Book Review: “Live Not By Lies”
A lot can change in three years.
In March of 2017, I found myself sitting in my New Haven apartment, with just a few months to go before graduating from law school, penning a review of Rod Dreher’s buzzy new book, The Benedict Option. While I appreciated its diagnosis of modern thought and clarion call to action, I’ll admit that I didn’t buy into its full vision. Following the unexpected results of the 2016 election and the prospect of a federal government under unified Republican control, I thought the book’s dire depictions of creeping post-Christian orthodoxies were premature—and I had no interest whatsoever in (what I understood to be) a call to public disengagement. At the end of the day, I was relatively sanguine about the future of “liberal” discourse (in the best sense) in the academic world, coupled with an influential Christian witness in the public sphere. I was, in short, fully “Team French.”
The world looks different now, though. Since graduating, I’ve spent my professional career at ground zero of current debates over religious liberty and the place of people of faith in public life—from serving in the federal judicial system in California and Texas, to writing numerous amicus briefs at a large D.C. law firm, and finally to working on these issues on Capitol Hill. Institutionally, I have every incentive in the world to believe that American cultural pathologies can be addressed through better policy, or at least that some sort of uneasy political equilibrium can be brokered.
But despite my best efforts, I’ve come to see that Dreher was right: there needs to be a “Plan B” for the future of American Christianity. What Matthew Arnold called the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the sea of faith continues to echo across the American landscape, and the shapes of thoroughly post-Christian ideologies are now coming into view. Revival has indeed come to America, as so many Christians prayed—but not a Christian revival.
Dreher’s latest book, Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, is something of a manifesto for this moment. At once both darker and more hopeful than its predecessor, it is ruthlessly clear-eyed about the precise threats it identifies, and yet equally clear-eyed about the ways in which ordinary Christians ought to respond to them. Perhaps most significantly, the book feels uncommonly personal, thanks to its heavy reliance on the stories of Eastern European Christians who lived through the Soviet Union’s totalitarianism—an analogy to the status quo that, as Dreher repeatedly points out, is admittedly imperfect, but that nevertheless provides a foundation for important reflections.
Much of The Benedict Option outlined an extended genealogy of the Western predicament (in the style of Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation, Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, and Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed), but Live Not By Lies takes a different tack. This time around, Dreher sees danger ahead as a result of the confluence of three specific intersecting elements: cultural decadence and stagnation, a neo-religious progressive ideology, and the rise of “surveillance capitalism.”
The Age of Decay
The American public, Dreher argues, is ripe for unrest. As a long line of social scientists—from Robert Putnam to Charles Murray—has argued for years, American civil society has grown thin and deracinated. Rates of church attendance and community participation are down, fewer and fewer Americans have close real-life friends or host in-person gatherings, and an ever-increasing number of human interactions are channeled through a handful of powerful online platforms. (The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, of course, has only accelerated these trends.)
Worse, faith in institutions—with the exception of the military—has cratered. There is widespread cynicism, particularly among younger Americans, about the self-dealing of governmental branches, corporations, religious organizations, and countless other entities. It is increasingly difficult to see how a flourishing society can be built on foundations that are rotten—or at least believed to be rotten by a large majority. Unless one accepts Ross Douthat’s recent argument that the current state of “decadence” can go on indefinitely, it certainly seems like something has to change.
The Great Awokening
Nature, of course, abhors a vacuum—and under conditions of socioeconomic stagnation and widespread disillusionment, it’s only natural that nontraditional manifestations of human beings’ innate religious impulses have emerged.
To that end, Dreher discusses at length the emergence, within the last 5-6 years, of what a number of writers have called the “social justice movement” (Dreher tends to use the pejorative “social justice warrior,” or “SJW”) and what Wesley Yang describes as the “successor ideology”—the successor, that is, to liberal democracy. Philosophically, Dreher argues, this movement is loosely structured around five central tenets: (1) the central fact of human existence is power and how it is used; (2) there is no such thing as objective truth; there is only power; (3) identity politics sorts oppressed from oppressor; (4) intersectionality is social justice ecumenism; (5) language creates human realities.
