Having now completed Dreher’s ‘The Benedict Option’ (BenOp) I am underwhelmed to say the least. The greatest sadness is that this is not, as I see it, about a new and very different Benedict. MacIntyre was writing as a moral philosopher, and BenOp is at least aligned as a moral treatise. But then what morality?
Dreher is transparent about his religious and political bias, he is a conservative in every way. And it becomes apparent through the book that his agenda is about developing a Christian community to thwart the evils of liberalism. But what liberalism? His morality, his moralism, is about recapturing the ground surrendered to LGBT rights, to end the evil of divorce and abortion. Ah, that liberalism! But not the liberalism, or rather neoliberalism, of the right, that is somehow less evil.
He wants congregations to embrace exile, to turn to forming intentional hubs together in the suburbs, even while suburbs, and to withdraw from the “secular” (I want to return to the issue of false dualism later) world. He states, “We Christians today can create that new culture based on returning in creative ways to that very old one.” (p. 105) This reminds me of so many attempts to recapture a romantic past. The old one he refers to is the pre 60s, that glorious era of morality, when divorce was difficult to obtain, when abortion was illegal, and when anything LGBT was criminalised.
I had a brief moment here where I recalled Joanne Harris’ novel ‘Chocolat’ where at a particular point the Priest and the Compte attempt to get rid of the “river rats” or gypsies. They institute a campaign to “boycott immorality.” I get that feeling with BenOp. Everything is based on dualism, on binaries, on black and white.
I bought the book because I have been immersed in the Rule of Benedict for many years (and have been an Oblate or non-professed for many years) so I was interested that the BenOp might segue to the Rule in contemporary living. There are occasions where Dreher makes links, and it is then that he seems most engaged. However, for the bulk of the book he is focussed on the decline of Christianity. But what Christianity is he referring to? Dreher is referring to a fortress Christianity, a conservative bastion, that will be a bulwark against the evils of liberalism that are bringing a war on Christians.
When Dreher says, “There is also the danger of Christians falling back into complacency.” he speaks of Christians, but it is clear that he doesn’t speak for all Christians, he is speaking only to and for those Christians who are struggling with the issues of divorce, abortion and LGBT rights. He speaks for those who feel that they have lost something since the sexual revolution of the 60s, and he speaks for those who want to recapture the pre-60s moral agenda, pre 73 Roe vs Wade, and to return to an older pedagogy, a past education methodology.
He opines that Donald Trump is morally compromised (p.79) while yet defending Trump’s win as a victory that might be good for Christians in as much that it will delay the liberal agenda, whereas Hilary Clinton was to be feared because would have accelerated that agenda (I do agree with Dreher that Trump is a symptom of deeper underlying problems). I note that Dreher doesn’t mention Nixon or Bush Jnr. two equally compromised leaders, but he does mention Reagan, fondly, yet offers no acknowledgement of the economic devastation that he, like Thatcher in the U.K., thrust upon his nation without any thought to the long term consequences for the working and middle classes. There is no insight into the moral malaise of the Republican Party other than that they have conceded moral ground to corporate pressure. While the Democrats are suggested as the party that undermines religion.
I get the sense that while Dreher is careful to admit that politics is suspect and not to be relied upon, there is an undercurrent in the book that yearns for theocracy. It is not explicit but rather lurking behind some of his statements.
So what has this book got to do with a new and very different St. Benedict? Pt. 3 …