WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith and today you’re listening in on my conversation with author Rod Dreher. His new book is Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents.
Rod Dreher has emerged over the past decade as one of our most interesting and provocative Christian thinkers. From his perch at The American Conservative, where he serves as senior editor, he writes about both the culture and the church.
His articles and books often ignite important cultural conversations. His 2006 book Crunchy Cons defined a brand of conservatism that valued localism and community, a conservatism that referred to Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Russell Kirk, Wendell Berry, and the homeschool movement as exemplars.
Other books followed, including The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, which chronicled the life and death of his sister, and How Dante Can Save Your Life. When that book came out in 2015, Rod made his first appearance on “Listening In.” In 2017 we had him back to discuss his book The Benedict Option.
Today, we discuss his latest book, Live Not By Lies: A Handbook for Christian Dissidents. It’s important to note that we had this conversation on Tuesday, January 5, the day before the insurrection in Washington in which supporters of Donald Trump rioted in the U.S. Capitol, resulting in much destruction of property and the loss of at least five lives. But the third segment of our conversation speaks directly to the issues that led to that incident.
Rod Dreher, welcome back to the program. I think I had you on whenever you did your Dante book. And I’ve got to say that I think that the most significant accomplishment of this new book is that you didn’t mention either Walker Percy Flannery O’Connor or Dante in this new book.
ROD DREHER, GUEST: [Laughs] Well, you know, as I age, I’m getting more disciplined in my writing, Warren. But thanks so much.
SMITH: One of the persons that you did mention is Alexander Solzhenitsyn. In fact, that’s where the title of the book comes from. Can you say more about that?
DREHER: Sure. Solzhenitsyn was probably the best known anti-communist dissident of the Cold War era. And he was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974 for his activities. This was after he won the Nobel Prize. Just before he was sent away, he sent out a communique to his followers, a short one, with a title live not by lies. And his message was short, but sweet. He said that we can’t do anything to overturn this unjust system. But the one thing we can do is refuse to give it open consent to the lies that they require us to tell to be part of it. So he said it was a simple form of rebellion. But whenever you hear lies being spoken in a public place, you stand up and you walk out. You do not give consent to what they expect you to say. And Solzhenitsyn said if you do that, if enough people did that, then maybe we would have a shot at overturning the system. But what the good man has to do in an impossible situation is refuse to give his consent. That’s what I think that Christians are facing in this country now and will certainly be doing it more in the future. And that is the basic advice that I give in this book.
SMITH: Rod, you acknowledge early in the book that we do not live in a system as was the system in which Solzhenitsyn lived. And you differentiate between authoritarianism, totalitarianism, and a soft totalitarianism. Can you say more about these three words and the distinctions between them?
DREHER: Sure, yeah. This is important to get clear. Authoritarianism is a form of government that you have when all the political power is concentrated in one leader or one party. Totalitarianism is an extreme form of authoritarianism. And that’s when the same political power is concentrated, but every aspect of life is taken to be political, where they really want to control reality. Well, I believe that what Solzhenitsyn and the anti-communist dissidents lived under was hard totalitarianism. It was a totalitarianism characterized by a police state, by the gulags, by prisons for political dissidents, by secret police and torture. We don’t have that. We have rather a softer form of totalitarianism, where not only the state, but major institutions like Google, Amazon, like universities, like media and others, are manufacturing consent and making it impossible for people who don’t go along with their official lies, for example, usually with identity politics. They’re making it impossible for people who refuse to go along with that to work and to be part of the public square. They’re doing this not with the use of secret police or these hard methods, but rather by soft methods, like—doesn’t seem very soft if you’re canceled—but that’s that’s what I’m talking about. By cancel culture, by credentialism—I think it’s going to be difficult, for example, for Christians to practice law or get into medicine if they don’t affirm some things that Christians can’t affirm. And, finally, I call it soft because it’s being done for the sake of therapy. They say that—these totalitarians say that we’re doing it just to make a safer space for marginalized identities, that sort of thing. It makes it no less totalitarian, Warren, that they’re doing it for soft reasons using softer methods.
