WASHINGTON — Christian leaders emphatically rejected Rod Dreher’s call for the Christian church to withdraw from culture and politics in his best-selling book The Benedict Option. The leaders argued that Dreher’s view of a Christianity in dire peril was unduly influenced by an emphasis on sexual sins.
Dreher’s alarmism “plays into a strange emphasis on the part of conservative Christians to overemphasize sins of license and underemphasize sins of oppression,” Cherie Harder, president of the Trinity Forum, said at the National Press Club on Wednesday. She suggested that this overemphasis blinded Dreher to historical threats.
“It is that kind of off-kilter emphasis that enables some conservatives to talk about ages of slavery and segregation as being a time when Christian principles still governed, but a time of more sexual licentiousness to be somehow outside that pale,” Harder argued. “That’s something that is a matter of debate and should not be a matter of assumption.”
Harder quoted Dreher’s book, which warns that “the light of the Christian faith is flickering out all over the West,” and that “a generation alive now may see the end of Christianity before they die.” She attacked this apocalyptic rhetoric as “overwrought and unhelpful,” as well as painfully ignorant of the church’s struggles in history and across the world.
While Harder and the other panelists praised aspects of The Benedict Option, such as Dreher’s call for the church to act more like a community and his success at drawing attention to religious issues, they disagreed with the idea that Christians should withdraw from engaging politics and secular culture, and harshly criticized his notion that the church faces unprecedented threats.
Joseph Capizzi, professor of Moral Theology at the Catholic University of America (CUA), told the story of Konrad Adenauer, a Roman Catholic who served as mayor of Cologne before the Nazis took over Germany. Adenauer suffered under Adolf Hitler, but after World War II, he returned to politics, serving as the first Chancellor of West Germany.
“If ever there was a time to quit politics and to disengage, to be pessimistic about the possibilities … Adenauer faced it at the end of the Second World War,” Capizzi declared. Instead, “he chose to serve as a Catholic in a majority Protestant nation.”
Capizzi challenged Rod Dreher’s historical “inflection points,” namely the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage and the capitulation of conservative politicians under corporate pressure. The CUA professor suggested that these events were no more destructive for Christianity than the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion or Ronald Reagan’s passage of a no-fault divorce law in 1970.
The professor ended his remarks quoting Pope Francis in his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium: “I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs … can be suitably channeled for evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.”
Joseph Hartman, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, also disagreed with Dreher’s view of history as decline. “In Augustinian terms, we live in the time between Christ’s coming and His return — human history is ambiguous,” Hartman said.
Like Capizzi, he noted that there were many other horrible points in Western history besides Obergefell. “As a Christian, this catastrophic narrative is problematic,” Hartman said. He also noted that even the anti-Christian Friedrich Nietzsche argued that the liberal values of human equality and freedom are “basing that off of Christianity.”
Rather than moral relativism, Hartman said he was “worried about an aggressive anti-religious moralism,” which aims to silence free speech and free association in the name of LGBT rights.
Alison Centofante (maiden name Howard), director of alliance relations at Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), agreed. She argued that in the religious freedom debate, “what matters is whether you think the government has the right to tell someone they have to deny their deeply-held convictions.”
Centofante mentioned the case of Barronelle Stutzman — the Washington florist fined for refusing to arrange flowers for a same-sex wedding — as an example of this terrifying attack on the free exercise of religion. She also referenced the case of Jack Phillips, a Colorado baker in a similar situation, which the Supreme Court announced it would take up.
The ADF lawyer quoted at length from a blog post by Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, whose organization hosted the event Wednesday. Tooley’s post explained why it is important to fight for Christians’ religious freedom in America, despite the fact that Christian persecution is worse overseas.
Nobody in America suffers religious persecution like Christians overseas. But persons who have faced discrimination are usually not the high and mighty. They are charities or small business people derided by politically correct groupthink and driven to bankruptcy by coercive state power. Why is it “abrasive” to defend them? And should injustice against them not be fervently resisted so that even greater injustices don’t arise later? Should we not jealously safeguard a rich and holy legacy of religious freedom purchased dearly for us by the sacrifice of earlier less privileged generations?
Chentofante argued that the Benedict Option is “a spiritually lazy option.” She warned that “when we come up against injustice and degradation, we want to use prayer and Bible reading for the purpose of a quiet retreat,” but “this is the first step in the wrong direction.”
“Jesus Christ never encourages the idea of retirement,” Centofante declared. She noted the estimate by Georgetown University’s Brian Grim that American religion involved $1.2 trillion of work annually — making it the 15th largest economy in the world, and larger than the total revenues of the top 10 tech companies, including Apple, Amazon, and Google.
“If we retreat, the world will miss us,” the ADF lawyer quipped.
The Trinity Forum’s Cherie Harder agreed, but for a different reason. Noting that Dreher’s Benedict Option warns of sexually licentious “barbarians,” she said, “It is more difficult to love your neighbor wisely and well if you are convinced they are a barbarian who annihilates all that is good without knowing or caring.”
Harder noted that rates of violent crime, teen pregnancy, and divorce have decreased since the 1990s, but other problems have increased. “While we may be less violent, we are also more distracted, depressed, indebted, medicated, obese, porn-addled, divided, polarized, isolated, and lonely,” the Trinity Forum president said.
“At a time when we as Christians have such a unique opportunity to show the love of Christ to our lost neighbors, to show his healing power, to pray for them, to invite them into our home, to get to know them, and to model that kind of caring concern, withdrawing from them, considering them barbarians, and trying to keep ourselves clean from their contaminating power might not be the best way to either love God, pursue our own vocations, or show his love to our neighbor.”
Withdrawing from the world would not just deprive other people of the church’s powerful witness in terms of love, truth, and charity, it would also arguably be a rejection of Jesus’ call to “make disciples of all nations.”
America is not a new Israel, it is not the true home for Christians, and it is not where followers of Jesus put their hope. But American Christians should see their witness as an extension of Jeremiah 29:7, where the prophet encouraged the exiles of Israel to “seek the peace of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
American Christians do face unique challenges, but these are not worse than those faced by Christians across the world or in earlier ages — just different. Each of the speakers in Washington on Wednesday agreed that the appropriate response is not withdrawal, but engagement.