The Brigham Option: Living in a Post-Christian Nation

I have heard a lot about Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (2017), so I finally got a copy and read it. Short summary: Christian writer figures out Protestants no longer enjoy the benefits of informal religious establishment in the USA and goes into panic mode. Maybe that’s a little unfair, but I doubt that Catholics or Mormons or Buddhists reading the book have much sympathy for the plight of Evangelicals and mainline Protestants who now have to deal with the same church-state and citizenship issues that we have had to deal with for hundreds of years.

He talks about school prayer and abortion, but it’s gay marriage that really pushed Dreher into “The End is Near” mode. He repeats the same shallow religious freedom rhetoric that has become fashionable in Mormon circles. He spends a chapter recounting his visit to a Benedictine monastery and showers praise and admiration on the rule of living that guides the men who live as part of the order. His prescription for protecting believing, practicing Christians and their families who didn’t see the light early enough in life to join a monastery is to embrace a stricter from of Christian living inside a righteous Christian subculture. In the ideal case, that would go as far as living in a Christians-only neighborhood or subdivision.

Dreher gives brief but favorable mention of Mormon practices in a couple of places. He likes home teaching. He likes Mormon “community building” (referring to the LDS ward community, not the wider local community one lives in). He seems entirely unaware of the 19th-century LDS attempts to establish Zion communities along the lines of his strict Christian neighborhood model. He might be less excited about that model if he saw how poorly LDS attempts fared. He makes no mention of the LDS seminary program or the LDS missionary program, which together play a key role in socializing our youth and young adults into the LDS community. He could learn more about the sort of religious community building he is preaching by spending a month attending an LDS ward (and all the associated activities) than by spending a week at monastery.

I have distinctly mixed feelings about the whole analysis and program Dreher puts forward. A few quick points. (1) The arguments that fuel his panic over threats to religious freedom are as unconvincing coming from Dreher as when they come from LDS speakers. Public accommodation laws were a big step forward for social justice. Recent efforts to extend them (like baking a cake for a gay wedding if you bake them for everyone else) seems like more of the same, not a threat to religious freedom. (2) Mormons already do a pretty good job of creating a safe subculture and a vibrant religious community. We’re way ahead of the game on this one. (3) Dreher emphasizes withdrawal from larger society more than the LDS approach, which is more “in the world but not of the world.” Dreher seems to think that a devout young Christian ought to give serious consideration to the actual monastery option. That is emphatically not an option for devout young LDS, who are all encouraged to go out into the world and engage it as missionaries.

The bottom line: The Brigham Option, at least in its 20th-century form, is a lot more attractive than the Benedict Option spelled out by Dreher. Plus it actually works. I do, however, appreciate Dreher’s nice remarks about LDS social practices. I am interested to hear what other LDS readers who have read the book think of Dreher’s analysis and program.

66 comments for “The Brigham Option: Living in a Post-Christian Nation

  1. Please forgive my comments as I have not read Dreher’s book. However I emphatically disagree with his solution.

    I say the following having benefitted from modern revelation of gospel doctrine seemingly unavailable to Dreher. LDS understanding not only of God’s “plan of salvation” but of pre-earth existence and the Eden narrative would teach us that pre-earth existence in the presence of God, and Eden, supposedly combining earth and God’s presence (similar to an LDS temple) are tempoary states for God’s children.

    Both of these states must be parted from, left behind, and a way made through the lone and dreary wilderness. There is a destination for this lone and dreary wilderness life: the fruit of the Tree of Life. A path has been provided to this Tree, and a solid trustworthy support that runs along the path. Challenges come to those on the path, in one form or another, but hold on to the solid support (or hold on to someone who is holding on to the solid support) and a person will not stray, or stray far, from the path.

    Too be fair, earthly existence is far more than a life in a lone and dreary wilderness. An additional element from modern revelation has given me cause to enjoy this existence on earth: men are that they might have joy. I have always understood this as not just a reward waiting for a future place and time, but as a state of being I can claim right now, right where I am.

    Singer Billy Joel has a song lyric, stemming from his experience growing up amomg Catholics, “I’d rather laugh with the siners than cry with the saints.” I grew up among saints, still live among saints, and I’ve witnessed hand-wringing and sorrow for those prodigals who choose the ways of the world. I have also witnessed love, and even laughter, among the saints, and I believe that sorrow for the world ultimately gives way to faith in the Christ, who overcame the world.

    I invite Mr. Dreher to come out of his cave, and embrace faith in the Christ as the LDS have known and know, and laugh with us.

  2. Jerry’s comments are based on a complete misuderstanding of what Dreher is doing. Dave’s are predictable, because he feels forcing artists to create art that violates their conscience is completely okay (and he basically discounts everything Elder Oaks has ever said on this topic), thus he doesn’t see the same problem Dreher does.

    Dreher’s solution is basically “build up Zion where you live” and is fairly compatible with the gospel (not totally, but mostly).

    Look at President Benson’s remarks from 1991: “The purpose [of the stake] is to unify and perfect the members who live in those boundaries by extending to them the Church programs, the ordinances, and gospel instruction. Members of stakes are to be models, or standards, of righteousness.
    Stakes are to be a defense. They do this as stake members unify under their local priesthood officers and consecrate themselves to do their duty and keep their covenants. Those covenants, if kept, become a protection from error, evil, or calamity.
    Stakes are a refuge from the storm to be poured out over the earth.”

    Compare that with Dreher’s statements: “What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. . . we have got to prepare ourselves and our families and our churches through intentional living, through disciplined living, and through an awareness of the cultural moment to deal with perhaps even persecution . . . Let’s stay involved in the outside world, but let’s also do a strategic retreat. That’s not, “head for the hills” [but it is] Back away from the culture.”

    D. Todd Christoferson in 2008 said: “If we would establish Zion in our homes, branches, wards, and stakes, we must rise to this standard. It will be necessary (1) to become unified in one heart and one mind; (2) to become, individually and collectively, a holy people; and (3) to care for the poor and needy with such effectiveness that we eliminate poverty among us. We cannot wait until Zion comes for these things to happen—Zion will come only as they happen.” This is basically Dreher’s plan.

    Let me repeat Benson and Dreher again: Dreher’s “local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages” and to “prepare ourselves and our families and our churches through intentional living, through disciplined living, and through an awareness of the cultural moment to deal with perhaps even persecution” sound an awful lot like President’s Benson’s words “Stakes are to be a defense. They do this as stake members unify under their local priesthood officers and consecrate themselves to do their duty and keep their covenants. Those covenants, if kept, become a protection from error, evil, or calamity. Stakes are a refuge from the storm to be poured out over the earth.”

    I would suggest Jerry actually read the book. Dave read it filtered through his own ideological commitments (as we all do), so he’s about as fair as could be expected. Jerry, on the other hand. should at least do some more research before posting long comments that attack a non-existent straw man.

  3. I’m not sure “The Brigham Option” is an accurate title for what Banack advocates here. After all, Brigham was the one who led the membership out of Babylon and physically separated them in an enclave in the mountains. He encouraged members to not even do business with gentiles whenever possible. Perhaps “The David O.McKay” option would be more appropriate for what the OP advocates.

    Names aside, I tend to agree with Ivan that the Church leadership agrees more with Dreher than Banack. The scriptures and modern day prophets are clear that in the Last Days (whenever that is) “Those who will not take up their sword to fight against their neighbor must needs flee to Zion for safety.” (D&C 45:68–69.) As the world becomes more secular, the LDS Church will become more insular (see Boy Scouts, LDS Family Services, and Church University hiring). We’re not there yet, but true believers in the Gospel will yet take the Benedict (and Brigham) Option.

    From John Taylor, quoted by Ezra Taft Benson and Neal A. Maxwell. “They will come, saying, we do not know anything of the principles of your religion, but we perceive that you are an honest community; you administer justice and righteousness, and we want to live with you and receive the protection of your laws, but as for your religion we will talk about that some other time. Will we protect such people? Yes, all honorable men. When the people shall have torn to shreds the Constitution of the United States, the Elders of Israel will be found holding it up to the nations of the earth and proclaiming liberty and equal rights to all men.”

  4. I’ve not read the book so I’ll not comment on that. I do find it interesting that Dreher and others see the problem as now since it seems to me popular culture shifted quite a long time ago. It’s hard not to think that Dreher’s real concerns are more tolerance for homosexuality since gay marriage is the big shift. That shift I think put many on the religious social conservative community to freak out – perhaps beyond what’s justified. This in turn led many Evangelicals to inexplicably support Trump who arguably is the worst example of secular culture. They did so in some vain “ends justify the means” kind of hope for retrenchment in the social culture wars. Dreher, who’s been pretty critical of Evangelical responses, seems like yet an other overreaction.

    I’m really sympathetic to Ivan’s point that Dreher’s really just pushing what’s been the Mormon solution through much of the 20th century. We find what’s good in America and emphasize that in our communities. (Thus Time magazine’s portrayal of Mormons as super-Americans back in the 90’s) We also then (somewhat like Evangelicals) have our own social community and emphasize that community.

    The problem of course is the old critique of Mormons as far too insular. After all the callings, activities, and then activities in the home – who has time to be part of secular culture? Although that’s more the case for kids living and home and married couples. It doesn’t work as well for singles – and unsurprisingly that’s where arguably the Church is struggling the most.

    Which leads me to my question to Dave and Ivan who actually have read Dreher. Does he offer any solutions for the rise of single adults as a pretty significant class in America?

  5. Ivan W is correct to call me out for not reading the book and making a comment. Dave even specifically invited comments from those who read the book, implying those who did not read should not comment.

  6. As far as whether it’s really just all about the gays (“It’s hard not to think that Dreher’s real concerns are more tolerance for homosexuality since gay marriage is the big shift”), but here’s Dreher on that:

    “Q; It’s all about the gays, isn’t it? I didn’t hear a thing about the Benedict Option until the Obergefell ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.

    A: Now, now. I have been talking about the Ben Op in my writing for over a decade. You can find it in my 2006 book Crunchy Cons. If there were no such thing as gay marriage, we would still need the Benedict Option, because modernity is dissolving authentic Christianity. Hauerwas and Willimon are not theological conservatives, but a generation ago, they wrote their great book Resident Aliens in response to the effects of modernity on Christianity, at the practical, parish level.

    That said, it is true that the rise of gay rights has provoked an intense interest in the Ben Op among conservative Christians. Why? I think there are several reasons.

    For one, the it awakened many small-o orthodox Christians to something that ought to have been clear to them a long, long time ago: the West is truly a post-Christian civilization, and we had better come up with new ways of living if we are going to hold on to the faith in this new dark age. The reason gay rights were so quickly embraced by the American public is because the same public had already jettisoned traditional Christian teaching on the meaning of sex, of marriage, and even a Christian anthropology. Same-sex marriage is only the fulfillment of a radical change that had already taken place in Western culture.

    For another, the way civil rights laws work in the US means that religious liberty is now and will increasingly be at grave risk from the progress of gay civil rights. Christian institutions will struggle to stay open in the years to come. Individual Christians will also face increased pressure to turn from the truth about sex, marriage, and the family, for the sake of participating in American cultural and economic life. We had better start forming now the institutions and communities within which we can live out our faith in a hostile culture, teach our children the faith and raise them to be resilient, and to support each other.

    Finally, we are under a new set of conditions, in which the old ways of responding don’t work. Read Prof. Kingsfield on what we’re facing. Voting Republican, and expecting judges to save us, is over. It’s all about culture now.”

