Rod Dreher's Monastic Vision
Rod Dreher was forty-four when his little sister died. At the time, he was living in Philadelphia with his wife and children. His sister, Ruthie, lived in their Louisiana home town, outside St. Francisville (pop. 1,712). Dreher's family had been there for generations, but he had never fit in. As a teen-ager, when his father and sister went hunting he stayed in his room and listened to the Talking Heads; he read "A Moveable Feast" and dreamed of Paris. He left as soon as he could, becoming a television critic for the Washington Times and then a film critic for the New York Post. He was living in Cobble Hill on 9/11, and watched the South Tower fall. He walked with his wife in Central Park. He wrote a book, "Crunchy Cons," about how conservatives like him—"Birkenstocked Burkeans" and "hip homeschooling mamas"—might change America. Ruthie never left. She was a middle-school teacher, and her husband was a firefighter. She could give a damn about Edmund Burke and the New York Post. She was not a crunchy con, and she found her brother annoying.
In truth, annoying wasn't the half of it—there was a rift between Dreher and his family. His father, a health inspector, had never forgiven him for moving away; his nieces found his urbanity condescending. During one New Year's visit, Dreher made bouillabaisse for his parents and his sister; they watched him cook the stew and let him serve it, then declined to eat any: they preferred meals made by a "country cook." Later, Dreher learned that Ruthie and her husband were struggling financially and resented the fact that he made twice their combined salaries for reviewing movies. His father considered him a "user"—someone who succeeded by flouting the rules. Dreher loved his father and sister for their rootedness and their vibrancy. He longed for their approval with painful intensity.
On Mardi Gras, 2010, Ruthie was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. She was forty years old and had three daughters. Dreher began visiting St. Francisville as often as he could, and discovered that she was a pillar of the community that he had left behind. She gave Christmas gifts to the poorest neighbors and mentored the most difficult kids in school; she was a joyful presence at bonfires, creek parties, and crawfish boils. Though exhausted by chemotherapy, she drew up a list of friends in need and prayed for them every night. She made a new rule for her family: "We will not be angry at God." When friends threw her a benefit concert, a thousand people came. To Dreher, a devout Christian, she seemed beatific in her suffering. He wondered, Why does she like everybody but me?
All through Ruthie's illness, Dreher wrote about her and the rest of his family on his blog, which is hosted on the Web site of The American Conservative, where he is a senior editor. For a decade, daily and at length, Dreher has written about his obsessions—orthodox Christianity, religious freedom, the "L.G.B.T. agenda," the hypocrisy of privileged liberals, the nihilism of secular capitalism, the appeal of monasticism, the spiritual impoverishment of modernity, brisket—while sharing candid, emotional stories about his life. Dreher writes with graphomaniacal fervor and ardent changeability. He is as likely to admire Ta-Nehisi Coates's dispatches from Paris as to inveigh against "safe spaces" on college campuses, and he delights in skewering the left and the right simultaneously—a recent post was called "How Are Pope Francis & Donald Trump Alike?" Because Dreher is at once spiritually and intellectually restless, his blog has become a destination for the ideologically bi-curious. Last year, his interview with J. D. Vance, the author of "Hillbilly Elegy," was largely responsible for bringing the book to the attention of both liberal and conservative readers. He gets around a million page views a month.
A bad Dreher post can be mean-spirited and overwrought, but when he's at his best his posts are unique: deeply confessional, achingly sincere, intellectually searching. The day after Ruthie died, in September, 2011, Dreher wrote a twenty-seven-hundred-word entry describing her funeral. He recalled how, the night before the service, half of St. Francisville had waited in the rain to pay their respects. Her friends sprinkled creek sand over her body, pulled up beach chairs, and sang to her. The next morning, because Ruthie often went barefoot, her daughters stood barefoot in their pew. When the funeral party arrived at the cemetery, Dreher saw that the pallbearers, too, had removed their shoes. The six burly men "carried Ruthie to her grave across the damp cemetery grounds in their bare feet," Dreher wrote. The love he had seen was "of such intense beauty that it was hard to look upon it and hold yourself together."
Ruthie's funeral made him wonder about his own life, in Philadelphia. He and his wife, Julie, had friends there, and a rich cultural life, but it was impossible to replicate the deep roots his family had in St. Francisville, which seemed an illuminated place. The people there had an expansive, natural, spontaneous relationship to God that made his own faith feel intellectual and disembodied by comparison. This, he thought, was a function of how they lived: to really know God, one had to feel as much love as possible, and to really feel love one had to live among loved ones. The following month, Dreher moved with his wife and kids to St. Francisville. His plan was to fall back in love with his family and with God at the same time.
