Rod Dreher's Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents
One of the great obstacles Jeremiah faced was his contemporaries' refusal to accept that Babylonian pagans would soon overrun Judah and that its temple worship would end in exile. Jeremiah was a prophet of doom—mocked, scorned, and ignored until it was too late. Rod Dreher is a contemporary Jeremiah.
To be sure, to my knowledge, no American politician has taken upon himself the role of King Jehoiakim by cutting up Dreher's The Benedict Option and tossing it into the fire (cf. Jer. 36). Nor have the book's warning cries landed Dreher in a slimy pit (cf. Jer. 38). Some might even argue that the book's remarkable sales invalidate its thesis: Christians continue to play a key role in American culture. If Christians were to adopt a monastic approach, therefore, they would wilfully blind themselves to their continuing influence on every aspect of life in the United States.
I am not entirely unsympathetic to this criticism, which has been made not only of The Benedict Option but also of its recent sequel, Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents. Here, Dreher again depicts the dominance of Christian culture as a thing of the past: "The culture war is largely over—and we lost." This is true for Europe and Canada, but I'm not convinced it is fully accurate for the United States. Here, the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, is a committed Evangelical; the Attorney General, William Barr, is a staunch Catholic, who presented an impassioned defense of religious liberty at the University of Notre Dame; and the recently appointed Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett is a devoted charismatic Catholic.
Notwithstanding such counterevidence, when I read Dreher's latest missive, I cannot shake the conviction that he is a true prophet and that the all-too-common pooh-poohing of his warnings and the ridiculing of the advice contained in his latest "manual" are grounded in a serious miscalculation. In fact, the cold shoulder that Dreher regularly experiences, including from top-notch Evangelical and Catholic scholars, may be among the most telling signals that he is correct in observing that Western culture (including many Christians) no longer has the inner resilience or fortitude to resist the barbarians who—as Alasdair MacIntyre has rightly insisted—have made their way inside the gates and are ready to impose their totalitarian regime upon us all.
Rising Tide of Totalitarianism
Dreher's latest book takes the form of a lengthy comparison between the current cultural moment in America and the communist takeover and domination of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Like a present-day Alexis de Tocqueville, Dreher has crossed the Atlantic (though in the opposite direction) to see what lessons there are to learn from Eastern Europe's extended fling with communism and from the oppression suffered under its totalitarian regimes. Live Not by Lies is the outcome of numerous interviews, careful observation, and Dreher's own background philosophical reading.
Dreher does not make the mistake of simply superimposing the former Soviet Union's situation directly upon today's America, as if the two were identical. Though warning Americans of the rising tide of totalitarianism, he makes clear that
it won't look like the USSR's. It's not establishing itself through "hard" means like armed revolution, or enforcing itself with gulags. Rather, it exercises control, at least initially, in soft forms. This totalitarianism is therapeutic. It masks its hatred of dissenters from its utopian ideology in the guise of helping and healing.
While both are totalitarian in their aspirations, Dreher is convinced that the totalitarianism threatening America is "soft," as opposed to the "hard" totalitarianism of the Soviet Empire.
A book review cannot do justice to the main strength of Dreher's account, namely his interaction with those who resisted—people such as Fr. Tomislav Kolaković, Václav and Kamila Benda, Alexander Ogorodnikov, and others. Their horrific first-hand tales make it impossible to ignore what they have to say about the fatigue of the West in the face of its current challenges. Ever the investigative journalist, Dreher's sympathetic engagement with his overseas interlocutors draws from them incredulous observations about the dangers of "surveillance capitalism":
Kamila Bendova sits in her armchair in the Prague apartment where she and her late husband, Václav, used to hold underground seminars to build up the anti-communist dissident movement. It has been thirty years since the fall of communism, but Bendova is not about to lessen her vigilance about threats to freedom. I mention to her that tens of millions of Americans have installed in their houses so-called "smart speakers" that monitor -conversations for the sake of making domestic life more convenient. Kamila visibly recoils. The appalled look on her face telegraphs a clear message: How can Americans be so gullible?
For Bendova and other survivors of the Soviet system, the willingness of most people in Western nations to allow Big Tech companies to track their every move seems like a harbinger of totalitarianism in the West.
Censorship & Intolerance
The overweening arrogance of today's Big Tech companies unmistakably takes for granted the credulity and naïveté of Americans. In the most recent election, Twitter, Facebook, and Google not only actively supported the Democratic candidate, but also actively and boldly engaged in censorship—without being seriously challenged by mainstream media. No matter where one stands on the political spectrum (and regardless of the veracity and significance of the accusations against Joe and Hunter Biden), such censoring should send a chill down the spine of anyone with a sense of history. The experiences of hard totalitarianism are likely to be replicated, in a unique and different mode, through the soft totalitarianism imposed by means of surveillance
Those assuming that the "principled pluralism" that Christians have often displayed to others will be reciprocated once Christians are in the minority will be in for a rude awakening. Whatever the pros and cons of "toleration," it has its roots in the Christian faith. And it is increasingly evident that tolerance is not a universally shared virtue. Large numbers of those born after 1980, Dreher observes,
will not only oppose Christians when we stand up for our principles—in particular, in defense of the traditional family, of male and female gender roles, and of the sanctity of human life—but also they will not even understand why they should tolerate dissent based in religious belief.
In other words, the intolerance is not simply ill will; rather, it is an incomprehension of sorts, an inability to appreciate why one would tolerate the strange (and in many cases, outrageous) moral convictions of Christian believers. Soft totalitarianism may mostly be soft, but it is likely to have a hard edge, all the same.