  7. “Short summary: Christian writer figures out Protestants no longer enjoy the benefits of informal religious establishment in the USA and goes into panic mode. Maybe that’s a little unfair, but I doubt that Catholics or Mormons or Buddhists reading the book have much sympathy for the plight of Evangelicals and mainline Protestants who now have to deal with the same church-state and citizenship issues that we have had to deal with for hundreds of years.” I agree that’s an unfair reading of his more complicated proposal, but this resonates with me so much. Discussions like Dreher’s always remind me how much the lived experience of American Mormons is different from American evangelicals despite both groups falling under the umbrella of the Religious Right.

  8. “Short summary: Christian writer figures out Protestants no longer enjoy the benefits of informal religious establishment in the USA and goes into panic mode. Maybe that’s a little unfair, but I doubt that Catholics or Mormons or Buddhists reading the book have much sympathy for the plight of Evangelicals and mainline Protestants who now have to deal with the same church-state and citizenship issues that we have had to deal with for hundreds of years.”

    It’s not just unfair, it’s inaccurate. Yes, Dr. Dreher was raised Methodist, but he converted to Catholicism and, after that church’s child sex abuse scandal, converted to the Eastern Orthodox church. (Who knows, maybe some day he’ll come around to joining the LDS church.) So I’d say he’s somewhat familiar with belonging to a minority religious community.

    I haven’t read his book, but I have read several of his blog posts, and my impression was that his main message was not “oh no, Christians aren’t in charge any more,” and more “conservative Christians need to stop looking to political activism as a way to change society.”

  9. For what it’s worth, I recently had an interview with a member of the Twelve in his office, and the Benedict Option was on his bookshelf.

  10. “Stakes are to be a defense. They do this as stake members unify under their local priesthood officers and consecrate themselves to do their duty and keep their covenants. Those covenants, if kept, become a protection from error, evil, or calamity. Stakes are a refuge from the storm to be poured out over the earth.”

    This from President Benson is based on a knowledge that the priesthood of God is on the earth and will not leave again.

    Dreher has no such faith or understanding. Dreher uses” dark ages,” but his use and understanding of this term has little to do with LDS use of this term. The understanding I was raised with in the LDS church is that the Catholic church was a primary enforcer of the “darkness” of the Dark Ages, that the Protestant Reformation was a preparatory change making way for the restoration of the gospel of Jesus the Christ through Joseph Smith. Further, the life of Joseph Smith emphasized that no so-called Christian religion then on earth had the necessary understanding of the gospel.

    This tells me that Dreher’s proposal is less similar to the Lords call to strengthen Zion’s stakes (“And that the gathering together upon the land of Zion, and upon her stakes, may be for a defense, and for a refuge from the storm, and from wrath when it shall be poured out without mixture upon the whole earth.” from D&C 115) and more like the cult leader who traps his followers in a “safe” place so that he can be assured of their loyalty, since the mechanism of the State cannot help him accomplish this.

  11. Jerry Schmidt, until you actually read Dreher’s book and persuse his blog, your comments are uninformed and inaccurate. Calling Dreher a “cult leader” (or at least likening him to one) really should be out of bounds. It’s classless and clueless at the same time, and so far removed from Dreher’s point that I’m not even sure you can give Dreher a fair shake (but I would suggest trying to do it anyway before commenting again, since both of your lengthy comments are hurt by your strawman attacks).

  12. Understanding someone’s point and agreeing with it are not the same. I read what I choose, and allow you the same freedom. I do not have to read Dreher’s book to understand that his point of view will not avail me any new insight or wisdom. Presumably posts about books are intended to introduce concepts and points of view, not obligate others to read. Your arguments thus far assume that if I would just read, I would understand, even agree. That is a rather large assumption, and I will let it go untested. I have based my counter-arguments on what I have read, and thus far your arguments are making unwarranted connections between the opinions of men and modern revelation from God and His prophets. If Dreher has a similar vision, I invite him to join us. Somehow I suspect he is unconcerned with LDS theology, and more concerned with the political power he evidently believes Christians have lost. I see no such loss, which necessarily puts me in direct disagreement with his opinion of the state of Chistianity, as it also puts me in direct disagreement with what has become evident as your opinion on the same

    Perhaps I have invented a straw man to argue against. My counter to Dreher is that he has also invented a straw man, that he might justify his view of a modern “dark ages.” Just because Christianity, in his view, does not have political sway as it once had, he misunderstands that Christianity was never intended to transform humans from outside, but rather as voluntary self-work that could realistically take place within any political or cultural context.

    Nevertheless, we, each of us, may choose for ourselves how belief in Christ may become part of our lives.

  13. No, I don’t expect you to read Dreher and agree with him. Dave read him and disagreed – but while I think Dave has it wrong, I still think Dave’s critiques are solid and come from a place of actually engaging with what Dreher wrote. Your comments are a doubling down on straw man arguments built on ignorance – and they bear so little relation to what Dreher is actually doing, it’s not that you’re not right, you’re not even wrong; you’re just way off base.

    If we’re going to discuss and disagree on Dreher, let’s do it based on Dreher’s actual writing, and not on caricatures meant to confirm your own biases.

  14. Dreher tells himself that all the time; he’s not confident it will become widespread or popular, though he is hopeful that at least a small remnant will adopt it or something like it.
    On his blog, he’s pretty much said Mormons are pretty close to what he envisions, though he has some pretty distinctive differences of opinion; however, Dreher is not aiming to be the leader of this movement, and clearly does not want to lead a group of people into the wilderness or anything like that. He wants people to basically do this on their own, spontaneously yet intentionally forming their own small communities; if anything, while he likes what the Mormons do, he finds the church a bit too corporate like and uniform across boundaries (to mention somewhat heretical from his capital ‘O’ Orthodox point of view).

  15. It might be interesting to note that a Cultural evolutionists and quantitative historians are appearing to be increasingly worried/interested in questions about polity (effective state) size. My sense of the informal conversations now going on is that there is real fear that, if current polarization continues, we may be back to city states as the most reliable unit of organization.

    The thinking is that the urban / rural divide may be so morally laden that these boundaries can’t be effectively bridged with people holding onto their secular sacred values as strongly as they now do. State & national cooperation probably won’t cease, but governance at these levels may be increasingly delegitimized. This makes for some really unstable dynamics.

