Soft Totalitarianism, Coming or Going?

Many Americans today live on edge. The arrival of COVID-19 has introduced an invisible enemy that attacks without reason or mercy. The policy responses of quarantine and shutdown have led to lay-offs, business failures, evictions, and foreclosures. Those still lucky enough to have a job often do not work for themselves but for large multi-national corporations sensitive to norms of diversity, equity, and inclusion. One article in The Spectator describes how global management consultancy firm Accenture began encouraging employees to wear rainbow-colored lanyards declaring employees “allies” in an effort to promote an inclusive workplace. The implication is that, if one does not wear the lanyard, then one is not an ally but an enemy who wants a discriminatory workplace. To refuse the lanyard is to risk one’s job. The practice is reminiscent of Václav Havel’s greengrocer in The Power of the Powerless, who hung a sign that said “Workers of the world unite!” in his shop window not because he believed in Marxist promises but because he feared reprisals from the communist government.

Among these Americans are conservative Christians, who find themselves frequently singled out as cultural scapegoats. These additional provocations have led many to fear the worst for the future of their family, their country, and their church. As Robert P. George recently put it, conservative Christians in America frequently experience a “fight-or-flight” response to the rapid changes in corporate and political culture. The “fight” response can be found in the unvarnished Christian nationalism of an Eric Metaxas or the pseudo-Catholic Machiavellianism of Adrian Vermeule. Rod Dreher, on the other hand, presents the flight response. His 2017 book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, anticipated the worst after eight years of Barack Obama’s efforts to constrain religious liberty and impose secular ideas on churches. Read from today’s perspective, much of the book seems to have been written with the presumption of an inevitable Hillary Clinton victory.

Dreher wanted to sound the alarm to those unready for what laid ahead, a rhetorical stance which fit awkwardly with Donald J. Trump’s surprise victory. As Dreher said in the opening pages, “the upset presidential victory of Donald Trump has at best given us a bit more time to prepare for the inevitable” and elsewhere:

Though Donald Trump won the presidency in part with the strong support of Catholics and Evangelicals, the idea that someone as robustly vulgar, fiercely combative, and morally compromised as Trump will be an avatar for the restoration of Christian morality and social unity is beyond delusional. He is not a solution to the problem of America’s cultural decline, but a symptom of it.

Dreher’s rationale seems especially poignant at the time I am writing this review—only a few days after the death of Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her replacement with a conservative Christian justice would not give Dreher much hope, as he says in The Benedict Option, “the new Trump administration may be able to block or at least slow these moves with its judicial appointments, but this is a small consolation. Will the law as written by a conservative legislature and interpreted by conservative judges overwrite the law of the human heart? No, it will not. Politics is no substitute for personal holiness.” For Dreher, America needed a religious revival to sustain any short-term political gain. Without one, these gains simply delayed the secular seizure of power and subsequent decline. Therefore, authentic Christian communities had to think long-term and begin to build institutions resilient enough to resist the regnant nihilistic, materialistic culture.

Dreher’s new book, Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, seeks out examples of Christian resistance to totalitarian government like the kind Dreher fears will be arriving in America soon enough. He encounters survivors and hears tales of martyrs from the Christian resistance to communism among Eastern Bloc countries during the Cold War. He organizes the book into two parts. The first offers a diagnosis of the post-Christian, progressive West, and its capacity for a “soft” totalitarianism less direct but every bit as repressive as the “hard” totalitarianism of communism. The second part instructs his readers on how to cope under the coming soft totalitarianism. If one is, in the phrase he borrows from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “to live not by lies,” then one must keep the faith, value the truth, cultivate cultural memory, preserve the Christian family, establish a network of friends, and ready oneself for suffering. At all times, Dreher insists, one must “see, judge, act” in a Christian fashion that is both authentic and prudent.

Before discussing the arguments of the book, one should note that the prose is another example of Dreher’s gift for readability. I found myself finished in two sittings, wishing for more. Dreher’s language remains as engaging and earnest as ever. He knows how to tell a good story and set up a scene for an interview. Live Not by Lies is not just a book about how to prepare for the soft totalitarianism of post-Christian America; it is also a pilgrimage. Many of the places Dreher includes in his discussion of the Christian underground are also sites of great suffering or even martyrdom. Dreher writes about them not merely as historical landmarks but reflects upon the places he visits as a member of the faithful overwhelmed by the Gospel witness of the men and women who suffered there. He is at once reverent and anxious, as he knows that the cross those martyrs carried could one day be his own.

The Limits of Analogies

Or will it? Dreher’s book relies on an analogy between the lives of Christians under the communist East and those under the liberal capitalist West, an analogy recently made by Ryszard Legutko in The Demon in Democracy. Analogies only work if the similarities observed outweigh the differences. In explaining to an ordinary reader how the relative peace and prosperity of America is somehow more like the brutal violence in the gulags under Leonid Brezhnev, Dreher faces a great difficulty. Legutko had the advantage of focusing primarily on European politics, where the history of secularizing liberal democracy, especially in traditionally Catholic countries, is much easier to connect to communism. The American example is a more difficult case. After all, during the Cold War, American leaders advanced a Judeo-Christian foundation for liberal democracy to contest Soviet ideology. America won, and communism lost. Dreher does his best to overcome this challenge, but it is not quite enough.

