Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option contains more than a few vestiges of a book written for a Hillary Clinton Administration. Indeed the author has openly admitted that he wrote it anticipating (as most did) a second Clinton presidency, with all the hardships for religious liberty that the Clinton presidency had implied (1). The hasty revisions Mr. Dreher made to the book in light of Donald Trump’s election could hardly have been more satisfactory to the author than they have been to some of his critics — several of whom have argued that the election of Donald Trump, with the support of four-fifths of voting evangelicals, proves that conservative Christians are not so powerless in American national politics as Dreher says.
So did reality outflank The Benedict Option — subtitled A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation — and make its message moot on arrival? Only if one reads the book as the kind of reactive current-events commentary it isn’t.
Between the enemies threatening the American churches from outside, and the rot in doctrine and practice threatening it from inside, The Benedict Option focuses far more attention on the rot inside. The election of Trump signaled the extent, not the end, of that rot.
As to the external threat to the American churches, Mr. Dreher’s analysis of its origins goes far deeper than the Supreme Court’s 2015 national redefinition of marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), or its postmodernizing of Fourteenth Amendment rights in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), or the ideological secularization of the Democratic Party that began in the 1970s, or the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s. Mr. Dreher traces the chilly milieu in which American churches find themselves, rather, to philosophical and historical developments — nominalism, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment — that precede the American founding. Surely one presidential election, and one Supreme Court appointment, doesn’t roll back all that history.
But the reader who prefers realpolitik and regards Dreher’s philosophical-historical analysis (found primarily in chapter 2 of The Benedict Option) as irrelevantly academic should still note that the social and political forces that were arrayed against Christian traditionalists in 2016 haven’t exactly been receding in the first quarter of 2017. David Gushee’s 2016 column describing the disappearance of “middle ground” on LGBT issues noted:
Today, [most visible institutions of American life] are increasingly intolerant of any remaining discrimination, or even any effort to stay in a neutral middle ground. As with the fight against racial discrimination in the 1960s and 1970s, sexual-orientation and gender-identity discrimination is rapidly being rejected by society.
Mr. Gushee’s inventory of the “visible institutions” that are “increasingly intolerant” of religious traditionalism, or even SOGI squishiness, included the following:
. . . any entity associated with the federal government, including the military and the civil service.
And the vast majority of the education sector, its schools, trade groups, accreditors and staff, both because of the values of most educators and because of federal regulations.
And most clinical, medical and helping professions, associations and leaders.
And most titans of corporate America.
And most of the media and entertainment business, including its most visible celebrities.
And most of the nonprofit and civil society sector, including former longtime holdouts like the Boy Scouts.
And most of the sports world, including its famous athletes.
And many state and local governments and their leaders.
And the vast majority of America’s secularists; minorities in many other American religious communities; and majorities in some of these religious communities.
Looking at that list, it’s fair to say that at most, Trump’s election bought Christian traditionalists a little respite from the active hostility of federal agencies, and a little regulatory breathing room. The probable elevation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court will likely also provide Christian traditionalists some judicial protection, at least as long as the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) remains in effect (2). Early signals, however, indicate that Trump isn’t going to be an activist champion for Christian theological conservatives. Why would he be? Much of Trump’s coalition is either pagan or only culturally evangelical — composed of people who regard confessional evangelicals and traditionalist Catholics as suspect god-botherers or universal-love cuckservatives (3). If that coalition is seated at Trump’s right hand, theological conservatives cannot be more than the President’s useful idiots.
Meanwhile Trump’s election, if anything, has also hardened antipathy toward Christian traditionalists in the other institutions Gushee listed. The religious freedom of Christian traditionalists in Blue States is shrinking. Progressivism in universities and accrediting institutions is becoming more strident. If Democrats recapture Congress and either repeal or gut RFRA (a real possibility), or a Democrat recaptures the White House in 2020 or 2024, the gloomiest aspects of The Benedict Option‘s forecast for Free Exercise law and the place of Christian traditionalists in American politics and society, far from being moot, could prove quite prescient.
Nothing that happened in 2016, then, has made The Benedict Option obsolete in 2017. It may retain a few awkward vestiges of a book written for an alternate history, but the events of 2016 have made its substantive message possibly more urgent. If theologically conservative American Christians now face a hostile progressive leviathan on the left hand, and an increasingly secularist Trumpian nationalism on the right, it’s going to take wisdom and firmness of Christian character to steer around both. In American churches, adrift in liquid modernity and sedated with the bromides of Moral Therapeutic Deism, such wisdom and character have become too rare — making the cultivation of these traits the churches’ most pressing need. Persisting in Christian integrity also will take a strategy that mostly bypasses national politics, and trades in “mainstream influence” for constructive local and community engagement. If such is the situation, and the general shape of the strategy the situation calls for, then The Benedict Option, far from being moot on arrival, is right on time, and Rod Dreher a chieftain of Issachar.
(1) Yes, I know that The Babylon Bee is a satirical site, and that Mrs. Clinton didn’t actually write the linked op-ed.
(2) After the Supreme Court’s 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith, federal protection of religious free exercise is mostly statutory, not constitutional. In other words: Congress gave us RFRA, and Congress may take it away. And even if a Justice Gorsuch would vote to overrule Smith and return the substantial burden/compelling government interest balancing test to constitutional analysis, it’s questionable that four other Justices would join him.
(3) See Sarah Posner, Amazing Disgrace, The New Republic (March 20, 2017). The Trumpists’ own distinctions between theological and tribal evangelicals are spot on:
To alt-right Christians, Trump’s appeal isn’t based on the kind of social-issue litmus tests long favored by the religious right. According to Brad Griffin, a white supremacist activist in Alabama, “the average evangelical, not-too-religious Southerner who’s sort of a populist” was drawn to Trump primarily “because they like the attitude.” Besides, he adds, many on the Christian right don’t necessarily describe themselves as “evangelical” for theological reasons; it’s more “a tribal marker for a lot of these people.”