In Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, characters “go Galt” by disappearing into a valley, Galt’s Gulch, when society proves incompatible with living and working according to the principles of a free economy. Today, with every attack on the faithful—from challenges against bakers in courtrooms, to the mob that stripped Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich of his job, to the transgender school mandate the Obama administration enacted before leaving office—it’s clear there is a cultural tide working against people of faith in our country. Rand’s characters go Galt for economic reasons. Readers of a new book by Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option, may decide to “go Benedict,” dropping out of society in some fashion, for religious and moral reasons.
Dreher’s subtitle is A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. A fascinating component of the book, however, is the overlap between what Dreher proposes and what already exists within the Orthodox Jewish community, in North America and across the world. The communal makeup of the Orthodox Jewish community was built not in response to cultural upheaval, but from a desire to maintain the continuity of the Jewish people. (A recent Pew Forum report on rates of intermarriage in American Judaism indicates the success of the Orthodox community in this regard.) Yet the Orthodox Jewish experience provides an exact blueprint for what Dreher is proposing American Christians undertake.
How should Americans go about going Benedict? Does it entail building a bunker and only eating food you catch or grow? Dreher explains how one can build a Benedictine society without totally withdrawing from the wider world:
Secede culturally from the mainstream. Turn off the television. Put the smartphones away. Read books. Play games. Make music. Feast with your neighbors. It is not enough to avoid what is bad, you must also embrace what is good. Start a church, or a group within your church. Open a classical Christian school, or join and strengthen one that exists.
Once weekly on the Sabbath, which lasts from Friday night at sundown to an hour after sundown on Saturday night, Orthodox Jewish families turn off televisions and smartphones, and spend the day playing old-fashioned games and sharing in meals together. It is forbidden to travel, spend money, or cook; thus, there is a strong emphasis on making the day one for familial bonding.
Thanks to the need for homes to be within walking distance of the community’s synagogue, Orthodox Jewish families often live in close proximity to one another—another recommendation Dreher makes in The Benedict Option. He acknowledges: “Geography is one secret to the strength and resilience of the Orthodox Jewish communities. … Christians don’t have the geographical requirement that Orthodox Jews do, but many of those who choose to live in proximity have found it a blessing. … Why be close? Because the church can’t just be the place you go on Sundays—it must become the center of your life.”
Most pivotally, Dreher addresses how parents should educate their children, in terms of both schooling and the at-home atmosphere. How do Orthodox Jewish parents raise their children? Almost every child attends a private Jewish school, often at great expense to parents and the community at large. The cost of a secondary school system outside of the public school system is so great that the Jewish community constantly tries to ameliorate the financial pressure on families arising from the “day school crisis.” Schools rely on donations from philanthropists and alumni, in addition to tapping into resources available to public school students (e.g., technology budgets, security, and busing). While the system entails sacrifices, it is held to be a foremost obligation of almost all Orthodox families to educate students within a Jewish framework; once-a-week Sunday school classes aren’t enough.
This is not to say that the Orthodox community has it all figured out. Several of the problems plaguing the Christian community are an issue within Orthodox Jewish circles as well. The quality of secular education, especially in more religious schools, leaves much to be desired for many parents, and as schools lean more “modern” or less right-wing religiously, the cost goes up. As the cost increases, so too does another problem Dreher notes, which is not exclusive to Christian schools. He explains: “Years ago a Christian friend in Dallas refused to consider sending her children to a couple of the most elite Christian schools in the city. As a newcomer to the city, I assumed that the high tuition cost was the reason. Not at all, she said; she did not want her kids absorbing the materialistic, status-conscious culture within the schools.” When tuition at a modern Orthodox school is over $15,000 per child per year, a “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality tends to take over.
Though Dreher wrote his book primarily as a guide for “Christians in a post-Christian world,” Christians and Jews have a great deal of common ground. In a conversation with me, Dreher remarked:
Orthodox Jews understand sharp lines between the public square and where they have to withdraw. Suddenly, orthodox Christians are being pressed in ways we're not used to. … If we hold what is written in scripture is true, we have to prepare to be hated. We don't know how to be despised and still stay faithful. The Orthodox Jewish [community] is not unfamiliar with this experience. Jews and Muslims can and should speak out in support of Christians, and we should in turn do the same.
On issues surrounding school choice, the disappearance of modesty and decency in the public square, and religious liberty concerns, Christians and Jews should work together in order to protect their mutual best interests. The Jewish community has a great deal more experience than the Christian community at operating independently of many of society’s boundaries. What it lacks is the Christian community’s organizational strength. While the Rabbinical Council for America (RCA), the main rabbinic body in America, issues press releases about gay marriage and religious liberty, it has considerably less bite behind its bark than its Christian counterparts do.
While Dreher largely discusses working interdenominationally between Christians in order to build a viable Benedict Option, if Christians hope to build an enclave for themselves—and if Jews wish to buttress theirs—the two communities have much to gain from cooperating with each other, rather than walling themselves off from each other and the wider world. Many of Dreher’s proposals for individuals who wish to become involved in their communities can also apply to Christians and Jews who wish to make inroads with each other. How can individuals in either community build a bridge to the other? Work with one another on projects relating to school choice and community improvement; play each other’s school groups at team sports; share in meals together; and invite one another to participate on projects of mutual interest, from river cleanup days to government lobbying efforts.
With every passing year it becomes clear that the culture war is a lost cause for religious conservatives. By going Benedict, we may not stop the tides working against families of faith—but we can create a refuge for those who might otherwise be swept out to sea.
Bethany Mandel is a stay-at-home mother and writer on politics and culture.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.