Reviewed: Rod Dreher. Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents (New York: Sentinel, 2020).
Rod Dreher is perhaps the most difficult figure in contemporary conservativism.
This difficulty is principally due to the amorphous character of Dreher’s thought as well as the American Conservative columnist’s style—as others have noted, Dreher has mastered the art of blogging, combing seemingly banal and silly comments on sports, literature, and exotic Louisiana Cajun food along with truly prescient and intelligent social and philosophical commentary.
Dreher began his public career friendly to the neoconservative movement and initially supported the 2003 Iraq War. Dreher would, however, rebrand himself as a “Crunchy Con” in his 2006 work, Crunchy Cons: The New Conservative Counterculture and Its Return to Roots, helping to create a new bohemian subculture in the conservative movement that itself would be part of the splintering of the neoconservative dominated American right into a host of sub groups and cultures at the end of the George W. Bush era.
Horrified and disgusted with his investigation into the Catholic abuse scandal and cover up, Dreher would eventually join Orthodoxy and perched at The American Conservative would become one of the most prominent conservative journalists.
However, with the publication of his 2017 magnum opus, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, Dreher positioned himself as global spokesman for a new alliance among conservative in response to what Dreher saw as the defeat of the right during the culture wars.
While drawing some criticism for his alleged call for social conservatives to retreat from the public sphere, in The Benedict Option, Dreher’s key point is that a restoration of Christian civilization can only be accomplished from the ground up, that is, from alliances of families attempting to live an authentically Christian life.
Dreher’s most recent work, Living Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents is, in effect, a sequel to The Benedict Option.
As he does in The Benedict Option, Dreher assumes that the left’s alleged victory in the culture war is a done deal. What is needed, he argues, is a dedicated and spirited resistance to what Dreher calls a new “soft” or “pink” “totalitarianism.”
Similar to many recent works that attempt to return to the Cold War discourse of the struggle between right and left as fundamentally being a struggle between freedom and totalitarianism, Dreher interviews a number of Soviet dissidents and their family members and compares their experience to that of Americans living during the first major shock waves of the new “woke” revolution.
Dreher begins his work, which draws its title from a 1974 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn essay of the same name, with a meditation on the Indian Summer of post-Cold War Pax Americana when the specter of totalitarianism allegedly had disappeared—Dreher curiously admits the rollercoaster of fear and uncertainty that accompanied the War on Terror, the 2008 Stock Market crash, and the civil unrest during the Obama administration.
These halcyon days are only interrupted when Dreher receives a phone call in 2015 from an American physician whose mother had been part of the Catholic anti-Communist resistance in Czechoslovakia. According to Dreher, the Czech mother was worried that American was potentially mirroring her own experience of the advent of Communism in her own country.
Paralleling the totalitarian measures of Eastern European Communist regimes, a new surveillance apparatus is being built in the United States to support a new post- or “cultural” Marxist ideology that is being implemented in the US.
However, there are two crucial differences between the new and old leftist totalitarianism. The old Soviet regime claimed the right to persecute dissidents in the name of economic and social equality. The new “woke” regime, however, persecutes dissidents in the name of racial and gender equality.
Secondly, the new ideology is being pushed, not so much by the government as it was during the Soviet era, as it is by the new merger of leftism and big capitalism known as “woke capital”—Dreher makes the keen observation that the heads of corporations pushing transgenderism and various radical forms of racialism are, in many cases, the products of the 1990s American college experience in which Gen Xers were inundated with leftist ideology from their New Left Baby Boomer professor who themselves took their cue from Frankfurt school radicalism.
As Dreher notes, this new totalitarianism is “therapeutic” and uses friendly language like “toleration” as well as “diversity and inclusion” to stealthily advance its agenda and to punish dissidents.
Dreher further rightly argues that transgender ideology is a profound manifestation of Orwellian “doublethink” and “newspeak”: although one may be a biological male, “he” is actually a female if he desires to be called she.
Moreover, Dreher takes aim at the newest leftist mantra of “equality of outcome” (manifested most recently by the abolition of standardized tests at many colleges and universities). No longer does the left argue for equal opportunity or “a helping hand” to those who have experienced historic injustice. Rather, everyone must be rewarded equally regardless of their skill set or ability—regardless of the cost. Although Dreher does provide these examples, this emphasis on promoting and rewarding those unable to meet the standards of their professions has had a disastrous and even deadly effect in the medical as well as engineering fields.
Borrowing from the Polish thinker Czesław Miłosz’s 1932 novel Insatiability, Dreher notes that contemporary Americans, like those living in communist regimes, are forced to practice art of “ketman,” a Persian word for those who outwardly adhere to Islamic orthodoxy while no longer believing in Islamic teaching.
Contemporary American business professionals and government employees are forced to keep their Christian faith and conservative views to themselves at risk of being blacklisted, fired, or even potentially fined and jailed.
As Paul Kengor does in his recent The Devil and Karl Marx, itself partially inspired by the hauntingly brilliant 1997 The Black Book of Communism, Dreher recounts numerous horror stories of Eastern European dissidents brutally tortured by Communist regimes. Dreher’s narrations are especially apropos, as Dreher himself notes, for Millennials and Generation Z precisely because these are the first generations to grow up after the Cold War with little genuine knowledge of Communism outside of the embellished narrative of many of their left-leaning professors.
At the same time, borrowing from Solzhenitsyn’s plan of action for those who refuse to live by lies in his essay of the same time, Dreher provides numerous examples of those in Eastern European countries who successfully resisted communism and even spread Christianity in various underground movements.
While Live not by Lies is a timely reminder of just how bad things have become for conservatives in America, it still contains the same elements of quietism for which The Benedict Option came under fire.
Conservatives do not necessarily have to run and hide just yet.
There is another option, sometimes called the “Boniface Option” by some cheeky traditionalist Catholics, which Dreher does not entertain in either Living Not by Lies or its predecessor The Benedict Option.
In this “option,” conservatives would take a (peacefully) aggressive approach to the culture wars not unlike the “take no prisoners” rhetorical and political approach of President Trump (and former Trump advisor Steve Bannon). In the Boniface Option, social conservatives could reclaim the political and social sphere by taking on woke capital and the work left head on in public debate in order to reclaim the hearts and minds of President Nixon’s “silent majority”—many of whom, one must admit, are now essentially hedonists who have abandoned their parents and grandparents Christian faith.
Nonetheless, history is full of upsets and “reactions” in which those fatigued by the desiccated emptiness of the false promises of the left have come home to rest solid and sure foundation of truth.