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

By Peter Wolfgang
May 15, 2016

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.