Russian Orthodox Chapel at Fort Ross, California / Wiki Commons
Russian Orthodox Chapel at Fort Ross, California / Wiki Commons

Detachment Plan

A Review of Rod Dreher’s ‘The Benedict Option’

Rod Dreher is convinced that America, indeed the whole project of modernity, is doomed, and he thought this long before Donald Trump took up tweeting or occasional residence in the White House. Trump is the least of our problems, he assures us.

In The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, Dreher insists that a “flood of secularism,” bringing with it a tsunami of sexual libertinism, is destroying the family and ushering in the new Dark Ages. In response to the collapse of Roman civilization in the sixth century, St. Benedict established monasticism, preserving the faith from the barbarian hordes. Dreher thinks proponents of liberalism, moral relativism, heedless consumerism, and of course “political correctness” are the new Visigoths, and pose a similar threat to the faith today. He goes further. It is time for “orthodox” lay Christians—and he won’t tolerate much shilly-shallying about what “orthodox” means—to form intentional communities that are separated in significant ways from the moral contagion of the larger culture. These communities will be family-centered (naturally) and presumably in some cases economically self-sustaining (good luck with that). They will most likely be anchored to a church or perhaps gathered around a monastery. (Dreher is smitten by monks, whose sage prophecies of doom he seems to take at face value.) Traditional Christian practices of worship and communal cooperation, based on St. Benedict’s Rule, will structure everyday life. Children will be homeschooled or sent to Christian academies, and thus protected from our toxic popular culture and the state’s malign meddling regarding sexual morality. This is necessary, Dreher writes, because American society has abandoned, and the federal government is now openly hostile to, biblical Christianity and especially traditional sexual morality. Drastic action is required.

Dreher has worked as an editorial writer and columnist for the Dallas Morning News, been exposed to the flesh pots of the Big Apple while writing for the New York Post and National Review, and made a brief stop at the Templeton Foundation. He is now an editor and remarkably prolific blogger at the paleoconservative The American Conservative. He writes faster than most people (or at least I) can read. His odyssey has also included a conversion from Methodism to Catholicism, and then—after the sex-abuse scandal, which, understandably, he found appalling—a switch from Catholicism to Eastern Orthodoxy. Eventually he settled his family in Louisiana, where he grew up.

As his résumé suggests, Dreher has been a fervent political conservative most of his life, but not a predictable one. He appears to prefer work boots and flannel shirts to bow ties, brandy snifters, and cigars. One of his earlier books, Crunchy Cons, was a kind of manifesto for back-to-the-earth types who championed organic food, environmentalism, and old-fashioned craftsmanship, while eschewing liberal mores. Dreher also expressed skepticism about the materialism and technological utopianism of free-market absolutists. A certain romanticism comes naturally to traditionalists. What Wilfrid Sheed said about the novelist Walker Percy might also be said about Dreher. As a Southerner, he seems half in love with defeat. (Not surprisingly, Dreher is a big Percy fan.)

In The Benedict Option, Dreher declares that he has seen the error of his ways. For too long conservative Christians have identified their creed with the nation’s, neglecting the fact that Christians have no abiding place in this world. It was a mistake to look to the Republican Party to stem the tide of secularism, abortion, and the assault on the family. With the capitulation of corporate America to the liberal social and sexual agenda, that hope has been revealed as hollow, if not a con. It is time to accept the fact that “politics will not save us.” The hour is late, and the open persecution of Christians not far off. Dreher looks to the “hands-on localism” pioneered “by Eastern bloc dissidents who defied Communism” as a model for today’s Christian resistance. Most important, now is the time for Christians to put their own house in order and in so doing become a moral witness for others. “Just as God used chastisement in the Old Testament to call his people back to himself, so he may be delivering a like judgment onto a church and a people grown cold from selfishness, hedonism, and materialism. The coming storm may be the means through which God delivers us,” Dreher writes.

For too long conservative Christians have identified their creed with the nation’s

How did we get into this fix? It’s a long story, although Dreher deals with it in a short chapter. Taking a page out of Brad Gregory’s much debated The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, Dreher claims things began to go awry in the fourteenth century when William of Ockham introduced the virus of nominalism into the hard drive of Christian “metaphysical realism.” In this just-so story, the Protestant Reformation and the “collapse of religious unity and religious authority” inevitably followed. (As an Orthodox Christian ought to know, the church was split long before that.) Soon the Enlightenment “displaced the Christian religion with the cult of Reason, privatized religious life, and inaugurated the age of democracy.” The “Industrial Revolution” brought with it the triumph of capitalism and eventually a nihilistic consumerism. According to Dreher, this litany of calamities ends with “The Sexual Revolution,” a briar patch in which most of us remain poisonously ensnared. 

Dreher concedes that his canned syllabus “leaves out a great deal,” especially the fact that “material consequences often give birth to ideas.” I wish Dreher had taken that historical maxim more to heart. Our values and self-understanding have been profoundly shaped by things like electricity, the automobile, and antibiotics, not to mention the European discovery of the New World and its peoples. Instead, he argues that his summary of the “role ideas…played in historical change gives us a conceptual understanding of the nature of our present crisis.” But his idealized picture of a lost medieval philosophical, religious, and social synthesis is wildly—even willfully—reductionist and thus misleading.

Dreher’s critique of American society and Western culture more generally is hardly new. In fact, it is quite threadbare. Catholic thinkers have been denouncing secularism, political liberalism, philosophical subjectivism, economic individualism, and “technological man” for centuries. The church’s reconciliation, after the Second Vatican Council, with liberal democracy and religious pluralism is still a work in progress. James Walsh’s The Thirteenth, Greatest of Centuries was a popular title in Catholic schools before the council, and one assumes it will be a standard text for Dreher’s homeschoolers. For much of the twentieth century Catholics exercised a kind of “Benedict Option” of their own, usually called the Catholic “ghetto” or subculture, one replete with its own schools, welfare institutions, and separatist ethnic neighborhoods and churches. Much of that distinctive Catholic culture began to disappear after the Second World War, as educated Catholics moved out of their urban enclaves and assimilated into an increasingly pluralistic and secular society. The suburbs, where the car and the mall rule and ethnic identity tends to fade, was not the most hospitable territory for a communal religion like Catholicism. That is a problem still seeking a solution, as the rate of defections from the church increases.  

There were smaller, more idiosyncratic groups of Catholics who were deeply suspicious of America’s postwar affluence and the assimilationist model—for example, the Catholic Worker. In addition to and sometimes in alliance with the Worker, there were also the Liturgical Movement, Catholic Rural Life, Christian Family, and Catholic Action. To varying degrees, all of those anticipated the alienation and religious fervor of Dreher’s Benedict Option. There was even a loosely organized group called the “Detachers,” whose liturgical enthusiasms and aversion to the “American Way of Life” were uncannily similar to Dreher’s current proposal. One group of Detachers in the 1940s and ’50s, which included Eugene and Abigail McCarthy and more tangentially the writer J. F. Powers (all Commonweal contributors), lived around St. John’s Abbey and College in central Minnesota. Powers’s daughter Katherine writes that the Detachers were pacifists who rejected the “comfortable paganism” of much of the clergy and laity, and called for “heroic holiness” that required “detaching oneself from unnecessary material things and earthly desire.” Similarly, Dreher counsels those who are attracted to the Benedict Option to be prepared to “embrace exile and the possibility of martyrdom,” because a church “that looks and talks and sounds just like the world has no reason to exist.”

I wish Dreher would turn down the sky-is-falling rhetoric

It was under the influence of the Detachers that J. F. Powers declared himself a conscientious objector, refusing to serve in the military during World War II, a countercultural stance even more demanding than the one Dreher is proposing. In 1943, he was sentenced to three years in prison, serving thirteen months before being paroled and assigned a job as a hospital orderly until his release. As Powers’s fiction wryly demonstrates, he took a dim view of America’s crass commercial culture, of the constant pressure for “getting and spending,” and of the self-delusions of Catholics who imagined it was possible to serve both God and Mammon as long as one contributed generously to the parish building fund. “I don’t intend to sell insurance or work in a bank or…dress up and play war with the rest of the fellows,” Powers informed his future wife. He was determined not to get co-opted “so the system may prosper and the crapshooters running it.” Commenting on his own generation of supposedly groundbreaking postwar novelists, Powers lamented their atrophied sense of Original Sin, their belief in American exceptionalism, and their refusal to grasp the inherent folly of most human behavior. They “still believe in Santa Claus,” he wrote, “which I guess is the distinguishing mark of the American, writer or not.”

As a long-married, sixty-five-year-old, testosterone-depleted, “cisgendered” grandfather, I confess to sharing many Catholics’ confusion about same-sex marriage and bafflement over transgenderism. I admire Dreher’s willingness to say what he thinks about these fraught issues, although I wish he would turn down the sky-is-falling rhetoric. If the sky is indeed falling, it won’t help to keep shouting about it. I wish those drawn to the communal alternatives outlined in The Benedict Option well. If the movement gets off the ground in any sustained way, we will see whether this sort of homespun sectarianism leads to greater human flourishing or not, and whether it strengthens the church or contributes to its fragmentation. That said, Dreher is somewhat coy about just how cut off from the mainstream these Benedict Option communities and families need to be. Small intentional communities are notoriously hard to sustain—Original Sin and all that—while families or groups with more porous boundaries are inevitably compromised by the overwhelming presence of modern economic and social forces. In other words, I confess to serious doubts about Dreher’s Santa Claus.

But what perplexes me most is the timing of Dreher’s call for withdrawal and resistance. He claims that Indiana’s decision in 2015 not to protect the right of Christian-owned businesses to refuse to provide services for same-sex marriages, and the Supreme Court’s subsequent ruling that made same-sex marriage a constitutional right, were “watershed” events, offenses that herald the beginning of a “harsh, relentless occupation” of the nation by corrupt and coercive progressive forces. “Conservative Christians had been routed. We were living in a new country.”

No one should doubt the sincerity of Dreher or those Christians who think the new sexual dispensation is a terrible mistake and a dire threat to human dignity. But Dreher surely knows there are worse threats to human dignity and Christian integrity. The Detachers’ countercultural protest was the product of the Great Depression, the near collapse of liberal democracy, the rise of fascist and communist totalitarianism, and the most destructive war in history, which killed more than 60 million people. Detachers witnessed the Holocaust, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and lived in an increasingly militarized country under the constant shadow of nuclear Armageddon. Perhaps even more pertinently, they refused to be taken in by the lie that a nation that worships the rich and despises the poor can call itself Christian. It seems to me that these are all plausible, even compelling, reasons to separate oneself from American society, and try to carve out a place to live faithful Gospel lives. Does same-sex marriage pose a comparable risk? The LGBTQ phenomenon presents difficult moral and even thorny theological questions, but it hardly constitutes an existential threat to humanity, the nation, or the church. It is not the atom bomb. It’s not the Dark Ages. We can leave those options to Trump.

I take Dreher’s point that Christians need to worry about the salt losing its flavor. But Christians also have to be careful not to put their lamp under a bushel basket, which the Benedict Option is tempted to do. In other words, I think a church that often (not always!) looks and talks and sounds like the world has its place. After all, when Christ was born into the world, it was not into a gated community. 

Published in the April 14, 2017 issue: 

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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