Conversations: Rod Dreher

rod-dreher

Rod Dreher is a prolific journalist and author, and a senior editor at The American Conservative. He comments regularly on American culture, politics, and religion, and has written three widely-discussed books: Crunchy Cons (2006), The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (2013), and The Benedict Option (2017). His blog at The American Conservative gets about a million page views a month and draws followers from the left and the right. As a recent New Yorker profile explains, Rod has such a wide readership because he covers a wealth of interesting topics, in depth, and with valuable insight: “Because Dreher is at once spiritually and intellectually restless, [his] blog has become a destination for the ideologically bi-curious.”

Recently, Rod, who is a participant in our Tradition Project, agreed to answer some questions about his new, best-selling book, The Benedict OptionThe book argues that traditional Christians need to return to older, more intentional ways of living in order to thrive in a post-Christian culture. In our wide-ranging interview, Rod talks about why he thinks the Benedict Option is so necessary and why it isn’t just for monks and hermits. He discusses examples like classical Christian schooling and Christian centers at secular universities. He addresses the paradox of traditionalism in contemporary life, responds to progressive criticism, and explains the danger that “Technological Man” poses for traditional Christianity.

Movsesian: Rod, let’s begin by summarizing the main theme of your book. As I understand it, you argue that traditionalist, small-o orthodox Christians need to repurpose older, intentional ways of Christian living for our contemporary age. To take the “Benedict Option” means to establish tighter networks, communities, and institutions that will allow American Christians to survive in our post-Christian culture. Is that about right? Why do you think this option is necessary for American Christians today?

Dreher: Yes, that’s it. This is necessary because of the nature of postmodern culture, more on which in a second. In the book, I talk about a couple of social facts that so far, few if any critics have addressed head on. First is the fact that enormous numbers of Americans are leaving institutional Christianity. This has been shown repeatedly in recent years by reputable social scientists. In fact, back in 2010, Robert Putnam of Harvard and Notre Dame’s David E. Campbell said that if it weren’t for the heavy influx of Latino immigrants, the US Catholic Church would be hemorrhaging adherents at the same rate as Mainline Protestant churches. The numbers are not getting better for any of us. Last year, Mark Chaves and David Voas, two of the top sociologists of religion, published a paper analyzing social science data from the last decade or so, and concluding that the US is no longer a counterexample to the “secularization thesis” – that is, the idea that as modernity progresses, religion withers. It’s not true elsewhere in the world, but it was true in the West, with the notable exception of America. But we are now finally on the same steady downward slide that Europe pioneered.

And overwhelming numbers of young adults who still identify as Christians hold a nominal faith that has only scant connection to historic Christian orthodoxy. Their true faith is something the Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith calls “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” – basically a shallow, self-centered, feel-good, emotion-driven faith that’s all about being nice and feeling happy with oneself. Smith and his colleagues do their survey work on Millennials, but he has said he is confident that quite a few older American Christians hold the same vapid faith. I concur.

The point is that American Christianity is so shallowly rooted that it will not be able to withstand the strong currents of post-Christian culture. Anecdotally, in my travels around the country, especially to Christian colleges, I am hearing the same thing. One Evangelical professor at a conservative Christian college told me that these kids are all nice and big-hearted, but they come to college knowing next to nothing about Christianity, with no formation at all. The main problem is not these kids, but their parents, their churches, and their Christian schools. Few people want to face the reality of this spiritual and cultural crisis, and to make the kinds of radical changes that are going to be necessary if the faith is going to survive into the coming generations.

American Christians simply cannot imagine that the faith might not be here for their descendants. The history of Europe in the 20th century, especially after the Second World War, ought to disabuse them of that fallacy. I was quite taken by a 2015 book by the historian Edward J. Watts, titled “The Final Pagan Generation.” It’s a short history of Roman elites born just before Constantine’s conversion in the fourth century. They lived through the collapse of paganism, which had been the religion of the Empire for many centuries. It all happened in a single century. Watts shows that these men – intelligent, cultured men – had no idea what was happening around them. They could not imagine that the world that formed them could dissolve so quickly. But it happened. I think it’s happening to us Christians today.

Movsesian: Of course, to call it the “Benedict Option” is to conjure up an image of a monastic retreat from the world—something suggested, as well, by the book’s cover photo of Mount St. Michel. And some Christian critics have taken to you task for that. But that isn’t quite what you mean, is it? You’re not calling on all Christians to live as monastics. Could you explain? Is the Benedict Option only for spiritual virtuosos? What about regular people who live in the world but would like a deeper Christian life?