From the porch of a rented house, he began to codify his intuitions. He had long been fascinated by Benedict of Nursia, the sixth-century monk who, convinced that it was impossible to live virtuously in a fallen Roman Empire, founded a monastery where the flame of Christianity might be tended during the Dark Ages. This March, Dreher published "The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation," which David Brooks, in the Times, has called "the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade." It asks why there aren't more places like St. Francisville—places where faith, family, and community form an integrated whole.
Dreher's answer is that nearly everything about the modern world conspires to eliminate them. He cites the Marxist sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who coined the term "liquid modernity" to describe a way of life in which "change is so rapid that no social institutions have time to solidify." The most successful people nowadays are flexible and rootless; they can live anywhere and believe anything. Dreher thinks that liquid modernity is a more or less unstoppable force—in part because capitalism and technology are unstoppable. He urges Christians, therefore, to remove themselves from the currents of modernity. They should turn inward, toward a kind of modern monasticism.
As a longtime reader of Dreher's blog—an experience alternately enthralling and exasperating—I'd always wondered what he'd be like in person. I imagined him as argumentative and intense: a twenty-first-century version of a nineteenth-century preacher. In most of the photographs I could find online, he wears thick, round glasses; as a result, I nearly didn't recognize him when we met, earlier this spring, at a Manhattan steak house. Without them, Dreher, now fifty, has an open, vulnerable, and strikingly handsome face. His graying beard and fashionably upswept haircut suggest a Confederate soldier in a historical drama. He wore black Chelsea boots and an oversized black leather jacket, and, around his left wrist, a knotted prayer rope. "Nice to meet you, brother," he said. He speaks slowly and quietly, with a soft Louisiana drawl.
Over dinner—Dreher, who was observing Lent, confined himself to oysters and crab cakes—I learned what happened when he moved back to St. Francisville. "The thing that I dreamed of and hoped for didn't work out," he said. "They just wouldn't accept me—not my sister's kids, and not my dad and mom. They just could not accept that I was so different from them. I worshipped my dad—he was the strongest and wisest man I knew—but he was a country man, a Southern country man, and I just wasn't. All that mattered was that I wasn't like them. It just broke me." He fell into a depression and was diagnosed with chronic mono, then went into therapy and read Dante. When Dreher speaks, his emotions flow across his face with complete transparency, changing phrase by phrase. (His glasses, I realized, provide him with some emotional privacy.) As he told his story, he looked freshly wounded, as if it had all happened that morning.
Dreher had planned to travel the next day to Washington, D.C., where he was scheduled to give a talk at the National Press Club, but a blizzard struck the East Coast. Because trains were cancelled, his publisher hired a driver to take him there that evening, after dinner, through the storm. Dreher sat in the back seat, his hands folded in his lap, regarding with serenity the spun-out cars along the highway. "I've been thinking a lot lately about my own longing for order," he said. "I think it has to do with my dad. He was such a force. You thought the sun was in the sky in the morning because Daddy had hung it there, while he was making our honey buns and getting us ready for the school-bus ride."
Ray O. Dreher grew up so poor that his family hunted squirrels for food. He liked to build, repair, hunt, and fish, and his forearms were freckled from the sun. He raised Rod and Ruthie with a firm sense of right and wrong. When he saw or read about an alcoholic, a philanderer, a shoplifter, he said, as if stating a fact, "That's not how we do things."
Once, when Dreher was seven, he did something mean to his sister—he doesn't remember what—and his father told him it was time for a spanking. Dreher lay face down on the bed while his dad removed his belt. Then Ruthie, who was five, ran into the room and threw herself over him; she cried, "Whip me! Daddy, whip me! " After a moment, Dreher's father and sister left. He remained on the bed, mystified by what had happened. He sometimes wonders if his sister's later wariness toward him flowed not from a divergence of values but from some long-forgotten habit of childhood cruelty for which he was never punished.
When Dreher was fourteen, he went hunting with Ray and Ruthie, and, with a shotgun, he killed two baby squirrels. Filled with remorse, he sat on the ground and cried. "You sissy," his father growled.
Year by year, the distance between father and son grew. In college, at L.S.U., Dreher was a leftist who invited Abbie Hoffman to campus; he tried to debate politics with his father, who once responded, in genuine bewilderment, "Why would I lie to you?" It was as though his dad couldn't comprehend the concept of difference. Dreher describes his father and his sister as "Bayou Confucians." He explains, "They had this idea that, if you did what you were supposed to do, you would succeed. I didn't do those things, but I didn't fail, and that drove them crazy." (Dreher moved right after college—he has worked as a blogger for National Review but now says that he is more "traditionalist" than conservative: "I think there's an individualism at the center of both parties—the economic individualism of the Republicans and the secular, social individualism of the Democrats—that I find really incongruous with what I believe to be true because of my religion.")
