There’s been a lot of online chatter about Rod Dreher’s proposed “Benedict Option.” The fact that this conversation is taking place is encouraging, because it demonstrates that people are engaging in deep and serious reflection about Christianity’s place in a rapidly changing culture. Billing his “Benedict Option” as a strategic withdrawal, Dreher writes:
we need to realize the radical nature of the present moment, which requires a radical response—a kind of deliberate, strategic retreat so that we can tend our own gardens, so to speak, and cultivate the deep roots that our kids and their kids, and their kids’ kids will need to hold on to the faith through the dark times ahead.
To his credit, Dreher writes that all of this is channeled toward seeing the church as “for the life of the world.”
I hesitate to criticize Dreher, since I have benefitted immensely from his writing and his keen insight. And this piece isn’t meant to be critical of all aspects of the Benedict Option, but rather, to serve as a rejoinder that may help sharpen the discussion. For all the good he believes the Benedict Option offers (and indeed, there’s much in it that is attractive), I cannot help but hear echoes of dreamy-eyed monasticism reverberating throughout its explanation. I know that Dreher himself will probably protest such a characterization. Yet, even after reading his many thoughtful articulations and re-articulations of his view, this impression remains.
If the Benedict Option is about developing a “thicker” Christian community that grows more deliberate about sustaining and catechizing itself, count me in. But if the only result of the Benedict Option is a more aesthetic and intellectual homeschooling movement, then I have concerns about its long-term viability. A Christianity that isn’t simultaneously attentive to both its own institutions and its public witness simply cannot fulfill the robust demands of orthodoxy.
So, I’d like to propose an alternate paradigm for how Christians should navigate the days, months, and years ahead as culture coarsens and rejects historic, orthodox Christianity. I call it “the Buckley Option,” named after the famed conservative Catholic William F. Buckley, Jr.
The Buckley Option
The Buckley Option seeks to emulate the style, tenor, and tactics of post-war conservatism that Buckley helped pioneer. Think for a moment about the political environment in which Buckley found himself. It wasn’t totally unlike ours. Before Buckley’s arrival, political liberalism was totalizing and unchecked as the dominant political reality. In the post-Hoover years, to be a Republican was to be, as today’s zany progressives remind us, “on the wrong side of history.” The 1950s might have overseen the zenith of American civil religion and moral puritanism, but the conservative movement was fledgling, if it could be said to exist at all.
Into that void Buckley stepped to unite dissonant political voices into one melody. He brought together traditionalists, libertarians, and free-market economists to forge a coalition with a shared commitment to limiting government and maximizing liberty, all while promoting virtue. Buckley led a coalition that had as its united enemy a growing Leviathan that aimed to ameliorate all aspects of political life under the umbrella of government largesse.
What did Buckley do? He founded organizations and a magazine that helped catechize a young generation of conservatives. He understood that the strength of any movement exists in the matrix of relationships and ideas that comprise it. But if the tactical elements of post-war conservatism are worth mimicking, so too was Buckley’s approach and demeanor. Buckley’s style was equal parts wit, charm, and conviction. Engaged in heady debates dealing with deep issues, Buckley’s charm offensive was accompanied by both philosophical rigor and gaiety. He was not a firebrand in the classic sense, but he did not hesitate to jar liberal America awake from its political torpor.
A contemporary version of Buckley’s approach will insist on the necessity of broad coalitions where religious conservatives unite together in the belief that small-c “catholic” Christianity has the seeds of civilization in its DNA. Sure, there may be spats about baptismal practices, but Nicene Christianity has enough potency to affirm, for example, that man is man and woman is woman. The Buckley Option will look for alliances at every opportunity without sacrificing its convictions. It will unite against a common foe, which today, as Rod Dreher himself rightly observed, is Equal Freedom Über Alles—a form of administrative liberalism that sacrifices all natural differences in the social order before the altar of the human will and the dictatorship of relativism.
The Buckley Option will put a value on political wins, but its primary goal will be cultural sustainability. Within my own Southern Baptist ranks, I’ve noticed a newfound dedication to parent-child discipleship and catechesis, one that places a huge responsibility for child discipleship in the family, rather than outsourcing it solely to a youth pastor on Wednesday or Sunday nights. On this, Buckley and Benedict might well raise their glasses with one another.
A Thundering, Joyous Defiance
The Buckley Option will be distinguished as much for its disposition and attitude as its philosophy and theology. It will stand athwart liberalism and decadence yelling not only “Stop!” but also “Repent!” It must be resolutely orthodox, thundering a joyous defiance as it scoffs at its cultural persecutors.
Every movement needs a distinguishing attitude. The Buckley Option will be as gregarious as Bill Buckley himself. It will simultaneously laugh at, cry for, predict, and counter the silly, harmful messes caused by progressivism. It will embrace good-natured ridicule and satire as a modus operandi for debunking the silliness and incoherence of progressivism. The Buckley Option will shout that the Emperor has no clothes, conquering the Apostles of Secularism with a good dose of laughter and eye-rolling.
The Buckley Option will cherish the primacy of moral virtue and freedom lived out in the public square. On this, it will look not only to advancing its own interests, but the interests of all persons endowed with a conscience who desire to live in freedom. It will insist on the necessity of religion’s restraining effect on man’s passions that, left unchecked, eventually bend toward authoritarianism.
With roots in Chesterton, Kuyper, and Lewis, the Buckley Option will be sanguine. It will be, in a word, Renaissance. Conversant with the broader culture, it will value the artifacts of man for the sake of advancing the mission of the church. Its robust doctrine of creation and culture will recognize Christ is indeed Lord over every square inch of cosmic real estate.
Among the Ruins
The Buckley Option will never require dominance and cultural preference. Battle-tested and battle-ready, it will freely acknowledge that Christianity does its best work among the ruins of culture. In the ruins of our culture’s accelerating and self-willed suicide, the church can act out its mission as a drama of divine contradiction. The Buckley Option will insist on a Christianity whose ethics are intelligible, life-giving, and at all times applicable to the public square. If the church fails to speak both clearly and rightly in the public square, someone else will speak wrongly. The Buckley Option will sacrifice no space in the social or civil arena. It will believe, as the church always has, that its gospel brings with it good news for society, regardless of whether society believes its message is good or not.
Lastly, the Buckley Option will recognize that in a fallen world marked by self-interest, democracy is the preferred method for government order. While imperfect, it allows self-interest to be dealt with in the sphere of persuasion, not coercion. Eschewing theocracy, a Buckley Option approach will recognize that the moral ecology of any nation is dependent on a public morality, not a government morality. While the Benedict Option implies that democracy sowed the seeds of its own destruction, a Buckley Option approach recognizes that the seeds of destruction are not unique to any one political system. The moral breakdown that ensues when free people act freely is not caused by democracy, but by the besetting effects of sin that taint all human civilizations.
Of course, this is only a preliminary outline. Much more remains to be said. And, it is important to note, not every paradigm for engaging culture requires abandoning all others.
Let Benedict be Benedict—and let Buckley be Buckley.
Andrew T. Walker serves as the director of policy studies for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.