The second chapter of Dreher’s The Benedict Option is really quite good overall. I found myself agreeing with much of it, and agreeing also with the various qualifications Dreher made as he went along. What he does in this chapter is give a brief intellectual history of the West’s apostasy, and in the main, he does identify the right culprits. “The loss of the Christian religion is why the West has been fragmenting for some time now, a process that is accelerating” (Loc. 338).
In addition, as another big plus, he doesn’t make the mistake of marking the decline by the approximate time when the Beatles first came to America. “Nor were the 1960s the beginning of our unraveling, though they were a turning point” (Loc. 332).
So here is an overview of Dreher’s description of our slide. Given that our public square is now one great big slab of damnation, it is worth asking how we got to this point. It did not happen in just a few years.
The problems first began in earnest in the fourteenth century, when nominalism triumphed over realism. This part is an echo of Richard Weaver’s great argument in Ideas Have Consequences. And astute readers will recall that Angels in the Architecture was a good deal friendlier to the villain nominalism than this endorsement would seem to require, but here is a post that will help to fix all that.
Second, the Renaissance of the fifteenth century was way more “full of beans” than it ought to have been, and hence set us up for a more man-centered approach. “What emerged was a new individualism, a this-worldliness that would inaugurate the historical period called the Renaissance” (Loc. 443).
Third, in the sixteenth century the Reformation broke the religious unity that the West had enjoyed. As a historical fact, this is indisputable, but Dreher does wander off the point a bit when he goes on to say this: “In Protestant lands, it birthed an unresolvable crisis in religious authority, which over the coming centuries would cause unending schisms” (Loc. 690). And world evangelization. Don’t forget world evangelization. I am pretty sure we will come back to this point later on in our later reviews.
Next, in the seventeenth century, the modern nation-state began to form, and the Cartesian revolution inverted the pyramid of philosophy. No longer would philosophy sit there stolidly on its broad base of objective truth, but would now sway back and forth while balanced precariously on its tippy top of subjective experience. “I think, therefore I am,” Descartes pronounced, when what he should have done was anticipate what all his epistemological descendants would be doing, which is saying, “I think I think, therefore I think I am. I think.”
Fifth, the eighteenth century would be distinguished by the arrival of the egalitarianism of the American and French Revolutions. This coupled with Lockean neutralities, would continue to drive religion and public life further and further apart.
Sixth, the Industrial Revolution “pulverized the agrarian way of life, uprooted masses from rural areas, and brought them into cities” (Loc. 699). I hope we get back to this point later on in our reviews also. I can probably make a point of it.
And seventh, the twentieth century demolished the remains of Christendom via two world wars, which was then topped off with the mayhem of sexual revolution.
And so here we are. Glancing over the list, the first thing we should do is distinguish bad things (e.g. the rise of nominalism) from a good thing that was used to bad effect (the Renaissance or the Industrial Revolution). It is one thing for Jeshurun to wax fat, and quite another thing for him to kick (Dt. 32:15). Waxing fat was the gift of God and kicking was the pride of man (Dt. 8:18).
To his credit, Dreher does recognize that in many cases the “kicking” did not come until later. “Most leaders of the Scientific Revolution were professing Christians, but the revolution’s grounding lay undeniably in nominalism. If the material world could be studied and understood on its own, without reference to God, then science can exist on its own, free of theological controversy” (Loc. 499). And while many secularists today insist on methodological naturalism from all scientists, this requirement was blithely ignored by believing scientists, as it ought to have been. And the nominalism was also ignored, as it ought to have been.
Despite all the agreement, I do want to pick out a few historical errors in Dreher’s account, particularly with regard to the American Founding. The errors are not huge in themselves, but they do reinforce the narrative that the secularists have loudly insisted upon, and it does appear to be part of the reason why Dreher thinks we are in no position to fight back effectively. More on this as we continue.
But we need to note that rejection of secularism has to include rejection of secularism’s account of how we all got here. Secularists lie about history just like they lie about everything else. On this point, Dreher has actually been maneuvered into saying something like, “Well, yeah, the golden calf did bring us out of Egypt, but we shouldn’t worship it anyway.”
Peter Berger once observed that if India is the most religious nation on the face of the earth, and if Sweden is the most secular, then America is a nation of Indians governed by Swedes. I believe this is right on the money, and I believe it is also how Dreher makes the same (understandable) mistake that Elijah did of over-estimating the extent of the secular triumph. But even here, he does recognize the divide between the faithless of the ruling elite and the denizens of the fly-over states. “The important changes, though, took place among the cultural elites, who continued to shed any semblance of traditional Christianity” (Loc. 596).
