Religious liberty in the age of data surveillance and soft totalitarianism

Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents
by Rod Dreher, Sentinel, 2020

Live Not By Lies is Rod Dreher’s widely-anticipated follow-up to The Benedict Option.

Since the publication of The Benedict Option in 2017, the Louisiana-based writer has risen to become one of the world’s most important social and religious commentators.

While his last work focused on the need for believing Christians to build communities of faith to sustain themselves within post-Christian societies, Live Not By Lies develops this theme further by focusing on the widespread persecution which the author believes is looming, and how Christian dissidents can stand firm and resist this.

At 214 pages in length and written in Dreher’s erudite but accessible style, the book is admirably readable and well-structured.

In Part One, the author provides an overview of the “soft totalitarianism” which is increasingly prevalent throughout Western societies, and which is posing a fast-growing threat to Christians of every denomination.

In Part Two, Dreher tells the stories of Christians who suffered within Europe’s Communist Bloc, but who refused to abandon their beliefs in spite of enduring appalling persecution.

Dreher identifies clear parallels between their experiences and the ones which many in the West may soon face.

“What if the answers to life’s questions that young Christians the world over are looking for are not to be found in the West but rather in the East -- in the stories and lives of the Christian dissidents?” he writes, adding elsewhere that Christians “cannot hope to resist the coming soft totalitarianism if we do not have our spiritual lives in order.”

The book’s title comes directly from the title of the essay which Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn addressed to the Russian people before he was deported by the Soviet regime in the 1970s.

In it, Solzhenitsyn denounced the lies which underpinned the Communist system and called on his compatriots to resist the temptation to join in supporting them.

Here, in different circumstances and faced with very different opposing forces, Dreher makes a similar appeal to his readers. Those familiar with his writing in his blog at The American Conservative and elsewhere will be familiar with many of the topics he covers and the arguments he makes.

An issue which he addresses frequently is the threat to religious liberty and freedom of speech in the United States and elsewhere.

He does not exaggerate or attempt to equate this with what occurred routinely behind the Iron Curtain.

Western progressives and "woke" activists have yet to establish any gulags. Even in the midst of recent urban riots inspired by far-left militants, political violence is still mercifully rare in the West.

Outright state censorship is less of a problem than the censorship imposed by various institutions, and the cases of religious discrimination which Dreher writes about as a journalist tend to involve people losing their jobs, not losing their lives as the dissidents of Central and Eastern Europe so often did.

Today’s progressives are different to yesterday’s extreme socialists and Communists, and the lack of meaningful debate on economic questions within political discourse today attests to this.

As Dreher notes astutely, progressives are uninterested in controlling the means of economic production; instead, they focus on bringing cultural production under their complete control, and stamping out any resistance to their core, ever-shifting and ever more radical belief system.

But there are similarities, which Dreher describes in detail.

Both Communism and progressivism have set themselves up as rivals to Christianity, and true believers in these modern ideologies can see no other logical end point in human history.

Both belief systems are deeply hostile to the past, and feed upon the suffering brought about by the atomisation of post-Christian societies, where isolated individuals are left with no way of connecting with their fellow man and where many turn to abstract ideologies to find a sense of belonging which previous generations enjoyed in their families and church communities.

Both ideologies are determined to control all aspects of society and to politicise every part of life -- witness the growing tendency for political protesting to be an obligatory part of professional sports, or more consequentially, the situation whereby employees in many companies are forced to wear or identify themselves with rainbow paraphernalia.

Modern progressives and old-style Communists are united in sharing a particularly limited view of freedom of religion, which they insist should extend no further than the door of a person’s church (as the history of the 20th century shows, many leftists would not even concede that much).

And most importantly, both groups see Christians as the most important remaining obstacle to their complete domination of whole societies.

In Dreher’s analysis of these secular religions, the influence of the Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko (author of The Demon in Democracy) is very clear, and indeed, Legutko is mentioned in the acknowledgements.

Where Dreher provides the reader with the most valuable insights is in his description of how modern technology shrinks the zone of privacy which previous generations enjoyed, and his warnings about how this is already enabling growing harassment of the faithful.

China still uses the gulag, but only some individuals and groups such as the Uyghur Muslims are unfortunate enough to end up there. As Dreher notes, in most instances, the Chinese government now prefers to rely on data collection to operate a “social credit system” which rewards compliance and which punishes those like dissenting Christians who resist the government’s diktats.

Outside of China, the proliferation of social media, the concentration of power among the Big Tech firms and the rise of "woke capitalism" -- where corporations prove their credentials by taking sides in political questions and occasionally taking punitive measures against Christian or conservative groups -- means that people in what we still think of as the "free world" are facing increasing pressure to behave in a certain way and to avoid taking the "wrong side" on any contentious issue.

As technology develops even further and the progressive political culture grows ever stronger, this pressure will only increase, as will the number of instances where Christians find themselves under attack.

“To put it bluntly, we are being conditioned to accept a Westernised version of China’s social credit system, which will enforce the tenets of the political cult of social justice. If this ever takes root here, there will be no place to hide,” Dreher warns.

The latter half of the book focuses on harrowing examples of anti-Christian persecution which occurred in Central and Eastern Europe under Communism, and the heroic examples of those who withstood this.

The sub-title of the book is A Manual for Christian Dissidents, and based on his experience in collecting first-hand accounts from survivors, Dreher gives practical advice for how families and communities can preserve their faith and identity in spite of great obstacles being erected against them.

“We have to tell our stories -- in literature, film, theatre and other media -- but we must also manifest cultural memory in communal deeds -- in mourning and in celebration, in solemn remembrance and festal joy,” he writes.

To enable this to happen, he urges Christians to create the parallel polis which the Czech Catholic Václav Benda advocated when he and his family were engaged in resisting the Communist government of Czechoslovakia.

These alternative social structures -- existing entirely outside of the government’s control -- allowed the Benda family to retain their faith in a secular society governed by an atheistic regime. It also meant that in one of the world’s most irreligious countries, all of the Benda children and grandchildren continue to practice their faith.

Dreher praises the role of classical Christian education, but recommends much more besides:

“[W]e can celebrate festivals, make pilgrimages, observe holy-day practices, pray litanies, perform concerts, hold dances, learn and teach traditional cooking -- any kind of collective deed that connects the community with its shared sacred and secular history in a living way is an act of resistance to an ethos that says the past doesn’t matter.”

This advice about preserving our identity by remembering our history has particular relevance in Ireland, a nation where the idea of "progress" is particularly strong and where the past is much-maligned, along with Christianity and social conservatism.

Though there are few surprises here for someone who has read The Benedict Option and is familiar with Dreher’s overall volume of work, this book would be of value to any social or cultural observer, and to any Christian observing recent developments and pondering what the future holds in store.

As expected given his own religious background, Dreher is strongly ecumenical in his focus in describing how Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant believers stayed true to their faith.

Catholic readers will be particularly appreciative of the author’s decision to dedicate it to the memory of Father Tomislav Kolaković, a Croatian priest who played a key role in preserving the Catholic faith in Slovakia by establishing small cell groups which ensured that the underground church could not be rooted out, even when the clergy had been subdued.

Kolaković’s followers later went on to play a crucial role in the country’s transition to democracy.

They had an option to choose an easy life or a hard one, and the road they walked must have felt incredibly lonely for many years.

In the coming decades, people in the West may be presented with similarly stark choices, in situations where anti-Christian attacks are more prevalent, and where the right to remain silent and uninvolved is gradually whittled away.

History teaches us, however, that there will always be another choice.

As Dreher writes:

“You have to live in a world of lies, but it’s your choice as to whether that world lives in you.”


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