The following is a transcript of the IRD’s “Responding to the Benedict Option” Panel held on July 12, 2017, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The panelists’ remarks are edited lightly for grammar and readability.
Mark Tooley: By way of introductions, I’ll start with myself. I am Mark Tooley, President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy [IRD]. We are the hosts of this event. The IRD has been around since 1981 as an ecumenical Christian think tank advocating for a thoughtful and constructive Christian social and political witness in America. We are comprised historically of Mainline Protestants, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Evangelicals. I have been on staff since 1994 and President since 2009. Because we are very focused on advocating a thoughtful social political witness for Christianity, the Benedict Option and its call for Christians to, at some level, step back from political engagement was of interest and of concern to us. Hence, this panel this evening. I should say as a matter of a full confession that our panel is not a pro/con panel. To my knowledge, nobody here — unless they surprise me, and we will have to turn their microphone off if they do — is going to be defending, explicitly, the Benedict Option. I think they’re all going to offer a constructive, thoughtful critique from their own perspective and experience. During our question-and-answer period afterward, you all in the audience are welcome to really have at it and challenge them on their points.
Let me begin with the panelist immediately to my left, Cherie Harder, who is President of the Trinity Forum here in Washington, which is one of the more prestigious and impressive Christian salons in Washington, D.C. focused on, in many ways, political and cultural engagement by the Church in America. Cherie also has extensive experience in government in both the executive and congressional branches. She certainly has a specially and uniquely informed understanding of Christian political and social engagement. To Cherie’s left is our surprise special addition to our panel this evening, Alison Howard, who has a new last name. She’s a newlywed, so I will let her pronounce her new last name for you. She comes to us from Alliance Defending Freedom [ADF]. She is a prolific author and spokesperson, herself, with tremendous expertise in advocating for religious freedom in America. Of course, the Benedict Option is very much a response to the increased threat to religious liberty in America. To Alison’s left is Joseph Capizzi, a distinguished theologian and ethicist from The Catholic University of America. He comes to us as a scholar and a person of great learning, and I’m really looking forward to hearing what he has to say this evening. To Joseph’s left is the other Joe, Joe Hartman, who is an attorney in Northern Virginia. He is teaching constitutional law at Georgetown University, where he got a PhD in studying Reinhold Niebuhr, who I think has a great deal to teach to us about Christian political engagement. And then finally, at the very end is Bruce Ashford from the Southeastern Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina. He is also a distinguished theologian and ethicist who wrote a wonderful book two years ago on Christian social and political engagement and is currently working on another book with the same theme, so we’re really looking forward to that. With those introductions, let’s get started. I’m not sure who among our wonderful panelists to begin with, so I think that I’ll start with the man in the middle, Joseph Capizzi. Joseph, share your learning and perspectives with us.
Joseph Capizzi: Thank you very much, Mark. It’s a pleasure to be a part of this, so thanks for the time putting this together. This should be a lot of fun. There’s a lot to engage in Rod’s book in the proposal, and what I’m really going to focus on are its presuppositions with regard to where we are at this particular moment in our culture. The reason I’m going to focus on those presuppositions that animate his work is because, it’s not clear to me, at times, what the Benedict Option ultimately amounts to. Whether he’s really calling for a kind of withdrawal or just a process of discernment with regard to our engagement with the culture. Certainly, if it’s the latter, it’s quite frankly not that interesting. Christians are always called to discern their relationship with the culture at any particular moment. The tone and the tenor of the thing leads you to think that it’s about withdrawal. But often, Rod will say that’s not really what he’s trying to call us towards. So, regardless of his advice about what we are to do, I want to look at our moment in history, and invite us to ask ourselves why this moment in history prompts something like the Benedict Option. Why, in other words, does it prompt the kind of Benedictine opting out?
Dreher makes all of this clear in the very opening pages of his book. He gives us a really concise description of why he thinks right now there is a moment for Christians to rethink their engagement with American politics. He speaks of being a conservative, a Christian, and at times, a traditionalist Christian. These are not terms that as a journalist, he spends much time defining. They’re animating the way he sees things and the trouble that he portends. He writes, as well, of a goal geared towards his children and their generation. The purpose of this is to do something that will be corrective for his children and his grandchildren so that the coming generations of “combating cultural decline with Christianity…ought to be a powerful counter force to the radical individualism and secularism of modernity.” He describes that project, that Christian project, as essentially having failed in our day. We now have, he argues, to “develop a creative communal solution to help us hold on to our faith and our values in a world growing ever more hostile to them. We have to choose to make a decisive leap into a truly counter-cultural way of living Christianity or we would doom our children and our children’s children to assimilation.” Obviously, it’s pretty dark stuff — the language of doom — language of consigning future generations to, again, an assimilation that he really doesn’t quite define.
This assimilation is clearly not something that’s desirable. This is what’s animating him. This is why he feels now’s the moment. Then he declares the purpose of the book: to wake up the church and to encourage it to strengthen itself while there is still time. He writes, “If we want to survive, we have to return to the roots of our faith, both in thought and practice.” So, I guess I represent the Catholic tradition, or at least one version of the Catholic tradition tonight. My response will be somewhat of a Catholic-inflected response to this.
What is it that brings about this concern that we’re dooming our children and their children’s generations to assimilation and possibly even, if we want to survive, the end of the Church? He identifies again, helpfully, two moments in particular that he signals are really the signs of doom.
First is the Obergefell decision that declares a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. The second is the capitulation of conservative politicians, largely Republican under corporate pressure, in not backing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. These are, of course, significant moments. They are significant losses for Christian perspectives on these kinds of issues.
But to be honest, they seem somewhat provincial as inflection points animating this kind of conclusion. His conclusion, again in his words, is that conservative Christians have been routed. We are now living in a new country. I’m not dismissing the significance of those moments. But I think if we just work backwards, we’ve experienced moments like this in the past and maybe, in some cases, moments that are worse. One could think of 1973 of the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize abortion and to recognize the right of a woman to terminate a pregnancy, more or less at her will.
Moving backwards, in 1970, then-California Governor Ronald Reagan signed the no-fault divorce into legislation, which eventually, over time, swept the United States. So now we live in, and for some time, we have lived in a society that allows people to walk away from their public commitments of permanency to each other through difficult times. We allow them to do that without cause, without any explanation as to why, without any rationale that makes that move even plausible. It’s rather arguable that that decision more significantly betrays the Christian conception of marriage than even does the same-sex decision. Just in terms of numbers, if you think of the people affected by that attitude towards divorce, it overwhelms the numbers of people affected by, at least immediately, the Obergefell decision.
Push it backwards even further. American society has much to be proud of, but of course there have been moments, periods of time, decades, and even longer where we’ve lived in situations of profound injustice. Think of the imposition of Jim Crow Laws in the South that clearly burdened African-American communities and proclaimed the kind of injustice to the entire communities that were affected by those laws. Why wouldn’t those themselves be, also, inflection points? Points at which Christians were inclined to say, “Wait a minute, this is not a Christian society…This society does not embrace values that we find to be of our faith, and therefor we have to rethink its relationship to us.” In other words, there’s this notion that the country is new subsequent to Obergefell and the capitulation of politicians. Capitulation of politicians — that’s a chronic thing, right? One could ask why. And he could say, “Look. Yeah, we should have been doing this a long time ago.” And that might be ground for him and the rest of us to think about our relationship with it over time.
In addition to moving chronologically through things, another way of looking at a kind of provincialism or fascination with the way things are new and the way they’re sort of special because we’re living through them, in Rod’s book, is that he doesn’t look spatially. He doesn’t look geographically. So, I think it’s actually important to think about another time in another place where Christians faced something similar. I want to talk very briefly about Konrad Adenauer in Germany after the Second World War. I do this in part because he was Catholic. And it’s important to speak about Catholic things. Adenauer was a devout Catholic. He was Mayor of Cologne in Germany for a long time, from about 1917 to 1933, when he was ousted by the Nazis for refusing to fly the swastika from city hall as Hitler paraded through Cologne.
So, this is a man who already was devoted to committed to political engagement. He thought of it as consistent with his Catholic faith. He also thought that there are lines that have to be drawn. As a person of principle, there are certain ways that we can engage. On the other hand, sometimes you have to draw lines: I cannot fly that flag for that man at this time. He lived it. From 1933 until the end of the war, he was not in political power. He’s been removed from political power by the Nazi Party. But, as we all know, at the end of the war, at the conclusion of the war when Germany is devastated by of course its defeat, by the comprehensive nature of the defeat itself, both in terms of its humiliation, the cities being in some cases more or less completely erased, he steps forward to serve as the first Chancellor of this rebuilding nation of what we called for a long time, West Germany. He is one of the principal architects of its staggering recovery from 1946 until 1963. He serves in this role as an older man.
