The Benedict Option and Christian “Persecution” in America

baptistpersecutionvirginia01

Baptists were persecuted in colonial Virginia

Are American Christians being persecuted for their faith?  I am not sure persecution is the right word.  No one is coming into the homes of Christians with weapons threatening to kill them if they do not publicly denounce their faith.

But if this was happening, wouldn’t it be a good thing?

Didn’t Jesus say “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12).

The other day, while lecturing on seventeenth-century Quakers and the deaths they suffered as martyrs for their faith, I recalled my old friend Tim. Back in the day Tim and I used to exchange letters.  Rather than end his letters with the standard “Sincerely Yours” or “Warmly,” he would often write “May You Suffer and Die for Christ, Tim.” My Christian students got a good laugh when I told them about Tim, but I wonder how many of them took such a call to martyrdom seriously.

I should also say that claims of persecution by American Christians make them look foolish and petty in light of the real persecution Christians are suffering around the world.

But I digress.

It seems everywhere I look online these days someone is debating whether or not American Christians are experiencing persecution (or perhaps discrimination) for their beliefs. Over at Commonweal, Julia Marley suggests that the “evangelical martyr complex” was partially fueled by the 1995 D.C. Talk song “Jesus Freak.” More on this below.

But most of the discussion on this front has stemmed from Rod Dreher’s recent book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. Some of you may recall that we blogged about this book a couple of weeks ago and tried to find common ground between “The Benedict Option” and what law professor John Inazu has called “Confident Pluralism.”

Recently Calvin College philosophy professor James K.A. Smith thought it was necessary to criticize Dreher’s book from the pages of the website of The Washington Post.  (I am still a bit confused as to why Smith would turn to the Washington Post to debate how Christians should live in a secular world. But in an era of social media where everyone is privy to intramural debates among Christians I guess it doesn’t really  matter).  Smith’s points about Christians living in fear are well taken.  I have made a similar argument in the context of the evangelical support of Donald Trump’s refugee policy.  But Smith’s suggestion that he was trusting in “a savior who rose from the dead” (and by implication Dreher was not) seemed a bit over-the-top.

Dreher was particularly upset by the way Smith, who Dreher claims was an early supporter of the “Benedict Option,” apparently changed his mind about the book when writing for his Washington Post audience.  Dreher responded with a post at his blog titled “The Benedict Arnold Option.” (This is not the first time Smith’s assault on a Christian writer has led to a strong push-back. The Smith-Dreher exchange reminds me a little bit of Smith’s scuffle in 2010 with Baylor philosopher Frank Beckwith).

Meanwhile, Darryl Hart offers some historical context.  Evangelicals, he argues, have felt marginalized in American culture for over a century.  This is why, for example, they founded faith-based “Christian colleges” like Calvin College to protect them from the secularizing tendencies of the outside world and to instill them with a “Christian world view.” (In the process he reminds Smith of the location from which he writes).  As Hart notes: “As I have indicated many times, what bothers me about the BenOp is that Rod seems to understand a cultural crisis now when some Christians (the mainstream calls them fundamentalists) saw it at least a century ago.” Hart is right. At the turn of the 20th century when evangelicals were ousted from the denominations, and by extension the culture, they turned inward and founded a host of institutions that we now often describe as the “evangelical subculture.” Joel Carpenter wrote about this in Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism and a couple of oft-cited articles.  Was this development something akin to a “Benedict Option?”

This leads me to best review of The Benedict Option I have read so far.  It comes from Damon Linker at The Week.  While Hart argues that the persecution complex in American evangelicalism began over a century ago, Linker takes an even longer view.  He wonders if there was ever a moment when Christianity was powerful enough to hold sway over American life:

Yet it’s worth asking whether Christianity as both Neuhaus and Dreher understand it ever exercised rule in quite the way they imagine it did. Certainly it did in Puritan New England, and in certain regions of the country during the Great Awakenings of the 1730s and early 19th century. And clearly American civil religion, partly derived from Puritanism and reinvigorated countless times by various religious and cultural influences down through the centuries, has always had a broadly Protestant and deistic character.

