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.