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

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:

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.

Eekelaar, “Family Rights and Religion”

In May, Routledge will release “Family Rights and Religion,” by John Eekelaar (Pembroke College, Oxford University).  The publisher’s description follows:

The interaction between individual rights, which are often seen in secular terms, and religion is becoming an important and complex topic not only for academic study logo-rt-cbut for practical policy. This volume collects a range of writings from journals, edited collections and individual books which deal with different aspects of the interaction within the context of family life, and which appear with their original pagination. These studies have been selected because they throw a sharp light on central elements of the role of religion in determining the structure of the rights of family members in relation to one another, both from an historical and contemporary perspective. While many of the writings are focused on US and European systems, selected writings covering other systems illustrate the universal nature of the topic. The studies are accompanied by a reflective commentary from the editor which sets the writings in a broad context of social, constitutional and philosophical thought, with the aim of stimulating critical thought and discussion.

Around the Web this Week

Here is a look at some law and religion news stories from around the web this week:

Jacobs, “Jews and Leftist Politics”

Last month, the Cambridge University Press released “Jews and Leftist Politics: Judaism, Israel, Antisemitism, and Gender,” by Jack Jacobs (John Jay College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York).  The publisher’s description follows: 

The relationships, past and present, between Jews and the political left remain of abiding interest to both the academic community and the public. Jews and Leftist 9781107047860Politics contains new and insightful chapters from world-renowned scholars and considers such matters as the political implications of Judaism; the relationships of leftists and Jews; the histories of Jews on the left in Europe, the United States, and Israel; contemporary anti-Zionism; the associations between specific Jews and Communist parties; and the importance of gendered perspectives. It also contains fresh studies of canonical figures, including Gershom Scholem, Gustav Landauer, and Martin Buber, and examines the affiliations of Jews to prominent institutions, calling into question previous widely held assumptions. The volume is characterized by judicious appraisals made by respected authorities, and sheds considerable light on contentious themes.

Gurock, “The Holocaust Averted”

This month, Rutgers University Press released the paperback edition of The Holocaust Averted: An Alternate History of American Jewry, 1938-1967 by Jeffrey S. Gurock (Yeshiva University). The publisher’s description follows:

The Holocaust AvertedThe increasingly popular genre of “alternative histories” has captivated audiences by asking questions like “what if the South had won the Civil War?” Such speculation can be instructive, heighten our interest in a topic, and shed light on accepted history. In The Holocaust Averted, Jeffrey Gurock imagines what might have happened to the Jewish community in the United States if the Holocaust had never occurred and forces readers to contemplate how the road to acceptance and empowerment for today’s American Jews could have been harder than it actually was.

 

Based on reasonable alternatives grounded in what is known of the time, places, and participants, Gurock presents a concise narrative of his imagined war-time saga and the events that followed Hitler’s military failures. While German Jews did suffer under Nazism, the millions of Jews in Eastern Europe survived and were able to maintain their communities. Since few people were concerned with the safety of European Jews, Zionism never became popular in the United States and social antisemitism kept Jews on the margins of society. By the late 1960s, American Jewish communities were far from vibrant.

This alternate history—where, among many scenarios, Hitler is assassinated, Japan does not bomb Pearl Harbor, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt is succeeded after two terms by Robert A. Taft—does cause us to review and better appreciate history. As Gurock tells his tale, he concludes every chapter with a short section that describes what actually happened and, thus, further educates the reader.

Around the Web this Week

Here is a look at some news stories from around the web this week:

Manseau, “Objects of Devotion”

In May, Penguin Random House will release Objects of Devotion: Religion in Early America by Peter Manseau (Curator of American Religious History at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History). The publisher’s description follows:

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