More Imminent Than We Think
The first half of the book, "Understanding Soft Totalitarianism," offers a compelling argument that totalitarianism, though we may think of its imposition upon the West as inconceivable, is likely much more imminent than we think. Dreher highlights a number of factors pointing in this direction.
First, and most significantly perhaps, the media, academy, and corporate America are systemically introducing a contemporary version of George Orwell's "newspeak," using words such as "diversity," "inclusion," "freedom," and others to mean the opposite of what they used to denote. The schizophrenia that results, argues Dreher, negatively shapes our moral backbone. Hence the title of the book, in which Dreher takes up the plea of the Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on the day of his arrest in 1974, to "not live by lies." To retain moral integrity, our first task is to refuse to follow the linguistic diktats of the elite segments of our culture.
Second, Dreher points out that the conditions that rendered Bolshevism appealing to Russia in the early twentieth century run parallel to those in the West today: an old world is dying (tsarist autocracy then; classical liberalism now), while disasters (famine and wars then; natural disasters and the Covid-19 pandemic now) further undermine the stability of society. Like pre-revolutionary Russia, we face a loss of faith in institutions, widespread sexual transgression, and blind commitment to ideological agendas. Much like earlier Bolsheviks, insists Dreher, "social justice cultists are utopians who believe that the ideal of Progress requires smashing all the old forms for the sake of liberating humanity."
Third, this dogged insistence on the inevitability of progress takes on the zeal of religious fervor among contemporary progressives. Only if we understand that the cult of social justice fulfills the same psychological and social needs that religion once filled do we properly grasp the fervour that animates the animosity toward Christianity as the main obstacle on the Grand March of progress.
Finally, the combination of progressive ideology with big-business consumerism has created the unique creature of "woke capitalism," which now maps and analyzes every step we take and every choice we make. Furthermore, as China's techno-totalitarianism proves, the state rarely needs actively to intervene, since for the most part citizens have already accepted and internalized its demands. The only barriers against the full implementation of surveillance capitalism in the West are, argues Dreher, "political resistance by unwilling majorities and constitutional resistance by the judiciary."
Dreher's advice in the second part of his book, "How to Live in Truth," is as straightforward as his analysis: First, choose never to advocate something you don't actually believe. Second, ensure that cultural memory gets passed on—through families, churches, and small communities that are fearlessly committed to countercultural practices. Dreher does not make the mistake of advocating simple withdrawal: families still serve the broader culture, and Christians should make common cause with other people of goodwill. Third, and most important perhaps, is Dreher's concluding advice, that we prepare for martyrdom. No, he doesn't make the mistake of equating the situation in America with that of China, and he explicitly rejects all forms of masochism. But he rightly recognizes that the willingness to suffer with and for Christ lies at the heart of the faith and that we may have to put this into practice sooner rather than later.
Live Not by Lies is most persuasive in its diagnosis of the West as being on the cusp of soft totalitarianism. In particular, the chapter on "Capitalism, Woke and Watchful" is a must-read for those who are less than convinced that we find ourselves in dire straits. Dreher's common-sense advice, drawn from the experiences of those who have suffered the hard totalitarianism of the Soviet Empire, is also eminently helpful. The silver lining in all this is the following: We live in what seems to be a pre-totalitarian culture. Nothing is inevitable, and Dreher writes his book in the hope of helping to counter the arrival of Huxley's brave new world.
The silver lining is worth underlining. Part of the advice, particularly for Americans, should be to continue Christian political, legal, and social engagement at every level. The past few decades have seen declining religious commitments in America, with church attendance levels markedly down among younger generations. This is an ominous sign, which underscores Dreher's analysis. Still, as a Dutch Canadian, I cannot help but observe that significant differences still persist between Western Europe and Canada on the one hand, and the United States on the other. It is far more difficult for committed Christians to rise to the political top in Western Europe and Canada than it is in America. One simply cannot imagine the Attorney General of Canada launching a speech such as that of William Barr, adamantly insisting on religious freedom. The appointment of someone like Amy -Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court of the Netherlands is simply out of the question.
It is particularly Western European and Canadian Christians, therefore, who should take Dreher's book to heart. For the most part, they have been effectively shut out from political, economic, and legal places of influence. (Unfortunately, by implication, Europeans and Canadians are far less likely than Americans to turn Dreher's book into a bestseller.) By contrast, the pre-totalitarian character of American culture still allows for public opportunities to counter the nihilism of the woke capitalist tide. In the American context, therefore, as a matter of prudential judgment, we would do well to emphasize the "pre" in the term "pre-totalitarian culture."
Is it, humanly speaking, likely that American cultural and political life will withstand the pressures of "woke and watchful capitalism"? No. Christians who care about the future of the gospel in America should give heed to Dreher's manual. Live Not by Lies is a timely, perhaps even prophetic book. Dreher himself does not claim to be a modern-day Jeremiah. And we certainly shouldn't make the mistake of treating America (or any other contemporary nation state) as if it were Judah—the very people of God. Still, it is hard not to recognize in Dreher something of a contemporary prophet.
Perhaps the very dismissal of Dreher, among the bien-pensants, as a pessimistic doomsayer illustrates the successful modus operandi of today's leftist capitalists. As Dreher comments on pre-revolutionary Russia: "It wasn't just the tsarists who didn't see it coming but also the country's leading liberal minds. It was simply beyond their ability to conceive."
Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Chair in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House, Wisconsin.
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