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Rod Dreher explains the ‘Benedict Option’

Q&A | The popular conservative commentator lays out a new way for Christians to interact with the culture

Rod Dreher has helped define the terms of the cultural conversation from his perch as senior editor of The American Conservative. His columns are widely read and quoted by those on both the left and the right. He’s perhaps best known, though, for a personal memoir called The Little Way of Ruthie Leming about the life and death of his sister. The book became a bestseller and spawned a sequel of sorts called How Dante Can Save Your Life. We recently had this conversation in Washington, D.C.

I want to talk specifically about this cultural moment. Surveys show the United States is becoming more pro-life, while at the same time, on the issue of same-sex marriage we’re moving in the opposite direction. You’ve jumped into the fray with what you’ve called the "Benedict Option." Would you say a few words about that? A few years ago I read a book called After Virtue by a philosopher named Alasdair MacIntyre. It came out in the ’80s. He ends it by saying that we are in a moment now in the West that’s akin to the fall of the Western Roman Empire, when everything went into chaos. He said Saint Benedict of Nursia left the chaos of Rome, went into the woods to pray. Without knowing what he was doing, he founded a community of men dedicated to prayer. This became the Benedictine order of monks, and over the next centuries they kept the faith alive throughout Europe as Europe was covered in barbarian darkness. They laid the groundwork for the rebirth of Christian society in the former Western Roman Empire.

MacIntyre says, “We’re waiting for a new and doubtless very different Saint Benedict to bring those who want to live the moral life together in community to survive through this current darkness.” I’ve been talking about this for years, but it’s starting to get real now because, with the progression of same-sex marriage and gay rights, we have seen a strong erosion of religious liberty. A lot of Christians think of this as simply a matter of law and politics. It’s not. We have lost the culture. We conservatives, we Christians, did not compete at the cultural level, so culture comes first. Politics and law follows that. …

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My argument is that Christians had better prepare for this. We are fighting a losing game. The country is not ours anymore. This is not our culture anymore. Maybe it never was our real home, but we have got to prepare ourselves and our families and our churches through intentional living, through disciplined living, and through an awareness of the cultural moment to deal with perhaps even persecution.

Some people say the Benedict way means separation; it means disengagement. First of all, is that what you mean? Or do you mean prayer, and holiness, and preparing your family to live lives of prayer and holiness? We don’t have the luxury of disengagement. We’ve got to protect our institutions as best we can. What I’m trying to say, to tell Christians, is it’s not enough to be a knight. You have to be a gardener, too. In the work I’ve done in the past couple years, I’ve talked to Christian leaders in different colleges, Catholic and Protestant, and they are seeing an entire generation of young people who don’t know their faith. Even if they’ve been through church groups, it’s always been this sort of Jesus-is-my-boyfriend, youth pastor kind of stuff that’s about a quarter-inch deep.

They don’t have the strong sense of the faith, not only in terms of what they know, but in terms of the way they live, their habits. They don’t have a strong enough sense of the faith to withstand the power of this culture, and you’re starting to see it, especially in the same-sex marriage thing. When people, young people, so willingly throw over biblical morality to fit in with the culture, that tells you there’s a problem, and I’ve seen it myself in the different churches I’ve been involved with. There’s just this moralistic, therapeutic deism, as Christian Smith calls it, this idea that “God is my best friend; God is the cosmic butler.” That is the real faith of American Christians, young Christians, and some of my generation. I’m 48.

What should the church do in response? Let’s stay involved in the outside world, but let’s also do a strategic retreat. That’s not, “head for the hills.” That’s doing things like turning off the television. Back away from the culture. We’re homeschoolers, my wife and me. We have seen a real difference between the kind of people who homeschool because they want something better for their kids and the kind of people who homeschool because they’re terrified of the outside world and want to just keep it way.

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