If ever there was a time to quit politics and to disengage, to say that the Christian thing had ended and ended poorly, to be pessimistic about the possibilities of creating decent civil political communities, one could make the claim pretty easily that Adenauer faced it at the end of the Second World War. Having lived through, himself, two World Wars. The war to end all wars and then the war that came after. The sheer pagan insanity and brutality of Nazism. He lived through all of this and could have quit the game said, “Oh, you know we Christians can’t do anything.” But he didn’t. He didn’t. He chose to serve his nation. He chose to serve as a Catholic in a majority Protestant nation. He chose to serve ecumenically. As a politician, of course, not only did he need to negotiate the terms of his faith with non-Catholics, he had to negotiate like politicians do. He had to make compromises like politicians do. He chose to throw himself into the rebuilding of a great nation. But his compromise and his negotiation were, as they were in 1933, rooted in Christian principles, principles regarding human freedom, the spirit of the individual, the need to restrict the power and the reach of the state, much as many Catholics like he and Jacques Maritain were arguing. Affirming the rights of the individual against a state that was inclined towards oppression. This leads him to oppose Socialism vehemently.
This is not a guy for whom political engagement was abstract. It was real. It was precise, and it was constant. So, if ever there was a time to say, “No. We’re done. It’s a new Germany. It’s a new moment, and we’re out.” Rod may say, “Look, that’s not what I’m saying.” Okay, alright. Whatever. Adenauer faced it, and he showed an alternative. The alternative, I think, is seeing the world (that is probably going to be sympathetic with what my other colleagues up here are going to say) as mission territory for Christians. It’s the place we engage because of what we believe. We don’t give up on it. We keep involved in it. The Christian challenge has always been rooted in the discordance between the Kingdom that is promised by Christ’s victory and our lived experience of its incompleteness in time. That’s always present.
The theological explanation for this is plain. The Kingdom of God, in its fullness, will not come in the seculum. It does not come in human history and certainly does not come about as a consequence of our political endeavors. It is brought to us by God’s grace. It is brought to us by Christ’s victory. In the meantime, we are called to work for even marginal and temporary improvement of the conditions in which we as believers and our brothers and sisters who are non-believers live. To engage in this work is to participate in divine work, in God’s work. So let me close with a passage from Pope Francis, from his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. Recall that Dreher conceives the Benedict Option as an instrument to preserve the Church in dark and hostile times. The Church needs to survive.
Consistent with Adenauer’s courageous plunge back into politics in a decimated and psychologically broken Germany, Pope Francis writes, “I dream of a missionary option.” These are his words, “A missionary option, that is a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language, and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world, rather than for her self-preservation.”
We do this work not to preserve the church. We do this work for the world. So, where Dreher is saying, “We do this to preserve the Church,” Francis is saying, ‘No. We do this to help the world because this is what Christians do.’ “The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, and to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and, in this way, to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with Himself.” He then quotes John Paul II. “All renewal in the Church must have mission in its goal if it is not to fall prey to a kind of ecclesial introversion.”
My big fear with Dreher is not even that he misreads the times. It’s that his mission is ecclesial introversion. That’s what’s ultimately animating this. And as Christians, we don’t need that. We know the Church is preserved by God’s grace. We know we are called to engage the world. Thank you very much.
Mark Tooley: Thank you, Joe. You do the Catholic thing very, very well.
Joseph Capizzi: I’ve been doing it a long time.
Mark Tooley: Ecclesial introversion. I don’t think many Protestants would use that term, so that’s helpful to the conversation. Before we go to our next panelist, we have three chairs in the front row. So if anyone standing in the back would like to come forward, please do so. I should mention that this is being broadcast online by the National Press Club and on the IRD website and will be available for viewing afterwards as well. Be sure to check that out and refer it to your friends. And then finally for those of you who are social media savvy, please tweet about this event. Take pictures and tweet out your comments and use the hashtag #BenedictOption, and we’ll try to retweet your tweets if they’re not too outrageous. Or even if they are, perhaps, we’ll still do that. Cherie Harder, would you speak to us next please?
Cherie Harder: I’d be happy to. Thank you, Mark. How many in here have read the Benedict Option? Has it been widely read? I think Joe did a great job of providing some summary, but I’ll give just a quick sweeping summary so we’re all sort of on the same page. Rod starts out the book by claiming that American Christianity is in rapid decline and, in fact, is on the verge of sputtering out. He makes the claim at one point that there are those alive today who may see the end of Christianity as we know it. What threatens us is what he calls a new barbarism brought on by increasing secularization, and a lack of orthodoxy (particularly among the young). He calls this an insipid religion I characterize more by Christian Smith’s formulation of a moralistic therapeutic deism than by anything that actually resembles Christianity.
To try to find a way to push back against this, we should look to the sixth century monk Saint Benedict of Nursia, who founded orders that basically encouraged the cultivation of hospitality, of community, and of the spiritual disciplines to keep the faith alive in those communities that eventually spread across the continent and elsewhere. He concludes with a prescription that we need to embrace what he calls a limited withdrawal from the world so that we can more effectively show the love of God to it. That withdrawal will be characterized by community similar to what St. Benedict founded: small, semi-withdrawing communities of Christians who live together, worship together, work together, and show hospitality to each other. There’s a lot here to think through. I think Joe did an amazing job. I want to offer just a few quick thoughts — not as a Catholic, actually, as a recovering policy wonk and current nonprofit leader — both some elements of praise for Rod in his book, a few things that struck me as perplexities to ponder, and then a few things that struck me as somewhat problematic.
One area where I think we can certainly praise Rod, is he has done an amazing job raising a question in a way that is compelling such that we are all here to discuss it. That’s no small achievement. And I give credit where credit is due. He’s done that in a way that has propelled this book to the top, or near the top of the New York Times Bestseller List and has actually prompted New Yorker Profiles about it, and the like. He has penetrated the public conversation, and I think that’s something important. He has talked a lot about the importance of community, and that’s certainly nothing new, but has done it in fresh ways and in ways that have inspired, both new thinking and community itself around the discussion. He has done a very good job, I think, of pointing out what the limits of politics are. Now, I think he perhaps overshoots the mark — and I’ll go back to that in a little bit — but one of the things that he pinpoints and does so well is show there are two problems with misweighting what politics is — either putting way too much hope in it, freighting it with hopes that properly belong only to our faith, or on the other hand, withdrawing completely, because the political is one way that we seek justice and show love for our neighbor.
It is profoundly important what kind of polis we live in. Whether the civil society’s civil authorities are just, whether the ambulance shows up when it is called, when the police officers are just and law-abiding and show mercy and restraint when appropriate. All these are not things that we can or should ever consider a withdrawal from. I know it has become fashionable in some circles for Christians to talk about how much Christians have messed up their politics. There’s been calls recently for a limited withdrawal altogether, to just think about how we could do it better. And certainly, Christians have messed up their politics, but you also think compared to whom? Californians? Certainly, California has really messed up their politics. I don’t see anyone saying, “You all should really step back from this for about two years, get schooled by North Dakota, and then we can talk.” Because it’s one of those things where there are ongoing constraints, duties, and obligations to our fellow citizens that prevent the responsible from withdrawing.
He also raises, and I think in many ways, provocatively and generatively, questions about how to be creative, loving, and generative ourselves in terms of our engagements and our hospitality. Clearly there is more to Christian public engagement than Christian political engagement. Rod does a creative job of pointing that out.
A few perplexities I’ll simply mention. One of the things that Rod will do from time to time is make, what seems at least to this reader, fairly sweeping historical statements or assumptions that are at best debatable. One example of that: early in the book Rod mentions five different historical moments that he says “rocked Western civilization and stripped it of its historical ancestral faith”. One of those was the collapse of religious unity and religious authority in the Protestant Reformation. Now certainly, even on this panel, we could debate whether the Protestant Reformation stripped Western civilization of the Christian faith, but I don’t think we can assume it. So, there’s a few statements like that that are made in a sweep of enthusiasm that seem appropriate for the enthusiast, but perhaps not the analyst.
There are also some recommendations made (these aren’t necessarily central to his argument) that are, shall we say, idiosyncratic. For example, one of the things he advocates is parents pulling their kids out of the public schools altogether and either going to a classical Christian school or home schooling. An additional thing he encourages on top of that is what he calls “embracing the trade”. He lauds a particular educator in Elk County, Pennsylvania, who has announced that he is building “a classical academy that builds dye setters.” This educator says “If you go back fifty years, the Catholic kids around here were all taught by nuns. They were all dye setters who learned Latin, and you could do trigonometry like nobody’s business. So, if you have a strong work ethic and can pass a drug test and be trusted to show up on time, Elk County has a job for you. Its local manufacturers know that within ten years, they’ll need ten thousand workers to replace the skilled laborers who are retiring.”
He then continued and said “The challenge for some Benedict Option Christians will be to find and relocate to the Elk Counties all over America, faraway places on the margins of Empire. Better to be a plumber with a clean conscience than a corporate lawyer with a compromised one.” Fittingly, his next suggestion is to “prepare to be poorer and more marginalized.” Those two, I think, are linked on purpose. It may not be so in Rod’s mind. To say one’s vision of the good is to be a Latin speaking dye setter in Elk County, Pennsylvania, may not be everyone’s called vocation. In addition, to assume that there’s going to be tens of thousands of dye setting jobs available in 15 or 20 years fundamentally misreads our times and that many of those manufacturing jobs are going away. If you are setting your hopes on having a clean conscience by being a Latin-speaking, trig-doing, dye setter in Elk County, you should probably prepare to be poor and more marginalized. Part of the job of being a wise Christian is reading the times as well as reading the Great Book.
A third thing that struck me as somewhat idiosyncratic is there is, not only a proper emphasis on the corrosion of sexual sin, but perhaps an overemphasis on it. Several times, Rod talks about Christian teaching on sexuality as being the linchpin of Christianity. At one point, he says these prohibitions may be a more and more important form of obedience than any other. That, I think, is a fairly idiosyncratic reading. And I think it also plays into what is, at times, a strange emphasis on the part, perhaps particularly among conservative Christians, to overemphasize sins of license and underemphasize sins of oppression. It is that kind of off kilter emphasis that enables some conservatives to talk about ages of slavery and segregation as being a time when Christian principles still governed but a time of more sexual licentiousness to be somehow outside that pale. I think that’s a matter of debate and certainly not a matter of assumption.
In addition to those areas of perplexity, I would offer just a few areas that struck me as potentially problematic. One is particularly in his description of what ails us. Rod will often use language that seems to thrill to the apocalypse. Now that might be slightly overstated, but claiming that the light of Christianity is flickering out, that we have a generation alive now who may see the end of Christianity before they die, is I think, in my humble opinion, overwrought and unhelpful. That kind of apocalyptic thinking not only doesn’t look at our own American history, and as Joe said, fails in many ways to look across the world as well. There is much that we should criticize and we should be deeply concerned about in our culture. But is it fair to say that we have it now worse than at any other time? I’m not sure that’s true.
I will date myself here: I was a fairly young staffer on Capitol Hill back in the mid 90s when First Things came out with an issue where the title was, “The End of Democracy?”. It asked whether judicial usurpation had become so great in America that conscientious citizens could no longer abide by the laws of the “regime”, which was a term they used. Now, in the mid 90’s, this conclusion was a bit more understandable. At the time, I’d been working for Bill Bennett. He had just come out with the very elegant Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, which was a way of taking a quantitative snapshot of what was happening across the country and really providing numbers to account for what seemed like a sense of malaise. And when you looked at those trends, what you found was very deeply disturbing. In a course of only 30 years, murder rates had doubled. Aggravated assault rates had quadrupled. Violent crime overall had more than doubled. Teen pregnancy had gone way up. Teen suicide had tripled. The amount of TV watching time, through the roof. Divorces had more than doubled. Unwed pregnancies were up. Marriage rates were down. By almost any measure, America was doing worse off in terms of its cultural practices.
Flash-forward to where we are now, and in many ways, while we are certainly not awash in truth, beauty, and goodness, by some of those indicators, there have been improvements made. Divorce rates have leveled off. Abortion rates are actually down to almost 1973 levels, which is really an extraordinary achievement although there’s still a long way to go. Abortion rates are going down even as teen pregnancy rates drop. Violent crime rates have gone way down. It’s been really a huge triumph, largely of public policy, one more way that we care for our neighbor.
However, while those things have changed in many ways for the better, we’ve also changed culturally in different and somewhat disturbing ways. We may be less violent. We are also more distracted, depressed, indebted, medicated, obese, porn-addled, divided, polarized, isolated, and lonely. All of those developments have profound implications. One of the things they call for is outreach on the part of the Church and of Christians.
I’ll get to that just a little bit more in a second, but a second thing that I thought was somewhat problematic. In meeting Rod and talking with Rod, Rod is actually a very open person. I think at times he’s more polemical in print than in person. But at times there was what struck me as language that was overwrought to the point of encouraging further divisiveness. For example, one of the things that he asserted after he claimed that we live in an age of a new barbarism, the breadth and width of which he says is evidenced in part by our lack of recognition of it. He said that barbarians are governed only by their will to power and neither know nor care a thing about what they are annihilating. Now to understate, it is more difficult to love your neighbor wisely and well if you are convinced they are a barbarian who annihilates all that is good without knowing or caring. I don’t know that encouraging a stance of thinking about our neighbors that way actually aids us in creatively and lovingly showing the love of Christ into the world.
And so, the final and related aspect that struck me as somewhat problematic because we are at the very time when loneliness, alienation, division, and polarization are at close to unprecedented levels. At a time when we as Christians have such a unique opportunity to show the love of Christ to our lost neighbors, to show His healing power, to pray for them, to invite them into our home, to get to know them, and to model that kind of care and concern, withdrawing from them — heading for the hills whether metaphorically or literally, considering them barbarians and trying to keep ourselves clean from their contaminating power — may not be the best way to either love God, pursue our own vocations, or show His love to our neighbor.
Mark Tooley: Thank you, Cherie. I should include that among Cherie’s other excellent qualities, she is an Anglican. The IRD tends to always over-include Anglicans in all of our programs and staffing because we appreciate them and love them so much. They never disappoint. Speaking of which, our other Anglican staffer, Joe Hartman, could you go next?
Joe Hartman: Sure. I don’t know if you mentioned it, but I’m actually trained as a political theorist. So, hopefully, what I can do today is maybe bring a little explanation to what Rod’s doing. I’m also probably going to muck around in theology a little bit, so if the theologians will indulge me. We’ve already talked about it. I might repeat some things people have said. Rod started a fascinating conversation. David Brooks in the New York Times called the Benedict Option the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade. Damon Linker compared it to Richard John Neuhaus’ The Naked Public Square.
I actually did a little bit of research just because I was curious, to Cherie’s point, about Rod doing a good job of promoting the book. The number of options that now exist: The Augustinian Option, the Franciscan Option, the Dominican Option, the Boniface Option, the Gregory Option, the Escriva Option, the Marian Option, the Kuyper Option, the Wilberforce Option, the Anglican Option, the Paleo-Baptist Option, the Gospel Option, the Jeremiah Option, the Dorothy Option, the Buckley Option, I just heard the Missionary Option a couple minutes ago. And if you enjoy the Lord of the Rings, we have Tolkien alternatives including the Boromir Option, the Bombadil Option, the Gamgee Option. And-I think we also mentioned — I just completed my dissertation on Reinhold Niebuhr, no one has written on the Niebuhrian Option yet. I won’t be doing that.
But I’m actually more interested in talking a little bit about Rod’s argument in the book. I’m glad Cherie asked. It sounds like a lot of people haven’t read it, so what I’d like to is focus on his diagnosis. Typically, when you read a book, the diagnosis is fascinating. Somebody gives you this real insight into a problem. You didn’t see it that way before. And then they tell you what to do and you kind of go, “Well, it’s not very helpful, but that was a really interesting diagnosis.” I feel like this book is a bit of the reverse.
Certainly, there are some problems with some of the recommendations, and we can talk about this question that seems to be out there. Is he calling for withdrawal? What kind of withdrawal? Is it complete withdrawal? Is it strategic withdrawal? I’ll talk about why I think that’s been a bit confusing. But I want to focus on what I’d call his diagnosis. That’s this idea that Western civilization has endured this catastrophic decline from a sort of high point of Christian civilization, which I think he sees as the Medieval Period, to this kind of new dark age of modernity. He describes the most prominent feature of this decline as the supplanting of a quest for moral virtue with this kind of moral relativism.
I think his Benedict Option, as I understand it, when he talks about Christian retreat, the idea is this strategic effort to shore up the foundations of Christianity in the face of this new barbarism. He says this several times in the book, is he thinks that the Benedict Option is the only tenable Christian response to what he considers the decadence of modernity and secular liberalism, and he uses those terms a number of times. What I’d actually like to do is talk a little bit about his diagnosis and part of where I think it’s become confusing and try to explain it a little bit.
Rob’s a friend, and in a conversation I had with him once, he said, “You know, if I had it to do over again, I’d pick a different title. The Benedict Option actually confuses people.” He explained that when we all talk about the Benedict Option, we think of the Benedictines and — certainly he’s gone and done the research and they play a part a role in his book — but the name actually comes from another book by a Scottish philosopher named Alasdair MacIntyre who wrote a book called After Virtue. I’m seeing a few nods. It’s essentially this book-length critique of modernity, which is far more dense and somewhat opaque for me to understand myself, much less try to explain in ten minutes. But I’ll try to give a synopsis of it and link it to what Rod is doing.
In After Virtue, MacIntyre argues that a central feature of modernity is this repudiation of the language of virtue and the pursuit of or the practice of virtue. And he sees that as best articulated in a kind of Aristotelian teleological understanding. And so according to MacIntyre, modernists confront a choice. We can either try to recover and reconstruct a kind of Aristotelian model of virtue or we’re left descending into a kind of relativistic Nihilism that he illustrates through Nietzsche. We either choose traditional virtue or we abandon ourselves to relativism. And if we choose modernity, we basically have chosen relativism. In fact, for MacIntyre, we’re already there.
I want to read a passage, if you’ll indulge me. It’s the closing passage from the book. If you read Rod’s blog, you will recognize this. He writes, “It is always dangerous to draw two precise parallels between one historical period and another. And among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless, certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of goodwill turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman Imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that Imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead, often not recognizing fully what they were doing, was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought to conclude that for some time now, we too have reached that turning point.”
