Rod Dreher talks the future of faith, identity politics and the crisis of the West.
‘Already the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.’ That was how the New York Times described Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. And one can see why. Dreher, a prolific columnist and a senior editor and blogger at the American Conservative, has taken philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s contention in After Virtue (1981) – that modernity has impoverished spiritual life, shattering the Classical-Christian source of authority-sustaining morality – and run with it. He poses a critique of secular capitalism, the hypocrisy of liberals and self-obsessed identity politics, while also recognising the perilous situation in which Christianity now finds itself. The result is a work as deeply felt as it is moral.
To pursue some of the issues raised by The Benedict Option, from the decline of faith to the dangers of our emotivist, therapeutic culture, the spiked review’s Sean Collins decided to speak to Dreher. Here’s what he had to say:
Sean Collins: Is it an exaggeration to say that Christianity is dying in the West?
Rod Dreher: A slight one. Now, the West is a broad term. When I use it, I usually mean the Anglosphere and Western Europe. And I don’t think that Christianity will ever be completely extinguished in the West, but I do think that we are going to see a tremendous diminishment of it over the course of this century, just like what has happened in Europe. I think, strictly speaking, it won’t mean Christianity will be dead in the West, because there will always be signs of it somewhere, but in terms of it being a factor in public life, and in the way that Americans, and Westerners more broadly, think about themselves, yes, it will be just a shadow of its former self.
I do speak in alarmist tones in this book, not only because I am generally alarmed, and I think other people should be, but it’s also because, to quote Flannery O’Connor, when you are trying to speak to a world that is deaf, you have to shout. There are so many Christians in America who don’t see how fragile things are for us. Christians in Europe don’t have this problem, by the way. When I talk to them, they’ve been living with the collapse of the faith within their societies for generations now. They get it straight up. Americans have been very, very comfortable for a long time. In The Benedict Option, I’m trying to raise the alarm, and show them how the apparent strength of Christianity in America – strength in numbers, and strength of influence in society – is really a façade, and if we don’t make some really strong changes now, it’s not going to survive in a meaningful sense.
Collins: What would you say are the key forces that have led to the crisis of Christianity in the US?
Dreher: The key forces are, first, economic. We live in an economy that requires and mandates mobility. It is very hard for people even to think about staying in one place and putting down roots. This is what the Benedictines call stability. Stability, economically, is a hindrance to you getting ahead in our society.
There is also the matter of individualism, which is a broad category, but it’s in the air we breathe in America. This is the idea that we can only live in truth, so to speak, when we are true to ourselves and our own desires. This is something that none of us can escape in modernity.
The sexual revolution is a tremendous factor here, too. Not just because the whole idea of Christian anthropology doesn’t make sense outside of the Christian tradition, and the disciplining of one’s sexual desires. But also because the sexual revolution teaches us that sexual desire is a central component of personal identity. It’s not just what you do, but who you are. We build practices and institutions around that. And I’m not just simply talking about same-sex marriage. The sexual revolution brought no-fault divorce and we’re seeing the fragmenting of families, especially among the poor and the working class.
This is going to have tremendous effects – not only economically and socially, but also in terms of passing on the faith. Mary Eberstadt, in her book How the West Really Lost God (2013), presents evidence that faith is passed across generations by intact families, by the way the faith is lived out within the family. It’s not simply a matter of stating a bunch of propositions, and getting the children to agree with those propositions. It’s much more organic than that. And so if you don’t have intact families where the faith is lived out in a real way, it’s going to be much less likely that the faith will be handed down to the next generation, and the generation after that.
So in that sense the sexual revolution is attacking the stability, credibility and feasibility of Christianity in ways that are only dimly perceived by many Christians. And even conservative Christians, who may affirm Christian sexual morality in a strict sense (no sex outside of marriage and all that), are missing the bigger picture here, of what the breakup of family means, and is going to mean, for the endurance of Christianity in American society.
Collins: In your book you lean on Philip Rieff and his 1966 book The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Rieff argued that religion was being replaced with a gospel of self-fulfillment. What impact specifically do you think the growth of this therapeutic culture has had on Christianity?
