Over the past decade, especially in the struggle over same-sex marriage, some of my friends and allies among social and religious conservatives have called me a defeatist for my culture-war pessimism. I believe that pessimism today is simply realism, and that it is better for us to retreat strategically to a position that we are capable of defending. The cultural battlefield has changed far more than many of us realize.
I live in a small town in rural south Louisiana. Most people go to church, and most people vote Republican; the conservatism is so gentle that even liberals feel at home. The parish council—that is to say, the county government—begins each meeting with the Pledge of Allegiance and the Our Father.
My town is the kind of place that conservatives, especially religious conservatives, think of as a haven from secular liberalism, the kind of place where, if Cardinal George’s persecution prophecy ever came true, Christians could take their stand. But here’s the thing: Culturally speaking, its conservatism is pretty much hollow. That fact has profound implications for the future of the Christian civic project.
Not long ago, a Protestant man in my town who is involved in youth education at his church contacted me. He wanted to discuss what I have written about “moralistic therapeutic deism” (MTD). Sociologist Christian Smith, who coined the term, said it is the “de facto dominant religion among contemporary teenagers in the United States.” It is a vague, vapid approach to religion, one that can be summed up as: God exists, and he wants us to be nice to each other, and to be happy and successful.
My Protestant correspondent said that MTD is the religion of the kids in his church, and it grieved him because as far as he could tell, this was the religion that their parents wanted them to have. This wasn’t surprising to me. We are living in a post-Christian culture, and MTD is our new civil religion.
In conversation with Methodists and Episcopalians in my town, I’ve discovered that, to the extent that believers are aware at all of the great theological battles for the souls of their churches, they consider them little more than rumors of war. This insularity can be a blessing; it is wonderful to go to church on Sunday and not find oneself on a culture-war battlefield.
But I think this disengagement is more of a curse. You may not be interested in the culture war, but the culture war is definitely interested in you. Christian Smith’s research leads us to the indisputable conclusion that for at least two generations, American Christianity has mounted no sustained, substantive challenge to the ongoing cultural revolution now blessed by MTD.
True, the more vigorous, engaged sectors of American Christianity—Evangelicals and orthodox Roman Catholics—produced more Republican voters, at least for a while, but that’s not the same thing as standing athwart the cultural revolution yelling, “Stop!” In fact, insofar as those Christian voters allowed Republican ideas about freedom and the primacy of the individual to dominate their thinking about the relationship of Christ to culture, they have been part of the problem.
Smith’s research reveals that our Christian institutions—churches, schools, colleges—have collaborated in the death of Christian culture in our country. I do not accept the easy blame-shifting to institutions alone, though. Too many Christian clerics and educators, within churches as well as church institutions, have told me how much resistance they get from parents when they try to teach a more vigorous, theologically substantive form of the faith.
If by “Christianity” we mean the philosophical and cultural framework setting the broad terms for engagement in American public life, Christianity is dead, and we Christians have killed it. We have allowed our children to be catechized by the culture and have produced an anesthetizing religion suited for little more than being a chaplaincy to the liberal individualistic order.
As Michael Hanby recognizes, gay marriage has been a watershed in this regard, revealing how far we have fallen from any kind of recognizable Christian orthodoxy about what it means to be a person. The South, unsurprisingly, is the only region where fewer than 50 percent of all those polled endorse same-sex marriage. This is not going to hold. Earlier this year, a Gallup poll revealed that 80 percent of young Americans believe in same-sex marriage. Polling within Louisiana, one of the most socially conservative and religiously observant states, where a solid but shrinking majority opposes gay marriage, found that half of voters thirty and under favor gay marriage.
That polling doesn’t reveal the intensity of feeling on the subject among the young. Last year, a Louisiana clergyman I know was invited to give a presentation on religion at a private school. The only guideline the teacher who invited him gave was don’t talk about gay marriage. It wasn’t that the teacher backed gay marriage; he adamantly does not. Rather, he told the pastor, “If these kids find out that you are against gay marriage, they won’t listen to a thing you have to say about anything.”
This was not in a big-city elite private academy. This was in a small school in churchgoing rural Louisiana—a school founded, in fact, as a haven for white students whose parents rejected racial integration. This school still has no blacks, a fact that doesn’t seem to bother its students. Gay rights is the third rail for these country kids, just as it increasingly is for Catholic high-schoolers around the nation.
