Christianity on Life Support in America?
As a young man in the fifth century, Benedict of Nursia traveled to Rome in order to pursue his education, but left wearied by the corruption and licentiousness of the privileged classes. Fleeing to the rural areas surrounding Rome, Saint Benedict first lived as a hermit before finding community among other monks. Ultimately, he founded twelve monasteries, re-built Monte Cassino into a grand monastery and wrote the “Benedictine Rule,” a book of precepts that formed the cornerstone of Western monasticism. In his new book, “The Benedict Option” (Sentinel/Penguin 2017), American Conservative senior editor Rod Dreher zealously argues that modern-day Christians must follow St. Benedict’s example by retreating inward, re-capturing the depth of biblical Christianity as an antidote to the depravity of our now “post-Christian” nation. Below is a transcript of RealClearBooks in conversation with Rod Dreher.
When did America become the “post-Christian nation”?
By “post-Christian,” I don’t mean “there are no Christians here any longer.” That would be plainly wrong. I mean that our nation has ceased to recognize the religion of the Bible as at the center of our moral imagination, and as the source of the common good. Eisenhower-era civic religion was weak sauce, but it still spoke to the awareness that America understood itself in a Judeo-Christian framework. The Civil Rights movement would not have been possible in a post-Christian culture, or at least its rhetoric and its methods. As I write in the book, the de-Christianization of America has been underway for a very long time, so I don’t know if you can isolate one moment as the turning point. If I had to pinpoint the decisive period, I would say the period between 1960 and 1980, because those were the years of the Sexual Revolution, which was the culmination of longstanding trends, and the establishment of a new social and cultural order that was institutionalized in 2015, with the Obergefell decision – which, let me point out, remains a popular decision.
Is the state of affairs really this bleak? I left the book feeling that Western civilization is “going to hell in a hand basket,” and that Christians must retreat – into their own isolated communities – to preserve a way of life fundamentally at odds with progressivism. But most of the country continues to live out its traditional values. Millions of people live their faith by volunteering at homeless shelters, food banks and prisons. Am I being overly optimistic about the state of society? Have you “gone meta” with the debate?
You are being overly optimistic about the state of the church, which is more important than the state of the nation. In the book, I cite social science research that shows a few trends that are going to be devastating for the church in the long run. For one, the millennial generation is secularizing at a rate never before seen in American history. This is not just a blip. For a long time, social scientists have seen the United States as a counterexample to the secularization thesis – that is, that modernization unavoidably means secularization. Over the last 20 years, that hypothesis has been voided. We are now on the same downward decline that has left Christianity flat on its back in Europe.
Second, and relatedly, the content of what younger Christians believe has drifted far from biblical Christianity – so far that it constitutes a new religion. Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and his colleagues call this religion “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” It is a squishy, feel-good parody of Christianity, one that has taken over many churches, though not always the church leadership, as Smith has documented. Anecdotally, these findings are confirmed every time I go speak about the Benedict Option at a Christian college. The professors invariably tell me that their students come to college knowing next to nothing about the Christian faith, nor do they understand why it matters. They are the product of a church culture that tells them the only thing that matters is loving Jesus, which is to say, arranging their emotions in a certain way when they think about Christ. In this way, they come to confuse niceness and cultural conformity with holiness. Many of them don’t have the roots to hold on to Gospel truth when pressured by the post-Christian culture.
It is hard for a lot of Christians to see this now, because we still see churches everywhere. It will become clearer once the older generations start to die off. What I hope the Benedict Option does is to wake up the church and tell those who have eyes to see and ears to hear that we had better start preparing now, and change the way we teach and live out our faith, both in our families and our communities, or our kids aren’t going to make it through this time of testing.
Jesus Christ told his followers to go and make disciples. He said to preach the gospel through actions. Throughout history, missionaries and ordinary people have attempted to follow this command, even when their personal safety was threatened, or when they were subject to derision or ridicule. How do you align your point of view with Christ's directive?
The Great Commission is non-negotiable. Period. We have to evangelize, or we fail Christ. But we can’t give people what we do not have. The decision for Christ is only the first step in a lifelong journey of discipleship. What we lack today is real discipleship. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre says that in the modern West we have come to a place where we think feelings are a reliable guide to truth. This is true in the broader culture, and it is certainly true in the culture of the contemporary church. I spoke to an Evangelical couple recently who told me that their church, which had for a long time been biblically sound and theologically conservative, changed overnight to being progressive, all for the sake of relevancy. The ministry staff even marched in the local gay pride parade. This couple was gob smacked by what happened, and couldn’t understand how it could have happened so quickly. The answer is that when you are not firmly anchored in Scripture and the traditions of Christian thought and practice stretching back centuries, you blow wherever the winds of culture take you.