I hope you’re hearing echoes of the Benedict Option. “What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new Dark Ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last Dark Ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time, however, the Barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers. They have already been governing us for quite some time and it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another and doubtless very different, St. Benedict.” I think this actually gives you the central thesis of the Benedict Option.
Now, I’m going to try to criticize this a little bit. I want to talk about three kinds of perspectives. I want to talk about history and the idea of this decline narrative. I want to talk about ethics and virtue, and then touch briefly on politics.
So, first, this account of history is a narrative of decline which is clearly a feature of McIntyre’s work. There’s this high point, we’ve gone downhill, and now we now have this choice. Both McIntyre and Rod very clearly identify a break, a point at which there’s this kind of pivot. And I’d like to suggest — I’m not advocating the Augustinian option — but I’d like to suggest that maybe Augustine offers a different perspective. And if you think in Augustinian terms, we live in the time between Christ’s first and second coming. We live in the seculum. And in this epoch, we can’t identify a trajectory. We can’t say, “Oh, history is moving in this direction or that direction.” We don’t know. Human history for an Augustinian is ambiguous.
I’m now the third here to level this criticism of the account of history, and that is, why, in 2015 with the Obergefell decision, why is that the point? I don’t need to rehash what others have said. There are obviously other elements of Western civilizational history that are terrible: the treatment of non-white peoples, the subjugation of non-white peoples in this country, treatment of women, treating status as property for years, the treatment of the Jewish people in World War II. I mean, we have ample examples. Where, from a moral perspective, would one might say, “Well, why not then?” It’s just hard to necessarily be persuaded. Notwithstanding that there are significant evolutions and sexual norms, we now are at the nadir of Western civilization. Again, that’s not to say we don’t have problems with decadence. Spend five minutes on the internet or try to find something on TV. So we were actually looking through the guide the other day, and we don’t watch the show, but apparently they’re on season 19 of Big Brother. But in any event, the idea of history is things are better and things are worse. History is sort of impenetrable. At least in the Augustinian view, we’re never at home on Earth anyway. History, on this side of the eschaton, is guided providentially, but only known dimly. So this kind of catastrophic narrative, I think, as a Christian, is just problematic.
The second issue I want to raise is this discussion of ethics, because Rod repeatedly talks about the Christian life as characterized by the need to pursue traditional virtue. I mean he uses that phrase several times. Of course, if you think again in MacIntyrian terms, MacIntyre talks about living in a world after virtue. So, as Rod puts it, to live after virtue then is to dwell in a society that not only can no longer agree on what constitutes virtuous belief in conduct, but also doubts that virtue exists. I’ll be Protestant for a second, and a Protestant influenced somewhat by Luther’s critique of this sort of Aristotelian notion of virtue in the first place. My immediate reaction is that we’ve lived after virtue not since William Ockham or the Reformation or the Enlightenment or the Romantic period, but since the fall. The post-lapsarian world is a world after virtue. With this understanding, the goal of the Christian life, in my mind, isn’t necessarily the achievement of virtue. It’s certainly the goal of an Aristotelian, but the goal of the Christian life is surrender of our will to Christ. So, this whole discussion of virtue I think I would challenge. Not to say that virtue in itself is a bad thing, but again, I’ll echo someone else, I think what we need is not virtue, but we need to both give and receive grace.
So, just a little bit on politics. I think to say that the West has been abandoning Christianity for quite some time is to miss how thoroughly — this may be provocative — how thoroughly Christian many of our public demands for justice, fairness, and equality are and remain. I’ll confess being influenced by Nietzsche here in the Genealogy of Morals. Of course, he’s one of Christianity’s great critics, he comments regarding secular liberals of his own day, that it is the Church and not its poison that repels him. And what Nietzsche means is you have all these secular 19th century humanitarian liberals running around talking about equality and talking about freedom, yet they want nothing to do with Christianity. And Nietzsche’s point is that the whole idea of human dignity they’re advancing is fundamentally Christian. So, you might hate ecclesial authority, you might reject Biblical authority, but you’re still living off the fruits. And again, I think we can probably safely say that the kind of traditional Christian sexual ethic that Rod identifies is in the process of being jettisoned if not having been jettisoned. Professor Capizzi gave a number of waypoints much earlier in time where that was happening. But the Christian notion of the person, even if not recognized as such, I think is still present.
I actually don’t find myself worrying about relativism. I find myself worrying — and maybe this is my law professor — about an aggressive, insistent, and often anti-religious moralism. This is the moralism that seeks to shut people down, silence dissent, demonize character, and bully political opponents rather than tolerate, or allow for debate. I’m not worried about relativism. I’m worried about hyper-moralism.
I’ll close on this for that reason. I actually want to raise questions about Rod’s demonization of liberalism and the collapse of liberalism into the secular boogeyman. I’m probably thinking in legal terms here, and I know we have someone from ADF here so you may want to comment on this when you speak. I actually think we need to preserve a kind of liberalism. If you think about at least classical liberalism, the idea is individuals have a certain dignity that we need to protect. So, we protect freedom of conscience, we protect freedom of speech, we protect the free exercise of religion, we protect associational rights. These are all things that I think Rod is worried about and I’m worried about. And I think it’s kind of ironic to the extent he’s advancing promotion of defending free exercise in particular. I mean, it’s kind of a liberal value, so I think that perhaps some kind of qualified and maybe more classical liberal conception is worth defending. It’s the only political and legal means I’m seeing right now to keep that sphere protected from, again, what I kind of see is these aggressive, moralistic, basically anti-religious folks.
In addition, our world is getting more pluralistic. We see this every day: a kind of liberal political philosophy that’s very ‘horizons aimed low’. I’m being Niebhurian here. We’re not aiming high and looking for great conceptions of the good. We’re looking for a modus vivendi. It strikes me that something like that is going to be necessary, and the kind of outright demonization of liberalism just clears the deck for progressives. So that’s my gentle protest against this criticism of liberalism. I fear that we may be cutting our feet out from under ourselves in doing that. I’m going to stop there because I know we’re probably short on time, but I look forward to further discussion. Thank you.
Mark Tooley: Thank you, Joe. We’ll be looking forward to your next article on the Niebuhr Option. Looking forward to publishing that. You referenced ADF, so Allison would you go next?
Alison Howard: Thank you. I’m Alison Howard. I’m director of Alliance Relations at Alliance Defending Freedom. I wish I was here to say that I found the perfect for us for us to retreat to, but I have not. That’s what leads us here today. Alliance Defending Freedom, for those who don’t know, is a non-profit legal organization. Yes, you can be a non-profit with lawyers in it. These are amazing Christian lawyers that have decided to give their time, their talent to pro bono work on behalf of believers. It’s an honor to get to work for this organization and with some of the best people that I would put up against what we’ve already deemed are these very anti-religious people who are set on silencing their opposition with an avalanche of lawsuits and cultural demonization.
It is with these legal battles in mind that I share with you my concerns with the way that many have interpreted the Benedict Option. I took a kind of focus group of my own office and thought, “What do you think the Benedict Option is?” Joe touched on this. As you read, you think, “What are we called to do? What is this Benedict Option?” There’s a full spectrum. I’m sure in this room it’s the same. I have respected Rod. I like Rod. I followed his writings, and I will continue to like Rod. I think there has been some confusion on this. I don’t think we’re going to answer it today, but he has started at a conversation that’s much needed on the current state of affairs in our country, and many of those things, I think, are enlightening to most people.
Those who have chosen the idea of retreat or ignorance is bliss hopefully have caught wind of some of these conversations and have been enlightened to what our many brothers and sisters in Christ are facing here and internationally. As a millennial — I cringe using that term — but I see so many other young people here. And I’m so encouraged because I think many here have already addressed what Rod has addressed, which is a concerning trend for the next generation to disregard faith and disregard Church, and disregard God. And with that, it only makes sense with lower Church attendance, there’s lower respect for religious liberty. There’s lower understanding of the role of religion and why it’s necessary to protect people of faith in the marketplace. But it’s encouraging to me that so many of you are here. And it’s encouraging to me what I see in the next generation that really cares about not only people of faith, but people of no faith being able to live freely in this country without fear of government punishment.
I’m fully aware that saying young people also makes you sound really old, so we’re left with millennial or young people. I don’t necessarily see Rod calling us to flee to the woods. Rather, I believe that the Benedict Option, to me, is separating from worldly principles, rethinking our sanctification, being in the world but not of the world, and embracing the communal heart of the Gospel. That is focusing more on ministry to people and communities. But I would argue that our public policy and being engaged in local public policy is a clear way to affect those people in those communities. That said, legislation can either be a weight to us as a faith community or a wing to us opening doors and giving us freedom to serve as we need to and are called to.
