Religious Freedom and the Benedict Option

The following essay drew inspiration from the Buckley Program’s dinner seminar and discussion on religious freedom with Mary Eberstadt on 1.25.17

By: Noah Daponte-Smith

The past eight years have been something of a disaster for religious conservatives. President Obama may have campaigned in 2008 on an anti-gay marriage platform, but by the time he left office last week, gay marriage had become the law of the land, the Affordable Care Act was forcing ecclesiastical orders to provide contraception and abortion to their employees, and the weight of governmental authority and public acrimony were pressuring bakers who still maintained traditionalist conceptions of marriage into providing cakes for gay weddings in violation of their consciences.

It comes as no surprise, then, that so many traditionalist Christians — those who do not belong to those churches that have largely succumbed to the tide of the modern secularist revolution — believe their world is facing an existential threat. It is this threat which Mary Eberstadt’s new book, It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies, seeks to bring to light, and which Eberstadt discussed with the student fellows of the Buckley Program on her recent visit to New Haven. Eberstadt’s book, short but powerful, is a testament to the weight of discrimination and social animus faced by traditionalist religious conservatives in an increasingly secular world. That discrimination, though often scoffed at by many liberals, is real, and surely one of the issues most pressing on the Christian mind in the summer and fall of 2016. The question is one of almost existential importance: At stake seems to be the matter of whether one can truly, freely be a Christian in today’s America.

Many thinkers, surveying this landscape, have thrown up their hands in despair and advocated for a sort of tactical retreat from what they see as an increasingly noxious culture. The most prominent of these thinkers is Rod Dreher, a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy and writer for The American Conservative who often tags his many blog posts with the moniker “Weimar America” and views the Left’s gender ideology as perhaps the most threatening development of recent times. Following in the footsteps of the Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, Dreher is a proponent of the Benedict Option, a proposition that urges traditionalist Christians to withdraw from the decadence and depravity of modern society and instead create and nurture their own faith-based communities. In Dreher’s words:

The “Benedict Option” refers to Christians in the contemporary West who cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents.

The Benedict Option may seem utopian, almost arcadian in its visions of self-sufficient religious communities maintaining themselves across the nation, but it’s not an entirely outlandish suggestion. Indeed, as Dreher is keen to note, many Christian communities have already embarked on something similar to the Benedict Option, and many more will likely do so over the coming decades. Its central premise is that the culture is lost, and with it the war; to remain in the fight would taint the purity of believers and waste precious energy better spent on organizing and cultivating nascent spiritual communities. When the choice is between Christianity on one hand and America on the other, Christianity wins out.

The Benedict Option was the subject of considerable interest during Eberstadt’s dinner discussion with Buckley student fellows. Eberstadt admires Dreher — “a beautiful mind,” she described him. But while she understands the merits and attraction of the Benedict Option, she rejects it as a self-preservation strategy for religious traditionalists. Indeed, she questions its premise that the battle is lost: Rather, in her understanding, religion waxes and wanes across the decades, and though it may seem in a forced retreat at the moment, religious traditionalists should not overlook the possibility of a revival in a decade or two. From this perspective, the Benedict Option seems like a premature laying down of arms, seeking an existential settlement when one could, in fact, receive far better.

This is a compelling perspective. The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States lends a point in its favor — personal qualms with President Trump aside, his presidency does provide a crucial lifeline for religious traditionalists on the Supreme Court. Eberstadt makes clear that she is not a constitutional lawyer, to whom she defers on matters of constitutional law, but she is a small-c constitutionalist. And, in her mind, control over the Supreme Court contains one of the keys to a renewal of religiosity in the United States — the overruling of Roe v. Wade.