This movement largely rejects what is seen as the “class reductionism” of orthodox Marxism (that is, its failure to emphasize other axes of oppression, such as race and gender), but nevertheless shares classical Marxism’s commitment to a broad narrative of inevitable historical progress. Just as traditional Marxism represented itself as an “objective” science, the successor ideology frames itself as supra-ideological by generating reams of peer-reviewed material within academic disciplines that are a priori committed to its governing premises. And so, on this view, right-thinking and science-minded people have an absolute duty to help society move from a benighted history of oppression into a more just and equitable future, even if that future can only be vaguely conceived. (No slogan better exemplifies this than the ubiquitous demand that one stand on the “right side of history.”) For the committed activist, everyone—not merely isolated idealists—needs to be a part of that process.
The Invisible Hand
As Dreher explains, the last few years have witnessed a rapid and (for those of a conservative temperament) alarming transformation of American capitalism. While for decades, companies adopted a fairly apolitical attitude toward public life—as Michael Jordan put it, “Republicans buy sneakers too”—recent years have taught that there’s good money to be made in adopting aggressive stances on political and cultural issues.
Nowhere, Dreher notes, has this tendency been more pronounced than in the world of “big tech.” Not only are the largest tech companies accumulating unheard-of amounts of data on their users (a point Dreher draws from Shoshana Zuboff’s work), but virtually every day brings another example of technology giants deploying their platform rules unevenly or in a discriminatory manner. Conservative opinion websites (well above Breitbart quality level) mysteriously disappear from Google search results. Amazon gives the Southern Poverty Law Center—which labels Christian organizations like the Family Research Council and Alliance Defending Freedom as “hate groups” due to their stance on LGBT rights issues—veto power over eligibility for its AmazonSmile charitable giving program. Twitter censors pro-life accounts while permitting Iran’s Ayatollah Khameini to threaten the total destruction of Israel. On and on it goes, with no real end in sight.
In part, it seems to me, this patchwork pattern of enforcement is likely a product of the ungrounded approach to regulating free speech many tech platforms have adopted. The prevailing approach, it appears, is inclined to credit almost any claim asserted by enough people under the banner of “human rights”—an approach which tends to rule out any questioning or invalidation of a group-based identity one happens to claim. Conservatives, many of whom would hold that not all identity-based claims reflect legitimate human rights issues, are generally loath to expand the category of what counts as “human rights.” But arguments to that effect are easily framed as impediments to “progress” and expressions of “hate”: who wants to stand in the way of “human rights” or be on the “wrong side of history” after all? And so, deprived of any real metaphysical underpinnings, the discourse ends up rigged in favor of ever-more-expansive rights-claims, and ever-narrower boundaries of permitted expression.
Violation of those boundaries, of course, comes at a heavy price. It’s no wonder that, following a handful of high-profile denunciations of ordinary people, “cancel culture” is in the news right now, Those not inclined to see the current Twitter-mob culture as a problem tend to treat these cases as isolated instances that do not reflect a greater trend. Perhaps. But it is not at all difficult to conceive of what a truly totalizing “cancel culture” might look like, or how close we are to that reality.
Imagine a world in which you are simultaneously fired from your job, cut off by banks and credit-card companies no longer wishing to transact with you, and denied access to any prominent technology platforms like Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Uber, DoorDash—with the reasons for your “cancellation” preserved in perpetuity. (Do you really think any of these companies would hold the line in the face of a social media activist avalanche?) Worse, the power of surveillance capitalism obliterates the possibility of simply moving to a new town, finding a new job, and reinventing oneself. You are abandoned into permanent nonperson status (unless perhaps you manage to change your name, an increasingly difficult prospect in the era of biometric technology).
Dreher is right: we’re not very far away from this becoming the norm, at least for those who happen to make too grievous a misstep online.