I see the Benedict Option focus on a more reverential pious and meditative life of worship as a good thing. The more we do that, the more what we do will separate us from the world. Hopefully, we are truly otherworldly in our work and in the way we live our lives. In some ways, the work that many of us have done here, I think, has shielded our country from seeing the true contempt that’s out there amongst political elites and cultural elites for Christians. I know Alliance Defending Freedom received there were 3,000 calls a year, from Christians who are concerned about their right to freely function in the marketplace, whether that’s at work, pastors at church, and I think that’s really revealing. We take on so many cases, and those that we can’t take on in-house, we give out to 3,000 allied attorneys across the country that have dedicated their time and have given over a million pro bono hours to working locally to defend their brother and sister.
Maybe the local florist, the local baker, the pastor who wants to put up church signs, and that’s something that’s really important. Thankfully we’ve played a role in 51 victories of the United States Supreme Court, and that is not just domestically. Alliance Defending Freedom International is a global partner of ADF, and it is something that I get joy talking about because as we all know what happens across the pond is soon here. And by God’s grace, we have won more than 80 percent of our legal battles both internationally and domestically, and in over ten years, played a major role in 100 victories affirming religious liberty, life, and marriage. It is not alone that we have achieved those victories, though. Alliance is our first name. I’m very careful to point out that we have all worked together. Many of you in this room, those you on this panel. It is only by us working together as a body of Christ that we can pursue opening the doors so that those who declare the Gospel are free to do so and those who don’t can hear it if they choose.
Rod Dreher speaks of the coming Dark Ages, friends. As a young person, that term reminds me of our last election. It was funny to me when I saw a pastor, whom many of you know, did a YouTube video sermon titled, “Adults, stop the vitriol. You’re scaring the children.” And it’s true. I encourage you all to realize that the next generation and those that will come after are looking to the adults in the room for how they handle these current cultural affairs — whether they are scared and running away or whether they are winsome and not fazed. And I encourage you to be in that latter part. As Joe talked about, this last paragraph in McIntyre’s book After Virtue talks about “men and women of goodwill.” He talked about these men and women of goodwill that turned aside and what they achieved was the construction of new forms of community.
I would like to propose today that these men and women of goodwill are still here. These men and women that I have gotten the chance to meet and work with and have seen our wonderful lawyers defend are true heroes of the faith, and I hope it serves as an encouragement to you. I don’t know if I share this opinion with everyone, but I struggle sometimes to think if I wasn’t doing this full-time work, what would I be doing? How do you get engaged? The most common question after events like this is, “What can I do?” After reading books like this, what action do I take? But I want you to be thinking of these people, because their action may soon be your action. People like Barronelle Stutzman, a 73-year-old grandmother who just sent our office some really good cookies, and she does that often.
She’s a florist out of Washington state, and she served a gay couple for nine years. Rob and his partner were creative and amazing and they had a beautiful relationship. Barronelle served them, did all of their birthday arrangements, anniversary arrangements, holidays, and when Rob Ingersoll sat down with Baronelle and shared the news that he was going to get married to his partner, they hugged. Rob talked to Barronelle about how his mom was going to walk him down the aisle. Rob asked Barronelle to do the flowers for the wedding. She said, “Let me think about it.” And she went home. She talked to her husband and prayed about it. She went back to Rob and said, “Look. You know I’m a woman of religious background, and I can’t do your flowers. But I found some amazing people in the community who are going to do just as good a job at the same rate.” And they hugged. He said. “I understand.” He went home. His partner did not understand. His partner posted on Facebook, a Facebook post that went viral and got up to the attorney general of Washington, who decided to take matters into his own hands.
He sued Barronelle and the ACLU soon followed, not just in her professional capacity, friends, as a florist, but in her personal capacity. She could lose everything she owns. Because Washington state is a joint asset state, so could her husband. I mean down to the car, the dog. The house. The state of Washington just ruled against Barronelle and said that she has to deny her deeply held convictions and participate in same-sex ceremonies.
Elaine Huguenin and her husband are photographers. I’m going to ask how many people in here know people that have taken up photography as a side business for weddings, for fun, right? This is what she and her husband did. They declined to use their artistic expression in New Mexico, simply declining to do a same-sex wedding. The New Mexico Supreme Court said that it was “the price of citizenship” and that she would have to take pictures to celebrate these ceremonies or, and she’s chosen to, shut down her business.
We are seeing college campus administrators failing to allow a marketplace of ideas to flourish. You’ve all seen the YouTube videos of people like Ben Shapiro being locked out of auditoriums because they’re sharing a message that just goes against what some on campus think. We’re seeing Catholic Charities, as Joe talked about. My father was raised by Catholic Charities, by Catholic brothers in Philadelphia. He was orphaned as a kid, and I’m so grateful for that ministry. I have a brother, Bill. He’s the closest I have to a grandpa. But they have had to close their doors because of their adoption policies. Kids are now not having the chance to be adopted simply because people wanted to so badly shut down Catholic Charities for their belief in family and a Biblical sexual ethic.
I had the privilege of meeting these people and I tell you what, we may have a mixed crowd in here. It is not about whether you would bake the cake. It does not matter whether you would create the floral arrangement, whether you would perform the abortion, or put the child in a certain family. What matters is whether you think the government has the right to tell people to deny their convictions. It is not about whether you would do it. It’s about whether the government can tell someone they have to. And if the government can tell them to deny their deeply held convictions or else go to jail, shut down their business, or be penalized by fines, they can tell you to do anything.
Now some have found an excuse in the Benedict Option, permission to withdraw and retreat. And I know that would provide much easier comfort and convenience than dealing with all of this. Back to the election. I know many of us, we have thought about retreating and maybe just raising our kids in Wyoming with no access to television or cable. It’s still an option for me. But I would argue that that is a spiritually lazy option and, thankfully, the brilliant Oswald Chambers agrees with me and convicts me. He says, “The true test of spirituality occurs when we come up against injustice, degradation, ingratitude, and turmoil, all of which have the tendency to make us spiritually lazy. While being tested, we’d want to use prayer and Bible reading for the purpose of finding a quiet retreat. We use God only for the sake of getting peace and joy. We seek only our enjoyment of Jesus, not a true realization of Him. This is the first step in the wrong direction. All these things we are seeking are simply effects and yet we try to make them the causes. The real danger in spiritual laziness is that we do not want to be stirred up. All we want to hear about is a spiritual retirement from the world. Yet, Jesus Christ never encourages the idea of retirement. He says, ‘Go and tell my brethren.’” Matthew 28:10.
Now friends, as someone who works in this world and lives in DC as many of you do, in some ways, I think the Benedict Option can be a refreshing reminder that we do need to separate at times from the stressors of this world. I don’t think that means running off to a monastery for most of us. I think for most of us, that means putting our phone down, taking a moment with the Lord, and being more reverent of the fact that we get another chance at life today, and what that means for us. I do not believe we’re ever called to withdraw or disengage. Rod Dreher said he did not mean to encourage that. I don’t know. But any temporary break from society’s deluge of shiny entertainment and distraction should be in order for us to refocus on the true Gospel.
I am the daughter of a youth pastor. That same orphan boy who was raised by Catholic Charities who I’m sure put the fun in dysfunctional in Northern Philadelphia without a mom and dad, ended up having three girls and running his own youth ministry in New Jersey. And it was crazy. It was hard. And I would ask him, “How do you keep going? How do you keep doing this? There’s no thanks. There’s no money.” And he said, “I’m not called to stop.” We’re not called to stop. If you leave here today remembering one thing, just remember you’re not called to stop.
Politics and economics are truly downstream of culture. We all know that. The political and legal battles we’re fighting are just the immediate battles. Many, I’ve heard, have said, “If we could only go back to the days before now.” And someone said to me, “Yeah. But even those days were bad.” We kind of touched on this. There’s always something, and so we’re not to be fearful of our current situation. If we don’t engage, to push back on the idea of withdrawal, if we don’t have Christians in the marketplace living out their faith as Cherie said, as corporate lawyers, as legal advocates, as social services, as pastors, I’m afraid that those who believe that the Benedict Option would allow them to retreat will have very limited options.
My biggest contempt with the Benedict Option, as many think, is that they could in any way just become a homogeneous community and separate ourselves and be left alone. It has been made very clear that we will not be left alone. We were told to live and let live, were we not? We were told that no one would be trying to make you do anything that you don’t want to do. Just let us do what we need to do. Unfortunately, for people like Barronelle and Elaine, that has not been the reality. That was not the game. And if any of you have read a book called “After the Ball”, it’s all right there, about what the plan was for us. Right after Obergefell — which I was there, and I have to say, like, love you guys, but there was like 10 of us there — there were 3,000 LGBTQ advocates and there were 10 conservatives at the court that day. I get it. It’s hard, trust me. I know. I’m 28. I’m a unicorn for talking like this. But I will say right after that HRC came out with a document called “Beyond Marriage.” It wasn’t just about that. If we don’t engage and help keep freedoms open, those who want to retreat will not have that option. Homeschooling will not be an option. That has already been attacked. Our new CEO is Mike Farris, who founded the Home School Legal Defense Association because homeschooling is not looked upon lightly by governments.
