From the opening pages of Rod Dreher’s Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents (Sentinel, 2020), the assumption is that the lies which most threaten to engulf Christians today are those coming from the cultural and political Left. Political correctness, cancel culture, anti-racist kinds of training, gender theory, the “cult of social justice”—all treated by Dreher as comprising together a single system of lies—are what he says Christians must remain vigilant against and refuse to participate in. To help strengthen them in this resistance Dreher commends to his primarily North American readers the examples of remarkable 20th century Christian dissidents of Eastern Europe who stood up against totalitarian regimes. Some are familiar figures like Alexander Soltzenhitzyn (from whose 1974 essay addressing the Russian people comes the admonition to “live not by lies”), Václav Havel, and Karol Wojtyla. Others are less familiar, among them Croatian Jesuit priest Tomislav Poglajen Kolaković, Russian Orthodox dissident Alexander Ogorodnikov, Russian Baptist pastor Yuri Sipko, and Czech Catholic mathematician and human rights activist Václav Benda. Dreher offers moving accounts of these and other heroic figures and extracts considerable wisdom from their writings and from the recollections of those he has interviewed who knew them.
Dreher is genuinely ecumenical in his approach, inspired by the faith and courage of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christians alike. His choice to restrict his focus to Eastern European dissidents raises a methodological question, however, which he seems not fully to appreciate the need to address. Christians bravely resisting lies of those in power may be found all over the world. In highlighting heroic resistance only to Eastern European totalitarianism, Dreher stacks the deck. He does, it is true, include occasional examples of resistance to Nazi totalitarianism but only peripherally (with no mention of Edith Stein, Mother Maria Skobtsova, Maximilian Kolbe, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer). Resistance to communist totalitarianism is what especially interests him. The barest justification for this is supposed to be found in a distinction Dreher draws (and pins on Hannah Arendt) between totalitarianism and “simple authoritarianism”: only the former, Dreher tells us, imposes an ideology that “seeks to displace all prior traditions and institutions, with the goal of bringing all aspects of society under control of that ideology” (7).
The trouble is that what Dreher presents as the defining feature of the totalitarian state, that it “aspires to nothing less than defining and controlling reality” (7-8), is true also of right-leaning authoritarian states, and not just the Third Reich but many others, including, over the past four years, our own, certainly in the relentless aspiration of our outgoing president and an alarming number of his enablers in Congress and among Republican attorneys general. I read this book between the November 3 election and its certification by the fifty states on December 14. It was surreal to hear from Dreher that “[t]ruth is whatever the rulers decide it is” and then watch him take and apply the point, as if in his sleep, to the fabrications of progressive elites. He has subsequently realized something was a little missing here. In a December 12 column in the American Conservative on the so-called Jericho March, Dreher admitted, “[I]f I had to write the book again, I would have to say more about how unstable and given over to irrational radicalism the Right has become.” Did it take till December 2020 to have such an epiphany? “I wish I could add a new chapter about how we conservatives are allowing ourselves to be conquered by the same kind of unreality [as he sees the Left plagued by]. We can’t look away from it, or fall back on whataboutism.”
But in the book this is just what Dreher has done. Donald Trump’s first mention comes on page 39 after a quote from Arendt about totalitarians’ expunging talent in favor of loyalty. (Again the delineation between authoritarian and totalitarian control blurs.) After deploring “Trump’s exaltation of personal loyalty over expertise” (40), Dreher falls back precisely on whataboutism: “But how can liberals complain? Loyalty to the group or tribe is at the core of leftist identity politics” (40). Trump is nowhere again mentioned in the book. And even here on a page where Dreher tells us that “what totalitarianism essentially is . . . [is] the politicization of everything” (39), we find no mention of Trump’s politicization of everything from face masks to the post office to presidential pardons; Dreher denounces only the radical claim of contemporary progressivism that “the personal is political.”
Had this book come out in 2015 rather than 2020 it might have seemed less stupendously blinkered. The point is not that Dreher’s critique of the Left has altogether no purchase. A radical pursuit of justice (which in fact Christianity demands) apart from a spirit of grace and reconciliation cannot be ultimately fruitful—the Left’s resources for knowing how overdue structural change and authentic mercy are to be combined can often be sorely lacking. It is also true that the Left too often mistakes genuine respect for human rights for ideological conformity on morally debatable matters.
