iAt Book Club: The Benedict Option

April 5, 2017

This week iAt begins its first book club series featuring the book, “The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation,” by Rod Dreher. Return to iAt throughout this week as various voices are added to the series, as they interact with one another, and respond to the book. Series contributors are Donald Roth, Scott Culpepper, Gustavo Maya, Erin Olson, and Robert Lancaster. This is the third part of the series.

Title: The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation
Author: Rod Dreher
Publisher: Sentinel
Publish Date: March 14, 2017
Hardcover: 272
Price: $25.00
ISBN: 978-0735213296

Thanks, Donald and Scott, for kicking off our discussion. You both raise some important points. I, too, have been surprised by the reception of The Benedict Option. Very few recently-published books have had so much attention lavished on them. It’s been the subject of discussion in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Commonweal, First Things, The Christian Century, and many other venues—including In All Things. It’s an impressive list.

Of course, not all reviews have been positive. Many have been quite critical. Yet, Rod Dreher seems to have struck a nerve. And now comes word that The Benedict Option is number seven on the New York Times bestseller list. Dreher isn’t exactly marginalized! That people sit up and take notice says a lot about the kind of influence Dreher has. Of course, he’ll complain that liberals are criticizing him, and he’s right. But that doesn’t negate how influential he’s become in certain segments of the population.

I want to say something about James K. A. Smith’s review in The Washington Post. Particularly, how Smith got a lot of flak for noting the racial element of Dreher’s position. Here’s the offending passage:

“But the new alarmism is something different. It is tinged with a bitterness and resentment and sense of loss that carries a whiff of privilege threatened rather than witness compromised. When Dreher, for example, laments the “loss of a world,” several people notice that world tends to be white. And what seems to be lost is a certain default power and privilege. When Dreher imagines “vibrant Christianity,” it is on the other side of the globe. He doesn’t see the explosion of African churches in the heart of New York City or the remarkable growth of Latino Protestantism. The fear seems suspiciously tied to white erosion.”

And here’s Dreher’s response from his blog:

“That’s asinine progressive trolling, and as someone who requested and received a review copy of The Benedict Option, Smith surely knows it — especially because the book specifically warns that the Trump phenomenon is no solution to the problem we face, but a symptom of it. The book takes a view from 30,000 feet of American Christianity. I cite the research of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, who documents the stark decline of American Christian belief, compared to historical doctrinal norms. I cite the more recent findings, by Pew, by Jean Twenge, and by others, showing the unprecedented falloff of religious identification and practice among Millennials. And I cite the recent study by two eminent sociologists of religion who found that the United States is now on the same secularizing track as Europe…”

There’s clearly a disconnect between these two. Smith refers to the loss of power and privilege of white Christianity. Dreher responds with the overall number for the decline of Christianity in America. Those are two distinct points, and they can both be right. Christianity, as a whole, can be in decline even as certain segments of it continue to flourish. But Dreher doesn’t acknowledge that the decline of Christian political and cultural power that he laments is mostly that of whites. Some accused Smith of calling Dreher a racist just for noting the point. But that’s not right with regard to Smith or to Dreher. Dreher isn’t a racist, and Smith wasn’t calling him one.

Smith’s point, it seems to me, is that Dreher is shaped by race, by his whiteness, in ways that prevent him from seeing how race influences his perspective: the loss of power of white Christians is seen as the loss of Christianity tout court and that loss is to be lamented. In other words, white Christianity is conflated with Christianity. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Dreher is a racist. He’s just blind or oblivious to how race tends to operate in the U.S.

There are intentional forms of racism, but race also works as a social force that structures our perceptions, values, practices, institutions, etc. We need to distinguish between the intentional and structural varieties. The problem is that in our so-called colorblind era, any mention of race is reduced to the intentional variety, which then leaves us unable to address to the structural variety, and that’s a problem.

Some people are skeptical about social structures and their explanatory power. Some kinds of social-structural explanations are troublesome and have rightly been criticized for leaving out individual agency and moral responsibility. But this doesn’t mean that all such explanations are bad or wrong. We need better explanations. That’s what the social scientists that Dreher cites are trying to provide with regard to American Christianity. Scholars try to do the same thing for race.

When Smith noted that the lost world lamented by Dreher is white, I think he was invoking a social-structural account of race, particularly whiteness, as a means of explaining the problem with Dreher’s perspective and the problem with what Dreher identifies as a problem. But because race is usually reduced to intentional racism, Smith’s critics took him to be accusing Dreher of racism. That’s unfortunate and avoidable. In many instances, race structures our social world even in the absence of intentional racial discrimination. Colorblindness blinds us from seeing this truth.

About the Author
  • Gustavo Maya is a PhD candidate at Princeton University in the program in Religion, Ethics and Politics. Prior to Princeton, he received a B.A. from Fresno Pacific University, an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley. His dissertation examines exploitation and resistance among the farmworkers led by Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Larry Itliong.

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  1. Thank you for this series. I hope it will prove helpful for people.

    In that vein, I’d suggest readers consider this partial response from Dreher regarding the charge that his perspective and those who share it are tainted by white Christian privilege “… it’s pretty funny to accuse Archbishop Chaput, a Native American (he’s a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi), of mourning the decline in white privilege.”

    You can find the whole response here: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/benedict-option-benedict-arnold/

  2. “There’s clearly a disconnect between these two. Smith refers to the loss of power and privilege of white Christianity. Dreher responds with the overall number for the decline of Christianity in America. Those are two distinct points, and they can both be right. Christianity, as a whole, can be in decline even as certain segments of it continue to flourish.”

    What segments of Christianity in America are flourishing? What is causing them to flourish? Will they continue to flourish if Dreher’s characterization of the contemporary American cultural trajectory is correct? Are non-elite Whites who follow Dreher’s suggestions more or less likely to flourish? In either event, will that hinder the flourishing of the other “certain segments”?

  3. Two more comments. First, the word racism, even when combined with the adjective “structural,” cannot help but be offputting to many folks. It will probably take a journalist, not an academic, to make its meaning clear. In the interim, I strongly urge American (including those north of the 49th parallel) folks to take the Harvard Implicit Association Test (https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html).

    Second, any shortcomings in the scope of Dreher’s book are simply an opening to write one’s own book. That Dreher didn’t write the book one would have written if one had written a book is an underwhelming criticism.