Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents
Reviewed by John A. Bernbaum, former President of the Russian-American Christian University (RACU) in Moscow, Russia; currently CEO of BEAM (Business and Education as Mission), Inc.
Rod Dreher is a courageous Christian author. He is willing to address controversial issues, which most Christians carefully avoid, and his criticism of the “moralistic therapeutic deism” that characterizes many Christian churches is targeted at both the liberal and conservative wings of the church, although the liberal or progressive advocates get most of his rebuke.
The focus of the book is Dreher’s strong conviction that the West, particularly the United States, is turning toward totalitarianism and we do not see it! Dreher talked extensively with emigrants from the post-Communist world, some who now live in the States and others who reside in various Eastern European countries, and he argues that they see what is happening in our country, but we are blind to the radical changes underway. The threat, in his opinion, is “utopian progressivism” which is militantly anti-Christian. The second part of his book contains summaries of conversations with people who suffered under Communism and these discussions convinced him that Americans need to learn from former Soviet dissidents and get our spiritual lives in order.
Dreher offers helpful insights into how Marxism became a secular religion for the post-religious age, a topic which most Western scholars rarely acknowledge, and analyzed how Marxism spread to Eastern Europe not only because of Soviet bayonets, but also because of the intellectual turmoil and nihilism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He then concludes that there is a parallel between pre-revolutionary Russia and a declining United States.
Having worked in Russia for 20 years, first with the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) and then with the Russian-American Christian University (RACU) in Moscow as an independent faith-based school, I find Dreher’s analysis of Marxism very insightful. US Embassy officials rarely if ever viewed Marxism as a religiously-based ideology and mostly ignored the churches, including the 1,000-year-old Russian Orthodox Church, rather than using the network of churches to deal with the pain and struggle facing Russia when the USSR collapsed in the 1990s.
Dreher’s view that the United States is in the midst of a pre-totalitarian cultural shift, along the lines of Russia’s experience that opened the door to Marxism-Leninism, does not hold up in my judgment and weakens his overall argument about developments in the United States. The term “soft totalitarianism” does not fit in our cultural context. Totalitarianism in the Soviet context was state-driven and grounded in a faulty ideology that claimed Marx’s teachings displaced religion as the most important source of authority. The issues we are facing in the American context are not driven by radical political revolutionaries but are resulting from numerous and diverse sources in our troubled nation.
Dreher’s analysis of the contributing factors that are undermining our nation and churches is very helpful. He identifies the following: loneliness and social atomization, losing faith in hierarchies and institutions, the desire to transgress and destroy, propaganda and the willingness to believe useful lies, a mania for ideology, and a society that values loyalty more than experience. The harsh reality is that Evangelical Christians have been the leading supporters of a president whose administration has supported all of these factors. Dreher’s warnings about these threats fits an emerging perspective found in Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism (New York: Basic Books, 2016) and Robert Putnam’s The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and We Can Do It Again (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020). Putting the label “totalitarianism” on this phenomenon is not helpful and will drive readers away who do not see the connections to the Soviet experience and their KGB and gulags.
My deeper concern is Dreher’s use of the label “social justice warriors,” which he argues makes these advocates similar to the Bolsheviks in pre-revolutionary Russia. From his perspective, these leaders are trying to liberate the human desire to be free from all limits. While there are certainly intellectual elites in the States that hold to these beliefs, this perspective is not the ideology of either political party or driven by elites who are working to undermine America for their own benefit.
But for Christian readers, using this terminology brings back the spurious debates of the 1950s and 1960s in which Fundamentalists and Neo-Evangelicals argued over the priority of the gospel—evangelism or social justice for the poor. This old, tired debate will come quickly to mind for many Christians. Using this term “social justice warriors” flies in the face of hundreds of Biblical commandments, and the life and ministry of Jesus, and the explicit instructions to care for what Nicholas Wolterstorff described as the “quartet of the vulnerable” (poor, widow, orphans, and refugees) who are in need of care from God’s people. Why attack people working for a more just society?
ier to dismiss. What Dreher does not discuss is how Christians have tied themselves to the two political parties which consider their opponents as enemies. Using the term “totalitarianism” also suggests that there is an organized elite that need to be confronted, even with force and riots as we have recently seen. A strong statement warning Christians to avoid violence as a way of confronting the changes on our society is needed, but not stated in Dreher’s book. Where is the discussion of Biblical teaching on peacemaking, reconciliation, and shalom?
Part Two is a powerful testimony of the faith of Christians, many of whom were martyred under the Soviet regime. Dreher did extensive interviews with these remarkable people, some of whom I know, and there are many important lessons we can learn from these saints. When my wife Marge and I did a sabbatical in Nizhni Novgorod in 1992 and were the first Americans to live in this city since the 1930s, we heard many stories of how Christians suffered under brutal repression by Marxist authorities. These stories, together with others we heard from our students who attended RACU in Moscow, had a major impact on our decision to spend twenty-five years, rather than our initial commitment of seven years, to work in post-Soviet Russia. Like Dreher, we thought that American Christians needed to hear these stories since we have never faced persecution like this in the States. But we soon found out that many of our American friends had little interest in discussing this subject.
I affirm the insights that Dreher shares in the last section of his book about “How to Live in Truth,” which included valuing nothing more than truth, cultivating a cultural memory, families as resistance cells, religion as the bedrock of resistance, standing in solidarity with others including non-Christians, and the gift of suffering. There are challenges here that will generate opposition from some Christians, but Dreher courageously makes the case, for example, that “Christian parents must be intentionally counter-cultural in their approach to family dynamics” (149), including the impact of the Internet and Smartphones on us and our children. In his judgment, American youth see “self-fulfillment” as the key to life and for many adults “contemporary Christianity has become a shallow self-help cult whose chief aim is not cultivating discipleship but rooting out personal anxiety” (205).
Dreher directs his criticism of American churches not only at the liberal wing of the church, but also at white conservative Christians who identify with the Republican Party and free market economics. He also takes on “surveillance technology” and the huge IT corporations that control the American marketplace and have little regulatory control. For him, Christians need to wake up to what is happening to our society and his views of the massive IT companies affirms many of the insights of “The Social Dilemma” documentary.
I began by stating that Dreher is a courageous Christian author and I have shared what I appreciated about his book, but also my concerns especially about the terms “soft totalitarianism” and “social justice warriors.” I hope Dreher and others can join this discussion with us and that we can respectfully have exchanges about the important themes in Dreher’s book. I agree with Dreher that the churches in America need to stop politicized sermonizing aimed at the Left or the Right and stand up against the health-and-wealth messages of “prosperity gospel” churches (204). As disciples of Jesus, the challenges we face in these difficult times requires that we pay attention to what is happening in our society and be courageous in confronting the lies propagated in our popular culture.