I have developed a fascination with Rod Dreher’s blogging about what he is calling the “Benedict Option,” the idea that because American culture is entering a dark period of persecution of conservative Christianity, conservative Christians should turn inward to focus on revitalizing their own communities in preparation. This comes in the wake of the controversy over the Indiana discrimination law, the reaction to which seems to have been for Dreher something of a final confirmation that gay rights will lead to the widespread political persecution of religious conservatives for their increasingly intolerable beliefs. (Update: Dreher says I exaggerate his thesis; you can read his clarification, and his response in general, here).

As I have no particular interest or stake in how Christians comport themselves toward the world, I am more interested in the reasons being put forward as necessitating the “Benedict Option.” Partly because they happened to mirror my research: I happened to be writing about a battle over religious liberty in nineteenth century France, complete with apocalyptic ad-hominem arguments and absurd media antics that eerily resemble the contemporary American debate over things like the Indiana discrimination law. The French controversy of the 1840s, which was essentially a wave of Catholic agitation against the so-called state “monopoly” on education, ramified to the point that its outcome was understood to be nothing less than the future of French civilization. The Catholic arguments, which ranged from full-on, throne-and-altar reaction to liberal attempts to reconcile church and state, revealed anxieties similar to the ones Dreher is expressing: was there a place for Catholicism in a regime that claimed for itself the right to monopolize the nation’s moral instruction, to make French children its image? Could an ideological state be reconciled with liberté religieuse at all? There were sophisticated Catholic theologians and political theorists who believed a compromise was possible, but there were also reactionaries who insisted the battle against the Université was a fight to the death; that its ultimate mission, despite its pretensions of cooperation, was to décatholiser la France.

What most resembles contemporary America is that “exterminationist” rhetoric on the far right—the idea that a new spirit had caught on that would not be satisfied until it had crushed the church into the ground. (Recall Dreher’s previous comments about the American left “bombing the rubble” of conservative Christianity.) Obviously, in the half-century prior to 1840, exterminationist anti-clericalism had been a very real force. But by the mid-nineteenth century, two consecutive monarchies had significantly changed the picture, and the church had regained some of its power. In the period I’m focusing on, during the reign of Louis-Philippe known as the July Monarchy, the predominantly liberal elite in the French government believed, just like virtually all Catholics, that the “materialism” of the philosophes had led to Terror, and that a stable society had to be nourished by religion. They were terrified of Jesuits and opposed to giving the church too much reign in realms like education, but in general supported some form of state-church conciliation. Anti-religious intellectuals and artists certainly remained prominent, but at the level of state authority, there was no effort to rid France of Catholicism. Most of the proposed education reforms that provoked Catholic outrage actually tried to expand private/religious education, but the fact that they maintained any state supervision at all, for some Catholics, was evidence of a militant atheism and a decatholicizing mission.

There are many historical explanations for why the compromises proposed in the nineteenth century—many of them, like Henry Maret’s essay L’église et la société laïque, were under-appreciated exercises in Catholic political thought—failed to bring about some sort of English- or American-style arrangement that could circumvent or relax the extremely ideological struggle for monopoly between church and state in France. They include the legacy of Gallicanism, the legacy of absolutism, lingering revolutionary antagonisms, the fact that France was the birthplace of the modern state as such, and the Europe-wide surge of ultramontanism (Rome-centric Catholicism) in the late nineteenth century. My argument is that, even though the extremists on both sides were wrong about the exterminationist ambitions of their antagonists, to the point of being legitimate conspiracy theorists, they perceived a conflict on the metaphysical level that the compromisers tried to downplay. There was a profound transformation taking place of the ideological basis of social authority, a struggle between a vision of society rooted in obedience to divine revelation deposited in the institutions and traditions of the church, and a vision rooted on the primary power of individual human reason, with the state as its guardian and “instructor.” These two visions could be made to coexist institutionally, as they arguably do in contemporary France, but first, one had to win decisively. There had to be an absolute sovereign with broad authority to set the terms of any conciliation. As Danièle Hervieu-Léger puts it, “The confrontation between church and state goes back, in the French case, to an inexpungible struggle for mastery of the reference to transcendence.”

Any attempt to compare this to contemporary America is likely to produce specious results, but I will try it anyway, at least as a thought experiment. (I also don’t study American history, so my claims about it are likely to be the equivalent of folk wisdom.) The most obvious fact is that no church ever had a social and institutional monopoly in the U.S., and thus there was no rival institution to protest that our founding documents enshrined a kind of Enlightenment deism that French Catholics understood to be the negation of Christian orthodoxy, particularly its basis in natural rights given by a vaguely defined creator and discoverable by the exercise of human reason. With its superficial resemblance to Protestantism, this sort of rationalist religion could be claimed by the competing religious sects in colonial America, and be integrated into the fabric of American religion virtually from the start.

