Reading Rod Dreher’s newest book, Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, brought to mind a song from Christian contemporary singer Carman in my early youth-group days: “America Again.” The song praises the founding fathers and the early American story before shifting to a litany of sins engulfing the nation in the mid-1990s (pornography, abortion, homosexuality, and so on). The problem, Carman says, is that America has set aside its faith in God, and the subsequent moral decline portends a disastrous future. “The only way this nation can even hope to last this decade,” he declares, “is to put God in America again.”
“America Again” sounded different when I heard it in the 2000s as a college student in Romania. Had America really been on the verge of collapse in the mid-1990s when the song was so popular? Do those who still sing the song just update the “decade” we can’t hope to last?
Dreher, senior editor at The American Conservative, is an insightful and interesting writer, one whom I’ve appreciated reading over the years.
Here is the concern that most animates Dreher in this book:
A progressive—and profoundly anti-Christian militancy—is steadily overtaking society; one described by Pope Benedict XVI as a “worldwide dictatorship of seemingly humanistic ideologies” that pushes dissenters to the margins. Benedict called this a manifestation of “the spiritual power of the Antichrist.” This spiritual power takes material form in government and private institutions, in corporations, in academia and media, and in the changing practices of everyday American life. It is empowered by unprecedented technological capabilities to surveil private life. There is virtually nowhere to hide.
This progressive militancy, Dreher writes, is most evident in the rise of identity politics, a worldview steeped in a Marxist understanding of oppressed/oppressor groups and the reduction of potential solutions to the redistribution of power.
Dreher believes we’re careening toward a totalitarian future in which “nothing can be permitted to exist that contradicts a society’s ruling ideology.” Already, the totalitarian spirit (expressed in the idea that “the personal is political”) seeks “to infuse all aspects of life with political consciousness. Indeed, the Left pushes its ideology ever deeper into the personal realm, leaving fewer and fewer areas of daily life uncontested.”
Live Not By Lies is Dreher’s attempt to show us the similarities between communist totalitarianism and our current situation. At times, he succeeds. At other times, he overplays his hand. For rhetorical purposes, his warnings depend on a situation in which contemporary life in the West bears startling resemblances to communism in the Soviet era. But in his exploration of these cultures, he’s forced to acknowledge the glaring differences.
Some of the similarities make sense. Dreher’s conversations with men and women who once lived under communism and now worry similar events could happen even in the United States ring true to me. I’ve heard stories and warnings like these for years—in books, from family members, and from evangelical church leaders in Romania. A few years ago, documents released from the Romanian Securitate showed how even some of the country’s evangelical and Orthodox religious leaders who had been known for their resistance to communism were, in some way or another, compromised by the system and had informed on others. Lest we be quick to judge, imagine life driven by a totalizing system where truth and falsehood are so interchangeable that even the most ardent defender of freedom can fall to the fog of propaganda. One can’t underestimate the long-term effects of living in a society where freedom has been lost.
I also recognize what I’ve always called the “go along to get along” mentality of ordinary citizens, described by Dreher with the illustration of the grocer who “posts a sign in his shop bearing the well-known slogan from the Communist manifesto, ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ He doesn’t believe it,” Dreher writes. “He hangs it in his shop as a signal of his own conformity. He just wants to be left alone.” One doesn’t have to squint in order to see similar pressures already at work in our country today, especially in regard to publicly affirming or signaling one’s support of causes or theories about which many citizens, deep down, entertain serious doubts. (Recent gender theories behind the transgender movement represent one example, but consider also the corporate pressure to demonstrate solidarity every Pride Month, where brands, social-media platforms, and even children’s games fly rainbow colors).
Manual for Christians
Dreher’s primary aim is to prepare Christians to endure a period of profound cultural pressure, social ostracism, and personal suffering. As he writes, “We cannot hope to resist the coming soft totalitarianism if we do not have our spiritual lives in order.”
Relying on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s essay “Live Not By Lies,” Dreher wants to fortify Christians in the truth:
Everybody says that they have no choice but to conform, says Solzhenitsyn, and to accept powerlessness. But that is the lie that gives all the other lies their malign force. The ordinary man may not be able to overturn the kingdom of lies, but he can at least say that he is not going to be its loyal subject.