SMITH: Right. Another idea that you introduce is one that was first introduced to me by Neil Postman in his great book Amusing Ourselves to Death, you took the two great sort of prophetic novels of the 20th century, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and George Orwell’s 1984 and compared and contrasted these two visions of the future. Just as Neil Postman did in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, you say that it is Aldous Huxley’s vision of the future, the one that we read about in Brave New World that may actually be the one that has come to pass. Can you say more about that?
DREHER: Right. Well, those are the two great totalitarian novels of the 20th century in English—Brave New World and 1984. According to Postman, Orwell feared a world in which they would burn books, but Huxley feared a world in which nobody would have to burn books because nobody bothered to read them. They were happy to amuse themselves to death. I believe that we are much closer to a Aldous Huxley totalitarianism than George Orwell. In Huxley’s novel, you might remember that the great showdown between the dissident fakery called John the Savage—between John the Savage and the world controller Mustapha Mond takes place when Mond just can’t understand why the savage wants to live outside society. He said, Why won’t you come join us? He’s not holding a gun to the savage’s head and saying you must conform. He’s saying, why wouldn’t you come here? You have all the sex you want. You have pleasure. You have everything taken care of. The world controller calls it Christianity without tears. And the savage looks at him and says, No, I want to be human. I want sin. I want God. I want sex. I want you know, etcetera, etcetera. But what he’s basically saying is he doesn’t want to give his soul over to be in a perfectly controlled society in which all your needs and all your entertainment needs are met.
Now that came to mind when I was in Budapest doing reporting for Live Not By Lies, Warren. I was on the tram with my young translator. She’s a young Catholic woman, a wife and mother, maybe 29, 30 years old. She said to me, I don’t understand why I can’t have a conversation with anybody my age about the things I’m struggling with. She said, I tried to talk even to my Catholic friends about the difficulties I have raising kids or being a wife. And as soon as I open my mouth, they immediately say, oh, leave your husband, put your son in daycare, go get a job, you’ve got to be happy. She said, I want to tell them, but I am happy. I’m happy being a wife. I love my husband. I love my child. It’s just hard sometimes. But they won’t even let me get it out of my mouth. And I said, Anna, it sounds like you’re fighting for your right to be unhappy. She said that’s exactly it. Where did you get that? I pulled out my phone. I went to chapter 17 of Brave New World where they have that showdown between Mustapha Mond and John the Savage. John the Savage says he’s fighting for his right to be unhappy. Well, there is our therapeutic totalitarianism right there, Warren. The idea that we cannot bear to be unhappy or to suffer in any way. So we will sacrifice any number of important liberties, religious liberty, political liberty, for the sake of living, and an environment where we don’t have to face anxiety or suffering.
SMITH: Well, correct me if I’m wrong here, but I don’t think you’re saying that you want people to be unhappy. But what you do want them to be is fully alive, fully aware, have a complete understanding both of God’s goodness, but the brokenness of the world as well. Am I getting that close to right?
DREHER: That’s exactly right. And that’s what the savage wants. The savage didn’t want to suffer, but he wanted to have the possibility of suffering because that’s what it meant to be human. And that’s what it means to be human. I find it so inhuman when you see new curriculum guides come down from our universities where they’ve cut away some of the great works of literature of the Western canon because they offend somebody. That is so inhuman. They’re trying to produce this very sterile form of literature that offends nobody, but also doesn’t inspire or move anybody.
SMITH: Rod, There’s one example that you mentioned in the book that I’d like you to say more about, and that is the example of Brendan Eich. He is not someone who is poor or disenfranchised. In fact, he was a very wealthy person. You might say he was part of the elite, but because he refused to go along with the prevailing ideology of our time, he was persecuted and ostracized and even thrown out of his own company. Say more about Brendan Eich.
