You would think, from the reactions of some social conservatives to the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision, that the Age of Martyrs had returned.
“You better be ready and you better be prepared because it’s coming,” the Rev. Franklin Graham said moments after the ruling was handed down. “There will be persecution of Christians for our stand.”
“Welcome to the new world,” Alabama’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore preached from the pulpit at the Kimberly Church of God yesterday. “It’s just changed for you Christians. You are going to be persecuted.”
The anticipated persecutions involve the lifting of IRS tax exemptions and the imposition of other civil penalties for discriminating against gays and lesbians. Plus the likelihood of being held up to obloquy and ostracized for opposing the constitutionally mandated social norm of same-sex marriage.
All this is a far cry from being thrown to the lions, of course, so it’s hard to see an American future where, as the early Christian intellectual Tertullian put it, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” What a number of latter-day Christian intellectuals are hoping for, instead, is what American Conservative blogger Rod Dreher is calling the Benedict Option, by which he proposes that Christians in America take as their model Benedictine monasticism after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West.
Rome’s collapse meant staggering loss. People forgot how to read, how to farm, how to govern themselves, how to build houses, how to trade, and even what it had once meant to be a human being. Behind monastery walls, though, in their chapels, scriptoriums, and refectories, Benedict’s monks built lives of peace, order, and learning and spread their network throughout Western Europe.
Dreher’s idea is that just as European civilization re-emerged from these “islands of sanity and serenity,” so a religious civilization can eventually re-emerge from contemporary Christian communities that hold to traditional values and beliefs.
It’s a pretty lousy analogy, actually. The heavy business of keeping peace and order, and effecting the transition from Roman emperors to the likes of the Frankish King Clovis, was done by popes such as Gregory the Great and aristocratic (and married) Gallo-Roman bishops. Monasteries did preserve a good deal of ancient Roman culture — among other things, monks copying out enough naughty Latin literature to keep latter-day classicists in business. But the idea that people outside the cloister forgot what it meant to be a human being, while small communities of celibate men (and women) didn’t, is romantic nonsense.
More importantly, however, the monastic model served Western Christendom badly in important ways during the era of extraordinary economic and institutional growth that began after the Viking invasions ended in the 11th century — not least by making celibacy obligatory for priests serving communities in the world, and consequently devaluing the religious lives of married folks.
The Protestant Reformation responded by recasting the family as a prime locus of religious life. In hewing to the devaluation of same-sex relationships, the Benedict Option will truncate Christianity’s spiritual reach similarly to the way the Benedictine model came to do.