It doesn’t take a genius to grasp that the conjunction of these three elements—a population ripe for unrest, a successor ideology poised to fill its post-religious void, and a set of nearly omnipotent mechanisms for operationalizing power over ordinary people’s lives—has ominous implications. This is what Dreher calls “soft totalitarianism” or (borrowing from James Poulos) the “pink police state”—a regime of social control owing far more to Aldous Huxley than to George Orwell, one capable of providing fully for the material needs of its people while simultaneously demanding their absolute personal allegiance.
But, like the “hard totalitarianism” of the Soviet Union, even this kind of social control can be resisted. The second half of Live Not By Lies is a sustained discussion of the ways in which Christians living under Soviet control preserved their religious, national, and familial identities in the face of the Politburo’s efforts to mold perfect communist subjects—and how those ways may be repurposed in the current moment.
It is here that the book is at its strongest, reflecting a remarkable depth of original research and reporting—I’m sure this is the first and last time that some of Dreher’s subjects’ stories will ever be told in the West. I’m doing no justice to the book by distilling its insights into a single list, but in a nutshell, Dreher recommends the following steps: (1) have a clear concept of the truth and do not knowingly perpetuate falsehoods; (2) cultivate cultural memory; (3) understand the centrality of the family as an independent community; (4) remain faithful in religious observance; (5) build small groups and alliances across old divides; and (6) if necessary, suffer in a spirit of forgiveness. All of this ought to be undertaken in accordance with the practical rhythm of see, judge, act: understand the nature of the challenge, think deeply about how to respond, and then proceed with conviction.
The Unseen Enemy
To my mind, Live Not By Lies reflects a clear understanding of the coming threat and—far more effectively than its predecessor—outlines practical countermoves in detail. But I would reach a different conclusion than Dreher about the exact nature of the coming crisis—specifically, I do not think that any coming illiberalism will be a form of totalitarianism directed against Christians as such. That is because I am not convinced that the social justice movement, such as it is, really understands Christianity to be its greatest enemy.
The true adversary of the “successor ideology,” I would say, is what Tara Isabella Burton describes in her recent book Strange Rites as “atavism”—a fundamentally Nietzschean, post-Christian worldview focused on physical strength, power, and living in harmony with the fixed natural order and its hierarchy. Any impending “soft totalitarianism” will most likely be targeted at this atavism rather than at Christianity itself. Like the successor ideology, the atavist worldview is fluid and polymorphous, taking on different expressions in different contexts. The closest thing to a formal theological-philosophical expression of atavism would probably be the intellectual movement known as Traditionalism, explored for popular audiences in the book War For Eternity—the author of which, Benjamin Teitelbaum, was recently interviewed by Dreher himself. Nevertheless, the atavist ideology holds certain distinctive commitments that place it in diametric opposition to the modern social justice movement.
Generally speaking, atavism totally rejects the linear view of historical progress, or “moral arc of the universe bending toward justice,” favored by contemporary progressives. In its place, atavism advances an essentially cyclical view of history as a succession of eternal processes of arising and destruction. Civilizations, on this view, naturally rise and fall in a process that will go on indefinitely into the future—and American civilization is on its last legs. William Strauss and Neil Howe’s concept of the “Fourth Turning”—an impending era of destruction before the rise of an alternative societal order, alluded to in Will Arbery’s recent Pulitzer-finalist play Heroes of the Fourth Turning—encapsulates this atavist view of history.
Nature, in this cosmology, is absolutized, such that the atavist doctrine of God is explicitly pantheistic: “God” is understood to be the unconscious immanent reality into which human beings awaken and that places intractable limitations and constraints upon them. Transcendence is largely denied; in Spinozistic fashion, divinity resides in finite existents themselves.
Most controversially, race—or, more narrowly, ethnicity—comes to the fore as a central consideration for the atavist. If nature itself is divine, and human beings are by nature born into different physical forms and cultures, then those physical forms and cultures are themselves charged with divine significance. For the atavist, some form of racial or ethnic separatism is “God’s” plan, no matter how much that conclusion offends liberal-democratic sensibilities.
