With the release of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option book, both the main question (“how do Christians cultivate local institutions to pass on our faith?”) and various sub-questions–such as how to deal with the unique threat that the Sexual Revolution poses to historic Christian faith and practice–have emerged again into public discourse. I think that there’s a lot of really important stuff to discuss here, but I fear that we’ll drive right into a ditch if we aren’t careful. (FWIW, I have previously written about BenOp issues here, here, here, & here.)
Emma Green published an interview yesterday with Rod that gives him plenty of his own words to describe what the Benedict Option is, then hones in on a fairly specific question: how does the Benedict Option community relate to its neighbors, specifically LGBT people? Rod has a lengthy response that I think exemplifies why people get tetchy about the Benedict Option as it is currently discussed.
The main critique that Rod offers of the interview is that there was too much of a focus on LGBT issues, which in turn is a function of the overall obsession within the broader culture on sexuality and Christians. He goes on, however, to say, that “LGBT activism is the tip of the spear at our throats in the culture war.” (emphasis his). Rod has spent years blogging quite regularly about these issues; questions about how he thinks faithful Christians and LGBT people can get along seem wholly appropriate in this context.
Rod rightfully acknowledges that Christians do need to repent of the ways in which we have harmed gay Christians in the past and briefly mentions the need to love LGBT people, but then brushes off any concern that he needs to spell this out any further. Quite frankly, this doesn’t cut the mustard because all sorts of Christian mistreatment of LGBT people comes under the banner of “love”. I am sure that Rod means what he says by this, but the problem is that his readers don’t know.
By not being more specific, Rod does not distinguish himself between those who have harmed gay Christians in the past. Would forbidding someone who is gay and celibate to be employed by a church be “mistreatment”? (This is by no means a given, as many celibate LGBT people can attest to). Would letting one’s child spend time at a friend’s house with gay parents “disrupt our ongoing formation in truth”? What would “love and hospitality” mean if a child in Rod’s church realized he or she was gay? In places where Christians do continue to mistreat LGBT people, how do we root that out? If we are trying to avoid the “LGBT agenda” and that agenda is usually carried out by people, how do we relate to those people?
Rod argues that he is obsessed with LGBT activism because LGBT activism is obsessed with punching down on Christians, but he doesn’t seem to believe that there is any hope in de-escalating this conflict. He states that “activists and their fellow travelers hold all the cultural high ground today, but act as if they will not be free of fear until the last Southern Baptist florist is strangled with the guts of the last Evangelical pastor.” In a post last week, he said “The ACLU, most of the media, the legal establishment, the Democratic Party — they all hate us. I mean, hate us.” Besides the absurdity of stating that any group in our society holds “all” the cultural high ground or that they “all” hate us, such rhetoric does not really engender understanding and empathy. If one thinks LGBT activists are the core of an existential threat to Christians and that their activism is incompatible with Christianity in the public square, wouldn’t it make sense to read Rod’s book through that lens?
This kind of hyperbole poisons the well for real discussion and turns off Christians who might otherwise agree but don’t think it is that bad. There are plenty of activists who are sore winners and there are very real religious liberty threats that Americans are facing. If these threats prevail, it will be bad for us believers and bad for other vulnerable populations that we serve. I agree with Rod that Trump and Gorsuch are not really going to hold them back for very long. I agree that our churches are full of under-catechized Christians woefully unprepared to deal with these challenges.
However, I don’t think this is that much worse than in many other historical situations. (Remember when a few hundred thousand Americans killed each other because half of the Christians thought it was okay to own people?) If Christianity is under intense fire, there may be some areas where we need to retreat. There are others (mostly among the poor and oppressed, in my opinion) where we can advance to a more secure position if we are willing to fight. The question isn’t “how bad is it?” but “how do we make the most of this situation?”
Throughout history and throughout the world, Christianity has existed with varying levels of government subsidy and restriction. On the whole, Christians in America enjoy far more subsidy (through tax-deductible giving, grants, and federal education dollars) than restriction, but it is conceivable that this balance will tip in the next few years. Christians in America also still have incredible social and cultural power in a variety of arenas, though there are clearly loci of power dominated by forces hostile to faithful Christian practice. If and when the balance is tipped, the Church will be forced to adapt, as it has in countless other social and political milieus.
Again: I think this would be a bad thing because I genuinely believe that a liberal society that protects the consciences of its citizens is better than one that does not. Under persecution severe enough, the Church can die out or be totally emasculated (e.g. North Africa in the Middle Ages). However, God’s people have adapted and occasionally thrived under conditions of hardship in many places; examples abound from the first Christians in Antioch to the contemporary church in China. The Sexual Revolution is a unique threat to orthodox Christianity, but so was (and is) Christianity’s captivity to racism in America or the rise of Islam in the Middle East.
I want the BenOp to succeed because I do think that Christian communities in the West will need to implement the principles Rod talks about in order to remain faithful in the generations to come. I am pretty much in agreement with Rod on the dictates of human sexual morality as the Bible teaches it. Yet I (and many of my peers like me) are deeply sympathetic to Emma’s line of questioning because we have to find an answer to this question in order to live out the Bible’s commands in our daily lives, bear witness to non-believing friends, and teach our children how to do the same. Dealing with a world that hates us is nothing new, but every age will bring with it unique opportunities and challenges for how to do so joyfully. If the Holy Spirit is working in our world, then we have to ask where and how He is bringing about new life and testifying to Jesus in others– and being confident that we can participate with the Spirit in such a way as to even break “the tip of the spear at our throats”.
If Rod and other BenOp enthusiasts want non-Christians to parse between not wanting LGBT activists to drive Christians out of business and not wanting to get away from LGBT people, they’re going to have to start that parsing themselves because Christians have failed to do this over and over in the last few decades. If they don’t want journalists to make bad faith assumptions about their work, they’re going to have to stop making bad faith assumptions about every possible manifestation of LGBT activism. Most importantly, if we expect the Church to endure the threat posed by the Sexual Revolution (and thrive beyond it!), then explaining how Christians love and serve LGBT people– particularly under the regime which the BenOp anticipates– is inevitably part of bearing witness. A Benedict Option that isn’t good for LGBT people will not stand the test of time.