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What the Benedict Option Gets Wrong

Though you may never have heard of it, the Benedict Option is an increasingly influential idea within theologically conservative circles. For more backdrop, see this article by Conciliar Post author Chris Casberg. Inspired by the closing pages of Alasdair MacIntyre’s influential 1989 book After Virtue, the modern Benedict Option proposes a strategic withdrawal from the project of secular governance, and a reorientation towards localism and community. In the view of its proponents, mass culture has diverged so radically from the norms of traditional Christian theology (presaging a “new dark age”) that significant changes are required for American Christian life.

There is nothing problematic about a renewed focus on community and tradition—indeed, such a reorientation is almost certainly long overdue. Yet alongside these emphases, the Benedict Option entails certain strategic decisions which are, in my view, both unnecessary and deeply unwise.

Key advocates for the Benedict Option, including Rod Dreher and Carl Trueman, have largely characterized recent cultural changes as a steady march toward degradation. I suggest that this view is too simplistic. Rather, I suggest that in part, we are witnessing an elastic cultural response—a reaction, if you will, against the past machtpolitik of the Moral Majority and the related push for translating socially conservative values into policies backed by the coercive force of law. This phenomenon underlies my argument for why Benedict Option proposals should be reconsidered.

From the 1970s into the 1990s, evangelical Protestantism overextended itself politically. This overextension included, in part, an aggressive socio-legal approach to perceived cultural ills as diverse as Dungeons & Dragons, rap music, birth control, and the gay subculture. Significantly, this pushback targeted (among other things) forces and influences within private society that were believed to be socially undesirable. Along with this activism came a distinct comfortableness with the use of governmental power as a tool for moral reconstruction. Is that not, after all, how democracy works? The shadow of this majoritarian principle is still seen in modern groups like “One Million Moms,” whose name hints at a sweeping consensus which may or may not actually exist.

This American idea, tinged with hints of Manifest Destiny triumphalism and inspired by the writings of Abraham Kuyper, was a postmillennialist fantasy: a conflation of sacred and secular spheres of authority. By contrast, the pre-Constantinian church lacked precedent for seizing command of the temporal power and using it to build heaven on earth—“immanentizing the eschaton”—in the words of Eric Voegelin. Accordingly, viewed from one angle, the current “cultural decline” may be described in part as the collapse of a status quo that was itself inconsistent with the original Christian tradition.

This is not an exercise in blame-shifting, nor is it an attempt to collapse current cultural patterns to a single causal factor (the evangelical recourse to governmental power as a moral battleground might be interpreted as an understandable counterreaction to, for example, Roe v. Wade.) I am simply summarizing one way in which social conservatives paved the way for an ideologically-motivated deployment of state power against nonconformists within civil society. This is a phenomenon which threatens the ultimate feasibility of the proposed Benedict Option.

Mark Tushnet, a well-known professor at Harvard Law School, recently discussed these historical trajectories in a controversial blog post:

The culture wars are over; they lost, we won. . . . And they had opportunities to reach a cease fire, but rejected them in favor of a scorched earth policy. The earth that was scorched, though, was their own. . . . For liberals, the question now is how to deal with the losers in the culture wars. That’s mostly a question of tactics. My own judgment is that taking a hard line (“You lost, live with it”) is better than trying to accommodate the losers, who – remember – defended, and are defending, positions that liberals regard as having no normative pull at all. Trying to be nice to the losers didn’t work well after the Civil War, nor after [Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case ending school segregation]. (And taking a hard line seemed to work reasonably well in Germany and Japan after 1945.)

Tushnet helpfully outlines both the roots of progressive ire and the ultimate endgame—and his argument that past generations of conservatives pursued a “scorched earth policy” is troubling because it is true: state power was wedded to a vision of moral reform, and the pendulum is now swinging in the other direction. The new “Moral Majority” just happens to hold a very different “theology”—and now that the political winds have shifted in their direction, the time for score-settling is at hand. If both progressives and conservatives agree that a proper object of governmental power is the promulgation of majoritarian values, the die has already been cast, whether or not theologically traditional communities are prepared.

In short, those counseling a broad abandonment of secular culture are risking a terrible price for their disengagement. If the current cultural situation is as bad as Dreher and Trueman have suggested (a proposition I might dispute, but that is a discussion for another time), then secular mass culture will never countenance the continuing existence of enclaves where ostensibly “anti-egalitarian” values are inculcated. We no longer live in a world where localism entails relative political invisibility.

I have personally heard progressive political thinkers argue for the abolition of private schools, the introduction of “hate speech” as an American legal doctrine, and the stripping of tax exemptions for religious institutions deemed “discriminatory.” All of these proposals—transformations of civil society similar in breadth to those once proposed by conservatives, but on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum—target conduct by individuals in their capacities as private citizens. All of these proposals would gut the institutions deemed essential to a viable Benedict Option, tearing out the heart of these proposed “intentional communities.”