But the civic religion of the American government shares another aspect with its Enlightenment sources: because it is rationalist and naturalistic, depending on the light of human reason and assuming historical progress, it is inherently in tension with the ahistorical, normative claims of religion at any particular moment. Because of the historical progress assumed to be a byproduct of the rational project, it will eventually move out of alignment with religious claims once broadly recognized as social norms. To quote Hervieu-Léger again (who is influenced on the point by Marcel Gauchet): “Heaven and earth are increasingly distanced from each other, and the state alone is henceforth invested with the task of rationalizing the earth.” Historical forces in the U.S. did not produce an intense moment of institutional expropriation of religion—something that can produce an anti-religious society fairly quickly, as in the case of Québec. But there is no reason to think that the passage of time, and particularly considering America’s reckless commitment to subjugating all social relations and human concerns to the profit motive, would not eventually perform a similar function. We’re thus fighting a pale, spectral version of the battle France fought in the nineteenth century—spectral because the metaphysical transformation still at issue in nineteenth-century France was decided in America at the beginning.

This would seem to be supported by the growth of conservative Christians questioning long-held assumptions about the natural relationship between the U.S. and Christianity: Russell Moore, for example, acknowledging that the “Christian America” for which many on the right are nostalgic was never Christian in the sense people like himself and Dreher want. This is why you’ve seen what you might call the “orthodoxification” of conservative Christianity in the U.S.—the strong turn among their intellectuals toward Catholicism and Orthodoxy, the larger focus on the “modern project” as potentially corrupt as a whole, the general transition to what feels like a more European style of reaction than the typical anti-intellectual, pro-capitalist American kind. At least superficially, it seems evidence for Darrin McMahon’s thesis that religious reaction is in fact a kind of creative radicalism, using animosity toward the advance of the left as the ground from which to articulate a utopian vision of a society that has never really existed anywhere. They have realized that the only plausible basis of the claims central to the current understanding of conservative Christian orthodoxy is older than America itself, and was recognized in this country only as a thin cultural residue, almost destined erode over time.

The point of thinking through all this, I suppose, is to evaluate the religious right’s dire predictions of what the endgame of America’s belated religious transformation will be. Will the U.S. really become a place where people with conservative religious beliefs are politically persecuted and socially ostracized? To put it simply, it’s impossible to imagine such a thing. Our form of government is too decentralized and self-contradictory, and its religion too diverse. We are not really arguing over a profound change, just a logical step in a historical progression—a step that conservatives have decided for the moment is the hill to die on.

Persecution is historically and politically imagined; what is conceived in 2015 to be an intolerable violation of conscience may not have been considered such 20 years ago and may not in another 20 years. Even in the unlikely event non-discrimination were mandated for every bakery in America, conservative Christianity will be just fine; maybe people will discover making a wedding cake for a gay couple is not really that big a deal, not actually a violation of conscience after all. It’s possible that certain kinds of forced non-discrimination might actually relax hostilities between gays and conservative Christians in areas it really doesn’t matter, and that there will remain important domains of religious-right activity that gays aren’t all that interested in forcing themselves into. It is unlikely in the extreme that dissenting churches will be forced to perform gay marriages, or that a significant number of same-sex couples really want to be married in them. The ridiculous, sensational wedding-cake wars are the product of a moment of almost-but-not-quite-achieved victory and a moralistic media culture, one whose excesses will probably diminish as marriage equality becomes a normal, non-controversial reality.

Perhaps the more interesting question is why the rhetoric from conservative Christians has become so overheated and apocalyptic, so fixated on anecdotes and worst-case scenarios, when there are plenty of alternate ways of reading the situation. (Not to sound like a broken record, but gay rights is only one issue among many; in other, arguably more important domains, “religious liberty” seems to be on the offensive.) As we saw in the nineteenth century, the apocalyptic proclamations of French Catholics correctly perceived a deeper battle for social authority, but probably overstated the consequences of the transformation. Catholicism is far from dead in France nearly 200 years later, even if it lives more as a political ideology than a religion.

In America, that battle for authority was lost before the country ever started; we were always an individualist, progressive nation, suspicious of absolutist social claims. What gay rights has revealed is the finality of the long erosion of our de facto Puritan sexual mores, the full and definitive integration of sexuality into the individualist ethos that American society, including most of its religion, has always embraced. Conservative Christians have very recently made sexual morality the index of the vitality of religion, and equated challenges to it with challenges to Christianity itself. As that challenge becomes legal and political, they will feel persecuted and violated for a while, and then many of them will probably get on with their lives much as before. It seems to me that certain people in their ranks greeting gay rights as apocalyptic persecution is really a measure of their own turn toward a robustly metaphysical Christianity that has never had much purchase in the United States. Religion has and will continue to persist in America precisely on account of its pragmatic adaptability, but it is this progressive character that conservative intellectuals have begun to reject. The erosion of the Puritan cultural residue has pushed them to think bigger and longer, back to a kind of religion that came before the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, the kind that French liberals were still struggling with in the nineteenth century. It’s hard to call it conservatism when what it ostensibly wants to conserve in fact never existed, at least in our cultural context. It is rather, a purification movement, a return to imagined roots, that is perhaps better described by a French word: intégrisme.

About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

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