BATON ROUGE, La.—Rod Dreher’s life is an open book. Several, actually. “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming,” about his late sister. “How Dante Can Save Your Life,” about his love of the Italian poet. His latest, “The Benedict Option,” is a call to beleaguered Christians to divorce themselves from the increasingly secular American mainstream.
But really, every work by this conservative Christian writer is a literary act of confession, a quest for purpose and a purge of disillusionment. An influential and prolific blogger for the American Conservative—he averages 1.3 million monthly page views on his blog—Dreher is credited with helping introduce J.D. Vance of “Hillbilly Elegy” to a larger audience. He founded the “crunchy con” ideology—another book, back in 2006—wedding cultural and moral conservatism with an organic, co-op-and-Birkenstock lifestyle.
He is, however, no supporter of President Donald Trump.
“I’m a social and cultural conservative, and I think Trump is a disaster,” says Dreher, 50. Asked why, he spits back, “Because of his incompetence, his recklessness and his malice. Plus, he is destroying conservatism as a credible public philosophy. The conservative movement needed serious reform, but this is annihilation.”
Once “a typical conservative Republican,” Dreher is now a registered independent and last voted for president in 2008—when he wrote in author Wendell Berry. He left the Republican Party after growing disenchanted with the Iraq War and the Bush administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina in his beloved home state.
“I really thought the Republican Party was something you could count on. I had made a false idol of them,” he says. As a traditionalist, he became upset that the “GOP has been captive to neoconservatism, which is basically right-wing, pro-market liberalism.” So he turned “my hopes to religious and cultural renewal.”
Today, “the most important political issue for me,” he says, “is defending religious liberty,” which he sees as under assault in a secularized nation that embraces what he calls “LGBT orthodoxy” and disrespects traditional Christian values.
Published in March, “The Benedict Option” draws inspiration from the 6th-century saint who retreated from the Roman Empire to create separate faith-based communities, a prescription Dreher suggests for the like-minded in these morally compromised times.
“The loss of the Christian religion is why the West has been fragmenting for some time, a process that is accelerating,” he writes, sometimes referring to the current climate in almost End Times terms. He advises readers to “secede culturally from the mainstream” and adopt a “hands-on localism” in politics, inspired by former Czech dissident Vaclav Havel and others who defied Eastern Bloc communism. New York Times columnist David Brooks, an early admirer and good friend, deemed the latest book “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.”
Which didn’t stop Dreher from taking issue at length—he does almost everything at length—with Brooks’ insights.
Dreher thrives on intellectual opposition. He emailed me, almost proudly, that a close papal adviser had denounced his book, an action he dissected in a 3,700-word post titled “Does Pope Francis oppose The Benedict Option?”
He’s also a sharer of deep personal pain, especially his rejection by his late father and sister, and subsequently by his nieces.
Each Dreher volume arrives upholstered with a subtitle—“Benedict’s” is “A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation”—but they all boil down to “Rod’s search for existential meaning and harmony.”
“The whole journey of my life is trying to find a home,” he says. It’s a journey he readily shares in his posts—as many as 10 a day. The man burps copy.
In a shiny shopping mall not far from his house, Dreher arrives in a long-sleeved T-shirt that appears as though it might double as sleepwear, L.L. Bean duck boots, largely vertical hair that he says “looks like rats nested on my scalp,” and thick-framed Le Corbusier glasses purchased in Paris that are somewhat at war with the home-office frump.
Wrapped around his left wrist is a chotki prayer rope of hand-knotted black wool beads. His former Orthodox priest asked him to silently invoke the Jesus Prayer 500 times a day. “It was the hardest thing for me because my mind is racing constantly,” he says. Now, he does 100, though not daily.
It takes all of 10 minutes for him to unload his emotional and philosophical struggles in a wannabe hipster coffee/doughnut/slider/brew house, a metaphor for the source of his existential pain and familial estrangement: He got fancy; his family did not.
We’re here because we can’t be in his home for lengthy reasons shared in emails and conversation and ... oh, never mind.
It’s stupid loud. Coffee grinders and blaring music require Dreher to semi-yell intimate moments of extreme rejection.
“You’re so easy to talk to,” he says.
Perhaps, but you get the feeling that he might unload to almost anyone and that it’s always a half-hour before closing in the graduate-school library of his mind.
Filters are for coffee and air conditioners. Dreher has none.
“He feels emotion strongly, right there on the surface,” says his good friend Frederica Mathewes-Green. “He’s almost childlike. He just doesn’t have any shame.”
He was raised a “Christmas-and-Easter Methodist,” but yearned for more faith in his life. He became a devout Catholic, converting in 1993.
But the priest sexual-abuse scandal wrecked him, “like having my faith pulled out of me by my fingernails.” In 2006, he and his family—wife Julie and their three children—joined the Eastern Orthodox church.
The family of five relocated to Baton Rouge from Dreher’s home town of St. Francisville, Louisiana, a year ago for the local church of their new faith, which, on a good Sunday, attracts a congregation of 30. Julie teaches at a school specializing in classical Christian education, based on biblical readings and emphasizing grammar, logic and rhetoric. The children, ages 18 to 11, all attend.
Julie is a constant in his conversation. Two decades ago, Dreher was celibate and yearning for a life partner. “He prayed that God would make him fall in love at first sight,” Mathewes-Green recalls. “I told him, ‘Maybe you should start with friendship.’ “
One night at an Austin bookstore, he saw Julie and fell in love at first sight. “He persuaded her and her date to come for dinner,” Mathewes-Green says, “then he placed himself between Julie and her date and just monopolized her.”
Dreher proposed four months later. They’ve been married 19 years.
“The Benedict Option” preaches living in a like-minded religious community to promote faith and values, yet Dreher knows few people here. He spends much of his time alone at home writing. Most of his friendships are epistolary.
“What I really love about Rod is that, even as he’s insisting upon certain truths, he’s obviously completely conflicted,” the conservative gay writer Andrew Sullivan told the New Yorker. “And he’s a mess! I don’t think he’d disagree with that. But he’s a mess in the best possible way, because he hasn’t anesthetized himself.”
We’re getting right into it, the mess.
Dreher long lived in big cities—New York, Washington, Dallas, Philadelphia—where he worked as a movie critic and conservative opinion writer. He moved his family back to St. Francisville (pop. 1,675), to be with his revered father and the daughters of his late sister, his only sibling—the Ruthie of “Little Way”—after she died in 2011 of lung cancer. But he was slapped by familial rejection.
“They didn’t want to have very much to do with us. And I confronted my father with this, and we had an argument, a really bitter argument,” Dreher says. “I told him, ‘Those girls won’t accept us,’ Ruthie’s two younger girls. ‘They’re not rude. They just won’t accept us.’ “
Rod’s father said to his only son, “Can you blame them? You’re so damn weird.”
He shares that his family called him a “user.” His sister once said of him, “Isn’t that just like Rod? He’ll only talk to people if he can get something out of them.”
He tells the bouillabaisse story, which appears in both “Little Way” and “Dante.” Everyone who knows about Dreher knows the bouillabaisse story—“the iconic moment in my relationship with my family”—when he prepared the French fish stew and his family wouldn’t eat it because it wasn’t the Louisiana country cooking they knew and loved. His father, especially, seemed to nurse a grudge.
“I’d moved my family back all the way from the East Coast to their doorstep, but he wouldn’t let me cross that threshold because I wasn’t like them in every way,” he says. “It broke me. I was diagnosed with chronic mono, Epstein-Barr.” That was in 2012. He’s better now.
He still reveres his father, a health inspector, who was so unlike him.
“I was actually an idol worshiper. I realize I put my father in the place of God the Father in my heart,” Dreher says. “I had never really believed that God loved me, even though I’ve been a practicing Christian since my mid-20s.” Still, he says he found some measure of peace after his father’s death in 2015.
Except he’s still talking about the conflicts. At length he quotes Dante, who saved his life, but not completely. He’s on to Benedict and the monks he visited in Umbria for 10 days. Most likely, there will be another saint or poet who will inspire a 3,000-word post that will become another book in his search for enlightenment.
“The consistent theme of my journey is disillusionment, so painfully with the Catholic Church, the Republican Party, my family. The stories that I use to explain my family turned out to be inadequate,” he says. “Maybe I’ll try my hand at fiction, or there’s some future in TV writing,” a different way to understand the story.
And, perhaps, share the bouillabaisse tale anew.