A sur­vival guide for our un­moored, ‘post-Chris­tian’ na­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY CHRIS­TINE EMBA The writer ed­its The Post’s In The­ory blog.

“No one saw the Great Flood com­ing,” the first chap­ter omi­nously be­gins. In “The Bene­dict Op­tion,” a muchdis­cussed new book de­scrib­ing it­self as “a strat­egy for Chris­tians in a post-Chris­tian na­tion,” au­thor Rod Dre­her ex­plores the im­pli­ca­tions of the cas­cade of Amer­i­cans leav­ing or­ga­nized re­li­gion — the num­ber of re­li­giously non­af­fil­i­ated climbed to 23 per­cent in 2014 from 16 per­cent in 2007 — and the squeez­ing out of tra­di­tion­ally minded Chris­tians from pub­lic life.

The book’s ver­dict on to­day’s cul­ture is grim. Draw­ing from the work of philoso­pher Alas­dair MacIn­tyre, Dre­her de­scribes mod­ern so­ci­ety as “gov­erned not by faith, or by rea­son, or by any com­bi­na­tion of the two.” The pic­ture is of an Amer­ica deep in the grip of an un­sta­ble late moder­nity, a so­ci­ety that has be­come chaotic, frag­mented, dis­so­lute and in­creas­ingly hos­tile to tra­di­tion­ally minded Chris­tians.

True, some of the book’s de­scrip­tions of im­mi­nent per­se­cu­tion and a fast-ap­proach­ing End of the West are over­wrought, and it’s writ­ten to ap­peal first and fore­most to a con­ser­va­tive, re­li­gious au­di­ence. But the ob­ser­va­tions and ad­vice of­fered in “The Bene­dict Op­tion” shouldn’t be shrugged off by ev­ery­one else. In fact, they ought to be thought­fully con­sid­ered by any­one wor­ried about cre­at­ing and pre­serv­ing a healthy U.S. so­ci­ety, whether they spend Sun­days at brunch or in the pews.

Many of the con­tent­edly pro­gres­sive would like to think that back­ing away from the stric­tures of re­li­gion has done our coun­try a world of good. In fact, the op­po­site may be true. For one thing, there’s the mat­ter of sim­ple so­cial co­he­sion: In­creas­ing sec­u­lar­iza­tion can of­ten lead to less tol­er­ance, not more. As Amer­i­cans on the right and left un­tether them­selves from the stan­dards of or­ga­nized re­li­gion, they of­ten re­draw their al­le­giances more broadly, ral­ly­ing around iden­ti­ties of race or na­tion­al­ism while set­ting aside tem­per­ing ideals such as char­ity and for­give­ness. Think of the alt-right, the small, far-right move­ment that seeks a whites-only state, sus­pi­cious of Chris­tian­ity be­cause of its ac­cep­tance of many groups, or vi­o­lent pro­test­ers on the left, more in­ter­ested in tear­ing down their op­po­nents than seek­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. Such at­ti­tudes lead to a more par­ti­san pol­i­tics and more vi­cious pub­lic life.

On an in­di­vid­ual level, be­com­ing in­creas­ingly un­moored from tra­di­tions and norms leads more fre­quently to neg­a­tive out­comes than pos­i­tive ones. Wit­ness the sharply grow­ing num­bers of mid­dle-age, work­ing-class Amer­i­cans — those most likely to have lost their con­nec­tions to the habits and sup­port sys­tems re­li­gious en­gage­ment tends to build — dy­ing from what re­searchers are call­ing “deaths of de­spair”: enough of them to lower U.S. life ex­pectancy for the first time in decades.

It’s not nec­es­sar­ily true that Chris­tian com­mu­ni­ties are flour­ish­ing in con­trast to the rest of so­ci­ety; in fact, it’s a ma­jor con­ceit of the book that most are not. But in the face of the great un­moor­ing, Dre­her ad­vo­cates that those who are se­ri­ous about their faith act to em­brace a sort of “ex­ile in place” and com­mit to strength­en­ing their fam­i­lies, churches and schools, form­ing a vi­brant coun­ter­cul­ture that will pre­serve Chris­tian­ity de­spite a ris­ing tide of sec­u­lar­ism. His strate­gies for do­ing so would also ben­e­fit so­ci­ety at large.

The ti­tle of “The Bene­dict Op­tion” is in­spired by St. Bene­dict of Nur­sia, who founded the West­ern tra­di­tion of monas­ti­cism after leav­ing a fallen Rome in the 6th cen­tury. Bene­dict’s Rule — orig­i­nally for monks, but sug­gested in the book for the ev­ery­day Chris­tian — in­volves an em­brace of com­mu­nity, sta­bil­ity and hospi­tal­ity along­side a thought­ful or­der­ing of one’s days. Meet the neigh­bors; cre­ate an­chors of place; fos­ter struc­tures of per­sonal dis­ci­pline. Any of th­ese would ben­e­fit be­liev­ers and non­be­liev­ers alike as anomie and lone­li­ness be­come both more com­mon and more deadly.

Other strate­gies for os­ten­si­bly Chris­tian sur­vival are sim­i­larly rel­e­vant to a broader au­di­ence. Ad­dress­ing our at­ti­tudes to­ward work, Dre­her pro­poses de­pri­or­i­tiz­ing head­long pro­fes­sional ad­vance­ment in fa­vor of a more bal­anced, in­te­grated life in which faith and com­mu­nity take prece­dence. This is worth con­sid­er­ing even if faith isn’t a fac­tor: Shift­ing work from the cen­ter of our ex­is­tence would al­low more space for fam­ily, com­mu­nity and our own men­tal health, and would leave us less sus­cep­ti­ble to the rav­ages of an un­feel­ing mar­ket.

The book also makes a fas­ci­nat­ing case for re­think­ing our po­lit­i­cal life. Dre­her urges Chris­tians to rec­og­nize that con­ven­tional pol­i­tics won’t save them and that the cur­rent sys­tem is fun­da­men­tally in­ad­e­quate to the chal­lenge of fix­ing the big­ger prob­lems of so­ci­ety and cul­ture. His al­ter­na­tive is one we could all em­brace: Do what can pru­dently be done within the ex­ist­ing or­der, but di­rect more at­ten­tion to cre­at­ing par­al­lel struc­tures that will bet­ter serve so­ci­ety. Turn off the TV and log off Twit­ter, and in­stead join the vol­un­teer fire depart­ment. Rather than de­pend­ing on ma­jor par­ties to de­fend your val­ues, con­sider the power of or­di­nary change.

To some, the premise of “The Bene­dict Op­tion” — that Chris­tian­ity in the United States is in danger of dis­ap­pear­ing — may elicit a shrug. But in the face of a ris­ing tide of iso­lat­ing moder­nity, Dre­her’s sur­vival strate­gies are rel­e­vant to us all.

“The Bene­dict Op­tion” shouldn’t be shrugged off. In fact, it ought to be thought­fully con­sid­ered by any­one, whether they spend Sun­days at brunch or in the pews.

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