Journalist Rod Dreher used to find comfort when seeing rows of churches along roads in his home state of Louisiana.
The world might be going crazy in places like New York City and Washington, D.C. -- where Dreher had worked as a journalist -- but it felt good to know the Bible Belt still existed.
But that changed as the popular digital scribe -- his weblog at The American Conservative gets a million-plus hits a month -- kept digging into research about life inside most of those churches. The bottom line: There's a reason so many young Americans say they have zero ties to any faith tradition.
"God is not the center of American culture or of Western civilization anymore. But it's easy to think that this is alarmist when you look around you, especially if you live in the South as I do and see churches everywhere," said Dreher, during a podcast with R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ken. Mohler is an influential voice at all levels of the Southern Baptist Convention, America's largest Protestant flock.
"Go inside those churches," stressed Dreher. "Talk to the people about what they know about the historic Christian faith. You'll often find it's very, very thin. … And I think that the loss of faith among the elites in society is huge. Christianity is now a minority position and in many places at the highest levels of our society … orthodox Christianity is considered bigotry. This is not going to get any better."
It's easy for conservatives to bemoan public trends, such as amoral Hollywood sermons, the U.S. Supreme Court's same-sex marriage decision and corporate giants backing the gender-blending of bathrooms and showers. However, some of the most sobering remarks by Mohler and Dreher were about Christian homes, schools and sanctuaries.
At the center of the conversation was Dreher's new book, "The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation," which debuted at No. 7 on the New York Times bestseller list, while sparking fierce debates online. In this book, Dreher -- a friend of mine for 20-plus years -- argues that traditional religious believers must strive to build grassroots institutions and networks that teach, support and defend faith, while devoting less time and money to national political fights.
"We are not trying to repeal seven hundred years of history, as if that were possible," writes Dreher. "Nor are we trying to save the West. We are only trying to build a Christian way of life that stands as an island of sanctity and stability amid the high tide of liquid modernity. We are not looking to create heaven on earth; we are simply looking for a way to be strong in faith through a time of great testing."
It isn't time to hide in caves, said Dreher. For some, "Benedict" -- a tribute to St. Benedict, the 6th-century father of Western monasticism -- options may mean starting classical schools. Others may form close-knit communities of families in inner cities or rural towns. Some may become active in local politics, while others work at the national level to defend religious liberty.
But the key is stronger religious congregations, which Dreher and Mohler agreed will require embracing traditional forms of faith. It won't be enough to worship a nice God who helps people feel good about themselves, in flocks with nothing to say about this age's radical individualism and consumerism.
Dreher stressed that ancient communions -- such as Catholicism and his own Eastern Orthodox Christianity -- can tap into centuries of doctrine and discipline, if their leaders choose to do so. But what about modern Protestantism?
Mohler gave a blunt answer, saying that he feared many evangelicals are too tied to this "particular moment in history" to find timeless roots.
"I do not believe evangelicalism has sufficient resources for a thick enough Christianity to survive either this epoch or much beyond," he said.
Martin Luther, John Calvin and other Reformation leaders, stressed Mohler, "knew they were standing on the shoulders of those who had come before, and they sought to make that very clear. They stood on the creedal consensus of historic Christianity and thus confessional Protestantism, I would argue, is and must be -- can be -- sufficiently thick. But evangelicalism? Well, not so much."