Dreher: It’s been absolutely devastating. Christian Smith of Notre Dame has written about how there is religious illiteracy in American culture, across denominations, and even across religions. It’s devastating because young people and people in general – look, I’m 50 years old and I was raised this way, too – don’t associate following a religion with living up to a certain set of standards outside of ourselves. I mean, called outside of ourselves to be sacrificial – not only sacrificial of our own desires, but in terms of our income and our time. To live up to a reality that’s outside of ourselves. So if religion no longer calls on us to make sacrifices for the greater good, to serve God, and to love our neighbour, then religion collapses into something that makes us happy. We come to believe that God wants us to be happy and feel good about ourselves, and that’s the greatest good. I do think God wants us to be happy and feel good about ourselves, but that only comes through holiness, when we are doing what God asks us to do. And that usually means some form of sacrifice.
This is historic Christianity; this is Christianity as it has been lived out for nearly two thousand years. The Bible tells us that we have to be prepared to suffer for the sake of Jesus Christ. This is a foreign gospel to the modern sensibility and most modern churches. And I think that when we lose that self-sacrificial idea of what Christianity is, we end up not worshipping the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the Bible. We end up worshipping the self. It’s clear from research that this is where we are in American society today.
I was at a conservative evangelical college in the Midwest earlier this year, giving a talk on The Benedict Option. During the Q&A session, a young woman undergraduate stood up in the audience and asked sincerely, ‘I don’t understand why you are talking about practices and things like that. Why is that necessary to be a Christian? Why isn’t enough that we love Jesus with all our hearts, like I was raised?’ I told her, as Christians we have to do that, but it’s not as simple as that. What she’s talking about is just arranging our emotions. To love Jesus means certain things, and it does not mean other things, and this comes to us through the Bible, and our different religious traditions, and so on. But love is not simply a feeling, and if we don’t have orthodoxy – in other words, right belief – and orthopraxy – which is to say practices that integrate those beliefs into our daily lives – then our faith will become just something very ephemeral and emotional.
After the meeting, one of the professors at this college said that what that young lady said to you represents the spirituality of 99 per cent of the people on this campus. They are the products of youth culture. They’ve not been taught anything about the historic Christian faith, other than emotion, other than Jesus is your best friend, Jesus wants you to be happy. So, when they are challenged on this from the secular world, they have no answer, and they capitulate. They’ve not been given any kind of concrete grounding in catechism or doctrine, nor a way of thinking about what it means to be a religious person in a secular world. I found that quite striking, because it fits very well with what Christian Smith has found about the religious illiteracy of the American young, and how there’s no stability at all there – it’s all about emotion.
Remember, this was a conservative evangelical college. This was not a secular college or a liberal college. The problem goes very, very deep. You see why I am so alarmed by it, because the people who ought to be aware of it, and figuring out how to deal with it, are in deep denial that it’s even a problem.
Collins: You argue that the issues facing Christianity are caused as much by internal pressures as external pressures. To quote from Rieff again: ‘The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in a way that remain inwardly compelling.’ It seems that traditional values associated with the West – and not limited to Christianity, either – are not necessarily being recognised and embraced by the younger generation.
Dreher: You’re completely right. This crisis I am talking about in The Benedict Option is a crisis of the Church, but this is all part of a much broader crisis of authority in the West. I don’t know how we’re going to solve it. Across political institutions, across academia, there’s a feeling that everything is suddenly up for grabs. And I’m not sure how this going to turn out.
Collins: Yes, I was wondering if you would see Christianity as a casualty of broader trends that are negative for what we might call Western civilisation. To put it another way, shouldn’t all those who want to defend certain values associated with the Western tradition – whether that’s reason, virtue or a more social concept of the self – and all those who are opposed to social developments like the narcissistic self and nihilism, be concerned? You often refer to the influence of ‘secularism’, but it seems to me that there are also secularists who would like to preserve the gains of the past.
Dreher: Marcello Pera is an Italian politician, a friend of Pope Benedict XVI, and an atheist. He wrote a book with Pope Benedict XVI called Without Roots (2007). As an atheist and a humanist, Pera talks about how the West desperately needs to hold on to its Christian heritage because the classical liberal tradition emerged from Christianity, and we need a basis of Christian belief to hold on to liberalism, even for secular people. It’s a difficult argument to make to people, but I think it’s a really important one. We’ve come to take so much for granted in the West, that things have always been this way and will always be this way, that liberalism is the natural state of humankind.
Ross Douthat likes to say to people on the left: ‘If you don’t like the religious right, wait till you see the post-religious right.’ I think he’s correct. We’re seeing a racialist right wing arise as a response to identity politics on the left. If we don’t have a sense of values rooted in the dignity of individual human beings that comes out of Christianity, then I think everything is precarious. Even if we have Christianity, things are precarious, as history shows. But if we don’t have Christianity, I wonder on what basis we will draw the lines politically and socially. I think we’re at a really dangerous point in terms of seeing a resurgence of left-wing extremism and/or right-wing extremism. There doesn’t seem to be any agreed-upon source of transcendent values in the West.
We could also see – and this is the Michel Houellebecq scenario – Islam, at least in Europe, take over, because people can’t live without a fundamental sense of order. If the West has repudiated any spiritual or religious sources of deep, internalised order, something else will come in to fill the vacuum.
Collins: As you know, expressions of traditional Christian views, especially regarding sexuality, are now often seen as discriminatory. The US government, courts, big business are opposed in many situations. As you note in your book, there are cases where Christians have been effectively forced out of their jobs, or found it challenging to continue in them. It seems intolerance towards religious views is growing. Where do you see this battle headed?
Dreher: The next front in the battle is going to be over religious schools – whether or not they will be able to survive. What happened in California earlier this year is a harbinger for what’s to come nationwide. There was an effort by a state representative in California, from the LGBT caucus, to deny the use of Cal Grants (a big education grant programme) at colleges and universities in the state that are considered discriminatory against LGBT people. This was narrowly defeated, but had it passed, most colleges that were conservative, that adhered to an orthodox understanding of sexuality, would have had to close, because so many of the students are poor and working class, a lot of them Hispanic and African-American, and they are dependent on Cal Grants to get a college education. This is a way that Christian colleges and institutions could be forced to close, even though they would have the freedom to continue.
It could come through funding or it could come through accreditation. I think we’re going to see Christian educational institutions forced either to capitulate on LGBT issues, or face closure if they can’t raise enough private funds. We’ll also see graduate and professional programmes denied licensure. You talk to law professors and people who follow this and they say this is what’s coming next.
More broadly, when you look at the millennials, in overwhelming numbers those who identify as Christian do not agree with basic Christian orthodoxy on sexuality. And not only that, they can’t understand how anybody could disagree. So, they will end up seeing people of my generation in the same way people of my generation saw our parents, who may have held segregationist or white-supremacist views in the past. I come from the Deep South, I was born in 1967, and it was pretty common for me to grow up around older white people who held really discriminatory views. And you learned how to deal with that, but you also learned not to take it seriously at all. That’s exactly what Christians are going to face in the future.
Now, I completely reject the idea that there’s a parallel between race and sexual desire. There’s nothing in the Bible that justifies white supremacy. But you can’t get around the very clear scriptural prohibitions on homosexuality. You have to really repudiate a lot in order to ignore that. This is going to be a tremendous thing. We know exactly how we look on white supremacists or racists today. I don’t think there are many people within the Christian Church who are prepared for the social isolation and opprobrium that is going to befall them if they hold to orthodox Christian teaching on this issue. It will be a matter of being hated, but not being given permission at all in the gospel to hate in return. I think we’re going to see a lot of people falling away from the faith because they will not be able to withstand the loss of social status, or even loss of employment status, because of this issue.
Collins: In the past, many liberals saw the defense of religious liberty as entirely consistent with the defense of broader civil liberties. This goes back centuries: one of the three things Thomas Jefferson wanted to be remembered for (it’s on his gravestone) was as the author of the Virginia statute on religious freedom. Would you agree that anyone who values tolerance and freedom should be supporting religious liberty today?
Dreher: Absolutely. We have to support the right to be wrong. I have my particular Christian opinions, but I support a wide range of religious freedom, for Muslims, for Jews, for Hindus, for anybody else, because I know exactly how much that liberty means to me. Now, it’s unfeasible to think we can live in a society where everyone has maximum religious liberty. Real pluralism and real diversity requires real tolerance, and that means tolerating people’s right to be wrong about things. It’s a difficult thing to live in a pluralistic society and to practice toleration. One of the things that drives me nuts is the people who bark the loudest about tolerance often turn out to be the most intolerant and puritanical people.