If this sounds uncomfortably fascistic to you, your intuitions are sound. Indeed, perhaps the most cogent development of atavism’s internal logic appears in the work of Nazi sympathizer Savitri Devi, a midcentury European philosopher who built out a mystical interpretation of fascism drawing on atavism’s metaphysical premises. In her 1958 book The Lightning and the Sun, Devi went so far as to claim that Adolf Hitler was an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, a vanguard of the eventual messianic figure who would someday plunge the world into chaos and usher forth a new golden age of harmony with nature.
The violence of the Holocaust, Devi argued, was justified because it struck blows against Judaism’s transcendental monotheism, which identified a God beyond the world and demanded absolute allegiance to that God’s moral order. So too, for Devi the Judeo-Christian tradition’s insistence on the absolute moral value of the human person necessarily led to a corresponding subjugation of nonhuman life and the natural environment. In prose hauntingly reminiscent of Peter Singer’s later arguments along similar lines, Devi posed the fundamental utilitarian question: when in conflict, why not save a beautiful eagle over a disabled child?
No doubt Devi is a fringe, almost unknown figure, but the basic principles of atavist philosophy are far more culturally pervasive than one might expect. Overseas, atavism finds expression in the “identitarianism” of the European New Right movement, through the writings of Guillaume Faye, Alexander Dugin, Alain de Benoist, and many others. Stateside, atavism manifests in the crude racialist propaganda pumped out by Richard Spencer and the “alt-right” movement, and in the rise of Nicholas Fuentes’s “groyper” faction on the outskirts of the Republican Party. And atavist influences don’t need to be overt; Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson’s work has been described as a sort of gateway drug to the alt-right, and while I don’t think this is quite the correct characterization, his writings overflow with elements of atavist thought. For Peterson, happiness comes in stoically accepting one’s lot in life; natural and social hierarchies are real and important; Being as such is starkly indifferent to human beings; to some extent biology is destiny; and so on. There is little conceptual room for the transcendent, or for absolute moral value, in Peterson’s system, or in atavism as a whole.
All told, atavism—at least in its more elaborate forms—offers a disquietingly coherent alternative to both traditional Christianity and the social justice movement. Charles Péguy presciently warned in Temporal and Eternal that it would not be a simplistic materialism that posed the greatest threat to Christianity, but rather those pantheistic philosophical systems that are developed enough to stand as genuine metaphysical rivals to Christian theology. Such a system is here, now, and it is the mortal rival of the modern progressive. In the face of the social justice activist’s claim we are infinitely valuable, the atavist offers a cold rejoinder—we’re nothing special at all.
I’ve spent so long laying out the principles of atavism because I think it’s necessary in order to properly frame the current conflict. Despite the seemingly political valence of Dreher’s writing, the struggle recounted in Live Not By Lies is not, I think, properly conceived as a struggle between “right” and “left”—it is between a post-Christian right and a post-Christian left. Dreher routinely writes of the “demons” being called up by those on the left who absolutize “whiteness” as an immutable reality—well, those demons are already at hand, and the battle to come will likely be fought between these two forms of post-Christian religiosity.
The historic Christian faith sits uneasily between these two alien poles. It cannot affirm either post-Christian system as such, though it can ascertain certain glimmers of truth in both. With proponents of the modern social justice movement, orthodox Christians can affirm the absolute dignity of human souls and the reality of transhistorical, transcultural moral obligations. So too, Christians can acknowledge (as Dreher certainly does) an essentially linear view of history: the Son of God entered contingent human history at a distinct moment in time, and He will come again in glory at the end of days to restore the world. Christians can also acknowledge, as do at least some of those whose inclinations trend atavist, that there is a link between the created order and our moral obligations—that is, that there is a genuine natural law—as well as that community practices and traditions are integral to human flourishing. But a faithful Christian can never hold that the absolute end of human beings is emancipation from all unchosen constraints, or, alternatively, that human beings are of fundamentally unequal value before God. So too, both left and right post-Christian systems reduce any concept of the divine to the level of the immanent—the orthodox idea of a transcendent, personal Creator is alien to both.