In South Louisiana, religion was everywhere, but, as a kid, Dreher was indifferent to it. Then, when he was seventeen, his mother, Dorothy, won a trip to Europe in a raffle and sent Rod in her place. He visited Chartres and felt judged by the beauty of the cathedral. He began to take religion seriously. When he was eighteen, he went to see Pope John Paul II at the Superdome, in New Orleans. The Pope appeared, and a thought flashed in Dreher's mind: "I wish he were my dad." In his twenties, Dreher wanted nothing more than to fall in love—he had a poster for the French film "Betty Blue" on his bedroom wall—but his romances felt increasingly shallow, even sad, compared with what he'd seen in France. At twenty-six, he converted to Catholicism. Fed up with what he perceived as his own caddishness—he had dated one girlfriend longer than he should have—he decided to embrace chastity until marriage. Three years later, he proposed to Julie in a church, kneeling before an icon.
Dreher left Catholicism in 2006; after covering the Catholic sex-abuse scandal for the Post and The American Conservative, he found it impossible to go to church without feeling angry. He and his wife converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, and, with a few other families, opened their own Orthodox mission church, near St. Francisville, sending away for a priest. It was Dreher's Orthodox priest, Father Matthew, who laid down the law. "He said, 'You have no choice as a Christian: you've got to love your dad even if he doesn't love you back in the way that you want him to,' " Dreher recalled. " 'You cannot stand on justice: love matters more than justice, because the higher justice is love.' " When Dreher struggled to master his feelings, Father Matthew told him to perform a demanding Orthodox ritual called the Optina Rule. He recited the Jesus Prayer—"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner"—hundreds of times a day.
Two life-changing events occurred after Dreher began the regimen of prayer. He was alone at home one evening, lying in bed, when he sensed a presence in the room. "I felt a hand reach inside my heart and put a stone there," he said. "And I could see, in some interior way, that the stone said, 'God loves me.' I'd doubted all my life that God really loved me." A few months later, Dreher stopped by his dad's house to organize his medications. Ray was sitting on the porch, reading the newspaper and drinking coffee. When Dreher leaned down to kiss him on the cheek, his father grabbed him by the arm. Tears were in his eyes. "He was stammering," Dreher recalled. "He said, 'I—I—I spent a long time talking to the Lord last night about you, and the transgressions I did against you. And I told him I was sorry. And I think he heard me.' " Recounting the story in the back seat of the car en route to D.C., Dreher still seemed astonished that this had happened. "I kissed him, and said, 'I love you.' "
Dreher's father died in 2015. The next summer, the mission lost its priest and one of the founding families moved away. To be near an Orthodox church, Dreher and his family moved to Baton Rouge. Looking back on his time in St. Francisville, Dreher thinks that, if he hadn't moved there and then forced himself to follow the rules—prayer, proximity, love—he would have stayed an angry child forever.
"The Benedict Option" traces the decline of faith in the West all the way back to a fourteenth-century debate about the nature of God. God tells us how to be good—but are the things he deems good actually good in themselves, or good just because God says they are? According to one group, the "realists," God is constrained by reality: the goodness toward which he points really exists in the world. According to the second group, the "nominalists," God is totally free: simply by saying that something is good, he makes it so.
The nominalists thought they were doing God a favor, by recognizing his power. In fact, Dreher writes, they undermined him. Today, most people are nominalists. They doubt that entities like God, beauty, and evil are real in the same sense that the physical world is real. Even if they believe in God, they imagine a boundary between the transcendent plane, where God lives, and our material one. This boundary makes God abstract—a designer, a describer, a storyteller—rather than a concrete presence in our everyday life. By contrast, the early Christians were realists. They lived "sacramentally," as though the world itself were charged with God's presence. Last year, in a blog post called "Re-Sacramentalizing My Life," Dreher wrote, "We won't start to recover spiritually and morally until we begin to recover this ancient Christian vision to some significant degree—though how we Christians in postmodernity do so out of our own traditions is a very difficult question."
"I liken liquid modernity to the Great Flood of the Bible," Dreher said, at the National Press Club, speaking to a standing-room-only crowd of priests and journalists. The election of Donald Trump, he said, proved that the country was in the midst of a profound moral and spiritual crisis; the fact that so many Christians voted for him suggested a weakness in their faith. American Christianity had been replaced with "a malleable, feel-good, Jesus-lite philosophy perfectly suited to a consumerist, individualistic, post-Christian society that worships the self," he said. "The flood cannot be turned back. The best we can do is construct arks within which we can ride it out, and by God's grace make it across the dark sea of time to a future when we do find dry land again, and can start the rebuilding, reseeding, and renewal of the earth."
