The Benedict Option: Why the religious right is considering an all-out withdrawal from politics

The rising acceptance of same-sex marriage has pushed religious conservatives into an existential corner

Preserving beliefs in isolation.
(Image credit: (Robert Postma/First Light/Corbis))

Have you heard of the Benedict Option? If not, you will soon.

It's the name of a deeply pessimistic cultural project that's capturing the imaginations of social conservatives as they come to terms with the realization that the hopes and assumptions that animated the religious right over the past 35-odd years have been dashed by the sweeping triumph of the movement for same-sex marriage.

From the start, the religious right has been marked by two qualities: optimism and a faith in majoritarianism. The qualities are connected. Think back to Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority. The name conveyed its ideology: A majority of Americans are morally and religiously conservative. To the extent that the nation's politics and culture don't reflect that, it's because they have been co-opted by a secular liberal minority that has placed itself in control of such elite institutions as the media, Hollywood, the universities, the judiciary, and the federal bureaucracy. The proper response is to take back these institutions using democratic means, primarily elections.

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In other words, play by the rules of the democratic game, and social conservatives will eventually triumph.

This sounded like a fantasy at first, since the movement began among evangelical Protestants, who never made up more than about 25 percent of the population, and whose style of worship and belief was profoundly off-putting to non-evangelical Christians, let alone to more secular Americans. But ecumenical and inter-religious efforts throughout the 1980s and early 1990s helped to forge an alliance among conservative believers in many faith traditions: evangelicals, but also Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and Muslims. This made talk of majorities at least plausible, and seemed to vindicate the optimism, too.

Before the present moment, the one flicker of genuine gloom came in 1996, after a series of court rulings seemed to signal that secular liberalism was using the judiciary to thwart the will of the people. That inspired the conservative religious magazine First Things (for which I later worked) to run a notorious symposium titled "The End of Democracy?" An unsigned editorial introducing the symposium suggested that religious Americans would soon have to decide on options ranging "from noncompliance to resistance to civil disobedience to morally justified revolution."

The incendiary rhetoric sparked a firestorm among conservatives, but it's important to recognize that it followed directly from the most fundamental premises of the religious right. If it was in fact true that social conservatives were the American majority, and if it was also the case that the judicial branch of government was actively and undemocratically impeding the majority, then it did indeed follow that religious conservatives were faced with (as the editorial put it) "the prospect — some might say the present reality — of despotism" in the United States. And that called for a radical, perhaps revolutionary, response.

When optimism returned a few years later, with the presidential campaign of a candidate who actively sought to co-opt the energy and champion the ideas of the religious right, the revolutionary rhetoric receded. The reason why was equally straightforward: If America's social conservative majority could elect George W. Bush, then American democracy was working perfectly.

Now the pessimism is back — though with a twist. The mood among social conservatives has been darkening for years, as a liberal Democrat has taken and held the White House, as the Republican Party has placed greater emphasis on economic concerns than culture-war issues, and (most of all) as same-sex marriage has come to be accepted by more than half of the country and Democrats have begun to embrace it without apology.

But nothing compares to the gloom that's set in during the weeks since the passage of Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act sparked a rapid and widespread condemnation of religious traditionalists, not only by gay activists and liberal Democrats, but also by a number of Republicans with national stature and high-profile members of the business community. Suddenly social conservatives began to think the unthinkable: Is it possible that we're now in the minority, with our freedoms subject to the whims of a hostile majority that will use the power of the modern liberal state (especially anti-discrimination laws) to enforce public conformity to secular, anti-Christian norms?

That's where the Benedict Option comes in.

Conservative blogger Rod Dreher (a friend) has been writing about it for years, though with rapidly increasing intensity over the past few months. The idea was inspired by the famous concluding paragraph of Alasdair MacIntyre's 1981 book After Virtue, in which the conservative philosopher wrote about waiting "for another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict," who, like the founder of Western monasticism during the waning days of the decadent and declining Roman Empire, would help to construct "local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages."

