There is a bit of blog war going on between two influential Christian bloggers – Rod Dreher of The American Conservative and David French of National Review. Dreher describes himself as an “Orthodox Christian.” I assume that means he is of one of the eastern Orthodox expressions. David French, an acquaintance of telephone and correspondence, is straight out of American Evangelicalism. The debate is about how Christians should proceed in the culture wars. Dreher is proposing something he calls “The Benedict Option:”
What I call the Benedict Option is this: a limited, strategic withdrawal of Christians from the mainstream of American popular culture, for the sake of shoring up our understanding of what the church is, and what me must do to be the church. We must do this because the strongly anti-Christian nature of contemporary popular culture occludes the meaning of the Gospel, and hides from us the kinds of habits and practices we need to engage in to be truly faithful to what we have been given. As Jonathan Wilson has pointed out about the New Monasticism movement (a form of the Benedict Option), the church must do this not to hide away as a pure remnant — the church would be unfaithful to Christ if it did so — but to strengthen itself to be the church for the world.
I must admit, my first response to the notion of “strategic withdrawal” is less intellectual and more visceral. Retreat? I recall John Paul Jones’s words, “I have not yet begun to fight,” or, more succinctly, General Anthony McAuliffe’s legendary response to German surrender demands at Bastogne: “Nuts!”
In reality, Christian conservatives have barely begun to fight. Christians, following the examples of the Apostles, should never retreat from the public square. They must leave only when quite literally forced out, after expending every legal bullet, availing themselves of every right of protest, and after exhausting themselves in civil disobedience. Have cultural conservatives spent half the energy on defense that the Left has spent on the attack?
Both men have a point, and this should not be an either/or debate. Much of this is a classic debate between Evangelicals and older, more liturgical Christian expressions. Some of this is poor language choice on Dreher’s part. What Dreher proposes, despite his use of the word “withdrawal,” is more of a training period.
Evangelicals tend to enter the culture wars as a militia – devoted fighters, but with minimal training and discipline. What is left of the more traditional expressions (French is absolutely correct that the mainline Protestants are all but dead) are a more professional operation taking time to develop soldiers of deep skill and discipline. The question Dreher addresses is not the manpower, resources or resolve of the Christian side (which French points out there is a lot of), but how well it has been honed into a fighting force. We need both the militia and the military if we are to win this fight.
I think of the movie “The Patriot” in which Mel Gibson and his militia forces fight a harassing war with the British until the military can be freed from other battles and the French Navy arrives to finally and completely defeat Cornwallis. I think of the Alamo in which a small, hastily raised militia tied up the entire Mexican army allowing the forces of Texas to organize and train and finally defeat Santa Ana.
In the culture wars we are in a similar situation. Our militia forces are strong and numerous, but our professional military is weak. Indeed the Evangelical forces must take the offensive and engage strategically. But they must grant that they are doing so in part to allow the professional military to reform, rearm, organize and train. French should take his people to battle. But Dreher should also build his army. We need both of them doing what they do best, but doing that pulling in the same direction, not debating with each other.