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The “Boots on the Ground” Option: A Response to Rod Dreher and Andrew Haines’ Defense of the Benedict Option

Did an ideology of Christian retreat from political engagement play a role in the Religious Right’s support of—or indifference to—Donald Trump?

Critics say I was wrong to even ask the question, at least in reference to the Benedict Option. I believe it is a fair question and that the responses to my first article raise further concerns about both the “BenOp” as perceived and what may be the real BenOp.

As my critics will happily attest, I am not an expert on the subject. What I am is a boots on the ground guy. What I wrote about in Did the Benedict Option Cause Donald Trump? is based on what I have seen on the ground level as a pro-life and pro-family activist in the Northeast.

And what I have seen in this election cycle is something that has been building for a long time. It is not simply a case of “we got Donald Trump because too many Christians stayed out of the political fray.” I wish it were that simple. In fact, many Christians deliberately chose Trump because they are done with the fray. They have already taken Rod Dreher’s advice to “abandon political hope” even if they have never heard of Dreher or the Benedict Option. (Dreher responded to my article here.)

The ideology of Christian retreat caused them to pull the lever for Trump precisely because they are not swinging for the fences anymore. Like Dreher in his BenOp FAQs, Christian Trump voters have ceased to “identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of the American empire.” They have given up on a moral reform of the U.S. They agree with Dreher that it’s over and they will now settle for a strong man who will at least keep the government out of their churches while they go about their business.

This was one of the possibilities actually mentioned in the part of my article that Dreher excerpted. Their vote for Trump was itself a retreat, a giving up of political hope, a way of saying “I’m done.”   

The Spirit of the Option

Contra the critic Dreher excerpts, Ethika Politika’s Andrew Haines, I am arguing that the Benedict Option can produce real world effects and possibly did: that it may have given us Trump. I get that the real Benedict Option is a take on Alisdair MacIntyre, all that business about “the non-communicability of virtue” in a world of “narrative collapse.” But the BenOp has taken on a life of its own, perhaps beyond what Dreher intended.

Much like Vatican II, there is the real Benedict Option (Dreher calls it “a work in progress”) and what you might call a “Spirit of the Benedict Option.” Just as “seeker friendly church” was a popular version of the more academic “radical orthodoxy,” there are popular versions of a worldview very similar to the Spirit of the Benedict Option, an ideology of Christian retreat that has permeated many conservative churches.

Dreher says that for me to be right about Christian political withdrawal leading to Trump there would have to be a “silent majority…of orthodox Catholics and conservative Evangelicals” who could turn things around if they had not checked out. No, not a majority, but just enough of a fighting force to make a difference. Nor should that fighting force be partisan, as he also argues. Indeed, it must not be partisan.

We’ve done this in Connecticut. As Dreher notes, the Northeast is one of the most liberal, secular regions in the country. And yet we defeated same-sex marriage every year at our state capitol in Hartford—it only came about by a vote of one judge—and we have crushed assisted suicide for the last four years. We were likely never a majority. We formed alliances with Democrat-voting African-American and Hispanic churches against same-sex marriage and liberal disability rights activists against assisted suicide.

And we won for as long as these fights were had in the democratic arena. This is what you can do if you stay in the game. Dreher wants us to get out. He seems to me to be arguing for the retreat that he says he’s not.

We are not just now arriving at the point at which “politics can at best be a defensive action,” as Dreher puts it. This is not new. We have been here all along. As bad as things are now, how much worse would they have been had we not fought a defensive action for the forty-three years since Roe v. Wade, how many more lives lost if there had been no Hyde Amendment, etc.? In Connecticut, we have especially been in a defensive mode ever since the State Supreme Court imposed same-sex marriage in 2008. And we have won all our biggest victories since then.

An Effective Defensive Action

This reminds me of the arguments Dreher and Maggie Gallagher had a few years ago, prior to the federal imposition of same-sex marriage, over whether we should fight same-sex marriage at all (as Maggie thought we should) or just throw in the towel and secure religious liberty exemptions while we can (as Dreher believed). Two battles in Connecticut lead me to believe that Maggie was right and Dreher was wrong.

In 2009 Connecticut passed some of the strongest religious liberty exemptions to same-sex marriage in the country. The State Supreme Court at that point had already imposed same-sex marriage so those exemptions were a victory. The exemptions were partly the result of our having defeated same-sex marriage every year for a decade in the legislature of a deep-blue state. The legislature likely would have given us less had we not demonstrated our mettle before the Court lowered the boom.

In 2011 Connecticut passed a transgender “Bathroom Bill” with religious liberty exemptions. It was a defeat. The Connecticut Catholic Conference agreed in advance not to fight the Bathroom Bill’s passage in exchange for those exemptions. In other words, they followed a Dreher-type strategy. Alone against the governor and without the help of the conference, we still fell just a few votes short of stopping the law. If the Conference had joined us, we might have won.

In the only public dispute I have ever had with the Conference, I warned that if they just took the exemptions for their own institutions and otherwise stood down and let the transgender activists do whatever they want to the rest of society, a later generation in a still-darker world would not understand those exemptions and would take them away. Liberal lobbyists are now targeting those exemptions and a letter has gone out to Christian-run homeless shelters saying they must comply with Connecticut’s transgender laws. The lesson is that religious liberty stands on firmer ground if you fight for a society that will recognize its value instead of running up the white flag as your opening gambit.

Those alternative Christian communities Dreher is urging us to build are to some significant degree already here. In that sense, we’ve been doing the Benedict Option all along. Build a classical Christian school to serve your community? We did, years ago. There are a few in Connecticut now, hybrid academies that came out of our state’s large Catholic homeschooling population. In fact, some of us were homeschooling our children the whole fifteen years we were fighting for traditional values at our state capitol.

Never Either/Or

That’s the thing—it was never either/or. I was startled, for instance, to learn the managing editor of Ethika Politika is a woman I knew as a young girl, when her family was part of our homeschooling community. Alexandra DeSanctis’s mom used to bring a “Mr. Microphone”-type device to homeschool meetings and would hand it to me so I could inform all the families when they were needed at the capitol for rallies and lobby days.

Dreher, I think, would approve of the below-the-radar alternative Christian subculture we’ve built in Connecticut and disapprove of the Mr. Microphone part. But that mostly stopped years ago, in part because some of our community have imbibed the Spirit of BenOp.

Dreher believes, contra George Weigel, that leavening our politics with Catholic social teaching can’t happen because “the tides” have turned against it and we’re stuck with choosing between Hillary and Trump. So we should…what? Just do our “thoughtful retreat into narrativity” while 3,500 unborn children continue to be slaughtered every day? What about them? What happens to the effort to end that genocide while Christians busy themselves instead with “narrativity?”

The truth is, the political tides have turned against us on LGBT and related matters—religious liberty, men in ladies rooms—and even there it was largely imposed from above. On the life issues—abortion and assisted suicide—we’re in a stronger position. Hundreds of pro-life laws have been passed in the last five years because of political action, pro-life electoral wins. Based in part on a playbook we developed in Connecticut, social conservatives and liberal disability rights activists have teamed up to defeat assisted suicide everywhere since Brittany Maynard, with the one awful exception of California.

In the face of those continuing threats to life, isn’t a retreat into narrativity, at some level, selfish? A lack of charity toward those who might be saved by our, yes, political activism?

Rod Dreher ends his response to my critique by quoting a writer who calls for “a withdrawal into the four walls of our home” instead of political action. I read this and I find myself in agreement with the online commenter who wrote elsewhere “Dreher’s ‘Benedict Option’ is indistinguishable from self-imposed ‘dhimmitude.’”

The Problem

The problem with the Benedict Option is not the “Benedict” but the “Option.” The best defense is a good offense. If you stand down in these battles you will find that you no longer have the option to retreat into narrativity. They will come for your communities. Here in Connecticut, they will tell us that we cannot do the next Adoro Te Homeschooler play or open the next Regina Caeli Academy campus unless we comply with transgender regulations. Or worse.

