I write this from Iceland, where, around the year 1000, the nation´s lawspeaker declared that henceforth Iceland would publicly follow Christianity. In making this proclamation he struck a conciliatory tone, holding that pagans might continue in the old faith, including by exposing unwanted children (to the elements and death) and sacrificing (including at times humans) to their gods, provided they did so in private. The pagans chose to abide by the new rules and, in time, essentially died out. Of course, that was until the recent revival of paganism in the West; at this writing Iceland´s government is working on building a new pagan temple.
The parallel with recent Supreme Court pronouncements is stunning. Thanks to Justice Kennedy´s adolescent philosophizing in the same-sex marriage case, the public rule now will be that love, however one chooses to define it for oneself, will trump religious and traditional views of the needs of society, children, and conscience. Vague assurances of religious toleration have been made, but it is clear that the freedom of religious institutions and communities to govern themselves has been placed on the road to extinction. One no longer may refuse to engage with the culture on one´s own terms. Bakers, photographers, and various forms of ministers will have to actively participate in celebrations going against their most deeply held beliefs, actively undermining the society in which they grew up and in which they desperately wish to raise their children. Of course, certain individuals may receive certain individual exemptions (some ministers may, for now, be exempt from officiating same-sex weddings, provided they can prove the sincerity and insularity of their institutional beliefs). But the presumptions are against them, their public voice has been marginalized and forced out of most boardrooms, and the law has been shown again and again in recent years to be a mere tool in the hands of those now in power; it will not for long protect those who dispute its wielders’ logic and purpose.
Under such circumstances it is understandable that some people, including most prominently my friend Rod Dreher, should conclude that Christians have lost the culture war and that we should embrace our new status as exiles in our own land. Understandable, but wrong. Dreher has been writing a good deal, of late, about what he calls the Benedict Option, by which he means a tactical withdrawal by people of faith from the mainstream culture into religious communities where they will seek to nurture and strengthen the faithful for reemergence and reengagement at a later date. This suggestion is somewhat akin to Ross Douthat´s suggestion that Christians consider, in essence, entering into semi-Amish enclaves.
The problem with this view is that it underestimates the hostility of the new, non-Christian society (the label post-Christian understates the level of rejection we are experiencing in regard to the institutions, beliefs, and practices that constitute a Christian society). Not even if we learn to build beautiful, hand-made furniture and grow wholesome, organic foods (not to mention good Amish beer) will we be able to pull off the Amish option. There are too many of us; we are too visible, too identified with the evils of Western civilization; and our calling forbids us from giving up on evangelization. Our choices, as a friend pointed out to me some time ago, consist of fighting or withdrawing into mere passive-aggressive cynicism.
Leaders of this society will not leave Christians alone if we simply surrender the public square to them. And they will deny they are persecuting anyone for simply applying the law to revoke tax exemptions, force the hiring of nonbelievers, and even jail those who fail to abide by laws they consider eminently reasonable, fair, and just. More is demanded of us than mere quiet. We are being commanded to celebrate what Saint John Paul the Great so rightly termed a Culture of Death. This culture denies God. It treats children as disposable, marriage as a mere public expression of current emotional attachments, and faith as meanings we posit for ourselves. It cannot long abide those whose very existence testifies to the shallow, self-involved, and fundamentally empty nature of its false vision of reality.
In particular, our new culture´s leaders latch onto and distort the fundamental Christian concept of sin to paint us as bigots. We know that all of us sin, but insist that it is our duty to point out and argue against sinful conduct, while loving and praying for the sinner. Yet the lack of affirmation entailed in recognition of a natural order of being and virtue is taken, sincerely or not, as a malicious desire to harm. Recognizing and arguing against sin is not a thing Christians do, but what we are; to deny its validity is to deny our validity. It is not possible for a culture dedicated to affirmation of individual desires to tolerate recognition of a higher law according to which some acts (including, for example, abortion and adultery) are morally disordered. Christians may pose no physical, political, or legal threat to our new regime, but we pose an existential threat as evidence of its disorder. As such, it is simply wrong to expect that we will somehow be allowed to build strong, insular communities.
Dreher, of course, sees himself as taking his cue from Alasdair MacIntyre´s statement at the end of his important work, After Virtue. MacIntyre says we all are waiting for a new (and different) Saint Benedict to take us through the new dark ages that are already upon us. The times certainly are dark, and we could use all the saints we can get. But I fear that the model Dreher suggests will lead much more the way of the Icelandic pagans than the early Christians. Society in the period from late antiquity to the Middle Ages, proper, certainly had broken down. Barbarians and robbers roamed the land as rulers clung to ancient ways that no longer held communities together. But Christianity already had triumphed in the sense that it was recognized in the Mediterranean world as the true religion and bishops already had taken on leadership roles in seeking to stem the tide of violence and disorder. Christians also were working to institutionalize the faith through a system of law, custom, and administration rooted in the common faith.
The Rome Benedict fled in the late fifth century surely was chaotic and troubling. But Benedict did not flee to the woods to pray because he was told his God was not welcome in the public square. And when God refused to allow him to pray alone, sending him acolytes and fellow believers to build a community, it was as a means of evangelizing to spread the good news throughout his land and the lands beyond the borders of old Rome, into the pagan forests. Those who went beyond those borders often were martyred because they refused any tactical retreat to the supposedly safe and hospitable regions in and around Rome. They reinvigorated as well as spread the Church, because they refused to be cowed, refused to back down, and refused to retreat, instead recognizing their duty to combat the ignorance and superficial understanding of the nature of reality that ruled most of the world.
Such a vision is attacked as prideful and even oppressive today, as one would expect, given the repaganization of our culture. But it is precisely this hostility toward evangelization that must be fought. As Dreher openly admits, Christians will be persecuted in a culture such as ours has become—we will lose careers, opportunities, and even our freedom if we step too far out of line with the ruling ideology. But there will be no safe place to reorganize for the future. Should we withdraw we will merely devolve into insular groups, many run by crackpots (there already are too many examples to mention) and most so cut off from one another that they will die out. The faith will not be lost, just as the cause of a Christian society will not be lost, because no cause is ever truly lost. But our duty is not to hope for better days. It is to work for better days in the here and now, including by confronting a political and legal regime increasingly hostile to our faith and way of life.
Dreher surely is correct that faith in the Republican Party has only brought disappointment. Craven congressional leaders would rather temporize with those intent on building a new regime hostile to their own way of life than give up any of their own status and prerogatives; they have shown again and again that they value the power of themselves and their own class more than the dictates of reason and conscience. He also surely is correct that the culture is now openly hostile to Christianity. And this gives us reason to take actions that many might consider to constitute a tactical retreat—e.g., those who have children in public schools should take them out and those with students in parochial schools must be prepared to fight, hard, for their education. But voting, writing, speaking, and marching must continue and increase. The press continues to ignore hundreds of thousands who march for the unborn every year. The answer must be for more of us to march and to stand in solidarity with those whom the new system seeks to ruin financially and spiritually. We may well “lose” in the short run by the standards of this world. But our children and our children´s children need to know that we fought hard, not that we retreated in the face of arrogance and injustice. For we are not fighting for victory in this world, but to witness to the nature and reality of the next.
Bruce P. Frohnen is Professor of Law at The Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law.