Historians are going to have a wealth of events to study from 2020. Perhaps more than the year 1968. No doubt one thing they will analyze will be the unabashed rise of totalitarianism in the West, which is the topic of Rod Dreher’s new book Live Not By Lies. Dreher analyzes the rise of what he calls “soft totalitarianism” in the US by talking to people who lived through totalitarianism in the Soviet Bloc. As he did in his book The Benedict Option, Dreher focuses on how Christians can preserve their faith during these troubling times.
What is This?
If you’re wondering what totalitarianism is—
According to Hannah Arendt, the foremost scholar of totalitarianism, a totalitarian society is one in which an ideology seeks to displace all prior traditions and institutions, with the goal of bringing all aspects of society under control of that ideology. A totalitarian state is one that aspires to nothing less than defining and controlling reality. Truth is whatever the rulers decide it is. As Arendt has written, wherever totalitarianism has ruled, “[I]t has begun to destroy the essence of man.”
I grew up in the 1980s during the Cold War. It seems bizarre to me to even need a discussion on the dangers of totalitarianism; yet, here we are. From cancel culture having people fired for differing opinions on Twitter to mobs screaming at passive diners to raise their fists in solidarity at restaurants, totalitarianism is being accepted. Let’s be honest. It’s even being celebrated by some. I realize that not everyone will agree with that statement. Many will not agree with Dreher’s conclusions in Live Not By Lies, but it’s very difficult to ignore the facts.
Dreher interviews Christians who lived through brutal totalitarianism in the Soviet Bloc, and here’s what he found:
What makes the emerging situation in the West similar to what they fled? After all, every society has rules and taboos and mechanisms to enforce them. What unnerves those who lived under Soviet communism is this similarity: Elites and elite institutions are abandoning old-fashioned liberalism, based in defending the rights of the individual, and replacing it with a progressive creed that regards justice in terms of groups. It encourages people to identify with groups—ethnic, sexual, and otherwise—and to think of Good and Evil as a matter of power dynamics among the groups. A utopian vision drives these progressives, one that compels them to seek to rewrite history and reinvent language to reflect their ideals of social justice.
These Christians survived absolutely brutal persecution. Dreher describes horrific torture methods used by the Soviets. Many of the people he interviews or their family members spent decades in prisons or gulags. As Dreher examines how they maintained their faith, it’s obvious that there are differences in the totalitarianism we face. In some ways, what we face is even scarier. Dreher writes:
To be sure, whatever this is, it is not a carbon copy of life in the Soviet Bloc nations, with their secret police, their gulags, their strict censorship, and their material deprivation. That is precisely the problem, these people warn. The fact that relative to Soviet Bloc conditions, life in the West remains so free and so prosperous is what blinds Americans to the mounting threat to our liberty. That, and the way those who take away freedom couch it in the language of liberating victims from oppression.
Live Not By Lies starts with a brief history of the rise of totalitarianism in Russia. He looks at the sources and the parallels with what is happening in the US today. Dreher analyzes what he considers the two factors driving “soft totalitarianism” today: the social justice movement and surveillance technology, which has become a huge part of our consumerist culture.
The second part of the book examines forms, methods, and sources of resistance. Dreher attempts to answer the following questions by examining exactly what the Christians in the Soviet Bloc did in order to survive:
Why is religion and the hope it gives at the core of effective resistance? What does the willingness to suffer have to do with living in truth? Why is the family the most important cell of opposition?… How did they get through it?… Why are they so anxious about the West’s future?