Let me just say that justice is central to the Kingdom of God. He is the judge of all the earth. Christians everywhere and in all places are called to enact societies where all persons are recognized as image bearers of God — both men and women including the poor, the sick, the elderly, the handicapped, children, the terminally ill, the unborn, all racial and ethnic minority groups, adherents of all religions and no faith, the unpopular, and even the criminal and despicable. We are not just looking out for ourselves, friends, but future generations, and generations of future freedoms internationally. Dr. Daniel Mark, who some of you know, Vice-Chairman of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom has commented on this situation. I want to share his remarks with you. I love them.
He says, “Nobody in America suffers religious persecution like Christians overseas. But persons who have faced discrimination are usually not the high and mighty. They are charities or small businesspeople derided by politically correct groupthink and driven to bankruptcy by coercive state power. Why is it then ‘abrasive’ to defend them, and should injustice against them not be fervently resisted so that even greater injustices don’t arise later? Should we not jealously safeguard a rich and holy legacy of religious freedom purchased dearly for us by the sacrifice of earlier, less privileged generations?”
My concern is that this Benedict Option has led many to consider withdrawing, and that is not an option for believers. We should be encouraged to confront and solve many of our current societal problems. And as many of us were told growing up, “You’re not part of the solution. You’re part of the problem.” I truly believe that we can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can invest in our local churches and our families, pursue Gospel truth, and then turn around and go and remind the world what makes us different.
A recent Brian Grimm and Melissa Grimm study revealed the value of faith-based institutions. We’ve quantified it at a 1.2 trillion dollar contribution. I just want to share with you quickly that that 1.2 trillion dollars is more than the annual revenues of the top 10 tech companies, including Apple, Amazon and Google combined. Despite declining religious affiliation and attendance in the US, religious organizations have tripled the amount of money spent on social programs in the last 15 years now to 9 billion dollars. And if 1.2 trillion dollars was put in terms of GDP, it would make U.S. religion the 15th largest national economy in the world. 40 percent of the top 50 charities are in the United States. They are faith-based with a combined operational revenue of 45.3 billion dollars. If we retreat, the world will miss us. We need to be there. Thank you so much for being here tonight and for caring about the future, for me, for yourselves, and for the next generation. Thank you.
Mark Tooley: Thank you, Alison, and you never told us the pronunciation of your new last name which is…
Alison: It is Centofante or Centofante if you’re Italian. I joke that it means my husband is a better cook than me.
Mark Tooley: Oh, sounds very positive. Well, our final panelist now will be our distinguished Southern Baptist, so Bruce…
Bruce Ashford: Yeah. Thank you to Mark and IRD and to Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary for letting me be here, and to you folks being willing to sit through the bloviations of five panelists this evening. So I’m going to try to make this quick and punchy and as painless as possible.
In 2006, the Great sociologist Philip Rieff published a monograph entitled “My Life Among the Deathworks”, which turned out to be the first volume of a trilogy entitled “The Sacred Order/Social Order Trilogy.” He argues that the West in general, and the United States in particular, is in the midst of an unprecedented attempt to desacralize the public square. Historically, he argued that civilizations understood that sacred order shapes social order and does so by means of cultural institutions. Sacred order provides a world of meaning and a code of permissions and prohibitions, moral framework. This world of meaning and morality vitalizes and shapes cultural institutions and cultural products, which then in turn shape the thought patterns, instinctual desires, and imaginations of successive generations of society.
But as Rieff argued, and as Dreher argues in his own way, many people with cultural power in the West and the United States (Rieff calls them the ‘officer class’) have determined that they want to get rid of sacred order. It has been going on for decades and even more than a century, he argues. And so they’re trying to rip sacred order out from underneath social order to leave social order to float on its own. And when that happens, Rieff argues, cultural institutions and cultural products become what he calls ‘deathworks’. He said what you’ve had is a proliferation of deathworks in the past decades. And he calls this proliferation the final assault on sacred order.
So it’s this sort of situation, I think, that Rod responds to. He doesn’t draw primarily upon Rieff, he draws upon MacIntyre and Rieff and Taylor. This is sort of the situation he’s responding to. We’ve had some good summaries, so I’ll make mine a 30-second summary, if I can for a minute. I think the heart of what he’s saying here is he’s saying, “Listen. You have thrown yourself into political activism for the past thirty years, and it has failed you. You have lost and it is over. Don’t just redouble on the political activism. Take most of those energies. Not all of them. Don’t withdraw entirely. Take most of those energies and put them towards strengthening local churches, local associations, families.” So less federal and state and more local. Less political activism and more Church. He gives some habits and values we ought to cultivate. He addresses seven different dimensions of culture, including politics.
We’re narrowing in on politics tonight, and chapter four is entitled “A New Kind of Politics”. He calls it an “Anti-Political Politics”. He sort of lifts that from Vaclav Havel, gives credit, but he sort of takes it from Havel. Let me just give you a summary in his own words. On page 98, he says this, “Here’s how to get started with the anti-political politics of the Benedict Option. Secede culturally from the mainstream. Turn off the television. Put the smart phones away. Read books. Play games. Make music, peace with your neighbors. Start a church. Open a classical Christian school. Plant a garden. Participate in the farmers’ market. Teach kids how to play music. Start a band. Join the volunteer fire department.” And so again, this just sort of illustrates what he’s saying. Take most of your political activism energies and put them into small, localized efforts: the Church, smaller associations, neighborhoods, and so forth. And then he concludes the chapter by saying we need to thank God that we’ve been marginalized. This is really a gift from God because maybe we’ll stop viewing ourselves as the lord of the Empire and begin to serve our nation and to serve the kingdom.
So to respond quickly, there’s some positive things about the book. I’m grateful for the concerns that animate the Benedict Option. I’m grateful he’s got a keen eye for sin and idolatry and how those things corrupt and misdirect cultural institutions and power structures. He has, I think, a pastoral heart. He writes to nourish the Church. It’s not arrogant. It doesn’t have that feel when he writes. He wants to strengthen the Church. He wants to fight for religious liberty, strengthen families, and maybe best of all, he says, “Do this with a posture of joyful confidence.” You know, not slouching into a sort of angry or bitter sort of resentment.
However, I don’t think his prescription is quite right. While I do think that we ought to put a lot of our energy into building what I would call a strong and resilient ecclesial counterculture, I do not think that it follows that we ought to reduce our political activism. I think we ought to put significant energy in both. I want to offer what I will playfully call — and here’s another one for your list — an Abrahamic alternative to the Benedict Option. Now, here’s the deal. I am not referring to the Biblical patriarch. I’m referring actually to Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch prime minister and public theologian — Father Abraham some of us call him.
So Kuyper lived in a day when secularism encroached, and his response was to build a strong ecclesial counterculture and to encourage strong, sustained political activism, and he did so by two means. I want to summarize those briefly. One is, he leaned on creation’s normative order, something that’s not significantly present in Rob’s book. He leaned on creation’s normative order that is ordered in a certain way by God, and he leaned on the two facets of the Church. Church is an institution and an organism.
Let’s start with creation’s normative order. When Kuyper described the way that God ordered the world, he usually liked to talk about sphere sovereignty, a spatial analogy. He was trying to say that God designed the world to have different realms of cultural activity and he called those spheres. And these spheres each have their own center and their own circumference. So their own center their own reason for being, kind of an animating reason for being, and each sphere has a different center, they’re not the same. And each, he also said, has a circumference. So their jurisdiction comes to an end somewhere. The government, believe it or not, does not have an endless jurisdiction. It should not be like a giant octopus whose tentacles are reaching into everything. And the same thing goes for the institutional Church, to the arts, to education, and the other cultural spheres.
The effect of this, of Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty is a system of checks and balances: not a governmental system of checks and balances where you disperse governmental power, but a system of checks and balances at the ontological level. Culturally, that there are different cultural jurisdictions. God reigns over each of these spheres of cultural activity, but he rules over each in a unique way — the church differently than the government, the government different than the arts, the arts different than education. And a Christian approach to a sphere would be that the Christian community discerns God’s creational design for that sphere (whether it’s politics or something else), watches out for the way that sin and idolatry have corrupted God’s design, and then tries to bring healing and redirection where there has been corruption and misdirection.
Now an interesting side note here, before we cover the final, the church’s division of political labor, that of a normative creation order. We live in a cultural situation in which historic Christianity is being sidelined a little bit (Rod may think it’s being sidelined more than some of us do), but we do operate from a position of weakness when compared to other times in our history. The positive is that if God created these spheres before the fall of cultural activity, then they’re good, and He holds them in his hand. The fact is this: that no sphere, by implication, is never too far gone. No ideological allusion can contradict reality indefinitely with impunity. Secular nihilism seems like it has a stranglehold in some ways, but so did Communism in the 70’s, and little did we know that the cracks were deep in the foundations of Communism.
The second thing Kuyper did after ‘creation as a normative order’ is he pointed out that when Christ ascended, he left behind a Church that is to be a formation center for public witness to Christ’s kingdom. But it has two aspects: institution and organism. The Church as an institution is a political witness in a different way (and this is very important) than the church as an organism. The Church as an institution meets weekly, and we meet over word and table. So we preach the Gospel and we embody the Gospel when we take the Lord’s supper. And when we declare that Jesus is Lord, by implication, we say that Caesar is not. When we preach the Gospel clearly and with power, it calls into question the cultus publicus of any empire, including the United States. The political power, if you will, of the Church-institutional is the proclamation of the Gospel. It’s not public policy. Churches are not competent or called to dictate public policy from the pulpit. There could be some exceptions from time to time, but as a general rule, that’s not the Church’s place.
The Church is also an organism. After the Church has gathered, it scatters. When we scatter, we scatter as ambassadors to the King. Every day Americans in a democratic republic are ambassadors to the King through their everyday life in many ways, just general everyday life, Christian witness, but also through voting, involvement with political parties and so forth. Then you have some Christians who have a certain expertise. We have lawyers, political scientists, heads of NGOs, political journalists, who can contribute politically in very specific and very powerfully helpful ways. We want to encourage and assist these people. We want to ascribe significance on these types of political action and political activism. We want to find lots of ways to encourage our children to do these sorts of things. Sunday morning public worship prepares us for Monday morning public life.
Finally, I want to just give a nod toward what this might look like in our 21st century context. That gave you a little bit of a picture, concise to the extreme, of what Kuyper was trying to do. I’m going to try to give a little bit of a picture, concise to the extreme, of how we might apply that. What I’m going to do is not scholarly. I’m going to — because I have two minutes — just kind of give four categories, I think, of things that everyday Americans can understand and grasp and do. When I say everyday Americans, I mean Americans who are not specialists in some field that’s related closely to politics.
The first thing we need to do is re-center God in a desacralized or partly or mostly desacralized public square. We’ve got to find appropriate ways of calling attention back to the cosmic King. How do we do that? One way that we do it is that through our speech and our words, we make clear that Jesus is Lord, and by implication, that sex and money and power are not. And these sort of things that we tend to absolutize, these idols like sex and money and power, are powerfully influential in the public square and in politics. We have to find ways to show that Jesus is Lord and those things or not.
In terms of political ideologies, you have the idols like individual autonomy, material equality, ethno-nations, social progress, cultural heritage. I’m trying to be an equal opportunity offender. I want to offend every major modern political ideology if I can for a moment. All of these ideologies will tend toward and tend to lapse into absolutizing something other than Christ. We want to make clear that Christ is Lord. We also want to make clear that the Bible provides the true story of the whole world. Believe it or not, MSNBC and Breitbart do not. They are bit players in the grand sweep of history. We want to frame things in light of the Bible’s narrative-and-show that our political allegiances are tentative in light of our allegiance to Christ. Occupants of Caesar’s throne come and go. Jesus remains forever. That’s re-center God.
Number two, I think we need to decenter self. There’s a deep, deep need in the United states for us to decenter ourselves. For believers, I think that means this: we need to lead the way in seeking the common good, the public good and not merely the good of our own tribe. I think identity politics of the sort that seeks only its own interests is the death of a democratic republic. We need to lead the way in seeking the common good. I think also we de-center ourselves when in the midst of an exchange on Facebook, or in a coffee shop, or in a public exchange, when we refuse to demean and degrade the people on the other side of the aisle, even if they are at that very moment doing that to us. When we refuse as a conservative to view Barack Obama as a thoroughly morally reprehensible person in whom nothing good can be found. Or vice versa with our current president. We have to refuse to do that and show a better way. That’s not easy to do, is it, when you’re in the middle of in the heat of the moment?
The third thing is reframing issues. If it is true that Jesus is Lord, and if his Lordship shapes us in the depths of our being, then there will be times in ways when our way of viewing issues is very different from the GOP or the Democratic Party. I’m a registered Republican, and I’m a conservative, so that’s where my commitments are. But there are times when my Christianity helps me to re-frame an issue in a way that makes it interesting, and is helpful to the public-and, this is important — in a way that breaks American society’s ability to classify us or stereotype us and therefore dismiss us as a special interest arm of any given political party. We re-frame issues.
Finally, we need to revitalize culture. Cultural institutions are powerful agents of change. They shape desires and thought patterns. We need to play the long game and take the broad view. And then I’m going to land the plane. We need to play the long game. And that means we need to as Rod says, not put all of our eggs in the basket of short-term activism. Unlike Rod, I want to put a lot more eggs in that basket than he does. But we don’t put all of our eggs in the basket of short term activism, because if we do that, believe it or not, we’ll often sacrifice our witness on the altar of a short-term political gain. You might imagine such a scenario over the past 20 or 30 years. And then we need to, I think, take the broad view and that is to really ascribe significance to the arts, education, to the Church, to all these other spheres of culture.
And so then finally, I really do think we should thank Rod for challenging us to be faithful in an American context. Richard John Neuhaus, who always put things better than anyone else, said, “When I meet the Lord” — this won’t be an exact quote, but it’s close — “When I meet the Lord victorious one day, I will meet him as an American.” That is not the most important aspect of who I am, but it is an inescapable and significant one and one for which I will be held accountable. And so I think we owe it to God and to our neighbors to strengthen our ecclesial counterculture and to engage in serious political activism, even and especially when we have to do so from a position of weakness.
Mark Tooley: Thank you. That was great, Bruce. Five wonderful presentations. Very intense and exhausting and stimulating. I could tell all of you are just overwhelmed and full of questions and comments. But I made a solemn promise we would be out of here before nine o’clock, so we’re going to set aside 15 minutes for questions. Your questions must be very short and succinct and punchy and must entertain us in some way. Otherwise they will be rejected. And I see that the food table has been replenished, so as soon as we finish with the questions, that will be reopened of course. Brandon. Please use the microphone and give us your name, okay?
Brandon Showalter: Yes, Brandon Showalter, Christian Post. I will do my best to make a succinct question out of this one. Y’all said many interesting things, and I believe — I forget who, which one of you said that Rod perhaps sometimes tends to overemphasize sins of license over sins of oppression. I know he writes extensively in the Benedict Option about the ferocity of the sexual revolution and he writes a lot on AmCon about that as well. Just in the last week as a reporter, I have reported on Teen Vogue marketing sodomy to teenagers. I saw on YouTube that the number seven video was adults talking about sex toys with children. There’s an increasing ferociousness that, I don’t blame parents for wanting to try and separate somehow, because they’re coming for the kids. I’m an Anglican, and I’m all for teaching theology of the body to three-year-olds. So taking a page from the Catholics, I like the Catholic thing, can you speak to Rod’s reasonable concern about this, because it just seems like every with passing day it’s just a wave of increasing extremism. How can we engage culture in light of how bad its getting every day?
Cherie Harder: I’m happy to take a first shot since I made the license statement. First of all, just to clarify, Rob’s concern is eminently reasonable and spot-on. One of the things I actually really appreciate about the Benedict Option is the extent to which he talked about some of the new technologies that enable forms of perversion to be much more widespread and much more distorting and corrupting in many ways. He has a big section on porn, which I think the insidious effects of which, probably has not been talked about enough within some churches. The pervasiveness of it, the ways in which it affects the imagination, and the relationships. The way it forms a notion of the good, in ways that can be permanently distorting and crippling to the ability to have God-honoring, life-giving, long-term relationships. His concerns are very important. Part of my point was also the importance of balance. There are sins of license that do, as I said, distort and corrupt. There are also systemic sins of oppression in which there have been entire people groups who have been exploited, dehumanized, and their lives also distorted, corrupted held under — not through any fault of their own. So part of our challenge as Christians is trying to look critically and with humility and trying to discern how God would think about the sins in our own history and in our own lives. You don’t have to emphasize one over the other to acknowledge the potency and the corrupting power of both.
Mark Tooley: Very good next question. Yes ma’am. Please give us your name, please.
Minerva Diaz: Dr. Minerva Diaz with Diaz Consulting Society. I have an observation, and at the same time, I want to turn it into a question. And it’s the Isaiah Option. Isaiah was a prophet. And in the Old Testament, whenever all the governing authorities fled because they didn’t want to deal with the mess — it was no longer pretty to be a king or a prophet or an administrator — Isaiah assumed the role of all those functions in one way or another. In other words, he did not run away from the disaster. He remained in it, engaged it — ugly as it was. And so, my observation is for religious liberty, of which I am also a part of that thinking and that activism: if we create a void, if we all leave and engage in all the things that we should be doing as a Church (mind you we should be doing those things as a Chruch)…Some people, like myself, are called to politics. My role as clergy is not necessarily in the Church, but outside of the Church in the public square. So here is the question: Have we thought enough through that if we all disappear, go away and mind our own business, we create a vacuum. Who and what ideology is going to occupy that vacuum? That’s my question to all.
Mark Tooley: Joe Capizzi, why don’t you answer.
