The most confusing thing about the Benedict Option: Rod Dreher’s thesis that modern American culture has become so toxic to Christians that they must withdraw from it is the lack of substance. Dreher offers no plans or examples of it—he only puts out the idea and hopes that somebody else will fill in the details.
Okay, Dreher does not seem to want to do the work, but others have, including Mormon blogger “Patrick Henry” over at Junior Ganymede. “Henry” ably demonstrates that there is not one Benedict option but several, as Dreher himself has noted.
So what are the Benedict Options, and how could they work? To answer that question, I took a look at various religious countercultures in history and in modern America that could serve as a template for the Option. This could show us what such a counterculture might look like and how it might impact our society.
Some Potential Benedict Options Examined
Monasticism – The term “Benedict Option” comes from Benedict of Nursia, the founder of Roman Catholic monasticism. Many historians credit the monastic orders Benedict founded with helping rebuild Western European civilization during the Dark Ages. A successful monastic movement needs two conditions that were present during medieval times that seem unlikely in our modern age.
The first is a high degree of government support. One reason why Benedict’s monasteries survived and flourished was that medieval kings, emperors, and warlords found them very useful. Leaders like the Emperor Charlemagne relied on the monks as teachers and scholars. Obviously, modern governments are not going to use tax money or resources to support monastic movements, and corporate sponsorship is probably out of the question too.
The other condition necessary for successful monasticism would be a large body of potential recruits. During medieval times, orders attracted large numbers of nuns and monks because the monasteries and convents were a relatively safe and stable refuge in a chaotic world. Today no such incentives exist, so I simply cannot imagine a revival of monasticism except perhaps among the very poor or homeless. There simply are not enough potential recruits to make a large or widespread monastic movement work.
The Amish Option – The Amish have preserved their very unique culture by severely limiting their connections with the modern world. They reject modern technology and limit involvement in the large economy. Amish only take advantage of technology’s wider resources when it serves their purposes; they seek medical care for sick children, and Amish men sometimes take jobs in factories to earn cash.
Although the Amish option has a romantic attraction to Americans—it harks back to the frontier, pioneers, and simpler times like those chronicled in Little House on the Prairie—it has severe limitations. The aspects of the Amish option that work so well to insulate people from the modern world would make it unworkable in wider society.
The Amish can only exist in a modern country like America where there is a military to protect them from foreign invaders and police to protect them from homegrown thugs. How long do you think the average Amish community would hold out against a pack of heavily-armed, post-modern barbarians such as ISIS? The Amish also lack any real political, cultural, or economic influence, so it is hard to see them spearheading the kind of cultural renewal Mr. Dreher wants.
The Jewish Option – Traditionally, Jewish people have survived and often succeeded by adhering to a strict pattern of behavior that includes thrift, hard work, education, faith tenacity, and entrepreneurship. This allows them to influence the culture as a whole and to generate money, which they use to survive.
The drawback to this option is that America rewards these behaviors very well. Such a lifestyle is often the fast track to the upper class in the United States. Time and time again the children or grandchildren of thrifty, devout, and hardworking immigrants in the United States have become the kind of secularized, materialistic, college-educated elite Dreher and his ilk fear. This happened to the Quakers, the Dutch, the Germans, the Jews, the Italians, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Indians, and even the Mormons. The Jewish option would perpetuate the materialistic culture Dreher hates.
The Hasidim or Hasidic Option – The Hasidim are a Jewish subculture that has figured out how to preserve their cultural identity by carefully controlling their interaction with the world around them.
Their participation in the larger society is designed only to protect and preserve their community. They engage in marginal but often highly profitable businesses that do not conflict with their beliefs, such as jewelry and electronics retail.
Hasidim only vote or participate in government to protect their interests; in East Ramapo, New York, they control the local school board to ensure their children’s religious education. Hasidim refuse military service, and like some other Orthodox Jewish sects, they restrict higher education to biblical studies, which avoids liberal education.
The Hasidim have another means of preserving and transmitting their culture: a high fertility rate. No less an authority than liberal New York Times columnist David Brooks believes they are now the majority in New York’s Jewish community, which justifies the Quiverfull movement’s belief in fertility.
