An atmosphere of gloom and despair pervades some cultural-conservative circles, and, at first glance, it’s easy to understand why. There’s no question that hysterical public assaults on Christians or others who dissent from leftist sexual orthodoxy are increasing in volume and frequency. It seems as if every day there’s a new story of an attempt to silence, intimidate, or publicly shame social conservatives.
It’s not enough to express disagreement with cultural conservatives — they must lose their jobs, lose their businesses, and close their schools, unless they bend the knee to the sexual revolution. Bonds of friendship and loyalty are meaningless if the cultural conservative holds the wrong view on same-sex marriage, and Christian clubs are vile discriminators if they simply want to be led by Christian leaders. In the “blue” sectors of America, particularly the academy, some Christians feel that they have to live under deep cover to protect their careers.
What I call the Benedict Option is this: a limited, strategic withdrawal of Christians from the mainstream of American popular culture, for the sake of shoring up our understanding of what the church is, and what we must do to be the church. We must do this because the strongly anti-Christian nature of contemporary popular culture occludes the meaning of the Gospel, and hides from us the kinds of habits and practices we need to engage in to be truly faithful to what we have been given.
Before I go on, let me make it clear that I have the utmost respect for Mr. Dreher. I reviewed his book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, and I can honestly say it changed my life. I always find Rod thoughtful and worth reading — as do many, many others (he’s speaking this week at the influential Q Conference, about the Benedict Option), and that’s precisely why his idea merits a response.
I must admit, my first response to the notion of “strategic withdrawal” is less intellectual and more visceral. Retreat? I recall John Paul Jones’s words, “I have not yet begun to fight,” or, more succinctly, General Anthony McAuliffe’s legendary response to German surrender demands at Bastogne: “Nuts!”
In reality, Christian conservatives have barely begun to fight. Christians, following the examples of the Apostles, should never retreat from the public square. They must leave only when quite literally forced out, after expending every legal bullet, availing themselves of every right of protest, and after exhausting themselves in civil disobedience. Have cultural conservatives spent half the energy on defense that the Left has spent on the attack?
After all, the theological base is still strong. As I’ve pointed out before, not one orthodox Christian denomination is even contemplating shifting its stance on sexual-revolution issues like same-sex marriage and abortion, and the traditionalist faiths are holding the line in membership or growing. By contrast, the mainline, progressive churches are collapsing in membership, continuing a long slide that could see some of America’s historic denominations essentially vanish in our lifetimes.
The grassroots of social conservatism are not just strong but increasing in strength. The cultural Left has lost one high-profile cultural clash after another. From the Chick-fil-A “boycott,” to Hobby Lobby’s legal and cultural triumph, to the recent windfall and triumphant reopening of Memories Pizza, when the cultural Right actually bothers to mobilize, the cultural Left tends to lose. And while pop culture produces prodigious quantities of leftist propaganda, the surprising box office of God’s Not Dead, the overwhelming success of American Sniper, celebrating the life of a Christian warrior, and the consistent ratings for Bible-themed television demonstrate that there remains a large-scale appetite for works of art that advance, whether by intention or by effect, a substantially more conservative point of view.
Crucially, the Left is engaged in a furious internal debate over the very same hysterical tactics that are driving some conservatives to despair. Not every leftist wants to live in a culture where dissent is crushed, dissenters are driven out of jobs, and free speech is redefined as the freedom to shout down your opponents. It is not time to retreat when even key members of the cultural opposition — people who will never agree with conservatives on core social issues — agree their side has gone too far.Finally, a strategic withdrawal would play directly into the hands of those who would redefine religious liberty as simply the things that people do within the four walls of church. There is a reason the Obama administration speaks so frequently of a “right to worship” rather than the much broader concept of “religious freedom.” There is a reason the Department of Health and Human Services so narrowly defined religious exemptions to its abortion-pill mandates, providing the clear opt-out for “church plans” and virtually no one else. When Christianity is confined to church, its impact is limited, its perspective is isolated, and its parishioners are besieged.
I say none of this to minimize the challenge or to gloss over the very sense of exhaustion and vulnerability felt by many Christians in America’s bluest regions. Things may get worse before they get better. But the world is not Boston, nor is it New York or Washington, D.C. And now is not the time to retreat, not when so many millions have barely begun to fight.
— David French is a staff writer for National Review.