I was asked to contribute a review of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option to a collection of responses to the work. I wrote mine addressing its fourth chapter on politics. The collection of reviews is probably not going to happen, so I figured I’d post my (rather unedited) two cents here…
Rod Dreher’s newest book, The Benedict Option, is the manifestation of a project Dreher has been working on rather publicly since the spring and summer of 2015, but to which he has been attending for much longer. Briefly, this project is an attempt to think about the implications for “orthodox” Christians of the decreasing prominence of Christianity in the United States.* In particular, Dreher addresses the loss of Christianity’s strong influence on public life and political matters. In his terms, “The public square has been lost” (9). As a response, Dreher presents the Benedict Option as a constructive proposal for authentic Christian living in post-Christian times.
I have numerous concerns about Dreher’s project but will attend here only to some of the book’s thoughts about politics, responding to its fourth chapter. My limited critique is twofold. First, Dreher’s political project contains a serious unaddressed tension in its promotion of moral and religious neutrality, on the one hand, and substantive moral and religious views on the other. Second, Dreher’s Christian vision is inhospitable to diversity and inappropriate for liberal democracy.
First, Dreher makes eminently clear that the two most important political issues for “orthodox” Christians – “our big issues,” as he calls them – are abortion and religious liberty (80). However, he argues, religious liberty is paramount because it is necessary for the survival of Christianity and the promotion of the Benedict Option (84).
There resides a tension between Dreher’s call for absolute religious liberty and his desire for marriage and abortion law to be determined according to Christian moral beliefs. The former requires the state to remain neutral with respect to moral and religious traditions and beliefs. The latter, by contrast, advocates legislation and governance according to substantive moral and religious beliefs. This presents a conflict for Dreher, perhaps not impossible, but nevertheless one of which he seems unaware. Among other things, this makes one wonder just how committed Dreher is to religious freedom and whether his commitment isn’t merely recourse to Christianity’s dwindling influence.
My second criticism, more substantial though not unrelated to the first, concerns the exclusivity of Dreher’s vision for politics. Channeling Tocqueville, Dreher understands liberal democracy to be dependent on a robust common morality that emerges from widespread Christian belief and practice. Bemoaning the loss of “orthodox” Christianity’s prominence, Dreher believes the fate of our political life depends on Christianity’s cultural resurrection. According to Dreher, only this resurgence can provide the common morality necessary to prevent liberal democracy from devolving into “inordinate individualism, materialism, and democratic despotism” (89).
This rather important argument of Dreher’s is comprised of two claims. First, “self-government require[s] shared convictions about moral truths” (89). Second, and only slightly less explicit, these moral truths are necessarily Christian. Dreher seems to fully endorse the sentiment from Tocqueville that, “one must maintain Christianity within [democracy] at all cost” (89). A number of questions could be asked about the relationship between these two claims, but I want to briefly consider the consequences of the latter.
It is important to note that Dreher does not argue a politically neutral state might remain largely uncorrupt if its citizens maintain private Christian lives. Instead, he advocates a culturally Christian citizenry for the promotion and maintenance Christian policy and governance. On this view, democracy must be culturally and politically Christian if it is to survive, let alone flourish. Such a view is not only unreflectively triumphalist; it forecloses the rich diversity that is the very promise of liberal democracy.
Here we see Dreher’s political perspective in full. Rather than navigating and engaging with the diversity constitutive of contemporary liberal democracy – something that does not necessarily preclude things like the prophetic voice and morally substantive politics – the Benedict Option remains insistent that the future faces either Christian political preeminence or its dire opposite. The Benedict Option only seems to know the extremes of hegemony and exile. On Dreher’s rendering, “orthodox” Christianity is either the dominant force in politics and culture or it must “strategically regroup” to survive, purify, and perhaps even reestablish its dominance. Surely there is a way to affirm and maintain the integrity of the Christian life and embrace liberal democracy without such a problematic binary.
No doubt all citizens of liberal democracies must wrestle with the implications of cultural, religious, moral, and political diversity. However, while they are not without challenges, these differences ought to be considered among the promises of liberal democracy and not (at least not merely) its detractions. Perhaps a distinctively Christian approach to the contemporary situation might benefit from thinking theologically about diversity, the nature of politics in general, and the intrinsic value of democracy in particular. However, theology remains troublingly absent from Dreher’s book.
Along with the internal tension noted above, the Benedict Option’s reliance on a troubling dichotomy for understanding its place in society, its unreflective triumphalism, and its implicit hostility to diversity result in a confused and stunted political project. As presented, the Benedict Option remains theologically vapid, democratically deficient, and therefore, at least for this reader, wholly undesirable.
* Dreher rather problematically uses the adjective “orthodox” to describe the form of Christianity he espouses. I have neither the space nor the desire to address that here at length, so I will mark it by the continued use of quotation marks.