Dreher: No, I’m not at all encouraging Christians to run for the hills and live like monks. Rather, I’m saying that all of us believers have to live lives of much greater spiritual discipline, with much thicker ties to our local churches and Christian communities. If we don’t, we are not going to make it as Christians through this Dark Age upon us. That’s not just an anxious American journalist saying this; Father Cassian Folsom, the former prior of the Benedictine monastery in Norcia, the saint’s hometown, told me exactly that when I first met him several years ago. This is not a game.

I call this project the Benedict Option after the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s famous final paragraph in “After Virtue,” in which he recalled the example of St. Benedict, leaving the ruins of imperial Rome to found a monastic order. MacIntyre said that today, we await “a new – and doubtless very different – St. Benedict” to help those who wish to live out the traditional virtues create resilient communities capable of doing this amid the chaos and barbarism of our own time. In my book, I ask what would a new and very different St. Benedict look like today? What would he tell us?

We lay Christians – Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox – have a lot to learn from the Benedictine tradition. In the book, I talk about certain ways of thinking and living that the Benedictines have from the early sixth century Rule of St. Benedict that we can Continue reading

Greely, “The End of Sex and the Future of Human Reproduction”

As Rod Dreher points out in his new book, The Benedict Option, the sexual revolution, especially the separation of sex from reproduction that the Pill made possible, posed a deep challenge to traditional Christian ethics–a challenge Christianity has pretty much lost, in law and popular culture. A new book by Stanford Law Professor Henry Greely, The End of Sex and the Future of Human Reproduction, predicts that technology will soon make the separation of sex from reproduction complete. One always has to be a little skeptical about “prophetic scholarship” directed, if the Harvard University Press announcement is to be believed, at readers yet “unborn.” But, if Greely is right, traditional Christian ethics will face even more difficult challenges in the future.

Here’s a description of the book from the Harvard website:

9780674728967Within twenty, maybe forty, years most people in developed countries will stop having sex for the purpose of reproduction. Instead, prospective parents will be told as much as they wish to know about the genetic makeup of dozens of embryos, and they will pick one or two for implantation, gestation, and birth. And it will be safe, lawful, and free. In this work of prophetic scholarship, Henry T. Greely explains the revolutionary biological technologies that make this future a seeming inevitability and sets out the deep ethical and legal challenges humanity faces as a result.

Developments in genetics and stem cell research are giving rise to new techniques that will vastly improve preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) and in vitro fertilization (IVF), making sexless reproduction not just possible but cheap and easy—what Greely coins “easy PGD.” The first child born using PGD is now 25 years old, and thousands more are born each year. Advanced by economic, social, legal, and political forces, the emerging science has made the concerns that were once the stuff of science fiction into real problems that our children and grandchildren will face routinely.

Deeply informed by Greely’s command of both science and law, The End of Sex and the Future of Human Reproduction is a book for parents, citizens, and all those, born and unborn, who will face the consequences of a new era of human reproduction.

Dyer & Watson, “C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law”

C.S. Lewis was neither a legal theorist or a political philosopher. But his works often touch on law and politics. He famously argued for distinguishing between Christian and civil marriage, for example. And natural law was a recurrent theme in his work, especially his concept of “the Tao,” a term he borrowed from Asian religion, which for him signified the objective values that all human cultures share. Lewis explains the Tao most thoroughly in The Abolition of Man, but he alludes to it in other works as well, including Mere Christianity and even the Space Trilogy.

Next month, Cambridge releases a new study of Lewis’s views on these questions, C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law, by Justin Buckley Dyer (University of Missouri-Columbia) and Micah J. Watson (Calvin College). Here is the publisher’s description:

9781107518971Conventional wisdom holds that C. S. Lewis was uninterested in politics and public affairs. The conventional wisdom is wrong. As Justin Buckley Dyer and Micah J. Watson show in this groundbreaking work, Lewis was deeply interested in the fundamental truths and falsehoods about human nature and how these conceptions manifest themselves in the contested and turbulent public square. Ranging from the depths of Lewis’ philosophical treatments of epistemology and moral pedagogy to practical considerations of morals legislation and responsible citizenship, this book explores the contours of Lewis’ multi-faceted Christian engagement with political philosophy generally and the natural-law tradition in particular. Drawing from the full range of Lewis’ corpus and situating his thought in relationship to both ancient and modern seminal thinkers, C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law offers an unprecedented look at politics and political thought from the perspective of one of the twentieth century’s most influential writers.