Obviously, this is a contentious topic. Live Not By Lies discusses some difficult topics. Dreher has already been attacked and criticized. He doesn’t seem to accept the media-driven narrative of the death of George Floyd and the social justice movement. How exactly does he describe the soft totalitarianism affecting the US? Dreher writes:
Today’s totalitarianism demands allegiance to a set of progressive beliefs, many of which are incompatible with logic—and certainly with Christianity. Compliance is forced less by the state than by elites who form public opinion, and by private corporations that, thanks to technology, control our lives far more than we would like to admit…
Today’s left-wing totalitarianism once again appeals to an internal hunger, specifically the hunger for a just society, one that vindicates and liberates the historical victims of oppression. It masquerades as kindness, demonizing dissenters and disfavored demographic groups to protect the feelings of “victims” to bring about “social justice…”
This is what the survivors of communism are saying to us: liberalism’s admirable care for the weak and marginalized is fast turning into a monstrous ideology that, if it is not stopped, will transform liberal democracy into a softer, therapeutic form of totalitarianism.
For Christians, therein lies the rub—“liberalism’s admirable care for the weak and marginalized.” Aren’t Christians supposed to care for the weak and marginalized? The answer is yes. Christians should and do care for the weak and marginalized. The problem is ideology in these movements is king, and the ideology is ultimately atheistic and therapeutic. Christianity is allowed as long as it bends to the ideology, not the other way around.
These movements are trying to use totalitarianism to create a utopia based on their ideology. As Mark Sayers says in one of my favorite quotes, “They want to create the kingdom of heaven, but without the King.” That is their end goal. Ask yourself, what is the end goal of Christianity? What happens when the goals of the ideology clash with Christianity?
In therapeutic culture, which has everywhere triumphed, the great sin is to stand in the way of the freedom of others to find happiness as they wish. This goes hand in hand with the sexual revolution, which, along with ethnic and gender identity politics, replaced the failed economic class struggle as the utopian focus of the post-1960s radical left.
It all goes back to the original sin: the individual wants to be a god. The individual wants to create his or her own brand of heaven where the only sin is anything causing unhappiness. In that kind of culture, even using the pronouns “his or her” is controversial because it could offend someone. Dreher writes:
Christian resistance on a large scale to the anti-culture has been fruitless, and is likely to be for the foreseeable future. Why? Because the spirit of the therapeutic has conquered the churches as well—even those populated by Christians who identify as conservative. Relatively few contemporary Christians are prepared to suffer for the faith, because the therapeutic society that has formed them denies the purpose of suffering in the first place, and the idea of bearing pain for the sake of truth seems ridiculous.
What can we do?
Honestly, the scariest part of all this is we unsuspectingly welcome totalitarianism. We live in a far more technologically advanced society than the 1980s Soviet Bloc. The opportunities and ability to surveil private life are unbelievable. As Dreher says, “There’s nowhere left to hide.” It’s almost cliche to point out anymore. We are far more similar to the society in Huxley’s Brave New World, than we are Orwell’s 1984. Why? Because we happily invite our oppressors into every aspect of our lives, as long as we’re kept happy with endless entertainment and shiny consumer goods. We don’t want to offend anyone, and we don’t want to suffer. Dreher even recounts how one Soviet Bloc survivor he talked to is horrified at the use of smartphones and Amazon Echo in US homes. They lived the nightmare described in 1984.
The subtitle to Live Not By Lies is “A Manual For Christian Dissidents.” The second part of the book specifically gives the strategies the Christians in the Soviet Bloc used to maintain their faith and survive. If you haven’t guessed it, the title of the book has a lot to do with it. The title comes from a quote by Solzhenitsyn, a Christian who survived the gulags. And yes, their Christian faith was crucial to their survival. In fact, much of what our society wants Christians to let go of turns out to be crucial for surviving totalitarianism. Let’s not fool ourselves. There will be suffering, but we must persevere.
This is a difficult topic. It’s hard to hear these comparisons and read these stories. It’s difficult to step outside the ideologies and narratives that seem to want to help people and really see what the end goal is. I think the strategies presented in the second part of the book will be essential in the coming years. Live Not By Lies is not a happy book, but it’s a necessary book. I recommend you read it and ask yourself the hard questions. You can get a copy of the book here.