For me, it was a great lesson growing up in the Deep South, in a small town, where there were a lot of older white people who held really strong and bigoted views about race. But I also saw these same people not as monsters, but as real people. And it was a puzzle to me, when I got older and went to college, how it was that these same people who held these terrible views had actually been much kinder and more helpful to African-American neighbours than a lot of liberals, like me (I was certainly a liberal back then, and I would still call myself a liberal on race today). They were more hands-on caring for poor black people than people like me, who held the correct opinions. These things are messy.
I can also remember, back in early 1990s, there was a gay couple who moved to my hometown. One of them was dying of AIDS. People from more than one of the local churches came out to minister to them, to bring them food, to help them. I guarantee you that if you had stopped and asked anyone of those Christian people in that small Southern town what they thought of homosexuality, they would have given you a standard, orthodox Christian response. The point is, these were their neighbours, and they loved them as best they could. This was also the case on racial matters. I was able to see, up close and personal, how divided human beings are, even within themselves, over these issues, and how important it was to try to work through them and to live compassionately and tolerantly with each other. It’s not easy, but it can be done and it has to be done. As we have become much more isolated from each other in America, living inside our own silos, left and right, we forget the humanity of the other, and our obligation to treat other people, even if they disagree with us, as real good people.
Collins: It seems, as you said, there is an unwillingness to engage fully with others. For example, Trump voters aren’t talked to – they’re just dismissed from afar as racists. Other people, who you’ve never met, are viewed as just abstractions, rather than in their complicated reality.
Dreher: Part of the problem is the silo effect. If all you do is watch Fox or MSNBC, and go online and hear from people who agree with you, it’s so easy to fall into this habit of dehumanising other people. I’m guilty of it too from time to time. Sometimes I’ll spend a whole day and I’ll feel like I’ve been out in the world, seeing people, dealing with all kinds of things, and I’ll realise I’ve never actually left the house. I’ve never actually gone out there and spoken to my neighbour, or dealt with people in the flesh. This is a real challenge, not only for the Church, but for all of us: to quit substituting virtual reality for reality. Because I’ll tell you, when I was a kid growing up, it was just so much easier for people in the community to get together. Every summer, three or four nights a week, everybody would hang out in the baseball park. Their kids had baseball, softball or something. We just saw a lot more of each other. Now, with social media, we seem so much more connected, but it’s an artificial connection.
Collins: Saint Benedict was a 6th-century monk who responded to the collapse of Roman civilisation by founding a monastic order. Why do you think he is an example Christians should follow today?
Dreher: Benedict didn’t set out to save Roman civilisation. He could see it was falling apart around him. He just wanted to find a quiet place to pray and work on his salvation. And so he came up with the rule of Saint Benedict – something he partially borrowed from older monastic rules – which amounted to a guide to running a monastery. This ended up becoming extremely successful. When Benedict died, there were only 12 or 13 monasteries around that he had founded, but over the next couple of centuries, they spread like wildfire throughout Western Europe, which was mostly at that time governed by barbarian kings. When the monks founded these monasteries, they would not only preach the gospel to the local people, they also taught them how to pray, they taught them how to read in some cases, and they taught them the arts of living, like gardening, metallurgy, things that had been lost when Rome fell. The collapse of the Roman Empire was not simply a political collapse, it was a catastrophic cultural collapse. And because the monks preserved this wisdom within their communities – not just religious wisdom but also practical wisdom – they ended up spreading this knowledge throughout Western Europe laying the groundwork for the revival of civilisation.
We face different challenges certainly, because we live in a post-Christian era. Yet we Christians need to try to preserve that truth, that wisdom, within our communities, as well as spread it to the non-Christian world. It’s going to be different from what Saint Benedict dealt with, but both eras share a chaotic culture that is dealing with the trauma of having lost its foundations, and a culture that is in many ways hostile to what we have to say.
The main things we can learn from Saint Benedict are the value of community, the value of faithful practices, and the value of having an overarching sense of divine order, of sacred order, that we are conforming our lives to. This point about order is really hard for modern people to accept: the idea that there is a transcendent order to things that is not separate from the world, but immanent within it. It’s a metaphysical point. It sounds like angels dancing on the head of a pin, but it’s absolutely vital. If you visit the Monastery of Saint Benedict in Norcia, in Italy, that’s one of the first things the monks will tell you about how their lives are governed. They all recognise that their role in life is not just to follow a moral law, and not just to think holy thoughts; it is also to conform every part of their lives to the sacred order and make it present in the material world, through the work of their hands, through their prayers, through their good works. It’s a tremendous adventure, a tremendous challenge, but the Christian faith demands nothing less of us.