DREHER: Sure. I think it happened back in 2006 or there about. Brendan Eich, like you said, he was one of the founders of Mozilla. But he’s a Christian, a Catholic, a practicing Catholic. He gave $1,000 to the campaign to pass a state constitutional amendment in California where he lives to guarantee that marriage should be only between one woman and one man. And it’s a campaign by the way that succeeded, but it was overturned by a state judge. Anyway, when it came out that Brendan Eich had given just $1,000 to support something that was popular with the majority of Californians, he was driven out of his own company as a bigot. This is how soft totalitarianism works. You know, they will even drive you from your own company, if they find you to be what they used to call an enemy of the people. And the list of crimes that gets you accused of being an enemy of the people seems to grow with each passing day.
In fact, Warren, this is how I originally got the idea for the book Live Not By Lies. Back in 2015. I heard from a man, an eminent American physician who’s elderly mother had emigrated to this country from Czechoslovakia, and where she had spent four years in a Czech prison for being a Christian, as a young woman working with the underground church. She told her son back in 2015, son, the things I see happening in America now remind me of what it was like when communism came to Czechoslovakia. Well, when the doctor told me that, I found it hard to believe, but over the next few years, when I would travel around the U.S. to conferences, to give talks, whatever, and I would meet somebody who had grown up in the Soviet bloc, either in Russia or one of the Eastern European nations, I would put the question to them are the things you’re seeing happen in America now, does that remind you of what you left behind? Every single one of them says yes, absolutely. And if you talk to them long enough, Warren, they would express real anger that Americans wouldn’t take them seriously. So that’s where the book idea came from.
SMITH: Welcome back. I’m Warren Smith, and today you’re listening in on my conversation with Rod Dreher.
Rod Dreher was raised a Methodist, converted to Roman Catholicism, and is now a member of the Orthodox Church. He was a columnist for The Dallas Morning News and a program manager for The Templeton Foundation earlier in his career.
Rod, I’d like to pivot in our conversation now, because, after all, your book is subtitled a manual for Christian dissidents. You didn’t write this book just to sort of identify the pathologies of the culture, which we were doing in the first segment, but you also wanted to show us a way out. And one of the things that you do in the book to help show us the way out is to identify some people who are exemplars, you might say. People that we can imitate. One of them is Father Tomas Love Kolakovich. First of all, did I pronounce his name right? And second of all, can you tell us a little more about him?
DREHER: Yeah, you got it. Father Kolakovich was a Croatian Catholic priest, who in 1943, was doing work in his home city of Zagreb, doing work against the Nazis. He got a tip that the Gestapo was coming for him, so he sneaked out of the country and went to his mother’s homeland, the Slovak part of Czechoslovakia. He adopted her last name Kolakovich and taught in the Catholic University there. He told his students from the beginning, the good news is the Germans are going to lose this war. But the bad news is the Soviets are going to be ruling this country and the first thing they’re going to do is come after the church. So what Father Kolakovich did was organized his students into a small group for prayer and for study. What they would do for study was not only study scripture, but study their society around them and try to analyze what was happening in their society through biblical principles. And then they would figure out what do we do about it? This little group, Father Kolakovich called it his family. Kolakovich’s family spread all across Slovakia. Within two or three years, each town of any size had a similar prayer group there. The Catholic bishops of Slovakia told Father Kolakovich, look, you’re scaring people. You’re being alarmist. This will never happen. But Kolakovich knew it would happen because he had studied the Soviet mindset because he wanted to be a missionary in the Soviet Union. Sure enough, when the Iron Curtain fell, they expelled Kolakovich. And the first thing the communist government did was come after the churches. The student groups Father Kolakovich and sympathetic clergy had founded became the backbone for the underground church. That was the only meaningful resistance in Slovakia to communism for the next 40 years. So what Kolakovich had done was form a network in which Christians could support each other during the long persecution. I dedicate my book Live Not By Lies to his memory, because I believe that we here in America have to use the freedom that we have right now this period of freedom to form similar groups and similar networks.
SMITH: Rod, I found that story to be very moving, a story that I would have not been familiar with until your book. So thank you for that. It’s also, I think, on point for our conversation that Father Kolakovich calls his resistance cells “families,” because in your book, you say, in fact that families are resistance cells. That’s part of how we kind of get out of this mess that we’re in is a reinvigoration of the family and an understanding of the family as a place where we can, if you will, stage a resistance against the dominant culture. One of the families that you talk about who has done that is the Bendha family. Can you say more about that, and also this idea of family as a resistance cell?
DREHER: Sure, the Bendhas are the most wonderful family. They live in Prague, the patriarch Vaslav Bendha died in 1999, but he lived to see the fall of communism, which was not something he had expected. They are a Catholic family. There are six kids in the family. They are now not children anymore. They’re adults with kids of their own. But back during the communist years, their father and mother were part of the resistance leadership under Vaclav Havel. They were the only Christians in that circle. And when I talk about the family as a resistance cell, I had the Bendhas has in mind because what they did—Vaslav Bendha, and his wife Camilla—was formed their six children to be resistors of communism, but not just resistors of communism, but actual Christians. Because in Czechoslovakia, it’s a very atheist country, and at that time, it was ruled by an atheist dictatorship. So they knew that their kids had to be formed strongly as Christians that they were going to survive. Among the things they did, well Vaslav would talk to his kids when they would come home from school at the end of the day, and he would ask them about what did you hear at school today, and he would sort of debrief them, and then help them to understand how to interpret the world outside their house. Their home was a place of sanity, was a refuge. But outside the home, he taught them how they could spot the lies and figure out how to resist the lies. Camilla did something different with the kids. Every day, no matter how hard their lives were, even when Vaslav went to prison for his work, Camilla read to the kids two hours a day. I asked her, what did you read to them? Because there were books all over their house when I went to visit. She said, well, I read them a lot of myths. I read them literature, the greats. And I read them a lot of Tolkien. I said, Tolkien? Why Tolkien? She looked at me straight in the eye and said, because we knew that Mordor was real. And she went on to explain that you know that her children couldn’t understand the big ideas in play, and the struggle against communism, but they could understand what it meant for the Fellowship of the Ring to band together and withstand any trial in order to complete their mission. And she kept telling her kids what we’re reading about here in Tolkien, that’s what your mom and dad are doing. And that’s what we’re all a part of, this mission. So by filling their moral imaginations with the good, the true, and the beautiful, that’s how the Bendha family became part of the formation of their children as resistors.
SMITH: That’s another great story. And I can feel my spine being steeled just by listening to it. And I’m guessing that that’s part of your intention. Stories like Father Kolakovich and the Bendhas are in your book, in part I’m guessing, so that we might go and do likewise. Is that right?
DREHER: Well, yeah, that’s exactly it. And that’s why the second half of my book is not cultural analysis, but just stories told by these brave Christian men and women in the former Soviet bloc, and even in Russia, who I went to interview them, sat down with them, talked to them, and listened to their stories. I mean, some of these are people, most of them, are people nobody in the West has ever heard of, and they’re old now. And if somebody doesn’t tell their stories, these stories are going to slip into history. But what I wanted to do in this book is not just tell people the sky is falling—though it is falling—but also introduce them to men and women who lived under something even worse before and came through it with their faith intact.
SMITH: Rod, I don’t want to make too much of this idea, but when I read your earlier book The Benedict Option and some of the aftermath of that book, I read a lot of criticism that went along the lines that said you were advocating for separatism. But what I’m hearing in these stories, and in fact, what I read in The Benedict Option myself, was that that is not in fact, what you were advocating for. Not a separatism, but rather a way to live in the world, in the culture without being of the culture. Is that a perhaps more fair assessment of what you’re getting out here?