My contention is not that we should head for the hills and build metaphorical monasteries to keep the world out. That is not realistic for most of us, nor is it desirable. But I strongly believe that if our Christian families and churches are going to form generations of believers capable of bearing witness to this post-Christian culture, we are going to have to take some steps back from that culture, or it’s going to overwhelm us. It’s already happening. Popular culture does a much more effective job of catechizing our children and us than the church does. The evidence is there.
What does it mean to say “take some steps back from that culture”? First, it means withdrawal from certain formative aspects of the broader culture that make it harder to see and to serve Christ. For example, Christians have as disordered a relationship with technology as everybody else. I know churchgoing Christians who send their kids to Christian schools, and who think they’re covering all the bases, but who give their kids – even little kids – smartphones with Internet access, because they don’t want their kids to stand out as weirdoes. This is devastating, just devastating to their moral and spiritual formation, and not just because it puts a gateway to the world of hardcore pornography right into their hands.
It’s not enough to turn away from bad things. We have to turn toward good things, and deepen our relationship to the Good, the True and the Beautiful, in Christ. And we have to do that in community. We need each other, and we need to remember that if we are not joyful in the Lord, if we are instead terrified, then we are not doing something right. True love casts out all fear.
Nero executed thousands of Christians while emperor of Rome. Hitler and Stalin annihilated millions and persecuted Christians along the way. Today, Christians in America collectively enjoy more liberty and fear much less persecution than most other periods in history. Why sound the alarm now?
Because it’s a façade. It’s often said that in the 20th century, literature gave us two kinds of dystopias. There was George Orwell’s 1984, in which all opposition to the totalitarian State was mercilessly crushed. And there was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which there was no opposition to the totalitarian State because everybody was so blissed out on sex and pleasure that they didn’t realize there was anything worth resisting. The Soviet Union embodied Orwell’s vision, but in 21st century America, we are headed towards realizing Huxley’s vision. This is why it is so alarming to learn that younger Christians are so disconnected from the traditional doctrines and practices of historic Christianity. A college kid asked me recently, “Why do we need to do this Benedict Option thing? Why isn’t it enough to love Jesus with all our hearts?” The answer is that as Scripture tells us, the heart is deceitful above all things. If we are not anchored in eternal, unchanging, objective truth, our hearts will lead us astray, because our feelings are unstable. Huxley’s Brave New World came about because the people of that world found meaning in life in the pursuit of pleasure. Sociologist Christian Smith and his team found that 61 percent of Christian adults 18 to 23 years old say they see no contradiction between the faith on one hand, and materialism and consumerism on the other. Another 30 percent said, yes, it might be a problem, but there’s nothing to be done about it, so who cares? Only nine percent had any serious understanding that the pursuit of one’s own desires, and of material pleasures, contradicted the Christian faith so strongly that believers had to resist those ideas.
A church whose members believe that false Gospel is hardly the church at all. It is not a church that knows how to suffer for its Lord. Centuries of persecution in Europe didn’t kill the church there. Decades of prosperity and comfort did. It will be the same with us. At this rate, the enemies of Christ will conquer the American church without firing a shot, through assimilation.
This is an extreme example, but consider how the German churches reacted to Nazism. Most of them capitulated, and even embraced it enthusiastically, considering it their patriotic duty. Only a brave minority resisted. The Benedict Option is about many things, but it is at least about building a generation of Dietrich Bonheoffer’s and Sophie Schall’s. Similarly, a small minority of believers – Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant – resisted communism, because they loved Christ more than they loved their comfortable positions in society, and they were not afraid. What about us?
The church in America is facing a time of testing. We are already in it, and it’s going to get much worse. If we don’t learn how to be faithful in small things, we are not going to be faithful when we would have to surrender something serious, even our lives, for the sake of Christ. In Jeremiah 29, the Lord tells his people captive in Babylon to make their homes among the Babylonians, and to pray for the peace and prosperity of the city. But he also tells them not to fall prey to religious deception there.
In Daniel 3, we read the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, three Jews who had risen in the governing hierarchy of Babylon. Clearly they had obeyed the Lord, and settled among the Babylonians. The king ordered his officials to worship an idol on pain of death, but they refused. He threw them into the fiery furnace, but they were not consumed. Where did these men who lived among the Babylonians get faith so strong that they were willing to die before betraying the Lord God? We American Christians in the 21st century had better ask ourselves that. We too are in exile in post-Christian America, and while I hope and pray we are never put to the test like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, if we are not ordering our entire lives to Christ in real, palpable ways now in a time of relative peace and freedom, we are going to collapse when put to a hard test. That is the warning in my book.