The Bible tells Christians to love their neighbors as they love themselves. But who is their neighbor? The man next door? Yes. The people who live across town? Surely. Those who live in another part of their country? Okay. People from another country who want to settle in their country? Erm…

Rod Dreher

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”  And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”  But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side.  So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’  Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

-Luke 10:25‭-‬37 ESV

The dilemmas posed by or facilitated by our modern world are vexing. The authors of the Bible could not anticipate a world in which human beings could create clones, build nuclear weapons, or move by the millions across the planet. While Rod Dreher has phrased his moral question in a way that invites heckling because it is virtually identical to that of the lawyer looking to justify himself before Jesus, he does identify a serious and difficult ethical dilemma: in a world where many Christians have the power to work and pray without ever leaving their homes or abandon their families to live on the other side of the world, how do we properly steward our resources and order our loves? What role do religion and nationality play in helping us understand our obligations to our fellow human beings? And finally, as Rod asks, “To what extent does charity require self-sacrifice?”

Neighbor, Culture, and Nation

We can begin with the question of nations, borders, and limited resources. As Christians, we do owe to Caesar what is Caesar’s and we ought not encourage lawbreaking unless it is in service to a higher law. However, the moral weight of national integrity is not particularly strong otherwise from a natural law or Biblical perspective. A very large portion of Scripture is dedicated to telling the stories of people who were migrating from one place to another, and the parts of the Old Testament that do speak highly of borders and walls describe God’s chosen people at an ebb in their military power keeping malicious invaders out so that they can survive as a people. Nehemiah, who demands that the rich sacrifice their profits to help their countrymen and fends off foreign-sponsored intrigue, is far more analogous to San Oscar Romero than to any current or former American president.

The defense of Israel’s borders in the Old Testament is intimately linked to the protection of Israel as God’s chosen people from outside nations and the judgment of God upon those nations, a theme that is transformed by the Great Commission as the Church becomes a kingdom of priests taking the Gospel to the outside nations. Our calling as believers is to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed, and we cannot disciple our children as Christians unless we are practicing that proclamation.

From a natural law and theological perspective, the issue is more straightforward but still limited. People are limited in their capacity to love, and we are born into families and communities that we are called to love first and foremost because of our proximity to them. God also created us in our different nations in order to glorify and enjoy him; the plurality of people glorify God with different ways of understanding and worshiping him. We are also able to better love and evangelize people with whom we share a culture and language.

These ends of our cultural differences guide our understanding of their value; one’s love for one’s nation is not an extension of one’s love for family or immediate neighbors so much as it is a love for other human beings that one is better equipped to love. Our love for our countrymen doesn’t occupy a particularly hallowed ethical space that automatically supersedes other loves. Matthew 25 and Galatians 6:10 would suggest that if one has any particular obligation to any other human being more than another, a person in need takes precedence over a person who is not in need and a fellow Christian of any nationality takes precedence over a person of shared nationality who is not a believer.

The other obvious and natural aspect of nations and cultures is that they change, and quite often do so through migration. History demonstrates that the integrity of a nation’s border or a people’s culture is flexible, responding to both internal and external pressures. People have migrated for the sake of greater economic and personal security long before national borders as we know them gained anything resembling ethical force.

Indeed, it feels quite silly to say from any natural law or Biblical perspective that the defense of a national border is somehow more important than a man feeding his family or protecting them from murderers. The only thing that ought to hold us back is the prudence of how many people can be reasonably accommodated and how to keep the internal and external pressures of change balanced so that the pace of change is tolerable by the people (both migrants and hosts) experiencing it.

People and the nations they constitute do have natural limits that must be respected. Consider the problem not from the perspective of the receiving nation but those who are fleeing: a refugee crisis is a crisis because people are not interchangeable and do not want to be. The pain and costs of migrating from one country or culture to another are quite real, and more so when this migration is forced. What we understand as “open borders” as a policy solution is wholly unfair to those fleeing insecurity because this often leaves behind those who cannot or do not want to leave their homes.

Thus, while prudence could lead national leaders to find limits to immigration for the sake of their citizens, it also urges us to find ways such that people all over the Earth can be born in a place where they will be not be subject to violence and not feel as though they must leave in order to eat and feel secure. When facing a crisis like we are now, it is all the more incumbent on those of us who are concerned about the pressures of migration to press for support and development in the places where people are migrating from so that people can enjoy healthy lives there.

Christianity and Civilization

Related to all of this is the question of “civilization”. While family, nation, and even culture may be categories understood by the Bible and natural law, it is difficult to say the same about “civilization”, which is even more amorphous a category than “nation” or “culture”. It is first necessary to distinguish “Western Civilization” from “whiteness”, since racism and white supremacy have long cloaked their ambitions in a respectable veneer of “defending Western Civilization” and it is thus easy to confuse whiteness with Western civilization or American nationality.

Whiteness is not a culture, for it is transnational and transcultural — it is an ideology, and one that has only ever been used to harm at that. The fact that nonwhite people were for a long time excluded legally from full participation in American public life has only reinforced the subtle tendency to treat nonwhite Americans as not truly American. The only hope that Christians have for battling racism is not to play footsie with it while we fulminate about “invaders”, but to recognize white supremacy as one of the evil powers and principalities that Christians must actively resist.

