I was born in America on July 29th, 1991, some five months before the fall of the Soviet Union. In that sense, I am very lucky that I have never had to experience the cruelty of communism. My mother was less fortunate. She was born in Oklahoma on November 11th, 1962, shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Her father, a Navy seaman, had been called away to serve just off the coast of Cuba, so my grandmother had to give birth to her alone. In my imagination, one of the more poignant images I have of my grandmother is of her giving birth to a newborn baby in spite of the very real possibility of the world being destroyed in a nuclear holocaust the next day. Thankfully, no missiles were launched, and eventually communism lost its social and political power. And with the Fall of the Wall in Berlin in 1989, many assumed it would stay that way.
As it turns out, things are sadly less simple than we believed. Political communism is all but dead as a social threat, and while it survives in much of Asia and the island of Cuba, it has remained confined there. Unfortunately, the general ethos of communism is alive and well, and in fact, it is gaining strength. I say ethos because instead of a communist party gaining political power, we have more Americans willing to adopt the thoughts and behaviors that make communism possible. Typically, said behaviors are being directed at right-wing/traditional principles with impunity. In 2015, Alyssa Marino, a reporter for ABC News, walked into Memories Pizza parlor in Walkerton, IN. Looking for a story regarding the recent passage of the Restoration of Religious Freedom Act, she asked the owner, Kevin O’Connor, what he thought of the bill. O’Connor replied that he agreed with it, and said further that in accordance with his personal beliefs as a Christian, he would have to politely but firmly decline to serve a homosexual wedding. When the time came to put out the story, do you know what headline Marino used? “RFRA: First Michiana business to publicly deny same-sex service.” This was in spite of Mr. O’Connor also saying in the interview, “if a gay couple or a couple belonging to another religion came in to the restaurant to eat, [we] would never deny them service… [we] just don’t agree with gay marriages.”
Immediately after that headline was published, the O’Connors were subject to an onslaught of cyberbullying. More than 800 negative reviews angrily castigating them for their beliefs were posted to the shop’s Facebook and Google accounts. At least one review invited other like-minded people to come burn down the shop, but at least the poster was fired from their job and investigated for incitement to violence. Alas, the O’Connors no longer felt safe being in business and closed up shop for good after that threat was published.
In other words, a trend towards groupthink, a desire to quietly surrender personal liberties for the sake of the collective, toxic secularism, and a perverted misuse of the idea of equality have made too many strides recently. Rod Dreher, author of Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, is inclined to agree. His intended audience would be theologically conservative Christians of all kinds who believe LGBTQ+ ideology is immoral, and are worried about the present atmosphere of forced acceptance. He writes this book for the benefit of Christians who want to resist the cultural push to acquiesce to this ideology.
Further, Dreher believes we are approaching the age of what he calls “soft totalitarianism.” What differentiates soft totalitarianism from “hard” totalitarianism? Totalitarianism of any kind is always characterized by an ideology that is out of tune with human nature, logic, and certainly out of tune with Christianity. But soft totalitarianism is not characterized by torture chambers or gulags. Nor even by a political dictatorship that has no regard for human rights. It does not need them. A soft totalitarianism is characterized by a bad ideology that disguises itself as a civil right, such as Critical Race Theory disguising itself as social justice, or infringements on religious freedom in the name of gay rights. But instead of being forced down on the majority from above, it is freely and consciously chosen from below by those with social and cultural influence – like agenda-driven white middle-class people, corporations, news agencies, and activists.
This matters because an ideology out of tune with human nature is not content with simply being tolerated. It wants to be forcibly affirmed as normal, and it will show no tolerance for dissent. In a soft totalitarianism, the punishment for disagreeing with the ideology is not death or torture. Rather, it is often what we would now call “cancellation.” That is, your reputation will be tarnished en masse on social media (or similar venues) beyond redemption. This, in turn, makes it possible for you to lose your job, your friends, and relationships with your family. Essentially, you will be rendered a living nonperson in the eyes of society. And no one will defend you, in fear that they will be cancelled, too.
“Instead of being forced down on the majority from above, “soft totalitarianism” is freely and consciously chosen from below by those with social and cultural influence – like agenda-driven white middle-class people, corporations, news agencies, and activists.”
Having watched all the drama surrounding Memories Pizza, a friend of Dreher’s, whose mother had lived under communism in Czechoslovakia, was very troubled. She said the frenzy reminded her too much of the totalitarian methods she had witnessed as a young lady. Other friends of Dreher from Eastern Europe mentioned that more than once, conservative compatriots felt the need to lower their voices and look over their shoulder before expressing their opinion. These same Eastern European friends echoed that mother’s opinion — that America’s political climate is slowly becoming more communistic, and native-born Americans don’t notice it. Because we have never had to live under totalitarianism, we have a certain naivete. We do not think it can happen to us.
The question, “Is America in danger of acquiescing to soft totalitarianism?” enraptured Dreher. He knew he would need firsthand information from people who had survived and resisted communism to know an answer to that question. For that purpose, he traveled to the formerly communist portions of Eastern Europe to find out what the culture was like just before they fell to communism, and how they resisted it after it arrived. Live Not by Lies emerged from that labor in 2020. Dreher believes very much that yes, America is in danger of falling to such an evil. But it will not be characterized by political dictatorship a la 1984. Rather, Dreher’s stance implies it will be more like Brave New World, in which people will be so addicted to pleasure without moral substance, so confident that man is all-powerful, that dictatorship will not be necessary. For the sake of the reader, I will not attempt to summarize the whole book. But I will give attention to Dreher’s most important points.
The first key to successfully resisting such a tyranny, to Dreher, is traditional organized religion. For totalitarianisms of all kinds detest anything that suggests there is a power higher than themselves, and Christianity is especially pernicious to them. This is because Christianity proposes individuals have inherent rights no outside agency can take away, and that every human life is inherently valuable. Here, Dreher takes inspiration from Fr. Thomas Kolakovic, a Croatian Catholic priest who emigrated to Slovakia during WWII. Seeing that, in all likelihood, Soviet communism would swiftly replace the Nazism of his adopted homeland, Kolakovic resolved to prepare his flock.
Following that lead, Dreher offers at the end of each chapter these three pieces of advice: See, Judge, and Act. See means to be awake to the realities around you. Judge means just that: To judge these realities within the context of the Christian truth. Once you reach your conclusion, you are then supposed to Act in some way to resist that evil.
Knowing that the communists would eventually attempt to coerce the clergy into cooperation with the regime, Kolakovic stressed that only a complete commitment to the teachings of Jesus would allow people to survive spiritually. Kolakovic’s disciples, who called themselves The Family, spread all over Czechoslovakia during the war. Because of their ministry, even though the Slovakian Catholic Church suffered terribly, communism failed to break the spirits of its members.
Another stronghold that is antidotal to totalitarianism is the family. Again, totalitarian societies discourage the development of sources of authority that are stronger than they are. The traditional family, in which the children are expected to honor and help their parents before anyone else, and parents are expected to raise and teach their children in a spirit of love, not coercion, is therefore a dangerous threat. For this reason, all the great communist regimes made it a point to undermine the public morals that make family bonds possible. That typically included encouraging “free love,” in the form of fornication and adultery, followed by easy divorce and free contraception. It also included indoctrinating the children to regard the regime’s ideology, not their parents, as the key source of authority from which all else proceeded. How does a family remain intact and keep their God under such conditions?
We have a strong example in the Benda family of Czechoslovakia. Vaclav and Kamila Benda were both Catholic university professors who were involved in anti-communist resistance. A lot of Christians in the communist years chose to quietly “drop out,” that is, shut themselves in, worship in private, and wait for things to blow over. Not the Bendas. The Bendas made it a point to actively, nonviolently resist. Vaclav on more than one occasion got in trouble with the authorities for writing subversive literature, which eventually landed him in prison for most of the 1980’s. His wife, for her part, often hosted meetings for resistance movements such as Charter 77.
But there is more to their story than just history. Kamila Benda was happy to give Dreher advice on how to parent against totalitarianism. First, model moral courage — that is, always set the example you want your children to follow, and do not compromise on your morals just to make things easier. Second, fill your children’s moral imaginations with the good by giving them media that models Christian values, not worldly ones. For example, Kamila read The Lord of The Rings aloud to her 6 children for two hours per day. Third, don’t be afraid to sacrifice for the greater good. This will be difficult, for going against a regime’s ideology is costly. During his prison term, Vaclav was offered amnesty if he would agree to emigrate to the west with his family. Kamila said no, because it was better for him to stay in prison where he could be a martyr for the truth. Fourth, serve others who must suffer. Kamila made it a point to teach her children that they must stand in solidarity with all the oppressed. She herself was a source of great help; a lot of her fellow resisters would come to the apartment she lived in for consolation and advice after being released from prison or interrogation.