    And that is the lens through which I tend to look at these summaries of Dreher. Does his stance simply reflect a desire to be around those with similar morality? For altruism to be biologically effective you need a critical mass of like-minded people who can be sorted from pretenders. Perhaps these questions are becoming increasingly germane as people start to feel societal social cohesion crumble?

    As people have already said, Mormon history provides some good insights into why a religiously bound city state sized polity is doomed. It is too tight. From a cultural evolution perspective, you need more looseness to stay within arms reach of your larger political governance units. A little difference is fine, but too much inspires non linear ire.

  16. I haven’t read the book, but I do occasionally read his column. While I can relate to some of his concerns, I find myself wondering why he gets to decide what authentic Christianity is.

  17. That’s an interesting point Chris. Mormonism tends to predominately be a suburban religion. (All apologies to the Manhattan and Berkeley wards) Yet I think we’re seeing a shifting even in suburbia. I wonder if anyone’s looked at that issue. The needs are quite different. I suspect were we to look carefully at Mormonism we’d also see a division between rural and more urban/white collar in terms of how our religion is seen. While I’m probably being unfair, my guess is that rural would see more of a remnant of McConkie styled Mormons whereas for lack of a better term suburban Mormons with college degrees culturally are more like FARMS and/or Maxwell Institute or Dialog.

  18. Perhaps there’s more urban-rural divide within Mormonism than I am aware of, but being in urban-rural boundary stake, and working a day job with rural ward members, I suspect the current divide within Mormonism has more to do with social issues. While this is certainly strongly correlated with rural-urban dichotomies, many rural people I know break on modern social issues.

    So what is more fundamental – morality or physical location? I’d suggest the former.

    What are the moralities that really matter, and how do those influence the inevitable spatial clustering that happens due to slight preferences for “your own kind”? How does digital social media effect this? Does physical segregation still need to occur? How do digital “wards” form? Is this what the bloggernacle has been doing?

    While I have few answers, I strongly suspect digital communities transfer into physical segregation – after all preferences need only be very slight to lead to start spatial distributions. But what is interesting is what those “slight preferences” might actually entail. I doubt they are going to occur on hard denominational boundary lines. I suspect they are much more likely to occur on social values. Which ones of course are up for grabs. But political divisions (perhaps based on cosmopolitanism vs. in-group coherence) seem to be a solid bet.

  19. “He seems entirely unaware of the 19th-century LDS attempts to establish Zion communities along the lines of his strict Christian neighborhood model. He might be less excited about that model if he saw how poorly LDS attempts fared.”

    “Mormons already do a pretty good job of creating a safe subculture and a vibrant religious community. We’re way ahead of the game on this one.”

    When he came to speak at Georgetown, I mentioned these to him *in person* and suggested that he might learn from the Mormon example in these matters. Apparently he didn’t take my suggestion!

    Also: Dreher is Orthodox Christian, so that makes it extra strange that he wouldn’t look too closely at Catholic matters.

  20. MH, I think one has to question why such communities fail before saying it was the Christian neighborhood aspect that failed them.

  21. MH: He discusses Mormons quite a bit (there’s basically a whole chapter devoted to them, though he seems to have relied heavily on Russell Arben Fox from over at BCC – while that’s a fine source, he could have “gotten out more” I think) and they come up all the time on his blog.

  22. I found the following Benedict Option review amusing:

    “1. Social hostility and legal restrictions will undermine the viability of many Christian institutions, and significantly limit individual Christians’ participation in many professions and aspects of public life, in the United States within a generation or so.

    Portion of The Benedict Option devoted to this claim: 20%

    Portion of journalistic coverage of the book devoted to this claim: 90%

    Portion of social media buzz (pro and con) devoted to this claim: 98%

    Likelihood of this claim being true: 50%

    How much this should cause acute distress for those who believe that Jesus is Lord: 5%

    2. Due to a lack of meaningful discipleship and accommodation to various features of secularized modernity and consumer culture, the collapse of Christian belief and practice is likely among members of the dominant culture (and many minority cultures) in the United States within a generation or so.

    Portion of The Benedict Option devoted to this claim: 80%

    Portion of journalistic coverage devoted to this claim: 10%

    Portion of social media buzz (pro and con) devoted to this claim: 2%

    Likelihood of this claim being true: 90%

    How much this should cause acute distress for those who believe that Jesus is Lord: 100%”

  23. I think it is worth noting Elder Cook put The Benedict Option as a footnote in his talk this past General Conference:

    I agree with the comments that say much of what Mr. Dreher is suggesting for Christians in other faiths are already covered in the various programs of the LDS church. I also agree with the comments that say that Mr. Dreher’s focus goes beyond same-sex marriage and religious freedom, though those are certainly big issues for him. It seems to me that he believes those are just symptoms of what he calls Moral Therapeutic Deism and Liquid Modernity, and that these are the issues he really seeks to confront with the Benedict Option.

    I do think that his concerns about the issues believers in traditional marriage will face down the road are not unfounded, and to some degree have already started to be borne out. But beyond a voice of warning, I don’t think the Benedict Option has any solutions for example, for the court cases likely to come for institutions like BYU.

  24. Dave, I apologize for commenting without reading, and tainting your argument with my foolishness.

  25. Ivan W, I have done subsequent research on Mr. Dreher’s blog, and I can appreciate his non-political solution to his concern. He certainly does not need my validation to continue; it is a free country, for now. May it temain so.

  26. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Jerry, comments are always welcome. When I post about a book or article, I put enough of a summary in my post that those who don’t have the time to read it can nevertheless share an informed comment.

    EC, I’d forgotten that Elder Cook mentioned the book in a General Conference talk. The statement that he cited Dreher’s book for was this: “Some Christian leaders of other faiths believe we are living in a post-Christian world.”

    chris g. and Clark, I suspect the dividing line is more between LDS units within the Mormon Corridor and those outside it than urban-suburban-rural.

