Withdrawing From The World II

According to Rod Dreher and other proponents of “The Benedict Option”, the Supreme Court’s marriage decision represents the end of the synthesis between Christian America and Liberal America. “Liberal America” does not refer to the contemporary ideology of Liberalism or Progressivism but the inheritance of the 18th century Enlightenment: individualism, free-markets, and state agnosticism about doctrinal questions.

For a little while, these thinkers argue, the contradictions of Christian America and Enlightenment America were papered together by cultural inertia: but now that biological sex (nature) has been declared to have no normative value, the synthesis is over. Christians, after all, consider “the laws of nature and nature’s God” to be the foundation of all ethics. Natural law is a concept to which an Enlightenment Deist like Jefferson, a pagan like Cicero, or Christian theologian like St. Paul can all adhere. If a society declares that natural law does not exist, that nature does not have a normative aspect, it has cut ties with the whole Western tradition and grown definitively hostile to Christianity.

Proponents of Gay Marriage always argued that this restructuring of law does not impact the lives of those who disagree, but it does. We have already seen mob tactics and legal action brought against the most innocuous of bakers and flower arrangers. There is no reason the same pressure cannot be brought against institutions: what will happen to a Christian Adoption Agency that does not serve gay couples? What will happen to a Catholic College that does not allow campus housing to a gay-married graduate students? They can be sued, the state may attack their licencing, and public funds they may receive may be threatened. They will eventually be forced to chose between conformity and existence, and most of them will chose conformity.

The critique launched by the Benedict Option crowd does not stop there: there is a certain strand of anti-American American Christianity once found among a small minority of Catholics who did not feel at home in a culturally Protestant country, who longed for some sort of European-style arrangement with an official state Church (which in practice meant the State telling the Church what to do) and ideally, I suppose, a monarch. They were pissed that such a thing was impossible in the United States. These people would criticize “the Americanist Heresy*” which they vaguely defined as capitalism, or democracy, or religious liberty, or the Protestant ethos**.

The Benedict Option crowd seems to consist of the intellectual descendants of the “anti-Americanists” (minus, thankfully, the paranoia and antisemitism). The split between Liberal America and Christian America was, for them, inevitable, because Enlightenment liberalism was fundamentally unchristian.

I disagree: every culture has its internal struggles and polarities, but history is contingent and things could have been otherwise.

Historically the American Revolution was just as much based in respect for the traditions of English common law, Protestant revivalism, and even English Catholic desires for liberty as much as it was based in Enlightenment theory. The American Enlightenment proved more than amenable to various forms Christianity (not to mention Judaism), the Catholic Church included, which for two centuries thrived in spite of the horrors of state indifference and competition with other denominations. Christian practice remains much stronger here than in those nations with glorious state-run Churches and Most Christian Monarchs.

I would argue that tension between Liberal America and Christian America was necessary, but not unhealthy, and the split was not inevitable.

While Enlightenment state agnosticism was partly founded on the belief that religious conflicts were immaterial to state interests, it was also founded on the conviction that matters of conscience are beyond state control – a conviction that moved English Quakers and Catholics to flee to the New World in the first place. The American Enlightenment defended religious liberty for two centuries.

The Enlightenment Liberalism which declared that all rights come from God, the author of human nature, is itself under attack from the anti-culture which is attacking Christianity. Current attacks on religious liberty are not driven by Enlightenment liberals, but ideologies influenced by anti-Enlightenment thinkers like Marx, which are fundamentally totalitarian.


All that having been said, we are arguing over spilt milk, because I tend to agree that the synthesis of Liberal America and Christian America has largely run its course, and whether the separation was inevitable or not, it has been coming for some time.

The Benedict Option argues not that a Christian must give up all secular engagement or to stop pleading his cause, but that he must accept what Christians have always had to learn, one way or another: here we have no lasting home. “The world”, the various sociological pressures to conform, must always be judged in the light of God’s will, and sometimes condemned.

Finally, the Benedict Option asks the question: while we can build our churches and schools and defend them as best we can against the standards of the world, what do we do when those are taken away from us? Because, lets face it, the day will come. How then do we live out our friendships, educate our children, and participate in public life?

It is easy to fantasize about martyrdom, dihimitude is harder to grasp for Western Christians. The future will likely mean living the way Middle Eastern Christians have lived for the last 1500 years, or the way Jews have lived since the Babylonian captivity. The preachers of the Benedict Option are trying to flesh out just what being Christian in the West will mean in a hundred years or so: most likely it will mean Christian ghettos and precarious legal stature.


*the Americanist Hersey actually does exist. It is the teaching that the American arrangement of Church and state is superior to the European. I’m not an Americanist because I think that the American arrangement is superior for Americans and don’t much care what Europeans do.

** Vaguely defined, because you can’t seriously be against being left alone to practice your religion, own private property, or advance economically. Your Catholic ancestors left Ireland for a reason.


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