Political Discipleship For The Common Good

A version of this article originally appeared in the Public Justice Review, a publication by the Center for Public Justice. 

There has rarely been a time when deciding how to be a political disciple has mattered more. In the contentious campaign leading up to the election of a new American president, and then the transition to a new administration, Christians have struggled with many possible responses, including world-shattering anger, simple resignation, the “two kingdoms” separation of church and politics, and more.

An increasingly popular choice among Christians struggling with how to engage (or not) with their political communities is the so-called Benedict Option. This concept, known in its shorthand as the Ben Op, has been advanced by writer and editor of The American Conservative, Rod Dreher. The essence of Dreher’s view is that the West (and with it Christianity) is in serious decline, and the sooner Christians recognize the gravity of that decline, the sooner they can respond appropriately to it. We are in a post-Christian era, as he sees it, and all attempts at recapturing the loss, especially through political action, is hopeless.

A more appropriate response, Dreher argues, can be found in a model from the early sixth century. Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-537) was sent to Rome by his parents to finish his education, but when he got there, he was so repulsed by the decadence and corruption he saw that he fled to a forest near Subiaco in central Italy. There he resolved to found communities of believers guided by his Rule, which became the discipline for scores of monasteries throughout Europe. According to Dreher, the purpose of these communities was not to escape the world but to pause for a good long time in order to foster a deeper faith, and also to preserve Christian culture until such a time as it might once again be able to flourish. Christians in America should not dream of taking back their country, because it has been lost, and lost definitively. Rather, “The Benedict Option is a call for cultural resistance through building endurance and resilience within ourselves, our families, and our communities. It is about discipleship, which is itself an indirect form of evangelism.”[1]

To be fair, then, Dreher is not advocating an escape from the world. His goal is to preserve and renew Christian views and even eventually spread them. His proposed way to accomplish this is through living intensely in Christian community. For a time, perhaps a long time, our primary duty will be to gather into communities which practice the teachings of Christ and live by his discipline, until there may be more opportunity to see civilization restored.

But is this the biblical strategy for the transformation of culture? Is this the best way to practice our political discipleship? Let me raise three issues to challenge this view, and then propose another way.

1) Are America and the West post-Christian in any meaningful sense? 

The West, as Dreher sees it, is on a trajectory of de-Christianization. Christians today are being colonized by modernity’s assumptions. The barbarians, as he puts it, are not coming from the outside, but have been governing us for quite some time.[2] Such a declinist historiography has serious problems.

For one, how Christian was the West, ever? Was America ever “Christian” in any significant sense? While some of its laws may have reflected Puritan values, the blight of slavery, often justified by professing Christians, should disqualify any such claims. Nativism, misguided manifest destiny, blindness to the plight of women, child labor-- all these social ills should put to rest the idea that the past was somehow more Christian. In addition, are all the trends within modernity colonizing us for evil? Advances in health care? Awareness of human rights? Greater participation in government? It seems to me there is both progress as well as decline. The wheat and the weeds are growing together.

2) Is the way to restore civilization primarily through community living?

 In effect, this asks the sensitive question of what the role of the church is in relation to the whole. There is no denying the crucial importance of the believing community. So much of the New Testament is addressed to the Christian church, and it teaches principles by which believers ought to live. But to change the world through the instrumentality of the church is a model filled with problems.

For starters, it carries a theology that begins with redemption, not with the creation, where in fact the Bible begins. Many of the gains of the Reformation, and of those in the Neo-Calvinist tradition, have been in properly uncoupling the church from other sectors of society. Not uncoupling these sectors from the Lord’s rule, but from the church as an institution. One may retort that the church is much more than an institution. Is it not a lively community, a light to shine on the world? Yes, however social change should not be seen as a trickle-down effect from the church, but a comprehensive change effected by God through his common grace as well as his special grace.

It seems to me there is both progress as well as decline. The wheat and the weeds are growing together.

Dreher’s strategy, whether he would accept this characterization or not, has roots in the radical wing of the Reformation, the Anabaptist movement. The idea there was that the real life of the Spirit was lived in the community. Within it, the norms for living are quite different from those outside. For example, the Anabaptists generally refuse to bear arms or to participate in government. The world may indirectly benefit from the loving lifestyle of the church, but not from Christians living self-consciously in the institutions established at creation.[3]

3) What is the foundation for the moral order that Dreher wants to secure for these communities?