    Jack of Hearts, thanks for agreeing with me. That happens less and less these days.

    Ivan W, thanks for your detailed responses. Mormonism articulates and uses as an ideal this unique LDS concept of Zion, separate from “the kingdom of God” and from the Church as an institution. It would be an interesting project to contrast these three ideas and try to figure out how Dreher’s Benedict Option matches up. He is sort of advocating a plan of Zion, one person at a time as part of a small community of like-minded Christians. Mormonism in the ideal aims higher, shooting for a “Zion society.” Unfortunately, the real-world Church seems headed in the opposite direction. The Church is getting narrower and harsher, in retreat from The Evil World that has declined to endorse LDS rejection of same-sex marriage. Mormon society just isn’t very Zion-like these days. Maybe a Dreher-like Zion one person at a time plan is the best we can manage at the moment.

  27. Dave – well, I disagree “Mormon society just isn’t very Zion-like these days” mainly because it’s clear your vision of Zion and the vision of Zion from the church leaders are incompatible. I find Mormon society more Zion like as time goes on, because I see people in wards and stakes helping each other out, doing service, and following the leaders more and more, whereas you see “Zion” as “embracing same sex marriage and other progressive platforms.” Zion is not becoming more worldly, it’s becoming less (as Elder Oaks stated in the last conference, the world is always the enemy of the church in the scriptures.

    Dreher’s vision isn’t totally compatible with the idea of “building up Zion where you live”, but I’d say it’s about 77% (give or take a few percentage points) compatible. The recent focus on keeping the sabbath, the expansion of the Pathway program, the new self-reliance curriculum and youth sunday school cirriculum – those are all very “Benedict Option” type things.

    Your vision, however, really seems to be “the church needs to get with the world’s program” more, and that just isn’t what Zion is about.

  28. Ivan, I wonder if one way to summarize is to say that zion is bifurcating. Balkinization (or tribalization) is a question I am very interested in.

    The types of divide you mention seems common across most societal sub-groups. The moral unfreezing which occurred at the end of the main culture war is not starting to re-freeze. Tribal lines are becoming very stark.

    I see a doubling down on cosmopolitanism and a ?Dreher-like? retrenchment to tighter, more insular groupings.

    Perhaps the church’s success with physical attendance and physically-mediated cohesion may keep cultural sub-groupings from splitting apart. But, maybe it won’t. Who knows. Digital mediums allow both physical ward groupings and digital inter-ward groupings (everyone on T&S or BCC). This sets the stage for within ward dynamics (small clusters within a ward who are cohered through non-spatial digital mediums and whose groupings extend beyond the physical ward itself).

    As I’ve mentioned, this makes for some very interesting spatial assorting dynamics. I’ve already mentioned some thoughts about how that might play out.

  29. I don’t understand how any religious community could isolate themselves from the LGBTQ rights cause. LGBTQs will always grow up in religious communities and continue to force the issue. It doesn’t matter if that community is in isolation. They can’t escape addressing the issue.

  30. The large isolationist community of Hutterite Brethern spread across the West certainly have (as presumably have many other Luddite sects). I suspect it’s just that these communities aren’t considered “normal” or fully participating in society. But doesn’t that just strengthen the original argument you are opposing?

  31. Ted b. – I’m not sure what your comment is meant to argue or imply. the Benedict Option isn’t about isolating Christians from LGBT+ issues, so that seems like either a non sequitur or a total misunderstanding.

  32. As I have monitored this dialogue, I’ve observed an American? socially conservative – leaning side, an American? centrist side, and a more intellectually-oriented external-to-America side. To the social-conservatives, we centrists look Left-leaning, and to the centrists the social-conservatives look right leaning.

    Elder Uchtdorf spoke to this divide in a talk at the most recent women’s conference I happened to overhear. I have no idea what Elder Uchtdorf’s political leanings, nor does that seem relevant to me. Rightly or wrongly, I view Elder Uchtdorf as a neutral voice whose Pauline discourses inevitably remind me that Jesus is my personal tutelary, so I can’t help but see Jesus as above and beyond this social/political divide. To me, each side attempts to co-opt the church for their purpose, as Constantine co-opted Christianity many generations ago.

  33. Jerry, I think “social conservative” end up being uphelpful. There’s simply pretty different issues and people often have different opinions about each although there arguably is some correlation. So you have LGBT issues, gun rights issues, abortion issues, pornography, and “political correctness” and free speech issues. There’s lots of people who are “liberal” on LGBT issues but “conservative” on gun rights issues. Even what counts as “centrists” isn’t at all clear. Throw in the fact that on many of these issues, like LGBT or speech, there’s rapid social change, it’s hard to take such terms too seriously. My guess is that we’re in a period of pretty significant shifting of issues and political boundaries. It’s not yet clear how things will shape up. But I bet the Democratic party and Republican party of ten years from now will look radically different from what was common from 1995-2012.

    I’d add in that someone might be politically socially “liberal” yet rather conservative in ones personal life. That is one might political be against limits on LGBT, speech, pornography and so forth yet think social norms should be extremely conservative.

    While again I’ve not read Dreher’s book, so I can’t say much there, one thing I think he was getting at was distinction. That is he was calling for a subculture with very different social norms, yet being in a more liberal national culture. In some ways arguably both evangelicals and Mormons have done just that. Especially those Mormons living in places where Mormons aren’t the majority.

  34. Ivan W., the Benedict Option is about preventing cultural assimilation through some sort of removal, as implied in the title by using Benedictine. To say that Dreher isn’t implying a sort of isolation causes question about why he alludes to Benedictine monks. It is too little too late. LGBTQs inside whatever culture in the US will exist and more than likely their sexual orientation will be a powerful enough force that they will latch onto available cultural narratives to justify their very existence and assert their rights. No form of feasible social isolation in the US could guard against LGBTQs demanding their rights that conservative Christian organizations, like the ones that Dreher is trying to defend, deprive them of.

