iAt Book Club: The Benedict Option

April 13, 2017
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Last week iAt began its first book club series featuring the book, “The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation,” by Rod Dreher.  Throughout the week various voices added to the series, interacting with one another as they responded to the book. Series contributors are Donald Roth, Scott Culpepper, Gustavo Maya, Erin Olson, and Robert Lancaster. This week, Donald Roth and Robert Lancaster add their thoughts one final time.

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

The only tough part of a virtual roundtable like this book club series is figuring out how to either respond to all of the good points made or to pick from among them in a way that doesn’t neglect something valuable. I’m going to have to be selective, and I hope to perhaps pick up on a couple of other strands at a later point.  For now, I want to address some of the discussion of the role of race and privilege in Dreher’s analysis.

As a white male, it’s a little risky for me to raise any questions about this sort of issue. I’ll say from the outset that I’m not rejecting the significant role that race plays, so much as the purpose it serves for Dreher’s argument, especially as a criticism that presumably disqualifies some aspect of his recommendation. To do this, I want to look at Dreher’s diagnosis and his prescription in turn.

Is Dreher diagnosing purely white decline?

I think one of the major sources of confusion around Dreher’s diagnosis is a lack of precision regarding what exactly the problem is. More precisely, it’s the notion that there’s a problem, in the singular sense. Dreher is lamenting a decline of Christianity, but he cites sources as diverse as Christian Smith and the Supreme Court in Windsor to make his point. In doing so, Dreher is really pointing to a variety of causes, and not all of them include a racial component. I think the conflation of these causes helps to explain some of the disconnect apparent between Dreher and his critics, and this is a conflation of which both sides are guilty. As I see it, the three principal strands of Dreher’s diagnosis of decline are the growth of false gospels, the decline of Christian commitment to certain moral propositions, and the waning of Christian cultural dominance. The causes interact with one another, but we need to look at them separately, and I think only the third one is sufficiently correlated with race to be called a “white” issue.

Taking this in reverse order, the decline of Christian cultural dominance could be fairly considered a concern primarily for white Christians. I’ve heard some culture war language from communities of color, but it’s nowhere near as common as in white churches. In fact, it might be fair to consider the whole “God and Country” theological distortion to be almost entirely a white phenomenon. For groups which have often felt boot of the social order on their necks, it makes sense that the concept of confusing patriotism with religious fervor would be much less attractive. Of course, religious cultural dominance over the last few hundred years has had benefits and dangers for all Christian communities, and there’s something lost and gained by them all in its decline, but I would concede that the benefits have been more broadly enjoyed by white Christians.

Another cause for the decline that Dreher identifies is a waning commitment to Christian sexual ethics. While this is certainly true of the broader culture, the concern does not end there, so this is not just a lament of a decline of Christian cultural dominance. Instead, the concern here is an adoption of the sexual ethic of the broader society. This is a temptation exacerbated by waning cultural influence, sure, but the concern is logically distinct from the earlier complaint. This isn’t to say that Christians are suddenly magically struggling with sexual immorality for the first time, but it’s a lament that Christians are increasingly rejecting such notions as the immorality of extramarital sex, which is not a concern isolated to white communities.

Finally, Dreher states that he’s concerned with a waning Christianity due to the growth of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). I would argue that this concern should include other false gospels, especially the prosperity gospel, which is a special permutation of the moralism that MTD espouses. I will confess limited experience in African American churches, but the popularity of preachers like T.D. Jakes suggests that the threat of the prosperity gospel is not limited to white Christianity, and the testimony of several friends working in Latin America makes me more confident of that assertion regarding Latino communities. Yes, there are thriving minority communities and diverse urban churches where Christianity is flourishing, but I think it would be painting with a broad and inaccurate brush to suggest that white churches are failing while churches of color are thriving.

One last note on this part: while I’m defending Dreher to a degree here, he’s just as guilty of imprecision as his detractors. I think we would do much better to have a discussion of decline that separates out the causal threads, defines what we mean by decline, and then addresses how those threads interact (as well as how it’s not all negative). Perhaps that’s too much to demand of a book aimed at a popular audience, but I’d still prefer it.

Is this only an option for the privileged?

I can be more brief on this topic than the last, but in line with my understanding that Dreher is largely arguing that the church should be the church, I can’t believe that this would be an option solely for the privileged unless we intentionally read Dreher uncharitably. We can be uncharitable by assuming that Dreher’s promotion of free enterprise at the political level means an opposition to personal generosity, but, as Robert pointed out, I don’t think the one entails the other. At face value, a preference for free enterprise has to do with balancing government interventions in the marketplace; this doesn’t oppose the idea of Christians voluntarily pooling their resources for their common good.

More importantly, though, critiques of Dreher for failing to account for vibrant urban communities stand at some degree of tension with the notion that the BenOp is only an option for the privileged. Dreher has spoken approvingly of Shane Claiborne and the new monasticism movement (even if he’s skeptical of broader progressive adoption of the BenOp), and it’s hard to think of Claiborne’s group as being exclusive to the privileged. Similarly, although the Reformed enclaves with which many of us are familiar certainly enjoy some degree of wealth and privilege, that was not always the case. I’ll leave it to others if they’d like to argue that things in America are much different today, but if it was possible for blue collar immigrant communities to form BenOp-ish communities 50-100 years ago, such potential isn’t precluded today. We don’t have to agree that the BenOp is the path to take (I do have my questions about some aspects), but it doesn’t seem accurate to me to say that it’s a path predicated on economic privilege.

About the Author
  • Donald Roth serves as Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Co-Director of the Kuyper Honors Program, and Director of the Master of Public Administration Program at Dordt University.

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