Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #182. First published in the St. Cloud Times, online and in print Sep. 4, 2022

Christian Nationalist authoritarians – incumbents and candidates around the country and in Minnesota for school boards, legislatures, secretaries of state, governors, Congress – have weaponized religious language. They con people into thinking that champions of Christian tradition and values are at war with “secular,” “godless” agents of “Satan.”

To those of other faiths or no faith I say: There are Christians at least as appalled as you are by the Christian Nationalists – probably even more outraged, because Christian Nationalists have besmirched what we value.

They imply that their way, and only their way, is God’s way. Central Minnesota Freedom Advocates, who have endorsed candidates in several races, say this: “We at CMFA know that all things come from God and that our plans work best when He is leading us. We strive to make our plans in alignment with HIS plans.” Lawn signs seen alongside some for the CMFA-endorsed slate of District 742 school board candidates proclaim that “God’s Got It.”

Further, CMFA asserts that the Constitution requires putting brakes on expansion of rights, of ideas, of moves toward diversity, equity and inclusion. They appear to believe that expanding rights to others strips them of their rights, and they are now “awake” to their “victimhood.”

The influential conservative pundit Rod Dreher has even injected into our political economy a counterfeit tradition that aids the Christian Nationalist project.

Dreher prints the counterfeit currency in "The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation," his bestseller that is a prescription for retrieving the fantasy America he wants to take us “back to.”

Here’s Dreher’s Benedict Option: Turn your back on a world growing “cold, dead and dark.” Christians should form exclusive communities where their children play with others whose values can be “trusted,” withdraw those children from public schools, refuse to normalize LGBTQ persons. The world Dreher wants, the one Christian Nationalists dream of, is truly cold, dead and dark.

But the Christian Nationalist project is not the only way to discern God’s plans, and it certainly cannot claim Benedictine monasticism as a model.

I have worked with and lived close to Benedictines for nearly fifty years. They have been practicing a definition of "Christian” for a millennium and a half – and in Central Minnesota since before statehood. They provide a compelling positive democratic alternative to the Christian Nationalists’ definition of “Christian.”

The Benedict Option portrayed by Dreher is far removed from – even polar opposite to – Benedictine life as actually lived by most monastic men and women. (Monastic women are AWOL from Dreher’s book.)

Benedictines whom I know demonstrate what New York Times columnist David Brooks, discussing Dreher’s book, portrays as “Orthodox Pluralism” – “to throw oneself more deeply into friendship with complexity, with different believers and atheists, liberals and conservatives, the dissimilar and unalike.” Brooks’s “Orthodox Pluralism” closely approximates Benedictine Options – note the plural – as I have seen them up close.

As Fr. Columba Stewart, OSB, of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, the 2019 National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecturer, says, “Being deeply rooted in a tradition, we Benedictines are able to be confident in opening ourselves intellectually and ecumenically because we don’t feel threatened by stuff that’s newer. We’re like a deep-rooted tree – we can sway a bit.”

“Swaying a bit” helps explain how Benedictines weave order amid their diversity, not by squelching the variety – the prioress or the abbot is strictly instructed to pay attention to each member’s idiosyncrasies. This offers an example of governance in stunning contrast to the Christian Nationalist design – the authoritarian leader excludes anyone who doesn’t match the model for which divine warrant is alleged.

Benedictine curiosity about and openness to others puts them in the forefront of interreligious dialogue, especially with Buddhists and Jews and Muslims – in the best tradition of the American experiment. But “Restore Minnesota,” a website recommended by Central Minnesota Freedom Advocates, thinks otherwise: “Pastors who participate Interfaith Outreach, participate in the destruction of their church and their flock, as a matter of course.” (CMFA says it doesn’t necessarily support positions in linked sites, but the CMFA program itself does nothing to take issue with this one.)

For sixty generations Christian monastic people have been reveling in diversity, inclusion, and equity – not recoiling from them. No sequestering in the company of the like-minded; no ideological redlining; and certainly not what Dreher portrays, huddling in an ark sailing across a sea of crisis.

Rather, as the most prominent Benedictine in the U.S., Sister Joan Chittister – as averse to withdrawal from the world as anyone alive – says of Benedictinism, it serves “as a mirror to the world around it as it defines and redefines itself from age to age.” The Rule of Benedict says we’re on a journey, just making a good beginning – and we’re all in it together. Democracy, not theocracy.

— This is the opinion of Patrick Henry, retired executive director of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research. His website is www.IronicChristian.org. He is the author of "Benedictine Options: Learning to Live from the Sons and Daughters of Saints Benedict and Scholastica." His column is published the first Sunday of the month.

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