Christians have always lived together in intentional communities. The Book of Acts describes how the early Christians, having sold their possessions, held "everything in common." In the nineteen-sixties, a wave of Christian communes sprang up, some inspired by the counterculture, others reacting against it. In the main, however, Christians have sought to make America itself one big Christian community. Dreher thinks that this effort, most recently associated with the religious right, has been a disastrous mistake—it has led Christians to worship the idol of politics instead of strengthening their own faith. "I believe that politics in the Benedict Option should be localist," he said. The idea was not to enter a monastery, exactly. But Christians should consider living in tight-knit, faith-centered communities, in the manner of Modern Orthodox Jews. They should follow rules and take vows. They should admit that the culture wars had been lost—same-sex marriage was the law of the land—and focus on their own spiritual lives. They should strive to make Christian life meaningfully different from life under high-tech, secular capitalism; they should take inspiration from Catholic dissidents under Communism, such as the Czech activist Václav Benda, who advocated the creation of a "parallel polis"—a society within a society. They should pray more often. Start their own schools. Move near their church. St. Benedict, Dreher said, didn't try to "make Rome great again." He tended his own garden, finding a way to live that served as "a sign of contradiction" to the declining world around him.
After a Q. & A. session—Was it really a good idea for Christians to live more cloistered lives?—Dreher made his way to a table, where he sat down to sign copies of "The Benedict Option." A line stretched down the hall and around the corner. Many of those in it were longtime readers of his blog, and he seemed relieved to be offstage and among his people. (A friend of Dreher's told me that, if Dreher had stayed in Brooklyn, he would have found exactly the kind of thick community he longed for: "He left too soon.")
"I can't do what I normally do when I'm waiting in line, which is read a new blog post from you," one man said.
Dreher chuckled. "That's me! Rod Dreher: no unblogged thoughts!" He wrestles with his addiction to blogging and to Twitter, and has covered the Apple logo on his laptop, which he calls "my precious," with a sticker of the Benedictine emblem.
A well-dressed, middle-aged couple ambled up. "If I take the Benedict Option, I may have to give up reading you," the man said. Laughing, his wife said that reading Dreher's blog was the first thing that her husband did each morning.
"Give it up!" Dreher told him, pleased but embarrassed. "At least for Lent. It'll increase your holiness."
Two Dominican friars were next. One of them introduced himself as Brother Henry. "If you'd write something about the Dominican Option, I don't have money to pay you, but I'd be tickled pink," he said. He joked that he had been personally offended by the negative use of the word "cloistered" during the Q. & A.: "Hey, I actually live in a cloister!" Dreher looked a little awed as he signed Brother Henry's book.
Dreher takes the phrase "the Benedict Option" from "After Virtue," a 1981 work by the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre argued that Western civilization had lost its ability to think coherently about moral life. The problem was the Enlightenment, which put individuals in charge of deciding for themselves what was right and wrong. This, MacIntyre thought, rendered moral language meaningless. Try to say that something is "good," and you end up saying only that it's "good (to me)"—whatever that means. It becomes impossible to settle moral questions or to enforce moral rules; the best we can do is agree to disagree. Such a world falls into the hands of managers and technocrats, who excel at the perfection of means but lack the tools with which to think deeply about ends. Surviving this new age of darkness might call for the construction of local forms of community, where a realist approach to morality lives on. Today, MacIntyre wrote, "we are waiting not for a Godot but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict."
Dreher's book describes a number of intentional "Benedict Option communities" that serve, in his view, as arks in a liquidly modern sea. (Dreher hopes that many different kinds of communities—even, in theory, Muslim and Jewish ones—will adopt the "Benedict Option" label.) One is in Hyattsville, Maryland, a small suburb of Washington, D.C. The community has no name—residents just call it Hyattsville—but, judging from the size of its two gendered Listservs ("Barn Raisers," for men, and "Hyattsville Catholic Women"), around two hundred Catholic families live there, in modest brick homes with front porches. They send their kids to St. Jerome Academy, a local Catholic school that they have more or less taken over.
The Hyattsville community got its start after Chris Currie, a public-relations consultant with a philosophy degree from Georgetown, moved there with his family in 1997. He persuaded his friends to join him, and one thing led to another. (He's now the director of institutional advancement at St. Jerome's.) Although Dreher had corresponded with Currie, he had never been there, and it took several minutes of pre-dawn driving to find Vigilante Coffee, where we had agreed to meet. Hyattsville's relative affordability is especially appealing to large Catholic families, and the café was in an industrial space that might once have belonged to a body shop. Inside, indie rock jangled on the sound system. One wall was decorated with colorfully painted skateboards.