But was this default Christianity anything like the doctrinally, liturgically, and morally rigorous forms of worship and belief that Dreher advocates? I don’t think so. Yes, rates of church attendance were higher in the past, but those rates fluctuated quite a bit from time to time and place to place. And in many of those times and places, the forms of worship were decidedly low-church, with tent revivals, renegade preachers, and faith healers barnstorming the country, while in most white churches the message broadcast from pulpits either explicitly endorsed a racist status quo or passed over it in silence.

But Linker’s approach is more nuanced than this.  He differs slightly from those like Julia Marley who suggest that the sense of persecution felt by evangelicals is built on a false understanding of Christian persecution in the Roman Empire and the belief that the United States is a Christian nation.  Linker argues that there have been significant changes in the culture–particularly in the area of sexual morality– that might justify evangelical concern.  He writes:

Intercourse outside of marriage, masturbation, the use of contraception, homosexuality (including same-sex marriage), transgenderism — none of it will register as raising significant moral or theological issues and problems. That wasn’t true in the 19th-century U.S., in 17th-century Prussia, or in 11th-century France. In all of those times and places, news of what growing numbers of people (including people who define themselves as Christians) think of as sexually acceptable behavior would have been received as inexplicable, and an abomination.

That is what makes our time decisively different from past eras in the history of the Christian West: We live on the far side of the sexual revolution. Neuhaus thought that revolution could be at least partially reversed through concerted democratic action. Dreher has no such hopes and so advises withdrawal and self-protection.

If traditional sexual morality is an absolutely necessary component in an authentic Christian life, then America may well be the post-Christian nation Dreher insists it is, with devout Christians reduced to the status of exiles within it and facing the prospect of outright persecution in the workplace and elsewhere. (Dreher’s book discusses some of these persecutory possibilities, and he regularly highlights and ponders them in considerable detail on his blog at The American Conservative.)

Dreher’s concerns about persecution may be somewhat exaggerated, but they aren’t delusional. Now that same-sex marriage has been declared a constitutional right, the full weight of anti-discrimination law is poised to bear down on those whose faith precludes them from accepting the licitness of such arrangements. That has inspired many religious conservatives (and a few liberals, like myself) to demand new laws to strengthen the First Amendment’s religious liberty protections, specifically to clarify that the “free exercise” clause is not limited to what takes place within the walls of a church.

I appreciate Linker’s approach here because it acknowledges what I and others believe are real threats to religious liberty that should not be dismissed. At the same time, it affirms a lot of my own historical work on the problematic assertion that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.

Linker concludes:

What if Dreher and other conservative Christians could know that they would not be forced to bake cakes or provide other services for same-sex weddings, that religious colleges would not be forced to permit same-sex cohabitation, and that employees would not be fired or otherwise penalized for holding traditional views about sexuality? Would that render the Benedict Option unnecessary?

I doubt Dreher would think so — because Christians would still find themselves living in a country in which a range of authorities within civil society constantly convey the message that same-sex marriage is good and opposing it is bigotry, in which pornography is ubiquitous, and in which gender is increasingly treated as a human construct entirely disconnected from nature, marriage, procreation, and a divinely authored order of things.

But why is that such a problem? Don’t Orthodox Jews and observant Muslims, who hold analogous views about sex, manage to live and thrive in the United States, despite its sexual turmoil and lasciviousness? Indeed they do. But they are and have always been tiny minorities in America — which means that, in the decisive respect, they already practice something like the Benedict Option. They don’t need to be taught how to preserve themselves in the face of constant counter-religious temptations.

Perhaps that consideration partially explains why Dreher sometimes seems to hype the persecution that conservative Christians already confront or will soon face — as a kind of shock therapy for the complacent, as if to say: “We’re no longer in charge here! If we don’t start protecting and preserving ourselves soon, there won’t be anything left to protect or preserve!”

Read Linker’s entire piece here.

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