Couching one’s criticism of an enormous group of dark-skinned people with a phrase like “it’s their culture” and trying to hedge by saying that some of them might become “good American citizens” is a bait-and-switch version of racism — the racial equivalent of saying Christians aren’t homophobic, but their traditional doctrines are. Besides, as soon as you blink you’ll get people coming out of the woodwork to note “demographic” correlations. This is how racism works: a small number of people actually carry out unjustified violence and theft against another race while everyone else talks about how this just wouldn’t happen if the people of that race just learned to behave appropriately. It happened during times of slavery, it happened when ISIS ran the American South, and it is happening today. The effects, thank God, are less brutal but the process is still the same.

The nature of “defending Western Civilization” becomes even more untenable as the world changes. Are we defending Western Civilization’s current obsession with sexual libertinism by keeping out Africans and Central Americans who believe that marriage ought to be between a man and a woman or that abortion is murder? If you empathize more with a rich white man in Germany than a poor Christian mother at the border, that’s not civilization but white supremacy. The cultural friction of large-scale migration is real and requires prudence, but speaking of these largely Christian peoples as “invaders” is moral midgetry.

Just as foolish is neglecting the historical context of these migrations, such as the atrocities that were committed in living memory or decisions that were made in recent generations. Discussing the insecurity without wanting to hear about colonialism is like asking why we have a crisis of discipleship now without wanting to hear about the Enlightenment.

The corrupt governance and “tribalism” of many nations outside of the developed West can be directly traced to the legacy of colonialism; the justice systems set up in these countries prior to independence were meant to benefit a privileged elite and the only things that changed in the post-colonial era were the last names of the elite. Rich nations spent years extracting resources from these nations (sometimes with extreme brutality) while stoking antagonism and forcing rapid adaptation to the modernist assumptions that are tearing our own culture apart. Then they thoroughly insinuated oligarchic patterns of governance into the national political imagination, followed by a few decades propping up various autocrats that they now have the nerve to tut-tut about.

The local cultures in many of these places, while hardly exemplars of peace or prosperity, were nevertheless adapted to their local environments and appropriately resistant to the idea that someone else should displace their land and annihilate any custom that made life more difficult for colonial interests. Indigenous peoples all over the world had a firehose of liquid modernity turned on in their faces and did their best to adapt.

Some of the things we find unpleasant about these cultures are legacies of colonial exploitation, but others are reactions: whether it is fiercely defending their love for family and tradition or disregarding the customs that attend to modernity. It goes without saying that people who are more effective at resisting modernity are going to look a little off (and perhaps a little earthier) to those of who are are soaking in it.

The factors that have shaped culture and politics across the world are incredibly complex; anyone genuinely interested in learning about them would do well to read books like King Leopold’s Ghost, The Sacrifice of Africa, and The Locust Effect. (Readers, please comment with other books that you would recommend on this topic, particularly on Central America!) Opining about over a billion people based on the impressions one has gotten from the notoriously un-comprehensive news media and a handful of comments is like basing one’s opinion of Christianity on what one reads in Newsweek and the Westboro Baptist Church website. Entire continents — especially those that are full of people who take care of their elders and have a lot of very germane things to say about just how bad liberalism, globalism, and modernism can be — deserve more attention and respect.

Charity and Self-Sacrifice

The final question of what charity requires is the most important. The simplest answer is that every Christian ought to be willing to die for another as Christ died for us, and that the life of Christian love is one of sacrifice even if it is not unto death. Consider the examples of some of the first Christians:

During the Plague in Alexandria when nearly everyone else fled, the early Christians risked their lives for one another by simple deeds of washing the sick, offering water and food, and consoling the dying. Their care was so extensive that Julian eventually tried to copy the church’s welfare system. It failed, however, because for the Christians it was love, not duty, that motivated them.

The first Christians not only took care of their own, but also reached out far beyond themselves. Their faith led to a pandemic (pan = all; demos = people) of love. Consequently, at the risk of their own lives, they saved an immense number of lives. Their elementary nursing greatly reduced mortality. Simple provisions of food and water allowed the sick that were temporarily too weak to cope for themselves to recover instead of perishing miserably.

Everyone will wrestle with conflicting desires in their life. Sometimes this struggle may be between outright sin and honest virtue, but more often it is between two poles of goodness. Parents struggle between nurturing their children and smothering them. Those of us who carry smartphones struggle between using our devices to better our lives and being controlled by them. People working in jobs where they can serve others often struggle between the endless work of caring for people and being a good spouse and parent – or even caring for their own bodies with enough sleep.

Similarly, the problem of migration creates a struggle between loving our neighbors who are slightly farther from while ensuring ourselves, our children, and our proximal neighbors are safe. It is similar to the problem of concentrated poverty in America. For both issues, a change of heart among Christians is necessary if we are to obey God’s directives to love our neighbor. When we welcome refugees, choose to be involved in the lives of the poor, or live in places of concentrated poverty, we run the risk of being hurt or having our children suffer the same malign influences that children who have no choice about where they live suffer. But those are risks that we must take if we are to be faithful to God’s call.