  35. Ted– I agree with much of what you say. While it may be true that “no form of feasible social isolation in the US could guard against LGBTQs demanding their rights,” it is possible to create a community where cultural norms still deny those rights, and still consider the LGBTQ lifestyle as sexually deviant.

    The Shakers chose the Benedict Option. So did the Amish and the related mennonites and hutterites. In the 20th Century, many of the polygamous LDS sects have taken the Benedict Option, and Jews self-segregated to Israel or into a communities like Brooklyn. It reaches a point where if a culture doesn’t self-segregate, it will disappear entirely. Mormons are on that path, far more than evangelicals or other protestants.

    Mormons self-segregate to a degree I do not believe Dreher recognizes. In Utah County, for instance, Mormons have created a culture that is so far removed from normal U.S. standards that it’s referred to as “the bubble.” On this blog, we talk about “life outside the Mormon Corridor,” where the cultural standards for X is different there than the rest of the country. From morality (premarital sex, pornography, expectations on marriage, etc.) to lifestyle (married with children vs. single, alcohol, Sabbath day observance) it’s very, very different.

    Will Mormons become the Mennonites of the 21st Century? It’s possible. The fact that the apostles are reading and thinking about this issue convinces me that it’s a serious concern. Maybe not in 10 or 20 years. But give it 50 years, and Mormons will be as distinct and peculiar from mainstream America as they were in the 1890s.

  36. Other Clark, is that what Dreher is espousing though? I’ll confess I don’t read him enough to know, but from what I have read I got the impression he was more after say how Mormons in less dense areas like California behave. There’s still enough to have their own culture and society but they haven’t really withdrawn the way Hutterites or Amish have or that in some practical ways happens in Utah just by density.

  37. Ted B. – well. part of your problem/misunderstanding comes from not understanding where the title Benedict Option comes from. You state “causes question about why he alludes to Benedictine monks” = however, the allusion is not to monks, but to philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s famous book “After Virtue”, where MacIntyre states: “if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St Benedict.”

    This is meant to be that “very different” Benedict. There is a partial withdrawal, but not isolation or refusal to engage.

    To keep using the term “isolation” is inaccurate, misleading, and misguided. There is no attempt in the Benedict Option to avoid LGBT+ or others; that’s your misunderstanding, not Dreher’s stance. Dreher summarized his stance on “isolation” like this: “While I wouldn’t necessarily fault people who sought geographical isolation, that will be neither possible nor desirable for most of us. The early Church lived in cities, and formed its distinct life there. Most of the Ben Op communities that come to mind today are not radically isolated, in geography or otherwise, from the broader community. It’s simply nonsense to say that Ben Oppers want to hide from the world and live in some sort of fundamentalist enclave. Some do, and it’s not hard to find examples of how this sort of thing has gone bad. But that is not what we should aim for.”

  38. Ivan, thanks for the insight to the MacIntyre connection. I had no idea.

    Oddly enough, I’ve been looking at MacIntryrean virtue in relation to quantitative cultural evolution for a while (well – dragging things out for a while at least). Here are a couple of insights from this field.

    1. Even fairly low migration rates destroy highly altruistic (i.e. highly virtuous) groups

    You need close physical proximity in order for in-group content and conformity bias effects to offset the influence of out-group guided variation and conformity bias effects. In other words, you need a lot of like minded peers nearby with minimal influence from the outside.

    Pragmatic observations on the sustainability of truly isolationist religious groupings attest to MacIntyre’s concern that even small bits of corruption quickly lead to the implosion of virtuous communities. Thus the idea “we’ll be really different but still keep in touch with society” does not hold up well, either theory or in practice. Orthodox Jews and devout Muslims seem to be an exception. But, sustainability over multiple generations is highly likely to require physical clustering and critical community size thresholds. Even then, succeeding generations have high assimilation pressures. The evolved response seems to be bifurcation – you either go more extreme and more isolationist or assimilate. Vertical transmission rates (parent to child) highly influence size criticality. These groups survive “in society” because they pull away in some very particular ways which produce high migration costs (clothes, marriage traditions, diets, daily rituals, etc.).

    The idea that individuals should just worry about their own virtue and that communities will develop is a bit naive. It is true to an extent, but quantitative group dynamics tools make dogmatic sociology like this seem quaint. This type of assumption just doesn’t hold up.

    2. Human groups operate on a very fine line between altruism and self-interest. Either pole is functionally unstable. Moderate levels of ‘corruption” must be tolerated (at least when you deal with anything other than ivory tower utopianism) for group stability and/or to enable large, critically sized, groups.

    Sustainable groups must decide where to be tight and where to be loose. Empiricism suggests sustainable groups are tight on migration and boundary issues. Tightness must occur on issues that are “hard to fake”. Morality which is highly spandrelled is hard to fake. Just because a social issue is highly spandrelled for one group does not mean it is highly spandrelled for another.

  39. Chris, while I’m familiar with at least a few studies that point in that direction it would also seem that Mormons outside of the Mormon corridor in the 20th century and conservative Evangelicals, especially since the 60’s also have managed to do this. There’s still “losses” to secularism of course, but you have reasonably close retention rates in both groups of around 70% and a fairly unique subculture. Perhaps it’s not quite as pronounced as among say Orthodox Jews but it seems much more pronounced than say more secular American Jewish groups. If Jews and Muslims have managed it’s because there was simultaneously an ethnic component that was judged as “other” by the larger community in many ways. (That’s somewhat true of Mormons as well of course, albeit not in the same way as say Jews up through the 80’s)

    One interesting question is why America didn’t go through the same secularization process that we saw in Europe especially from the 60’s to the present. Especially in places like Great Britain. It didn’t really start in the US until the 90’s and Canada until the 80’s. Interestingly Canada’s secularization rate seems to have slowed right when the move to the Nones picked up in the US.

    All this suggests there’s some odd complexity at work that resists too simplistic a conclusion. That in turn suggests that solutions to maintain identity may also be a bit more complex than one might assume.

