I have heard a lot about Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (2017), so I finally got a copy and read it. Short summary: Christian writer figures out Protestants no longer enjoy the benefits of informal religious establishment in the USA and goes into panic mode. Maybe that’s a little unfair, but I doubt that Catholics or Mormons or Buddhists reading the book have much sympathy for the plight of Evangelicals and mainline Protestants who now have to deal with the same church-state and citizenship issues that we have had to deal with for hundreds of years.
He talks about school prayer and abortion, but it’s gay marriage that really pushed Dreher into “The End is Near” mode. He repeats the same shallow religious freedom rhetoric that has become fashionable in Mormon circles. He spends a chapter recounting his visit to a Benedictine monastery and showers praise and admiration on the rule of living that guides the men who live as part of the order. His prescription for protecting believing, practicing Christians and their families who didn’t see the light early enough in life to join a monastery is to embrace a stricter from of Christian living inside a righteous Christian subculture. In the ideal case, that would go as far as living in a Christians-only neighborhood or subdivision.
Dreher gives brief but favorable mention of Mormon practices in a couple of places. He likes home teaching. He likes Mormon “community building” (referring to the LDS ward community, not the wider local community one lives in). He seems entirely unaware of the 19th-century LDS attempts to establish Zion communities along the lines of his strict Christian neighborhood model. He might be less excited about that model if he saw how poorly LDS attempts fared. He makes no mention of the LDS seminary program or the LDS missionary program, which together play a key role in socializing our youth and young adults into the LDS community. He could learn more about the sort of religious community building he is preaching by spending a month attending an LDS ward (and all the associated activities) than by spending a week at monastery.
I have distinctly mixed feelings about the whole analysis and program Dreher puts forward. A few quick points. (1) The arguments that fuel his panic over threats to religious freedom are as unconvincing coming from Dreher as when they come from LDS speakers. Public accommodation laws were a big step forward for social justice. Recent efforts to extend them (like baking a cake for a gay wedding if you bake them for everyone else) seems like more of the same, not a threat to religious freedom. (2) Mormons already do a pretty good job of creating a safe subculture and a vibrant religious community. We’re way ahead of the game on this one. (3) Dreher emphasizes withdrawal from larger society more than the LDS approach, which is more “in the world but not of the world.” Dreher seems to think that a devout young Christian ought to give serious consideration to the actual monastery option. That is emphatically not an option for devout young LDS, who are all encouraged to go out into the world and engage it as missionaries.
The bottom line: The Brigham Option, at least in its 20th-century form, is a lot more attractive than the Benedict Option spelled out by Dreher. Plus it actually works. I do, however, appreciate Dreher’s nice remarks about LDS social practices. I am interested to hear what other LDS readers who have read the book think of Dreher’s analysis and program.