 It appears to be Aristotle’s virtue ethics. Dreher’s work and the Ben Op owe a great deal to Alasdair MacIntyre’s diagnosis of the West. In fact, the idea is spawned by the last line in MacIntyre’s influential book, After Virtue (1981), which calls for a new Benedict for our times. Amusingly, the author calls for “waiting, not for Godot, but for Saint Benedict.” The book argues that the Enlightenment project was a failure, precipitating a serious moral crisis in the West. The heart of that failure is the abandonment of virtue ethics in favor of moral emotivism. Aristotle bases his moral philosophy on the cultivation of virtue, within an overall framework of the telos, or purposefulness. The Enlightenment, in contrast, traded in this ethic based on character for modern subjectivism. This has led to the abandonment of Western civilization and its pre-modern traditions. The result is chaotic individualism where many of our choices are based not on absolutes, but on preferences we are free to change for any reason.

There is a certain insight here. Dreher believes we need to combat modern individualism and reinsert communitarian moral behavior according to Aristotle’s ethics, represented by Saint Benedict. However, is that really what Benedict stood for? The Rule involves hard work, discipline, the guidance of a leader, sincerity in prayer, a scarcity of personal possessions, and the like. There is much to commend these practices, though it is hard to see how they are linked to Aristotelian principles. And is the celebration of virtue quite the same as the New Testament teaching on conformity to the law of love? Never do the New Testament writers recommend moral behavior as a matter of virtue, or character, unless it is rooted and grounded redemptively, in union with Christ.

THE CALL TO POLITICAL DISCIPLESHIP

In the biblical view, God’s Creation determines true meaning, not in a great chain of being, but in the permanent law structures that the Lord established at the beginning. Accordingly, various institutions, including the state, are not ontological paths to a greater good, but honorable in themselves, because they are aspects of God’s good original order, one that continues despite the Fall. At the same time, the individual person is fully honored because he or she is made after God’s own image.

The response of the Ben Op does not recognize the biblical reality of both Creation and Fall. True, there is hostility, but the institutions God originally created are still there and cannot by definition be eradicated. Certainly, they may be corrupted. But such establishments as the state, the family, the school, and the workbench, will always remain God’s appointments.

Political discipleship therefore is not a matter of abandoning our social institutions, even if the intention is to repopulate them when things are different. The New Testament does not recommend withdrawal from the world. What we are told instead is to follow Christ, who delivers us, not from human institutions, but from “lifelong slavery” because of the fear of death (Heb 2:15). We are to be salt and light, two entities which by definition are this-worldly (Matt 5:13-16). Jesus taught us to render to Caesar what is rightfully his: taxes and deference. But that is because we should render to God everything in Creation, including allegiance to the state (Matt 22:15-22). Nothing in God’s Creation is bad in itself. Even eating and drinking are good, as long as we do them thankfully, to God’s glory (1 Cor 10:31; 1 Tim 4:4).

If we are to work toward human flourishing, our discipleship will have to express itself in every sphere of life. Instead of looking to recapture something that was once ours and now lost, we should opt for deep engagement in the varied institutions we have inherited, rooted in Creation, with a view to fostering obedience to the Lord in each. While everyone is a citizen, not everyone is called to full-time political service. But whatever the case, from an individual casting a vote to pressuring a legislator to uphold justice to running for office, the goal of every citizen should be human flourishing, to the glory of God. We dare not give the political process up to forces supposedly beyond God’s control. And there are so many other legitimate callings besides the political one: family, science, education, farming, jurisprudence, the arts.

This should be good news to the Christian in the pew, who may be wondering if there is anything left to do in a seemingly hostile environment. The answer is: plenty, each according to his or her calling. As we await the Lord’s return, the last thing we want to portray is indifference to our suffering planet. Instead of the Benedict Option, why not the Petrine Option (1 Peter:2:9-10): proclaiming the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light… in every sphere of Creation?

Here is how Abraham Kuyper puts it in his masterpiece, Lectures on Calvinism: “But it remained the special trait of Calvinism that it placed the believer before the face of God, not only in the church, but also in his personal, family, social, and political life. The majesty of God, and the authority of God, press upon the Calvinist in the whole of his human existence. He is a pilgrim, not in the sense that he is marching through a world with which he has no concern, but in the sense that every step of the long way he must remember his responsibility to that God so full of majesty, who awaits him at his journey’s end.”[4]

-William Edgar is Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.


[1] From material authored by Rod Dreher, collected by Bruce Hallmark in Informing the Faithful April 20, 2016 [https://informingthefaithful.com/2016/04/20/the-benedict-option/]

[2] Ibid.

[3] For example, most Anabaptists believe Romans 13 is not for Christians. In this way, Dreher seems indebted to Stanley Hauerwaus who advocates such a view. Thanks to one of my readers for pointing this out.

[4] Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970, p. 69