Does Your School Smell of BO?

Conservative intellectuals these days are talking a lot about the “Benedict Option.” The idea is to create intentional communities that preserve traditional values as mainstream culture hurtles ever-faster toward anti-Christian values. In the wake of Supreme Court rulings in favor of same-sex marriage, will such ideas catch on?

Short answer: No. If history is any guide, conservative evangelicals, at least, will continue to feel quite at home in their local mainstream communities. A quick burst of community-founding might happen, but it will likely ebb once conservatives realize how un-alienated they are from the mainstream.

Blogger Rod Dreher seems to have sparked the recent discussion of a “Benedict Option.” Dreher profiled intentional lay communities in Clear Creek, Oklahoma and Eagle River, Alaska. He asked if more conservative Christians would follow suit:

Should they take what might be called the “Benedict Option”: communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life?

As Dreher has developed the idea, it has naturally come to focus on educational goals. Even in staunchly Christian communities, Dreher has argued, the public schools lack any sense of guiding values. Kids in fifth grade share porn; they have no beef with same-sex marriage. Even in such apparent Christian havens as small-town Louisiana, Dreher believes, kids and their parents have embraced a bland, therapeutic religiosity. The Benedict Option, Dreher thinks, offers conservatives their only hope. As he put it,

There are no safe places to raise Christian kids in America other than the countercultural places we make for ourselves, together. If we do not form our consciences and the consciences of our children to be distinctly Christian and distinctly countercultural, even if that means some degree of intentional separation from the mainstream, we are not going to survive.

Dreher has taken some heat from fellow conservatives for culture-war pessimism. Not every conservative wants to turn inward. But as Dreher recently noted, many prominent evangelical thinkers such as Russell Moore seem to be adopting a BO approach to mainstream culture.

Similarly, Thomas Kidd of Baylor University has recently endorsed a BO attitude. Earlier this week, Kidd wrote,

for “paleo” evangelicals the Benedict Option is unquestionably the route we’ll need to take in the coming days. It is the way of fidelity for Christians, as the world around us sloughs off what remains of our quasi-Christian culture.

As Dreher and other BO-friendly conservatives repeat, BO does not mean Amish. It does not mean turning away entirely from mainstream culture. In some BO communities, for instance, families make their money from internet telecommuting. They insist on remaining engaged in mainstream politics and local affairs, even as they insist on retaining more control over their children’s upbringing.

Will the Benedict Option attract more and more support from conservative Christians? If history is any guide, the likely answer is no. As Dreher, Kidd, and Moore all realize, the tension among conservative Christians between engagement and withdrawal is as old as Christianity itself. In recent American history, as I’ve argued in academic articles about Christian schools and school prayer, evangelical Protestants have tended to wax and wane in their enthusiasm for BO approaches to schooling.

In 1963, SCOTUS decided that the Lord’s Prayer could not be recited in public schools, nor could the Bible be read devotionally. This decision caused some conservative evangelicals to conclude that they had been kicked out of public school and American society.

In the pages of leading evangelical magazine Christianity Today, for example, the editors intoned that the decision reduced Christian America to only a tiny “believing remnant.” No longer did the United States respect its traditional evangelical forms, they worried. Rather, only a tiny fraction of Americans remained true to the faith, and they had better get used to being persecuted.

Similarly, fundamentalist leader Carl McIntire insisted that the 1963 school-prayer decision meant the death of Christian America. In the pages of his popular magazine Christian Beacon, one writer warned that the Supreme Court decision meant a wave of “repression, restriction, harassment, and then outright persecution . . . in secular opposition to Christian witness.”

From the West Coast, Samuel Sutherland of Biola University agreed. The 1963 decision, Sutherland wrote, proved that the United States had become an “atheistic nation, no whit better than God-denying, God-defying Russia herself.”

These attitudes helped fuel a burst of new Christian schools in the 1970s. But as Christian-school leaders are painfully aware, many of those new schools couldn’t survive. Why? At least in part, because not enough conservatives feel alienated from their local mainstream communities. Why should they?

As I argue in my new book, public schools are far more conservative places than most pundits acknowledge. There is a lot of talk among both progressives and conservatives about the progressive takeover of public education, but for most Americans, their local schools remain fairly conservative places.

