An atheist and a Christian review ‘The Benedict Option,’ a guide to hiding from queer people

Rod Dreher’s new book demonstrates how committed conservatives are to opposing LGBT equality.

CREDIT: YouTube/Screenshot
CREDIT: YouTube/Screenshot

Jack Jenkins is ThinkProgress’ Senior Religion Reporter and has a Master’s of Divinity from Harvard University. Zack Ford is ThinkProgress’ LGBT Editor and an out and proud atheist who has spoken at various secular conferences nationwide. This week, they read The Benedict Option, a new book from conservative blogger Rod Dreher about how conservative Christians can form intentional communities to reinforce their sexual ethics. This is a slightly edited version of the conversation that followed.

Zack Ford: Okay Jack, who is Rod Dreher and why did I just read this terrifying book, The Benedict Option?

Jack Jenkins: Dreher is a conservative author and senior editor over at the American Conservative (where, I should mention, some friends of mine have worked). He was raised Methodist, but eventually converted to Catholicism, only to convert again to Eastern Orthodoxy in the wake of the Catholic sex abuse scandal. He’s all about converting, apparently.

This is relevant because back in 2002, Dreher tried to blame the abuse scandal on “unchaste or criminal homosexuals in the Catholic priesthood,” a group he referred to as the “Lavender mafia.” It would seem Dreher’s idea of insightful cultural commentary roughly amounted to “let’s blame gay people!”

If this book is any indication, he hasn’t changed much. As for the second part of your question: I’m gonna go with masochism.

ZF: I would say that’s generally out of character for me, but maybe not. Pretty much all I knew about Dreher before this was that he blocked me on Twitter at some point, but I’ve certainly seen conservatives buzzing about The Benedict Option.

Following my cover-to-cover read, my takeaway is that he wants Christians — by which he means only those who share his conservative sexual ethics (i.e. not you, you moralistic therapeutic deist, you) — to withdraw from society and form cult-like communes for the sole purpose of rejecting queer people and “the toxins of modern secularism” (i.e. me). As a gay atheist, this book made me feel like I’m apparently a very powerful villain just because I can legally marry now. Did I miss anything? Am I overreading it?

JJ: I’d push back on your use of the term “cult,” which has a myriad of contested meanings both culturally and academically. But the overall gist — i.e., the supposedly “novel” push for people like himself to retreat from mainstream society, the rabid opposition to certain forms of secularism, the repeated implication that Mainline Christians like myself aren’t really Christians — seems about right.

It’s also worth noting that Dreher has been nursing this idea for a while now, and the conservative conversation around it has been muttering along since 2015.

ZF: Well there’s a classic atheist joke: “What’s the difference between a religion and a cult?” There are various punchlines, but the most common is: “how many followers it has.” Granting the joke’s premise, Dreher seems to advocate going in the other direction, creating culturally isolated, self-reinforcing communities that reject prevailing social norms in pursuit of a narrow set of beliefs that dictate every minute of their lives. I mean, if that’s not the basic vernacular definition of a cult, I don’t know what is. He’s so convinced that the rise of LGBT equality has turned “Christians” into a persecuted minority that he actually wants to will their minority status into existence.

Nevertheless, I’m still surprised there’s so much buzz around this book. The idea of withdrawing from society — including from politics — seems so anathema to many of the religious conservatives who are excited by Dreher’s ideas. What’s the appeal here?

JJ: You have to remember that modern white evangelicals and conservative Catholics, especially the brand that Dreher is preaching to in this book, have long trumpeted the idea that they are a “persecuted” people. For years now, Religious Right leaders have insisted their flocks are somehow a “counter-cultural” force in America (in an overwhelmingly Christian nation), and their way of life is under attack by Hollywood, liberals, and basically anyone who doesn’t think like them — including their fellow Christians.

But the ferocity of this sentiment has been exacerbated in recent years, coinciding with the accelerated push to provide equal rights to LGBTQ people. After years of fighting against this, things came to a head in 2015, when the Supreme Court ruled on Obergefell v. Hodges, bringing marriage equality to the entire country.

ZF: Technically, Dreher claims that things “came to a head” a few months before Obergefell, when some of the nation’s biggest companies turned on Indiana for trying to pass its anti-LGBT “religious freedom” law. He then described Obergefell as “the Waterloo of religious conservatism.” Despite the fact we LGBT folks still don’t have secure nondiscrimination protections in employment, housing, and public accommodations in more than half the states — and states are still passing laws to license discrimination against us — we’ve apparently won the culture war.