Look at the fathers of the Church, back in the Patristic era, or look to the medieval Church and the way medieval Christians understood themselves in relation to each other, and to the wider social order – there we can find the roots for our own recovery in the 21st century. The Church isn’t only the institution, and the Church isn’t all of the people who claim to be Christian right now in the year 2017. The Church is something that goes back 2,000 years. These people are our brothers and sisters in the faith, our fathers and mothers in the faith. We have a lot to learn from them, if we just open our eyes and get outside of this dictatorship of relativism, as Pope Benedict calls it, and this tyranny of the present moment.
Collins: How would you respond to those who say that The Benedict Option is advocating a retreat, a complete disengagement from society?
Dreher: The power of the post-Christian, and indeed anti-Christian, culture is so great that in order to hold on to the basics of the faith, Christians have to retreat in a limited way in our communities in order to form resilient disciples. This does not mean going totally Amish and shutting ourselves off from the world. But if we don’t withdraw from the world for the sake of formation, we are going to be completely useless in bringing Christian values to the wider world. If we look like the rest of the world, what difference does it make if you’re Christian?
There is a lot of fear and willful misunderstanding of this point, because people are terrified. A lot of Christians understand, in their heart of hearts, that we can’t keep going this way. They are seeing how many young people are leaving the faith entirely, and they don’t know what to do. They are afraid of having to change their lives in ways that are really hard for them. They don’t want to be seen as weird. But we’ve got to be willing to be seen as weird. Not simply for the sake of being weird, or being anti-social, but rather for the sake of standing up for what we really believe, because increasingly there’s such a divide between the way of the secular world and the way of Christ, and you cannot bridge that gap by continuing to assimilate.
This is an existential question. It’s not one only facing Christians. I’ve written on my blog about how Jews are dealing with this, in terms of inter-marriage. The problems are a little bit different for us Christians, but ultimately it’s all the same thing. The modern world says the individual is sacred, and individual choice is the real God of the Age. If that is true, then Christianity and Judaism and other revealed religions cease to exist. This is what I mean when I say the Church is falling away. Either the Church means something objectively in history, or it does not. And if it does mean something objectively in history, then we are bound to conform our own lives to this sacred order. If not, then the Church becomes whatever we want it to be, and it will completely go away in time, because it will cease to be recognisable to people who read the Bible, or the Church of centuries past.
Collins: Are there aspects of the Benedict Option that others in the US and West, not just Christians, might adopt, to counter some of the negative social trends? Do you see others advocating similar ideas as yours, and do you think your ideas have wider applicability?
Dreher: What’s really interesting is that, when I was writing this book, a couple of orthodox Jewish rabbis reached out to me and said ‘Hey, we’re on board with this. We’ve been doing this in the Orthodox Jewish community for a long time. We can help. Call us.’ I found that tremendously exciting. Just yesterday on Twitter, a Muslim said all Muslims need to read The Benedict Option, and learn from it. I think that’s terrific, because it is true. Anybody who wishes to stand against this deracinating, profane, modern culture can learn from it.
The technology chapter, for example, is something that is universally true, about how everybody who doesn’t want their kids colonised by corporate culture, the culture of pornography and this culture of un-reality, needs to take control of their kids’ use of technology, as well as submit themselves to a rule that will put technology in its proper place in our lives. Not get away from technology entirely – that’s not possible for most of us, or even desirable – but put it in its proper place.
And in my chapter on politics I encourage conservative Christians to quit trying so hard in national politics – which I think is a failure and is going to continue to be a failure. But I don’t think that’s the end of political involvement. Get involved locally to build up your local institutions, Christian and non-Christian. Immerse yourself in your local community. These are things that a lot of people, including secular people who are frustrated with national politics, might do. There’s no reason to give up politically and just stay inside your house. Rather, get involved locally, because at the local level the ideological lines may run in very different ways. You can find you’re on the same side with people on local issues who would not agree with you on national issues, but they’re your neighbors, too. You can get out of your house and come together and remember what it’s like to be a human being living in a community. That’s something that’s good for all of us.
Rod Dreher is senior editor at the American Conservative. He is the author of The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, published by Sentinel. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation.
Picture by: drufisher, published under a creative commons license.