At the very top, leaders such as Arne Duncan embrace free-market approaches to education reform. In places such as Texas, creationist homeschoolers—folks who might fairly call themselves BO activists—have risen to the top of the state public educational hierarchy.

Why would conservatives think that they no longer had any pull in public schools? As Dreher is fully aware, many conservatives do not object to mainstream culture; they feel no yearning to give their children a radically different upbringing. If that’s the case, talk of BO in schools will not be a more than a minority sentiment.

Just as relatively few progressives abandon public schools for purer options, so too only a handful of conservatives will make the sacrifices necessary to give their children a BO education.

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  1. Agellius

     /  July 9, 2015

    Speaking from my experience, when I switched my kids from a typical Catholic diocesan school to a “BO” Catholic school, it made a world of difference. Observing the faith within the home is not enough to instill it in your kids if the surrounding culture undermines it through hostility or indifference. My kids love me and my wife, but don’t hold us in such high esteem as to treat our pronouncements as gospel. When their friends were lukewarm, they were lukewarm. But when they joined a school filled with likeminded families, they began to take the faith much more seriously.

    So the Benedict Option works, in my experience. But what proportion of Christians “will make the sacrifices necessary to give their children a BO education” is another matter. Again it’s a matter of how seriously they take the faith and their obligation to pass it on to their children, and the extent to which they realize the importance of community in doing so successfully.

    • @Agellius — How do you and your kids’ school define the line between totalistic cult-like behavior focused on indoctrination versus formation?

      Rod has tended to focus on moral formation, not faith formation, and his moral concern is narrowly focused on sex. He describes how he became Catholic largely as a matter of converting away from a life of freewheeling fornication, and he describes why he left the church as revulsion for the clergy and fear for his sons over the same issue. His views on the “BO” are intensely personal and a bit myopic in my view; he is really seeking a type of psychic insulation in response to the cultural dislocation and loss he feels. This repels most conservatives who are comparatively comfortable (for good and bad reasons) with their world.

      For his part, Rod may not appreciate the extent to which it’s often a uniquely damaged and reactive type of person who is attracted to versions of the BO and how poor a basis that is for founding any kind of community. It plays to weaknesses (and anger/fear) rather than strengths (or hope and love). Oddly you don’t see people like Rod writing about functioning Pietist, Anabaptist, and Native American religious communities that probably reflect the most sustained models for the BO. He seems to recognize the Christian school and private school movements have been doing a version of the BO for decades but sees it as lacking without a complete “sacred canopy” of cooperating church and civic institutions. It’s this fundamentally totalistic motive that discredits the enterprise, IMO. If you find yourself withdrawing into the margins of a sub-culture so you can experience a primary intellectual and spiritual alignment in all the institutions of that culture, I think you are likely to be disappointed and destructive.

  2. Agellius

     /  July 13, 2015

    “How do you and your kids’ school define the line between totalistic cult-like behavior focused on indoctrination versus formation?”

    “Totalistic cult-like behavior focused on indoctrination” is precisely what we’re trying to shield our kids from. You know, the kind of thing that happens when those who dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy are shouted down or shamed into silence or expelled or fired or have accreditation threatened or get sued. I assure you that these kinds of things don’t happen to the students at our school.

    We want our kids to be free to evaluate the claims of Catholicism reasonably and objectively, by teaching the faith in its fullness in an environment in which there’s no pressure to water it down to suit modern sensibilities. We want the faith taught to our kids by people who actually believe and live it, so they can see how it “works” in people’s lives when lived with serious commitment.

    When the kids compare the atmosphere and environment of this school and its community of families, with those of most public or diocesan schools, they find that it compares favorably, and this proves to them that the faith can make a difference in the lives of individuals and communities. This is a lesson that can only be learned by experience, since the faith is not just a matter of memorizing facts but is a way of life. How can a way of life be evaluated except by being observed in action? And how can it be observed in action unless it is allowed to function unimpeded?

    Quite simply, the kids love it here. Time after time I have heard students say that they had previously gone to this or that diocesan or private or public school, but the first time they set foot on our campus they knew that this was where they wanted to be. This is not because students are browbeaten into submission and shamed into obedience, but because the students are happy, kind and considerate to each other, and love and respect their teachers, who in turn love their jobs and love the kids. Christian charity is taught and lived and expected of students and faculty alike.