The point is not that these putatively Christian young people disagree with Christian orthodoxy on homosexuality. The point is that despite the radicalism of gay liberation, especially within the Christian community, they don’t even see this as a legitimate debate.
And why should they? According to the tenets of moralistic therapeutic deism, which emphasizes personal happiness and well-being, there is no reason why Christianity should object to same-sex marriage. The summum bonum of our American civil religion is maximizing the opportunities for individuals to express and satisfy their desires—a belief that orthodox Christianity by nature opposes but that Christian moralistic therapeutic deism embraces and baptizes. As Smith told an audience at Princeton Theological Seminary,it is not so much that Christianity in the United States is being secularized. Rather more subtly, either Christianity is at least degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith.
Some of us will live to see the day when orthodox Christians will be considered exotic antiques at best—I think of the benign indifference with which many Europeans regard Christianity today—and threats to decency at worst, potentially harmful individuals who must be driven out of public life. In either case, Hanby is correct: The civic project of American Christianity has come to an end, for how can we produce Christian civic life when we are not producing authentic Christians?
This is not to endorse quietism. I don’t think we can afford to be disengaged from public and political life. But it is to advocate for a realistic understanding of where we stand as Christians in twenty-first-century America. Our prospects for living and acting in the public square as Christians are now quite limited.
Put bluntly, given the dynamics of our rapidly changing culture, I believe it will be increasingly difficult to be a good Christian and a good American. It is far more important to me to preserve the faith than to preserve liberal democracy and the American order. Ideally, there should not be a contradiction, but again, the realities of post-Christian America challenge our outdated ideals.
In our time, the Benedict Option does not offer a formula (at least not yet), but it does call for a radical shift in perspective among Christians, one in which we see ourselves as living in the ruins (though very comfortable ones!) of Christian civilization, and tasked with preserving the living faith through the coming Dark Ages.
In some instances, Benedict-Option Christians may seek to found new neighborhoods centered on communal worship. I think of the traditionalist Catholic community around Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma, or of the Orthodox community around St. John Cathedral in Eagle River, Alaska. Contrary to the claims of Benedict-Option critics, neither community is utopian and separatist, shunning the outside world.
For most of us, though, that degree of commitment isn’t possible, even if it were desirable. Our Benedict Option will express itself within institutions—churches, schools, para-church organizations, and so forth—whose purpose is to keep orthodox Christianity alive in the hearts and minds of believers living as exiles in an ever more hostile culture. These must be institutions that fulfill Flannery O’Connor’s dictum that you have to push back as hard against the world as the world pushes against you.
St. Jerome’s, the school that Michael Hanby and others revitalized in their suburban Maryland parish, is a great example of the Benedict Option. Its founders (or rather, re-founders) are orthodox Catholics who believe that Catholic education has to be more than a public-school curriculum with religion classes tacked on. They are teaching the great tradition of Christian humanism.
We need to teach ourselves and our children to desire Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, as preserved within our traditions, and to make that pursuit the focus of our moral imagination. This is not a lofty ideal, but a matter of intense practical urgency. We do not have time to waste in building our little platoons.
Here’s what I mean: People have been moving out of the cities to my town for the past twenty years because the public-school system is one of the best in the state. Yet a family I know here pulled their children out of the school and began homeschooling not because the school is educationally deficient but because the friends of their oldest son, then a fifth-grader, were giving themselves over to watching hardcore pornography on their mobile devices. This wasn’t the school’s fault—the kids weren’t doing it during school hours—but it was the fault of a community of parents that, willingly or not, does not read the signs of the times. Like Philip Larkin’s diseased and dying rabbit in “Myxomatosis,” perhaps they think things will come right again if they can only keep still and wait.
There are no safe places to raise Christian kids in America other than the countercultural places we make for ourselves, together. If we do not form our consciences and the consciences of our children to be distinctly Christian and distinctly countercultural, even if that means some degree of intentional separation from the mainstream, we are not going to survive.
Christianity in America still lives in places and among people who have not yet sold out to moralistic therapeutic deism. Those Christians who have a vocation to politics should exercise it, and they need our support. But Christians who believe that politics will save us should discard those illusions now. The primary focus of orthodox Christians in America should be cultural—or rather, countercultural—building the institutions and habits that will carry the faith and the faithful forward through the next Dark Age.
Rod Dreher is senior editor at the American Conservative.