I harbor some misgivings about Rod Dreher’s so-called “Benedict Option,” some of which I have expressed here on Opus Publicum (see, e.g., here and here). Others have taken a stronger stance against what they perceive to be Dreher’s “retreatism” and/or “reactionary hysterics.” Not all of these critiques are entirely persuasive, mind you, though a good majority of them are at least thoughtful, even if some are lacking in charity from time to time. Now comes Peter Wolfgang with a rather perplexing piece for Ethika Politika, “Did the Benedict Option Cause Donald Trump?” Here are some excerpts with commentary.
I present my theory: The Benedict Option gave us Donald Trump. I cannot say for sure if this is true. But based on my own experiences as a social conservative activist in the Northeast, I believe it is plausible.
Well, at first blush this isn’t so much a theory as it is a suggestion with uncertain plausibility. Does Wolfgang have a model for how to test this “theory”? What empirical evidence does he bring to the table? I may have a “theory” that little grey aliens caused Donald Trump, but that doesn’t mean I should present it seriously in a public forum.
By “Benedict Option” I don’t necessarily mean the Benedict Option as defined by Rod Dreher, a definition that is much in dispute. I mean the Benedict Option as it has been understood and received by many in the Christian community.
Then why use the term? Although Dreher has not been perfectly precise in defining just what the “Benedict Option” is, the term is now inextricably linked with his various writings on the subject. Just glancing at the Wolfgang’s title no doubt leads many to conclude that Wolfgang believes, on some level, that Dreher himself caused Donald Trump — a suggestion so ludicrous that Wolfgang doesn’t even bother to address it. Moreover, what proof is there that the “Benedict Option . . . has been understand and received by many in the Christian community” at all? Wolfgang doesn’t say.
And it is not just the Benedict Option. I mean “Seeker Friendly” churches. I mean a false but very popular view of Pope Francis that misreads him as saying that we should quit fighting abortion and the LGBT agenda. I mean anything that says—or is received as saying—that Christians should withdraw from public life.
Again, why use the term? Wolfgang appears to be swinging at a large swathe of Christian voters, many of whom likely hold strong disagreements about how their religious views should interface with American political life. Left-leaning Christians who believe we should withdraw from the “culture wars” are a much different breed than traditionalists or conservatives who would choose the ghetto before bowing before the crooked cross of secular liberalism. Basically, it seems that Wolfgang is saying that any Christian who didn’t actively oppose Donald Trump caused Donald Trump. Maybe, but then what does that have to do with the “Benedict Option”?
My evidence for this is strictly anecdotal. But I think that this particular ideology has had a deep effect on many small-“o” orthodox Christians, including Catholics. This is especially the case here in the Northeast, where getting churches involved in fighting for our culture has always been an uphill battle.
Arguably, “getting churches involved in fighting for our culture has always been an uphill battle” since the founding of the American Republic and the internalization of liberalism by American Catholics starting in the 19th C and culminating a half-century ago. What may really be frustrating Wolfgang is the very nature of American liberalism and its deleterious effect on culture and religious life. If so, why not just come out and say that? Why keep bringing up the “Benedict Option” and, by extension, Dreher?
Some of the same churches that defended traditional marriage a decade ago now seem to be in thrall to ideologies urging a Christian withdrawal from public life. This has had an effect on how they vote. Some view Trump as the strong man best positioned to make the government leave them alone to practice their faith. Many seem to have given up on political involvement altogether.
One more time: This is the problem with liberalism generally not the “Benedict Option” specifically. “Running for the hills” (if that is indeed what the “Benedict Option” is all about) certainly will not have any worse effect on American politics than a century of ostensibly Christian voters bracketing-off their faith when they head for the polls.
In the end, Wolfgang’s choice to go after the “Benedict Options” seems more inspired by a desire to generate clicks than thoughtfully engage the troubling question of how our decrepit political culture gave rise to a moral buffoon like Donald Trump.