  40. Clark, yes that is correct. The default explanation for that scenario is that external competition isn’t very forceful (at least compared to internal cohesion factors like internal conformity and vertical transmission bias). While everyone has been able to shop around for churches for some time, and while lots of missionary work has been done by various denominations, there just isn’t much “fitness” pressure for one solution or another. Current upheavals now suggest this is not so. You are in very real danger of losing jobs is you don’t belong to the right group. That’s why group size becomes a critical factor. But during real between-group competition, that size must also be in relation to other groups (5 members agreeing to be unique, are unlikely to beat the state, while 40% of the population is likely to mount a real defense).

  41. Is that right? Job dangers that is. It was always the case that among elites there were churches one went to in order to make connections. That’s partially why especially on the east coast Episcopal Churches overwhelming held the elites. In other regions like the south that might be one particular congregation – often until the last decade or two baptist. Now that we’ve reached an inflection point that seems to be changing. But did it ever affect the masses not really wanting that kind of networking? I’ll confess I just don’t know.

    Take Mormons for instance. Are Mormons in say the midwest really facing pressure by being Mormon? Are Orthodox Jews in New York City?

    It’ll be interesting seeing the results of the Canadian census from last year. Thus far they’ve not released any religious data. I assume that’s coming soon. We know from reports traditional religion has continued to decline leading to sales of synagogues along with Anglican and Catholic churches. Yet there were indications back in 2015 that church involvement had rebounded among the 18-25 year olds – possibly partially due to large immigration populations. While we wait for the latest ARIS survey in the US seeing if trends especially about the Nones have reversed in Canada should be quite interesting. It may be that we’re nearing a new stability point with Canada reaching that a decade or so before the US.

  42. Perhaps slight distinctions in the way advantage vs. disadvantage works. We used to advantage in-groups. Now we are more likely to dis-advantage out-groups. While it may seem to produce the same results, the dynamics, are, at least to me, quite different.

  43. Certain political opinions will certainly lead to job loss (e.g. Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich; Google engineer on women in tech; possibly NFL QB Colin Kapernick and actor Tim Allen).

    The fear is that soon religious opinions will also lead to job loss.

    This is already happening. Most of these fights currently revolve around abortion/birth control and LGBTQ issues. (e.g. Hobby Lobby, the Colorado baker case before the Supreme Court currently) But every indication say the number of religious disqualifiers will increase. Democrats asserted that Trump judicial nominee Amy Barrett was unfit to serve simply because she held religious views. Others have said the same of VP Pence. On a personal level, I was shouted down on this same blog over comment stating religious views weren’t a valid basis for evaluating Columbus’ legacy.

    This issue is far more serious than not being able to make professional connections at work.

  44. Other Clark – Yes.

    Punishment strengthens in-groups (and polarization) much more than cronyism.

    But cronyism under the guillotine of severe punishment works exceptionally well. Its just that these groupings usually work under-cover (Gadianton like). Once there are enough hidden groups that policing can’t keep them in check, random bits openly flip which leads to a rapid system-wide phase change.

    Old pockets may survive, but they are under great pressure to flip. Spatial coherence and strong in-group behaviour is required to survive this onslaught (as is relative size criticality). The dominant group then quickly weakens in terms of its coordinating ability (it reaps what it has sown in terms of self-interested behaviour). Pressure then weakens on the surviving pockets and those that have survived tend to grow again.

    Can you flip in one dimension but not another?
    Perhaps, but this is pretty unlikley. Re: Migration & conformity bias.

    What size is needed to survive?
    Depends on phase change momentum and the size of the group that is flipping. Size criticality seems scale free (i.e. it is always relative to the size of the flipping group).

    What characteristics are needed to survive?
    That seems to be the discussion. But, things that work under weak selective pressure (Clark’s mormon cooridor point) often don’t work under strong selective pressure (today’s increasingly hot poltico-culture war)

  45. I don’t intend to hijack this topic, I would like to increase my own understanding; Clark Goble, and others, I was mulling over the rural-urban divide you referred to previously. As an English Lit student, I came across a book that covered the seeming country vs city cultural divide in English works of Thomas Hardy and several contemporaries. Is this even close to what you were talking about, as stereotypically displayed in the narrative of “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse?”

  46. In other words, the seeming cultural divide between those whose homes and livelihoods center in rural areas, and those whose homes and livelihoods center in urban areas?

  47. I realize this may be obvious to many of you; some of us may take a longer time of reading and pondering to come to an understanding.

  48. The basics of that fable are probably fine for a first order approximation of what liitle I know about the actual details of rural urban differences.

    A big thing to understand is that population level insights never port to what can be said about any individual or smaller group. Lots of people (e.g….google diversity dept) go wrong there.

    While you can obviously google differences,
    a lot of people center on political affiliation, social conservancy, government size (control). But all these are pretty crude simplifications that are likely to induce as many misconceptions as they clarify. So what ends up happening is most people fall to a heuristic (mental shorthand) that works for them and resonates with their experiences.

    My own way of understanding the divide is via multi-level selection (tension between working as part of a large group vs. a smaller group). But things quickly get complicated. There are lots of possible groups. And, different things work better at different group sizes for different people at different times. So, saying anything definite about one group or the other is problematic and subject to a lot of probabilistic problems. But, in general rural folk are probably more concerned about optimizing most things for smaller more honor based reciprocities than are urban folk. The anonymity of large groups prioritizes collective coherence in slightly different ways. You just don’t have the same type of physically guaranteed repeat interactions that you do when there are fewer people around and you can’t hide in a crowd.

    In general, societies survive competition by either being small and well cohered / coordinated niche players or by being large coordinated-enough behemoths. Successful groups need a balance of each tendency in order to survive in ever changing environments with perpetually innovative corrupters.

