Dreher’s “Benedict Option”: Part 3—Same-sex marriage as the paradigmatic problem

Ted Grimsrud

Rod Dreher’s book , The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian World (Sentinel, 2017), presents itself as a challenge to Christians in general to make their faith more central to their lives and to respond to the alleged anti-Christian influences of contemporary North American culture by developing countercultural communities that empower faithful living (see my first, positive, post on Dreher’s book).

Now, as I elaborate in my second post in this series, Dreher’s argument, as it unfolds, actually presents many problems. At their core lies what I perceive to be a marginalizing of Jesus’s message, most especially Jesus’s call to costly love even toward one’s enemies. As I read Dreher, both in this book and in his prolific blog posts, I see his inattention to Jesus’s message of love to be most apparent in his treatment of same-sex marriage.

The most-discussed problem according to Dreher

Over and over throughout the book and in his blog posts and other writings, Dreher mentions same-sex marriage (s-s-m) and the more general acceptance of same-sex intimate relationships (which is what I assume he means in his common use of the term “homosexuality”—see especially his 2013 blog post, “Sex after Christianity”) as the paradigmatic expression of deeply problematic Western culture. Such acceptance is antithetical to “orthodox Christianity.” Dreher’s discussion suggests that perhaps the main manifestation of the dangers “orthodox Christians” face in our society now and in the near future is the persecution that those who are not accepting of s-s-m face and are sure to face even more in the days to come.

I don’t think he so much means to say that s-s-m is the most important of all issues as that it is our currently paradigmatic issue that shows just how thoroughly Christianity is being routed in our recent “culture wars.” It is the issue that catches up the problems of our society’s movement away from being a Christian culture. He doesn’t clearly explain why he continually cites s-s-m when he needs an example of the growing darkness and the growing danger that “orthodox Christians” will be treated ever harshly by the rulers of the present age (though I expect he would say the above cited essay, “Sex after Christianity” is an attempt to do so; I didn’t find it very illuminating, though).

One of the major problems Dreher seems to have with s-s-m is that he links it with what he called the “sexual revolution” that emerged in the United States beginning in the 1960s. At the heart of this “revolution” lies an individualistic hedonism that valorizes sexual pleasure and personal desire and scorns traditional morality.

Same sex marriage as individualistic hedonism

What Dreher does not explain is why he sees same-sex marriage as the paradigmatic case of enslavement to sexual pleasure and individualistic hedonism. One could argue, to the contrary, that so many gay and lesbian people—including many who are Christians—want to make a commitment to marriage is itself actually a reaction against promiscuity and the “hooking up” culture. Dreher’s a priori assumptions seems to exclude the possibility that s-s-m could actually be a morally faithful choice for Christians—though he seems completely ignorant of the phenomena of real-life gay and lesbian Christians who approach marriage as an expression of commitment, fidelity, shared vocation, and communal accountability.

It could be that in a general sense Dreher is correct to be opposed to the excesses of the sexual revolution (if his characterization of those excesses is accurate, I would tend to agree with him). However, I disagree that s-s-m is an expression of those excesses.

Marriage can be seen as a fairly conservative institution. I know from numerous of my personal acquaintances, that gay and lesbian couples do commonly see getting married as an opportunity publicly to pledge their lifetime commitments to fidelity and mutuality. They are intentional about the commitments and disciplines of marriage. In many cases, they also desire to expand the circle of their family to include children.

That is, for those who choose marriage as the framework for their committed relationship, the impulse is the opposite of “desire for freedom” and “sexual license.” I don’t know why Dreher misses this point. It does seem clear that to recognize it would in significant ways complexify his argument.

Dreher’s argument against Christian s-s-m

I have yet to find any place where Dreher actually engages Christian supporters of s-s-m. However, he does briefly explain why he rejects their perspective out of hand. He stated why in a recent blog:

There are some who do seem to think that “if a gay [Christian]  is dating another gay [Christian], as long as the two avoid unchastity, the church can and should support their relationship. That’s the theory. If so, that’s absurd. First, it is clearly anti-Biblical. Second, it reveals a nominalist view of sexuality and the human person, which is to say, a belief that the meaning of sexuality and our bodies is whatever we say it is. Third, and more broadly, it is an extremely impoverished way of thinking about the human person and the gift of sexuality. Fourth, and most practically, it will never work. All the labor necessary to overcome and overturn the traditional Biblical sexual model serves the purpose, however inadvertent, of vacating all Scriptural authority over sexual desire. This is a Rubicon, as I explained at length here. 

So these are the reasons Dreher insists that s-s-m is inherently wrong: (1) It is clearly anti-biblical. (2) It shows that we think the meaning of sexuality and our bodies is whatever we say it is (as opposed to what God—or at least the Bible and Tradition—says it is). (3) It is an extremely impoverished way of thinking about the human person and the gift of sexuality. (4) It will never work.

(1) It is interesting that about the only place in all his writings that I have seen where Dreher invokes the Bible as an important source of authority is when he asserts that s-s-m is “anti-biblical” and talks about “biblical sexuality.” However, he never tries to justify these statements. He doesn’t give a basis for them. Certainly most Christians who oppose s-s-m do so because they believe the Bible teaches them to. However, a growing number of conservative Christians have challenged the idea the s-s-m is clearly anti-biblical (these include James Brownson, Mark Achtemeier, and Matthew Vines). I have also written at length about how the Bible should be read as supportive of s-s-m and also about major problems with probably the most lauded writer on the Bible’s opposition to “homosexual practices,” Robert Gagnon.

(2) Dreher seems to assume that the Bible and Tradition up until fifty years ago (the beginning of the “Sexual Revolution” he sees as so disastrous) gave a clear, univocal, and essentially timeless portrayal of human sexuality and the meaning of marriage. This ignores the reality that the meanings of sexuality and marriage have always been dynamic and varied over time and cultures. I agree with quite a bit of what he seems to say about what marriage should be about for Christians (though not with his exclusion of s-s-m as a Christian option). However, I think it is deeply problematic when he in effect denies that the Christian understanding of marriage is nonetheless a human construct (not revealed by God), one that has evolved over time (for example, the rejection now of the idea that wives are husband’s property and the acceptance now of inter-racial marriage). Simple assertions of “authority” based on the Bible and on “Nature” are not warranted based on the evidence of how marriage has been understood in various ways over the past 2,000 years nor are they likely to be very life-giving.

(3) Dreher does not give much evidence for why acceptance of s-s-m is “an extremely impoverished way of thinking about the human person and the gift of sexuality.” This statement obviously follows from his assumptions, not from his awareness of how Christians who are in s-s-m relationships and those who support them actually do think a about “the human person and the gift of sexuality.” I certainly see no tension between having a self-consciously biblical and Christian understanding of these things and supporting s-s-m. The dynamics that matter about sex and personhood may be embodied by same-sex couples as thoroughly as by opposite-sex couples.

(4) Dreher’s simple assertion the s-s-m “will never work” is clearly based on willful ignorance. There is nothing stopping him from awareness of how many would say, based on evidence, that it actually does work. I have friends who have sustained healthy, life-giving same-sex marriages (or the equivalent before marriage was legal) for thirty, forty, even fifty years. I find his flat dismissal to be one more manifestation of how he marginalizes the message of Jesus. That is, even if he might expect that “it can’t work,” out of love and respect for those in such marriages he would seem to have a responsibility to test his assumptions in real life by exercising his journalistic skills and actually objectively consider the evidence.

What about Wendell Berry?

Numerous times in The Benedict Option, Dreher cites a thinker who I also admire, Wendell Berry. I suspect our mutual appreciation of Berry’s writings about tradition and community would provide some common ground for Dreher and me. Dreher even cites Berry’s insightful writing about sex. “The rules, rituals, and traditions of a community pertaining to sexuality, says Berry, intend ‘to preserve its energy, its beauty, and its pleasure; to preserve and clarify its power and join not just husband and wife to one another but parents to children, families to the community, the community, the community to nature; to ensure, so far as possible, that the inheritors of sexuality, as they come of age, will be worthy of it'” (page 216, quoting Berry’s Life is a Miracle).

However, Dreher here ignores that Berry is in favor of same-sex marriage. My point in mentioning this is not to say that Berry is some kind of authority the Dreher should bow down to. Rather, I just want to point out that someone that Dreher cites as a person with impeccable credentials on sexual ethics recognizes the difference between the “sexual revolution” and same-sex marriage.

Now, Dreher does know that Berry supports s-s-m. And he is bothered by that support. I guess it’s good that Dreher still will cite Berry so favorably, but it seems a bit disingenuous that Dreher would deny the application of Berry’s insights to a class of people that Berry himself does affirm.

That Dreher does not seem to recognize the difference between s-s-m and the “sexual revolution” and uses s-s-m as his paradigmatic example of what’s wrong with our culture, is deeply problematic. It seems like a key manifestation of what I discussed in my previous post, the lack of love as a core conviction in Dreher’s Ben Op. I would not insist that affirming love as a core conviction would itself mean that Dreher should have a different view of the moral validity of s-s-m. Rather, my point would be that if Dreher were more motivated by love he would be much more careful in how he talks about the issue. He would not reduce s-s-m to “sexual license” and he would be much more likely to be respectful of the motives and experiences of those who see their marriages to people of the same sex as having the same kind of religious and moral weight as Dreher would surely have concerning his own marriage.

Continuing violence and hostility

Perhaps even more, if Dreher operated with love as a core conviction he would recognize that emotional and even physical hostility toward often very vulnerable LGBTQ people continues to be very widespread in our society—and will likely become even more so in the near future under the influence of the Trump/Pence administration. And he would be more sensitive to how his repeated use of s-s-m as the paradigmatic problem in our society might well exacerbate the hostility (certainly that is how his book is being read by some LGBTQ folks and their allies today).

Of course, Dreher is aware of the hostility visited upon sexual minorities. “Too many gay Christians face rejection from the very people they should be able to count on: The church. The angry vehemence with which many gay activists condemn Christianity is rooted in large part in the cultural memory of rejection and hatred by the church. Christians need to own up to our past in this regard and to repent of it. But that does not mean—it cannot mean—that we should abandon clear binding biblical teaching on homosexuality” (page 213).

Dreher does not seem to realize that for many who might read this, the last sentence in this quote will negate the good will expressed in the previous sentences. It is simply a fact, I would argue, that we do not have “clear binding biblical teaching on homosexuality.” My point is not that one can’t have an intelligent and informed opinion that the Bible is negative about same-sex intimate relationships, but rather that the teaching is not clear. If it were that clear, writers such as Brownson, Achtemeier, Vine, and many others would not be writing the books they are. It’s disrespectful and even hostile in its effect for Dreher to insist on such certainty about a stance that clearly is hurtful to many vulnerable people.

The way that Dreher singles our LGBTQ people and seems to assume that by definition they cannot be “orthodox Christians”—nor can those who affirm s-s-m and advocate for LGBTQ people—seems to be a classic case of “othering.” In an interview with Dreher, Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove raises a concern about “othering,” which he defines as defining people as existing in certain categories such as Muslim, liberal, or gay who are then hated “in order to know who we are.” Dreher’s response is basically to reject the notion of “othering.” He said: “About ‘other-ing,’ I don’t like the term, especially used in context of the Ben Op. It strikes me as politically loaded.” He then goes on to defend the need to create and enforce boundaries: “To be a member of any community is to draw lines around that community, so that we can know what it means to be part of it.”

On a certain level, such a concern for the value of defining community norms seems valid, however, I think the history of how Christian groups have profoundly harmed LGBTQ people should require someone who sees faithfulness to the gospel as the highest priority to take the concern for “othering” more seriously.

That Dreher has his blinds spots and prejudices regarding s-s-m, and that they are so hurtful in our current cultural context, underscores the problems of his minimizing the message of Jesus and not self-consciously making love central. His “Benedict Option” threatens to have the effect of further cloistering those with anti-LGBTQ views and linking Christianity with such views—which ironically might well make it less likely that people might be attracted to the gospel.

Turning toward a more compassionate “Believers’ Church option”

It strikes me that the answer to the genuine problems that the turn toward sexual permissiveness have fostered in our culture (see Dreher, pages 201ff) has to involve refusing to scapegoat and other. The redemptive way forward is to trust, noncoercively, in the power of the truth. If it is true that sexual promiscuity is harmful to human wellbeing, then it should follow that witnessing to a sex-positive theology that highlights the importance of fidelity for human health—both with an articulate theology and with a communal embodiment of healthy sexuality—would lead to healing. The alternative to problematic sexual practices is an understanding of sex-positive practices that are based on evidence and love.

Christian communities that have foresworn violence and destructive labeling of the other have only always had to rely on noncoercive witness in many areas of life, such as witness against war and against material possessiveness. We cannot serve truth, ultimately, through fear, coercion, ideology, scapegoating, and othering. Dreher, I am sure, does not want his Benedict Option to be defined by fear and coercion. However, until he reworks his understanding of and response to LGBTQ people, Christian or not, many will perceive that such a definition, if not self-conscious, nonetheless is operative.

Because of the the hostility “orthodox Christians” have toward LGBTQ people, the issue of same-sex-marriage and the general welcome of these vulnerable people now becomes especially important for Believers’ Church communities. The point is not to require unity in theological convictions that would require full welcome to LGBTQ people (though some Believers’ Church communities indeed have come to such unity). Rather, the point is the call for such communities truly to embody their core convictions concerning love and non-coercive welcome—even toward people they may not fully agree with. So, in the fourth and final part of this series of posts responding to Dreher, I will elaborate on what I will call “the Believers’ Church option.”

11 thoughts on “Dreher’s “Benedict Option”: Part 3—Same-sex marriage as the paradigmatic problem

  1. Dreher would say (and I would agree) that just as YHWH’s love is manifest in the sun to warm the Earth and in the rain falling from the heavens (Matt. 5:45), so it is manifest in the understanding that we are created male and female in the image of YHWH, meant to love and procreate via cross-gender marriages that bring new and durable family units into existence (Mark 10).

    Citing many examples from various aspects of life, Dreher writes much about the disintegration of US society and our loss of moral consensus. He often refers to sexual mores, but writes less about same-sex marriage than you suggest, Ted. Nevertheless, he does see the Obergefell vs. Hodges decision of the Supreme Court as a hinge point in this loss of moral consensus; post-Obergefell, the orthodox Christian understanding of gender identity and marriage will increasingly be viewed as a form of bigotry.

    Dreher often quotes Justice Anthony Kennedy to illustrate the secular counterpoint to the orthodox Christian worldview: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” This understanding of life and of life’s priority has triumphed in the US, says Dreher, and there is nothing practical to be done to reverse that triumph. “So stop trying,” says Dreher. The Benedict Option is his response. It entails Christians drinking at their own wells of wisdom and nurturing an alternative worldview, one that is true to the way of Jesus and intelligible and attractive to coming generations.

    1. This is a decent summary of Dreher, I think. But, Berry, it would have helped his perspective seem a bit more Christian if he actually used the language you project onto him about YHWH’s love.

      One of the key ways he’s unloving is how he starts with a human theory about “gender identity and marriage” but then does not allow it to be tested by the evidence. He assumes that same-sex marriage is about “sexual desire” and that it “can’t work” and doesn’t bother investigating the actual experience of people in such marriages.

      It’s a classic example where one starts with stereotypes about a certain category of people, fits everyone who might be part of the broad category into a small box, presents them as “other” and outside the circle of genuine humanity, and then descends into hostility and violence. Dreher does acknowledge the reality of hostility toward LGBTQ people, but he is not willing to actually pay attention to them as human beings.

      1. Ted,
        You mostly see “the actual experience of people” as the most important interpretive grid in evaluating God’s view rather than the multi millennium long narrative as it actually is. Then you presumptuously seem to condemn those who seek to uphold the content of that narrative as necessarily being a group who “descends into hostility and violence.” Paying proper attention to those whom you castigate as most likely hostile and violent would be to treat them as human beings too. Wouldn’t it?

  2. Hi Ted,

    I heard Tom Ashbrook interview Dreher (and also Andrew Sullivan) on “On Point” on NPR this morning. They had enough energy that they could have gone on a lot longer than an hour!

    You write: It is simply a fact, I would argue, that we do not have “clear binding biblical teaching on homosexuality.” …the teaching is not clear. If it were that clear, writers such as Brownson, Achtemeier, Vine, and many others would not be writing the books they are.

    I don’t think you thought that through logically. Would you say that the fact of (countless) books against biblical pacifism means that the case for it is not something clear in Scripture?

    You also write: Dreher’s simple assertion that s-s-m “will never work” is clearly based on willful ignorance. … it actually does work. I have friends who have sustained healthy, life-giving same-sex marriages (or the equivalent before marriage was legal) for thirty, forty, even fifty years.

    In determining if some practice is good or bad, we look at patterns not at individual instances. (There are many chain smokers who die in their 90’s; we don’t therefore say that we don’t need laws against smoking.) And same-sex relations have patterns that subtract from human flourishing.

    I have a friend; she’s into her 30’s; a virgin, has never experienced sex. She has many deep and strong friendships that sustain her; everybody I know who knows her also delights in her. She has a potential partner, a guy her age whom she thoroughly enjoys. Though she longs for marriage, she still is slow in getting married, because of a major area of concern, a weakness almost destroyed him a few years back. She knows that marriage can cause pain and struggles and grief. She knows that the pleasure of sex is not worth such headaches and heartache. So she’s willing to never get married. And we applaud her; we laud her willingness to choose celibacy.

    I see that as an instructive example for a same-sex attracted person considering same-sex marriage. Though they long for marriage, we should applaud and laud their willingness to choose celibacy if there are possible pattern that make the odds a bit too high that headaches and heartache will come with that same-sex marriage.

    I believe a case can be made for caution. This is politically incorrect to the nth degree. So not only do we not yet know what experience will teach us about same-sex marriage — it hasn’t been around long enough to see clear generational impact — but few even dare to look at its potentially negative patterns.

    Here’s my feeble list of negative patterns which seem to flow from general intrinsic factors in same-sex relationships (before God, I not only will the best for my above-mentioned friend but for every LGBTQ person with whom I relate):

    – The body is designed for heterosexual sex. So gay and lesbian sex often involves substitutes for the opposite-sex plumbing. Many of those practices commonly produce physical trauma. In heterosexual intimacy, in contrast, the very act of self-giving to give one’s partner pleasure also can give oneself pleasure.

    – Opposite sex marriage is the best environment for children (living with biological parents is always a plus; having dual-gender modeling and influence and familiarity is also a plus).

    – There seems to be a complementarity between a woman and a man that ups the odds that such households will cohere. Stats in Norway and Sweden [http://www.nationalreview.com/article/299944] (where same-sex partnerships were legalized in 1993 and 1995) indicate that male same-sex marriages are 50 percent more likely to end in divorce than heterosexual marriages. Even more astounding, the divorce risk for female same-sex marriages is double (Sweden) or triple (Norway) that for men. (Women have consistently requested two-thirds of the divorces in USA through the last two centuries; the higher rate of female-female divorce probably involves the same dynamic.)

    – Some sort of lack in male couples leads to a dramatically high incidence of non-monogamy (open marriage) in long-term male couples. The website for The Couples Study [http://www.thecouplesstudy.com/128-2/] (run by researchers who are themselves a male couple) asserts that most research shows that two-thirds of long-term male couples agree to outside sexual liaisons. I get the sense that this pattern continues in the Anabaptist gay community, for none of their leaders publicly call their community toward sexual monogamy and insist that a sexually open relationship is contrary to the integrity of a covenant relationship.

    As I say in a web article: Such patterns suggest that the Spirit of God might in compassion steer persons away from this form of sexuality that so often veers from what is healthy. And they lead one toward seeing biblical passages discouraging homosexuality as signs of the Bible’s wisdom.

    Bless you and our Mennonite church — indeed the whole Christian church — as we listen to each other on this matter.


  3. Ted, It was at Malone University in March that I heard Dreher speak and I briefly talked with him. His basis for change is historical, as your approach seems not to be, and he says it’s time to stop going to Washington and rather build Benedict -type communities. My wife and I by now cannot recall that he even talked about the gay issue. Indeed, Dreher is on a mission, an intense Christian, but in no way did we sense him as unloving or angry.
    Wayne Yoder

  4. I’m a homosexual myself and I have no problem with s-s-m. My problem is the hostility nowadays exuded by LGBTQ people against conscientious objectors w.r.t. s-s-m. And I think that we must help those and other conscientious objectors to retreat from a world which can’t tolerate their position.
    I’m also convinced that this new fashion of disregard for personal consciences will not stop with s-s-m, but will spread to other matters of conscience – and if people won’t respect conscience, they will on the long run respect mere desire or pleasure even less (so I’m concerned as a homosexual, too).

  5. I’ve only just discovered your site, but I’ve seen some good stuff I want to read more of. However, i see 2 serious errors already: 1) Biblically, there is no such thing as “traditional” morality. Morality is a fixed eternal absolute determined by God, not by changing social traditions. 2) The Word is absolutely consistent that homosexuality is a sin of sexual perversion–regardless of the specific origin/source of the anomaly. NOTHING can remove that by any form of rationalization. Homosexuals can be loved and ministered to but never the homosexuality. As Augustin said, you hate the sin but love the sinner.

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