Currie turned out to be a tall man in a dark suit, with an emphatic, energetic manner. He was discussing Vigilante's unofficial Catholic mission with Diane Contreras, the coffee shop's thirty-year-old manager, who had moved to Hyattsville a few years ago, from Los Angeles, where she'd been a teacher at a charter school.
"The baristas here, some are Catholic, some aren't," Contreras said. "But we're always talking about: How do you effect goodness in the world through your actions in the café? I want to be Catholic in every part of my world. That's what I'm trying to do here, through coffee."
"It's all very intersectional," Currie observed.
Although Dreher is voluble in one-on-one conversations, he is quieter in groups. He looked on in eager curiosity, resembling, in his thick glasses, long leather jacket, and black boots, a monk from some arctic monastery.
Currie led us outside, where we climbed a steep hill toward the school, an imposing brick pile. Inside, in the hallway, we passed a diverse group of students in Catholic-school uniforms. In the principal's office—a dingy, institutional room with seafoam-colored walls—Currie introduced us to Michelle Trudeau, the vice-principal, and Merrill Roberts, a science teacher. Both had children at St. Jerome's. Trudeau, who had an air of ironic mischief, had come to Hyattsville after dropping out of an anthropology Ph.D. program at Columbia; Roberts was about to finish his doctorate in solar physics at Catholic University, which is nearby.
They described some typical communal events. "Sunday-evening prayer is one of the largest community draws," Roberts said. "People get together at somebody's house and pray the office and have a big potluck dinner."
"I trained in anthropology, and I was really interested in culture and theology, and this community has a lot of richness in those areas," Trudeau said. "I've belonged to a bunch of book clubs in my life. They were always, 'Did you like the book?' 'Yeah . . .' Then it was celebrity sightings and what restaurant have you been to recently." In Hyattsville, she said, book-club conversations included philosophy and theology, and continued afterward, on the Listserv.
"Well, on the men's Listserv we talk about trading tools," Roberts said, to general laughter.
In a teacherly way, Dreher broke in. "There's something very Benedictine about the simple things, like exchanging tools," he said. "That's how Benedictine life is—contemplation is a part of it, but it's also how to eat together. I like how St. Benedict says, in his Rule, 'Treat your utensils like they were tools for the altar.' In other words, he's saying, treat everything as sacred, as a gift. If you do that, even the ordinary things you do can be done for Christ and for your neighbors."
"I think that's right," Roberts said. "You can sanctify the simple things."
"I mean, there are downsides," Currie said. "The other day—it was seven-thirty in the morning—I was in the bathroom, and somebody knocked on the door. It was one of my Catholic neighbors. He didn't apologize for it or anything. He was on his morning run, and he thought, 'Oh, I'd like to talk to Chris about this.' "
"If you want to be a little more private, or isolated, then this might be kind of a difficult place to live," Roberts said. "But that's the point of intentional community. I tell myself, I chose to be part of this. I want my neighbors to talk to me about their lives. This conversation is a higher good."
"People today, they want close community without sacrifice," Dreher said. "They want the good things, and they want to edit out the bad things. But you cannot have that closeness without being up in each other's business. The benefits come at a price."
Afterward, in the car, Dreher seemed unusually quiet. We talked for a while about what distinguished a religious community like Hyattsville from a secular commune of progressives. (Dreher thinks that faith is the only rudder deep enough to change the course of life for an entire community and its children: "Religion isn't a statement of how we feel about things but a standard to which we have to conform.") We discussed the extroversion and effervescence of the Hyattsville Catholics ("That's the difference between a monastery and a community").
Our visit had been short, but he seemed wistful, even a little sad, to be leaving a place where he might have belonged. In a 2013 post, Dreher meditates on his perennial outsiderness. He says he likes visiting places where he could live but doesn't—places where he is "a stranger, but not strange"—more than he enjoys fitting in at home. "I don't want to feel this way, but I do," he writes. He wonders if he is "an outsider by nature," chasing a "sense of fitting-in, of Home, that . . . I am incapable of experiencing."
One of Dreher's favorite writers is Walker Percy, whose novel "The Moviegoer" is set in a fictionalized version of West Feliciana parish, where St. Francisville is situated. (Every year, Dreher hosts a Walker Percy Weekend, combining lectures from literary scholars with crawfish, bourbon, and beer.) Binx Bolling, the book's protagonist, is a young stockbroker who finds himself on "the search"—the search being "what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the every-dayness of his own life." Binx explains, "To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair."
