The Dark Side of the Benedict Option

Originally at:

by Rod Dreher

When I write the Benedict Option book over the next few months, I consider it very important that I include a chapter on the dark side of Ben Op projects — this, so those individuals, and communities that choose to do something in the Ben Op spirit are well aware of the dangers, and guard against them.

Let’s get two things straight: 1) there is no way to engineer any system that can defeat human frailty and wickedness 100 percent of the time, and 2) the inability to create something perfect should not dissuade us from trying to create something better than what we have now.

A conservative Catholic friend of mine and I were talking recently about the Benedict Option, and about how difficult it is for us both to get a handle on how people with the Ben Op mentality can abuse it. Both of us were raised in MTD religious environments, and came out of them longing for a more structured, purposive, disciplined life of faith. Yet we are also know people who had that very thing — and it went bad.

On this blog, for example, reader Another Matt was raised a fundamentalist Protestant, and it was such an abusive and miserable situation that he lost his faith — but not, thank the God he no longer believes in, his humanity. I greatly appreciate Another Matt’s perspective, because it is very far from my own experience. Yet I know it really happens, and it has to figure into my own thinking and writing about the Ben Op.

True story: some years ago, long before the words “Benedict Option” ever occurred to me, I was thinking of moving to a particular conservative Catholic enclave, which struck me from the outside as a good place to raise a family. Turns out that somebody who lives there was a friend of a friend, and our mutual pal put us in touch. The person who lived in the community warned against it. This shocked me, because I had been told that this person, whom I’ll call X., was an orthodox Catholic, just like me.

X. was, but said this community was not a healthy one. It was driven by fear and extremism, and far too many people were obsessed by policing the boundaries on negligible things. I was trying to wrap my mind around what X. was saying, and put it to X. like this: “Are you saying this is the kind of place where, if I had a daughter someday and let her wear pants instead of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ dresses, people would shun us?’”

“That’s exactly what it’s like,” said X, and then gave me more examples like this.

I crossed that place off my list, though it’s a place that looked good from the outside.

Writing the “dark side” chapter is going to be tricky, because there are plenty of people who think that the Ben Op is destined to devolve into such dystopian places. If that were the case, then every single community (church, school, etc.) that operated according to a strong set of principles and a more or less disciplined communal life would inevitably become a culty conclave. That is simply not how life works — but it happens often enough that we should all be well aware of how it happens, and measures that we can take, both individually, in our families, and in our churches and other groups, to guard against them.

(Besides, no group can work without some trust, and taking some risk. You want to be guaranteed no marital strife and discord? Never get married. But if that’s the path you take, you cheat yourself out of the opportunity to experience and grow from many great things. There is no 100 percent safe way to get through life. The radically atomized individualism that we have been headed into for some time makes us safer in some ways from group exploitation, but creates new dangers for us too.)

With all that said, I want to offer you a portion of an essay written by a high school student who had been raised in a Ben Op-style community, and was nearly broken by it. This is going to be front and center for me as I write the Dark Side chapter. Excerpt:

When I was a kid, my parents taught me that the sun orbits the earth and evolution is a myth. I was never vaccinated, learned to fear doctors and secular government, and thought that Obama was the Antichrist, buoyed to power by Freemasons, homosexuals, abortionists, and the atheistic media.

I grew up in [rural town] a, which would be isolating enough without the added layer of exclusion which comes from membership in a fanatic religious community. My four siblings and I were home schooled, and our only approved social interactions were with the other kids in our bizarre little sect of Roman Catholicism. We were allowed to have friends over twice a year: once on our birthdays, and once on the feast day of our patron saint; sleepovers were absolutely out of the question. My mother took us to church daily, and led us through afternoon and evening prayers while my father went to work.

We were forbidden to read anything not on an approved list of books and authors, and so I mostly grew up on tales of the saints and political commentaries that bashed feminists, evolutionists, and non-Christians. Without a TV or even a microwave, there wasn’t much to keep me entertained but reading, and so I sped through the hundreds of religious books in our library before I was even 12, absorbing all sorts of terrible ideas along the way.

Back then the world was a horrible place full of monsters; I remember being terrified just going to the mall, seeing girls in tank-tops and tight jeans and feeling mortified as I swished over to Yankee Candle in my ankle length, lace-hemmed dress. My mother would make comments about the spiritual state of all the people we passed, telling me in detail what their fate in the afterlife would be while covering my eyes whenever we walked by Victoria’s Secret.

This young woman freed herself by sneaking to the library and reading every book she could get her hands on. She says that when she tried to share her doubts and questions with other kids in her church

That was a terrible mistake. I was bullied mercilessly, to the point of being pinned down and “exorcised,” which involved the other children pouring holy water on me and carving a cross into my hand … .

Today, this young woman — whose identity I verified, and whom, having learned more about her background, I believe — is no longer a religious believer. The very structure her exceedingly devout parents put into place to protect her and her siblings from the corruption of the world led directly to her abandoning the faith. And if I had been raised in that sort of environment, no doubt I would have done the same — just as reader Another Matt did regarding his fundamentalist Protestant childhood.

My point in telling you this is to make it clear that I’m not going into this project with utopian stars in my eyes. I believe strongly in the Benedict Option, but my own experience with abusive authority has, I think (and I hope) put me on high alert. We can’t forget that what looks to some people like an intolerable straitjacket is to others wise and normal — and may be exactly that. When my sister and I were growing up, the strictness of our parents in some areas brought them criticism from other parents, but now, as a parent, I find myself grateful for those sensible limits my folks put on us. So this stuff exists on a continuum. I get that. And I also get that our culture has become so permissive in many ways that upholding ordinary Christian standards and discipline strikes many as horribly oppressive. In those instances, we can safely roll our eyes and get on with it.

But some cases really are outside the bounds of sanity, in my view. If you have deep experience with this kind of thing, and believe you have some wisdom to share with me (versus simply ranting about it), I am eager to hear from you. Write me at rod — at — amconmag — dot — com.

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