All of this means that, to the extent traditional Christianity comes under attack in the public square (and it undoubtedly has), those attacks are perhaps better characterized as collateral damage than conscious attempts to eradicate the faith as such. It seems far more plausible to me that both post-Christian factions will seek to co-opt the history and power of Christianity for their own purposes: for every far-left proponent of “postcolonial” theologies who is attempting to evacuate the faith of its historic substance, there is a neo-Confederate apologist who styles himself as fighting the incursion of “cultural Marxism” in Baptist seminaries. Christianity as an identity is not really considered problematic in itself. (Diversity training is a common bugbear of Dreher’s writing, but at the large law firm where I worked, the diversity training used—as an example of religious discrimination—a video sequence in which a coworker is mocked for attending church on Sunday. It’s tough to square this with any claim that such trainings are always consciously “anti-Christian.”) The real battle is over who gets to define the content of Christianity.
The Wartime Church
The Church, of course, takes its marching orders from neither faction, but from its Savior. And this means that the Church’s proper response to this emerging conflict must be something altogether different from what its rivals are demanding that it do.
In the short term, it is incumbent upon the Church in America to offer a distinctive witness that (against the atavists) unflinchingly confronts the downstream effects of racism and discrimination and calls them evil, and simultaneously (against the successor ideology) rejects the notion that genuine forgiveness is impossible and that traditions are irredeemably tainted by the failings of those who have comprised them. (I found this statement, from my own denomination’s Black Clergy Caucus, to be a particularly powerful example of such a witness.)
In the long term, it is essential that the American Church understand the new role thrust upon it: for the foreseeable future, the Church is not going to be the vanguard of a Reformed theonomic or Catholic integralist order, or anything like it. That sun has set. Rather, the Church must become a hospital for the inevitable casualties of the coming post-Christian culture wars, offering transcendent hope to those trapped in “immanent theologies,” those unable to look beyond the veil of the finite. When Jesus said “I have overcome the world”—in all its change and violence and intransigence and abiding sadness—He meant it. And that is a message that needs to be heard by disillusioned activists and morally convicted alt-righters alike.
At all points, the Church can take steps to put many of Dreher’s practical recommendations into place—building communities of truth-telling, reflection, and solidarity, whose doors are always open to receive those who seek, and helping families do the same thing in their own homes. All of this is what the Church—whether in its Catholic, African Methodist Episcopal, Lutheran, or Baptist expressions, or any other—has historically demonstrated its power to do. There is no reason the Church can’t do so again, when filled with members who care and who understand the nature of the cultural crisis.
So when all’s said and done, is Live Not By Lies worth reading?
I don’t think the words “Benedict Option” ever appear in Live Not By Lies, but the new book nonetheless casts the essence of Dreher’s larger project into far clearer relief. It seems to me, having followed the evolution of Dreher’s thought over the years, that the Benedict Option—rightly understood—is about cultivating a kind of “monastery in the heart” that the Christian will not, under any circumstances, be bullied into violating. The walls of that monastery are built out of liturgy, catechesis, sacraments, memories, and family ties, among other things—and the process of constructing those walls, now and always, must be a fundamentally communal endeavor. This is the project that Live Not By Lies points toward, and on that front the new book is a great success. Add this one to your reading list.
In the opening minutes of Zack Snyder’s 2016 superhero flick Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, a bedraggled Bruce Wayne finds himself on the ground in Metropolis as Superman and General Zod battle in the skies overhead. The two Kryptonian warriors smash through skyscrapers and topple buildings in their struggle, scattering countless tons of rubble down onto the streets below. When a lost little girl strays under a mass of crumbling debris, it’s Wayne who must lunge forward into the mayhem and carry her to safety.
It increasingly seems to me that that’s what Christians are going to have to be in the years to come—the ones who run into the smoke and chaos to save lives as alien, inhuman ideologies vie for supremacy around them. And Live Not By Lies is a book well positioned to help them do that.
(I received an advance copy of this book from the author. I was not required to write a positive review.)