The Catholics in Hyattsville seemed happy and at home. Later, in New York, I met some young Benedict Option Christians who seemed, like Dreher, to be on the search. Over artisanal mac-and-cheese, Leah and Alexi Sargeant told me about their own "Ben Op" initiatives. She was twenty-seven, worked for an altruistic for-profit, and wore a T-shirt advertising the "Metaphysical Transit Authority"; he was twenty-four, sported a bow tie, and worked as an editorial assistant for the religious magazine First Things. They had organized Benedict Option-themed poetry recitations and had begun hosting dinner parties for their Christian friends. An entire gathering had been devoted to debating the Benedict Option.
"We did an evening of job applications and prayer, because job applications suck," Leah said. "Applying for jobs is profoundly depressing. When you don't hear back, the message is: 'You're worthless.' And that feeling of worthlessness isn't only unpleasant. It's untrue, from the point of view of being a Christian." For the Lenten season, Alexi had adopted a new habit: praying morning office—a liturgical ritual that varies according to the calendar—with the help of a smartphone app, as he walked to work.
"It's more techy than Rod would like, but it's still great," he said.
Another young Ben Op Christian who lives in New York told me that she didn't share Dreher's sense of outsiderness. "I grew up on the Upper West Side," she said. "This is my St. Francisville." At the same time, she said, "when I was growing up, there were these moments in the fall when you'd be walking in Central Park, and you'd see that pink, 7-p.m.-in-September sunlight on the buildings, and it seemed like there was another place the city was pointing to." In an existential sense, she said, Christianity figured human beings as "resident aliens" in the world; the Benedict Option gave a name to the deliberate maintenance of that difference. Several years ago, with some friends who were also readers of Dreher's, she had tried to start a theologically conservative church. She saw the church that she currently attended, in Manhattan, as a "deliberate community." "A couple from my church lives in my house," she said.
"What the Ben Op means to me is this," Leah told me. "You're married, right? Imagine a world where people didn't agree that marriage was a concept—where there was no social understanding of marriage. And imagine that your marriage was really important to you, and that, when you interacted with other people, no one mentioned your marriage; there was no respect for it and no acknowledgment of its existence. You would do a lot to claw out some space to manifest that your marriage was important. And that's how it is with the Benedict Option. We have a relationship with Christ. Really, it should be our most important relationship. But my relationship with Alexi is treated as more real and important and relevant. If I say, 'Oh, I can't make it, Alexi and I have a thing,' that's normal. But if I say, 'Sorry, I have to go to church,' that's weird."
They weren't sure if they would stay in New York or move somewhere else. They loved the city, but its values—competition, individualism, transience, capitalism—seemed in tension with their faith. They were still making up their minds about how they wanted to live.
The upside of being a realist—of believing that the rules are as real, in their way, as the sky and the earth—is that you live in a morally sanctified world. The downside is that you risk being a realist about the wrong set of rules. Toward the end of our time together, I told Dreher that his life story seemed very similar to those of many gay men I knew. He had grown up in the South, with a hypermasculine father who found his sensitivity and difference alienating; he had gone away to find himself, and, since then, has struggled for a place in the world he left behind. Surely, I said, he must have sympathy for gay Christians. And yet Dreher is certain that gay marriage is wrong.
Like many orthodox Christian intellectuals, Dreher holds labyrinthine views on homosexuality. He is opposed to same-sex marriage but in favor of civil unions. In principle, he is against gay adoption, but in practice, he told me, "there are so many gay couples who are wonderful parents that I find it hard to maintain any ardor for stopping it." Early in our correspondence, he referred me to an essay called "The Civic Project of American Christianity," by Michael Hanby, a Catholic philosopher. The essay represents same-sex marriage not as a rights issue but as part of an ongoing, technology-driven revolution in our view of personhood. Hanby argues that, where we used to see human beings as possessing intrinsic properties—masculinity, femininity, the ability to glorify God through procreation—we now take a nominalist view of ourselves, seeing our bodies as subservient to our minds. We use technology, such as the birth-control pill, to subvert the natural way of things. Gay marriage, in this account, is a stepping-stone to a profoundly technologized society in which "the rejection of nature" is complete. Today, it's sex-reassignment surgery and surrogacy; tomorrow, we'll be genetically engineering our way into a post-human future.
