Facing a secular age amidst a moral malaise, modern Christians are increasingly asking whether to flee or fight — whether to adopt the posture of a monk or a missionary?
One of Christendom’s most influential conservative commentators, Rod Dreher, is making the case for a modified monasticism — a kind of fleeing that also serves as a form of fighting.
Dreher calls it the “Benedict Option.”
A millennium and a half ago, Benedict of Nursia was so entirely repulsed by Rome’s iniquities that he retreated beyond the city’s gates and commenced a life of sacred solitude. After three years of prayer, meditation and cave dwelling, Benedict emerged as a sanctified soul, founding a dozen monasteries and penning perhaps the most influential treatise on monastic living.
Dreher’s tome, however — which derives its title from Benedict — is hardly a tract advocating for traditional monasticism. In his volume, which will most certainly become required reading among America’s Christian intelligentsia, Dreher makes the case for turning away from Rome (contemporary politics and culture) and refocusing on building up local Christian communities and institutions.
Such a move may even bring back those in the ranks of the so-called religiously unaffiliated. One of the central grievances of believers with no religious affiliation is that 67 percent of them feel churches are, for example, too enmeshed in politics. Even more say today's churches are too focused on money.
“To be sure,” Dreher clarifies, “Christians cannot afford to vacate the public square entirely.” And one area of political involvement that’s non-negotiable, he says, is religious liberty. America’s first freedom is, according to Dreher, “critically important to the Benedict Option.”
This makes sense. After all, the kind of strong Christian sub-communities Dreher envisions are impossible without well-moored First Amendment protections. Sans political safeguards, “Christians will not be able to build the communal institutions that are vital to maintaining our identity and values.”
If Dreher’s arguments sound familiar, its because, for Latter-day Saints at least, they most certainly are.
For the better part of two centuries, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been balancing building up local communitarian Christianity while negotiating with a national political climate that hasn't always been particularly friendly.
Moreover, Latter-day Saint luminaries have often warned fellow parishioners of the potential perils of politics. In 1973, for example, one of Brigham Young University’s most celebrated thinkers, Hugh Nibley, delivered an address that still circulates among students and scholars today.
The speech, titled “Beyond Politics,” argues that politics, although certainly good in many respects, is little more than the ephemeral métier of the "city of man." The true work of God, Nibley contends, is well beyond the city's walls, in the hearts of fellow neighbors — orphans, widows and the poor — who occupy the vacancies in a holy “city of God.”
In these kinds of discussions, however, one must be careful to avoid false dichotomies.
Christians would be unwise to withdraw or retreat from public life. Those who wish politics to become more virtuous will have little hope for even slight reforms if they call home all politically minded Christians.
Meanwhile, people of faith should also be equally careful about self-righteous judgments or incivility toward those who choose to serve the country — calling a politician the spawn of Huey Long and Beelzebub, for example, is wholly inappropriate (unless, of course, you have solid DNA evidence). Surely many — and perhaps even most — politicians enter public service because of a sincere yearning to help their neighbors. That yearning should be encouraged.
Additionally, as Dreher admits, in order to preserve the basic rights that permit Christianity to flourish, political engagement is vital.
However, in an age in which America has begun to retrain its domestic focus to provide more help to regions of the nation that have been passed over in the modern economy, it’s perhaps fitting that Dreher is introducing a brand of Christianity that would shift its gaze from the nation's capital back to local parishes and pews — satisfying the needs of parishioners before politicians.
By rebuilding congregations and the Christian core, Dreher seems to suggest that national influence will come as a natural consequence. After all, when the kingdom of God comes first, those other kingdoms usually seem to follow, even if they come ten minutes late, doubled over and sucking wind.
So should Latter-day Saints choose the ‘Benedict Option’? Perhaps start by reading the book.
Hal Boyd is the opinion editor of the Deseret News.