I recently spent several months leading a Facebook group discussion of Rod Dreher’s Live Not By Lies. Each week I would post a summary of a chapter, and the members of the group would discuss it. That experience led me to do a closer reading of Dreher’s book than I would normally do. And it also led me to appreciate all the more the importance of the message of this book for God’s people.
The genesis of the book began back in 2015 when Dreher began to speak with Christians who had once lived under communism in the former Soviet-bloc countries. They told him they believed America was drifting toward some sort of totalitarianism, and they were upset that their fellow Americans weren’t recognizing what is happening. Building on these interviews, and first-person accounts of those who survived life under anti-Christian, totalitarian rule, Dreher lays out what he sees happening in the United States (and throughout the Western world), and his conclusions as to how Christians can effectively deal with it.
Realism, not pessimism
Some reviewers have said that Dreher is overly pessimistic. Totalitarianism? Really? Dreher says the reason many can’t see it, is because what’s happening here is different from what we see in China and saw in the USSR. That’s the old “hard totalitarianism,” while Dreher say what we’re facing could be described as “soft totalitarianism.”
What others have characterized as his “pessimism,” I would call “realism.” Dreher understands what is happening in the Western world, and what he sees rightly concerns him.
So what is this “soft totalitarianism” that Dreher is talking about? There are many ways in which our freedom to express ourselves honestly is being taken from us, and we are being pressured to conform to the world’s narrative. Recently, Focus on the Family had one of its Twitter account suspended for “violating [Twitter] rules against hateful conduct.” They will not be allowed access to their account until they delete the offending comment, which said only:
“On Tuesday, President-elect Joe Biden announced that he had chosen Dr. Rachel Levine to serve as Assistant Secretary for Health at the Department of HHS. Dr. Levine is a transgender woman, that is, a man who believes he is a woman.”
Social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram police “hate speech” – and it is those who define “hate” who make the decisions about who can stay and participate, and who must be excluded. Christians who have expressed “unacceptable” opinions on Facebook have been forced to participate in “sensitivity training” sessions in their workplace, after their posts were reported to management and deemed unacceptable. The private sector and government work together to expand surveillance and data collection, whether for the purposes of public safety and “homeland security,” or for public health and “bio-security,” or to combat the most recent threat to be uncovered, that of “far-right domestic terrorism.” Increasingly repressive measures are being enacted to stifle the ministry of the Church, as bills are passed that ban activities like “conversion therapy,” which seek to help those who are struggling with their gender identity. Speaking out against sin is defined as “bullying” (regardless of whether it is done compassionately and lovingly or not), and events like Pink Shirt Day, anti-bullying initiatives, and government-mandated school clubs all have a chilling effect on the free exchange of ideas, especially those that are no longer accepted by the mainstream.
When Biblical teaching is defined as “hate speech,” and those who dare to publicly contradict mainstream orthodoxy on subjects like sexuality and gender ideology can be silenced and excluded from public discourse, we are well on our way toward this state of soft totalitarianism. This isn’t the hard totalitarianism of the old Soviet Union; but in the end, the results of Soft Totalitarianism are the same. Outward conformity to the prevailing ideology is demanded, inappropriate use of language is censured, those who express the wrong kinds of ideas are branded as intolerant, hateful, and dangerous to society.
We’re doing it to ourselves
What is particularly concerning about this move toward soft totalitarianism is the fact that it is being done with the largely unquestioning acceptance of the populace. We have willingly given up our privacy and control over our own data for the sake of convenience, to remain connected through social networks, and to have “free” access to entertainment and consumer goods. And as we have done that, often unthinkingly, we have opened ourselves up to the growing influence of corporations like Facebook, Twitter, and Google, and their policy-makers who are using these tools to shape public discourse, control what can be communicated publicly, and influence the way we think.
What can we do? Live not by lies!
Dreher’s realism also leads him to recommend steps that Christians can take to remain faithful in the face of ever-increasing pressure. This is where the rubber hits the road for the Christian reader. I often hear this question in response to my writing on current events: “What can we do to stop this?” And realism leads me to say that, humanly speaking, there is very little that we as individuals can do to halt a process which has been gathering steam for decades. The combined forces behind soft totalitarianism appear, on the surface, to be unstoppable. But that does not mean that the situation is hopeless, and that there is nothing we can do as individuals, each within our own sphere of influence.
