by Steve Golden —
Totalitarianism, the newest iteration of Communism, is coming to the United States. Some argue it’s already here. How will you recognize it? Can you protect your family from it? What can you do about it?
In his newest book, Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, Rod Dreher attempts to answer these and other questions by going to some of the best sources: people who survived Communist takeovers in other countries. Not just survived, but thrived. The testimonies of these people—priests, pastors, fathers, husbands, wives, daughters, and sons … people like us—turn an otherwise good book into a great read.*
If you’ve been reading my articles for very long or if we’ve interacted at all, you know I’ve had deep concerns about the encroaching totalitarianism for many years, concerns that have been heightened by COVID-induced government overreach. Dreher tackles those concerns head-on and, without sugarcoating the truth about what’s happening in our nation, he challenges and encourages readers that they can act in meaningful ways to counter the coming totalitarianism. His advice is thoughtful, practical, and shrewd, and it’s focused on preparation to lead well and—perhaps more importantly—to suffer well in the coming days.
Soft Totalitarianism’s Gentle Touch
Dreher spends the first half of Live Not by Lies driving home an important point: soft totalitarianism doesn’t look like the Soviet-style Communism we’re all used to learning about. It’s seductive and “therapeutic” (to use one of Dreher’s key words)—it makes us believe that we are serving a greater good by advocating for it. Dreher writes, “Today’s left-wing totalitarianism once again appeals to an internal hunger, specifically the hunger for a just society . . . It masquerades as kindness, demonizing dissenters and disfavored demographic groups to protect the feelings of ‘victims’ in order to bring about ‘social justice’” (p. 9).
For the many young Americans currently enthralled with socialist ideals, Dreher lays out the horrors of Communism, noting that “the old, hard totalitarianism had a vision for the world that required the eradication of Christianity” (p. xiii). Dreher continues,
“communism was militantly atheistic and declared religion to be its mortal enemy. The Soviets and their European allies murdered clergy and cast an uncounted number of believers, both ordained and lay, into prisons and work camps, where many suffered torture.” (p. xiii)
But, as Dreher points out, those who lived under Communism see the warning signs that most Americans continue to miss: the Social Justice Warrior (SJW) movement is quickly morphing into the kind of “aggressive and punitive politics that resembles Bolshevism, as the Soviet style of Communism was first called” (p. 10). He writes that this soft totalitarianism involves the Left creating “powerful mechanisms for controlling thought and discourse and marginaliz[ing] dissenters as evil” (p. xii). Communism was appealing to Russians in the beginning, too, but it did not work out well for them in the end.
Helpfully, Dreher spends a chapter walking readers through the work of Hannah Arendt, a political philosopher who published The Origins of Totalitarianism in 1951. Unfortunately, most readers today wouldn’t be familiar with Arendt by name, but her work offers important insight into the ideology that drives totalitarianism. Dreher draws connections between her 70-year-old work and the rapid changes occurring in the United States today to show that ours is indeed a “pre-totalitarian culture.”
Preparing to Suffer Well
The second half of Live Not by Lies is a chapter-by-chapter guide to preparing oneself and one’s family to suffer well. Dreher pulls no punches here, drawing on the wisdom of men and women who were imprisoned, tortured, and forced to do unimaginable things. But what helped these people cope was their refusal to give in to totalitarian lies—they refused to forget the truth. They taught the true history to their children, not the Communist revisions. The entire family participated in the struggle against Communism, in the struggle to survive. Their children gave up the chance of attending good schools or having good jobs because they would not join Communist youth movements or wear the badges that indicated allegiance to the dictator. Dreher also explores the fallout for children whose parents withheld the truth from them or who compromised with lies to protect their children.
More importantly, the home became the place where a semblance of normalcy could be found. Dreher shares the stories of people who held underground lectures in their houses, educating people on “forbidden subjects” in history or literature. Parents and children needed strong familial relationships to stay together, and networks of small groups—not unlike church small groups today—became lifelines for the isolated and empowered communities to stand together.
None of this, however, will prevent suffering. Indeed, totalitarianism’s focus on controlling the bodies and minds of its captives requires that Christians endure a special kind of torment. Dreher reminds readers that while it’s foolish to seek out suffering, “No Christian has the power to avoid suffering entirely. It is the human condition. What we do control is how we act in the face of it. . . . The choices we will make when put to the ultimate test depend on the choices we make today, in a time of peace” (p. 207).
What Will You Do to Prepare?
The question is not “If?” but “When?” And it’s not “Should we prepare?” but “How do we prepare?” Soft totalitarianism is here, in the land of the free, and the last year has proven there are few in American government who are willing or able to stop it. Dreher’s book title is taken from a 1974 essay by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who writes that if we “shrink away” from the task of countering lies, then we are no more worthy of the “gifts of freedom” than cattle.
But Christians are not without hope. Not only do we have hope in Christ, but we can share that hope with others in these times of distress. Dreher skillfully argues that we can and should maximize our usefulness with thoughtful preparation for the future. An excellent first step would be to read Live Not by Lies.
*Dreher himself is a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and many of the stories he shares are from members of the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Church. While the contributors to Applied Heart do not agree with the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox understanding of the Gospel or Scripture, Dreher presents truths about government, family life, and suffering that are worth consideration.