DREHER: Yeah, thank you for saying that. That is one of the most irritating things about the past three years since The Benedict Option was out is that so many people misinterpreted it, even though I’m clear in the book that there is no escape. I quoted Ephraim Radner, the Christian theologian, saying that there is no escape. We have to figure out how to live in it and not be of it. You know, since Benedict Option came out, Warren, there’s been a wonderful movie. I think it came out a year ago this month, called A Hidden Life by Terrence Malick. It’s the true story of the blessed Franz Jägerstätter, a Catholic farmer who lived on the side of a mountain in Austria, and when Nazism came to his village, everybody succumbed to Nazism except for him and his wife. And it was an important lesson in how to resist evil when it comes there. Because if you can’t get away from Nazism in a mountain village, you can’t get away from it. Well, I think a similar thing is happening here with us. And we need to learn from the experience of Christians who had to live it out. There was nowhere for them to hide, and there was no way for them to easily defeat the enemy. So they had to figure out how do we endure as Christians keeping our faith and keeping our integrity? I think we Christians here in America are going to be facing the same thing and some of us are right now on the front lines.
SMITH: Welcome back. I’m Warren Smith and today you’re listening in on my conversation with Rod Dreher. We’re talking about his new book Live Not By Lies, but we had this conversation before the riot in Washington on January 6th. The next segment speaks to some of the issues that led to that unrest. Let’s get right back to our conversation.
Rod, I’d like to pivot one more time in our conversation here in this last segment that we’re together and ask you to talk a little bit about something that you’ve written since Live Not By Lies. You wrote an article recently that said that if you were writing the book today, and in fact, you may include a new chapter in the paperback that says that those of us on the right have to be just as concerned, just as careful to not live by lies as those that are on the left. That our revulsion against the lies of the left, if we’re not careful, will cause us to go off the cliff on the other side. Can you say more about that?
DREHER: Yeah, you know what? It’s incredibly discouraging to me, Warren, as a conservative, I was never one of these never Trump people. I didn’t vote for him in 2016. But I also knew that he represented a change that we needed to have in this country. But, you know, he lost this election this year. And while I was disappointed by that result, because I really do fear what the Democrats are going to do in power, you know, I think it was a fair election. And I think it has been proven since election day. He’s had 60 chances in court to prove his case that the election was stolen and failed at each term.
In any case, what I’m seeing happen from so many of my Christian brothers and sisters is an absolute refusal to believe that the election was won by Biden. And what I’m seeing happen online and also in personal conversations, is this idea that this can’t be false. My view that the election was stolen can’t be false, and they’re willing to believe any crazy thing and any crazy person that justifies what they want to believe. This is exactly the essence of totalitarianism. Hannah Arendt said—and I quote her in Live Not By Lies—saying that a pre-totalitarian society is one in which people will believe any crazy thing that satisfies their emotions. You can’t falsify the claims that are made in a pre-totalitarian society, because people throw reason to the side. My book is full of examples of the left doing this. But since Election Day, I’ve seen this overtake the right and in specific, the Christian right, who are my people. And I had to speak out about it because I did not write a book that says live not by leftist lies. I wrote a book called Live Not By Lies, and I don’t want us Christians to lose our heads in the days to come. It’s so important that we keep ourselves grounded in truth—not just biblical truth, but truth itself. And that means not succumbing to lies that feel good.
SMITH: Rod, you know, the philosopher Jacques Ellul, said something that I think is relevant to what we’re talking about now. He said that there is an illusion. He called it the political illusion, that all problems are political, therefore, all solutions should be political. Again, he called that an illusion. And the Christian worldview teaches that all problems are not political, but that the problems are spiritual. And that if we’re not careful, we as Christians can succumb to the political illusion as well. It seems to be in fact that that may be what you’re saying, is that so?