Uncompromised religion and strong family bonds are the most important antidotes, in Dreher’s view. Indeed, to Dreher, the cultural destruction of Christianity is a danger. But it would not be enough to engender soft totalitarianism, without the help of technology and woke capitalism. The totalitarianism of the Nazis and the Stalinists of the 20th century was made possible by advances in technology, such as the radio, the movie theater, and the wiretap. In these modern times, we have technology such as smart speakers that can predict what we want to purchase by being allowed to listen to our household conversations. Tech platforms such as Google and Facebook function similarly by gathering user metadata to customize user experience. In Orwellian terms, Big Brother has been invited into our homes in the name of consumerism, not political oppression. Naturally, the potential for technology like this to be used for malicious purposes is not off the table.
“Fill your children’s moral imaginations with the good by giving them media that models Christian values, not worldly ones. For example, Kamila read The Lord of The Rings aloud to her 6 children for two hours per day.”
Dreher invites us to consider the situation in China. Using technology developed by the American Silicon Valley, China has reached a level of totalitarianism far worse than that of the Mao Zedong era. GPS tracking, online data tracking, facial recognition software, and public surveillance keep track of the movements of every Chinese citizen. Working with that is a type of artificial intelligence called social credit. If a Chinese citizen does something the government does not approve of, such as attending church, making an anti-communist statement on social media, etc., points are deducted from their score. (Of course, it’s also possible to have points deducted for objectively bad behavior, such as refusing to pay a fine, jaywalking, etc.) People with negative points are not allowed to fully participate in Chinese society. For example, they cannot leave the country and their children are disbarred from higher education, for example. Anyone who freely associates with a person with a negative social score also suffers. By contrast, doing things the government approves of — listening to a speech of Xi Jinping, or helping an elderly neighbor with a chore — boosts their score. In other words, thanks to Big Tech, it has become impossible to do anything privately in China without the government’s approval. (It is not just the Chinese government that’s benefitting from this, though. Chinese corporations such as Alibaba and Sesame Credit often gather intimate personal data the same way google and Facebook do – with the crucial difference that they then use this data to decide whether or not they will do business with the customer at all.)
Furthermore, to Dreher, conservatism and corporations are no longer allies. He once wrote a shorter book on a similar theme in 2006, Crunchy Cons. In it, he pointed out that corporations can use their social and financial power to change cultures for the worse, as in encouraging conformity, or in promoting anti-family activities such as abortion and contraception. For that reason, he advised conservatives to be equally wary of big business as they were of big government.He argues that large corporations are a threat to a truly free society, especially when they go “woke.” Why is this important? It’s not just because money talks louder than people’s votes or values. In America, capitalism and making money are cardinal values, and corporations can speak for those values more than anyone else. Ergo, their ability to quietly threaten individual freedom is a real danger. Remember the RFRA of Indiana from earlier? Governor Mike Pence was forced to veto it after major employers such as Walmart, Apple, and Eli Lilly threatened economic retaliation. Other examples? Dreher cites Citigroup and Bank of America’s decision not to do business with gun manufacturers, and PayPal’s refusal to handle donations to the Alliance Defending Freedom. Actions like these are harder to protest against, because as private businesses, they are free to associate with whoever they please.
There is, sadly, much truth to what Dreher has written. But I believe the age of soft totalitarianism has already arrived, and is only intensifying now. Dreher believes it arrived with the legalization of gay marriage via Obergefell, but I disagree. It is arguably the case that soft totalitarianism arrived quickly and quietly after the attacks on September 11, 2001. I distinctly remember after 9/11 and the Patriot Act was passed, most of my neighbors disparaged anyone who disagreed with the war on terror, and the news media largely acquiesced. Ever since then, many Americans seem to value security and the pursuit of happiness over civil liberties. As a result, I personally am no longer quite convinced that freedom is an American cultural value anymore; rather, feeling safe is. And the price for objecting to universal “wokeism”, oftentimes, is to be smeared as unpatriotic, selfish, or bigoted. If you are sufficiently offensive, the possibility of being cancelled — or worse — is very much on the table.