Political crises are not the same as individual encounters with the needy, and every family will have to discern for themselves how to respond. A willingness to sacrifice ourselves, however, is absolutely necessary if we want to be faithful stewards and servants addressing the injustices that have come before and still go on. If anything a political crisis sparked by the suffering of millions requires an even greater and more coordinated response from Christians.

In Dreher’s own words, [W]e still must look at the past — our past — squarely, and do whatever is right to atone.” Whether that is in regards to American meddling in Central America or the legacy of racism throughout our country, I think he’s exactly right. For now, I’ll only consider the choices that individuals and families can make, but I think this moral reckoning with the past and present will also require supporting policies that decrease the hyper-concentration of poverty and allowing people who fear for their lives into America while we sort out how to best stop the hemorrhaging in their home countries.

Dreher, who has considered this problem before, asks, “This is a call to active compassion, certainly, but does that compassion require people to welcome the poor into their own neighborhood? Does compassion require one to move into a poor, chaotic neighborhood with one’s kids?” Yes, it does! Dreher talks a lot about moral therapeutic deism, a term described by sociologist Christian Smith that describes a belief in God designed to make you feel good without challenging you to submit in obedience to the difficult moral strictures of faith. One of the lies of moral therapeutic deism is that you can worship God but make your foundational choices around where you live based on all the same criteria as your pagan neighbors. And it is the lie of liquid modernity (another one of Dreher’s ideological arch-nemeses) that you can help from afar without sacrificing yourself or that you can close your borders to the people fleeing the violence in their own home countries.

We want to make this process wholly voluntary, an opt-in for those who feel truly called or don’t have young kids. Given our human tendencies to justify ourselves, intentionally choosing to live with and among the poor ought to be an opt-out process and who we choose to reject at the border ought to focus on the people who would pose a violent threat to others. Dreher rightly recognizes some of the dangers that are posed by our hyper-mobile society; we won’t ever be able to ward off those dangers if we don’t resist the geographic and social divisions between rich and poor that modernity has democratized, legitimized, and accelerated. And we have to accept that every moral choice we make will affect all of our neighbors.

I took my young children to West Baltimore and South Sudan along with many other children and anyone else can do the same if they have good support and friends in that place who have already been working to heal their own community for a long time. We also have the resources to welcome many more refugees and immigrants in America; we only need to trust Christ and his love to sustain us as we sacrifice ourselves to welcome people in. This is not about moral heroism; it is a matter of simple obedience to Christ.

Will there be consequences for our fellow Americans if we choose to welcome more people fleeing violence and hunger? Certainly. Such is the nature of living in the world, especially the world as we know it today: there are not many corporate decisions we can make that don’t affect others both near and far. However, these possible effects are hardly certain and do not seem to have the same moral force as saving the lives of people threatened by violence.

America, at least, is large enough and wealthy enough to take in more vulnerable people — and if our nation would somehow be destroyed by receiving tens of thousands more asylum seekers per year, then our nation is probably doomed anyway. But if Christ would truly have us sacrifice ourselves for the sake of our brothers and sisters like the plague survivors did, then truly he will sustain us. It is quite possible, even likely, that by the example of Christians choosing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of vulnerable people that hard hearts will be turned to Christ.

The Camp of the Saints imagines masses of dark-skinned people as a threat to civilization and Christian obedience as weakness; God tells us to join Christ “outside the camp” in humiliation that he may be glorified among all the nations. As our brother James might say, it does no good for our brother born into poverty and violence to wish him well and tell him to stay away from drugs but to shudder in fear when his mother wants to move in next door and his sister wants to play with our kids. It does no good for our sister that we urge her to study hard and not get pregnant when the only person who shows affection for her is a drug dealer five years older. You can scream at the top of your lungs all day long about how awful the culture in Appalachia or the inner city is or Central America is, but that’s just a clanging cymbal until you are willing to share in the pain, risk, and heartache of those broken families.

Dreher’s big idea (which I almost entirely agree with) is the Benedict Option: forming small communities of people committed to loving one another to resist the tidal wave of modernity that is threatening to drown us all in despair and isolation. If we want to survive this tidal wave, we’ll have to do it the places most devastated by it so far. A Benedict Option community that has studied the Bible carefully will rejoice at the news of a subsidized housing project next door as an opportunity to love and serve their neighbors.

By contrast, if we teach our children that it is right and good to actively avoid the people who have been knocked off their fight by the storm surge, we are scraping lead paint off redlined houses onto their formational plates and telling them it’s spiritual food because it tastes sweet to their naturally inclined tongues.

There is a better way — choosing to love our neighbors and bringing our kids along with us. Welcoming the stranger, the alien, and the refugee is difficult. There is a real cost, and there are real questions about the prudence. But it does us no good to talk about our brothers and sisters in Christ as invaders or to work ourselves into indifference with lawyerly questions. Rather, let us cheerfully embrace the personal and corporate sacrifices we need to in order that the Gospel may be proclaimed, the prisoners may be set free, and the hungry may be fed. These sacrifices are expected of those who follow Christ outside the camp no matter the political order — and they are an opportunity to proclaim his love and severity to a world desperate for both.