Joe Capizzi: Bad people. As far as I heard, nobody up here is advocating leaving the public square, abandoning the effort. And maybe this would be partially in Rod’s defense: I do have a little bit of a hesitation about us as people of faith calling ourselves activists. There’s a way in which (and maybe Rod would perhaps be sympathetic to this)… There’s a way in which if we identify in that way, we’re almost like just going to get lost in that cacophony of activists playing politics. I’m not sure that’s the best way for us to self-describe. Nonetheless, none of us wants us to stop engaging. It was kind of funny to me that we had the Adenauer option in a sense that I described, and then Kuyper. Other people were referring to people who are fighting the fight. We all seem to think that, as Alison said, that we can walk and chew gum at the same time. That we can be faithful and be engaging. I don’t think that game has changed. I’m really Augustinian on this kind of stuff as well. As an Augustinian, and Joe made this point very, very well, the history is read through the cross, right? It’s read from the perspective of salvation. In a sense, what that does is just kind of evaporates the significance of this or that loss or this or that win by comparison to the win that Christ gained for us. Again, we do this not because of outcomes but because this is what Christians do. We help each other and serve other people. None of us up here wants to cede that ground to bad people.
Alison Howard: I really like your point on activism. I’s a great question. I will put it this way I think we should all be wary of ‘wacktivism.’
Joe Capizzi: I love the millennials, right? She said stressors and wacktivism…
Alison Howard: I say that lovingly…. Like they’re crazy, but they’re our wacktivists, they’re with us. So I think you bring up a good point, right? You need to be engaged, but that word activism just creates this image of someone you do not want to spend time with. You don’t want to have dinner with. You don’t want around. Don’t come to my party. I think we have to be very careful. As you become more ostracized and as our thoughts and feelings and ideologies become more demonized, we should become ever increasingly winsome. Otherwise, we will be caught up in the cacophony of wacktivists. You don’t want that label. I give an example of: is your time best spent in a battle on Facebook? No. No. If it’s about time and talent and treasure and where you’re storing it up, then we need to reassess what our activism looks like. I can be guilty of that when I get encouraged to respond on Twitter, because it’s probably not the best use of my time. I hope the helps.
Mark Tooley: After the camera turns off, Alison is going to identify some of her favorite wacktivists, so stick around. We have time for two or three more questions. If they’re quick, so please don’t make any statements, just shoot out a question. Yes, Tyler.
Tyler O’Neill: Tyler O’Neill with PJ media. My question is mostly for Joe Hartman. I’m focusing on, you mentioned, Nietzsche and Rod Dreher drawing from Alasdair MacIntyre. Would you say that this decline of values that we’re talking about — almost all the panelists push back against the idea that the West is losing its values, that we’ve almost capitulated to Nietzsche in a way. That we’ve accepted the idea that God’s been killed and that as Christians, we shouldn’t follow that?
Joe Hartman: I’m sorry. I just missed the question…
Tyler O’Neill: Would you say that we’ve capitulated to Nietzsche, that we shouldn’t give in to this idea of a full decline of the West’s values?
Joe Hartman: Wow, that’s a massive question. I think the answer is that I wouldn’t “capitulate”. Again, because I resisted the notion of this decline narrative to begin with. It goes back to my point about this sort of Augustinian perspective. Of course, there are elements of culture that are in radical decline. I’d be a fool to sit up here, and be pan gloss or something. But I think these kinds of decline narratives always identify some pivot point. I can do this in Leo Strauss’s terms. I can do this in Alasdair MacIntyre’s terms. We can pick some others. It’s just not that simple. I don’t know if I can say much more than that. On the Nietzschean point, Nietzsche goes on to say that what’s coming next is a massive conflagration as the West deals with the death of God and the dislocation of, essentially, really abandoning Christianity. That’s still a prophecy. We’re not there, if you know what I’m getting at. I suppose that’s possible. But again, you look back even just to the history of the United States. Look at religiosity. I don’t want to be a social scientist. I’m not one. But you look at religiosity between the founding and now, and it kind of does this, it moves around. So yeah, I’m not convinced of this sort of massive decline.
Mark Tooley: Two more questions. Yes, sir.
Stephen Howard: Hi, my name is Stephen Howard. I’m just here as a citizen tonight. No agenda. I have not read the book. You guys can shoot this question down if you don’t think it’s valid but we’re all Americans. I understand why we’re so focused on Western civilization, but Christianity as a religion is not a Western religion. When you look at The Brothers Karamazov, which I’m sure a lot of you have read, you saw prophetic foresight as to what was going to happen in the Russian Revolution. In eastern Europe and this whole Byzantine theology, that’s a very different understanding of the relationship between church and state. Then you look at what’s happening in the Middle East today, in Egypt, in Syria, in Iraq, Christians in those countries have not gotten involved in the public sphere the way that we do in this country. My question is when we talk about the Reformation and the Enlightenment and all this stuff, are we in danger of just like being sort of nostalgic and nationalistic about the West and maybe forgetting about the true essence of our faith and our obligation you know to our society?
Mark Tooley: Bruce can you answer that?
Bruce Ashford: Yeah. Sure, you make good points. Christianity was given birth to in the Middle East and Asia and North Africa and then traveled to Europe, then to the United States and is traveling everywhere else back. I will say, in Rod’s defense, the book is littered with examples from global Christian communities, and I don’t think we mentioned that or maybe we failed to mention that. But there are scores of examples from global Christian communities. You make a good point. We’re very obsessed with the West and need to pay attention to the kind of things that Philip Jenkins describes: the rise of the global south and a global east and the amazing things that are happening in those communities. So, very good point.
Mark Tooley: One final question, and there so many to choose from. Stick around later and maybe our panelists would be willing to answer your question. The person standing up back there.
Micah Messer: Hi, my name is Micah Messer. I’m an undergrad at Georgetown. And first of all, thank you all for speaking. Everyone has talked about the historical narrative, and everyone has pushed back on the idea that things are worse. The world is more antagonistic towards Christianity, but also toward concepts of truth, justice, etc. now than it has been in the past. But I do worry that those critiques only engage with half of the argument that Mr. Dreher actually makes in the book. Because Mr. Dreher’s argument is not so much that the world is more unjust now than it has been in the past but that the church is also internally weaker than it has been in the past to deal with this. Heavily relying on the sociology of Christian Smith, he harps a lot on the sexual revolution more than anything else, but he points out that rates of premarital sex are not appreciably different between conservative evangelical communities and the broader American society with the one exception of Mormons, actually. But going down the line, Christian Smith’s studies have revealed that millennial Christians are overwhelmingly basically illiterate about the fundamental principles of Christianity. I was raised in a very strong Anabaptist church. Now I’m going to the largest Catholic university in the nation, and if I were to count on my hands the number of peers I have that see fit to actually spend time delving into either the Bible itself, or the history of Christianity, or theological principles, I would run out of names before I ran out of fingers. My question is, obviously if it was sort of just a basic ‘the world is getting worse’, withdrawal would make no sense at all. But a large part of Mr. Dreher’s argument is that the Church itself is getting internally weaker and from that perspective, some form of withdrawal does seem to make more sense. I’m wondering, do any of you find that sociology convincing? And if it does, does that at all moderate your criticisms of Mr. Dreher to begin with? Thank you.
Mark Tooley: Who will take that very deep question?
Joseph Capizzi: Yes. We might actually be in agreement. To answer your questions as punchily as possible, as quickly as possible, I’d say no. I don’t find it all that convincing, and no, therefore, it does not moderate my position. I think again, if you look as Joe said, with regard to cycles of religiosity in the United States. There are cycles. Even with regard to religiosity and religious literacy, just within Catholicism, there are also cycles. Trent is in part a response to profound religious illiteracy among the priesthood. So even that aspect of it, if you’re looking at it from some moment in American Christian relationships and then compare us to that, there are ways in which we are in obvious decline. But does that tell enough of a story about why as Christians, we should now have a different kind of hope with regard to our relationship? To culture and society? I don’t think so.
Joe Hartman: Yeah, I don’t think I disagree. The only thing I might add — and I cut this out of my talk before — I do think Rod’s right to emphasize education and to emphasize catechesis. There’s a great book called “Grounded in the Gospel” by J.I. Packer. The Anglican tradition argues this. You’re certainly not going to get an argument for me that Church needs to do a better job catechizing not just the young, but everyone. I’d have to think more about the other piece of your question. I was thinking — so full disclosure, Mike is a student of mine — I was in your position 20 years ago. I’m not sure it would have been terribly different in my college experience. Now I was at the University of Virginia, not a Catholic university. It’s a good question. I’m not sure, but I think it’s probably not terribly different, actually. Just a hunch.
Alison Howard: If I may, I want to just comment on the fact that there’s so many people I know as well that have left an evangelical Church to go towards a Catholic faith. A lot of the pro-life leaders I know have done that, and I think it’s really revealing. I’m an evangelical, and I just think it should be convicting to the Church at large that we as a community of believers and especially, as young people, are ultimately creating what millennial people have craved: logic, reason, truth.
Joe Capizzi: The door’s open.
Alison Howard: We’re not always the coffee shop in the front and the flashy mega church. Rod touches on that pull away from the megachurch, fashionable appealing of the self-realization church. It should be, if we can end on a high note, a tinge of hope that people, especially the next generation that will lead these institutions that we form are craving for truth at the end of the day.
Mark Tooley: You all been a fantastically patient and attentive audience. So we thank you, and we ask that you help us clear off the food table before you leave the room. I should share there are rumors of an after party in the neighborhood, which if you ask me for details, I may whisper that in your ear. Finally, let’s thank our wonderful panelists.