Monday, July 24, 2017

The Benedict Option: Chapter 4 (A New Kind of Christian Politics)

Or: Descend From Yon Holy Cross, Brother, We Have Pressing Need of the Wood!

Believe it or not, Dreher opens this chapter with a statement with which, on its face, I agree completely:
Which side should we be on? Or do we have a side at all? The answer will not satisfy conservative Christians who understand the church as the Republican Party at prayer, or who go into the voting booth with more conviction than they show at Sunday worship.
That right there is a condemnation of religious Right politics that could have spilled from the lips or the pen of any number of lefties in recent decades. The sizable evangelical voting bloc is indeed fiercely loyal to Republican politics, not merely on the social issues with which they're associated but on everything. They'll even back Republicans on issues such as tax cuts and the social safety net in which it seems like they should have some theological misgivings.

Note though that I said "on its face." Advance a few more paragraphs and it quickly becomes obvious that Dreher has another purpose for this chapter. It starts with a brief history of that post-slut pill period:
Beginning with the Roe v. Wade abortion decision in 1973, Americans began sorting themselves politically according to moral beliefs. The religious right began to rise in the Republican Party as the secular left did the same among the Democrats. By the turn of the center, the culture war was undeniably the red-hot center of American politics.
For the record, Dreher mentions the civil rights movement but only in passing; like most modern "intellectual" conservatives, he won't admit that it had any significant effect on American politics. And, of course, it's not worth getting into that this firmly-held religious right furor over abortion didn't crystallize until a decade later under Reagan. We can forget all that for the moment.

In this chapter, Dreher mourns what he considers the end of the "values voter," but it's also a stock chapter of sorts that you may have seen in any number of 2017Q1 releases:
Though Donald Trump won the presidency in part with the strong support of Catholics and Evangelicals, the idea that someone as robustly vulgar, fiercely competitive, and morally compromised as Trump will be an avatar for the restoration of Christian morality and social unity is beyond delusional.
Indeed, this is the obligatory "Trump changed everything" chapter, variants of which were written in haste and clumsily grafted into numerous books in an ultimately vain effort to help them age a bit more gracefully. These chapters generally only serve to date the book even more as they rely on that highly accurate post-election narrative weaving, and this one's no different ("...large numbers on both the young left and the populist right challenging the free market, globalist economic consensus..." Yeah, we can all see just how skeptical conservatives have become of financial institutions). It stands out even more here simply because, unlike some of those other books, this one has clearly been in the works for a while - Dreher coined the term "Benedict option" over a decade ago, and he's been talking about the book for years now.

I'm going to avoid talking too much about the content of this particular section, simply because I don't want this to bloom into a giant non-Dreher related bit of soapboxing. Suffice it to say that, like many hack writers, Dreher opts here to ignore years of polling and commentary to declare that Everything Changed That Fateful Day. Prior to November 2016, values voters were alive and kicking. Now they're gone, brushed away in an instant.

The evangelical bloc is still there, of course, and they're still angry about the same things, but Dreher is perturbed that they've been voting for things other than "values" - abortion, LGBT issues, "religious liberty," and a grab bag of scientific and culture issues of the moment. Per Dreher, the people who still care very deeply about those things no longer count because they voted wrong and their beliefs have been tainted. So what is there to do? Dreher references Kansas Republican Lance Kinzer and his quest to push "religious liberty" legislation, and then offers some advice:
The first goal of Benedict Option Christians in the world of conventional politics is to secure and expand the space within which we can be ourselves and build our own institutions...
...Kinzer contends that even as Christians refocus their attention locally and center their attention on building up their own local church communities, they cannot afford to disengage from politics completely. The religious liberty stakes are far too high.
"Religious liberty," of course, means the right to be able to discriminate against people if you really, truly believe that they're sinners and working with them will make you dirty. It's an excellent complement to that "hospitality" thing from the last chapter - we'll be very charitable toward those that are sufficiently pure and holy. Dreher's communities seem very insular and benign, but being that insular requires the authority to exclude and dictate to others, even those outside of the community. After all, if he can't fully hedge out gay couples, then he can't be a true "orthodox Christian," can he?

What Dreher wants here is a far cry from the total control sought by conservative evangelicals of the Domionist school, but the major differences are of scope and strategy. He may be smarter than most of the religious Right, and he's certainly more refined, but he's not fundamentally different. Want proof? Easily found in the next section, in which he implicitly likens his own circumstances to - I shit you not - those of Czech dissident Vaclav Havel:
[The essays] Havel and his circle produced under oppression and persecution far surpassing any that American Christians are likely to experience in the near future offer a powerful vision for authentic Christian politics in a world in which we are a powerless, despised minority. (Emphasis added)
"Powerless, despised minority."

That image and caption are facetious, of course, as I know exactly what Dreher means when he says "minority." Everyone reading this knows what Dreher means when he says "minority" because you've all heard it yourself many times from other, less sophisticated writers. Dreher may have shed the predictable list of clobber verses for citations from Augustine and Aquinas, he may have shunned the simple and bombastic verbiage of the televangelist in favor of the cerebral tones of the divinity philosopher, but go to the source and there's not an ounce of difference between him and those gauche Trump-voting evangelicals he's dismissing. All he has are fancier trappings to hide his all too familiar martyr complex.

And speaking of trappings, in the next chapter we're going to learn about traditions and how they're the key to Benedict communities.


  1. So does Dreher discuss already-existing insular religious communities, such as the Hasidim or the Amish?

    1. As far as I've read, all we hear from existing religious communities appeared in chapter 3 when he talked about that monastery. The idea behind the "Benedict option" is to create a new one in my middle of the Land of the Spiritually Dead, either to serve as glorious beacons of right living or so that Dreher doesn't have to give up his lifestyle (depending on your level of cynicism).

  2. Dreher is wrong that Roe v. Wade was the catalyst for evangelicals sorting themselves into the Republican Party. Bob Jones University vs. Simon (1974) and the related Bob Jones-IRS cases were much more important initially. Many evangelicals were shocked that not admitting African-Americans was against IRS rules (after Green v. Kennedy in 1970), and Paul Weyrich used this along with Roe v. Wade to turn these people into Republican voters