However Dreher makes the mistake of uncritically accepting the secular account of the American Founding. He confounds the American and French revolutions, when they were radically unlike one another. For example, Dreher says this: “The French and American revolutions broke with . . .” (Loc. 697). The American and French revolutions may have both been watercolors, but you really can’t make out the similarities unless you leave them both out in the rain for a couple of days.
“Most of the American Founding Fathers were either confessed Deists like Benjamin Franklin (also a Freemason) or strongly influenced by Deism (e.g., Thomas Jefferson)” (Loc. 536).
But this is simply false—although I grant the spirit of the point with regard to the two men cited, Franklin and Jefferson. Jefferson was not even at the Constitutional Convention, but out of the 55 men who were there, 50 of them were orthodox Christians. And practicing politicians like Jefferson who were deistical had to hide their convictions in the curtains in order to get elected to anything. Dreher gets part of this right, but doesn’t run it out all the way.
“Fortunately, having gone through the First Great Awakening of the mid-eighteenth century, America was strongly Evangelical, and citizens had a strong shared idea of the Good and a shared definition of virtue. Unfortunately, this would not last” (Loc. 558).
He is correct that it did not last—but how it was weakened is very important. Why it did not last is crucial. And meanwhile, back at the ranch, what did those orthodox Christians at the Constitutional Convention do?
Follow me closely here. If you have a state bird (like Maryland’s oriole) and a national bird (like the bald eagle), you are not setting the stage for conflict. If you have a state flower (like Idaho’s syringa) and a national flower (like America’s rose), you are not begging for regional strife. But if the state denomination of Connecticut was Congregational, which it was, and you established any other denomination as the Church of the United States, you were pleading for trouble.
And so that is why the First Amendment of the Constitution says this:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Notice that the only entity that could possibly violate the First Amendment is Congress. “Congress shall make no law.” Congress could violate the establishment clause by creating a Church of the United States, bestowing that “honor” upon the Episcopalians, say. But they would also have violated the free exercise clause by telling Connecticut that they could not have Congregationalism as their state religion.
“The U.S. Constitution, a Lockean document, privatizes religion, separating it from the state” (Loc. 544).
Provoked at this point to strong oaths, I must say by the Great Horn Spoon, it is not so. It is correct to say that Locke was enormously influential, but absolutely false to say that the Constitution privatizes religion. No, it federalized religion. At the time the Constitution was ratified, 9 of the 13 states that ratified that document had established state churches of their very own. By having those state churches, they were in no fashion violating the First Amendment. They couldn’t violate the First Amendment. They weren’t Congress. The last state denomination didn’t disappear until the 1830’s (which happened in Connecticut).
And we shouldn’t draw the wrong conclusion from the disestablishment of state churches. When established state churches were being eliminated, this was not the result of religion being privatized, but rather the result of evangelical Christianity being informally adopted as the national faith. We never had an established church as a nation, but we most certainly did grow into a national creed.
Justice Joseph Story (1779-1845) was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President James Madison, himself no constitutional slouch. And he said:
“In [our] republic, there would seem to be a peculiar propriety in viewing the Christian religion as the great basis on which it must rest for its support and permanence.”
But Dreher says of the Constitution that “it also laid the groundwork for excluding religion from the public square by making it a matter of private, individual choice” (Loc. 547).
No. What actually happened is that progressives have expended a great deal of energetic ingenuity when it comes to our constitutional history. And the right understanding of the relationship of Christianity to our American federal arrangement was treated the way Stalin with an airbrush would deal with Trotsky.
The Constitution did create space for “private, individual choice,” but the Constitution did not limit religion to private, individual choices. What they did was limit the choices of Congress in religious matters. Congress could not saddle us all with Lutheranism as the national religion. Nor could Congress tell North Dakota that they were prohibited from becoming a Lutheran state. And Congress could not tell Sven from North Dakota that if he moved to Virginia he would have to become an Anglican. In short, we all of us said, Congress shall mind its own business. Which, by the way, they have not done. And then they rewrote history to cover their tracks.
I do commend Dreher for beginning the task of rejecting the secularist Scriptures. His book appears to be a declaration of war on the secularist book of Romans. Their gospel is no gospel at all. “for the first time in history, the West was attempting to build a culture on the absence of belief” (Loc. 648).
But this needs to be an exhaustive project. Let us start by rejecting the secularist Genesis (Darwin) and the secularist accounts in their 1 and 2 Kings of how the calves at Dan and Bethel delivered us from the interminable wars of religion.
“The West has lost the golden thread that binds us to God, Creation, and each other. Unless we find it again, there is no hope of halting our dissolution” (Loc. 707).
Amen. But let us undertake the whole project, root and branch. And when we do, we will discover way more than 7,000 who have not bent the knee to Baal.