But before discussing what impact the overruling of that 1972 decision might have on the politics and culture of this country, it’s worth considering what exactly religion is today. Eberstadt pushed an important point — namely, that religion on the Left isn’t dead; it’s just shifting into something else. That something else is a sort of evangelical devotion to the tenets of the Sexual Revolution; in her understanding, this is a coherent faith unto itself, with its own catechisms, sacraments (see, for instance, the way Lena Dunham talks about abortion), and even last rites. The Left adheres to the doctrine of the Sexual Revolution with all the intransigence as religious conservatives do to their own faiths: It is the foundation of its worldview, the set of principles on which all other beliefs are based. Our national disputes over abortion and freedom of religion are thus religious in nature, not only on the Right but on the Left as well. Both sides find their motivation in a certain set of religious or quasi-religious principles. The Right often fails to understand this central factor in the abortion debate, but fully comprehending why the Left so fervently adheres to its doctrines would better inform our debate. We are faced, then, with a war of religion.

Perhaps we can draw a lesson from the history of the early modern age. The Peace of Augsburg, signed in 1555, formally established religious pluralism in the Holy Roman Empire. Princes of the various German principalities could choose whether their lands would be Protestant or Catholic, thus legitimizing the religious divisions stemming from the Reformation. To a certain extent the American Constitution was, in its original form, based on the Peace of Augsburg and the later Treaty of Westphalia, in that it denied Congress the power to establish an official religion while implicitly permitting the states to maintain their established churches.

If we accept both sides of the current debate as fundamentally religious in nature, the Peace of Augsburg provides a reasonable roadmap for the United States to follow in the coming decades. In a country exhibiting both a deep socio-cultural divide and an accordant mutual vitriol, an Augsburg-style deal might be a viable settlement. Yes, it would involve the repeal of Roe v. Wade, now a serious possibility with the Trump presidency. But this would, in a certain way, aid the cause of abortion rather than harm it: With control over abortion laws and religious-freedom acts returned to the states, states like Connecticut and California could liberalize their laws further, while states like Kansas and Alabama could institute a more conservative order.

The solution, as it appears here, is federalism: In a country as pluralistic and geographically vast as the United States, a reclamation of the idea of federalism would be a boon to our politics. And it could go beyond federalism per se and instead become an even more radical form of localism, as the conservative thinker Yuval Levin proposed in his book The Fractured Republic. Because the reality is that the religious divide in this country is not entirely between blue states and red states, but rather between blue cities and red suburbs and rural areas. Delegating authority over abortion — and many other areas of public policy — to cities, counties, and other forms of local government would have two benefits: first, that local diversity would be allowed to flourish rather than being stifled under the heavy unifying hand of the federal government; and second, that we could once again see the development of true “laboratories of democracy,” wherein public policies are tested and results compared to see what works.

The question, then, is how far this sort of localism, regarded as a solution to our predominantly religious divide, can be taken. Proponents of this solution will at some point have to grapple with the political scientist Arend Lijphart’s proposition that majoritarian forms of government, like that currently used in the United States, work best in relatively homogenous, nonpluralist societies; in pluralist societies like Switzerland or Belgium, governance typically occurs through proportional representation and a complex set of arrangements meant to distribute power between diverse interests. If the sort of radical localism proposed here is to meet success, it will likely involve the adoption of some sort of system of proportional representation at the national level — Germany could provide a fruitful model — even though the concept seems to run counter to the Anglo-Saxon notion of representation.

Is this a solution likely to garner much political support? Probably not. It would involve reversing the trend of increasing centralization, something many politicians have tried and failed to do. And it would inflame both Left and Right — the Left, concerned about the fate of gay couples and abortion in the red states; the Right, concerned about religious minorities in the blue states. So the debates would continue. But that is the natural order in a democratic society, which holds as a fundamental principle that no question is ever truly resolved so long as the process of politics goes on.

Still, a return to federalist principles could offer a valuable framework on which conservatives might be able to model the debate over religious freedom. Doing so would allow conservatives to return to the thought of the Founders and place their own efforts within a hallowed American tradition. Most importantly, it would allow both sides to calm down, take stock of their own causes, and simply let the other side live. That alone might do more to soothe our national divisions than any outright victory for either side would.

Noah Daponte-Smith is a junior in Berkeley College and Vice-President of the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program at Yale.