The problem with Dreher’s book is that having raised legitimate concerns, he brings more heat to them than light. In important ways he fails to illuminate today’s Leftist politics. For example, the Left today offers something more hopeful and metaphysically rooted than the Left of the ’60s-’80s did, because the Left, having stared into the abyss of postmodern nihilism culminating in the person of Trump, has had no alternative but to find its footing again on some solid ground of truth and reality. One of the weakest aspects of Dreher’s book is its facile treatment of cultural memory as something today’s Left allegedly seeks to erase just as communist totalitarianism did. He takes a number of predictable swings at the New York Times’ 1619 Project, and although he lands a punch or two, his book’s overall argument here fails, because today’s Left, unlike Soviet-style suppression of history, in fact seeks to tell more of history, not less. “No serious person denies the importance of slavery in US history” (36) Dreher writes in a single sentence from which he absurdly moves on with a been-there, done-that dullness to the sheer scope and weight of previously under-appreciated historical information that innumerable Americans have been exposed to in 2020—from the Emancipation Proclamation’s uneven pace of implementation and the extent of lynchings during Reconstruction to modern-era massacres and the historical context of the racial wealth gap.
Dreher thrives on being “controversial.” Although good cultural commentary is not always irenic, the shortcoming of Dreher’s particular polemics is that he takes divisive thought-forms already stock-piled in the culture wars and merely picks them up and points them in the usual ways without creativity. For example, the stale polarizing phrase “social justice warriors” is one he repeatedly invokes (so often he resorts to using the acronym SJW’s for them). For just one refreshing moment he shifts gears to observe that “Peter Maurin, cofounder [with Dorothy Day, whom Dreher leaves unmentioned for some reason] of the Catholic Worker movement, was a truly Christian social justice warrior” (64). But this belated both-and moment integrating social justice and Christianity quickly frays as Dreher reverts back to SJW-bashing. Deeming Silicon Valley “a veritable mecca of the cult of social justice,” Dreher declares: “Social justice warriors are known for the spiteful disdain they hold for classically liberal values like free speech, freedom of association, and religious liberty. These are the kinds of people who will be making decisions about access to digital life and to commerce” (80-81). But wait, wasn’t there a good kind of social justice warrior? An integrated kind that could simultaneously be an SJW and take seriously the dangers of running roughshod over values of free speech, freedom of association and religious liberty?
Another glaring missed opportunity to integrate rather than further bifurcate may be noted in how Dreher weaves into his book the “See-Judge-Act” formula conceived by Joseph Cardijn, founder of the lay Young Christian Workers movement in the 1920s, and later picked up by Father Kolaković. From just reading Dreher’s book, one might imagine Cardijn’s “See-Judge-Act” as something most at home in conservative Christian resistance circles and have no idea how formative it was for Pope John XXIII and Latin American liberation theology. Ignoring these links or unaware of them, Dreher obscures from view how much there may be in common between seemingly different kinds of Christian communities of resistance. What sort of further fresh perspectives might a book like this have opened up if it had placed figures like Oscar Romero and Václav Benda alongside each other? I also wondered about the grounds of Dreher’s decision to steer away from instances of Christian resistance to (and silence about) truth’s sometimes murderous suppression in today’s Russia. I picked up on only a single such example, very obliquely presented (124-25) and with no mention of the name of Putin.
The day I finished drafting this review eleven Republican Senators announced they would vote to reject president-elect Biden’s victory. The national house was on fire and the events of January 6 had yet to unfold. It is possible the flames have begun to be doused. But the book Rod Dreher has published in this historic year will have done nothing to help bring them under control. He has raised his voice to warn us of another kind of apocalypse of which he writes that “[i]t is coming, and it is coming fast” (94), his eyes so riveted on its putative signs that he could not turn his head to see what was coming harder and faster.
Will Cohen is Professor of Theology & Religious Studies at the University of Scranton.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.