If we stand down, BenOp Christians may be like the unprofitable servant in the parable who buried his one talent in the ground. On Judgment Day, God may say to them, “Really? You are some of the very few Christians in world history to whom I gave representative self-government. And instead of using it when the going got tough, you withdrew to the four walls of your home?”

Dear BenOp Christians: Don’t be that guy.

Peter Wolfgang is executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut. His first article on the Benedict Option appears here.


Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • VisPacem

    Just what specific means do you advocate for “moral reform” at this time for this republic? If politics is of the (actually) possible, which person would you support, or have supported, in this Presidential contest?

    As I see it, most persons who are supporting D. Trump do so not because they are deluded about him being pristine, but rather because he has traits and abilities needed, at this time, to counter the utterly destructive policies promoted by oligarchical and plutocratic forces pertaining to both major political parties.

    It is mainly a pragmatic option to bring relative chaos into the self-serving establishment(s) so that an order can potentially emerge in which citizens at the local levels again can live in accord with the principles implied in the Constitution, many of which, arguably, accord with natural law doctrine.

    As for the so-called “BenOp” controversy, I find much of it to be Romanticized and self-serving. There is no univocal response for Christfaithful to specific historical contexts, so long as they remain true to the Church’s teachings on faith and morals.

  • LawProf61

    And we are forgetting something else that the pro-life movement has taught us – lives can be saved, and minds and hearts changed AFTER the tide – and the law – turns against you. The Supreme Court created a federal constitutional “right” to abortion long before there was anything like widespread public support for it. And yet minds have been changed precisely because of the truth that the legality of abortion (and advances in technology) has revealed in the years since it was legalized.

    Easy divorce has been similar – we can see the carnage first-hand.

    It may be, in part, a “We told you so” position, but we are stronger for having said so, and openly, as well as pointing to the many times that we have similarly warned, and been ignored, and been right.

    That said, I am mindful of the callousness that comes from losing these battles over and over again. If you had told abortion advocates 45 years ago, that “If abortion us legalized, abortionists will traffick in human body parts,” they would have called you an extremist hysteric. Now, when that truth is exposed, they shrug.

    Christ expects us to fight, in every way that we can. There is no shame in losing, but eternal shame in not trying.

  • VisPacem

    Do those who post essays on this site respond to questions and observations posted from persons who bother to read your essays, or do you think such an unworthy waste of your time?

    • TriciaCT

      Try commenting to Peter on his FB page, and maybe he will have time for a response to you. He is an extremely busy man, as well as father!

  • Howard

    I believe you would agree that in th last two presidential elections, at least, the results went against those who want a society properly oriented towards God. (I strongly suspect the same would be true, though perhaps less markedly, had the other party won.) Because these results were unthinkable, you of course immediately began plotting to put barrels of gunpowder under the Capitol Building, so that when the President came to address Congress at the State of the Union Address, BOOM!!! You would solve that problem. Right?

    Of course not.

    Well, then, since God abandoned you in your political wishes, either He must not exist, or must not be all-powerful, or must not be all-good; in any event, you would be correct to abandon Him, right?

    Of course not.

    No, what you really did was to do what small things you could to prop up a society that is rapidly collapsing around you, while at the same time acknowledging defeat (at least for a time) in the political sphere, recognizing that there was nothing you could do about it for at least a few years, and reiterating that “as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”

    In other words, you have been living the Benedict Option, at least as I understand it.

    Put not your hope in princes — nor in candidates, political parties, or even systems of government. That’s pretty basic, and you forget it at your peril.

    • VisPacem

      There is an ancient adage that one ought pray as though all depends on GOD and act as though all depends on oneself. It is rooted in sound metaphysics and Theology.

      By doing all that one can in order to AFFECT how and when and whether there is a collapse or decline, one is doing what one ought before the Creator and as the Creator’s servant.
      One ought do all within one’s power to avert as many sufferings and the intensity of sufferings that might befall others, one’s own, and oneself.

      So, just as my ancestors during the centuries of decline of Rome made alliances with not necessarily or particularly virtuous tribes or personages, so too will I.

      It is my obligation. To NOT do so is to FAIL to put one’s hope in God, Who has given me (and others) the power to affect our destiny.