Dreher, “The Benedict Option”

Rod Dreher is one of the most interesting and prolific writers on religion and culture in America today. He’s also a participant in the Tradition Project, our center’s multi-year program on the continuing value of received wisdom for law, politics, and culture. He’s out with a new best seller, The Benedict Option, on the need for contemporary Christians to adapt, to present circumstances, an older model of intentional Christian living. He argues that adapting this older model will be necessary for Christian communities to survive in a post-Christian age.

We’re hoping to interview Rod about his book in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, here’s a description from the Penguin Random House website:

Kaufman, “Augustine’s Leaders”

Lord, make me political, but not just yet: A new study, Augustine’s Leaders, by Peter Iver Kaufman (University of Richmond), argues that Saint Augustine was ultimately skeptical that Christianity had much to offer practical politics, especially contemporary liberal politics. Here’s a description of the book, from the Wipf and Stock website:

CASCADE_TemplateIn Augustine’s Leaders, Peter Iver Kaufman works from the premise that appropriations of Augustine endorsing contemporary liberal efforts to mix piety and politics are mistaken–that Augustine was skeptical about the prospects for involving Christianity in meaningful political change. His skepticism raises several questions for historians. What roles did one of the most influential Christian theologians set for religious and political leaders? What expectations did he have for emperors, statesmen, bishops, and pastors? What obstacles did he presume they would face? And what pastoral, polemical, and political challenges shaped Augustine’s expectations–and frustrations? Augustine’s Leaders answers those questions and underscores the leadership its subject provided as he continued to commend humility and compassion in religious and political cultures that seemed to him to reward, above all, celebrity and self-interest.

Broyde, “Sharia Tribunals, Rabbinical Courts, and Christian Panels”

In June, the Oxford University Press will release “Sharia Tribunals, Rabbinical Courts, and Christian Panels: Religious Arbitration in America and the West,” by Michael Broyde (Emory University).  The publisher’s description follows:

This book explores the rise of private arbitration in religious and other values-oriented communities, and it argues that secular societies should use secular legal 9780190640286.jpgframeworks to facilitate, enforce, and also regulate religious arbitration. It covers the history of religious arbitration; the kinds of faith-based dispute resolution models currently in use; how the law should perceive them; and what the role of religious arbitration in the United States should be. Part One examines why religious individuals and communities are increasingly turning to private faith-based dispute resolution to arbitrate their litigious disputes. It focuses on why religious communities feel disenfranchised from secular law, and particularly secular family law. Part Two looks at why American law is so comfortable with faith-based arbitration, given its penchant for enabling parties to order their relationships and resolve their disputes using norms and values that are often different from and sometimes opposed to secular standards. Part Three weighs the proper procedural, jurisdictional, and contractual limits of arbitration generally, and of religious arbitration particularly. It identifies and explains the reasonable limitations on religious arbitration. Part Four examines whether secular societies should facilitate effective, legally enforceable religious dispute resolution, and it argues that religious arbitration is not only good for the religious community itself, but that having many different avenues for faith-based arbitration which are properly limited is good for any vibrant pluralistic democracy inhabited by diverse faith groups.

FitzGerald, “The Evangelicals”

This month, Simon & Schuster release “The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America,” by Frances FitzGerald.  The publisher’s  description follows:

This groundbreaking book from Pulitzer Prize­–winning historian Frances FitzGerald is the first to tell the powerful, dramatic story of the Evangelical movement in America—from the Puritan era to the 2016 presidential election.

the-evangelicals-9781439131336_hrThe evangelical movement began in the revivals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, known in America as the Great Awakenings. A populist rebellion against the established churches, it became the dominant religious force in the country.

During the nineteenth century white evangelicals split apart dramatically, first North versus South, and then at the end of the century, modernist versus fundamentalist. After World War II, Billy Graham, the revivalist preacher, attracted enormous crowds and tried to gather all Protestants under his big tent, but the civil rights movement and the social revolution of the sixties drove them apart again. By the 1980s Jerry Falwell and other southern televangelists, such as Pat Robertson, had formed the Christian right. Protesting abortion and gay rights, they led the South into the Republican Party, and for thirty-five years they were the sole voice of evangelicals to be heard nationally. Eventually a younger generation of leaders protested the Christian right’s close ties with the Republican Party and proposed a broader agenda of issues, such as climate change, gender equality, and immigration reform.

Evangelicals have in many ways defined the nation. They have shaped our culture and our politics. Frances FitGerald’s narrative of this distinctively American movement is a major work of history, piecing together the centuries-long story for the first time. Evangelicals now constitute twenty-five percent of the American population, but they are no longer monolithic in their politics. They range from Tea Party supporters to social reformers. Still, with the decline of religious faith generally, FitzGerald suggests that evangelical churches must embrace ethnic minorities if they are to survive.

