Contemporary Critical Theory Explained Part 3

This is a list of books, terms, and ideas that are related to contemporary critical theory. The purpose is not to explain every topic, but to make people aware that when they come across them, they are dealing with CCT. Christians are unknowingly using CCT language, reading CCT books, and supporting CCT movements. Here is an explanation of what CCT is, and why Christians cannot support it.

Examples of contemporary critical theory books

These books are recommended for researching CCT but are not supported for their ideology.

Books and resources against contemporary critical theory

Concepts Motivated by Critical Theory

  • Black Lives Matter
  • Cancel Culture
  • Cultural Marxism
  • Identity Politics
  • Liberation Theology
  • Political Correctness
  • Social Justice Warriors

Contemporary critical theory terms

  • Ableism
  • Acceptance
  • Ageism
  • Ally
  • Assaultive speech
  • Authenticity
  • Call out
  • Canceling
  • Centering
  • Cisgender
  • Cisheteronormativity
  • Class consciousness
  • De-centering
  • Decolonization
  • Dismantle
  • Diversity
  • Equality
  • Gender diversity
  • Gender fluidity
  • Gender Theory
  • Heteronormativity
  • Identify
  • Implicit attitudes
  • Inclusion
  • Internalized oppression
  • Intersectionality
  • Liberation
  • Lived experience
  • Marginalization
  • Microaggression
  • Problematize
  • Queerness
  • Systemic oppression
  • White fragility
  • White privilege
  • Woke

Academic Departments that Utilize Critical Theory

  • Feminist Studies
  • Post-Feminism
  • Queer Theory
  • Post-Colonial Studies
  • Critical Race Theory
  • Critical Legal Studies
  • Whiteness Studies
  • Black Studies
  • Cultural Studies
  • Gender Studies

Contemporary Critical Theory Explained Part 2

TL;DR

  • Despite contemporary critical theory (terminology from Neil Shenvi) and Christianity sharing the goals of liberation and ending oppression, CCT and Christianity are fundamentally at odds with each other. Don’t know what CCT is? Read Part 1.
  • This article shows why they are incompatible worldviews.
  • CCT and Christianity disagree on many things: humans’ fundamental problem and solution in life; what our primary identity is; the nature of Truth and morality; and what constitutes hegemonic discourse and oppression

Humans’ Fundamental Problem

Christian understanding

Christianity believes that the fundamental problem in human society (and every human heart) is sin. By “sin,” Christians mean that we live in ways that are opposed to God. Our bodies, minds, hearts, and souls, though originally made perfect by God, are marred by desires to live in ways that do not align with God’s will for our lives. Sin affects the heart of every human that has ever lived, except one, our savior Jesus Christ. Because of our sinful nature, we treat other humans (and ourselves!) in unjust and oppressive ways.

Because of our sinful nature, all humans are set at odds with the holy, perfect, and sinless God. If there is no solution to our sinful nature, our destiny is eternal separation from God’s presence – Hell. 

CCT understanding

On the other hand, CCT believes that the fundamental problem in human society is not sin but oppression. CCT believes that the battle is not ultimately with sin and how sin perverts everything it comes in contact with, but rather the battle is a power struggle between unequal groups, the oppressors and the oppressed. 

The Solution to Humans’ Fundamental Problem

Christian understanding

Christianity believes that the solution to our fundamental problem of sin is salvation. Salvation is God’s gracious forgiveness of all our sins and eternal union with Him. We receive salvation through repenting of our sinful nature and believing that Christ’s death on the cross paid for our sins. When we are saved, God’s grace through the power of the Holy Spirit equips and inspires us to live our lives after the example of Christ. Because Christ modeled a life of promoting justice and ending oppression, Christians should do likewise.

CCT understanding

For CCT, the solution to the fundamental problem of oppression is liberation. Liberation is achieved through activism. Activism takes the form of raising awareness of oppression, protesting, and generally “dismantling” hegemonic power. The ultimate goal is not salvation but liberation and equality.

Incompatibility

Clearly, Christianity and CCT have different understandings of ultimate problems and ultimate solutions. However, this might not convince you that Christianity and CCT are incompatible. You could say, understandably, that it is okay that CCT does not look at root causes like sin. You could suggest that Christians can affirm that sin is the real problem, but that we can work within CCT to alleviate the problems of sin – injustice and oppression – even if some do not affirm the root cause of sin. And you could likewise say that it is okay that CCT does not have the ultimate goal of eternal salvation, but rather just concerns itself with the here-and-now.

Such a working relationship between Christianity and CCT would be tenuous, at best. Unfortunately, CCT only gets more incompatible with Christianity from here, so a working partnership is impossible.

Identity

Christian understanding

In Christianity, all humans are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27). Likewise, all humans are fallen and sinful (Romans 3:23) and in need of God’s mercy. These are our primary identities in life. Yes, people are born male or female, of any number of races or ethnicity, with many different abilities, and in many different parts of the world. But none of these secondary “identities” means you are more or less a child of God. No identity grants you greater or lesser access to God’s grace. We are equally God’s good creation, equally fallen as sinners, and have equal access to God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ. 

CCT understanding

CCT has no understanding of an individual’s primary identity as an image-bearer of God. Instead, CCT utilizes secondary identities like race, sex, sexual orientation, among others, to define who you are. You are not primarily a child of God; you are the intersection of your many identities, each of which is either an oppressor identity or an oppressed identity. 

Incompatibility

CCT’s understanding of identity has no place in Christianity. Scripture states that for those who are in Christ, aka the Church, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor is there male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This does not mean that the biological differences between males and females are erased, or that there are no meaningful cultural differences among us. It means that, in the Church, all Christians are utterly equal in their identity in Christ. No secondary identity can define or divide us. 

Likewise, the oppressor/oppressed identities do not work with Christianity. In Christianity, we are all oppressors (sinful) in some way or another. We are also all oppressed (living in a world of sin) in some way or another. In Christianity, we do not fight class-based identity power struggles as in CCT. Instead, with our identities found in Christ, our battle is with sin in all forms. We fight sin, not the sinner, and certainly not the sinner’s identity as white, black, male, female, or otherwise.

Truth

Christian understanding

Christianity believes that absolute Truth exists and is available to all people. The way we access Truth is through reason (such as philosophy and mathematics) and Scripture. Anyone can reason well and read Scripture and have access to Truth. Truth is true no matter who is stating the Truth, or whether or not someone is living by that Truth. 

Because humans are sinful and finite creatures (that is, not possessing all the perfect attributes of God), we will, at times, disagree on Truth. But the fact that we disagree does not reflect poorly on Truth – it demonstrates our fallibility as humans. 

CCT understanding

CCT has a different relationship with truth. As we saw in Part 1, CCT believes that an oppressed individual’s lived experience grants them greater access to truths that are inaccessible to the oppressors. CCT believes that oppressors are either consciously suppressing truth to dominate with (false) hegemonic discourses, or are merely unconsciously blinded by their privilege. Either way, the result is that the oppressors have less access to truth.

Incompatibility

So, Christians cannot coexist with CCT’s understanding of truth:

Christianity says that truth is available to all people. CCT says that some groups (the oppressed) have greater access to truth. 

