The Benedict Option might not have caused Donald Trump. But it hasn’t stopped him, either. That’s partly because it’s not designed to. The best popular, political outcome it promises is to continue fanning the smoldering wick of moral conscience among conservatives. That’s about it.
The irony, of course, is that so many get so worked up over how efficacious the Benedict Option really could be. No wonder it has so few true believers. And no wonder the fruit it bears fails to satisfy for so many others. If you think the Benedict Option — at present — can be anything more than the simple intension of lived Christian community, think again.
I’m a fan of the Benedict Option for a few reasons. The most important being that it’s a theory of Christian life grounded in acute, historical principles. The founding myth, so to speak, is given by MacIntyre in After Virtue, and from there — assuming one is familiar with more than just the final pages of that book — it’s possible to become reassured that a certain secondary principle is or isn’t consistent with the tradition.
For this reason, the Benedict Option is among the simpler, more traditionally minded frameworks of thought concerned with generating holistic cultural and social engagement. Despite that simplicity, however, there’s much to take from it. For instance, read this outstanding analysis by Caleb Bernacchio and Philip de Mahy on the Benedict Option at the crossroads of ethics and economics.
One criticism of Benedict Option thinking is that because it doesn’t directly produce real-world effects — or because those effects aren’t puristic — it’s not salutary. But that’s a category error. How could it produce direct political or social effects? (And for that matter, how could it directly prevent them?) That’d be especially ironic given MacIntyre’s portrayal of the non-communicability of virtue in contemporary society. Rod Dreher makes a similar point: he calls the Benedict Option “an intentional and thoughtful retreat into narrativity, by which I mean a reclaiming of the church’s story, inculcating commitment to it within the lives of its members, in defiance of the narrative collapse around us.”
Dreher says that to ask whether the Benedict Option could have caused Trump’s political ascendancy is “a stupid question to ask. A really stupid question.” I assume he means it’s stupid because it’s just the wrong sort of question. Maybe he thinks it’s even worse than that, since it forces an answer that’s de facto inaccurate — “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?”
I think the question illustrates well the very problem MacIntyre assigns to our age. And forming an eloquent response to it, and others like it, is the fruit he envisions a new Benedict will offer. But it’s difficult, then, in the process not to face what seems to be an inherent and necessary “bug” of such a conceptual framework: the overwhelming instinct to withdraw.