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Posted by Matthew Loftus

Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org

  • Darrell

    Great essay. Thank you.

  • Daniel

    I think you’re being a bit unreasonably generous to Dreher here. The thing is, as reasonable as ‘The Benedict Option’ may be about its overall conclusion (intentional communities are good, monastic spirituality is useful and needed; well, yes, but this is not news), reading the whole book in context Dreher is concerned not with Christianity simpliciter, but with Christianity-as-Western-civilisation. You’re correct to note that ‘Western civilisation’ is often used as a bait-and-switch for mere xenophobia, and while I think Dreher is doing something a little bit more sophisticated than that, it’s not ultimately much better morally speaking.

    That is to say, ‘The Benedict Option’ is overwhelmingly concerned not with the preservation of Christianity as such, but with the preservation of Christianity of a sort that Dreher idiosyncratically identifies with. And that idiosyncratic identification, based on a rather shallow notion of Western history or ‘the Western tradition’, is itself something tribal and ultimately exclusionary.

    Which thus leads Dreher to the hypocrisy in your opening quotes: yes, ‘Christianity’ is good, but since for Dreher ‘Christianity’ is the name given for a particular cultural construct, a sort of misunderstood ‘Western’ chauvinism, that means that it can never demand anything that seems detrimental to Western civilisation as Dreher understands it.

    So we end up with Benedict Option communities and monasticism and endless tedious diatribes about ‘classical Christian education’ and the Tipi Loschi and paeans to Dante, but with the renunciation of ethical obligations to brothers and sisters of different cultural backgrounds.

    • hoosier_bob

      I agree with you on Dreher. Dreher only seems to have an interest in Christianity insofar as it provides a defense for his idiosyncratic cultural affinities. That likely explains why black American Christianity was ignored, despite the fact that it probably represents the best domestic example of such a community. Instead, as you note, we get detailed descriptions of white Christian groups whose cultural embodiment of the Gospel is more consistent with Dreher’s Western chauvinism. Jamie Smith’s judgment on Dreher’s project hit the nail on the head: It’s more concerned with privilege lost than with witness compromised.

      Matt’s essay makes a number of great points. The citation to Dreher merited greater qualification.

      • Daniel

        I think that’s fair.

        Immigration, especially immigration from less prosperous to more prosperous nations does pose a series of very difficult questions, particularly in response to patterns of global inequality. For me, a keystone text here is 2
        Cor 8: “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.’”

        That’s probably the closest Paul comes to actually talking about inequality and the sharing of resources, and to me it raises the questionhere in a way that’s actually amenable to prudential politics. But it’s also deeply theological and indicts many Western Christians: do we have too much? Do our brothers and sisters in other countries have too little? We abound in wealth, and they are in need there; but in what do they abound, and what are we in need of? Where is that fair balance to be found?

        I don’t think Dreher is the right person to answer questions like this: his sense of history is too impoverished, his sense of grace too limited. But as you say, Matt makes a number of great points. To be Christian is to sacrifice (1 Pet 2:5), and in that sense defensive opposition to those in need, who require sacrifices of us, is counter to the gospel.

        “Let us cheerfully embrace the personal and corporate sacrifices we need to in order that the Gospel may be proclaimed, the prisoners may be set free, and the hungry may be fed” – indeed!

        • hoosier_bob

          I agree. There are certainly pragmatic concerns that we need to address. But implying that these people aren’t our neighbors reflects a fairly corrupted understanding of the Gospel and of God’s Grace to the world in Christ.

          To be honest, I don’t understand why so many mainstream conservative Christians have embraced Dreher. Sure, they share a common rejection of progressivism. But that’s where the common ground ends. Dreher’s writing exhibits no hint of grace. And his take on Western history rivals the work of David Barton in its inaccuracy. He’s basically a troll who lines his pockets by telling middle-class white Christians the lies that they want to hear. I flip through his blog daily. In the cases where you can fact-check the guy (when he’s not spinning some one-off anecdote), the facts almost never comport with the reality he’s presented in his post.

          If Dreher is the top Christian thinker in America, as some have claimed, then American Christianity needs to be tossed onto the dustbin of history and replaced by something that looks more like Jesus of Nazareth and less like George Wallace.

          • hoosier_bob

            Not to pile on….

            Today Dreher has put up a series of posts decrying racial diversity and promoting [white] Catholic integralism. Someone just get this clown a white pointy hat, and let’s just be done with it.

            Besides, could the error of integralism not be more obvious? It seems that I recall someone quoted as saying, “My kingdom is not of this world.”

          • Cal P

            The New Yorker interview of him made him look like a sad clown (which I think is pretty accurate).

          • hoosier_bob

            Thanks for directing me to the New Yorker piece. It actually made me feel a bit more sympathy for the guy.

            I also believe that he should devote himself more to storytelling and leave the cultural analysis to others. He is not a logical thinker. He’s something of an idealist, who, like all idealists, has a tendency to reshape facts to fit some grand narrative. But grand narratives usually fall apart in their particulars, so one gets a lot of passion towards certain things without any coherence.

