Q&A: Rod Dreher on his next book, Divorce, “The Benedict Option”

I was early for my lunch with author Rod Dreher, and my phone flashed with a WhatsApp message: “I need to get home real quick and drop my laptop. I composed a melancholy post. Check it out on my blog,” he said.

I opened The American Conservative website and found Dreher’s blog prominently displayed on the right side of the page.

That day room reflected on the dire state of Christianity in Europe that Dreher had witnessed during his recent travels. He wrote that although religion is “an organizer of experience, the explainer of our existence”, Christianity “has failed in contemporary Europe”.

“God knows that as a Christian myself it pains me, but we have to look at the world as it is. I hope and pray that we can bring it back to life, but there is no doubt that most of Europe is completely post-Christian.

Much of Dreher’s work involves the decline of religious faith. An Orthodox Christian since 2006, he is best known for his book “The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nationin which he argued that Christians must “embrace exile from the mainstream culture and build a resilient counterculture.”

However, to say that Dreher’s journalistic skill stops at religion is a huge understatement.

At 55, he is a prolific writer who publishes opinion pieces several times a week, sometimes several times a day, on topics ranging from politics, crime, Europe and, of course, American culture. It’s a whirlwind intellectual journey that speaks to it, and you walk away with more book recommendations than your travel backpack can fit.

I met him for lunch while we were both in Vienna, and over some shared Indian dishes, we talked for nearly three hours about his European odyssey, the future of American conservatism, and the role of religion in modern society. He also spoke frankly about a painful subject that he avoided elsewhere: the end of his marriage.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Ari Blaf: What brought you to Hungary originally? Was it the political situation, the interesting dynamics going on there?

Rod Dreher: I went to Hungary for the first time in 2018. A conference brought me there to speak at a conference on religious freedom. And I became friends with John O. Sullivan and his wife, Melissa John, a well-known English journalist who wrote speeches for Margaret Thatcher. They were at the Danube Institute, and they invited me to come back on a scholarship. It was in 2020, just before COVID. They wanted me to be their first journalism buddy, to come to town and write about whatever I wanted to write.

And then COVID hit, and I got delayed and finally went there last summer as a scholarship student. They kept their word. I had heard all about Viktor Orbán and all that. I was suspicious. But by then I had become really involved in writing about Eastern Europe, about the experiences of post-Communist Europe. My book “Live Not By Lies” had been published the previous fall, so I had a much deeper interest in this area.

I also knew from my research that the picture we get in North America of what politics and society is like there is just not accurate. It’s not that these places are paradise, but we see it through the western liberal progressive paradigm.

It took me about two weeks of meeting people and getting to know the place to realize that the narrative we received about Hungary is largely wrong. Again, it’s not a paradise, but I had gone there with this idea in mind after reading the American media, that it was a proto-fascist country. In fact, it was like America around 1995.

It’s certainly conservative compared to North America; Christianity is enshrined in the constitution and they have laws against same-sex marriage and same-sex adoption, but they have partnerships. For the most part, it’s just a normal place.

A B: How is Hungary different from America when it comes to free speech?

DR: Last fall, I received an email from Peter Boghossian (a founding faculty member at the University of Austin). I didn’t know him, but I knew him and he contacted me on Twitter. We spoke and he said he had been offered a scholarship to visit Mathias Corvinus Collegium in Budapest. He was interested in taking it but had heard so many bad things about Hungary. I know that Peter is on the anti-revival left and an atheist – notoriously an atheist. He said, “How’s it going to be for me there?”

I said, “You’re going to find that quite conservative, but not in an ideological way. It’s just generally conservative, but you’re going to find you can have conversations and debates that just aren’t possible in much of North America. I told him he should go because he would be really surprised by the intellectual freedom there. So he left and arrived in January of this year.

I came back for a second-round scholarship in early February. It was then that we finally met one-on-one. Peter told me I was absolutely right. He said he liked it here. Although everyone at MCC is conservative, they were all really curious and open-minded and you can have a debate and still be friends. This is what nobody knows about Hungary. And it seems that our media is desperate, for some reason, to suppress it.

A B: Religion is a major source of your writing and your life. How do you think you managed to pass that on or try to pass it on to your children or the people around you?

DR: I don’t think I did a very good job at all. My book “The Benedict Option” sold pretty well and a lot of people talked about it, but most of the conversation seems to me to have been “Here’s why Rod Dreher is wrong to say, ‘We need to head for the hills’ .!””

Which, of course, I never said. I say the message of “The Benedict Option” is that we cannot escape the modern world. You can become Amish if you want, but most of us won’t. I’m not going to do that. We must therefore find ways of living in which we can vigorously cling to our traditions and navigate the complexities of post-Christian modernism. If my diagnosis is correct, then we Christians are in real trouble.

The book came out five years ago and every two weeks now I get an email – I think I got one this morning – from someone saying something like ‘I thought you were a alarmist and now I say you are prophetic. “My message hasn’t changed, but things have. We have seen, over these five years, the continued rise of the Awakening, which is militant illiberal on the left, crushing our traditional freedoms for freedom of speech and freedom of thought. We have witnessed a radical loss of confidence in the institutions. We’ve been through COVID, we’ve been through George Floyd’s summer and all of those things. We are now going through the great transgender moment where parents have to fear that schools and libraries and their children’s doctors will all come between them and their children.

A B: Loneliness seems to be one of the great remedies and inoculations of social madness. Do you ever go into nature, or make a pilgrimage like a “pathas a way to escape and clear your head?

DR: I don’t know, but I’m writing about it as part of the new book I’m working on. I grew up in rural southern Louisiana. We had a very natural culture. I hated it because it was always very hot and humid outside and there were poisonous snakes everywhere. I’m terrified of snakes. So I was basically Woody Allen from the Bayou.

I remember three or four summers ago we went as a family on vacation to the Azores and it was amazing. I was walking in the forest there and it was maybe the first time I remembered where I said I could live in a hut here. There were no snakes. The weather was good. We felt the grace present in the forest. I hope that once settled in Hungary, I can try to find ways to get out into nature more.

I’m writing this book on re-enchantment right now and one of the things I’m learning is that part of the process of disenchantment – losing the sense that there’s something transcendent important – is losing the contact with nature.

A B: In April you shared with your readers of The American Conservative that you were going to divorce your wife. How do you reconcile that with your faith? How have the following months been for you?

DR: Our marriage fell apart when I fell ill with a chronic autoimmune disease. After three or four difficult years, I finally regained my health, but our marriage never healed. The last 10 years have been terribly painful, but of course I couldn’t talk about it publicly.

She filed for divorce this spring while I was abroad in Budapest completing a second scholarship. I had no idea it was coming. We had never talked about a divorce, but this shows you how broken things were that I was shocked, but not surprised. If it wasn’t for my faith, I don’t know where I would be. I’m ashamed of the divorce.

I was in a monastery in Romania, and I was talking to a monk about it and I was like, “I don’t know what to do. You know, I feel like I have to keep going for the sake of the kids, at least until our youngest is 18. The monk was just listening to me talk, and he started crying. I was like, “Oh, no, I scared him.”

I left with the absolute conviction that God is with me. It’s the only thing that keeps one foot in front of the other, knowing there’s a plan. I believe it was Victor Frankl, author of “Man’s Search for Meaning”, who said that the deepest desire we all have isn’t for food or sex. It’s for the meaning. We cannot live without meaning.

It feels real to me because if I didn’t have the belief that God is with me, no matter what, I think I would kill myself, just because the pain is too great. But I have every confidence that God can redeem us from this suffering. It’s happened so many times.

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