      To fail to act is to tempt God and detract from His power, which has been implanted within his created order, including oneself.

      So, no, semi-Jansenist admonitions have no weight in my view, least of all in times of crisis.

      • Howard

        So, I guess you will hold your nose and vote for Trump, because “success” is so important to you, and you like to imagine that you are somewhat in control of the country.

        I will not. I know I have already lost the 2016 election. I live in West Virginia, which will certainly go for Trump (due mostly to Clinton’s statements about coal), and I expect Clinton to win the general election by double digits in the popular vote. However, I will not have my vote be interpreted as an endorsement of either of those scoundrels. I will vote for Darrell Castle, who may not be perfect but who is, I think, at least an honorable option. I know that this will not change the course of the country, but then no vote I could cast would have that effect. At least my vote can be honest.

        It might be worth looking at the last century of American history. As it is usually told, before Vatican II and the presidency of John F. Kennedy, Catholics were much less engaged with the World; yet in the USA, they were increasingly respected and influential. After the early 1960’s, Catholics went in a big way for engagement with the World. This same period has seen practically all distinction between Catholics and the World disappear along with priestly and religious vocations; it has also seen a collapse in the nation’s basic understanding of ethics that would have been inconceivable to previous generations.

        Your approach has been tried for fifty years and has produced nothing but failure.

        • VisPacem

          I assure you that my vote for Trump will be “honest” as well.

          As for Catholics being engaged with “the world,” the only thing that shifted markedly in the early 1960’s was that many befell subject to identifying (fallaciously) natural law and the Church’s teachings with the principles espoused by those who advocated ever expansive plutocratic centralized governments in the service of a rampant secularism.

          To see the possibility of utilizing Trump as an instrument to disrupt these trends is not unreasonable, nor is it at all immoral. To the degree such succeeds at all, it will give political “space” (and time) so that persons and families at the local levels might be able to live more fully in accord with natural law principles, and for Catholics, to live more in accord with orthodoxy and orthopraxis.

          If I may illustrate what I mean, imagine we live in a walled city, imperfect though it may be, and it is under an overwhelming siege. If I choose to fire my weapon in vain in the air because I judge the city unworthy of being saved, I do not judge that act to have been in accord with well-founded principles.

          It might permit me to feel self-righteous for an instant, but I shall always know I did not do all I could and ought to have done to avert the evils that will befall many around me.

          There is no perfect “city” nor is there any “perfect” time. Yet one must do what is good and true wherever and whenever one acts.

          • Howard

            I’m don’t think we’re approaching any conclusion, and I have other things I should be doing, so I’ll be brief and then let it go.

            It’s a bit ironic that the author was trying to bemoan “the Benedict option” for giving us Trump, yet you are embracing him for exactly the opposite reason. At any rate, I do not share any optimism about Trump, and yet if my read of the situation is right, he will lose decisively and neither of our guesses as to how he might govern will be tested.

            But to sum up, it is a false dilemma to think that we either have to engage fully and hope for earthly success or despair of any earthly success and disengage fully. Another option is to engage with the world at arm’s length without any certainty of deep or lasting earthly success — to play BOTH offense AND defense, and to use BOTH the sword AND the buckler. That is my plan.

      • Howard

        “It is my obligation. To NOT do so is to FAIL to put one’s hope in God,”

        By the way, there is a sense that what you say is true. It is the same sense used by the various adherents of “prosperity theology” that they should “put their hope in God” that he will give them a boatload of cash. The problem is that the theological virtue of hope has nothing to do with wampum.

        Nor does it have anything to do with the creation of an earthly paradise. We are told explicitly that this is not going to happen until Christ returns.

        So yeah, I suppose it does indicate a failure to hope that God will give you something He never said He would.

        • VisPacem

          You are misconstruing my very words and their intention.
          I never mentioned any concern with “prosperity theology” or fiscal wealth.
          If you wish to discuss with someone an issue, consider their words and sentences carefully, noting not only what is said, but also what is deemed irrelevant and remains unsaid.
          Best regards.

          • Howard

            I never said you adhered to the “prosperity gospel”. I said you were making an analogous mistake. God tells us to hope for eternal salvation. He does not tell us to hope that we can, to any great extent, make this world in the image of Heaven.

