For most of my adult life, I have been a believing Christian and a committed conservative. I didn’t see any conflict between the two until my wife and I welcomed our firstborn child into the world in 1999. Nothing changes a man’s outlook on life like having to think about the kind of world his children will inherit. And so it was with me. As Matthew grew into toddlerhood, I began to realize how my politics were changing as I sought to raise our child by traditionalist Christian principles. I began to wonder what, exactly, mainstream conservatism was conserving. It dawned on me that some of the causes championed by my fellow conservatives—chiefly an uncritical enthusiasm for the market—can in some circumstances undermine the thing that I, as a traditionalist, considered the most important institution to conserve: the family.
I also came to see the churches, including my own, as largely ineffective in combating the forces of cultural decline. Traditional, historic Christianity—whether Catholic, Protestant, or Eastern Orthodox—ought to be a powerful counterforce to the radical individualism and secularism of modernity. Even though conservative Christians were said to be fighting a culture war, with the exception of the abortion and gay marriage issues, it was hard to see my people putting up much of a fight. We seemed content to be the chaplaincy to a consumerist culture that was fast losing a sense of what it meant to be Christian.
In my 2006 book, Crunchy Cons, which explored a countercultural, traditionalist conservative sensibility, I brought up the work of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who said that Western civilization had lost its moorings. MacIntyre said that the time is coming when men and women of virtue will understand that continued full participation in mainstream society was not possible for those who want to live a life of traditional virtue. These people would find new ways to live in community, he said, just as St. Benedict, the sixth-century father of Western monasticism, responded to the collapse of Roman civilization by founding a monastic order.
I called the strategic withdrawal prophesied by MacIntyre “the Benedict Option.” The idea is that serious Christian conservatives could no longer live business-as-usual lives in America, that we have to develop creative, communal solutions to help us hold on to our faith and our values in a world growing ever more hostile to them. We would have to choose to make a decisive leap into a truly countercultural way of living Christianity, or we would doom our children and our children’s children to assimilation.
Today, Christians who hold to the biblical teaching about sex and marriage have the same status in culture and, increasingly, in law, as racists. The culture war that began with the sexual revolution in the 1960s has now ended in defeat for Christian conservatives. The cultural left—which is to say, the American mainstream—has no intention of living in postwar peace. It is pressing forward with a harsh, relentless occupation, one that is aided by the cluelessness of Christians who don’t understand what’s happening.
I have written The Benedict Option to wake up the church, and to encourage it to act to strengthen itself, while there is still time. If we want to survive, we have to return to the roots of our faith, both in thought and in deed. We are going to have to learn habits of the heart forgotten by believers in the West. We are going to have to change our lives, and our approach to life, in radical ways. In short, we are going to have to be the church, without compromise, no matter what it costs.