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I continue to ponder the discussion in First Things of the civic role of religion in America. It is a worthwhile discussion, though admittedly fraught with so many challenges that it becomes difficult to deal with them from any single viewpoint. To take but one example, one might consider Rod Dreher’s continued call for a Benedict Option (see here and here), which has been much debated.

Dreher employs MacIntyre’s rhetorical move of calling for a new Benedict. For MacIntyre, the Benedict Option is a powerful way to symbolize the current historical situation as analogous to the demise of the western imperium in the late fourth century. The current ruins are not simply fragmented moral visions, but are the result of the exhaustion of moral projects and the political traditions committed to them (such as Marxist socialism). Faced with this historical situation, MacIntyre also sees Benedict as a symbol of the need to construct new forms of local community amidst the ruins. Such new forms of community would become the mechanisms to retrieve and sustain a narrative construal of the good life that holds together moral, intellectual, and spiritual development.

Taking a cue from Christian Smith, Dreher has modified MacIntyre’s position to claim that Moral Therapeutic Deism emerged from the fragmented moral visions in American life, and that MTD may be what accounts for the rapid shift on cultural issues (at least among young Christians). What is important about Smith’s observations is that MTD functions between the systematic faiths of organized religion and the private beliefs of the individual. MTD is a shared religious and moral vision across religions within the existing social order. Dreher’s call for a Benedict Option is a call to build local communities that will resist MTD, not to disengage from civic and political life. It’s really about constructing an ethos within which catechesis can take root and the internal logic of the Christian vision can unfold.

But while appeals to Benedict—or even to the Dominicans, as C. C. Pecknold has done—leverage the symbolic power of men and movements, they remain historically thin and fraught with their own difficulties once one begins to probe the historical basis for the analogy. One could, for example, just as easily appeal to Cassiodorus, a contemporary of Benedict, as a model for creating a local community. A member of the senatorial class, Cassiodorus was part of the top 1 percent, yet he decided in the wake of Justinian’s effort to reestablish the empire in southern Italy that it was best to retire from political life in the Ostrogothic kingdom and to follow other wealthy Christian intellectuals in establishing a haven for the life of the mind. No doubt the execution of Boethius on charges of collusion with Byzantium was also a motivating factor. As a result, Vivarium was established on Cassiodorus’s estates not long after Benedict had established Monte Cassino. So, why not the example of a wealthy politician who creates a local community with his own money and then composes a work on Christian education and classical education? The answer, of course, is that Cassiodorus is no Benedict in the Christian imagination.

It is true that certain figures or movements in the history of Christianity have more rhetorical pull as symbols of Christian existence than others, but gravitating toward them can obscure the multitude of ways that Christians have sought to navigate their particular historical contexts. We can get at—and retain—this breadth of perspectives only by examining the immense varieties of Christian existence through both well-known and less well-known figures and movements. Christianity has survived for two thousand years largely because of the fact that Christians have always forged multiple paths to arrive at the same destination. We need historically robust accounts to find those ancient paths; focusing too much on a few single figures can flatten our faith.

Another challenge of using symbols is navigating how they will then be translated into different contemporary forms of Christianity. If Catholics (or Orthodox) using Benedict means recognizing that we live amongst the ruins and thus need to cultivate local communities or even a stronger vision of the Church, then it seems that Protestants can look no further than Yoder’s and Hauerwas’s efforts to rehabilitate the Anabaptist vision. It was the Anabaptists who first postulated that central to the problem of making faithful disciples was a Faustian bargain with the state. This is essentially what Hauerwas has been arguing, even to the point of suggesting that the American tradition of Protestant ethics that began with Rauschenbusch has come to an end, primarily because it was about America rather than about Christianity. Hauerwas would no doubt have agreed with the basic proposition that the Church should offer up its own narrative construal of life if it’s going to remain the Church.

To invoke the Yoder-Hauerwas vision in the current climate of evangelicalism is to enter the debate between the Sojourner crowd, who has sought most to appropriate that vision, and those within the Reformed-Baptist trajectory, who see it as advancing left-wing political ideology in theological guise. While that debate is too complex to adjudicate here, one way of construing the Benedict Option among Protestants is to talk about the Anabaptist Option. Neither Yoder nor Hauerwas have argued for complete disengagement with political discourses; rather they have both consistently maintained that the Church can only do so on its own terms.

In a certain respect, one could say that modern evangelicalism has been engaged in the Benedict Option for much of the twentieth century. If we’re talking about the creation of local communities, then the coalition of largely evangelical colleges within the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities should count for something. On top of this, one might point to the classical Christian school movement or even the home-schooling movement and the creation of Patrick Henry College in part to supply a place for home-schooled children to get further education.

This, however, raises the debate over cultural engagement that another Orthodox thinker, Charles Malik, sparked in the fall of 1980 at Wheaton College when he challenged evangelicalism to overcome its anti-intellectualism and to engage in the battle of ideas going on within the universities. This is what gave birth to Mark Noll’s efforts to identify the sources of anti-intellectualism within the evangelical world and to call for a renewed effort to produce the highest scholarship possible. Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind embodied the intellectual phalanx of a resurgent evangelicalism that Richard Neuhaus saw as the natural heir to the project of mainline Protestantism. One could say that Noll’s Kuyperian heirs have found the Benedict Option among evangelicals leading to precisely the wrong kind of communities.

All of this is to say that there are numerous difficulties in thinking through how best to understand the civic role of religion in America. The challenges of using historical precedents, ecumenism, anti-intellectualism, and even competing interpretations of analogues to something like a “Benedict Option” among evangelicals reveal the hard task ahead. 

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