The point of the essay is that there's an irreducible conflict between orthodox Christianity and political liberalism. On his blog, Dreher acknowledges that "gays, understandably, find their personal dignity insulted by people who believe that their sexuality is in any way deficient." He writes that gay couples can "genuinely, deeply, and sacrificially love each other." Still, he maintains, "our bodies have intrinsic moral meaning. Christian orthodoxy is not nominalist." He regularly defends religious people who act illiberally "for conscience reasons"—Orthodox Jews, traditionalist Muslims, the florist Baronelle Stutzman, who was sued when she refused to provide flowers for a gay wedding.
Dreher's many critics sound a few common notes. They argue, first, that he is an alarmist about the decline of Christianity, and that he exaggerates the legal threats to its orthodox expression. They say that he has a blind spot about race and class, and note that many Christians seem just fine with the way society is changing. ("Ten years from now, 'The Benedict Option' will be an interesting artifact showing just how anxious white conservative Christians were about their changing place in society," Robert P. Jones, who runs the Public Religion Research Institute, told me.) A deeper criticism is that Dreher's anti-pluralism is too pessimistic—a rejection of the American project. Dreher writes that, on gay marriage, there can be "no tenable compromise" between orthodox Christians and progressives; many Christians would prefer a softer approach. They agree with Patrick Gilger, a Jesuit priest who, in a review of "The Benedict Option," complained that Dreher's "reading of pluralism as a problem prevents him from seeing it as a gift." Earlier this year, Christianity Today put Dreher and "The Benedict Option" on its cover, and asked four experts to weigh in. John Inazu, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis who focusses on religion and free speech, argued that Christians should avoid Dreher's defensiveness and embrace "confident pluralism": "Our confidence in the gospel lets us find common ground with others even when we can't agree on a common good." When it comes to same-sex marriage, in other words, even orthodox Christians tend to be nominalist. They'd prefer to say, "Gay marriage is wrong (to me)."
The writer Andrew Sullivan, who is gay and Catholic, is one of Dreher's good friends. Their friendship began in earnest in 2010, when Ruthie got sick and Dreher, moved by a spirit of generalized repentance, e-mailed Sullivan to apologize for anything "hard-hearted" he might have said in their various online arguments. Sullivan has a long-standing disagreement with Dreher over same-sex marriage, but he believes that the religiously devout should be permitted their dissent. "There is simply no way for an orthodox Catholic to embrace same-sex marriage," he said. "The attempt to conflate that with homophobia is a sign of the unthinking nature of some liberal responses to religion. I really don't think that florists who don't want to contaminate themselves with a gay wedding should in any way be compelled to do so. I think any gay person that wants them to do that is being an asshole, to be honest—an intolerant asshole. Rod forces you to understand what real pluralism is: actually accepting people with completely different world views than your own."
In "The Benedict Option," Dreher writes that "the angry vehemence with which many gay activists condemn Christianity" is the understandable result of a history of "rejection and hatred by the church." Orthodox Christians need to acknowledge this history, he continues, and "repent of it." He has assured his children that, if they are gay, he will still love them; he is almost—but not quite—apologetic about his views, which he presents as a theological obligation. He sees orthodox Christians as powerless against the forces of liquidly modern progressivism; on his blog, he argues that "the question is not really 'What are you conservative Christians prepared to tolerate?' but actually 'What are LGBTs and progressive allies prepared to tolerate?' " He wants them to be magnanimous in victory; to refrain from pressing their advantage. Essentially, he says to progressives: You've won. You wouldn't sue Orthodox Jews or observant Muslims. Please don't sue us, either.
"What I really love about Rod is that, even as he's insisting upon certain truths, he's obviously completely conflicted," Sullivan said. "And he's a mess! I don't think he'd disagree with that. But he's a mess in the best possible way, because he hasn't anesthetized himself. He's honest about a lot of the questions that many liberal and conservative Christians aren't really addressing." Talking to Sullivan about Dreher, I was reminded of Father Matthew's law: "You've got to love your dad even if he doesn't love you back in the way that you want him to."
Two days after his visit to Hyattsville, Dreher returned to Manhattan to talk about the Benedict Option at the Union League Club, in midtown. Various Christians came out to see him. A flock of young men in gingham hailed from The American Conservative; hip-looking Manhattanites slouched in their seats; Orthodox priests, wearing dark robes and heavy crosses, waggled their beards in groups. In sober suits and head scarves, men and women from the Bruderhof, a vowed community in upstate New York, stood on the fringes of the crowd, behind tables stacked with copies of their magazine, Plough. There are a number of Bruderhof communities around the world—the first was founded in Germany, in 1920—and those who take the membership vows agree to give up private property and embrace nonviolence. Their presence seemed to have the effect of supporting and challenging Dreher simultaneously.
