I begin by noting something by Samuel Johnson in The Vanity of Human Wishes, a little something for us to keep in reserve.
How small of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.
In this next chapter, Rod Dreher says many good and pertinent things, but these observations are collected in a chapter which is simultaneously a strategic and tactical tangle.
First the good things—things we have been emphasizing in Moscow here for decades. “Political power is not a moral disinfectant” (Loc. 1208). We must not “make a false idol of politics” (Loc. 1214). We “would be better off ‘building thriving subcultures’ than seeking positions of power” (Loc. 1240). “Nothing matters more than guarding the freedom of Christian institutions to nurture future generations in the faith” (Loc. 1299). “Every act that contradicts the official ideology is a denial of the system” (Loc. 1376). We need Christians “who don’t give a rip for official opinion” (Loc. 1425). We are up against problems that “conventional American politics cannot fix” (Loc. 1440). We must “secede culturally from the mainstream” (Loc. 1467). “Open a classical Christian school, or join and strengthen one that exists” (Loc. 1469). “The church must not shrink from its responsibility to pray for political leaders and to speak prophetically to them” (Loc. 1227). And “believers must avoid the usual trap of thinking that politics can solve cultural and religious problems” (Loc. 1479).
Yes, and amen to all of that.
But Dreher has, in my view, thrown in the towel too early. And he has most certainly thrown in the towel. “The so-called values voters—social and religious conservatives—have been defeated and are being swept to the political margins” (Loc. 1179). “Welcome to the politics of post-Christian America” (Loc. 1190). And the “verdict on the overall political strategy is clear: we failed” (Loc. 1219). “Therefore, said Tocqueville, ‘one must maintain Christianity within the new democracies at all cost.’ We have not done that” (Loc. 1334).
In other words, it is all over but the shouting. The secularists have the whip hand, and we have been decisively excluded. We are out of the running. As far as our national politics are concerned, according to Dreher we are very much a nullity.
But here is where the strategic inconsistency arises. Dreher also believes that in our national political life, we can do one thing still, which is to carve out religious liberty protections for ourselves.
“there is one cause that should receive all the attention they have left for national politics: religious liberty” (Loc. 1248).
“The best that Orthodox Christians today can hope for from politics is that it can open a space for the church to do the work of charity, culture building, and conversion” (Loc. 1224).
“Without a robust and successful defense of First Amendment protections, Christians will not be able to build the communal institutions that are vital to maintaining our identity and values” (Loc. 1249).
Our task “is to secure and expand the space within which we can be ourselves and build our own institutions” (Loc. 1287).
But why on earth would the secularists go along with something like this? As I do not tire of repeating, religious liberty is a Christian civic virtue, just like respect for the life of the unborn child is, or love for the biblical pattern of marriage. We don’t expect tangerines to grow on bramble bushes, and Dreher has explicitly given up that expectation when it comes to respect for life and respect for marriage. So why would these people agree to respect the believers for respecting such things? We have been identified as haters for respecting these things.
“The traditional marriage and family model has not been protected in either law or custom, and because of that, courts are poised to impose dramatic rollbacks of religious liberty for the sake of antidiscrimination” (Loc. 1220).
This is exactly correct. What on earth could we appeal to when fighting for religious liberty? By what standard? If we could fight successfully for religious liberty, we could ban abortion also. If we cannot fight for successfully against the merchandising of baby parts, then how on earth would we be able to fight for religious liberty?
And here we come to the Achilles heel of the Benedict Option, and we simultaneously come to the reason why his book has created such a stir among Christians. This whole thing is the “retreat to commitment” writ large. I will develop this further as this review unfolds. Since we have not actually been fighting the culture wars all these years, but rather have been retreating to different enclaves at different times for different reasons, and have resolutely refused to speak to our nation in the name of Jehovah God, the Father of Jesus, we have come to this sorry state of affairs.
In other words, Dreher is giving Christians a plausible excuse not to fight. And when you are outlining reasons why a fight would be futile, and you are outlining those reasons to Christians who are disheartened, discouraged, or cowardly, you will find it an easy sell. He is giving this excuse to millions of Christians who do not really want to fight—not because they wanted the right to withdraw into pure, intentional Christian communities—but rather because they know that a fight would mean that they will have to tear down their local baals. A real pitched battle would mean that they would have to choose sides definitively.
Speaking of local baals, there was one other striking oddity in this chapter.
“Because Christians need all the friends we can get, form partnerships with leaders across denominations and from non-Christian religions. And extend a hand of friendship to gays and lesbians who disagree with us but will stand up for our First Amendment right to be wrong” (Loc. 1303).
In other words, the Philistine pillagers want to empty out our store using the front door. That is where the main riot is. Instead of putting up with that, we should give away the store to the friendly Assyrians out the back door, back by the alley. But the end result in either case is empty shelves.