What matters most, for Benedict Option advocates, is preserving associational freedom against its opponents—a battle that must be uncomfortably waged within courtrooms and legislatures. The goal of such efforts, however, is far different from that sought by the postmillennialists of yore: now, the theological conservatives’ fight must center on whether they will simply be left alone. But such a fight is coming, whether or not Benedict Option proponents realize it…and evangelicals have already set a precedent for dropping the hammer of state power onto the “morally objectionable” parts of civil society. Having previously deployed governmental authority as an instrument for cultural change, conservatives must confront the fact that they have undermined their own case for leaving private institutions alone. That is the factor that Tushnet has hit on, but one which Dreher and others have potentially overlooked.

The mass cultural withdrawal suggested by Benedict Option proponents, however, is a risk the orthodox need not—and ought not—take. The Benedict Option may be one way of life within secularity, but it need not be the only way. Its widespread adoption would risk triggering its own destruction. As previously noted, its own viability hinges on the assumption that at least some of its sympathizers will remain on the battlefield it counsels abandoning. Moreover, I submit that a visible cultural withdrawal will simply fan the flames of progressive frustration. Retrenchment according to Benedict Option principles will probably be seen as an attempt to make a sort of “last stand” against the onrushing forces of modernity. The reprisal will be targeted, and it will likely be severe.

So let us assume the worst-case scenario: progressivism strikes with a vengeance, and many traditional protections afforded to private institutions are uprooted. What then?

I propose a better way of thinking about Christian life under adverse contemporary conditions, one that might be termed the Cornelius Option (based on the account of the Roman centurion found in Acts 10). Cornelius—a powerful and likely influential military leader—epitomizes the Lutheran doctrines of vocation and of the “two kingdoms.” These doctrines are helpful principles in the current debate.

Notably, the text does not suggest that Cornelius renounced his post and ensconced himself within a strictly Christian subculture. In fact, he is even described as “a devout man, and one that feared God with all his house” prior to Peter’s coming, suggesting no intrinsic tension between his duty as a centurion and his love for God. This reflects the doctrine of vocation: one serves God through faithfulness in one’s own station at a given time, and no two individuals need identical stations. Furthermore, Cornelius models living within a secular society (even a hostile secular society) without attempting to use one’s platform as an opportunity to “wield the sword” of civil power for religious ends. This reflects the doctrine of the “two kingdoms”: the recognition that sacred and secular sovereignties are different, and there ought not be confusion between the church’s policing of its own doctrinal boundaries and the coercive power required by the task of political governance. In the event that theologically conservative civil society comes under withering assault, Cornelius also models an orientation toward the individual family as the wellspring of Christian education: he and his house followed God, even while surrounded by Roman culture.

As I have witnessed time and time again, it is fully possible to live a consistent Christian life within secular culture. There is no “mark of the beast” requiring both sympathizers with and critics of modernity to identify themselves. Preserving orthodox Christian doctrines—as Benedict Option advocates seek to do—need not require that Christians retreat en masse from the academies and the Fortune 500 and the hospitals and the municipalities of modern life. Widespread social and political antagonism toward one’s views does not negate the possibility of a quiet cultural witness. And a bit of perspective is also warranted: today’s proponents of secular mass culture are no Roman emperors, and no orthodox Christian in America appears likely to die a “martyr in the public square” (with all due respect to Cardinal Francis George).

Tempting though it may be, theologically orthodox Christians need not mourn the loss of political authority that it was never proper to hold. The things that matter now—and that matter in any secular age—are vocation, humility, and family. That is the essence of a Cornelius Option.

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John Ehrett

John Ehrett

A native of Dallas, Texas, John currently lives in Los Angeles, California. He holds a J.D. degree from Yale Law School and a certificate in Theology and Ministry from Princeton Seminary.

  • Greg Herr

    John, this is a very perceptive piece. Being Catholic, and not expert in the ‘two kingdom’ theology, I’d have to step back from that (as I understand it) since we take a holistic, integrated approach to the secular-sacred complex.

    Discernment is necessary, but the idea of compartmentalizing easily slips into a kind of bifurcation that eschews individuals and institutions. But we do have Scripture which helps us to discern, and is often exceedingly clear about that which is holy, and that which is not. So perhaps the two kingdoms is consistent with the ‘wheat and tares’ that Jesus teaches us about.

    Certainly, some aspects of secular society must be avoided for some Christians, but even the most odious are to be engaged by those called to those ministries. We have the examples of Jesus, Peter, and Paul, among others, heading directly into the secular realm to engage it, and bring it and its people to Christ.

    I’d embellish the closing comment–not dismissing at all what is stated–but what is unstated (perhaps):

    That the things that matter now, as in any other time or era, are personal and communal life in Christ and in His Church, visibly unified, eucharistically tethered to Him and one another.