            I also realize that I tend to judge Dreher from the perspective of my own propensity towards detached, logical thinking. I’m a fairly stereotypical INTP. I don’t typically “feel” that things ought to be a certain way. In fact, I’m fairly skeptical of the value of “ought” statements, as they tend to obscure solid empirical analysis and blind us from seeing the truths that await our discovery. But Dreher is an “ought” guy, and he exposes himself to facts only enough to confirm his biases.

            That’s why I think he’s a better storyteller. In storytelling, he can “feel” the beauty of a moment or an experience in a way that I cannot.

            I trust that he’s not truly a racist, as those who know him suggest that he’s not. But he’s illogical. So, he often ends up embracing arguments that, taken to their logical conclusion, lead to racist judgments. But Dreher’s mind doesn’t work that way. He’s not thinking five steps ahead. So, it’s probably not right for me to attribute conclusions to him that he hasn’t drawn and likely wouldn’t draw, even if such conclusions are the likely logical conclusion of what he is writing.

          • Daniel

            Oh, for an American Milbank.

            I agree that Dreher is a better storyteller than he is a theologian or analyst. By far the best parts of ‘The Benedict Option’ are the travel writing parts, where he waxes lyrical about the Benedictines in Norcia or the Tipi Loschi. Sometimes my impression of ‘The Benedict Option’ is just that Dreher visited these two communities, had his mind completely blown, and then concocted an entire historical narrative to try to explain what was so fantastic about them. I honestly think Dreher could write some quite good spiritual travelogues, just so long as he had an editor who forbade him to ever talk about church politics, culture, race, or sexuality.

            I would also tend to agree that he’s not a racist, at least in any malicious sense. I’ve seen him at a panel or two, and when he’s asked about the Benedict Option for e.g. African-American communities, he gives a good answer: that he’s not conversant with those traditions and he didn’t feel he had the knowledge or the right to speak for them or to them. I just wish some of that humility had been in the rest of the book.

            Well… more than that, I wish that he’d applied that insight more widely. If Dreher was a bit more reflective or insightful, I’d hope for him to realise that his description of orthodox Christianity is deeply culturally contingent. If ‘The Benedict Option’ was pitched not as a general guide for how to save Christianity but rather as a set of monastic and liturgical reforms for English-speaking culturally conservative churches, it might resonate much better.

            Perspective is his problem, basically. Dreher knows what makes him feel like this is authentic Christianity being practiced, and he writes a lot about how to recreate that feeling. But what I’m not sure he’s ever understood is the difference between what subjectively feels Christian-ish to him, and what the gospel actually demands.

            That said, a necessary disclaimer: there’s nothing wrong with pondering what feels Christian-ish to yourself, or seeking to replicate that. The gospel always comes in a cultural form, and a wide variety of cultural forms are valid. It is, however, important to distinguish between what you respond to as an individual, what helps you personally to grow closer to God, and with what is really the gospel.

          • hoosier_bob

            Again, I agree. Dreher would do well to have an editor who forbade him from ever making sweeping statements about the things you mention, namely, church politics, race, sexuality, and gender. Dreher seems to be easily moved by certain experiences, like the outpouring of love towards his sister by her community while she was dying. He fails to see that his sister was a deeply flawed person who was generally spiteful towards anyone who didn’t share her particular cultural predilections.

            Maybe it’s due to the fact that I was raised in a very New England family with deep Calvinist roots, but I tend to accept that life is largely tragic and that all of us are prone to err.

          • hoosier_bob

            It’s probably most accurate to say that Dreher is a tribalist. I was reading through his posts last night, and noted that his entire focus was geared towards the performance of pro-Trump candidates in pro-Trump locales. He seemed even to take a certain pride that Trump’s last-minute racist onslaught boosted turnout among his loyal base of white evangelicals and white nationalists.

            All the while, Dreher glossed over the fact that suburban Republicans were getting slaughtered nationwide. It was a bloodbath for suburban Republicans in Illinois, at both the federal level and the state level.

          • Daniel

            I’m not sure I’d say tribalist… I don’t like psychoanalysing people on the internet, but my sense of him is that, as you said, he is very moved by experiences. He likes how the divine liturgy of St. John Chrysostom likes him feel. He likes the feeling of being a guest in a Benedictine community in Norcia, or in driving in the hills over olive groves in central Italy, or reading Homer with some young students, or the like. That makes him feel closer to God, like the church is being the church, and so on. It’s that feeling of stability and continuity, that these experiences are an instantiation of divine order in this chaotic and messy world.

            It’s not unique to Dreher: if you read any, say, Anthony Esolen, he has basically the same preoccupations. There’s a very visceral sense of divine harmony, which is felt at high church masses and with enthusiastic young traditionalists and at fine meals (Dreher does like blogging about food); and there’s an equally visceral sense of chaos, disorder, or degeneration, which is felt when looking at the normalisation of homosexuality, or people trying to change the visible structure of their body, or when ‘heretical’ perspectives are voiced in Christian academia, or, indeed, when looking at lawless mobs (from antifa to immigrants).