“Post-Obergefell,” Dreher opines, “Christians who hold to the biblical teaching about sex and marriage have the same status in culture, and increasingly in law, as racists.” I actually agreed with this statement, though not with the same sentiments that motivated him to write it. Dreher complains that after Indiana, “professing orthodox biblical Christianity on sexual matters was now thought to be evidence of intolerable bigotry.”

As an example of this anti-Christian persecution, Dreher cites the case of philosopher Richard Swinburne, who last year, as Dreher described it, was “publicly assailed… as a bigot for briefly defending the orthodox Christian teaching on homosexuality.” What Swinburne actually said was that homosexuality is a “disability” and an “incurable condition,” urging “older and incurable homosexuals” to abstain from sex, because that would be “a great service” to “young and curable ones.” I’m always amazed by conservatives’ cognitive dissonance; believe it or not, you can hold an idea in your head that is both a convicted religious belief and intolerable bigotry — not to mention factually wrong!

But this is the ultimatum at the root of Dreher’s argument. It’s more important for him to honor his faith than it is for him to not be bigoted, and so he wants to create communities in which he can have his wedding-cake-for-straights-only and eat it too. I think a lot of the conservative Christians praising his book appreciate the idealism of such a community, but I’ve also seen some criticizing him for conceding defeat. And to be honest, I don’t really buy it anyway. I just can’t imagine them giving up their fight, certainly not seeing how emboldened they are by Trump’s election to pass more “religious freedom” and blatantly anti-transgender bills.

JJ: Yeah, I’m not expecting his grand plan to catch fire in any practical sense. The Religious Right is certainly grappling with some infighting at the moment, but they’re not going away anytime soon — and neither is their political agenda. For example: Jerry Falwell Jr., president of the conservative Christian school Liberty University and prominent right-wing Christian leader, has been tapped to lead Trump’s education task force. I highly doubt he’s going to start endorsing conservative Christian intentional communities that avoid politics. I also don’t expect the 80 percent of white evangelicals who voted for Trump to suddenly grab their tents and begin trading in iPhones for butter churns.

ZF: To be fair, he’s not advocating everyone abandon electricity like the Amish. Though he insists suffering makes for better Christians, he doesn’t appear to have given up on refrigeration or grocery stores.

JJ: Right, although he seems really into Benedict’s time in the wilderness.

For years now, Religious Right leaders have insisted their flocks are somehow a ‘counter-cultural’ force in America (in an overwhelmingly Christian nation), and their way of life is under attack by Hollywood, liberals, and basically anyone who doesn’t think like them — including their fellow Christians.

Dreher might think conservative political crusaders are fighting “unwinnable political battles,” but I’m not sure many agree with him. And even if they did, I doubt his Benedictine communities could ever achieve his dreams. He offers different examples for how these communities could work in practice, but all involve some aspect of asceticism — the idea is to be removed from society. That seems suspect: does he really think an evangelical community in rural Ohio is somehow going to extricate itself from the debate over LGBT rights? Are evangelical kids going to be able to just grow up without being exposed to the leveling force that is the internet, disconnected from American culture at large?

ZF: I mean, that’s not even the most extreme outcome! Dreher specifically calls on those who are committed to Benedict Option communities to sacrifice educations and careers to avoid having to function in environments that might require affirming LGBT people. “A young Christian who dreams of being a lawyer or doctor might have to abandon that hope and enter a career in which she makes far less money than a lawyer or doctor would,” he writes. “An aspiring Christian academic might have to be happy with the smaller salary and lower prestige of teaching at a classical Christian high school.” I’m not really surprised by the indoctrination mentality of limiting one’s education to a Biblical framework, but how can anyone argue that having fewer doctors is a good thing for any community?

JJ: Yeah, I think this is all wrapped up in Dreher’s dream of creating a sort of shadow conservative Christian society. As he puts it: “Rather than wasting energy resources fighting unwinnable battles, we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation.”

ZF: As if it’s all Christian turf and secular values are just intruding. I’m sure as a big Star Wars fan you also appreciated all his references to the “Empire” and his desire to live outside of it.

JJ: I wonder if he knows that Star Wars has gay characters now.

