There is much in Rod Dreher’s newest book, Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, that is true, insightful, and in need of serious consideration. At its best, the book forces an increasingly frayed and polarized Christian church to answer for its moral and political apathy. Yet Dreher’s work is missing something: a self-awareness, a careful sobriety, a consciousness that even those on the good side can unwittingly become the thing they seek to destroy.
Dreher, a columnist for The American Conservative and arguably the most-read conservative blogger on the internet, does not lack for eloquence or wisdom. He demonstrated his power of insight in his 2017 book The Benedict Option, a widely read manifesto calling for Western Christians to consciously reinvest in building their own communities of virtue instead of trying to win a culture war through politics. The Benedict Option was a stirring book that spoke powerfully to a church at a crossroads, and it resonated with Christians hungry for a healthier engagement of their culture.
Unfortunately, the spiritual sensibility of this earlier book is often missing in Live Not by Lies. In fact, the majority of the book is not didactic or contemporary at all, but rather a Christian-themed deep dive into Soviet totalitarianism. Most of the book features Dreher’s conversations and encounters with survivors of Soviet oppression and their descendants. Indeed, Dreher attributes his desire to write it to a phone call he received from a Czech family, urgently concerned that attacks on religious liberty in the US resembled their experience with Communist regimes in the 20th century.
Two Books in One
From his travels and conversations, Dreher arrives at a dire diagnosis: The United States has already been willingly subjected to a “soft totalitarianism” by the enemies of traditional religious and conservative ideas. “A progressive—and profoundly anti-Christian militancy,” writes Dreher, “is steadily overtaking society; one described by Pope Benedict XVI as a ‘worldwide dictatorship of seemingly humanistic ideologies’ that pushes dissenters to society’s margins.” Dreher proceeds to lay out his case with a twofold approach: Each successive chapter puts the historical testimony of Communism’s survivors into conversation with contemporary America, especially its culture-war issues of religious freedom, sexuality, and free speech.
Readers who recoil at this kind of summary should know that Dreher is not without his evidence. Chapter three, titled “Progressivism as Religion,” finds compelling similarity between the materialistic ideology of Communism and the dominant worldview of the average American college campus. Dreher’s concern about modern progressivism’s punitive, guilt-by-association absolutism is hardly a right-wing fever dream; the same point has been made numerous times by non-conservatives such as Jonathan Haidt and Andrew Sullivan (the latter of whom was recently forced to resign his columnist gig at New York magazine). As Dreher comments, citing the late philosopher Roger Scruton’s observations about totalitarian cultures:
[T]houghtcrimes … by their very nature make accusation and guilt the same thing … the reach of contemporary thoughtcrime expands constantly—homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia, bi-phobia, fat-phobia, racism, ableism, and on and on—making it difficult to know when one is treading on safe ground or about to step on a land mine.
Dreher’s point seems hard to argue in a world where card-carrying liberals such as J. K. Rowling can face enormous backlash merely for believing that a man cannot be a woman; where Mozilla executive Brendan Eich can lose his job for having the same view of same-sex marriage that Barack Obama had in 2008; or where the editor of The New York Times op-ed section can be forced from his role simply for publishing an essay—Republican Senator Tom Cotton’s brief for deploying federal troops to quiet this summer’s domestic unrest—that some progressive Times staffers found objectionable. Dreher has good reason to suspect that American progressivism has embraced ideological purity tests in a manner that recalls the abuses of Marxist regimes, and doubters should confront the growing chorus of concern from people well outside stereotypically conservative camps.
If this were the extent of Dreher’s vision, Live Not by Lies would be an accurate if unremarkable book. But the book’s message is not simply that progressives have become intolerant, but that this intolerance—coupled with widespread cultural decadence and the ascendancy of surveillance capitalism—is openly threatening the lives and livelihoods of traditional Christians. Dreher compares the “location services” novelties from Silicon Valley to the Communist Chinese system of “social credit,” warning that survivors of murderous regimes recognize the face of their foes in the emerging American society.
Techno-capitalism, Dreher writes, “is reproducing the atomization and radical loneliness that totalitarian communist governments used to impose on their captive peoples to make them easier to control.” This sentiment is supported, once again, mostly by stories: of people like Kirill Kaleda, a Russian priest whose career and prospects were forever suppressed due to his anti-Soviet convictions, and Yuri Sipko, a Russian Baptist who remembered his teachers being pressured into indoctrinating him at school.
There are really two books within Live Not by Lies. The first book is a historical record of remarkable spiritual resilience against the Soviet Union. The second book is an impassioned plea for contemporary American Christians to see themselves in the first book, to feel continuity between that history and their present, and to prepare for pressure, persecution, and maybe more.
Dreher is a seasoned journalist with much experience covering religious liberty battles. Given this, Live Not by Lies makes a surprisingly weak case for an impending woke totalitarianism. Much of the book feels impressionistic, as if switching from historical Soviet testimony to contemporary cultural analysis and then back to Soviet history is itself sufficient evidence. Dreher acknowledges that the religious, social, and political situation of late-19th-century Europe is quite different than that of the current United States, but he sees the difference as mostly irrelevant. He has a low opinion of American Christianity—“the spirit of the therapeutic has conquered the churches. … Relatively few contemporary Christians are prepared to suffer for the faith”—but he says almost nothing about America’s formidable (though not impervious) legal protections for religious liberty. Ultimately, he offers no plausible roadmap showing how a country whose legal institutions are deeply shaped by the First Amendment and a historically religious citizenry could flip-flop into a woke terror.
Could such a roadmap exist? It’s possible. But there are alternatives to consider, such as the one laid out by another Christian public intellectual, Ross Douthat, whose book The Decadent Society argues that American society is far likelier to linger in lazy political stagnation and immovable subcultural enclaves than to succumb to anything genuinely totalitarian. The point is that prophecy is tough work, and people who share the deepest religious and social convictions can nonetheless interpret all the moving parts differently. Dreher’s argument is passionately stated and not without support, but it is not finally persuasive.
Two Kinds of Lies
Here we come to a point of difference between The Benedict Option and Live Not by Lies, which seems far less spiritually attuned than its predecessor to the particular temptations that seduce conservative Christians. Whereas The Benedict Option described how the pursuit of power has failed believers, Live Not by Lies gives the impression that we ought to be consolidating power before we can do so no longer. Whereas The Benedict Option located the church’s most pressing stumbling blocks within, Live Not by Lies leaves no doubt that the elitist woke left is to blame. The Benedict Option challenged me to be on the right side. Live Not by Lies reassured me that I already am.
These are critiques from someone who resonates deeply with Dreher’s theological commitments. He’s absolutely right that mainstream culture despises traditional Christians. And he’s inarguably correct that our public square, slouching so long toward nihilistic relativism, is now vulnerable to the temptations of collectivist solidarity. But by framing Live Not by Lies as a jeremiad against woke progressives, Dreher misses a key opportunity to preach commitment to truth both to secular revolutionaries and right-wing reactionaries. A handful of passages about the sins of “both sides” notwithstanding, Dreher is so single-mindedly focused on drawing parallels between Communist overlords and liberal elites that he misses the countercultural, contra-tribal nature of Christian identity and belief.
Christians who fully allow their commitments to absolute truth and the sovereignty of God over all things to shape their intuitions will not be comfortably mapped onto the American political grid. The same Bible that rejoices in the personhood of the unborn also condemns mistreatment of the immigrant and stranger. The same Bible that commands care for the poor and reconciliation in the face of ethnic strife also reveals God’s design in creating “male and female.” The same biblical principle of the objectivity of truth interrupts both intersectional narratives and “stolen election” conspiracy-mongering. When it comes to culture war, the gospel is an equal-opportunity offender.
We must indeed refuse to live by lies: the lies our secular age is telling us, and also the lies we tell ourselves. Dreher has helpful things to say about the first kind. I wish he had more to say about the latter.
Samuel D. James serves as associate acquisitions editor at Crossway Books and blogs at Letter and Liturgy.