Friday, July 3, 2015

The Benedict Option

The Obergefell ruling by a 5-4 Supreme Court has a lot of conservatives, particularly Christian conservatives, wondering what can be done to rescue a culture that seems determined to cut itself loose from every philosophical and theological anchor and become completely unmoored. Some think that, short of miraculous intervention, there's nothing that can be done to reverse what has transitioned from a drift in the direction of sexual antinomianism to a headlong rush toward its total embrace. Others think that resistance is possible. An example of the former is journalist Rod Dreher, who advocates what he calls the Benedict Option. An example of the latter is Robert George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton.

This post features a recent column by Dreher and will be followed tomorrow by a look at what George has to say. Both men offer some very provocative thoughts on how to respond to the current state of our cultural collapse.

Here's Dreher:
No, the sky is not falling — not yet, anyway — but with the Supreme Court ruling constitutionalizing same-sex marriage, the ground under our feet has shifted tectonically. It is hard to overstate the significance of the Obergefell decision — and the seriousness of the challenges it presents to orthodox Christians and other social conservatives. Voting Republican and other failed culture war strategies are not going to save us now.
I think he's right about that last sentence. Placing our hope in politicians of either party seems futile at this point. Few Republican presidential candidates and legislative leaders seem inclined to do much to stem the current collapse, and most Democrats are actually cheering it on.
Discerning the meaning of the present moment requires sobriety, precisely because its radicalism requires of conservatives a realistic sense of how weak our position is in post-Christian America. The alarm that the four dissenting justices sounded in their minority opinions is chilling. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia were particularly scathing in pointing out the philosophical and historical groundlessness of the majority’s opinion. Justice Scalia even called the decision “a threat to democracy,” and denounced it, shockingly, in the language of revolution.

It is now clear that for this Court, extremism in the pursuit of the Sexual Revolution’s goals is no vice. True, the majority opinion nodded and smiled in the direction of the First Amendment, in an attempt to calm the fears of those worried about religious liberty. But when a Supreme Court majority is willing to invent rights out of nothing, it is impossible to have faith that the First Amendment will offer any but the barest protection to religious dissenters from gay rights orthodoxy.

Indeed, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito explicitly warned religious traditionalists that this decision leaves them vulnerable. Alito warns that Obergefell “will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy,” and will be used to oppress the faithful “by those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent.”
I'm not a Supreme Court historian, but I can't remember language like this ever being used by the minority to describe a majority SCOTUS ruling. If these Justices are correct, and I fear they are, where do we go from here? Dreher says that first we have to recognize three relatively new realities:
For one, we have to accept that we really are living in a culturally post-Christian nation. The fundamental norms Christians have long been able to depend on no longer exist. To be frank, the court majority may impose on the rest of the nation a view widely shared by elites, but it is also a view shared by a majority of Americans. There will be no widespread popular resistance to Obergefell. This is the new normal.
The culture, though perhaps still nominally Christian, is in fact neo-pagan. That is, it has adopted for all practical purposes an unreflective pagan morality of "to each his own" without really thinking hard about the consequences of that principle.
For another, LGBT activists and their fellow travelers really will be coming after social conservatives. The Supreme Court has now, in constitutional doctrine, said that homosexuality is equivalent to race. The next goal of activists will be a long-term campaign to remove tax-exempt status from dissenting religious institutions. The more immediate goal will be the shunning and persecution of dissenters within civil society. After today, all religious conservatives are Brendan Eich, the former CEO of Mozilla who was chased out of that company for supporting California’s Proposition 8.
The concern is this: It's no longer a matter of being asked to simply tolerate lifestyle choices one disagrees with. It's that disagreement is now deemed bigotry and will soon be regarded as hate speech. Those who dissent can expect to be the target of vicious verbal attacks and economic punishments. The LGBT community, or at least the more virulent members of it, will demand complete acquiescence and acceptance and they'll be abetted in this effort by compliant judges.
Third, the Court majority wrote that gays and lesbians do not want to change the institution of marriage, but rather want to benefit from it. This is hard to believe, given more recent writing from gay activists like Dan Savage expressing a desire to loosen the strictures of monogamy in all marriages. Besides, if marriage can be redefined according to what we desire — that is, if there is no essential nature to marriage, or to gender — then there are no boundaries on marriage. Marriage inevitably loses its power.
Long time readers will recall that we've been making the argument here for over ten years that if the gender of the people in a union no longer matters there's no non-arbitrary basis for insisting that the number of people in the union matters. The door is now wide open for the legalization of any arrangement any group of people wishes to call marriage and is willing to push through the courts. If five men, or five women, or three men and one woman wish to call their relationship a marriage, there's no longer any rationale for denying them the right to do so. This, of course, means that marriage is no longer a meaningful institution.
This is profoundly incompatible with orthodox Christianity. But this is the world we live in today. One can certainly understand the joy that LGBT Americans and their supporters feel today. But orthodox Christians must understand that things are going to get much more difficult for us. We are going to have to learn how to live as exiles in our own country. We are going to have to learn how to live with at least a mild form of persecution. And we are going to have to change the way we practice our faith and teach it to our children, to build resilient communities.

It is time for what I call the Benedict Option [after] Benedict of Nursia, a pious young Christian who left the chaos of Rome to go to the woods to pray.... Throughout the early Middle Ages, Benedict’s communities formed monasteries, and kept the light of faith burning through the surrounding cultural darkness. Eventually, the Benedictine monks helped refound civilization. I believe that orthodox Christians today are called to be those new and very different St. Benedicts. How do we take the Benedict Option, and build resilient communities within our condition of internal exile, and under increasingly hostile conditions? I don’t know. But we had better figure this out together, and soon, while there is time.

This isn’t the view of wild-eyed prophets wearing animal skins and shouting in the desert. It is the view of four Supreme Court justices, in effect declaring from the bench the decline and fall of the traditional American social, political, and legal order.
Dreher is suggesting a kind of retreat into a pseudo-monasticism to preserve the flame of a Christian heritage that the mindless, hedonistic neo-paganism of the last three decades is trying so hard to extinguish.

He might be right that the situation really is that dire, but perhaps not. Tomorrow we'll look at a different proposal from Robert George.