But setting aside the profound irony of a white American Christian referring to people fighting for LGBT rights as “occupiers,” modern conservative Christians aren’t the first religious group to try this. When Mormonism founder Joseph Smith was assassinated during his campaign for President of the United States (which is an actual thing that happened), most of his followers eventually packed up and moved to the American west, hoping to found their own society. But there is no modern frontier for conservatives like Dreher to move to (and, if they’re following this historical model, subjugate). What’s more, the Mormon example makes it clear that you can only avoid the siren song of politics for so long (e.g., any number of Mormon politicians).

Dreher, for his part, has likened his plan to the Orthodox Jewish community. But a more analogous historical example comes from the early 20th century. His progenitors were called “Fundamentalists” back then, a group that grew increasingly frustrated after a series of very public political defeats over issues such as prohibition. Their enemies weren’t “secularists” at the time, but so-called “Modernists” — mostly “liberal” Mainline Christians who deeply valued social justice and didn’t see science as incompatible with faith.

In other words: my people.

ZF: Dreher objects to modernists too. It’s almost as if modernity is always going to be the enemy of millennium-old ideas.

JJ: Well, it’s certainly why he implicitly refers to Mainliners disparagingly as “moralistic therapeutic deists,” and often uses the term “Christians” in a way that excludes, well, millions of Christians.

Anyway, the Modernists kept winning, so Fundamentalists eventually largely retreated from public debates and formed new religious institutions: their own schools, their own publishing companies, and their own church organizations. The National Association of Evangelicals was created at this time to challenge the National Council of Churches, which was seen as too liberal and too in accommodating of society.

This kept them out of the spotlight for a while, but Fundamentalists came roaring back in the 1950s and 1960s during the Red Scare (communists were seen as Godless heathens). This time they were reorganized and under a new moniker: evangelicals.

ZF: And suddenly our motto was “In God We Trust” instead of “E Pluribus Unum.” Dreher doesn’t want to become one with the many; he wants to get as far away from the many as he can.

JJ: Look Zack: I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who were converted to Christianity after looking at the back of the a quarter.

ZF: That’s why I always try to use a credit card.

JJ: I think the “regroup and come back stronger” strategy is close to what Dreher is actually doing here, intentionally or otherwise.

Well, that, and attempting to build a sub-civilization where LGBTQ people apparently just…don’t exist?

ZF: Right, and this is why I opened our discussion calling the book “terrifying.” Your prediction that a Benedict hibernation might lead to a stronger evangelical movement in the future is disconcerting, but I’m far more worried about what happens in the meantime. Even the most perfect Benedict Option community is going to have queer kids, and it’s not hard to imagine Dreher will end up with young queer blood on his hands.

For all the similarities with other civil rights movements, the LGBT community has a particularly distinguishing quality — what you might call a “spontaneity problem.” Though we know there are biological components to both sexual orientation and gender identity, we also know that these identities are not directly hereditary. We queer people just pop up anywhere and everywhere. And if you stop and think about it, this quality is a defining feature of the entire LGBT movement.

JJ: Oh Zack, clearly you’re just not as enlightened as Dreher. For him, the LGBT movement isn’t about “civil rights.” It’s just natural product of Romanticism — selfish, self-centered Romanticism — and the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s.

ZF: You sure about that? He’s not too keen on the Enlightenment, because it “displaced the Christian religion with the cult of Reason, privatized religious life, and inaugurated the age of democracy.” It also opened the doors for the LGBT movement we know today.

We know queer people have always existed throughout history, but it’s not a coincidence that it took the rise of industry, mass transportation, psychology, and the information age for a gay rights movements and trans rights movements to form. We queer people have always been born into isolation, searching in the dark for explanations for why our human experience is so different from everyone around us. It wasn’t until psychologists started researching who we are (no matter how wrong they’ve been along the way); mass production allowed us to distribute newsletters across the country; and mass transportation allowed those of us who found those newsletters to migrate to cities and find community that we actually saw a movement coalesce. The internet has exponentially increased our ability to learn about ourselves, find others like us, and access resources that might not exist in our immediate geographic vicinity.

JJ: Herein lies the subtle subversiveness of Dreher’s book: I don’t think he would argue with any of the facts you just outlined. But he would challenge what they mean.

For Dreher, psychologists like Sigmund Freud “replaced” religion with a worship of the self, or specifically a “deity to replace the Christian religion,” as did scientists who championed humanity’s capacity to influence the world. Dreher returns to this criticism of “self” again and again, lamenting the supposed re-centering of Western civilization away from Christianity and onto a distinctly secular form of individualism. This, he argues, is where everything went wrong.

It’s more important for him to honor his faith than it is for him to not be bigoted, and so he wants to create communities in which he can have his wedding-cake-for-straights-only and eat it too.

But Dreher isn’t remotely consistent on this point, and thus gives away his true intentions: There is very, very little criticism of the conservative “bootstraps” individualism in this book, and he says even less about the economic theory that most benefits from a self-focused mentality — capitalism. Instead, he insists the clearest example of Western society’s selfishness is the acceptance of LGBTQ people, because that, apparently, is the single worst affront to “orthodox Christianity.”

ZF: And though Dreher bridles at this progress, the spontaneity problem continues to explain the high rates of mental health issues that we know the queer community still experiences. The growing universality of LGBT equality has outpaced the growing universality of education about LGBT identities. Thus, queer people born into families and communities with less awareness about what that means can expect a guaranteed set of challenges.

A wealth of research bears this out. We know that when a young person comes out, how their family reacts to that news is the biggest factor in determining their future mental health outcome. We know that bullying and peer rejection can also have significant consequences. Being part of a faith community that rejects your sexual orientation or gender identity is also damaging. And even being queer in a community that’s just generally conservative can cut years off your life.

Dreher wants to set up communities with the odds stacked against the queer kids that will surely be born into them. He doesn’t want kids to have any access to what the world has actually learned about LGBT identities over the past century. He wants church, school, families, workplaces, and every aspect of life to be oriented against the very existence of LGBT lives. He almost seems to believe that if he can erase LGBT people, he can prevent LGBT people. This isn’t an exaggeration; as we saw from the recent 20/20 exposé on ex-gay camps, many isolated religious communities already embrace that idea literally — trying to beat the homosexuality out of kids.

It’s interesting how Dreher describes LGBT equality as the primary impetus for Benedictine living while avoiding talking too much in depth about LGBT identities, but his ignorance still shines through. He describes “transgendered” [sic] people by saying they “refuse to be bound by biology and have behind them an elite movement teaching new generations that gender is whatever the choosing individual wants it to be.” At another point, he suggests that being trans or bisexual is just a teenage fad that parents can nip in the bud if they “do what’s necessary to protect their children from forms of disordered sexuality accepted by mainstream American youth culture.” And of course, he calls homosexuality a sin, a message we know has its own set of consequences for every queer person who hears it.

JJ: It’s also a claim that literally millions of Christians (including entire denominations) disagree with. But Dreher repeatedly states it as if it were an unimpeachable fact that all Christians believe.

I want to take a moment to note something important: Dreher’s conception of “orthodox” Christianity in this book is popular among right-wing believers, but it’s largely ahistorical. Conservative culture warriors have insisted for a couple of decades now that a core component of Christianity — if not THE core component — is opposition to homosexual relationships and virtually all queer identities. The implicit argument throughout this book is that Christian debate over economics and divorce — things Jesus gives explicit instructions about — are permissible, but any discussion of LGBT identities — things Jesus either didn’t talk about or implicitly endorsed, depending on who you ask — is a red line for orthodox Christians.

That is patently false, and Dreher’s use of “orthodox” is dubious.

Granted, debates over orthodoxy are as old as Christianity itself. Regardless, that’s clearly the theological worldview he wants taught in Benedict Option communities.

ZF: And let’s be clear, Benedict Option communities would, by definition and intention, reinforce these ignorances to create a living Hell for queer kids. I dread how much self-harm might result as those mental health consequences stack up, at least until the kids can escape and find a society that understands and respects them for who they are — if they escape. I doubt Dreher even comprehends how many broken families and teenage funerals he’ll be responsible for.

The implicit argument throughout this book is that Christian debate over economics and divorce — things Jesus gives explicit instructions about — are permissible, but any discussion of LGBT identities — things Jesus either didn’t talk about or implicitly endorsed, depending on who you ask — is a red line light for orthodox Christians.

JJ: I don’t think he’d bear the sole blame for such things (religiously fueled homophobia, as you note, has a long history). But this all kind of assumes that any of this will catch on, or that it will have any sustained impact. The book has certainly sparked a lively conversation among conservatives, but it remains to be seen how many will willingly embark on his experiment.