Christianity says that disagreements on Truth are due to our fallibility as humans. CCT says that disputes on truth are due to the oppressors protecting their privilege.

Christianity says that disagreements on Truth can be addressed with reasoned debate. CCT says that disputes on truth must be resolved by the person with privilege (the oppressor) accepting without qualification the oppressed individual’s vision of truth.

Christianity and CCT have utterly incompatible understandings of Truth. Things are true or false, no matter who says it. A math equation has a right or wrong answer regardless if a male or a female solves it. A theological doctrine expounded by John Calvin or Pope Francis is not false because it wasn’t written by a female of color. God’s truth is not racialized, genderized, or anything else. God’s Truth is the same for all, in all places, at all times.

Moral Accountability

Christian understanding

Christianity’s understanding of moral accountability is similar to its understanding of Truth. Morality, like Truth, is absolute. Morality, like Truth, is also equally applied among all humans. While some moral responsibilities might change based on your stage in life (a married person has moral obligations that a single person does not have, and vice versa), in Christianity, no one has a different moral standard.

CCT understanding

CCT has a different understanding of morality. First, in CCT, your identity group bestows morality or immorality on you. If you are white (or member of some other oppressor group), you are “complicit” in all the perceived immorality of that group. If you are black (or a member of some other oppressed group), you are bestowed with the inherent morality of that group.

Second, in CCT, what is immoral for an oppressor can be moral for the oppressed. CCT allows the oppressed to “punch up,” but oppressors cannot “punch down.” CCT does not just let the oppressed to punch up, it encourages it. Calling out oppressors, sometimes utilizing means that would be immoral for an oppressor to use, is the moral action. 

Incompatibility

Take note of the logic of this last point: the oppressed can justify their oppression of the oppressors. This is rank hypocrisy. The ironic result is that so-called “oppressor groups,” such as white males, can justifiably claim that they are being oppressed and thus CCT gives them the right to oppress their oppressors in the same way. The apparent outcome of CCT is a never-ending cycle of oppressed/oppressor power struggles – the oppressed begin to oppress their oppressors, who then become oppressed and turn back to oppress their oppressors. 

This never-ending cycle of oppression can only be broken by forgiveness, a Christian ideal that is utterly absent in CCT. The lack of forgiveness in CCT should be enough to convince any Christian that CCT is incompatible with Christianity. But the problems with CCT’s morality do not end there.

Differing moral standards, as in CCT, is thoroughly unchristian. Christianity does not say that morality is different for someone because of their lived experience as an oppressed identity. Christianity does not allow us to say that you are inherently immoral because of an attribute that you cannot control, such as sex or skin color. Every individual is equally responsible for the moral expectations of the one, holy, and living God as put forth in Scripture.

Furthermore, CCT makes Christian ethical critique nearly impossible. If you are part of a privileged group, CCT makes it almost impossible to critique those who are not. If you are part of an oppressed identity group, nearly any critique of oppressors is justifiable because of your “lived experience.” Moral critique in CCT is not based on Truth and is not a two-way street. Morality becomes subjective and relative, based on an individual’s personal perception of their life. Thus, reasoned debate centered on an absolute and equally applied moral code becomes impossible. 

Hegemonic Discourse and “Oppression”

There are two other ways CCT and Christianity are incompatible. 

Hegemonic discourse

First, CCT is built on the rejection of hegemonic power. As you recall, a hegemonic discourse is a singular narrative about the set of values and norms that everyone should follow. CCT views such totalizing discourses as inherently oppressive and to be rejected.

The problem is, Christianity is a hegemonic discourse! Christians believe that Christ and Scriptures are the only Truth that can save you. Religions that say they are the absolute Truth and seek to convert people, like Christianity, are oppressive given CCT’s logic.

So, you might be a Christian who wants to use CCT to be “anti-racist” or to support “ending oppression,” but guess what? Once you agree with CCT’s view of the world, how will you defend your Christian faith once it becomes the target of those who say it is oppressing them? 

Oppression

Beyond the fact that Christianity as a whole is oppressive since it is a totalizing discourse, there are hosts of other Christian beliefs that are individually considered oppressive. Here are just two examples:

Christians believe that marriage is between one male and one female. 

CCT says that this belief is oppressive to homosexuals, non-gender-conforming individuals, polyamorous individuals, and a host of other identity groups that do not believe in traditional marriage.

For Christians, raising your child in the faith is considered a fundamental role of a good parent. CCT considers raising your child to be a Christian as oppression through the religious colonization of your child. 

These are examples of what CCT would call “oppression,” but what Christians must affirm. Christians agree that oppression is terrible – but we disagree on what oppression is. 

Incompatibility

Let’s be clear – Christians absolutely must support ending oppression. That is unequivocally part of what it means to follow Christ. 

However, Christians must be careful when we say we support “ending oppression.” We cannot end oppression on CCT’s terms. We cannot allow others to think we tacitly agree with CCT’s vision of ending oppression. We must work to end oppression on God’s terms. 

Summary

As we have seen, Christianity and CCT have different assumptions about the world. They disagree about:

  • what the fundamental problem in society is
  • the solution to our fundamental problem
  • the nature of and access to truth
  • moral accountability
  • our primary identity
  • what “oppression” looks like

There can be only one conclusion. Christianity and CCT are utterly, wholly, and completely incompatible. Christians cannot participate in CCT discourse and remain faithful to Christianity. CCT is a rival worldview to Christianity, and possibly a rival pseudo-religion. All of our future work against oppression must be separated from any organizations and rhetoric that are associated with and take inspiration from CCT. 

Check out Part 3 for CCT resources and further information.

Contemporary Critical Theory Explained Part 1

TL;DR

  • Contemporary critical theory (CCT) is the term given to the modern offshoots of Critical Theory, a Marxist and anti-Christian critique of Western society.
  • CCT says society is comprised of oppressed classes and oppressor classes who continually struggle for power.
  • The classes you belong to – white, black, straight, trans, able-bodied, etc. – are determined by your identity.
  • You are a complex matrix of class identities, some of which are oppressor identities, some of which are oppressed identities.
  • Membership in an identity class makes you an oppressor with privilege or one of the oppressed regardless if you perceive yourself that way.
  • The goal of CCT is to liberate the oppressed classes from the hegemonic narratives of the dominant, oppressor classes. Hegemonic narratives are stories and norms that oppressors tell to justify their position of dominance.
  • When people see through the hegemonic narratives of the oppressors they are woke. When oppressors give up the privilege that comes from the their dominant identities, they are said to be allies.
  • Oppressed peoples’ lived experience – their personal experience of life – gives them unique access to truth that cannot be challenged by oppressors.
  • Christianity and CCT are incompatible worldviews, as explained in Part 2.

Confused about where these new phrases come from?

  • Woke capitalism
  • Intersectionality
  • Political correctness
  • Identity politics
  • Anti-racism
  • Decolonization
  • Cancel culture
  • White privilege
  • Microaggressions

Asking yourself any of these questions recently?

  • Why are some fundamental, unchanging Christian moral beliefs now considered ‘bigotry’ and ‘hateful’?
  • Why can people of color say things and joke about white people in ways that, if it was the other way around, would be considered racism?
  • Why are men now told they cannot have an opinion on abortion?

The source of all the above terms and the answer to all these questions is contemporary critical theory.

Contemporary critical theory is a fundamentally anti-Christian critique of the world. Furthermore, it competes with Christianity as two incompatible worldview options. 

This article explains what CCT believes. Part 2 explains why it is incompatible with Christianity.

Contemporary critical theory vs. Critical Theory

Critical Theory (uppercase) refers specifically to the school of thought founded in the 1930s by what is called the “Frankfurt School.” If you need a primer, check out this short history of Critical Theory. This article addresses “contemporary critical theory” (lower case, utilizing the terminology of Neil Shenvi), which refers to all downstream academic work and ideology that the original Critical Theory movement birthed, but which has undergone many adaptations.

A simplified explanation of contemporary critical theory

Contemrary critical theory (CCT) is loose school of academic thought that functions as a worldview. CCT is a lens that views all human relationships as a power struggle between the fundamental categories of oppressor and oppressed. There are two parts to this. First, every person is either an oppressor or is oppressed. Second, every interaction is about the power struggle between oppressors and the oppressed.

Oppression

In CCT, oppression encompasses all the ways that a specific identity group is disadvantaged in society. The oppression can be conscious or unconscious, and it can be individual or systemic (built into the system). For example, a black individual could be disadvantaged by unconscious hiring biases (unconscious systemic oppression) or by a verbally racist neighbor (conscious individual oppression). Both would be called “oppression.” 

It is important to note that, in CCT, oppression does not necessarily mean physical domination or violence. “Oppression” in CCT is expanded to include dominating the norms, values, habits, and symbols of society. 

Identities

Back to the oppressor/oppressed dichotomy. CCT believes you have many different identities, and each identity is either an oppressor or oppressed. Your identities are race, gender, sexual orientation, age, economic class, physical abilities, among others. If you feel that society somehow disadvantages you due to one of your many identities, you can claim to be oppressed. 

Conversely, you can be an oppressor based on your many different identities. When it comes to oppressor identities, CCT believes that there are inherent oppressor classes in Western culture: men oppress women, straight people oppress queer people, white people oppress black people, Christians oppress non-Christians, etc. 

It is important to note that you don’t have to have actively tried to oppress someone to be part of an oppressor group. This is because, in CCT, identities are class-based. You are by default part of a class of people who hold the same identity – White, Male, Black, Lesbian, Transgender, etc. Crucial to CCT’s understanding of the world is this focus on identity classes over and against individuality. Your individual identity only makes sense in relation to the larger group to which you belong. If you are white, then your identity is tied to Whiteness. If you are black, your identity is tied to Blackness, whether you consciously accept it or not.

Privilege

Those who share the identity of oppressor classes and benefit from it are said to have privilege. Privilege means you are not subject to the disadvantages of the oppressed classes. Privilege is inherent to your identities; for example, if you are white, you have white privilege whether you think you have it or not. The traditional oppressor classes – white, male, straight, Christian, among other – all have privilege that comes with belonging to that class.

Intersectionality

CCT believes that the more oppressed identities you have (or, the more oppressed classes you belong to), the more oppressed you are. This is the basis of intersectionality. Intersectionality is the idea that you are oppressed at the intersection of all your various identity classes. 

And conversely, the more oppressor identities you have, the more of an oppressor you are. Thus, the more of these that describe you – white, male, straight, able-bodied, Christian – the more oppressor identities you have. The fewer you have, the more oppressed you are by those who are straight, white, able-bodied Christian males. 

CCT and intersectionality result in a hierarchy of oppression, with your oppressor status being relative to who you are comparing yourself to. A straight, religious, white woman can be oppressed in relation to a white man, but she might be an oppressor in relation to a black, queer, transgender female atheist.

There is a struggle amongst the oppressed to decide whose matrix of oppression makes them the biggest victim of oppressors and is thus at the apex of the pyramid of oppressed people. Who is more oppressed? A black female or a white, transgender female? 

Liberation from oppression

The goal of CCT is to liberate the oppressed classes from the hands of the oppressor classes. As mentioned, the traditional understanding is that women need liberation from men, LGBTQs from straights, blacks from whites, etc.

How does liberation happen? In part by critiquing hegemonic narratives (or, hegemonic discourse). The basic idea is that the dominant groups in society – the oppressors – create narratives of why they are in a position of dominance that help them maintain their positions of dominance. The dominant group oppresses and maintains their domination by forcing their ideology on everyone. Furthermore, the dominant group creates societal standards that benefit themselves, and then minority groups are measured by those standards. 

This is a confusing idea, so here it is again another way. Culture says: “This is the way things should be, and if you do not live according to this way, you are wrong/bad/evil.” CCT says this is an example of oppressors (straight, white, Christian males) making up an entire system of how things should be, and then judge if others have lived up to those standards. By defining how things should be and also being the judges, the dominant oppressors set the rules of the game and then judge the game. They will always “win.”

An example of a hegemonic discourse:

An example of a hegemonic discourse would be the Christian idea of male headship. Here is a biblical passage on headship:

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with weather through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” Ephesians 5:21-27

CCT would claim that Christian men use this hegemonic discourse to justify the oppression of women.

You might ask, “What if a Christian wife agrees with male headship?” CCT would say that the wife suffers from internalized oppression. Internalized oppression describes when an oppressed person has unknowingly embraced the hegemonic discourse of their oppressors.

Getting woke and becoming allies

When oppressed people see through the hegemonic discourses and understand how they are being oppressed, they are said to be woke. People who are not oppressed, but align themselves with the oppressed are also said to be woke.

If people who hold oppressor identities, such as white males, publicly perform acts of penance (denouncing your privilege in various ways), they can be considered an ally of the oppressed. Becoming an ally happens for each identity class – you are a trans ally, a people of color ally, etc. 

Lived experience

Another key idea behind CCT is the level of regard afforded to lived experience. Lived experience is precisely what it sounds like – your experience of living. CCT says that the lived experience of oppressed people gives them unique insight into truth and moral authority. Several implications result from the emphasis on lived experience.

First, CCT says that oppressors are blinded by their privilege and cannot readily see how they are oppressing. It is up to the oppressed, speaking from their lived experience, to “speak truth to power” and point out how the oppressor groups are perpetuating domination. Basically, oppressed people see truth more clearly than oppressors.

Second, this means that oppressor groups should give preference to the claims of oppressed groups. The claims of oppressed groups cannot be questioned because the oppressors are not in a position to question anything. The oppressors don’t have the lived experience and identities that allow them to see the truth of things. Furthermore, the oppressors’ challenges of the claims of the oppressed are based on norms that reflect the oppressors’ hegemonic discourse. 

In short, oppressors are blinded by their privilege and judge based on their own norms. They have no authority to question the insight of the lived experience and demands of the oppressed.

Isn’t liberation from oppression good?

So, if CCT is for the liberation of the oppressed, why should Christians not support it? After all, the Bible is clear that God is a God of justice, and liberation is a theme that flows through Scripture (see especially Exodus’ narrative of Israel’s flight from Egypt).

The short answer is that, while Christianity is for liberation from oppression, Christianity’s understanding of oppression and the role of Truth is radically different than CCT. The two movements are not interchangeable and do not work together in harmony.

Check out Part 2 for why Christianity and CCT cannot mix.

A Short History of Critical Theory

TL;DR

  • Marxist discourse and “cultural Marxism” is overwhelming America. This article is a short history of Critical Theory from Marx to cultural Marxism.
  • Karl Marx said that society is an economic struggle between two classes: the laborers and the wealthy businesses owners. Laborers should engage in a “class struggle” to overthrow their capitalist overlords (along with Christianity, families, and nations). An egalitarian utopia would ensue.
  • Antonio Gramsci observed the failure of communism to take root in the West. He adapted Marxism by making the class conflict about dominant vs. weak cultural classes instead of dominant vs weak economic classes. His revision is called Neo-Marxism or “cultural Marxism.”
  • The Frankfurt School, a consortium of Marxist academics, invented Critical Theory as another update to Marxism. Critical Theory criticizes society in an effort to affect change. The change Critical Theorists wanted was to rid Western society of its capitalistic roots and traditional morality.

From Marxism to Cultural Marxism

There is a lot of talk today about “Critical Theory,” “Cultural Marxism,” and how Marxist thought is overwhelming our universities and our society. This article is for anyone who needs an explanation of how all of this relates to Marxism, as well as what the Benedict Option has to do with it. (Don’t know what the Benedict Option is? Read this.)

This article stops short of discussing Critical Race Theory, Queer Theory, Whiteness Studies, and other modern offshoots of Critical Theory. The purpose of this article is to connect Marx to Neo-Marxism and Critical Theory. To learn more about contemporary critical theory, go here.

Fair warning: these are difficult subjects if you are new to them. This article is a 30,000 foot overview of the subject, but it is difficult nonetheless.

Marx and Communism 

Karl Marx (1818-1883), the mind behind communism, believed that the main thrust of world history was the economic conflict between the working class (proletariat) and the wealthy business owners (bourgeoisie). As Marx saw it, the upper class unjustly exploits the lower class by profiting off the latter’s labor. Marx believed that the lower working class should fight to overthrow the wealthy upper class in a great “class struggle.” A crucial aspect of the class struggle as Marx understood it is that violence would be necessary for the lower class to overthrow the upper class.

Egalitarian utopia

The class struggle and the violent overthrow of the upper class was not the end goal of communism. Marx’s communism is a vision of an egalitarian utopia based on shared land, shared labor, and shared wealth. There is no private ownership in communism. A communist society would operate on this principle: “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” What this means, roughly speaking, is that someone in a communist society would voluntarily produce for the community whatever they have the ability to produce, and would have free access to take whatever they needed.

Abolition of the West

It is important to note how revolutionary Marx’s communism is. Not content to abolish capitalism and all private property, Marx also intended communism to abolish families, abolish religion (especially Christianity), abolish nations, and even abolish eternal Truths. Marx envisioned a permanent break with the past and the dissolution of every institution and identity (national identity, religious identity, family identity) that could compete with communism’s egalitarian utopian vision. 

Fate of communism

Every attempt at implementing communism has failed miserably. By some accounts, communism has resulted in the deaths of over 100 million individuals. Actual economic and political communism does not find wide supported today. (Though socialism, the middle stage between the class struggle and full communism, where the state owns the means of production, is currently enjoying a renaissance). While communism might not be as influential an ideology as it once was, some of Marx’s ideas have left a considerable mark on history. We will look at how Marxism has filtered down to our time through several individuals and movements.

Neo-Marxism

Italian Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), writing in the 1920s and 30s, adapted Marxism for the West. Gramsci (along with other communist supporters) saw that classical Marxism was not going to work in the West. His revision of Marxism is called Neo-Marxism or “cultural Marxism.”

Why communism would not work in the West

One reason communism would not work in the West was the presence of a large middle class in capitalist economies. The large middle class did not allow society to fit neatly into the poor laborers vs. rich owners dichotomy, which is a fundamental tenet of communism’s critique.

Second, Gramsci saw that the support for capitalism in the West was buried deep in civil society. Families, schools, fraternal orders, churches, and other societal institutions supported a culture-wide narrative that understood capitalism as part of what makes the West successful. Thus, Gramsci understood that Western culture, and not just Western politics, were inclined towards capitalism and not communism.

In sum, Gramsci saw that culture in the West supported capitalism, and capitalism supported a broad middle class. Therefore, communism’s core idea of class struggle between the haves and have-nots had no purchase.

Gramsci’s solution

Gramsci’s solution was to refocus Marxism on cultural institutions. He reasoned that, before communism could take hold politically and economically, it had to take hold culturally. Gramsci also realized that, for Marxism to ever take hold of culture in the West, the West’s foundational Christian worldview would have to be defeated. Christianity’s support for capitalism was so strong that communism would never take root in a Christian country. So, both Christianity and the cultural institutions of the West that support capitalism would have to be overcome. Only then could the communist revolution begin.

Neo-Marxism

Gramsci’s adaptation is called Neo-Marxism, or sometimes “cultural Marxism.” It retains the Marxist focus on the class struggle. It is “Neo-” or “new” because in place of an economic class struggle, Gramsci focused on a cultural class struggle. Gramsci realized that Marx had it backward: economics was downstream of culture, not the other way around. For Gramsci, before you can engage in the economic struggle to institute communism, you have to first win the cultural struggle over the resistance to communism. To put it as simply as possible, neo-Marxism (or cultural Marxism) means applying Marxist theory to culture.  

The long march…

To achieve the de-Christianization of the West, Gramsci looked to intellectuals to begin “the long march through the institutions” (coined by Gramsci follower Rudi Dutschke in 1967). The goal was to gradually colonize and gain control of key societal institutions. Here is a quote from Gramsci:

“In the new order, Socialism will triumph by first capturing the culture via infiltration of schools, universities, churches and the media by transforming the consciousness of society.”

And just for good measure, here is another Gramsci quote:

“Socialism is precisely the religion that must kill Christianity.”

At least he was forthright in stating his goals and how he would achieve them.

Summary of Gramsci’s logic

  • First, Christianity and the cultural institutions that support capitalism must be undermined. 
  • Second, this is achieved by slowly taking over institutions by individuals who are partial to Marxism. Society is changed through the newly-controlled institutions. 
  • Third, Christianity, capitalism, and civil society are slowly destroyed. The cultural vacuum that is left is filled by Marxist ideology.
  • Finally, the culture is ready for political communism.

How Gramsci changed Marxism

Gramsci improved upon Marx in at least two ways: first, he changed the focus from an economic struggle to a cultural struggle. Gramsci realized that you cannot get to the economic struggle if you do not first win the cultural struggle. Second, he supported a long, subversive ideological battle to Marx’s quick, violent revolution. The end result for both men, however, was the same: the end of Christianity, the end of capitalism, the end of the West, and the rise of communism.

The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory

Gramsci was not the only person working to update Marxism for the 20th century. Nearly contemporaneous with Gramsci, though mostly separate from him, was a group of Marxist-inclined academics called the Frankfurt School. The Frankfurt School invented what is known as Critical Theory.

Overview of the Frankfurt School

Several Marxist academics, Max Horkheimer, Theodore Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse chief among them, banded together to start a Marxist research center in Frankfurt, Germany. The name of the institute was “The Institute for Social Research.” This title was less forthcoming than the planned original name, “The Institute for Marxism.”

When the Nazi regime came to power, the group fled Germany and, in 1935, settled at Columbia University in New York City. When WWII ended, the members spread to different parts of the world and continued writing about Critical Theory up into the 1960s. 

These men were attempting, like Gramsci, to create a new Marxism that would succeed where classical Marxism failed. What they came up with was Critical Theory.

Definition of Critical Theory

The definition of Critical Theory sounds harmless enough: an academic tool that allows people to critique society with the hope of changing society for better. When academics, such as a sociologist, use Critical Theory, they are not merely hoping to describe society. Critical Theory is about criticizing society with the goal of forcing change in a new direction. 

Why Critical Theory is a dangerous ideology

Critical Theory is potentially dangerous as an ideology because of the ways the Critical Theorists thought society needed to change. As noted before, the Critical Theorists were Marxists, through and through. So, like all Marxists, they believed the change that Critical Theory needed to make in society was to erase the capitalist ideology embedded in Western, Christian culture. The criticism coming from Critical Theory was not neutral – it was anti-Christian and anti-capitalist.

Critical Theory and Marxism

So, what does Critical Theory have to do with Marxism (beyond that the Critical Theorists were Marxists)? First, like Marxism, Critical Theory utilizes the oppressor/oppressed dichotomy to describe society. Second, Critical Theory critiques all of society as it currently is: tradition, authority, and morality – all must be challenged. Third, it is utopian. Critical Theory dreams of a future where there are no hierarchies or disparities between people, a liberated future of perfect equality. 

Why does this matter?

The history of Marxism, Gramsci, and Critical Theory is important because it is an ideology that competes with Christianity. This ideology has spread widely through the West over the past few generations and shows no signs of letting up. 

Here is just one example of the lasting impact of Critical Theory: Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (1955). Eros and Civilization served as part of the intellectual foundation for the 1960s sexual revolution and gay liberation movements. The main idea of Eros and Civilization is that people must throw off repressive, traditional morality in favor of sexual liberation. The end goal is not just sexual freedom; the hope was that, in the process of embracing sexual freedom, the repressive institutions of traditional marriages and families would be destroyed.

It is impossible to overstate how incompatible the ideology of Eros and Civilization is with Christianity. The criticism of traditional sexuality, the destruction of marriage and family, and the subversion of societal morality in general are all corrosive to the Christian worldview. This is the legacy of Critical Theory and cultural Marxism.

Necessary caveats

This article is too short and paints with too broad a brush. It does not capture the substantial differences between the people who subscribed to “Critical Theory.” And while the project as a whole is difficult to square with Christianity, not all their ideas were incorrect. Furthermore, the line that connects Marx, Gramsci, Horkheimer, Adorno, et al., to modern-day society is more complex and nuanced than this article could capture. 

The main point of this article is to show how classical Marxism turned into cultural Marxism (and Critical Theory), and show why that is dangerous for America. As in classical Marxism, cultural Marxism hates the West, Christianity, democracy, and capitalism. Cultural Marxism wants to supplant all the ideas and all the institutions that make the West the West. Marxists have nearly finished the “long walk through the institutions” in the schools, universities, media, and governmental bureaucracies, leaving the West with broken, dying, or radicalized institutions. Cultural Marxism paved the way for all the generations who came of age after the 1960s to have Marxist thinking incorporated into their worldviews. 

The bitter fruit of cultural Marxism is apparent all across the West:

  • The prioritization of social change at the expense of Truth
  • Political correctness and identity politics dominating our discourse
  • Absolute sexual liberty is unquestioned and downright applauded
  • “Tolerance” getting redefined into something that is downright intolerant.
  • The cultural revolutionaries among us utilize shaming and shouting over reasoning and orderly debate.
  • The motivation to destroy America (or at least sever every tie to America’s “oppressive” past).

This is the legacy of Marxism in our culture. 

Contemporary Critical Theory

After the Frankfurt school, a new generation of academics took the ideas of Critical Theory and applied them to many different fields – Feminism, Queer Theory, Critical Race Theory, Post-Colonial Studies, Whiteness Studies, among others. These fields, termed “Contemporary Critical Theory” by Neil Shenvi, will be discussed in the next article

What about the Benedict Option?

The Benedict Option is about creating intentional Christian communities that can withstand the onslaught of secular, progressive (post)modernity. Critical Theory and cultural Marxism are foundational to the philosophical worldview that is attacking Christianity and traditional morality. It is imperative that Christians understand what they are dealing with when it comes to Critical Theory and cultural Marxism.

The insidious part of Critical Theory and cultural Marxism is that they do not wear their Marxism on their sleeve. Rather, they couch their revolutionary ideology in language like tolerance, equality, love, acceptance, etc. And, it has found its way into our cultural discourse, replacing Christian morality as the default morality of the West. Christians must understand who the enemy is and how the enemy works. Then, they must fight to keep the enemy out of their Benedict Option communities and churches.

What Is the Benedict Option?

The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher is about creating intentional Christian communities in a post-Christian world.

And this website is about putting that into practice. So, when we say “living the Benedict Option,” or, “BenOpping,” we mean trying to purposefully live a Christian life in a culture that is no longer as Christian as it used to be.

Now, you may be thinking:

Aren’t Christians already purposefully living a Christian life?

Well, yes. Or, hopefully, at least. But BenOpping means taking those efforts to the next level. BenOpping means looking at how our culture is inhospitable to Christian belief and making concerted efforts to counteract that.

Before looking closer at what the BenOp is, let’s first get something out of the way.
People have a lot of ideas about what the Benedict Option is. A lot of those ideas are really wrong.

One popular but incorrect idea is that the Benedict Option advocates for Christians to “head for the hills” and abandon non-Christians and sinful culture for the sake of our own purity.

Most of these people who think this probably never read the book. If they had, they would have read passages like this:

“How do we take Benedictine wisdom out of the monastery and apply it to the challenges of worldly life in the twenty-first century? … The way of Saint Benedict is not an escape from the real world but a way to see that world and dwell in it as it truly is. Benedictine spirituality teaches us to bear with the world in love and to transform it as the Holy Spirit transforms us. The Benedict Option draws on the virtues in the Rule to change the way Christians approach politics, church, family, community, education, our jobs, sexuality, and technology. And it does so with urgency.”

So, to be very clear – the Benedict Option is not advocating retreatism. 

What, then, is the Benedict Option advocating?

Let’s look a little more in depth:

The Benedict Option is about: 
Christians using monastic wisdom 
to build intentional communities of counter-cultural witness 
in a post-Christian culture.

There is a lot packed into that one sentence. I’m going to break it down, working from the end of the sentence to the beginning.

…in a post-Christian culture.

A “post-Christian” culture simply means a culture that was once widely Christian and now isn’t. Most of the West – Europe, Canada, United States – is post-Christian. I wrote an in depth article about post-Christianity and won’t rehash everything here. The main point is that our culture is less hospitable to Christianity than it used to be. Take, for example, this partial list of changes going on in society that work against the Christian faith:

  • Sexualization of culture
  • Breakdown of the natural family
  • Post-modern moral relativism
  • Anti-Christian media bias
  • Rampant consumerism and materialism
  • Social shaming of orthodox Christians
  • Laws and judicial decisions against orthodox Christianity

All of these factors, and many others, make following Christianity more difficult. Basically, Christians are drawn away from their faith by culture, pushed to the margins by social norms, and rotted away from within by anemic spiritual formation, weakened families, and hollow communities.

So yes, America used to be a “Christian nation” (more or less…). We are now “post” that phase in our country. The question is, how should Christians live in a country that is no longer substantially Christian?

…to build intentional communities of counter-cultural witness…

In generations past, before America was post-Christian, Christians didn’t have to intentionally seek out other Christians since nearly everyone was at least nominally a Christian (as in, over 90% of the country). Anywhere you lived, you would be surrounded by other Christians. Your kids’ teachers would be Christians, your bosses would be Christians, the people in your bowling league were Christians. While many of these people might not have exactly lived out their faith very well, it is indisputable that the entire background culture was Christian.

That is no longer the case.

Intentional communities

Now, Christians are going to have to purposefully seek out similarly committed Christians. We need to live near each other, educate our children together, employ each other, and support each other. We will make thousands of little choices that put our faith before expediency. That is what it means to be an intentional community. We must be a community by choice, not by accident.

Counter-culture

The further culture drifts from Christian values and morals, the more our lives will go against the majority culture. Thus, we will be acting as a counter-culture. Here are some of the ways we will start to stand out:

  • Turning off the tv and the smartphone and not mindlessly soaking in social media and popular culture that do not support Christian values.
  • Refusing to yield to our distorted sexual impulses through premarital sex, pornography, and other culturally acceptable practices.
  • Helping to minimize wasteful, consumerist culture.
  • Possibly losing our jobs when we refuse to bow to anti-Christian beliefs in the office. (For example, doctors or lawyers who are pressured to participate in or defend abortions and gender transitions.)
  • Holding to the orthodox Christian understanding of the gender complementarity of marriage.

For any number of these reasons, society will see us as nonconformists. But nonconformity is part of our witness. We will show others the gospel by living like Jesus as much as possible, especially when it makes life more difficult for ourselves.

And make no mistake, it will be difficult. Living for Jesus in a culture that does not pay him any heed means walking into a headwind daily. That is why we need to live near and support each other – not to avoid non-Christians, but to have the strength and support of other Christians so we can continue to be salt and light to non-Christians.

We live near each other so that we can be in the world without the world wearing us down and making us of the world.

Christians using monastic wisdom…

Lastly, the namesake of the Benedict Option. The Benedict Option is inspired by Benedict of Nursia, a sixth-century Italian monk. Benedict lived in the era shortly after the fall of Rome, a time when Rome was full of corruption and low morals. Disgusted by the state of the city, Benedict set up monasteries where monks could follow in his lifestyle of prayer and fasting.

It was for these communities of monks that he wrote (what is now known as) The Rule of Saint Benedict. A “rule” is a practical guidebook for communal living – how to work, how to pray, how to eat, etc. The Benedict Option is about adapting and applying the accumulated wisdom of the monastic Christians to our everyday lives. Here are some ways we can learn from monastic wisdom:

Order

We must discipline ourselves and align our lives to God’s transcendent ordering of Creation. Ordering our lives towards God means we are not living for false idols and selfish pleasures. Ordering our lives to God means looking closely at how we use our bodies, our time, and our resources to best honor God.

Prayer

We must learn to “pray without ceasing” in all aspects of our daily life. We need to learn that prayer is not just about asking God for things, but for being constantly in His presence. And we pray not out of duty, but from the desire to build our relationship with our Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer.

Work

Christianity understands that there is a higher calling for work than merely financing our pleasures. We work to partner with God in the ordering of His Creation. We work to help support our families. We work to help those who are destitute. Above all, we work to bring glory to His name.

Asceticism

Asceticism means purposefully avoiding indulgences. We periodically fast and practice abstention to help rightly order our loves and desires. Asceticism helps us realize what we are addicted to and what we have turned into an idol. It helps us replace our addictions and idols with Christ at the center of our lives.

Community

Community helps us understand that our faith as Christians is not just “me and Jesus.” Our faith is lived together, as the body of Christ, and with hospitality and love for the stranger. Community can be challenging, but it is not optional. We are called to be the body of Christ, and we need to take that call seriously.

To be clear, the Benedict Option is not about living behind the walls of a monastery. It is about bringing the wisdom of the monastery to daily living. We learn to live purposefully like Benedictine monks (and other groups of intentional Christians!) so that we can retain a faithful witness within the world.

What about politics?

A quick point on a critical message of the Benedict Option: politics will not save us.

For much of the past fifty years, many Christians believed if we just won a few more elections and placed a few more judges, we could turn back the cultural tide in our direction. Here is the harsh reality: the culture war is over. Whether or not you can see it in your particular corner of America, Christians have been trounced in the culture war. The culture war waged for 50 years, and we’ve lost nearly every single major battle. You might hold out hope for a victory here and there still, but in the main, culture has moved on. That is why America is now post-Christian.

However, we cannot just blame politics for turning the country post-Christian. We need to point the finger of blame inward. Christians had our shot as the dominant political force for a long time. And yet we still wound up here. Likewise, for several generations now, we have not raised the kind of disciples that could withstand the realities and allure of post-modern, consumerist Western life. If the country and our children move away from Christianity, we better not blame everything in sight except ourselves.

But don’t overcorrect

All that said, the Benedict Option does not believe Christians should abandon politics. We overly relied on politics to save us in the past, and that was wrong. Still, we also cannot fall into the opposite error by over correcting and abandoning politics altogether.

As Christians, we have a responsibility to be good citizens, which means being engaged with politics. We should advocate for our vision of human flourishing. We should offer a prophetic witness to those in power. Some Christians will be called to run for office and work in the government, and that is good! We just have to make sure we do not fall back into the trap of idolizing politics.

Conclusion

The Benedict Option is about the practical realities of living our Christian faith in a post-Christian culture. It is about having a radically different option to offer people once they realize how secular, individualistic modernity has failed them. That something we offer is truth and grace and everlasting life. That something is following Jesus Christ. We choose to practice the Benedict Option not because we hate and fear non-Christians, but so that we can love them the way Christ loves us.

Post Christian America & the Benedict Option

Post-Christian America

We live in an unprecedented time in America. Churches are shrinking faster by the year. American society increasingly marginalizes Christians. You might be looking around America these days and find yourself asking: What happened?

Post-Christianity happened.

  • What is post-Christianity, and how did we get here?
  • What does it mean for you?
  • What does this have to do with the Benedict Option? (Don’t know what the Benedict Option is? Read this.)

What is Post-Christian?

Let’s start with a quick definition:

At its most basic, post-Christian describes a culture that was once Christian and no longer is.

Post-Christian is different than pre-Christian, which is a culture that has not thoroughly heard the Christian gospel.

A post-Christian culture heard the gospel, became Christian, and then stopped being Christian at some point. Prime example: America.

Before America Became Post-Christian

Of course, before America could be considered post-Christian, America had to be considered Christian. And for most of American history, Christianity was the foundation of American society.

As recently as the middle decades of the 20th century, over 90% of America’s population considered themselves Christian. Along with the overwhelming number of self-identified Christians, American’s laws, cultural norms, and morality were based on Christian thinking. Furthermore, institutions – such as schools, businesses, and the government – widely supported a Christian identity.

There was also a social benefit to being a Christian. In essence, everyone in town knew each other from church, which created a mutual trust and shared social capital. You could rely on people in your time of need, and they could depend on you. There was likewise a social expectation of being Christian. Not identifying as a Christian carried a negative social cost.

So our laws, our morality, our businesses, our education, and our social expectations all supported the Christian faith. For much of American history, it was more difficult NOT to be a Christian than it was to be a Christian.

Obviously, there were dissenters. There have always been atheists, agnostics, and followers of other religions in America. But until recently, these groups were incredibly small minorities. The relevant fact here is that people dissented from society’s Christian moral foundation. The default religion to opt-out from was Christianity.

Becoming Post-Christian

America slowly moved from its Christian foundation over a long period. The full switch to a post-Christian society, however, was rather recent. There have been many, many attempts to answer precisely how and exactly when America became post-Christian. The short answer: it is still up for debate.

And that debate is another article for another time. But what is not up for debate is that America has officially become post-Christian. Look at how far society has moved away from a Christian worldview:

  • The collapse of the American church
  • Sexualization of culture
  • Anti-Christian bias in media
  • Businesses and laws that favor anti-Christian morality
  • Consumerism and materialistic greed
  • Breakdown of the American family
  • End of biblical anthropology (the dissolution of male and female)
  • An education system that pushes an alternate morality
  • Omnipresent internet with its advertisements, pornography, and addictive content
  • Laws and judicial decisions decoupled from Christian moral thinking

Christianity and American culture also disagree on some fundamental philosophical questions. We disagree about the sources of ultimate truth, the meaning of essential words like “love” and “justice”, and whether human nature is fallen or fundamentally good. These are not superficial disagreements.

We must recognize just how post-Christian America is. It is very different to interact with society from a position of cultural strength than it is from a position of weakness. Yes, there are parts of America where Christianity is still the main cultural force. But Christians in large swaths of the country – not to mention many professions – are operating from a position of profound weakness.

Post-Christianity and You

So, what does a post-Christian America mean for you and your family? At the very least, it means that it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain a strong Christian faith and public walk.

Secular society sees us as backward

As this article and this article have made clear, America has entered into a new phase. A large and growing percentage of the population does not hold to or even know core Christian beliefs and morality. Alarmingly, many are becoming downright hostile towards the Christian faith.

In short, our faith has become offensive to the modern secular mind in post-Christian America.

In post-Christian America, we Christians are pressured to conform to the patterns of the world. There is a steady drumbeat to “update” the faith to better fit with modern society, to make our faith so private that it only exists behind closed doors, or to just leave the faith behind altogether.

And so, when Christians try to live our faith in public, we stand out as a counter-culture. Unfortunately, we are a counter-culture that secular American society views with increasing suspicion, or even with growing hostility.

Living our faith now comes with actual costs

Given the growing animosity to Christian beliefs and practices in America, living a public Christian faith in many parts of the country now comes with actual costs: the possibility of losing jobs, losing friends, facing public scrutiny, and social shaming.

This, of course, does not even come close to rising to the level of the persecution many Christians experience in other countries. Thousands of Christians are killed for their faith every year. Countless more are harassed, jailed, or otherwise have their lives and livelihoods jeopardized for their faith in Christ. But the idea of Christian faith causing difficulty in your life is a new concept for most Americans. Our costs might not be as high, but they are legitimate.

Post-Christian America is an Opportunity

Despite all that I just said, I want to be optimistic. There is a real opportunity that comes from the displacement of Christianity from its position of cultural preeminence. Here’s why:

When Christianity was the default option of nearly all Americans, many people were called Christian who did not actively choose to become Christian; they were just born into a Christian family. Consequently, their faith often meant less to them since they never meaningfully chose faith. Their lives didn’t reflect the values Jesus taught his followers to demonstrate.

However, in post-Christian America, that is no longer the case. There is no social pressure to be a Christian. In reality, there is more pressure not to be a Christian! So, fewer and fewer Americans will casually stumble into faith. Being Christian will not be the default option, but the opt-in option. Those who choose to pick up their cross and follow Christ will do so with the full knowledge of the costs. The upshot is that while there may be fewer Christians, those who call themselves Christians will mean it more than ever.

The Benedict Option for Practical Daily Living

So, what does this have to do with the Benedict Option?

The Benedict Option is a strategy for Christians to survive and thrive in a society that no longer supports Christian beliefs. Christians must be intentional about living our faith in a post-Christian America. It is too difficult to do battle with a post-Christian society alone.

The Benedict Option is about living intentionally near other Christians and mutually encouraging and supporting each other to be disciples of Christ. In practical terms, this looks like raising and educating your children together, employing each other, and lending support in hard times.

In most of American history, Christians did not have to go out of their way to live among other Christians; nearly all your neighbors were Christians no matter where you lived. That is no longer the case. We must now decide to live and work and raise our families among other committed Christians.

Jesus never promised us an easy life

We always knew faith could be difficult. Jesus teaches us that the world may hate us because of him, but that there is joy in the struggle:

“Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven.”

Luke 6:22-23a NIV

In post-Christian America, everyone who chooses to be a Christian in public will have to count the cost and be willing to pick up our cross daily. Our faith will have to mean enough to us that we are ready to sacrifice status and ease of life when we proclaim the One we follow. That is the witness of a vibrant, living faith that shines far brighter than vague, default Christianity.

Our next step

We have the opportunity in post-Christian America to witness to a faith we choose daily in the face of opposition. And the Benedict Option can help us think strategically about practical, day-to-day living in the opposition posed by post-Christian America. Let’s get going. Let’s start intentionally creating communities that can form Christians into disciples of Christ who can daily witness in the world and yet not conform to that same world.

Resources

Decline of Christianity in America

Christianity in America is in Decline

It probably comes as no surprise to hear that Christianity in America is in decline. It doesn’t take a sociologist to see that churches are less populated on Sunday mornings than they were in decades past. The thing is, the situation is worse than it appears. Let’s take a look at how bad the situation is, and how the Benedict Option can help. (Don’t know what the Benedict Option is? Read this.)

This article will look at several metrics of the health of the church in America:

  • the declining number of Christians
  • the public’s perception of religion
  • trends of the youngest generations
  • the actual beliefs of “practicing” Christians
  • the state of churches in America

The overall picture shows that the situation is far more dire than at first glance.

The declining number of Christians

You might say, “Ok, the number of Christians is shrinking, but aren’t we still in the majority?” Well, yes. As of 2019, 65% of US adults identify as some manner of Christian.

So what’s the issue, then? Christians are still a substantial majority in America, right?

Don’t let that 65% fool you. Things are much worse than the 65% would lead you to believe.

The decline in the number of Christians might surprise people. While about 65% of Americans consider themselves Christians right now, just two generations ago in the 1960s (a blink of an eye in historical terms), over 90% of America’s population considered themselves Christian.

This is a decline of 25% of the population. What category, if not Christian, has this chunk of the population changed to? Many are now the “nones.” As in, those who answer the question “What is your religious affiliation?” with the answer: none.

As of 2019, “nones” account for 17% of the US population. With the addition of the 4% of atheists and 5% of agnostics, 26% of Americans are unaffiliated with any religion. (The remaining 9% are another religious tradition or “Don’t know/Refused to answer.”).

Maybe you are saying to yourself:

“Sure, the decrease from 90% to 65% is a significant drop in the number of Christians. But, since 65% of the country is Christian, we are still a substantial, influential majority.”

Unfortunately, no.

Keep reading to see why 65% is a deceptive figure and is not something that should put you at ease.

People don’t trust religion

The first warning sign for the future of Christianity in the US is the growing distrust of the church and organized religion. The number of people who have a “great deal” of trust in “the Church or organized religion” has fallen from a high of 68% in 1975 to a current low of 38%.

Compare 38% trust in the Church to 74% trust in the military or 67% trust in small business, the two most trusted groups.

Let those numbers sink in. Twice as many people trust in the military than trust in the church or religion. And nearly twice as many trust in small businesses.

And what about the rest of that 65% of America that considers themselves Christian? Only 38% of the country said they greatly trust in the church or organized religion. So, do nearly half of Christian Americans not trust the church?

The one fact we must take away from this data point: People are not going to join a church they do not trust.

The news does not get cheerier when looking at other metrics.

Younger generations are even less Christian

When you look at the Christianity of younger Americans, the numbers are trending worse than older generations. Yes, 65% of Americans in total identify as Christian. But only 49% of Millennials identify as Christian. And the percentage of religiously “unaffiliated” Americans jumps from 26% of the entire population to 40% of Millennials.

Could the situation be even more dire among the youngest generations? Gen Z Americans are only now reaching their 20s, so it will be a few more years before we can know their trends. But the preliminary data does not look promising.

Hope for a rebound?

Historically, there was a recurring trend. Many young people would stop practicing their faith while in their 20s, only to return to the church in their 30s once they settled down with a family of their own. Right now, it appears that Millennials are not returning to Christianity like prior generations.

Let’s really hammer home the fact that people are leaving Christianity and are not returning. Consider that 22% of all Americans who were raised Christians no longer consider themselves Christian. In other words, almost a quarter of people who were raised Christian in America left the faith and have not returned.

For the time being, the decline of Christians in the US is slowed by the faith of older generations. When we look at the youth to see the future of American Christianity, the numbers are shockingly low. If these numbers hold, the rate of decline of Christians will only increase.

The caveat is that these statistics have assumed that everyone who is claiming they are a Christian on a survey actually lives and believes like a Christian. Is this a smart assumption?

Of course not.

Exactly How Christian are the “Christians”?

There is evidence that the overwhelming majority of American Christians are not holding to historic, orthodox Christian beliefs. This section looks at Bible use, holding biblical worldviews, and the non-Christian beliefs of professing Christians.

Bible Use

First, only 24% of US adults are “Bible Centered” or “Bible Engaged.” This is defined as those who:
Interact with the Bible frequently. It is transforming their relationships and shaping their choices.

Basically, this is people who allow the Bible to shape their lives and their relationships. In other words, precisely what all Christians are supposed to do.

Only 24% of Americans are centering their lives around the Bible, yet 65% of Americans profess to be Christian. What are the other 40% of professed Christians centering their lives around, if not the Bible?

Biblical Worldview

It gets worse. Barna Research, a major Christian polling and research group, reports that only 17% of Christians who consider their faith important and attend church regularly actually have a biblical worldview!

“Barna defines “biblical worldview” as believing that absolute moral truth exists; the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches; Satan is considered to be a real being or force, not merely symbolic; a person cannot earn their way into Heaven by trying to be good or do good works; Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and God is the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the world who still rules the universe today.”

Barna Research

Note, also, that 17% is of self-professed practicing Christians. When looking at all adults, the percentage of Americans who follow a biblical worldview is in the single digits.

Non-Christian Beliefs

Barna also highlights how many self-professed practicing Christians hold views that are wildly incompatible with Christianity. For example:

  • 28% of practicing Christians agree strongly that “all people pray to the same god or spirit, no matter what name they use for that being.”
  • 32% of practicing Christians believe that “if you do good, you will receive good, and if you do bad, you will receive bad.” That is basically the Hindu idea of Karma.

Unfortunately, there are many more examples of these wildly unchristian beliefs held by professing Christians. And when looking at younger generations, an even higher percentage of Christians hold them.

If only 24% of Americans are Bible-centered, and only 17% of practicing Christians have an orthodox biblical worldview, you must ask the question:

Does it even matter if 65% of Americans claim to be Christian?
Answer: Probably not.

Church attendance, conversions, and tithing are struggling.

Lastly, churches and the practices required to maintain them are decreasing. Here are some data points:

In summary: a majority of churches have stopped growing or are shrinking; a majority of churches saw less than 10 new Christians join their church in 2018; only 20% of Americans tithe at least 2% of their income.

These are trends that will soon bear the bitter fruit of failing churches.

There is a secondary consequence of falling attendance and tithing. To attract more attendees, many churches have relaxed, altered, or worse, abandoned orthodox Christian teaching in an attempt to stay relevant to younger generations.

The decrease of attendance, conversion, and tithing will result not only in closed churches but in a weakened orthodoxy in many churches that do manage to stay open.

How the Benedict Option can help

So, here we are.
To recap:

  • The church has lost 25% of the American population over the last two generations.
  • People do not trust the church.
  • Younger generations profess Christianity at a lower rate than older generations and aren’t returning to the church.
  • Christians aren’t reading the Bible nor holding to a Christian worldview.
  • Attendance, conversions, and tithing are down.
  • Churches are abandoning orthodox Christianity to attract new attendees.

Christianity in America is clearly in decline.

Don’t feel hopeless. Christians should always have hope because God is Lord of all. But that does not mean that we can sit back and do nothing. God wants us to be His hands and feet. The Benedict Option is one of the tools that Christians can use to spread God’s kingdom.

The Benedict Option helps combat the effects of declining church involvement in several ways.

Stable communities

First, the Benedict Option makes worshiping communities more stable. Living the BenOp is about making a commitment to a Christian community for the long haul, not merely consuming the product of a local church until a more enticing, upgraded version comes along. Strong worship communities don’t have to fear falling attendance or respond by slackening their teaching.

Deep communities

Second, the Benedict Option is about deep community, a depth of cooperative relationship a weekly small group or Bible study cannot achieve. Members of BenOp communities commit to patterns of long-term intentional living with fellow Christians. It takes time and commitment to get to the deep relationships Christians should be striving for.

Not competing with the world

Third, the world’s bells and whistles are very enticing. Our churches have responded by attracting visitors on the same terms consumerist culture attracts – new, flashy, and little obligation. The Benedict Option reverses these priorities – eternal truths, quite contentment, and commitment to the Body of Christ. Everyone benefits when the church does not have to continually compete with the allure of the world.

Our next step: BenOp community

The world will never stop enticing people away from the faith, and Christianity will continue to decline in America. But the Benedict Option combats the pull of the world by providing practical tools to create communities of deep discipleship and support in Christ, equipping Christians to be in our world but not of the world.