Your book The Benedict Option [which calls on the faithful to step back from politics and embrace a traditional, Christian way of life] and recent books by RR Reno, Archbishop Charles Chaput and Anthony Esolen are based on the premise that Christian civilisation in America has reached a new low. Do you feel that you are in the vanguard of a fundamental reassessment of the standing and future of Christian culture in America?
ROD DREHER Without question. There is nothing coordinated about this, I hasten to say. We are simply taking stock of the direction of trends, and the wherewithal of American Christians to withstand them. The picture is disheartening. Nobody likes to hear bad news. Americans, with our congenital optimism, are especially resistant. But somebody has to say it. Perhaps the best thing I’ve done for this reassessment is to give it a name: the Benedict Option. Suddenly people pay attention, want to talk about it, fight about it, argue over it.
You position Christianity as the new “counterculture”. How do you think traditional Christians will react to occupying this kind of ground, which the Left would normally claim?
RD The vast majority of conservative Christians in America simply cannot fathom what it’s like to be a cultural minority, and struggle to accept the Benedict Option diagnosis because of that. Many of my fellow believers have this groundless faith that everything is going to work out for us, because, well, it has to. It’s a failure of imagination. Eventually reality will catch up with them. When it does, I am afraid that more than a few Christians will find some way to rationalise accommodating themselves to the anti-Christian order, because the idea of being an outsider terrifies them more than the fear of the Lord.
You picked up the idea of the “parallel polis” from the late Czech dissident Václav Benda. How would you assess the health of the parallel polis in America right now?
RD An English friend recently told me that the opportunities for creating a parallel polis in America are vastly better than in the UK, because people there [in Britain] look with deep suspicion on those who set themselves apart. In the US, we have a much greater tolerance for people who do their own thing. This has benefited the classical Christian school movement tremendously, and the homeschool movement. Those are the most complete expressions of the parallel polis that I can think of. We will need more of them.
You briefly refer to an experience you had in Chartes Cathedral. What happened to you in Chartres?
RD I was raised in a lukewarm Methodist family. As a teenager, I decided that Christianity was probably nonsense. When I was 17, my mother won a coach tour of Europe in a church raffle. She sent me, because she knew how much I wanted to go to Europe, especially Paris. I was a huge Hemingway fan.
The coach stopped in Chartres on its way to Paris. I didn’t want to go into another old church, but it was better than sitting on the bus alone. Nothing in my experience had prepared me for the grandeur of that cathedral. I had no categories for it. I stood there in complete awe, the presence of God conveyed to me through stone and glass. I recall deeply wanting to know the God to whose glory those anonymous craftsmen constructed such a temple. God was far greater than I had ever imagined, and Christianity far deeper.
The experience of awe was a tsunami that washed away my feeble rationalisations against Christianity. I was philosophically disoriented for years after that, but I eventually found my way to faith in my mid-twenties: the Roman Catholic faith.
Can you explain why you left Catholicism and converted to Eastern Orthodoxy? How would you characterise your relationship with Catholicism now?
RD I rushed into covering the clerical sex abuse story as an ardent Catholic, determined to uncover these crimes and help get justice for the victims and their families. A brave Catholic priest who had sacrificed his clerical career to stand up for victims told me that I would go to places darker than I could imagine. I thanked him for the warning, but told him that, as a journalist and as a faithful Catholic, I needed to do this.
He was right. I was a New York journalist at the time, and didn’t think of myself as easily shockable. But this thing was diabolical. I mean that literally: the layers and layers of lies and bullying to cover up for these devils who ought to have been defrocked and sent to jail, the depraved indifference to evil of these bishops. A faithful Catholic priest told me: “The only real explanation for it is that they do not believe in God.”
The day finally came when I simply no longer could believe as a Roman Catholic, nor could my wife. We knew that, ultimately, there would be little or no justice in this life for those victims and their victimisers. The breaking point was finding out that a couple of priests we trusted without question had compromised themselves, and lied about it.
I had always imagined that people lost their faith by arguing themselves out of it. That’s why I figured that as long as I had the arguments for Catholicism straight in my head, my faith could withstand anything. I learned in an excruciating way that that is not true. My faith was torn out of me. In retrospect, I can see that if I had not made my faith so intellectual, I might have held on.
As Catholics, the only place we could think of going was to the Orthodox Church. We knew without a doubt that Christ was fully present in the Eucharist there.
I can’t exaggerate the pain I suffered in losing my Catholic faith, though today I regard it as a severe mercy. I had been very prideful as a Catholic. I hero-worshipped the institutional Church. God broke me of that, and broke me hard. I have been Orthodox for 11 years. I cannot imagine being any other kind of Christian. After I gave up feeling responsible, somehow, for cleaning up the abuse scandal, I found that the things I first loved and cherished about the Catholic Church returned to me. I hope that my book in tribute to the Benedictine monks, especially the ones living today in Norcia, is a sign of the love and respect I have for Catholicism.
Does Europe stand in need of the Benedict Option just as much as the US?
RD Oh, much more so. However weakened our Christianity is in the US, we are in far better shape. I hope my book leads to committed Christians on both sides of the Atlantic helping each other, spiritually and otherwise. We have so much to learn from each other. Chartres, Durham, Salisbury, the Duomo in Florence: they are ours, too, as Christians of the West.
I’m delighted that so far I’ve made deals to have the book translated into French and into Czech, and I’ve received invitations from Scotland and Ireland to speak. Glory to God for that! The Benedict Option is for all believing Christians in the post-Christian West.
Finally, in your own daily life, what are the tangible things you do that mean you are living the Benedict Option? What would an outside observer see you do that would mark you out?
RD Julie and I have three children. The relationship our family has with media sets us apart from most Americans. Our two younger children, 13 and 10 years old, will not get smartphones until they are significantly older. Nor do they have internet access, unless they need to look something up, and ask our permission. We do not have cable TV, but have our television hooked up only to streaming services. We get to choose what our kids watch and when they watch it. What we’ve found is that our kids have become pretty eclectic, as we have opened up for them worlds that many kids don’t have.
You would be surprised, though, by how many Christian parents cannot bring themselves to say no to smartphones for their children. They are desperately afraid of being thought of as weirdos. Sorry, but that’s not going to work. If you’re going to do what you need to do to stay Christian, and raise Christian children and grandchildren, you’re going to have to be willing to let your freak flag fly.
Michael Duggan is a freelance writer.
Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is published by Sentinel, priced £20
This article first appeared in the April 28 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here