“There always is this fallacious belief: ‘It would not be the same here; here such things are impossible.’ Alas, all the evil of the twentieth century is possible everywhere on earth,” begins Rod Dreher’s Live Not by Lies with the chilling Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn quote.
The already eerie words take on an amplified meaning when reading them on November 3, 2020, Election Day, from an apartment in uncannily silent downtown DC where nearly every building within a mile radius is covered with plywood in anticipation of what might happen following the elections. If this is what the democratic process now looks like in the capital city of the world’s longest standing democracy, it seems that the warnings of Solzhenitsyn, the famous Soviet dissident, have been vindicated, and that Dreher’s work may not be just timely, but also necessary.
Earlier this year while (somewhat ironically, given the Soviet focus of Dreher’s book) living in Almaty, Kazakhstan, I encountered what at the time was the most authoritarian, and eerie, experience of my life. On a gorgeous February Saturday afternoon, I was in a taxi on my way to meet a friend at a downtown café. I received a text from my friend that said, “For some reason my phone isn’t working here. If yours stops working too, here is my current location.” When I tried to respond, her phone was offline again.
Sure enough, as I approached downtown, my cellular service stopped working as well. When I finally found my friend, I discovered why — there were anti-government protests happening downtown that day, and the Kazakhstani government shut down cell service in the area of the protests so that demonstrators could not communicate.
As an American, enduring such government censorship was unfathomable to me at the time. But at least I understood one thing — this is definitively what totalitarianism looks like — or so I thought. I had no idea what was to come in my home country later that year. Live Not by Lies serves as a brilliant, sometimes chilling, but necessary manual for Christians, or any American who cherishes freedom of speech, who hope to endure the soft totalitarianism that has descended upon. It also, however, provides a hopeful guide on how to remain steadfast in our faith and convictions despite the madness.
Dreher states that he received the book’s idea from friends whose parents had grown up in the Soviet bloc and believe that the anti-religious sentiments, speech policing, and self-censorship that are seen in the U.S. today resemble their past experiences. Although the West’s totalitarianism has taken on a “softer” face, alas it still exists, warn the former dissidents, and Dreher himself.
Dreher’s challenge to the reader? Listen to the former Christian dissidents and survivors of communist totalitarianism. “Are we capable of hearing them, or will we continue to rest easy in the delusion that it can’t happen here?”.
I credit Dreher for rightfully pointing out the dangers of our culture’s new “soft” totalitarianism, but find it indispensable to note that we should be judicious in comparing our current “cancel” culture to the despair, torment, and epitome of human evil found in Stalin’s gulags and ensuing repression. The dissidents in this book endured a persecution that we here in the West will never be able to fathom.
Live Not by Lies tells the compelling life stories of dissidents, survivors, and all-around courageous souls, whose example Western Christians must follow if we hope to stay steadfast in our religious convictions even in this “soft” totalitarianism. Although the topic and stories are heavy, the book nevertheless leaves the reader with certainty that even through the darkest times, Christian truth and hope remains.
From Father Tomislav Kolaković, a Jesuit priest who fled his native Croatia and set up an extensive underground church network in Czechoslovakia, to the Benda clan of Prague, whose large Catholic family suffered greatly under communism for speaking out on human rights, to Russian Christian dissident Alexander Ogorodnikov, the extraordinary life stories told in this book will leave you captivated, heartbroken, and yet surprisingly optimistic.
Some of Dreher’s main points are truths that many American Christians unwisely disregard, but nevertheless must understand as central to our faith. The first — Christians must learn the value of suffering. In our culture of instant gratification, self-love, and “feel good” politics, Western Christians must relearn the importance of suffering and discomfort. Moreover, this should be done in remembrance of our predecessors globally, who were not afforded our modern religious liberties and for centuries suffered greatly for living out their faith.
“Accepting suffering is the beginning of our liberation,” states Dreher. This, of course, runs counter to the utopianism that totalitarian ideology promises its citizens, and certainly as it appeared in the Soviet bloc.
In the words of Father Kaleda Kirill, a Russian Orthodox Archpriest who is dedicated to the study of Soviet Christian martyrs, “We can say clearly that this current ideology of comfort is anti-Christian in its very essence. But we should point out the fact that the church, not once, ever called its followers to look for suffering, and even made it clear that they are warned not to do that. But if a person finds himself in a situation where he’s suffering, then he should bear it with courage.”
The Western Christians who aren’t ready to suffer or sacrifice for their faith will easily fall under the pressure of totalitarianism, asserts Dreher.
A possible critique may be that Dreher’s argument is sensationalist and meant to anger Christians over a threat that doesn’t exist. Although I am hesitant to compare the West’s “soft” totalitarianism to Soviet repression, recent events have validated some of Dreher’s concerns. Cancel culture may be coming for Christians, or anyone who doesn’t toe the ideological line.
A notable example is Avengers star Chris Pratt, who in late October was “canceled” by some on the internet over claims that his church, Zoe Church in Los Angeles, is anti-LGBTQ+. Pratt has long been criticized by some on the left for daring to be a Christian in Hollywood.
Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, during her confirmation hearings, was attacked prevalently on the internet not for her judicial rulings — but her Catholic faith. Outlets such as Newsweek went as far as to falsely claim that Justice Barrett’s religious group, People of Praise, was inspiration for The Handmaid’s Tale, a now infamous dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood.
Live Not by Lies is an indispensable manual for understanding how politics have assumed the traditional role of religion in Western society, especially among the youth. “As Miłosz [Polish émigré and famous author of The Captive Mind] and other dissidents testify, communism answered an essentially religious longing in the souls of restless young intellectuals,” states Dreher.
This echoes much of what I’ve seen from my secular peers in recent years, who I joke often follow their (overwhelmingly leftist) politics more closely than I do my own religion, even as a devout Christian.
However vast our differences with non-believers, we must keep a robust dialogue with those we disagree with, testify the Soviet dissidents. “When we look at what’s happening in America today, we see that you are building walls and creating gaps between people. For us, we are always willing to speak, to talk with the other side to avoid building walls between people. You know, it is much easier to indoctrinate someone who is enclosed within a set of walls,” notes Patrik Benda, who grew up with parents active in Bratislava’s underground church scene and is one of nine children, all of who remain steadfast in their faith.
Even if our peers try to push us away, ostracize us, or (gasp) even cancel us for our faith or convictions, Benda’s words are a necessary reminder that Western Christians must not retract from our secular peers or society. Overall, the testimony of Benda and the numerous other Soviet dissidents is powerful. Their words echo much of what I’ve experienced and learned from my pastors and church friends in both Russia and Kazakhstan, and are a compelling motivation to read Dreher’s book.
Though the rising tide of “soft” totalitarianism in the United States, including self-censorship, policing of speech, and fear of expressing political opinions, is in no way identical to communist totalitarianism, it still poses an existential threat to liberalism and democratic values. We must, however, be cautious in comparing our current times to the brutal repression Christians faced under Soviet totalitarianism.
We should, of course, listen to the dissidents who survived such unthinkable repression, many of who are warning us that they’ve seen the current trends in our society before. Live Not by Lies should be required reading for all Christians and Americans who cherish freedom of speech, but we simultaneously must remember that our Constitution, freedoms, and values— for now — ensure that it won’t happen here. The most compelling takeaway from Dreher’s book may be to defend these values so that we never have to worry about how to live under the alternative.