Every few years, someone in the far-right fundamentalist Christian community puts forth the argument that modern American culture has become so nasty and hostile to “traditional” Christians that it’s time to withdraw.
They don’t plan to go to a forgotten island somewhere. Rather, they would create a kind of community in internal exile. As much as possible, they’d form parallel structures, such as fundamentalist-oriented educational institutions and media channels, and tend to their own gardens.
Rod Dreher’s new book The Benedict Option is the latest to promote this idea. I haven’t read the book, but a recent column about it in The Washington Post made the concept sound romantic, exciting and almost noble.
Are members of the Religious Right preparing to go live in a cave somewhere? Probably not.
There are a couple of problems with that. First is that the very rationale behind the Benedict Option is a massive fraud. That idea that it’s necessary for “serious” Christians in America to turn inwardly because they’re under some form of attack from a hostile culture is balderdash.
Anyone who knows history is aware that the early church was persecuted. But we are far removed from the days of Nero. Once Christianity became the favored religion of the Roman Empire, it began enjoying a privileged status. These days in many Western nations, Christian churches get state subsidies and other forms of support, or, in countries like ours that enforce church-state separation, their legal rights are protected by a governing charter. Not that this has stopped the Religious Right’s persecution narrative, of course. (And the claims you hear about the United States being “post-Christian”? They’re hogwash. There has been some slippage, but 75 percent of Americans still identify as Christian. “Post-Christian” is a term used by fundamentalists who are unhappy that not every Christian believes as they do.)
In some states and communities, fundamentalists who choose to run for-profit businesses are expected to respect the rights of others and stop subjecting people they don’t like – members of the LGBTQ community, non-believers and Muslims chiefly – to discrimination or ill-treatment. Expanding pluralism and diversity in America means that members of minority groups are no longer content to ride the back of the public policy bus. They want the same rights and privileges that the majority has enjoyed for years. They are not asking for these rights, they are demanding them.
This means that the right of LGBTQ Americans, non-believers and non-Christians to be treated with dignity is secure (in the case of the LGBTQ community, in some states, anyway) – but so is the right of extremely conservative religious groups to preach against things they don’t like, such as marriage equality. Fundamentalists spew this stuff all of the time, and their churches have not been punished for it. To be sure, people have pushed back against the mean-spirited rhetoric that flows from many fundamentalist churches, but that’s to be expected. Sharp disagreement and a spirited counter-argument aren’t the same thing as government-sponsored persecution.
The second thing to know about the Benedict Option is that it will never come to pass. Sure, Dreher might sell a few books, but does anyone really expect that the boisterous band of busybodies known as the Religious Right is going to stop trying to run everyone else’s life? That’s especially unlikely to happen now, when the Religious Right’s man, Donald Trump, is sitting in the White House.
Let’s be clear: The goal of most right-wing fundamentalist Christians is not and never will be disengagement; it is to meddle in the lives of others and use the government as an instrument to enforce their narrow, exclusionary dogma.
For 30 years, I’ve been hearing self-identified pundits talk about the death of the Religious Right. Yet that movement, like a ghoul in a late-night horror movie, keeps springing back to life. Likewise, talk about right-wing fundamentalists running into monastic cells to read their Bibles and contemplate life and how to live it while a rising tide of secularization engulfs the country and leads to rampant persecution sounds like a plotline from a bad fundamentalist dystopian novel.
There’s only one option I want to see the followers of the Religious Right adopt: the “Mind-Your-Own-Business” Option. It's not likely to happen, so don't let your guard down.