Live Not by Lies:
A Manual for Christian Dissidents
by rod dreher
sentinel, 256 pages, $27
In 1951, security forces in communist Czechoslovakia arrested Silvester Krčméry—and as they were taking him away, he burst out laughing. The young physician knew what he was about to face: years behind bars, shattering physical and mental torture, the loss of his professional career. Yet he also believed that “there could not be anything more beautiful than to lay down [his] life for God.” Hence, the joyous laughter that befuddled the police.
He was a disciple of the Jesuit dissident Tomislav Kolaković. Foreseeing a Red takeover, Kolaković launched an underground Catholic resistance network while World War II still raged. He called it “the Family.” As a leading member, Krčméry spent years girding himself for that knock on the door. He memorized large chunks of the Bible. His preparation served him well, preserving his faith and sustaining his spirit.
Amid beatings and humiliations, Krčméry developed a daily spiritual program. He recited the Mass. He prayed for fellow inmates. He spent long stretches in prayer, contemplating his sins and the life of the Lord. “Sometimes,” he recalled, “one word, or a single sentence from Scripture, is enough to fill a person with a special light. An insight or new meaning is revealed and penetrates one’s inner being and remains there for weeks or months at a time.”
Krčméry is one of a number of Christian dissidents behind the Iron Curtain whom Rod Dreher profiles in Live Not by Lies. The title alludes to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s final message to the Russian people before his 1974 Moscow arrest and exile. Dreher predicts that Western Christians will become public enemies and internal exiles in our increasingly post-Christian societies. He wants us to prepare as Krčméry did, by anchoring ourselves in the faith.
Live Not by Lies is thus something of a “manual” filled with spiritual and practical advice. Dreher develops his ideas with stories of (mainly) Christian dissidents in the Eastern Bloc. He draws material from post-communist archives as well as reporting trips, making the book a winsome, readable mix of travelogue, reportage, history, and analysis.
Dreher urges Christians and other traditional believers to acknowledge that the developments unfolding around us signal the dawn of a new totalitarianism in the West. It is a “soft totalitarianism,” which “masks its hatred of dissenters . . . in the guise of helping and healing.” Its disciplinary mechanisms are not brutally violent. Rather, they play on our preference for comfort. A new order threatens to tear out your social standing, not your fingernails. You will be “cancelled” on social media and risk losing your job, rather than taking a bullet in the back of the head.
This totalitarian discipline isn’t meted out by the mighty state. It is exercised by an even more powerful private sphere: “elites who form public opinion” and “corporations that, thanks to technology, control our lives far more than we would like to admit.” The new order unites “cultural revolutionaries”—a postwar left that has shifted its focus from the economy to culture and sexuality—“and advanced capitalism, which teaches that nothing should exist outside of the market mechanism and its sorting of value according to human desires.”
These twin “liberatory” forces give birth, paradoxically, to a new and total regulatory order. This order seeks to surveil and silence anyone who affirms metaphysical truths about the human person, Christians above all.
How did it come to pass that leading institutions now require Americans to affirm that “men have periods”? Dreher toggles between two diagnoses. At times, he argues that Western societies have abandoned “authentic liberalism” and “liberal principles” and embraced in their place “an aggressive and punitive politics that resembles Bolshevism.” The new totalitarianism, in this telling, is a foreign virus that has infected the normal operations of liberal society.
Elsewhere, Dreher suggests that the neo-totalitarian impulse has been latent in liberalism all along. Liberalism, when it becomes a dominant ideology, works to demolish all limits and glorifies the self-defining individual (John Stuart Mill’s “experiments in living”). This puts liberalism on a collision course with traditional religion, which champions a divine authority that limits our sinful self-assertion, and which calls us to transcend rather than “express” ourselves. As a Hungarian intellectual tells Dreher, “What neither Nazism nor Communism could do, victorious liberal capitalism has done.” It has alienated Hungarians from their religious and civilizational heritage and turned them into mere consumers.
Dreher wavers between these two theses. Now he mourns the loss of “old-fashioned” liberalism; now he laments that we “uncritically accept the free market’s logic and values.” Now he echoes the classical liberals who lament the new totalitarianism and its assaults on freedom; now he avers that our condition is the “fulfillment” of “liberalism’s goal: to free the individual from any unchosen obligations.”
Is it necessary to choose between these two views? Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis have all affirmed individual rights and democracy while rejecting the liberal view of self-definition as the highest good. Evidently one can endorse the institutions liberals celebrate (many of them with premodern roots) as fitting in certain spheres of life, while resisting liberalism’s claim to be an all-sufficient doctrine.
But this approach is difficult to sustain, given liberalism’s ambitions. If Dreher is correct, and soft totalitarianism represents in part an acceleration of liberalism’s own internal dynamics, then Christians must carefully evaluate their liberal commitments. Today, liberalism is closely allied with sexual liberation, transnationalism, and economic models that recast a great deal of life in terms of market exchange. This combination aims to “destroy the last surviving communities: the family, the church, the nation,” one Hungarian thinker tells Dreher.
Against these community-dissolving pressures, Christians need to change their emphases. Dreher recognizes this reality. He defines the Christian account of social justice as one in which state and political community help make it “easier for people to be good,” with an eye, ultimately, to the highest good. In this conception, the best society—the one for which Christians ought to strive in their public roles—is one that nudges us toward moral virtue and true religion.
Yet Dreher outlines no positive political program. He denies that Christians can lead a societal revival. In his view, the Church is too culturally compromised to revive the broader culture, too tied to political falsehoods to remake our politics. It isn’t that Dreher thinks political Christianity wrong-headed. He simply seems to think it impossible.
But this misjudges history. The Church today has many failings—just as it did at the time of Constantine. If the early Church had been free of heresy and dissension, there would have been no need of Nicaea. The Church today has suffered many wounds, some of them self-inflicted. But it retains important strengths, not the least of which is clarity about moral truth, which can be influential if courageously affirmed in the public square. In any event, we should not cultivate a pessimism that excludes the Christian virtue of hope.
Dreher proposes modern monks and ascetics—the Christian dissidents profiled in his book—as the only way forward for Christianity in a post-Christian age. As in The Benedict Option, he is too quick to write off the prospects for a Christian transformation of the larger society.
Live Not by Lies offers much needed inspiration. The exemplars Dreher puts before us are marvelous. I found myself underlining every sentence recounting how the great Czech Catholic dissident Vaclav Benda and his wife formed a faithful family under unbearable conditions of censorship and brainwashing. In this and other accounts of courage and faithfulness, Dreher provides an essential blueprint for Christian resistance. What he sometimes fails to recognize is that the cause for which these exemplary Christians fought and suffered and sometimes died triumphed. Communism eventually withered. We should learn the full lesson of their witness. Resistance, if grounded in truth, can prevail over lies.
Sohrab Ahmari is author of the forthcoming The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos.