Is Rod Dreher burning down the house we built?

July 20, 2017

Burning The House We Built: A Response to Rod Dreher and Emile Doak

After the IRD hosted a panel in response to Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, Dreher and another writer for The American Conservative, Emile Doak, offered their responses to the panelists’ critiques. Dreher’s manifesto and Doak’s interesting invocation of “Americanized Christianity” touch the heart of an otherwise misinterpreted debate.

In his article, Doak echoes Dreher to say the individualism which, “in some ways, informed the American founding,” is a root cause of the cultural/moral crisis Christianity in America faces. Here is the core of Doak’s contention:

Thus, both the Religious left and Religious right adhere to an American brand of Christianity underscored by the same prior commitments to “individual liberty” defined as freedom from restraint, rather than a traditional Christian understanding of liberty as freedom to do as one ought.

In short, Doak argues Western individualism has infected the Christian mind with the notion that freedom of individual expression is more valuable than the freedom to do what is right. His formula echoes Dreher’s longstanding condemnation of American Christianity for “produc[ing] an anesthetizing religion suited for little more than being a chaplaincy to the liberal individualistic order.” Doak and Dreher’s culprit of this political idolatry is the individualism that both produced and was perpetuated by the “American way.”

The Benedict Option is as much a reaction against the small-L liberal, pluralistic social order as it is against the moral pluralism threatening orthodox Christianity. Dreher himself says “liberalism has taken us beyond historically orthodox Christianity, even of the Reformation sort.

Doak and Dreher’s mourning over the current state of American Christianity, part and parcel, involves a condemnation of the stream of Reformation, Enlightenment, and liberal economic thought that produced the American experiment.

Perhaps this explains why many American Christians can’t jump on Dreher’s alarmist train despite the cultural shift away from traditional Christian values. American Christianity is as American as it is Christian: committed to freedom and liberty and justice, established according to reason and conviction, and rooted in notions of individual dignity. It also explains why Dreher’s call for “strategic retreat” rather than wholesale withdraw seems disingenuous: there is no way to follow Dreher’s model, or accept his criticism of liberalism, and still remain faithful to the American democratic system.

Whether Christians opposing the Benedict Option can articulate it or not, all sense Dreher’s argument shakes the foundational alliance between Christianity and liberalism.

In that regard, not even The Benedict Option is a solution to Dreher’s observations. Focusing on “strengthening local churches, local associations, families” is not a substitute for the political-philosophy-sized hole Dreher has ripped in the traditional Christian’s mind.

See, Christian political thought is like a family traveling from house to house in search of sufficient accommodations. The halls of Christendom, the castles of Lord-Protectors, and the palaces of monarchs proved to be too grand and too opulent while the huts and cottages of monastic fathers and mothers were too small to fit a growing family. Then, following whispers of new land, the pioneering family enlisted sympathetic (if secular) architects, baptized their ideas in Holy Scripture, and set out to build their own house. The liberal order is the house they built, and Rod Dreher is telling us it’s not good enough.

More than not good enough, Dreher’s option implies our Christian character is threatened if we remain under the roof of secular liberalism. Doak concludes his article, “[W]hat’s offered in The Benedict Option is far from a neglect of civic responsibility. It’s a recognition that the powerful forces at the very heart of our political culture are capable of de-Christianizing the Church.” According to BenOp logic, Christians are at a crossroads: follow Renaissance-inspired, liberal democratic logic of individual expression and free will or follow the Christian logic of surrender of individual desires to a higher order.

The question for Dreher and Doak is, if the liberal order is Frankenstein’s monster turning on its creator, what type of politics should we advocate? “Anti-political politics” is still politics—local institutions (the family, churches, and communities) still exist within a system, are affected by the system, and contribute to the system….and the current system is driven by forces Dreher and Doak disparage.

The reality is every earthly house Christians try to settle in will never fit just right, because our faith is not designed for earthly political systems, but for life in the Kingdom of Heaven. Yet as we exist in the “not yet,” we need to inhabit the house that best supports our mission. To date, small-L liberal, pluralistic democracy is that house, faults and all. And until a better system presents itself, we’re stuck in this house that, yes, prioritizes the individual over the community and, yes, values freedom over virtue.

Dreher in his blog and panelist Bruce Ashford of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary remind us the Church must offer a strong ecclesial counterculture. This requires an understanding that democracy and its norms are not the Christian way, they are a way. Yet as faithful Christians and as faithful democratic citizens we cannot foreclose the Great Experiment. Christians, as bearers of the spiritual and moral vision which midwifed American democracy, have a unique responsibility to remind society of the realities which make democracy both possible and necessary.

So, BenOpers, please don’t burn our house down. Especially while we’re all still inside.

Photo Credit: Tom Freeman’s painting of the August 24, 1814 burning of the White House by British troops during the War of 1812. (White House Historical Association) via The Washington Post.

2 Responses to Burning The House We Built: A Response to Rod Dreher and Emile Doak

  1. Kepha says:

    They miss the point of the American political experiment: that government must exercise restraint.

    The Benedict option won’t work because the modern state will not allow it. The modern stAte us increasingly totalitarian, demanding conformity to an even increasing number of regulations and legal decisions, mostly made with no fear of God. This is the case even when the modeErn state puts on a smiley face–as in the USA and other social democracies. The only reason why the original Benedict option worked was because it responded to the collapse and dusintegration of the Roman state in a depopulated Western Europe where there was a fair amount of empty space. We do not have that nowadays.

  2. Anne says:

    That was too quick a leap from disparaging liberal democracy as not Christian to claiming it’s the best form of government we’ve got. I know it is, but the assumption that it’s not what God wants, just the best we can do, seems hasty. Once we’d killed enough of each other over what we assumed was God’s will, we sort of agreed that religious liberty might be a useful principle to adopt, along with all the other liberal human rights. And so it goes. But I’d think we might have gone on to note the resemblance between such freedom and the state God leaves men in for life, i.e., free will. By giving each other the freedom to be wrongheaded, we’re only patterning our behavior on our Creator’s. Why is that still so hard for some to see?

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