          • VisPacem

            Well, actually each person is the “image” of the Eternal Trinity, while all other things in some way offer a semblance of some perfection caused to be by the Creator Trinity.

            Placing one’s hope solely in the Trinity (to the Father through Jesus Christ in union with graces bestowed by the Holy Spirit) in no way absolves one from doing everything within one’s power to affect what occurs in this life.

            It is our obligation to try to bring all things to what is true and good, insofar as such is in our ability. And at times that means conserving what is true and good from evil persons intent on destroying such, sometimes accepting the fact that the only way to do that is to use something imperfect, so long as it does not unqualifiedly make us evil or directly promote evil.

            Again, I respect your liberty to act according to your best judgment concerning what you see as the right thing to do. I think we agree on many things, but we seem to disagree on the means or how to promote or conserve those things.

            Best regards.

  • matt

    Thanks, Vis Pacem, for your thoughts. The current presidential race is not a stain on a pristine linen. We live in an a country that is now arbitrarily the seat of a global empire, in the same way that companies are incorporated in Delaware because of its tax law, not because they love Delaware. The Oligarchs don’t really care about daily life in the USA. It’s just a base of operations. However easy we have it materially, we are not really self governing. Trump is a blowhard, sure, but this isn’t the real reason the two major parties are freaking out. It’s just that he’s not a card-carrying member of one of the ruling clubs. Does anyone really think that the ruling clubs would risk US foreign policy changing every 4 years? Whatever the outcome of the election, our worry shouldn’t be populism, but WWIII or another Cold War with Russia. Benedict fled to the desert before founding Monte Cassino. If there is a real Benedict Option, it’s fleeing to the “desert” of refusing to believe in an English/Scottish materialistic view of the universe and then returning to wage that fight wherever you find yourself, with whatever allies God gives you.

  • Kurt 20008

    Hitler was very effectively kept out of power because the Catholics joined with the Socialists and Liberals to form an anti-totalitarian coalition, while respecting the differences within the coalition on important issues such as abortion and gay rights. While this worked through the Weimer period, growing polarization made it necessary to invite the Conservative Party into the coalition. They refused and instead formed a minority government with the Nazis, leading to the tragic path that history took.

    • DLink

      Hitler could also been kept out of power had Catholic Workers allied with the Prussian Junkers. Not having learned the lessons of WW I, the Junkers, mostly Lutheran, declined. The rest, as they say, is history.

  • Justin Chance Allen

    You might also consider that the lack of a real religious left in America also prevents Christians from having a real alternative when someone like Trump becomes the nominee or a real option to move to when the best the part can offer is Trump or Cruz.

  • NDaniels

    “The best defense is a good offense.”

    What we are witnessing is a Great Falling Away due to those who desire to serve for The Common Ground rather than The Common Good. What we are witnessing, is a recycling of The Arian Heresy, due to those, including a multitude who profess to be Christian, who deny The Divinity of The Word of God, and the truth about the essence of the human person, who, from the moment of conception, has been created in The Image and Likeness of God, equal in Dignity, while being complementary as a beloved son or daughter, Willed by God, worthy of Redemption. What we are witnessing, is the objectification of the human person, and the reordering of man according to sexual desire/inclination/orientation, due to those who desire to compromise or deny The Word of God, rather than Behold The Lamb Of God.

    The best offense, is a good defense. We must continue to challenge the issues of the day, in the light of our Catholic Faith and not be afraid to tell our beloved It is because we Love you, and respect your Dignity as a beloved son or daughter, that we cannot condone the engaging in or affirmation of any act, including any sexual act that demeans your inherent Dignity as a beloved son or daughter. The desire to engage in a demeaning act of any nature, does not change the nature of the act. We Love you, and because we Love you, we desire that you will always be treated with, and will always treat others with Dignity and respect in private as well as in public. We will not tolerate the engaging in or condoning of sexual behavior that does not reflect the upmost respect for the human person, as a beloved son or daughter.

    We cannot be lukewarm.

  • byrneb

    They blamed the Christians when Rome burned.