            So I read thinkers like this as standing for what they feel is peace, harmony, and Christian truth over against this demonic chaos that’s overtaking society. It’s not a new perspective at all: Malcolm Muggeridge would be a good earlier example. There is order, stability, tradition, and harmony, all of which is exemplified in highly liturgical, medieval-ish worship, and there is chaos and unreason, which is exemplified in things that feel modern: the Sexual Revolution, everything Dreher means when he talks about liquid modernity or moralistic therapeutic deism.

            To give them their due, I think the impulse driving them is pious and noble. Christians can and indeed should stand for peace and order within a seemingly-chaotic cosmos.

            The problem I have with them is that I think they tend to mistake what immediately feels like this harmony for what really constitutes it. ‘The Benedict Option’ is basically an attempt for Dreher to figure out what made him feel so good in Italy, and then import it to the US. But what makes Dreher feel like the universe is working properly is idiosyncratic to him. The same for Esolen.

            Some of what he recommends is fine on the surface, and he is in some ways good at admitting that what he needs isn’t what everyone he needs. He recommends all churches get more liturgical, but accepts that different traditions will have different liturgies. Fine. But at other times he gets bizarrely specific. The chapter-long shill for classical Christian education is remarkably light on anything to do with Christianity, but quite heavy on teaching a specific, narrow conception of a ‘Western’ cultural heritage. Dante would be another example: a beautiful work, a great classic of world and Christian literature, and I have no doubt that Dreher found it sublime and transformative. But Dante is nonetheless of peripheral importance to the gospel.

            In some ways it makes me quite sad, because I love liturgy and history and all those classical, ‘canonical’ works, and I just wish that Dreher, Esolen, etc., would get off my side!

            As for Republicans – well, I’m in another country, but my impression for a long time has been that neither general party platform can be considered Christian, but that, as Jake Meador writes, there is still a need for Christians to vote prudentially.

          • hoosier_bob

            Daniel wrote an excellent reply to my comment. For some reason it’s now vanished.

            It does give me a different appreciation of guys like Dreher and Esolen. I agree that they’re not white supremacists in the typical sense, i.e., in an idealist sense. That said, they have a certain subjective preference for the kind of order and certainty they experience in their participation in historical embodiments of Western Christendom. And they have difficulty envisioning a Christianity apart from Christendom.

            But such experiences are highly subjective, and neither seems able to proffer a persuasive case as to why his subjective preferences should be normative. Each attempts to do that through a kind of revisionist history. But it doesn’t take much of a student of history to identify the logical flaws and factual errors in such arguments. For the most part, Dreher and Esolen both reject—either explicitly or implicitly—the theological fact that God reveals Himself in the natural order. To the extent that either appeals to natural law, it is to a kind of teleological natural law that merely looks to the world when it reinforces the ideals to which each has already committed himself. In the end, both Dreher and Esolen seem to reject the notion that God’s general revelation provides a sufficient basis for forming a reasonably ordered society. In that sense, Dreher and Esolen lack the empirical skills to appreciate the order in everyday life. And although neither goes as far as admitting it, it’s hard to see how these men could ever be happy in a pluralistic society where their own subjective preferences were not forced onto everyone else by means of authoritarian force,

          • Daniel

            I don’t know what happened to the original comment, and sadly didn’t save a copy of it.

            Still, I’m happy to leave that conversation here. It feels rather unfair to keep stomping on them in the comments, especially since we’re quite a long way from the purposes of Matthew’s article!

            So, thanks for the conversation. I think I’m less negative on Dreher than you are, because I think he does have some merits, but you and I share a rejection of his strategy. Hopefully I will encounter you again in the comments to something here!

          • hoosier_bob

            Thanks for the engagement. I’m no longer on the fence about Dreher. I read through his posts from the past few days, and some of what he writes strikes me as only the kind of stuff a bigot would write. In fact, today he’s promoting Heather Mac Donald, who is anything but a credible commentator on cultural issues. It’s hard to see any significant difference between her views and those of most white supremacist groups. Citing Mac Donald favorably gives me serious doubt as to whether Dreher has a genuine, saving familiarity with Christ’s grace. He strikes me as more of a cultural traditionalist for whom, in this culture, Christianity is a useful tool to promote his reactionary form of politics.

            His suggestion, which Matt quoted, denying that brown people are our “neighbors,” seems rather consistent with Dreher’s MO.

          • Daniel

            To be honest, looking for those comments on MacDonald, all I can do is shrug. It’s just Dreher on his usual soapbox: the gays are coming to take our children, trans people are existential threats to women, and so on. It’s not that he is necessarily wrong on sex and sexuality-related issues (I’d be open to arguments either way), but that his focus on them is extremely myopic.

            I think the argument Dreher would make on migration is that while Christians do have an obligation to welcome the stranger and aid their brothers and sisters from other lands, that ethical orientation in and of itself is not sufficient as a guide to policy. Those ethics must inform everything that Christians do, but they don’t establish proper immigration policy. Any sensible and compassionate immigration policy will have to turn some people away, and there should be a civil public debate, both in churches and in wider society, on who we should let in, who we should turn away, and on what basis we should make those decisions. The problem with the current immigration debate is that it’s monopolised by simplistic extremes: by outright nativists or racists on the one side, who determine immigration policy according to what best supports their agenda of cultural supremacy; and far-left opponents of any border controls on the other side, who have no coherent immigration policy beyond doing what seems ‘nice’, i.e. letting people in if they ask.

