Wilberforce and Benedict: two ways to face the future

OPINION | John Sandeman
Eternity #67 March 2016

Time magazine is the unlikely venue that ignited one of the most interesting debates among Christians. In the aftermath of the 2015 “Obergefell” Supreme Court decision that saw gay marriage established as a constitutionally recognised right in the US, conservative Rod Dreher wrote a provocative piece, “Orthodox Christians must now learn to live as exiles in our own country.”

Since then a courteous-but-deadly-serious debate has raged between Christians in venues like (the evangelical flagship) Christianity Today, (the accurately named) American Conservative and the (liberal) Atlantic magazine.

“No, the sky is not falling – not yet, anyway – but with the Supreme Court ruling constitutionalizing same-sex marriage, the ground under our feet has shifted tectonically,” Dreher wrote.

“Voting Republican and other failed culture-war strategies are not going to save us now.”

In Australian terms, you can think of Dreher writing after, say, a loss for conservatives in a same-sex marriage plebiscite. (This is not a prediction; I am just putting Dreher in context).

The Benedict Option, which Dreher has championed since 2013, is a call for Christians to form “resilient communities” as exiles from mainstream society.

He reminds his readers of what some of the dissenting judges, in the 5–4 decision said: “Justice Samuel Alito warned that Obergefell ‘will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy,’ and will be used to oppress the faithful ‘by those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent.’

“We have to accept that we really are living in a culturally post-Christian nation. The fundamental norms Christians have long been able to depend on no longer exist. There will be no widespread popular resistance to Obergefell. This is the new normal.”

Dreher says that Obergefell came as no surprise. It is a logical consequence of the sexual revolution, in which heterosexuals led the charge in devaluing traditional marriage.

Then comes his key paragraph:

“It is time for what I call the Benedict Option. In his 1982 book After Virtue, the eminent philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre likened the current age to the fall of ancient Rome. He pointed to Benedict of Nursia, a pious young Christian who left the chaos of Rome to go to the woods to pray, as an example for us. We who want to live by the traditional virtues, MacIntyre said, have to pioneer new ways of doing so in community. We await, he said ‘a new – and doubtless very different – St Benedict.’”

In the Middle Ages St Benedict formed communities – monasteries – that kept the light of faith burning through a time of cultural darkness. They also preserved the Bible by copying it in their scriptoria.

“This might be called the Wilberforce Option. William Wilberforce, the greatest political enemy of the 19th-century slave trade, believed Christians should be the first to respond to social injustices.”

The Benedict Option, which Dreher has championed since 2013, is a call for Christians to form “resilient communities” as exiles from mainstream society. Dreher says “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.”

From the pages of the National Review, the conservative journal set up by William F. Buckley, Jr to combat the ultra-right John Birch Society, staff writer David French fired back, “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.”

This riposte was soon given a name: “the Wilberforce Option”, in the pages of Christianity Today.

“The main focus of Christian social engagement is not pluralism; it is personalism,” write Michael Gerson (a former George W. Bush speechwriter turned Washington Post columnist) and Peter Wehner (Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and New York Times writer). “We should be known for, and distinguished by, a belief in the priority of humans – for defending their rights, well-being, and dignity. This principle is much at stake in an increasingly utilitarian society – a society that targets children with Down syndrome for destruction before birth; that uses developing life for medical research; and that increasingly signals to the elderly that they are a burden and therefore have a duty to die.

From left: Benedict and William Wilberforce

From left: Benedict of Nursia and William Wilberforce

“This might be called the Wilberforce Option. William Wilberforce, the greatest political enemy of the 19th-century slave trade, believed Christians should be the first to respond to social injustices.”

Making it clear that a defensive response won’t work, they also state: “If evangelicals are known primarily for defending their institutions, they will look like one aggrieved minority among many.”

Taking a virtual flight back across the Pacific we can easily identify Australian Wilberforcians.

Lyle Shelton, the managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby, often speaks of taking his inspiration from Wilberforce.

“I believe the most important way to ‘fight back’ is through the demonstration of God’s redeemed community living holy lives that witness to the world.”

