Politics in The Benedict Option

BenOp Politics

This is the area around which BenOp has gotten the most coverage in the press, and it’s the area where I most misunderstood the concept before reading the book. On its face, I thought a concept modeled after cloistered monastic communities would likely translate to a call for Christians to abandon politics altogether. As much as some might welcome that, I don’t believe our faith allows for that possibility in a democratic society. Neither does Dreher, it turns out.

Instead, he argues that Christians (particularly white conservative Christians in his case) have put too much faith in politics (I could add that the same is true for progressive Christians). Acknowledging that politics, in the end, cannot save us, may not seem like a big leap, but given the focus of the Religious Right over the last few decades, it probably does need to be said. Dreher believes that while Christians can and should continue to be active in political life, the realignment of politics symbolized by President Trump’s win will bring with it a casting aside of the favored place for conservative religious leaders in the Republican hierarchy. Subsequently, Christians should be prepared to shrink their agenda on national political issues and focus locally, not on politics in the traditional, narrow sense, but on building a community that embodies the virtues of the gospel as an alternative to the hyper-individualist, unloving and hopeless consumerist existence the world offers. He suggests that Christians can still rally around issues with which they can find common cause with others – fighting sex trafficking, for instance – but that our declining capital is best marshaled toward protecting religious liberty and continuing to witness to the value of unborn life.

First off, I thoroughly concur with Dreher that the energies of the faithful are better focused on building a loving community than on fighting political battles, and that the opportunities at the local level to do that are far greater than on broader scales.

Secondly, in a previous chapter, he makes the point that for faith to be faith, it cannot be segmented into a compartment of our lives, to be brought out on Sundays and then put back on the shelf. Faith claims the answers to all the essential questions of our lives, and as a result, the way we live in every sphere of life need to reflect the answers to who we are and what we ought to do that our faith provides. Moreover, we are called in Paul’s letter to the Romans to be subject to ruling authorities, and the democratic ideal on which our society is founded is that we ourselves are that authority. If we are to be faithful Christians in America, we must live out the responsibilities of citizenship faithfully, including the responsibility to play our role in self-government. Dreher doesn’t explicitly make that point – his rationale for staying in the game is more closely tied to the practical observation that even in our political decline, Christians hold some power. But I suspect he would agree with the theological reasons as well.

TBO touches on but does not emphasize the significant way in which Christian politics should change to reflect its fall from favor (which, as one not a fan of Christendom, I would argue should be our approach anyway). Over the past several decades, there has been a formal or informal agenda for “Christian America,” which I would argue is actually an agenda for New American Pharisaism. Regardless, the rationale for the Religious Right to engage in politics has been around issues for which their positions are explicitly religious in origin – curtailing abortion of denying same-sex marriage were justified on grounds that abortion and homosexuality were counter to God’s law. The corollary was to fight over whether America ought base public policy on explicitly Christian principles. In the post-Christian world, that is a losing fight. (In a non-Christendom world, it has always been the wrong fight.)

Instead, BenOp Christians can and should articulate positions that reflect our faith, but do so by appealing to values held in common with others who do not share our faith. Religious liberty, for instance, is a principle that is deeply rooted in the First Amendment and protects not only Christians but those of other religions as well, assuming it is even-handedly applied. (I’ll come back to the gay rights issue later. I’ve got to find some reason for you to keep reading.)

Of course, the hyperindividualism of “liquid modernity” means we, not just Christians but all Americans, are going to have to have some long-forestalled conversations about what common values we truly share. I’d like to think that those who wish to protect the unborn could find common cause around the principle of valuing every human life, especially the most vulnerable. (At which point the abortion issue becomes a discussion over when life begins instead of what God ordains.) What other principles we as a nation might rally around is a separate topic for another too-long blog post; for today, my point is that BenOp politics need to be more intentionally focused on engaging the skill of persuasion through shared values rather than triumph via conversion.

One last thing on Dreher’s little-p politics, the building of community. At one point in the chapter, he passes along suggestions for getting started on what he calls “antipolitical politics”:

Here’s how to get started with the antipolitical politics of the Benedict Option. Secede culturally from the mainstream. Turn off the television. Put the smartphones away. Read books. Play games. Make music. Feast with your neighbors…Start a church, or a group within your church. Open a classical Christian school, or join and strengthen one that exists. Plant a garden, and participate in a local farmer’s market. Teach kids how to play music, and start a band. Join the volunteer fire department. — p. 98

A) Yes to just about all of that. B) Note the similarities to this:

How to Build Community: Turn off your TV. Leave your house. Know your neighbors. Sit on your stoop. Look up when you are walking. Greet people. Plant flowers. Use your library. Buy from local merchants. Help a lost dog. Share what you have. Take children to the park. Play together. Read stories aloud. Support neighborhood schools. Share your skills. Fix it, even if you didn’t break it. Pick up litter. Dance in the street. Start a tradition. Organize a block party. Talk to the mail carrier. Listen to the birds. Ask for help when you need it. Help carry something heavy. Honor elders. Barter for your goods. Hire young people for odd jobs. Put up a swing. Sing together. Take back the night. Turn up the music. Turn down the music. Listen before you react to anger. Mediate a conflict. Be a peacemaker. Know that no one is silent though many are not heard. Work to change this.

That’s from the back of a t-shirt I got (from a booth at a local farmer’s market) a few years ago. The poem/list is from SyracuseCulturalWorkers.com, which is far to the left of Rod Dreher, I’m pretty sure.

My point is, building community really isn’t partisan. And while it requires commitment, it’s not complicated.

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