Last September, I wrote about Rod Dreher’s latest book Live Not By Lies for The Gospel Coalition, a review Rod found to be “odd” and “negative” and to which he devoted a lengthy response that reiterated the threat of the radical left and chastised me for “whatabouttery” as I pointed out dangerous impulses showing up in other areas and coming from other directions.
Like Rod, I too have spent time with Christian dissidents under Communist tyranny. I know their stories. I’ve witnessed their endurance. And though my outlook is not altogether different from Rod on much of what he writes (see Greg Thompson if you want a really negative review of Rod’s book), I believe the two major critiques I made still stand.
First, I pointed out the joylessness of the book, not because I believe we should close our eyes and ears to frightening trajectories and live Pollyanna-like in a world of naiveté, but because the Romanian Christians I know who suffered under Communism, with eyes wide open to its tyranny, were marked by a palpable sense of hope and joy that transcended the shadows of their country’s history. The impression they gave me was one of faith, not fear, and yet the impression I get when I read Rod is fear more than faith. (It should go without saying, and yet I’ll say it again, my interactions with Rod over the years have been fruitful and edifying, and I hope for more interaction in person, as my disagreement with him here is professional, not personal.)
Secondly, I believed Rod’s adoption of Solzhenitsyn’s call to “live not by lies” has application for those to his right as well. I wrote:
Because of the influence of elites in major corporations as well as influential institutions, Dreher sees the left as a much clearer and more present danger than the corresponding surge of populism and nationalism we see around the world from the right. Dreher may be correct, but it would’ve been worth exploring how fascism and communism can feed off each other, so that opposition to the one can harden into support for the other. It was the fear and despising of communism that made fascism an appealing bulwark to many people in Western Europe during the 1930s, while the revulsion toward fascism (linked by communist dictators to capitalism) became one of the rallying cries of the countries that fell under the shadow of the Iron Curtain in the 1940s and ’50s.
My point isn’t that Dreher is wrong to warn against cultural currents that may sweep us into soft totalitarianism. I only wish he had explored how this tendency toward soft totalitarianism could wind up being as much a feature of a nationalist surge from the far right as it could the elitist “top down” from the far left. I understand why Dreher prioritizes the threat from the far left more than the far right—the left is embedded in various institutions that have traditionally wielded enormous power. But as Yuval Levin and other cultural observers have pointed out, these institutions have lost much of their power and credibility, which may leave us vulnerable to surges of revolutionary fervor from surprisingly unexpected directions.
Rod’s response to this critique was that I am living in “Neutral World,” where I believe the wider culture is neutral not hostile to Christianity and therefore I’m more likely to take my cues from secular elites. In other words, my social location has blinded me to the seriousness of the threat of the radical left.
He went further on Christmas Eve, when he posted a letter from someone in California who regularly reads my column and thinks of me as an “astute cultural observer,” yet was surprised at my take on Rod’s book as alarmist. (She also took issue with Samuel James’ review in Christianity Today.) From her vantage point in Los Angeles, soft totalitarianism is already everywhere. Is it possible, she wonders, that Samuel and I, writing for respected Christian publications and working in established evangelical institutions, live in a bubble and that’s why we’d critique Rod’s book in this way? In other words, are we safely ensconced in evangelical ivory towers to the point we don’t see just how bad things are getting out there?
That’s a fair question, and Rod finds it to be a plausible explanation of why guys like me (who he believes to be generally “on top of things”) are so off base with regard to his book. And, of course, I agree that one’s social location affects the way we read. It is likely that this reader in Los Angeles County is more alert to radicalism on the left and the insidious lies being spread throughout the culture there than I am. There are some truly shocking things happening in California public schools, for example, as Abigail Shrier’s sometimes-banned book points out.
But since we’re talking social location, perhaps it would be good for me—from the heart of a red state in the middle of Trumpland—to show how my critique of Rod’s book is bolstered by what I’ve witnessed, too.
Rod got a glimpse of this danger with his epic tweet thread about the Jericho March on Washington last month. He seemed shocked at what he saw. But nothing in that rally should have surprised anyone paying attention to the merging of many white evangelical churchgoers with the cult-like MAGA presence on the right over the past few years. Rod and his reader are absolutely right that soft totalitarian impulses are evident in the ascendancy of the cultural left—I grant that point.
My critique was that Rod’s admonition to “live not by lies” must also apply to people who, once reasonable, reliable “values voters” on the right, have now slipped into wild conspiracy thinking, showmanship, and deception—willfully entertaining delusions in a desperate bid to maintain power. Is no one else appalled at how many Christians who have for decades trumpeted the importance of capital T truth and decried postmodernism and relativism now turn a blind eye to a strongman who tells them what they want to hear? (To be clear, I’m not talking about everyone who voted for Trump, but about those who cannot possibly concede his loss or who have fallen for farfetched tales that are not backed up with evidence, or who are retreating to their own version of “whatabouttery” as they try to justify, downplay, or excuse the latest presidential shenanigan, or who threaten violence toward their political opponents.) I went to the same Christian schools as some of these “church leaders.” I have family members receiving emails from lifelong Christian friends castigating them for “cowering in fear” against the Democratic majority and telling them this is 1776 for Christian conservatives. I know pastors in red states who’ve lost their livelihoods for daring to issue even the slightest challenge to Trumpian orthodoxy.
Listen, I’m not claiming this is the majority of people on the right. It’s not the majority of churchgoing Christians. It’s not even the majority of churchgoing Christians who voted for Trump. I’m not in any way claiming that the descent of some conservative Christians into Metaxas-level deception is on par with the power of cultural elites who have been driving society toward values hostile to traditional Christian belief, especially now that it looks as if elected officials who have far too often scorned efforts to preserve religious liberty are in control of both houses of Congress. The primary danger to traditional Christians long-term, I grant to Rod and to his reader in LA, is still on the left.
But in our country several things can be true at once. A person in one part of the country can lose a job for speaking up against “woke orthodoxy,” while a person elsewhere can pay a terrible social cost for questioning Trumpian loyalties. Believe me, in many conservative evangelical institutions, the incentives are to rail against “social justice warriors” while staying quiet about dangers closer to home with your core constituency. One way to tickle the ears of your constituency is to rail against the idols outside your camp and to soft pedal about idols closer to home.
That’s why, maybe my position inside an “evangelical bubble” helps me see something else that is coming: the disappointment, anger, discouragement, and rage we’re seeing on the right in this moment will forge new channels and flow in new directions. It’s not going away. It’s going somewhere. What that will look like, I do not know. But it’s real, it’s dangerous, and given the right moment with the right leader in the future, could be harnessed to terribly destructive ends. We will not win the battle against the left’s lies by believing and coddling liars on the right.
Rod fears the culturally ascendant left. I can see why. I agree with much of his analysis. The point of my review was to simply add another word of warning, to sound an additional alarm. Faithfulness in our day requires us to live not by lies on the right as well.
For Further Reading:
- The Cost of Telling the Truth in a World of Lies
- Chernobyl and the Cost of Convenient Lies
- We Need Leaders Alert to Dangers from More Than One Direction
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