I mean, can something like this really work?

ZF: Well, I really had to laugh at one of the examples Dreher provided of a community already primed for Benedict-Option living: the rural Catholic enclave of Elk County, Pennsylvania. I know Elk County well, particularly its biggest “city,” St. Mary’s (pop. 13,070), because it’s my mom’s hometown and I’ve visited it frequently throughout my life. She and her 11 siblings went to 12 years of “the great Catholic school system” Dreher describes, and my grandfather worked in one of the carbon factories Dreher lauds — one of two full-time jobs he had to support his 12 kids. For many years, our big family even held its Christmas celebration in the basement of the Benedictine Convent (yes, that Benedict!); I spent many nights in the convent’s guest house. My father, who’s an architect, even did a feasibility study for the convent. Unfortunately (for Dreher), the convent closed in 2014 due to dwindling numbers — there were only 17 nuns left at that point, the youngest of whom was 58 at the time.

JJ: Does that…make you a hipster Benedictine Christian? You tried it (and left it) before it was cool?

ZF: Not quite, but I’m not unfamiliar. I showed my mom, Mary Jo, what Dreher wrote about her hometown and asked her whether she thinks it’s a good place for the kind of communal living he idealized. “No,” she said emphatically.

For one, many of the factories have closed, and those that remain, like the paper mill in nearby Johnsonburg, require college degrees for many of their positions. The ascetic manual labor life Dreher fawns over wouldn’t be quite as accessible as he imagines. It’s also not as cheap a place to live as he describes, with housing prices only being low because of the recent recession. “There are million-dollar homes in St. Mary’s,” my mom noted.

But the biggest problem with Dreher’s vision is that even St. Mary’s, despite its isolation (and let me tell you, it’s very isolated), is not nearly as Catholic or conservative as it used to be. “There are many other religions, and people are respectful of each other’s churches,” my mom explained. “There are young people — but even people my age, baby boomers, who don’t always prescribe to what the church is teaching. So I don’t know that that would draw me or anyone to go there.”

Likewise, she pointed out that Elk County isn’t even as conservative as Dreher dreams. For example, during the 2008 primaries, Bill Clinton actually visited St. Mary’s, and hundreds of people eagerly came out to see him. He was still campaigning for Hillary at the time, but nevertheless, Elk County was one of the only northern counties across Pennsylvania that went on to support Barack Obama in the general election that year. Mom also said that from her own experience, gay people do, in fact, live in Elk County and are generally supported by the active church communities there. (I can attest that I’ve talked to several of them on Grindr during my visits.)

“I don’t think St. Mary’s is a panacea for a religious cult,” my mom told me, without me feeding her that word at any point in our conversation. (Like mother, like son, I guess.)

I don’t know if that dashes Dreher’s hopes or not, but it sure made me think that what he’s offering is more of an idealized pipe dream than an actual realistic plan for monastic life.

JJ: Agreed, which brings back to our original question: what exactly is this book?

From where I sit, the truly fascinating aspect of the The Benedict Option isn’t reher’s monastic fever dream, but the fact that conservatives are even willing to talk about it. For his largely conservative Christian audience, opposition to LGBTQ equality is showing itself to be a uniquely powerful motivator; like Dreher, millions are apparently willing to dismiss fellow Christians who support equality, refuse to solemnize the marriage certificates of same-sex couples, and ultimately back a presidential candidate that makes them uneasy (Trump) so long as they promise to defend their vision of “religious liberty.”

And some, it seems, are even ready to retreat from the modern world to avoid the impact of LGBTQ equality — or at least talk about.

That’s not nothing, and progressives should take heed.

ZF: In that regard, I’m glad I read this book, because it was a bit too easy to laugh off the premise at first. You want to get out of the way of equality and just do your own thing? Go for it! But the reality is that conservative Christians don’t really want to withdraw from society; they’re just so dedicated to the cause of rejecting LGBT people that they’re humoring such extreme measures as a possible way to follow through on that commitment.

If Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion helped me understand my atheism so I could better articulate it to other people, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option sealed the deal for me that religious thinking can be a particularly dangerous force. Conservatives are doubling down on preserving their homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic beliefs, and queer kids will be caught in the crossfire of their ignorance. However quickly equality may seem to be progressing, the fight for our lives is far from over.

JJ: These discussions rarely end on a cheery note, do they?