The first thing that we need to do is live according to the injunction of the book’s title, which itself was taken from the title of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s essay “Live not by lies!” Solzhenitsyn wrote that we as individuals may not have the strength to stand up in public and say what we really believe, but we can at least refuse to affirm what we do not believe. We may not be able to overthrow totalitarianism, but we can, individually and as a community, find the means to live in “the dignity of truth.”
So that’s the first important step we need to take. In a world that is demanding more and more that everyone affirm ideals that are inherently non-Christian, and in fact anti-Christian, we need to live in the truth.
What does it look like to live in the truth? It means refusing to take over the language that the world uses, and refusing to use it as our own. There is a reason so much emphasis is put on policing speech and policing the way in which certain words and expressions are used – it’s because controlling language is the first step in influencing and controlling thought. Over time, the words we use shape the way we think. We can see this happening with the transformation in the use of the word “gender.” In the past, “gender” was a grammatical concept. In languages like Spanish and Portuguese, nouns are either masculine or feminine, and while English is not a gendered language, there are still a few examples of gendered words; for example, ships have often been referred to as “she.” But the meaning of the word “gender” has shifted, largely under pressure from activists who would like to believe that gender is a fluid concept, a kind of sliding scale between masculine and feminine. So now, instead of “sex” with its binary male or female biological reality, we have “gender” and a world of multiple options, based on personal choice and identification. So how can we “live not by lies” in this area? We can, in our speech, show that we do not buy into the idea of a shifting scale of “gender,” by maintaining the distinction that reflects reality, and not the ideology of the activists who have taken control of public discourse. Does this mean we have to correct people every time we hear the word “transgender” being used instead of “transexual”? No. But it does mean maintaining the created distinction between male and female by the way we ourselves use words, and the way that we teach our children.
But there is more that we can and must do. In the second half of the book, Dreher closes each chapter with a section with the heading, “See, Judge, Act.” In this section, he provides the reader with practical advice gleaned from his interviews with Christians who lived under hard totalitarian regimes and kept the faith. While Dreher was raised Methodist and is now an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I think his vision of how Christians can counteract soft totalitarianism has much in common with Reformed thinking, and specifically the distinctly Reformed emphasis on the doctrine of the covenant. Dreher doesn’t use the term, but we could summarize his practical steps under the heading of “covenant living.”
- So in our families, we must deliberately focus on teaching our children, reminding them of who they are, and of the realities of history in world in which history is being rewritten or even erased.
- In our churches, we need to continue to use the means of grace faithfully and passionately. Dreher recommends the gathering of small groups for teaching and discussion, with believers encouraging and instructing one another about how to “live not by lies.”
In a world in which social units are fracturing and social connections disintegrating, we need to make the effort to not only preach covenant theology, but to live out the covenant theology that we confess!
I highly recommend Live Not By Lies, and believe that its message is vitally important for God’s people today. The first step that we need to take to remain faithful to our calling as followers of Christ is to recognize that we are in a battle, and understand that battle. Dreher does a commendable job of revealing the reality of our current situation, as he seeks to open the eyes of those who may not recognize the seriousness of what is currently happening in our society. He also provides realistic counsel to Christians, based on the experiences of those who have lived through totalitarianism themselves.
History is in the Lord’s hands. He is directing all things according to his purpose, and he is in absolute control. For us, that is the greatest encouragement of all, and internalizing this truth is how we’ll steer clear of pessimism and hopelessness. At the same time, we must be realists, and not live in denial about what is happening. The forces united against Christ and his Church are becoming stronger, and we need to recognize that there is a battle, we need to know who the enemy is, and we need to be prepared to fight the good fight of faith in confidence. Live Not By Lies will help you to do just that.
Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative magazine. He’s written and edited for the New York Times, and has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Beliefnet, and Commentary and numerous other publications. “Live Not By Lies” is his fifth book, and his fourth, “The Benedict Option,” dealt with similar themes.