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Introduction: The Awakening

For most of my adult life, I have been a believing Christian and a committed conservative. I didn’t see any conflict between the two, until my wife and I welcomed our firstborn child into the world in 1999. Nothing changes a man’s outlook on life like having to think about the kind of world hischildren will inherit. And so it was with me.

As Matthew grew into toddlerhood, I began to realize how my politics were changing as I sought to raise our child by traditionalist Christian principles. I began to wonder what, exactly, mainstream conservatism was conserving. It dawned on me that some ofthe causes championed by my fellow conservatives—chiefly an uncritical enthusiasm for the market—can in some circumstances undermine the thing that I, as a traditionalist, considered the most important institution to conserve: the family.

I also came to see the churches, including my own, as largely ineffective in combating the forces of cultural decline. Traditional, historic Christianity—whether Catholic, Protestant, or Eastern Orthodox—ought to be a powerful counterforce to the radical individualism and secularism of modernity. Even though conservative Christians were said to be fighting a culture war, with the exception of the abortion and gay marriage issues, it was hard to see my people putting up much of a fight. We seemed content to be the chaplaincy to a consumerist culture that was fast losing a sense of what it meant to be Christian.

In my 2006 book Crunchy Cons, which explored a countercultural, traditionalist conservative sensibility, I brought up the work of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who declared that Western civilization had lost its moorings. The time was coming, said MacIntyre, when men and women of virtue would understand that continued full participation in mainstream society was not possible for those who wanted to live a life of traditional virtue. These people would find new ways to live in community, he said, just as Saint Benedict, the sixth-century father of Western monasticism, responded to the collapse of Roman civilization by founding a monastic order.

I called the strategic withdrawal prophesied by MacIntyre “the Benedict Option.” The idea is that serious Christian conservatives could no longer live business-as-usual lives in America, that we have to develop creative, communal solutions to help us hold on to our faith and our values in a world growing ever more hostile to them. We would have to choose to make a decisive leap into a truly countercultural way of living Christianity, or we would doom our children and our children’s children to assimilation.

Over the last decade, I have been writing on and off about the Benedict Option, but it never took off outside a relatively small circle of Christian conservatives. Meanwhile the Millennial generation began to abandon the church in numbers unprecedented in U.S. history. And they almost certainly did not know what they were discarding: new social science research indicated that young adults are almost entirely ignorant of the teachings and practices of the historical Christian faith.

The steady decline of Christianity and the steady increase in hostility to traditional values came to a head in April 2015, when the state of Indiana passed a version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The law merely provided a valid religious liberty defense for those sued for discrimination. It did not guarantee that those defendants would prevail. Gay rights activists loudly protested, calling the law bigoted—and for the first time ever, big business took sides in the culture war, coming down firmly on behalf of gay rights. Indiana backed down under corporate pressure—as did Arkansas a week later.

This was a watershed event. It showed that if big business objected, even Republican politicians in red states would not take a stand, even a mild one, for religious freedom. Professing orthodox biblical Christianity on sexual matters was now thought to be evidence of intolerable bigotry. Conservative Christians had been routed. We were living in a new country. And then two months later the U.S. Supreme Court declared a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. The decision was popular with the American people, which had, over the previous decade, undergone a staggering shift on gay rights and same-sex marriage. No sooner was the right to gay marriage achieved than activists and their political allies, the Democratic Party, began pushing for transgender rights.

Post-Obergefell, Christians who hold to the biblical teaching about sex and marriage have the same status in culture, and increasingly in law, as racists. The culture war that began with the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s has now ended in defeat for Christian conservatives. The cultural left—which is to say, increasingly the American mainstream— has no intention of living in postwar peace. It is pressing forward with a harsh, relentless occupation, one that is aided by the cluelessness of Christians who don’t understand what’s happening. Don’t be fooled: the upset presidential victory of Donald Trump has at best given us a bit more time to prepare for the inevitable.

I have written The Benedict Option to wake up the church and to encourage it to act to strengthen itself, while there is still time. If we want to survive, we have to return to the roots of our faith, both in thought and in practice. We are going to have to learn habits of the heart forgotten by believers in the West. We are going to have to change our lives, and our approach to life, in radical ways. In short, we are going to have to be the church, without compromise, no matter what it costs.

This book does not offer a political agenda. Nor is it a spiritual how-to manual, nor a standard decline-and-fall lament. True, it offers a critique of modern culture from a traditional Christian point of view, but more importantly, it tells the stories of conservative Christians who are pioneering creative ways to live out the faith joyfully and counter-culturally in these darkening days. My hope is that you will be inspired by them and collaborate with like-minded Christians in your local area to construct responses to the real-world challenges faced by the church. If the salt is not to lose its savor, we have to act. The hour is late. This is not a drill.

Alasdair MacIntyre said that we await “a new—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.” The philosopher meant an inspired, creative leader who will pioneer a way to live the tradition in community, so that it can survive through a time of great testing. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI foretells a world in which the church will live in small circles of committed believers who live the faith intensely, and who will have to be somewhat cut off from mainstream society for the sake of holding on to the truth. Read this book, learn from the people you meet in it, and be inspired by the testimony of the lives of the monks. Let them all speak to your heart and mind, then get active locally to strengthen yourself, your family, your church, your school, and your community.

In the first part of this book, I will define the challenge of post-Christian America as I see it. I will explore the philosophical and theological roots of our society’s fragmentation, and I will explain how the Christian virtues embodied in the sixth-century Rule of Saint Benedict, a monastic guidebook that played a powerful role in preserving Christian culture throughout the so-called Dark Ages, can help all believers today.

In the second part, I will discuss how the way of Christian living prescribed by the Rule can be adapted to the lives of modern conservative Christians of all churches and confessions. To avoid political confusion, I use the word “orthodox”—small “o”—torefer to theologically traditional Protestants, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox Christians. The Rule offers insights in how to approach politics, faith, family, community, education, and work. I will detail how they manifest themselves in the lives of a diverse number of Christians who have lessons to teach the entire church. Finally, I will consider the critical importance of believers thinking and acting radically in the face of the two most powerful phenomena directing contemporary life and pulverizing the church’s foundations: sex and technology.

In the end, I hope you will agree with me that Christians are now in a time of decision. The choices we make today have consequences for the lives of our descendants, our nation, and our civilization. Jesus Christ promised that the gates of Hell would not prevail against His church, but He did not promise that Hell would not prevail against His church in the West. That depends on us, and the choices we make right here, right now.

I invite you, the reader, to keep in mind as you make your way through these pages that maybe, just maybe, the new and quite different Benedict that God is calling to revive and strengthen His church is . . . you.

—Rod Dreher