Editor’s Note: The following piece is adapted from Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.
Like the people of other Western democracies, Americans are living through a political earthquake shaking the foundations of the postwar order. The old, familiar categories that framed political thought and discourse are dead or dying. Where do orthodox Christians fit into this emerging reality? Which side should we be on? Or do we have a side at all?
The answer will not satisfy conservative Christians who understand the church as the Republican party at prayer, or who go into the voting booth with more conviction than they show at Sunday worship. Though there remain a few possibilities for progress in traditional politics, growing hostility toward Christians, as well as the corruption of values voters, should inspire us to imagine a better way forward.
The Benedict Option calls for a radical new way of doing politics, a hands-on localism based on pioneering work by Eastern-bloc dissidents who defied Communism during the Cold War. A Westernized form of “antipolitical politics,” to use the term coined by Czech political prisoner Václav Havel, is the best way forward for orthodox Christians seeking practical and effective engagement in public life without losing our integrity, and indeed our humanity.
As recently as the 1960s, with the notable exception of civil rights, moral and cultural concerns weren’t make-or-break issues in U.S. politics. Americans voted largely on economics, as they had since the Great Depression. There was sufficient moral consensus in the culturally Christian nation to keep sex and sexuality apolitical.
The sexual revolution changed all that. Beginning with the Roe v. Wade abortion decision in 1973, Americans began sorting themselves politically according to moral beliefs. The religious Right began to rise in the Republican party as the secular Left did the same among the Democrats. By the turn of the century, the culture war was undeniably the red-hot center of American politics.
“Whereas elections once pitted the party of the working class against the party of Wall Street,” wrote journalist Thomas Byrne Edsall in The Atlantic, “they now pit voters who believe in a fixed and universal morality against those who see moral issues, especially sexual ones, as elastic and subject to personal choice.”
That was 2003. Today the culture war as we knew it is over. The so-called values voters — social and religious conservatives — have been defeated and are being swept to the political margins. Moral issues may not be as central to our politics as they once were, but the American people remain fragmented, often bitterly, by these concerns. Though Donald Trump won the presidency in part with the strong support of Catholics and Evangelicals, the idea that someone as robustly vulgar, fiercely combative, and morally compromised as Trump will be an avatar for the restoration of Christian morality and social unity is beyond delusional. He is not a solution to America’s cultural decline, but a symptom of it.
Their diminishment in the drama of American politics has allowed the natural tensions within both parties over economic issues to assert themselves boldly. The nation is fracturing along class lines, with large numbers on both the young Left and the populist Right challenging the free-market, globalist economic consensus that has united U.S. politics since the Reagan and Bill Clinton presidencies. In 2016, the Republican nominee ran as a nationalist opponent of trade deals while the Democratic candidate, a globalist to the fingertips, was Wall Street’s favorite.
This is the first wave of a tectonic political realignment, based around competing visions of free trade and national identity. Race and class will be front and center, for better or worse, and we may look back fondly to the years when abortion and gay marriage were the things animating our fiercest fights. Welcome to the politics of post-Christian America.
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One reason the contemporary church is in so much trouble is that religious conservatives of the last generation mistakenly believed they could focus on politics and the culture would take care of itself. For the past 30 years or so, many of us believed that we could turn back the tide of aggressive 1960s liberalism by voting for conservative Republicans. White Evangelicals and Catholic “Reagan Democrats” came together to support GOP candidates who vowed to back socially conservative legislation and to nominate conservative justices to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The best that orthodox Christians today can hope for from politics is that it can open a space for the church to do the work of charity, culture building, and conversion.
The results were decidedly mixed on the legislative and judicial fronts, but the verdict on the overall political strategy is clear: We failed. Fundamental abortion rights remain solidly in place, and Gallup poll numbers from the Roe v. Wade era until today have not meaningfully changed. The traditional marriage and family model has been protected in neither law nor custom, and because of that, courts are poised to impose dramatic rollbacks of religious liberty for the sake of antidiscrimination.
The new Trump administration may be able to block or at least slow these moves with its judicial appointments, but this is small consolation. Will the law as written by a conservative legislature and interpreted by conservative judges overwrite the law of the human heart? No, it will not. Politics is no substitute for personal holiness. The best that orthodox Christians today can hope for from politics is that it can open a space for the church to do the work of charity, culture building, and conversion.
To be sure, Christians cannot afford to vacate the public square entirely. The church must not shrink from its responsibility to pray for political leaders and to speak prophetically to them. Christian concern does not end with fighting abortion and with protecting religious liberty and the traditional family. For example, the new populism on the right may give traditionalist Christians the opportunity to shape a new GOP that on economic issues is about solidarity more with Main Street than Wall Street. Conservative Christians can and should continue working with liberals to combat sex trafficking, poverty, AIDS, and the like.
The real question facing us is not whether to quit politics entirely, but how to exercise political power prudently, especially in an unstable political culture. When is it cowardly not to cooperate with secular politicians out of an exaggerated fear of impurity — and when is it corrupting to be complicit? Donald Trump tore up the political rule book in every way. Faithful conservative Christians cannot rely unreflectively on habits learned over the past 30 years of political engagement. The times require much more wisdom and subtlety for those believers entering the political fray.
Above all, though, they require attention to the local church and community, which doesn’t flourish or fail based primarily on what happens in Washington. And the times require an acute appreciation of the fragility of what can be accomplished through partisan politics. Republicans won’t always rule Washington, after all, and the Republicans who are ruling it now may be more adversarial to the work of the church than many gullible Christians think.