Mirkova, “Muslim Land, Christian Labor”

In June, Central European University Press will release Muslim Land, Christian Labor: Transforming Ottoman Imperial Subjects into Bulgarian National Citizens c. 1878-1939 by Anna M. Mirkova (Old Dominion University). The publisher’s description follows:

Muslim LandFocusing upon a region in Southern Bulgaria, a region that has been the crossroads between Europe and Asia for many centuries, this book describes how former Ottoman Empire Muslims were transformed into citizens of Balkan nation-states. This is a region marked by shifting borders, competing Turkish and Bulgarian sovereignties, rival nationalisms, and migration. Problems such as these were ultimately responsible for the disintegration of the dynastic empires into nation-states.

Land that had traditionally belonged to Muslims—individually or communally—became a symbolic and material resource for Bulgarian state building and was the terrain upon which rival Bulgarian and Turkish nationalisms developed in the wake of the dissolution of the late Ottoman Empire and the birth of early republican Turkey and the introduction of capitalism.

By the outbreak of World War II, Turkish Muslims had become a polarized national minority. Their conflicting efforts to adapt to post-Ottoman Bulgaria brought attention to the increasingly limited availability of citizenship rights, not only to Turkish Muslims, but to Bulgarian Christians as well.

Armstrong-Partida, “Defiant Priests”

In June, Cornell University Press will release Defiant Priests: Domestic Unions, Violence, and Clerical Masculinity in Fourteenth-Century Catalonia by Michelle Armstrong-Partida (University of Texas at El Paso). The publisher’s description follows:

Defiant PriestsTwo hundred years after canon law prohibited clerical marriage, parish priests in the late medieval period continued to form unions with women that were marriage all but in name. In Defiant Priests, Michelle Armstrong-Partida uses evidence from extraordinary archives in four Catalan dioceses to show that maintaining a family with a domestic partner was not only a custom entrenched in Catalan clerical culture but also an essential component of priestly masculine identity, one that extended to the carrying of weapons and use of violence to resolve disputes and seek revenge, to intimidate other men, and to maintain their status and authority in the community.

From unpublished episcopal visitation records and internal diocesan documents (including notarial registers, bishops’ letters, dispensations for illegitimate birth, and episcopal court records), Armstrong-Partida reconstructs the personal lives and careers of Catalan parish priests to better understand the professional identity and masculinity of churchmen who made up the proletariat of the largest institution across Europe. These untapped sources reveal the extent to which parish clergy were embedded in their communities, particularly their kinship ties to villagers and their often contentious interactions with male parishioners and clerical colleagues. Defiant Priests highlights a clerical culture that embraced violence and illuminates how the parish church could become a battleground in which rivalries among clerics took place and young clerics learned from senior clergymen to meld the lay masculine ideals that were a part of their everyday culture with the privilege and authority of their profession.

Teitler, “The Last Pagan Emperor”

In March, the Oxford University Press released “The Last Pagan Emperor: Julian the Apostate and the War against Christianity,” by H.C. Teitler.  The publisher’s description follows:

Flavius Claudius Julianus was the last pagan to sit on the Roman imperial throne (361-363). Born in Constantinople in 331 or 332, Julian was raised as a Christian, but 9780190626501.jpgapostatized, and during his short reign tried to revive paganism, which, after the conversion to Christianity of his uncle Constantine the Great early in the fourth century, began losing ground at an accelerating pace. Having become an orphan when he was still very young, Julian was taken care of by his cousin Constantius II, one of Constantine’s sons, who permitted him to study rhetoric and philosophy and even made him co-emperor in 355. But the relations between Julian and Constantius were strained from the beginning, and it was only Constantius’ sudden death in 361 which prevented an impending civil war.

As sole emperor, Julian restored the worship of the traditional gods. He opened pagan temples again, reintroduced animal sacrifices, and propagated paganism through both the spoken and the written word. In his treatise Against the Galilaeans he sharply criticised the religion of the followers of Jesus whom he disparagingly called ‘Galilaeans’. He put his words into action, and issued laws which were displeasing to Christians–the most notorious being his School Edict. This provoked the anger of the Christians, who reacted fiercely, and accused Julian of being a persecutor like his predecessors Nero, Decius, and Diocletian. Violent conflicts between pagans and Christians made themselves felt all over the empire. It is disputed whether or not Julian himself was behind such outbursts. Accusations against the Apostate continued to be uttered even after the emperor’s early death. In this book, the feasibility of such charges is examined.

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