            As far as that goes, I would broadly agree with the above paragraph. I’m not American myself, but my country also suffers from divisive immigration politics, and it’s true that immigration debate is badly polarised, and that, while a Christian ethic of welcome and hospitality must inform all our policy, there are still good-faith questions about what that policy should be.

            That said, I am more-or-less at the point of giving up on the idea that Dreher has anything interesting to contribute. Dreher is not an intellectual: he’s a populariser. He’s a full-time blogger, for goodness’ sake! I think that if what you want is a deep engagement with conservative/traditionalist theology at its finest, you don’t want Dreher. He writes to a popular audience, not an intellectual one.

            The risk with him, I think, is that the popular audience is at easy risk of either misunderstanding him, or understanding him much too well. Dreher writes a lot of gross simplifications or distortions: modernity is bad and everything pre-Enlightenment is good, everything is the fault of nominalism, conservative theologians believe there’s a transcendent moral order and liberal theologians and relativists, etc. The sort of person who’s actually read Alasdair MacIntyre or Charles Taylor or even C. S. Lewis can just roll their eyes and ignore it; but what about a conservative-ish person in the pews of an evangelical church, who knows almost nothing about the history of philosophy or the Middle Ages, but who just feels like the US is going in subtly the wrong direction?

            Add in the very obvious structural ways that a Benedict Option community could become abusive, and Dreher’s failure to offer any practical advice on preventing it… well, I am concerned. The idea that he’s the prophet of American right-wing Christianity honestly strikes me as a bit of an indictment of that cultural sphere.

          • Daniel

            Looks like another message got lost. I did save it this time, just in
            case – but I’d like to know if there’s a moderation issue before I
            consider reposting. Would the editor prefer I leave off?
            Alternatively, I did use a different browser, so maybe I got caught in a spam filter?

          • hoosier_bob

            I actually can see your whole comment in my email. It was excellent and I agree 100% I’m not sure why the editors here are refusing to release them.

            IMO, the real problem is the absence of anything along the lines of middle-brow conservatism. But part of that is due to populist conservatives like Dreher, who have no qualms oversimplifying things, twisting the truth, and engaging in dishonest hyperbole when it gets him to the conclusion he subjectively desires. Further, clowns like Dreher tend to attack any conservative who expresss anything resembling a nuanced thought. Consider his attack on Jamie Smith’s rather innocuous suggestion concerning the patently racist overtones that bleed through the entire Benedict Option book.

            Conservatives in America are good at developing arguments that seem persuasive to people with IQs of 115 or lower. The same goes for American evangelicals. But these movements offer very little for people with a modicum of analytical ability, who are often marginalized in conservative and evangelical circles merely because they have the sense to know that they’re being fed half-truths.

          • Daniel

            I’m guessing a browser issue. I’ve said some nasty things about Dreher, but no nastier than you, and you don’t seem to be having trouble. But switching between IE and Opera might mess it up, or get me caught in a filter. That said, editor/moderator/staff, please tell me if I’ve been inappropriate.
            I don’t think I’m as critical of conservative positions or arguments as you. I don’t think Dreher puts those positions well; but even theologically conservative friends of mine seem to agree with that. I suspect it’s just due to a limited audience. Blogging is a bad way to develop the sort of long-term intellectual habits needed.
            (Which is why I’m commenting on the internet – oh dear!)
            Ironically, neither do I think there’s anything particularly conservative about the Benedict Option in essence. Hauerwas was making very similar calls decades before Dreher, and no one could really accuse him of conservatism! The basic idea that in the face of a hollowed-out and increasingly minority Western Christianity, we need to recultivate a sense of ourselves as distinctively Christian, including the practices and institutions needed to sustain Christian witness in a non-Christian culture is itself unobjectionable and even obvious. It is, as far as I can tell, obvious to capital-P Progressive Christians as well; I’m familiar with some local figures in Australia who’ve made similar suggestions.
            Rather, what’s distinctive about the Benedict Option is its cultural framing. What’s distinctive about it is that firstly it explicitly identifies itself as conservative (or as ‘orthodox Christian’, where ‘orthodox’ means anti-LGBT and pro-life), and secondly that it so thoroughly identifies itself with a particular idea of Westernness. I’d be happy to argue at length that the Ben Op is largely mistaken about what the West is, but it can’t be denied that it’s passionately pro-West. The result, to me, is something that bills itself as generically pro-church, but which is actually much more narrow.
            The immigration and race politics that Matthew’s article addresses and that you’ve critiqued here are thus implied in the Ben Op. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with intentional communities patterned along monastic lines (indeed, I think we need more of them), but rather that Dreher’s construction of those communities is culturally closed. That correlates well with politics of cultural closure, which is to say nativism.
            If you’re interested in some of those wider issues, I might recommend John Flett’s ‘Apostolicity’? I know John and he’s written some very good material about crosscultural church and mission.
            Sorry, I’d love to expand on all these points, but at this rate I’d better get my own blog…

          • Daniel

            Okay, what the heck – that’s another one gone, and that was only in IE. Either there’s some serious scripting error, or I’m being blocked or moderated.