DREHER: Oh, that’s so true. That’s so well said you’re gonna send me to Ellul with that, because look, we’ve made an idol of politics we Christians, for so long. I’m 54 years old, and for most of my life, the Christian right has believed—those who are politically engaged—has believed that if we only gain power and use our political power to put the right judges on the bench and legislate correctly, everything’s going to be sorted out. Well, it wasn’t true. It was never true. That doesn’t mean that Christians shouldn’t be involved in politics. But the core of our problem, the core of our struggle, is spiritual and cultural. That is at the root of the brokenness in this country. And insofar as Christians today have played so much hope and make America great again and then Donald Trump, they’re expecting of Trump something that no politician—he could be a philosopher king and a saint of God—no politician could fix this country, because our problems are not basically political. And it just infuriates me that so many Christians are willing to set their minds aside and just assume that political power is going to save us. Some of the worst of wokeness—this persecution that’s taken place of the church (and it’s going to get worse)—some of the worst of it does come with Donald Trump in power. And again, he’s not a Caesar. He can’t issue edicts and stop this stuff. It’s not coming to us from the state, Warren, primarily at this point. It’s coming to us through major corporations, the media, and universities. These are things that Donald Trump, even if he were fully engaged, which he never has been, but if he were fully engaged, he could only stop some of this stuff. We have got to fight it at a much more basic level.
SMITH: But it seems to me that you’re getting at what is, at least in part, the real tragedy here, and it’s not that pagans are acting like pagans, but it’s that the church, that Christians are acting like pagans.
DREHER: Well, that’s true, too. And I’ve talked to so many people in my travels who say—campus ministers and pastors—who say that their churches are being divided, young people are turning away from the church, because they see their parents behaving in with what they regard as hypocrisy regarding Trump, because they were raised to believe that, you know, that character matters in a president. I think that there really will be long term consequences for this. But the consequences themselves are not going to be just those that have been identified, like the ones I just mentioned. But also a loss of trust in each other. I’m already seeing this happen in communities I know where people have gone so far on politics, either to the left or to the right, that they view their neighbors with hatred and suspicion. And I don’t know how we put that back together once it’s taken.
I remember when I was in Hungary doing reporting for this book, my translator, Anna, said that the greatest problem facing her country, Hungary, is the collapse of social trust. The communists destroyed civil society, and even 30 years on they have not been able to reconstitute it. We don’t have communism here. But our politics and the way all of us—left and right—approach politics, that’s helping to destroy civil society. And once it’s gone, it is going to be very, very difficult to put back together.
SMITH: It seems to me that one of the ways that we recover what has been lost here is to take up the theme of your book, and that is this notion that Christians are in fact dissidents. And I’d like to close our conversation by reading to you something that you quoted near the end of your book. It’s a quote from C.S. Lewis. Lewis said that the world is in many ways enemy-occupied territory. And this is the direct quote from Lewis, “Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say, but landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.” Rod, say more about that.
DREHER: I love that so much. We are in a culture war. We have lost the culture war in terms of the main battles, but that doesn’t mean we give up. That means that we just have to work like guerillas, like the French underground, like Father Kolakovich’s underground church. But what we must do is keep hope alive. There’s a real difference, Warren, between optimism and hope. I think every one of the people I interviewed in the former Soviet bloc would say this to you. We’re not called to be optimists. An optimist is somebody who believes that things will always turn out great, no matter what. An optimist is gonna get his heart broken. We are called rather to be hopeful. And from a Christian point of view, to be hopeful is to want things to work out for the best, but know that even if they work out for the worst, even if we have to meet prison or death, that it has ultimate meaning and God will use it ultimately for the good if we unite our sufferings to Christ. This is the main lesson, the most important lesson I got from all of these dissidents and from the former communist world is that American Christians have got to learn how to suffer. They said that the willingness and the ability to suffer well without losing our faith, and without losing our humanity, without coming to hate our persecutors. That is the challenge right in front of us. Now, it was a challenge for them back in the day and it is the challenge facing us. I tell stories in this book, Warren, as you’ve read, about Christians who withstood really terrible tortures, but they came through it because they were confident that the Lord was using them.
And I find myself today—we’re not going through anything remotely as bad as what they went through—but I found myself during the COVID lockdown, once I started feeling sorry for myself, I just turned back to my notes about some of these saints of God that I had read about and met and how they did not let self pity overtake them and steal their hope from them. So that’s the lesson I want to leave people when they finish my book. And that’s a lesson I hope your listeners will take away from our conversation.
SMITH: Well, right I found the book nourishing and challenging and I can’t wait for that chapter on conservatism to come out in the paperback version.
DREHER: Thank you, Warren.