedict Option unnecessary?
I doubt Dreher would think so — because Christians would still find themselves living in a country in which a range of authorities within civil society constantly convey the message that same-sex marriage is good and opposing it is bigotry, in which pornography is ubiquitous, and in which gender is increasingly treated as a human construct entirely disconnected from nature, marriage, procreation, and a divinely authored order of things.
But why is that such a problem? Don't Orthodox Jews and observant Muslims, who hold analogous views about sex, manage to live and thrive in the United States, despite its sexual turmoil and lasciviousness? Indeed they do. But they are and have always been tiny minorities in America — which means that, in the decisive respect, they already practice something like the Benedict Option. They don't need to be taught how to preserve themselves in the face of constant counter-religious temptations.
Perhaps that consideration partially explains why Dreher sometimes seems to hype the persecution that conservative Christians already confront or will soon face — as a kind of shock therapy for the complacent, as if to say: "We're no longer in charge here! If we don't start protecting and preserving ourselves soon, there won't be anything left to protect or preserve!"
That's not a message that every conservative Christian will want to hear — and it's certainly not one with which many non-Christians, liberal Christians, or Moralistic Therapeutic Deists will sympathize. But it's nonetheless worthy of sympathy.
Christianity in all of its manifold forms and expressions isn't about to disappear, but comprehensive Christianity — a holistic vision of God and humanity, sexuality and sin, marriage and procreation — has been dethroned. Those of us who see a necessary moral advance in this revolution should be capable of acknowledging that it also entails a significant loss.
And for some of our fellow citizens, the loss is intensely personal.