In 2010, in the midst of the ongoing debate in her country about migration, multiculturalism, and Islamic terrorism, Chancellor Angela Merkel went to a gathering of the Christian Democratic Union party she leads and made a provocative argument. She told her party, “We don’t have too much Islam. We have too little Christianity. We have too few discussions about the Christian view of mankind.” Germany, she argued, should view this moment as an opportunity to have a more robust conversation about “the values that guide us and about our Judeo-Christian tradition. We have to stress this again with confidence….”
The rot in American Christianity has been much discussed and defined for decades. We could go back much further, but I think of Dallas Willard’s seminal book The Divine Conspiracy.
In the introduction to that book, Willard writes:
More than any other single thing… the practical irrelevance of actual obedience to Christ accounts for the weakened effect of Christianity in the world today, with its increasing tendency to emphasize political and social action as the primary way to serve God. It also accounts for the practical irrelevance of Christian faith to individual character development and overall personal sanity and well-being.
Rod’s baseline analysis, that Americans who identify as Christians, in general, do not have their lives rightly ordered, and that this disorder will not protect them in times of testing, is true and important and of central concern. One of the gifts of Rod’s book is its utter confidence that it is possible to follow Jesus today, and that we can order our lives to make it so. Rod’s willingness to share this conviction so boldly is a great blessing and encouragement.
Though those who reduce Rod’s ideas to a political engagement or disengagement strategy are not dealing with the book honestly, it is also incorrect to disassociate The Benedict Option from politics. This is a book written by a political commentator and writer that includes both a chapter on politics as well as repeated references to political and social circumstances. As Rod mentions in his introduction, it was his previous book on political conservatism, Crunchy Cons, that introduced his idea of the Benedict Option in the first place.
Rod sources motivation for pursuing the Benedict Option not simply (or frankly, even primarily) in a timeless call to “love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, and mind,” but also, quite explicitly, with the threat of extinction. Again and again, Rod warns that modernity poses an existential threat, and that Christians’ very survival is at stake. And he seems to be primarily concerned with the survival of Christians, as a people group, and Western civilization.
Rod specifically mentions the threat of the sexual revolution and LGBT rights to Christianity and/or the West/Western civilization in his introduction, and in chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, and 9.
Disappointment with false hopes, false idols, offers a fresh opportunity for people to find real hope.
Now certainly, God has used times of testing and trial to draw people closer to him. One common thread through both The Benedict Option and my recent book is an identification that we are in a moment when Christians’ false hopes in politics, in their cultural dominance, have failed them. And disappointment with false hopes, false idols, offers a fresh opportunity for people to find real hope.
But there is a danger in using fear and anxiety over cultural, civilizational challenges to the faith as motivation for the Benedict Option, and that is that it can lead people to seek Christian community for cultural security, which is just another kind of idol.
These historical references around American Christians’ current situation work to confirm for the reader the existence and dominance of the threats of secularism, progressivism, and sexual liberation. And by fully affirming the feelings shared by many Christians of isolation, embattlement, and marginalization, feelings that have fueled their political engagement, Rod seems to want to redirect the passions of Christians who feel embattled toward the development of stronger Christian community that will reinforce and support the faith, rather than more general, public-minded efforts.
Instead of using modern challenges to more simply point us toward ultimate truth and the fact that we ought to be living in a way that is shaped and driven by the faith and hope we have in Christ, The Benedict Option too frequently uses cultural circumstances themselves as the motivation for more intentional living.
Rod’s chapter on politics reflects this point as well. The chapter “A New Kind of Christian Politics” provides a necessary rebuke to those who view politics as the primary forum for advancing Christianity and Christian values. He strongly rebuts those who view Trump as a political savior by writing that he is “not a solution to the problem of America’s cultural decline, but a symptom of it.”
Indeed, I have said before that after decades of liberals telling Christians that America is not a Christian nation, the year 2016 represented Christians’ acceptance of their claim, their concession to a utilitarian, power-based politics. Rod is right to view Trump’s win as offering a reprieve to conservative Christians on religious freedom related to LGBT issues – though Trump offers challenges to religious freedom in other contexts, including Christians’ ability to serve immigrants, and of course, the religious freedom of Muslims, which is inextricably tied to our own.
Unfortunately, Rod’s vision for the future of Christian activity, here regarding politics, is once again grounded in an assessment of the political and cultural reality and the possibilities that reality offers. Rod writes: “Though there remain a few possibilities for progress in traditional politics, growing hostility toward Christians, as well as the moral confusion of values-voters, should inspire us to imagine a better way forward.”
In his overview of modern politics, Rod repeats the common conviction of those who placed their hope in the politics of the Religious Right, and refers to the mistaken belief of conservative Christians that they could “focus on politics and the culture would take care of itself.” He continues, “For the past thirty years, many of us believed that we could turn back the tide of aggressive 1970s liberalism by voting for conservative Republicans.” After briefly summarizing the failure of that political strategy, he writes that “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.”
What this analysis lacks is a clear identification of the lack of Christian formation that was evident in that failed political strategy. The failure of the Religious Right to, for instance, preserve greater space and respect for traditional Christian views on sexuality is not simply because the outcome was predetermined by our culture, but because of the tactical overreach and spiritual malnourishment of that movement. Rod mentions briefly the awful way Christians treated LGBT Americans as a regrettable mistake, as if it was external to the direction of culture and politics he describes. Instead, it is worth considering whether the left might be more forgiving of our counter-cultural views on sexuality now if we had been more forgiving of their counter-cultural views when we were dominant. It is worth considering whether the Christian sexual ethic would be so scorned in our time if it had not been wrongly invoked by some conservative Christians as a justification for the AIDS crisis, as the comeuppance of the American fringe.
This linear, limited view of recent political history extends to the present. After a couple sentences on Christians working with the GOP on Main Street economics and liberals on “sex trafficking, poverty, AIDS, and the like,” Rod writes that “there is one cause that should receive all the attention orthodox Christians have left for national politics: religious liberty.”
I agree with Rod that religious liberty is of the utmost importance, and include it as one of two issues of focus in the final chapter of my book. I’ve worked on religious freedom issues intensely, and have serious concerns about the increased pressure on religious freedom in this country.
Christians can call our national politics to deliver on much more than religious freedom.
But I would like to raise two issues with such an exclusive focus. First, Christians can call our national politics to deliver on much more than religious freedom. Certainly, there is some constructive guidance in The Benedict Option, particularly when it comes to issues of sexual ethics and life, that investing in institutions for Christian formation, for instance, will likely go a longer way than a political effort that promises to overturn Obergefell.
Still, this month, the Trump administration and Congress have pushed health reform that the Congressional Budget Office says could force twenty-four million Americans off health insurance. The administration released a budget that would drastically cut the social safety net and slash programs that combat poverty and disease abroad. It’s a budget that cuts Meals on Wheels but increases military spending by $54 billion. Surely, the range of Christian concern extends to these issues. The political witness of Christians in national politics should not be limited to simply advocating for our own personal interests like just another special interest group.
Watch Michael Wear’s response: