By Alan W. Dowd
Is it time for people of faith to mount a “deliberate, strategic retreat” from America’s often-grimy culture and deeply-discordant public square? Author Rod Dreher thinks so. He makes this case in his book “The Benedict Option,” which was written as a kind of road map to help people of faith navigate around and ultimately away from what he calls “a culture of moral chaos and fragmentation.” Perhaps the only thing more surprising than Dreher’s premise is the fact that some two years after its publication, the book continues to generate discussion in the most unexpected places: The New York Times, The New Yorker, major newspapers in Ireland and Germany, and the Heritage Foundation are among the many non-religious organizations discussing this very-religious book. While most of those outlets weigh in on the cultural issues Dreher raises, the purpose here is to wrestle with Dreher’s call to retreat and withdraw from the public square.
First things first: Many of Dreher’s recommendations serve as antidotes to the junk that distracts us from what matters. He urges religious Americans to “Turn off the television. Put the smartphones away. Read books. Play games. Make music. Feast with your neighbors…Plant a garden…Teach kids how to play music.”
Related, he emphasizes the importance of “spiritual discipline and building the structures and habits” that “sustain” a person’s faith. The pressures and technologies of the 21st century have a way of crowding out these centuries-old disciplines and habits.
In addition, Dreher is rightly concerned about the Church becoming focused on political power and political influence. Without a doubt, when the Church imitates the world, defines power on the world’s terms, pursues the trappings of worldly power, or puts its trust in politics, it fails its mission. Indeed, when it does these things, the Church is not the Church. “Losing political power might just be the thing that saves the Church’s soul,” Dreher concludes.
However, some of his recommendations—indeed the underlying premise of the book—point toward withdrawing from the world. Convinced that “de-Christianized Europe is our future in America,” Dreher says people of faith should “secede culturally from the mainstream,” “pull their children out of the public school system,” “embed” themselves “in stable communities of faith” with “metaphorical walls,” “withdraw behind…communal boundaries,” and head for the hills to practice “the antipolitical politics of the Benedict Option.”
The Benedict Dreher is referencing, as he explains, “was an educated young Christian who left Rome, the city of the recently fallen empire, out of disgust with its decadence. He went south, into the forest near Subiaco, to live as a hermit and to pray. Eventually, he gathered around him some like-minded men, and formed monasteries.”
If people of faith follow Dreher’s road map to self-imposed exile from America’s culture and public square, the effect would be to surrender the culture and public square. And the consequences would be grave. If America’s culture seems grimy today, if our public square seems toxic, if the world seems hostile to religious institutions, just wait until people of faith and voices of conscience have withdrawn and walled themselves off.
Far from Home
The Benedict Option may sound tempting. In many ways, it would be simpler and easier for people of faith. But it pays to recall that God has always called His people to be engaged in the world He created, which means we need to stay engaged in the public square.
Joseph, after all, was appointed Egypt’s prime minister. Likewise, a pagan king made Daniel “ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon.” Later, Daniel was elevated to a position of even higher authority: ruler over several regional governors.
Moses was called into the public square to argue that God’s people had a right to assemble and worship. Acting as heaven’s ambassador, Moses outlined God’s reasonable demands: “Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the desert.”
Queen Esther used her political position to rescue her people from a holocaust.
Jeremiah instructed God’s people in pagan Babylon to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.”
Jesus and the disciples were not monks cloistered and closed off in some mountaintop monastery. Instead, they were out in the world, interacting with pagans and polytheists, politicians and priests, generals and governors, rich men and tax collectors, beggars and lepers, Jews and gentiles, Greeks and Samaritans. In short, they were in the world, but they were not of the world.
In fact, Paul called believers “Christ’s ambassadors.” Yes, that means “our citizenship is in heaven,” as he put it. But to extend Paul’s metaphor, it also means that where we live right now matters enough that God has posted us here to represent Him and His interests. A given of being an ambassador is living in a foreign land, among foreign peoples. An ambassador is of no use if he never ventures outside the borders—or “walls,” to use Dreher’s term—of his homeland.
Closer to our own time, the ancestors of America’s founders were people of deep faith, who came to this continent to practice that faith and build a society shaped by that faith. Ever since, people of faith have played an indispensable role in America’s public square.
Historian Isaac Kramnick notes that the founders generally believed “religion was a crucial support of government.” Washington, for example, warned that “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” How will 21st-century America hear about religious principle—how can any semblance of morality be preserved—if people of faith wall themselves off, figuratively or literally, from the world?
Speaking of walls, it’s ironic that after decades of fighting those who wrongly claim the Constitution created a “wall of separation” to prevent Church from influencing state, some people of faith want to build walls around communities of faith. In fact, that “wall of separation” phrase is lifted out of a letter from Jefferson to the Baptist Association of Danbury, which wrote the new president with concerns that “what religious privileges we enjoy…we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights; and these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgments, as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen.” In response, Jefferson wrote, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and state.” He signed off by reciprocating “your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves and your religious association, assurances of my high respect and esteem.”
Of the many things we can glean from this episode, three of the most important are: 1) people of faith were trying to influence their government, and Jefferson had no problem with it, 2) Jefferson sided with the religious group rather than the government, and 3) Jefferson believed religious people had the right to be engaged in the public square—and indeed should be engaged in the public square. Jefferson wanted people of faith to be free to practice their faith, and he wanted them to be able to influence the public square for the better. That’s impossible if people of faith are not in the public square.
We must never put our nation ahead of our faith. That would be idolatry. But we must resist the temptation to dust off our sandals, withdraw from the public square, and declare ourselves above the brokenness of a world in desperate need of salt and light and good news. Now is no time for heaven’s ambassadors to go AWOL and retreat behind walls of our own making.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the center for America’s Purpose and authors the Project Fortress blog. Follow him on Twitter @alanwdowd. A shorter version of this essay appeared in Providence.