After Dreher spoke, there were a few respondents. Ross Douthat, the conservative Times columnist, suggested that even a watered-down version of the Benedict Option was useful: all religious people could stand to be a little more devout. Jacqueline Rivers, who directs the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies, said that the Benedict Option was unlikely to help Christians address social injustices like segregation and inequality; in fact, it might perpetuate them. (Dreher's theory is that intentional communities, by "living in truth," can inspire the rest of us to change in more worldly ways.)
The most striking comments came from Randall Gauger, a bishop at the Bruderhof, who, with his wife, had lived for many years in a Bruderhof community in Australia. (They now live in a Pennsylvania Bruderhof community.) A bald man in his sixties wearing a tan sports coat, a black shirt, and a tan tie, Gauger described what he and his wife had done after "withdrawing." They hung out with their neighbors at barbecues; they babysat and visited elderly shut-ins. Gauger became a police chaplain. Other Bruderhof members became firefighters or E.M.T.s. They collaborated with farmers on sustainable agriculture, partnered with charities, volunteered in "crisis situations," and hosted thousands of guests, including politicians and Aboriginal leaders. "Would we have done as much as a solitary nuclear family?" Gauger asked. "I doubt it." He pointed out that capitalist society caters to people with "extraordinary talents": "Only in a communal church can the old and the very young, hurting military veterans, the disabled, the mentally ill, ex-addicts, ex-felons, or simply annoying people, like myself, find a place where they can be healed and accepted and, what's more, contribute to life." His criticism of "The Benedict Option" was that it did not go far enough. "Why stop at Benedict when we can go back to the original source of Christianity? Christians living in full community is how the church began . . . and the early church was far more radical than anything Rod has so far proposed." Dreher, sitting next to him onstage, listened, enraptured, with his head on his hand.
Afterward, Dreher and the other panelists retreated to the club's library. Bartenders served the Benedict Option ("another—doubtless very different—cocktail," made with whiskey, amaro, St-Germain, lemon juice, and simple syrup). Dreher, aglow, worked the room.
"Everybody's feeling a bit of a spiritual earthquake," Jonathan Coppage, a onetime colleague of Dreher's at The American Conservative, said. "He's a seeker. He's a rolling stone."
Mattia Ferraresi, the New York correspondent for Il Foglio, mused on Dreher's Americanness. "The idea of a 'community' that's somehow separated, I think it's foreign to Italians," he said. "For us, it's about blending and layering in a small space—the Romans, the Church . . . "
"Part of the problem with religion is that it can just be an aestheticization of life," a young Orthodox priest from Yonkers said. "It's still late-modern capitalism working its insidious tentacles. We need a vocabulary to get outside of that."
A group of fresh-faced young people from the Bruderhof hung together in a book nook. They were not drinking Benedict Options.
Dreher had long been fascinated by the Bruderhof, and the next morning he travelled upstate to learn more about the community. Members of the Bruderhof told me they were uncomfortable with a journalist tagging along, so after his visit Dreher called to tell me what it had been like. He had sung with them in church and eaten with them in their communal dining hall. (Their brewmaster, unfortunately, was out of beer.) He had stayed with a family who lived without television or the Internet, and he read stories to their little boy. He'd visited the primary school; in a classroom, he noticed a teacher holding a child in her arms.
"Oh, he's asleep," Dreher observed.
"No, he has cerebral palsy," his guide said.
"It was like a Pietà, that woman with that boy in her arms," Dreher told me. "If that child were out in the world, who knows how expensive his treatment would be. It would be thoroughly medicalized and impersonal. Later, I saw him being brought into the luncheon assembly with his dad and his mom." The very old, too, are fully integrated into Bruderhof life, Dreher said. A man he met had told him, "One of the measures of our community is how much dignity we give to our elderly." Dreher said that he now regretted the occasionally "shrill" tone of his book: "I'm truly trying to shake people out of their complacency about church, but to visit the Bruderhof is to go to a place of quiet and contemplation and kindness. I wish I'd been able to capture more of that." He urged me to go to the Bruderhof Web site, where I could read the community's rule of life.
"There seemed to be such order there," Dreher said. "Not a forced, grim, tense order—just life. Life wasn't directed by the television or the computer. It was ordered by the sacred. They've sacrificed their liberty and their comfort in ways I would probably find impossible. The gentleness of the people, how serene they seemed, and not in any weird or ethereal way—it reminded me of the old country people I grew up with around South Louisiana. They were just more at home in the world than I am. At the Bruderhof, they seem so . . . normal. It makes me think, Who are the abnormal ones here? These people, who live in such close rhythm with their own lives and the life of the church, or people like me, who live like I do?" He paused. "It was a sign to me of what could be."