Consider the way the U.S Government handled the Covid pandemic. The executive branch under Trump did nothing that was useful, though it’s reasonably debatable as to how much could have been done. Many believe that blue state governors mostly used it as an excuse to forcibly remold their societies in ways they knew they could never legally get away with in normal times. Whether that was Gavin Newsom of California flatly forbidding in-person religious gatherings while not touching the movie studios. Or Andrew Cuomo of New York mandating that all bars had to sell a meal with every drink, and that no one could leave their homes after 10 p.m. (The Covid-19 pandemic and its death toll might have other negative implications for our country later. Dreher cites the Russian famine of 1891-92, which killed 500,000 people, and severely weakened public faith in the Tsarist government. This was because they refused to acknowledge the severity of the situation, and for some reason thought it wise to continue exporting grain while raising taxes on the peasantry. WWI and the Bolshevik Revolution finished her off. The Covid-19 pandemic has also killed 500,000 Americans thus far, and as I have said already, the state and federal government response to it leaves much to be desired.)
Dreher believes that the culture wars are over, and that traditional Christians of all kinds have lost. On this point, I must firmly disagree. As long as Christians are capable of organizing and teaching their children in the truth, the wars most emphatically are not lost. In fact, I don’t even think they are over. A time of great and painful testing, probably even persecution, is indeed headed our way. Examples? Jack Phillips of Colorado is currently facing a 3rd lawsuit for the crime of declining to make a cake for a homosexual wedding in 2013. Beto “Absolutely” O’Rourke got before a cheering crowd of thousands and seriously proposed that religious institutions that do not condone homosexual behavior should be stripped of their civil rights. There has been an epidemic of anti-Catholicism, including attempted murder, arson, and church desecration since the murder of George Floyd, which has yet to abate. Then-senator Kamala Harris disparaged another man’s faith, and was eventually rewarded for it. None of these events seem to have prompted a national conversation. But the culmination of soft totalitarianism is to be seen in the Equality Act.
Officially, the act would simply add sexual preference and gender identity to the list of protected classes via the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Unofficially, the true purpose of the Equality Act is to mandate accommodation of gay marriage against certain people’s wills. If passed, the act would, among other things, make it illegal for businesses not to take part in homosexual weddings, force Catholic hospitals to take part in birth control and abortion services, and forbid religious exemptions of any type to LGBTQ+ type issues. This is in direct violation of the 1st Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, but it doesn’t seem to be slowing anything down.
“It is arguably the case that soft totalitarianism arrived quickly and quietly after the attacks on September 11, 2001. I distinctly remember after 9/11 and the Patriot Act was passed, most of my neighbors disparaged anyone who disagreed with the war on terror, and the news media largely acquiesced.”
But what can we as solidarists learn from Live Not by Lies, as an example of how to build an authentic Christian Democracy? And how to resist a culture that is slowly becoming increasingly anti-Christian?
First, to borrow tastefully from the book: never knowingly support lies! We cannot afford to be silent about our convictions, even when it could cost us dearly. It is prudent not to seek trouble, but when it comes — and it will come, because evil wants acceptance, not just tolerance — we cannot lie just to save ourselves. The worst thing we Solidarists can do in the event of cancellation is to accept it and remain quiet. See, judge, and act at all times!
Second, to quote Gandhi, “be the change you wish to see in the world.” For Dreher, this present soft totalitarianism has arrived in large part because American Christians tried to have it both ways, whether that is as Christians who support war, work on Sundays, divorce, support abortion, or decide to be pro-gay marriage. It needs to be remembered that the Christian worldview disavows all of those things, and many more. Compromising with them has made it easy to assume Christianity is simply an idea, and not the truth. If Christians are to grow an authentically Christian culture with idealistic enthusiasm, they need to practice what their God preaches, not what the culture at large preaches. Christians, whose faith is shallow or superficial in nature, will not be able to do this, nor will their faith survive intact.
But seriously, go read Live Not by Lies. It is a wonderful book that gives plenty to think about, and I have barely scratched the surface of Dreher’s thought and counsel. It is certainly a helpful book of advice as to what to do for the days to come.
Mr. Charles M. Sutherland lives near Washington D.C with his family. He currently possesses a bachelor’s in History, and another in Anthropology from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, in addition to a Master’s of Library Science from the University of Maryland College Park. He is a librarian by profession. When he is not writing, he enjoys singing, virtual flying, and pro-life activism. He has been a member of the Maryland chapter of the American Solidarity Party since 2016. This is his first article.