Dreher explains that Eastern Europe fell to communism because the people there wanted desperately to “believe in something that would guarantee them a bright future.” If Nazism brought ruin and communism was the opposition to Nazism, then, according to Dreher, many in Eastern Europe thought they should become communists and thereby incurred “complete economic submission to the state and general material immiseration” that came with “the politicization of all aspects of life, enforced by secret police, prisons, and labor camps… harsh persecutions of religious believers, the crushing of free speech and expression, and the erasure of historical and cultural memory.”

In this analogy, Americans remain largely free but awkwardly find themselves between collapse and submission. Americans will soon yield to an ideological “successor [that] has not yet been born.” This assessment aligns with his previous observation about Trump’s election—that it offered a kind of reprieve during which American Christians might prepare themselves.

Yet economic stagnation, indebtedness, and widening gaps between the rich and everyone else are not new to America. From the self-inflicted disaster of Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo of 1807 to the Panic of 1873 and the ensuing Long Depression, Americans grew familiar with economic failure beyond their control. With American farms and banks came debt. Moreover, the vitriol between rich and poor is a tale as old as humanity itself, one that finds early and clear American expression in the acid missives of anti-Federalist writer Centinel.

Why does Dreher think this moment is different from all the others? The answer seems to be the ideological lens he uses to interpret conditions. Perhaps in a nod to Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, he attributes the moment to the failure of classical liberalism. Yet, classical liberalism is simply an intellectual tradition concerned with maximizing individual liberty and private property rights. It seems unclear how the state of an intellectual tradition forms the basis for such a dramatic shift of America toward soft totalitarianism. Dreher relies too much merely on a general sense of dread to fill in his argument’s gaps.

Two additional chapters in the first section aim at deepening the analogy. Communism served as an ersatz religion and targeted Christianity and other traditional religions for precisely this reason. Dreher rightly observes the same tendency among secular progressives, especially those that rule the Human Resources departments of global corporations. “Woke capitalism” as he describes it, serves as “the most transformative agent within the religion of social justice, because it unites progressive ideology with the most potent force in American life: consumerism and making money.” The newfound capacity for surveillance coming out of the most powerful companies in the world, the tech firms of Silicon Valley, enables woke capital to wield its power. Corporate surveillance enables soft totalitarianism in the same way the Chinese Communist Party uses stolen tech to surveil its subjects. Employees in large corporations in America experience, at least at work, surveillance similar to that which Chinese citizens suffer under everywhere. Dreher explains, “I often hear stories from people—always white-collar professionals like academics, doctors, lawyers, engineers—who live closeted lives as religious or social conservatives.”

…if Russia, an anti-liberal nation with an established Orthodox faith, cannot preserve its cultural memory, how is it all that different from liberal, capitalist, secularized nations in the West?

This passage, however, illustrates the weakness rather than the strength of the analogy. The tyranny of hard totalitarianism reduced all subjects to penury and hardship; the soft totalitarianism of the West is unpleasant primarily for social conservatives in the upper middle class. Modern communist totalitarianism was nothing less than an anti-Christ. Is it coercive for a corporation to require an evangelical Protestant Executive Vice President to wear a rainbow lanyard? Of course, it is. What differs, however, is that this employee enjoys legal protections, the choice to search for new employment, and the potential for a large institutional response from her church and similarly affected people of faith. Such a response seems to be building among political institutions as law non-profit firms like First Liberty Institute and the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty have begun defending conscience rights, while other religious peoples, such as Archbishop of San Francisco Salvatore Cordielone, have taken to the streets. That people of faith encounter enemies in the state is nothing new, but the existence of those enemies does not prove the existence of a “soft” totalitarianism.

Practical Lessons for Conservative Christians

The second section of the book is much better than the first, and also more closely follows the logic of The Benedict Option. These chapters detail how anti-communist resistance leaders held together faith communities during a time of intense persecution. All Dreher’s talents as a journalist are on display, with narratives of navigating old staircases and rusty iron ladders only to find a samizdat printing press preserved out of honor for those who operated it. One particular account deeply moved me. Dreher sits with an aged Alexander Ogorodnikov, a lay Orthodox Christian, who recounts his time in a Soviet jail quietly evangelizing prisoners on death row. Of all the stories in Live Not by Lives, Ogorodnikov’s account of the prison guard and the Orthodox priests is, at least for me, the most moving. The prison guard for Ogorodnikov’s cell was an old pensioner deeply affected by the martyrdom of a handful of Orthodox priests. The guard told Ogorodnikov this story, which he related to Dreher:

“One of the KGB guys walked up to the first priest. He asked him very calmly and quietly. ‘Is there a God?’ The priest said yes. They shot him in the forehead in such a way that his brains covered the priest standing behind him. He calmly loaded his pistol, went to the next priest, and asked, “Does God exist?”

“Yes, he exists.” The KGB man shot this priest in the same way. We didn’t blindfold them. They saw everything that was about to happen to them.