In Dreher's hands, this haunting image has become the Benedict Option — the idea of traditionalist Christians choosing to step back from the now-futile political projects and ambitions of the past four decades to cultivate and preserve a robustly Christian subculture within an increasingly hostile common culture. That inward turn toward community-building is the element of monasticism in the project. But its participants won't be monks. They will be families, parishes, and churches working to protect themselves from the acids of modernity, skepticism, and freedom (understood as personal autonomy), as well as from the expansive regulatory power of the secular state.

Over the past couple of years, but especially since the RFRA conflagration, this idea has caught on among social conservative intellectuals, especially those in the circles around The American Conservative and First Things. And it makes perfect sense that it would. After all, if social conservatives are indeed a minority in a hostile secular culture, and if they have therefore lost any reasonable hope of gaining and wielding political power, then cultivating and preserving the faith would certainly seem to be a pressing priority — perhaps the most pressing one of all.

There's no reason to presume that this implies Amish-style political quietism. Those who take the Benedict Option will presumably still vote and contribute to various public causes, especially those that promise to protect their interests. That might make politically active ultra-Orthodox Jews a better model — except that instead of a few hundred thousand members, there could potentially be many millions of conservative Christians across numerous denominations prepared to band together in communities aimed at cultural self-preservation and political self-defense. (This makes a Benedict Option withdrawal categorically different than the much narrower withdrawal undertaken by Protestant fundamentalists from the 1920s through the 1960s.)

Still, for those who embrace the Benedict Option, the time of national political crusades and playing a decisive role in presidential politics is probably over. That's no doubt why some of the die-hards from the good old days of the religious right have recently lashed out at Dreher and those gravitating to his vision for the future — because that vision so obviously places the preservation of a certain form of historic Christianity ahead of trying (and failing) to win the culture war.

No doubt some critics are also troubled by the more radical implications of the Benedict Option, especially with regard to American patriotism. Along with its optimism and majoritarianism, the religious right has tended to be intensely patriotic — believing that, whatever the country's moral faults since the 1960s, the nation and its government are fundamentally friendly to faith.

When he writes about the Benedict Option, Dreher sometimes sounds like he agrees. On those occasions, he traces the triumph of same-sex marriage and other forms of post-60s moral license to historical contingencies that, in theory at least, could be reversed.

But at other times, and more often over the past year, Dreher echoes the darker (and more dialectical) arguments of another friend, Patrick Deneen of Notre Dame. In Deneen's telling, the recent collapse of Christianity's political opposition to secular liberalism is the culmination of a long process that began before the time of the American founding, with the modern project of liberating humanity from the yoke of revealed religion and church authority. For a long time it looked like this project had developed along two broad tracks: at one extreme the French model of official state secularism (laïcité); at the other the American model of religious disestablishment combined with a broad right to religious free exercise.

Unlike the French model, the American approach to adjudicating conflicts between politics and religion has favored accommodation. This, in turn, persuaded devout Christians that they were free to live out their faith in public and even to seek political power, provided they didn't try to set up an established church. But now, with the solicitor general of the United States musing before the Supreme Court about the possibility of stripping religious colleges of their tax-exempt status for upholding the sexual teachings of historic Christianity, these accommodationist hopes have been exposed as a ruse. All modern states follow a logic of laïcité, we can now see, even the United States — and even if it did so with a relatively light touch for much of the last few centuries.

This is a very radical argument. There's so far no sign of it developing in an irresponsible direction, above all because it grows out of a keen sense of the political impotence of traditionalist Christians in contemporary American life. Yet, as blogger David Sessions has pointed out, the deep pessimism and sweeping indictment of modern politics associated with this version of the Benedict Option resembles nothing so much as the 19th-century arguments of anti-liberal French Catholics, who often felt profoundly disenfranchised by the rise of the modern secular state.

That's an unusual position for American thinkers and writers to take. Then again, this may be the first time in American history that devout Christians have been forced by events to accept without doubt that they are a minority in a majority secular nation.

We have entered uncharted territory.

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