            So, um, help? I want to follow the rules here, but I can’t do that if I don’t know what’s going on…

          • hoosier_bob

            It must be a browser issue. I’m using Safari on an iPad.

    • SamHamilton

      Hi Daniel,
      While I agree with you that Dreher is “concerned not with the preservation of Christianity as such, but with the preservation of Christianity of a sort that Dreher idiosyncratically identifies with” I think it’s incorrect to summarize the particular form of Christianity that he wishes to preserve as merely “western” or of the “western tradition.” He’s often very critical of western capitalism, western notions of human sexuality, and western liberalism in general. I would guess that a Christian from Honduras, Syria, or sub-Saharan Africa would find a lot to agree with Dreher on. Yes, he approaches the topic with a white-guy bias, because that’s what he knows, but the Benedict Option idea isn’t meant to prop up western civilization, but his version of traditional Christianity.

      • Daniel

        Hi Sam.

        I suppose I think it comes down to Dreher’s idiosyncratic definition of ‘Western civilisation’, as we see in the history, education, and conclusion chapters of ‘The Benedict Option’. Take this conclusion, for instance: “We live liturgically, telling our sacred Story in worship and song. We fast and we feast. We marry and give our children in marriage, and though in exile, we work for the peace of the city. We welcome our newborns and bury our dead. We read the Bible, and we tell our children about the saints. And we also tell them in the orchard and by the fireside about Odysseus, Achilles, and Aeneas, of Dante and Don Quixote, and Frodo and Gandalf, and all the tales that bear what it means to be men and women of the West.”

        It seems to me that there is an implicit defense of ‘the Western tradition’ there, at least by some definition of it. I would also suggest that most of the forms of Christian faith that Dreher seems to be inspired by are those he identifies as Western. It’s noticeable that ‘The Benedict Option’ itself makes no mention that I can find of South American, African, or Middle Eastern Christians.

        That said, you’re quite right that Dreher excludes a great deal of what is Western in his analysis. One of the most noticeable things for me in his work was, well, that he seems to hate the United States. As far as I can tell, the text of ‘The Benedict Option’ seems to genuinely take the position that the American Revolution was at best a lesser evil, that the Founding Fathers’ beliefs were mostly wrong, and that separation of church and state is a bad thing. That’s a very strange pitch to right-wing Americans!

        I think if pressed Dreher would suggest that contemporary liberalism, sexual progressivism, and even in some ways capitalism constitute betrayals of Western culture, rather than as instances thereof. He’d make some form of the ‘anti-culture’ argument (cf. Deneen for a more developed argument; Esolen for a more spittle-flecked one). Liberal capitalism, sexuality, etc., are not culture at all, because in their essence they destroy the conditions under which culture exists.

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  • Christiane Smith

    We have to begin to realize that the political term ‘Christian nation’ doesn’t have anything to do with Christ or with Christianity. Once we get that straight, then we can begin to understand WHY the asylum-seekers have been so badly treated.

    so we will meet the people from Guatemala that we’ve been told to fear and despise, and take their children away from them, and point guns at them, and lock them up, and eventually send them back to the hell they were running from, once we are tired of tormenting them . . . that is what a ‘great’ America is all about, isn’t it?

    OR

    we might just notice how very lost and weary and tired they are, and how the children could use some rest and really good food, and even give them the dignity of asking what it was that they were running from to come north to us who are now so unwelcoming,

    But I doubt we will, because if we do speak to them as suffering persons, we might be moved with compassion for them, AND we might just, as a people, decide to help them

    What would we gain by helping them? Just maybe a chance to recover our humanity and our souls as a nation.
    Personally, I think it’s a good trade.

  • Christiane Smith

    I did think about a story in sacred Scripture about a poor man who had a lamb he loved dearly like his own child, and a rich young ruler came along and took the poor man’s lamb away from him and killed it and served it for a feast . . . .

    and THEN I think about the poor refugee man whose only son was taken away from him at the border, and the man was jailed and was so distraught about losing his child that he hung himself . . . .

    when I heard about the poor man whose heart was broken when they took his only son from him, I thought about that story in Scripture . . . . it’s in 2 Samuel, Chapter 12 where Nathan was sent to counsel King David who did not understand his own cruelty in wronging Bathsheba’s husband until David heard that story from Nathan, this:

    ” . . . the poor man had nothing except one small ewe lamb that he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food and drank from his cup; it slept in his arms and was like a daughter to him. 4Now a traveler came to the rich man, who refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for his guest.” 5David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan: “As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die!…”

    I’m sure at some point future historians will have a field day commenting on Trump and Trumpism, but I think it was commented on long ago by a prophet named Nathan sent by God to teach King David about the great inhumanity of thoughtless injustice to a poor man

    we could use some Nathans today, but all the King’s evangelical ministers we have to counsel the King kept silent when the border children and their parents suffered . . . . it would have been a Christian kindness for someone to speak to Trump, but no one came to help him understand
    . . . . so it was left to the women of our country who remembered and became politically active and won and now we have a ‘pink wave’ in the House of Representatives, and these women will see to it that the King is counseled against inhumanity and injustice finally . . . . they will help him understand when no one else dared