Ogorodnikov fights back tears as he comes to the end of his story. In a voice cracking with emotion, the old prisoner says, “Not one of those priests denied Christ.”

Dreher also derives from these examples some practical lessons for conservative Christians. One includes, “Teach [your children] how to identify lies and to refuse them. Do your best not to be party to the lie—not for the sake of professional advantage, personal status, or any other reason.” This lesson is particularly significant, given how many white-collar employees contact Dreher worried about their faith getting them fired. Do they write Dreher with a guilty conscience? Is he challenging them to quit their jobs to live not by lies? If so, he does not quite say it, but he would be right to.

Dreher exhorts the reader to cultivate local tradition and cultural memory, which includes the “parallel polis” of Václav Benda. The parallel polis is something like the Benedict Option with its “alternative set of social structures within which social and intellectual life could be lived outside of official approval.” The parallel polis serves as an ideal, with concrete application everywhere in Live Not by Lies—in the parlors, basements, and prisons of communist Europe. Indeed, cultural memory enables Dreher to tell his story in the first place, as the survivors preserved this treasury of sacred memories.

Dreher visits an Orthodox shrine at the former Butovo Firing Range, where Soviet NKVD secret police killed over twenty thousand political prisoners, and he has a conversation with Father Kirill Kaleda, who worries, “I could clearly see that young people I was talking to today know nothing about what happened here.” Here, one should pause: if Russia, an anti-liberal nation with an established Orthodox faith, cannot preserve its cultural memory, how is it all that different from liberal, capitalist, secularized nations in the West?

Moreover, Russia remains relatively unfree when compared to most other European nations. Currently, postliberals like Patrick Deneen and Gladden Pappin have looked to post-Soviet Eastern European nations for examples of anti-liberal democracies more capable of preserving traditional institutions and norms. Like Russia, countries like Poland and Hungary had a Christian anti-communist resistance that assisted in rebuilding the nations after the fall of the Soviet Union. In his conversation with Father Kirill, Dreher has uncovered that these nations are nonetheless suffering a similar fate as liberal western states, despite eastern European repudiation of western liberalism. Perhaps east and west have taken different roads to the same destination?

The Present Uncertainty of the Future

Throughout, Live Not by Lies provides a sense of general decline among nearly all the Cold War survivors. In a conversation between Dreher and Toma Križka, who was a child during the Velvet Revolution, Križka admits, “With our eyes fixed intently on the West, we could see how it was beginning to experience the same things we knew from the time of totalitarianism… Once again, we are all being told that Christian values stand in the way of the people having a better life. History has already shown us how far this kind of thing can go.” Dreher is more optimistic. He affirms, “The culture war is largely over—and we lost. The Grand March is, for the time being, a victory parade. But then, so were the May Day marches and pageants in all the cities and towns of the late Soviet Empire.” The era of soft totalitarianism may soon be ending.

This conclusion is surprising. In the closing lines of Live Not by Lies, Dreher speeds up the timeline. In the first part of the book, the present moment foretells the coming of soft totalitarianism. Now, in the closing pages, the present exists under the victorious reign of soft totalitarianism, which is already in such decline that conservative Christians can hasten its collapse by becoming “saboteurs for the Kingdom of God.”

Which is it? Did Dreher intend for the present moment to change meaning from one section to the next? I do not know, but I do know that this points to the fundamental issue with predicting the future by making analogies to the past.

In his classic Historians’ Fallacies, David Hackett Fischer warned that predictions made by historical analogy remain fundamentally untestable. One simply cannot reach a determinate conclusion about current trends from such analogies; as Hackett writes, the problem “is not that there is a probability of error within them, but that there is an indeterminacy of probability. It is not possible to distinguish a true historical analogy from a false one without an empirical test of inference. If one of those parts remains in the future, the analogy is untestable.” The only way for the prediction to be true is for it to predict every possible outcome, since one can only know the truth of the predicted analogy after the event comes to pass. Therefore, Dreher offers two quite different predictions: the soft totalitarianism is both coming and going.

Dreher’s uncertainty reflects the uncertainty of the moment in which the erratic incumbent President Donald J. Trump may succeed in creating a 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court in the closing days of a presidential election that many say he will lose.

The Supreme Court itself is uncertain about its own jurisprudence. A majority of the court in Bostock v. Clayton County inserted a prohibition on gender discrimination into Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but another majority began the gutting of Lemon v. Kurtzman in The American Legion v. American Humanist Association, finding that older religious symbols with possible secular meaning do not violate the Establishment Clause. As a result, we face the expansion of progressive activism concerning gender at the Court while it also begins to move toward renewed protections for religious life against progressive activism.

Conservative Christians are themselves uncertain, wanting religious freedom protections and an end to Roe v. Wade; however, many are also unhappy or downright discouraged by Trump’s shambolic administration and its overtures to fringe right-wing figures. In sum, Dreher predicts that soft totalitarianism is both coming and going because, well, it is—all the more so if Judge Amy Coney Barrett ends up on the Supreme Court and Vice President Joe Biden in the Oval Office.