A decision from the U.S. Supreme Court on same-sex marriage is imminent, the Obama administration is proposing a regulation that would require religious charities to accept lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender applicants, and a new Gallup Poll finds that a majority of Americans have shifted left on moral issues.
With social conservatism on the wane and secular values assuming greater public prominence, some orthodox Christians and religious conservatives are questioning whether they may be forced to repudiate their beliefs or be driven from the public square.
Is America becoming hostile to traditional religion? Should tradition-minded Christians and social conservatives pull away from mainstream American life? Columnists Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis weigh in.
If you haven’t heard about the “Benedict Option” yet, you will soon enough. Some serious Christians are starting to think through what their lives might be like living in a country that isn’t merely indifferent to their faith, but overtly hostile to it.
“Benedict” here refers not to the recent Roman Catholic pope, Benedict XVI, but rather his namesake, St. Benedict of Nursia, whose monasteries helped preserve the remnants of Western Civilization after the fall of the Roman Empire around the 4th century A.D.
The idea of a 21st century “Benedict Option” has nothing to do with Christians yearning for a return to life in the Middle Ages. Nobody is talking about giving up antibiotics or modern dentistry.
No, the Benedict Option means carving out space within a culture that exalts sexual license and gratuitous violence – space that would allow Christians to live humbly and pass their beliefs down to their children.
Credit for the term goes to Scottish philosopher Alasdair McIntyre, but the Benedict Option is gaining traction thanks to the work of conservative author Rod Dreher.
Dreher, a former Catholic-turned-Orthodox Christian who is writing a book about all this, isn’t arguing for a new Moral Majority. He isn’t even saying that Christians should abandon their worldly possessions and go live in monasteries. In fact, Dreher concedes he is “very far from a definitive statement on what the Benedict Option is.”
But Dreher is clear about this much: American Christians need to have a dialogue about developing new habits away from a noisy world that bombards them ceaselessly with messages that say, “follow your bliss,” be true to your “authentic self” – and pay no mind to the consequences.
The Mennonites I grew up around in 1980s Kansas had only been in America a couple of generations: Some were still fluent in dialect called “Low German” – a rare German-Russian mash up.
Mennonites, you see, are pacifists. Once upon a time, they fled their native Germany to Russia in order to avoid being compelled into military service … only to find, a few years later, that they had to flee czarist Russia for the very same reason – ending up in the Midwestern U.S.
So me? I’m the last person to preach against the “Benedict Option.” If your faith compels you to cloister yourself, do your thing.
Three points of caution to social conservatives, however:
▪ If you don’t like what the culture is doing now, you’ll like it less if you take your leave. Imagine how things work if you’re not there as a counterweight.
▪ Be careful you don’t overdo your sense of persecution. There are countries where Christians are executed regularly. Being forced to put up with your neighbor’s gay marriage is pretty mild, by comparison. To many of us outside your circles, the “Benedict Option” will look churlish – like you took your ball and went home because you couldn’t dictate culture’s rules to the rest of us anymore.
▪ Similarly, make sure you’re fighting for the right things. American social conservatives talk a lot about a recent loss of “religious liberty,” but at least one prominent archbishop sees that loss of liberty in “restrictions on public funding, revocation of tax exemptions and expanding government regulations.” Let’s be clear: One has not lost one’s religious liberty if the government fails to somehow subsidize one’s religious activities.
I once said I wanted to live in a world where my gay friends could get married and my conservative friends could be cranky about it – where everybody had the freedom to act according to their consciences. It looks like we’ll get that, but maybe only if we separate from each other. We’ve forgotten, it seems, how to live with our differences.
Ben Boychuk (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Joel Mathis (email@example.com) is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine.