Q&A: Rod Dreher on his next book, the pain of divorce and what people got wrong about ‘The Benedict Option’
Although he writes for The American Conservative, Dreher is currently living in Europe and finds the culture much different from the U.S. in surprising ways
I was early for my lunch with the author Rod Dreher, and my phone blinked with a WhatsApp message: “I’ve got to run home real quick and drop my laptop. I’ve been composing a melancholy post. Check it out on my blog,” he said.
I opened The American Conservative website and found Dreher’s blog in its prominent spot on the right side of the page.
That day’s piece reflected on the dire state of Christianity in Europe that Dreher had witnessed during his recent travels. He wrote that although the religion is “an organizer of experience, the explainer of our existence,” Christianity “has failed in contemporary Europe.”
“God well knows that as a Christian myself, this grieves me, but we have to look at the world as it is. I hope and pray that we can revive it, but there’s no question that most of Europe is thoroughly post-Christian.”
Much of Dreher’s work involves the decline in 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 Nation,” in which he argued that Christians need to “embrace exile from the mainstream culture and construct a resilient counterculture.”
However, to say Dreher’s journalistic purview ends at religion is a massive understatement.
At 55, he is a prolific writer pumping out opinion pieces multiple times a week, sometimes even several a day, on topics ranging from politics, crime, Europe and, of course, American culture. It’s an intellectual whirlwind journey speaking to him, and you come away with more book recommendations than your travel rucksack can accommodate.
I met him for lunch while we were both in Vienna, and over a couple of shared Indian dishes, we spoke 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 he has shied away from elsewhere: the end of his marriage.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Ari Blaff: What brought you originally to Hungary? 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 religious liberty conference. And I got to be 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 fellowship. This was 2020, just before COVID. They wanted me to come be their first journalism fellow, to come to the city and write about whatever I wanted to write about.
And then COVID hit, and I got delayed and I finally went over there last summer as a fellow. They were true to their word. I had heard all the things about Viktor Orbán and all that. I was wary. But by that time 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 that region.
I also knew from my research that the picture we get in North America, of what politics and society is like there, just simply isn’t accurate. It’s not that these places are a paradise, but we see it through the Western liberal progressive paradigm.
It took me about two weeks being there meeting people and getting to know the place to realize that the narrative that we have been fed about Hungary is mostly false. Again, it’s not a paradise, but I’d gone there with this idea in my head from reading American media, that this was some proto-fascist country. In fact, it felt like America circa-1995.
It’s certainly conservative compared to North America; it has Christianity written into the constitution and they have laws against gay marriage and gay adoption, but they do have some partnerships. For the most part, it’s just a normal place.
AB: How is Hungary different from America when it comes to free speech?
RD: Last fall, I got an email from Peter Boghossian (a founder faculty member of the University of Austin). I didn’t know him, but I knew of him and he reached out to me over Twitter. We talked and he said he’d been offered a visiting fellowship at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium in Budapest. He was interested in taking it but had heard so many bad things about Hungary. I know Peter is on the anti-woke left and an atheist — famously an atheist. He said, “What’s it going to be like for me there?”
I said, “You’re going to find it fairly conservative, but not in an ideological way. It’s just generally conservative, but you’re going to find that you can have conversations and debates that simply 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 did go and arrived in January this year.
I came back for a second-round fellowship in early February. That’s when we finally met face-to-face. Peter told me that I was completely right. He said he loved it here. Despite everybody at MCC being conservative, they were all really curious and open-minded and you can have a debate and still be friends. That’s what nobody knows about Hungary. And it seems that our media are, for some reason, desperate to suppress it.
AB: Religion is a major source of your writing and life. How do you feel you’ve done in terms of imparting that or trying to pass that along to your children or to people around you?
RD: I don’t think I’ve done a very good job at all. My book “The Benedict Option” sold pretty well and it got a lot of people talking about it, but most of the conversation seems to me to have been “here’s why Rod Dreher is wrong to say, ‘We have to head for the hills!’”
Which, of course, I never said. I say the message of “The Benedict Option” is we can’t escape the modern world. You can go Amish if you want to, but most of us aren’t gonna do that. I’m not gonna do that. So we have to figure out ways of living in which we can vigorously hold on 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 couple of weeks now I get an email — I think I actually got one this morning — from somebody saying something along the lines of “I thought you were an alarmist and now I say you are prophetic.” My message hasn’t changed, but things have changed. We have seen, in those five years, the continuing rise of wokeness, which is militantly illiberal on the left, crushing our traditional liberties for freedom of speech and freedom of thought. We have seen a radical loss of trust in institutions. We’ve gone through COVID, we’ve gone through the summer of George Floyd and all of these things. Now we’re going through the big transgender moment where parents have to fear that the schools and the libraries, and their doctors of their children are all going to come in between them and their children.
AB: Solitude seems to be one of the great cures and inoculations for social madness. Do you ever go into nature, or do a pilgrimage like a “camino,” as a way to get away and clear your head?
RD: I don’t, but I’m writing about this as part of the new book I’m working on. I grew up in rural south Louisiana. We had a very outdoorsy culture. I hated it because it was always so hot and humid outside, and there were poisonous snakes everywhere. I’m scared to death of snakes. So I was basically Woody Allen of 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 through the forest there and it was maybe the first time I can remember where I said I could live in a hut here. There were no snakes. The weather was fine. You could feel the grace present there in the forest. I hope that once I get settled in Hungary, I can try to find ways to go out into nature more.
I’m writing this book on reenchantment right now and one of the things I’m learning is that part of the process of disenchantment — losing a sense that there is something transcendently important — is losing contact with nature.
AB: In April you shared with your readers at The American Conservative that you were getting a divorce from your wife. How do you reconcile that with your faith? How have the intervening months been for you?
RD: Our marriage fell apart around the time that I fell ill with a chronic autoimmune disease. After three or four difficult years, I finally recovered my health, but our marriage never healed. The last 10 years have been devastatingly painful, but of course I couldn’t talk about it publicly.
She filed for divorce this spring while I was overseas in Budapest finishing a second fellowship. I had no idea it was coming. We had never talked about divorce, but it shows you how broken things were that I was shocked, but not surprised. If it weren’t for my faith, I don’t know where I would be. I’m ashamed of the divorce.
I was at a monastery in Romania, and I was talking to a monk about this and saying, “I don’t know what to do. You know, I feel like I need to go on for the sake of the kids, just at least until our youngest is 18.” The monk was just listening to me talking, and and he started to cry. I was like, “Oh, no, I’ve scared him.”
I have come away with absolute rock-solid conviction that God is with me. That’s the only thing that keeps one foot in front of the other, knowing that there’s a plan. I believe it was Victor Frankl, author of “Man’s Search for Meaning,” who said that the deepest craving all of us have is not for food or sex. It’s for meaning. We can’t live without a sense of meaning.
That feels real to me because if I didn’t have the conviction that God is with me, no matter what, I think I’d want to 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.