The Hasidim option preserves a culture in isolation, but it does not influence society as a whole. It is perhaps more tenable than the Amish but still limited; Hasidim can only flourish in societies like ours where they are protected by the law and institutions dedicated to liberty. We must remember that Europe’s Hasidim were sitting ducks for the Communists after the Russian Revolution and the Nazis during the Holocaust, which brings us to another historical option that might be more in keeping with the American temperament.
The Sikh Option – The Sikhs are a religious minority from India that preserved their unique beliefs by adopting a warrior ethos. One of the basic tenets of their religion is to always be armed with a small dagger or a sword. During the 18th century, they successfully resisted persecution by the Islamic Mughal Empire and even formed their own empire. In the 19th century, the Sikhs survived by making themselves useful to the British Empire as soldiers and policemen.
When the Indian Republic replaced the Empire, the Sikhs maintained the role, which gave them another kind of power. In 1984, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered an attack on the main Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple, Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards got revenge by assassinating her.
Conservative Christians could follow the Sikh example and make themselves indispensable to the U.S. government by serving in the military and as police. Many Christians already take this route, so it wouldn’t be a radical cultural change.
This could help prevent persecution and give the government a reason to tolerate Christians. It could also demonstrate the patriotism of Christians and their utility to the nation. Since we are likely to be involved in messy, prolonged, and unpopular ground wars for the foreseeable future and a draft or a Foreign Legion of the United States would be politically impossible, America will need a reliable source of soldiers.
It would also put Christians in a position to fight back if persecuted. A politician worried about the loyalty of troops and bodyguards would think twice about ordering a pogrom. Christians would at least get training and access to weapons and other resources they could use for their defense if attacked. If society were to collapse, Christians could follow the Sikh example and create a state to replace it.
Obviously, the Sikh Option runs counter to Christian pacifism, but it fits in with some American traditions: the Scots Irish Christian warrior tradition that spawned much of the Southern culture and Mormon history (which is similar to the Sikhs) for example. Many of the people that serve in the military already come from the South. Something to remember is that Sikhs have survived and thrived despite centuries of often brutal persecution.
The Mormon Option – Before the Civil War, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) faced the most brutal and aggressive episode of religious persecution in American history. The Mormons survived by retreating to a remote area nobody wanted—Utah’s deserts—and setting up a new community called Deseret.
Christians could do the same by moving to places nobody wants and setting up new communities. Obviously, we do not have a frontier any longer, but we have plenty of unwanted places in modern America, including depressed small towns, cities like Detroit, older portions of suburbs, and large areas of the West, including much of Alaska. Christians could move to such areas and form new communities. They could even have their own governments or take control of existing institutions as the Hasidim did.
There is a risk here. The U.S. Army twice marched against the Mormon community in Deseret: once before the Civil War and again during that blood bath. Mormon leaders spent decades as fugitives hiding from Union soldiers and federal marshals before abandoning an aspect of their faith—polygamy—that offended American sensibilities.
Another problem is that such alternative communities can fall prey to megalomaniacal leaders like Jim Jones and David Koresh and be led astray into apostasy or worse. Corruption can also set in; the Fundamentalist Mormon retreat in Colorado City, Utah, has been plagued by corrupt leaders and sexual perversion. Its last president, Warren Jeffs, spent time on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List and is currently serving a life sentence in a federal prison for child sexual assault.
Such alternative communities could be an ideal place to follow the Amish Option or something like it. Models for this effort could be the Catholic Worker movement in the United States and the Jesus Army in England.
Temporary Retreat – Conservative Christians could simply pull back from political activity and society as a whole until conditions become more hospitable to them.
There is certainly precedent for this in American history. Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians did a tactical retreat from political activity between the 1920s and the 1970s after the debacle of Prohibition. African-American churches effectively stayed out of politics between the 1890s and the 1950s and became active again during the Civil Rights years.
Since none of these options would be very popular—even most of their advocates will choose to stay in the “world”—I do not see them becoming widely adopted unless something truly cataclysmic, such as another Great Depression or widespread organized persecution of Christians, occurs. It does, however, give us something to think about and worry about. What will happen to America if one of our most important religious groups decides to withdraw from public life?