    I suspect the church operates like a rural group in that it makes repeat interactions highly likely and anonymity infeasible. But it operates like an urban group via its universalizing tendencies and missionary focus. This creates some interesting tensions. The glue that binds these types of tight ropes is probably orthopraxy and orthodoxy. Different religions find different ways to balance things with these two types of glue. And these balance points seems to change over time based upon the environment and how unstable the equilibrium between large-small group orientations become. Right now things seem pretty unstable but tight norms and high interaction rates seem to providing a pretty good buffer for us. But that can change if physical interaction becomes superficial and culture war issues require lots of management.

  49. As a long-time lurker, I find this discussion very fascinating. I have often felt that as a church in order to fulfill our latter-day calling to become a Zion people, there will eventually need to be a more dramatic cultural parting of the ways with the general direction that society is going. This discussion seems to be focusing on if and to what extent this has already begun to happen, and to predict where we as a Church will be going from here. I have not read Dreher’s book, but I have to believe that in order to effectuate the kind of separation that he advocates, it would be necessary to abandon any reliance on public education, and move to a model that allows for self-determination of educational goals and directions within the subclass.

    This is one area that I think that we within the LDS culture will have to eventually address. I think our leaders are already preparing for the necessary shift away from reliance on public education, but I fear that this will be the most difficult internal cultural change for members of the Church to face up to.

  50. Greg G– Please explain why you believe public education is the crux of “coming out of Babylon.” I’m intrigued. I would have thought that the first step would be moving away from TV, movies, pop music–basically pop culture and mass media, which would also be far less costly economically.

    Back in 2007, Utah voted on whether to allow education tax dollars to be used as vouchers for private schools. The measure failed spectacularly (62% against, with the initiative failing by a wide margin in every single county in the state!) If Mormons were so set against private education 10 years ago, it suspect it would be a hard sell today. (It appears it was a hard sell back in the stake academy days a century ago, too.)

  51. I think the Utah measure failed for complex reasons related to our geography. I wouldn’t draw huge implications from it.

    That said I’m skeptical education is the problem even if I’m pretty horrified by some stories about what gets taught in some California schools about sexuality to the very young. But by the same measure I was pretty horrified by schools in the south when I lived there too for very different reasons.

  52. The Other Clark:

    Not being in Utah, I can’t comment on the educational culture there. It sounds like you are saying that how Utah voted a decade ago on vouchers is evidence that there is no cultural divide to be concerned about. I do agree with you that a Mormon Benedict Option involving education would be a hard sell to members of the Church. But can’t you foresee a time in the future when such an option may be necessary?

    I’m merely hypothesizing that separating from “pop culture” and all the perceived ills of secularism would be difficult to accomplish if your children are immersed in it 8 hours a day at school. (At least outside of Utah).

    What does Mr. Dreher say about education with regard to his proposed Benedict Option? I would assume that he would propose some kind of separation from public education.

  53. The history of education in the US and Canada was very much tied to these questions. Educational enforcement of protestant values was the driving force of the common school era of the late 1800’s. Catholicism responded by creating/expanding a “separate” school system. This separate school system is still very much alive in many places (especially those where it was constitutionally enshrined). The schism subsided with the decrease in immigration pressure which increased social cohesion capital. This happened at about the same time as a shift in education away from citizenship & abstract theoretical orthodoxy and toward vocational and practical oriented “grammar” schools. Fairly soon thereafter reforms shifted toward community organizing. This was very much a non-denominational shift. “Separate” schools increasingly lost their relevance with these phases of secularization.

    The homeschool surge of the 80’s was very much about religious values. The most recent surge is much less so. Institutional education is actually remarkably good at accommodating seemingly insurmountable ideological differences. Current changes to push “moral” agendas in the educational system are highly likely to be clawed back. Education is very reform resistant and is optimized to resist this type of usurpation via extremely strong hybridizing tendencies & structures.

    I’d also note that some of the isolationist and luddite leaning sects still fully participate in formal educational structures (at least until legally mandated ages are reached). The Hutterites are a good example here. Education doesn’t seem to affect their emigration rates much. Frequency of physical separation from the group does (e.g. off colony jobs, frequency of town visits, socialization rates with neighbours, etc.)

  54. As I have pondered over this conversation, I realize that my political biases kept me from seeing a distinct possibility in Dreher’s argument; he has come to understand that Christianity cannot best survive or thrive by depending on the mechanism of the state anymore, but by being deliberately taught, discussed, and lived. He has come to understand that Christianity cannot thrive through compulsary means, but by voluntary decisions and actions.

  55. Greg G.- I evidently didn’t make myself clear. There IS a cultural divide to be concerned about. My point was that only, “a Mormon Benedict Option involving education would be a hard sell to members of the Church.”

    Do I see a time when such an option might be necessary? Yes. And it might already be here. But cultural forces within Mormonism heavily favor public education over home schooling (maybe because Elementary Ed is a popular major for Mormon women?) In all the wards I’ve living in inside and outside of Utah, home schooling families were seen as the unusual “weird” ones, rather than the ones ahead of the curve.

  56. Greg G: “What does Mr. Dreher say about education with regard to his proposed Benedict Option? I would assume that he would propose some kind of separation from public education.”

    In his more overheated/cynical moments, he pretty much states that removal from public education is going to be necessary very soon, if it isn’t already. He seems to be somewhat more lenient towards charter schools (which are public schools, something many people don’t realize) depending on their character.

    Generally, he’s very skeptical of public education, but allows for local variations; mainly he would argue, at the very least, to be a very, very involved parent who knows exactly what is being taught and is otherwise involved in Parent/Teacher orgs and the like and who chooses the school for your kids with careful thought and prayer (so doing things like choosing where you live, or getting boundary exceptions, or picking a charter school, etc.).

  57. Perhaps there should be a private school founded where the curriculum is deliberately informed by the writings of Rod Dreher. Oh, wait, I spent my childhood in a school like that, only it was deliberately informed by the writings of W. Cleon Skousen. Got my LDS mixed with American exceptionalism. Oh well, I recovered eventually.

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