In an email to Eternity on the urgency of responding to the Safe Schools Coalition material, which goes beyond an anti-bullying programme to instructing children how to identify as a different gender, Shelton said, “No matter how much of a minority we become (and I’m not convinced Christians are the minority on this), we should always stand up for justice and not make an accommodation with injustice.

“Wilberforce, Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr did not lie down, despite their minority status. Two of these paid with their lives and the other almost did. All faced opposition and swam against public and church opinion – voices which said this is the way the world is, we should learn to live with it.”

Another Wilberforce voice (and there are many) is Karl Faase, presenter of the “Towards Belief” apologetics videos:

“It seems to me that it would be helpful for the church in Australia to recall and reinstate the focus of the Clapham Sect (the group of activists that Wilberforce led), Faase tells Eternity. “Our role is not meant to be a gentle and neutral organisation, conversing in polite conversation with the culture.”

The mantle of William Wilberforce is also held by the evangelical left in Australia. In last month’s Eternity, for example, Tim Costello said “faith gives ordinary people like you and me the courage to do extraordinary things. Over 200 years ago, the faith of William Wilberforce compelled him and others to start a movement to abolish the British slave trade.”

It is fair to say that Australia’s Wilberforces do not speak out on all the same issues as each other.

Australians are not as good as Americans at fitting ourselves into their theological or political boxes, it seems to this writer.

So it comes as no surprise to find the ACL’s stout Wilberforcian Shelton displaying Benedictine tendencies, telling Eternity, “I believe the most important way to ‘fight back’ is through the demonstration of God’s redeemed community living holy lives that witness to the world.”

And although I will cite his Benedictine tendencies, Sandy Grant, senior minister at Wollongong Cathedral, tells Eternity, “I’ve written and spoken in local and wider media on matters as diverse as domestic violence, pokies reform, refugees, Indigenous recognition and rights, euthanasia, responsible service of alcohol, marriage redefinition, SRE in schools, and defending freedom of speech, and in ways that (I think) defy straight right-left pigeon-holing.”

But Grant recently Facebooked a lengthy quote from lefty evangelical Scot McKnight (testimony to Grant’s wide reading).

“Politics is a colossal distraction from kingdom mission. Politics entails diminution of our kingdom message, because to speak well in the public forum means we have to turn our gospel-drenched message that focuses on Jesus, the cross, and the resurrection into an acceptable, common-denominator language and vision. Instead of talking discipleship and a cruciform life, we talk about value and soak it in the pretentious ‘Judeo-Christian’ ethic.”

Is it possible to hold Benedict and Wilberforce in some stable combination? At the start of the debate John Dickson of the Centre for Public Christianity had a go in this newspaper, in a piece called “The art of losing well.”

“If society rejects our case, we should not respond with an air of entitlement or demanding our rights. We should never be sore losers. No group in society should be better losers, more cheerful sufferers, than followers of the crucified Lord.”

“Courage and boldness are givens of the Christian life,” Dickson wrote. “I do wish more of us were stepping out into the public square with our heads held high, graciously explaining the truth of Christ in this secularising world. But that is only part of our duty. If society rejects our case, we should not respond with an air of entitlement or demanding our rights. We should never be sore losers. No group in society should be better losers, more cheerful sufferers, than followers of the crucified Lord.”

Many American Christians are bruised by their Obergefell decision. It may seem that talking about the Benedict and Wilberforce options in advance of the plebiscite on gay marriage in our country is premature. But it is precisely the fear of being caught up in US-style culture wars and the identification of Christianity with one particular brand of politics that amplifies a Benedict effect.

Some will identify the Australian Christian Lobby as the issue – yet this group actually has good ties to a wide range of Christian leaders. But there will be other “lone ranger” groups campaigning as well with a passionate intensity that may well upset more moderate Christians.

If (probably when) the plebiscite takes place, there will be outlier groups on either side that will cause hurt and dismay. In addition, the LGBTI lobby and conservative Christians fear the damage the mainstream (not just the fringe) of their opposition can do. Just as in the US, it is likely that a tilt towards the Benedictine way of doing things is inevitable after what looks like being a shouty, disruptive campaign no matter who wins.

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