    When I first came to the school, I had never seen anything like it; but that’s because I had never seen a school run by Catholic parents committed to providing an authentic Catholic environment. It was founded by a group of likeminded parents which then attracted more likeminded parents, and therefore the unity of purpose comes from the voluntary association of people who want what we offer, and not submission to authority.

    I’m not saying it’s perfect. Obviously the level of commitment to Christian ideals varies from family to family and we don’t give people “faith tests” as a requirement of admission. People of any faith or no faith are welcomed, so long as they agree to respect the school’s mission. Nevertheless the prevailing ethos is one of love for the faith, which permeates everything we do and gives the school its quality of joy and enthusiasm which continually attracts new families. The school has grown from 20 or so students 15 years ago, to over 300 today, having just moved into a new and larger campus, and the diocese is starting to look into what is making us grow when diocesan schools are struggling to maintain enrollment.

    This may sound cult-like to you. But from where I stand, the prevailing secular culture is what is cult-like, since it seeks submission by browbeating and shaming those who oppose it, whereas our little “BO” school grows by leaps and bounds by offering something that positively attracts people by being simply and obviously good.

    • Did you actually have the oppressive experience you describe in a public school? I’ve heard it warned about to no end, life long, but I never ran into such a public school environment.

      I was just wondering if you have a working definition of the line between freedom and excessive restriction or indoctrination and good guidance is. I think this is something that — for solidly Aristotelian reasons — marks good education whether it is identified as religious or not.

      What is the basis for your kids’ free, reasonable, and objective evaluation of the claims of Catholicism if not Catholicism itself? You seem to be saying the proof is in the pudding — better people, happier results. That does not seem to have much to do with reason or objectivity in some neutral and universal way. Don’t you think it likely that Jewish or Muslim kids might be happier in public schools or schools based around their own tradition?

      My sense is that all these kinds of issues have to do with different people taking different positions on a spectrum of possibilities between fundamentalism and relativism, each of which is a reaction to the other.

  3. Agellius

     /  July 13, 2015

    Dan writes, “Did you actually have the oppressive experience you describe in a public school?”

    I wasn’t talking about cult-like indoctrination in the schools in particular, but in secular culture in general. I don’t mean literally that our culture is cult-like according to some precise definition of “cult”. My point was that the pressure to conform to secular standards of acceptable and unacceptable is more forceful in secular society generally, than is the pressure to be good and Catholic in my kids’ school. I have known dissenters from orthodoxy among students in the school who have not been shamed or expelled by the school; a couple of them in particular were friends of my son, whom we did not require him to stop associating with. They were simply questioning, as young men are wont to do, and we had no concern that our son would be “corrupted” by them.

    “I was just wondering if you have a working definition of the line between freedom and excessive restriction or indoctrination and good guidance is.”

    I think the line between freedom and restriction is not a matter of definition but of prudence. As always in raising kids, you have to balance out the risks and the benefits of more freedom and less.

    “What is the basis for your kids’ free, reasonable, and objective evaluation of the claims of Catholicism if not Catholicism itself? You seem to be saying the proof is in the pudding — better people, happier results.”

    What I was saying was that you can’t evaluate something, regardless of the standard, if you can’t observe it in the first place. One part of evaluating a way of life is how happy it makes people, but that’s not the only part. There are also questions of whether it makes logical sense, whether there is valid evidence for it, and so forth. The kids will have to take all these things into consideration when deciding whether to stay Catholic once they’re on their own. I know very well that I can’t force them to be Catholic for life. My duty as a parent is to not neglect exposing them to the best that the faith has to offer.

    • I agree it is about prudence — as you search for the elusive golden mean that a good parent or teacher can intuit accurately as the situation demands. This is possible in public or “secular” education as well; if it is lacking I would suggest it is not a deficit of religion but a deficit of pagan or classical humanistic virtues. But this is to revive an old european, broadly catholic language about education and culture that never “took” in the US and elicits a kind of immunological reaction. In response to Dreher’s BO, Wheaton prof. Alan Jacobs prescribes Bildung, Paideia, and Catechesis. I think he is correct but even more quixotic that Dreher. The BO has greater potential here, especially if you recast Benedict as Savonarola.

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