This is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of a conversation I had with Rod Dreher about his new book Live Not by Lies.
Jake Meador: Thanks so much for joining me. I’m excited to talk to you more about the book.
Rod Dreher: Let’s go. Glad to be here.
Christian Hope During Times of Testing
Jake Meador: One of the main things that I really enjoyed while reading were the various stories that you told of the Christians that you got to meet while you were in Eastern Europe. One reviewer said, “We may never have their stories told in another book in the west.” I’m wondering, are there any spiritual practices or disciplines that you perhaps came across through your conversations with these folks that you have taken up individually or with your family or church as a result of similar research for the book?
Rod Dreher: I can’t think of anything in particular. But I can tell you one way that my research for the book helped me tremendously during COVID time. Like everybody else, I was depressed, anxious over not being able to go to church during the first few months of COVID, and was really down about it. And that’s perfectly understandable. But one day I thought about Silvester Krčméry. He is one of the figures in the book. He was a young Catholic physician who was part of the Tomislav Kolakovič family and became a pillar himself of the Slovak Underground Church.
In his memoir that he wrote in the 1990s, Krčméry said that when he went into prison, he knew that he could not let himself feel sorry for himself because that would be the way to ruin. Rather, he saw his captivity and the torture he was undergoing in captivity, he saw himself as God’s probe during all this. That’s the phrase he used, God’s probe.
What he meant by that was he saw that all the suffering that was being given to him was being forced on him, was something that he could experience for the greater glory of God, a chance to share in Christ’s suffering, but also for the sake of learning, learning what it’s like to be in prison to suffer for Christ. And he also used that time in prison to deepen his prayer life. He had memorized scripture before he went into prison. And that was a real lifeline for him. And he also witnessed to others. He helped others, prayed with others.
Instead of feeling sorry for himself, he tried to take this opportunity to become a more faithful Christian. And it sounds really, I don’t know, sentimental might be the wrong word. But it sounds like a platitude to say just use this time to deepen your faith. But when you’re reading the works of a man who spent years in prison, was beaten, and tortured for the gospel, and you read him saying, “You can’t ever pity yourself,” well, that really affected me and made me a little bit ashamed of my own self-pity during COVID.
When I started turning my life around on COVID and trying to change my perspective there, I realized that if we in the American church, if we allow ourselves to become undone by frustration and anger because we’re not allowed to go to church—even if it’s unjust, even if the state is behaving unjustly, which I don’t think the states were at first, but let’s just assume they were acting unjustly—if we were not able to be steadfast during that mile test, how in the world are we going to pass the test of serious and sustained persecution of the sort that the Christians under communism had to go through?
So, in that sense, Jake, learning from the way those people developed patience within prison and steadfastness for the long term was something that I tried to put into my own spiritual life in terms of learning how to be patient during COVID.
Jake Meador: Yeah, even when you’re being wronged, your calling as a Christian doesn’t change. I’m thinking about the things I see in my neck of the woods with COVID protests. Even if we grant that real injustice is happening, which I wouldn’t but for sake of argument even if we did, I don’t think that would justify some of the reactions I’ve seen from my fellow Christians.
Rod Dreher: Yeah. And it’s crazy because I think a lot of Christians believe that they’re being strong when they say, “This is outrageous. I will not tolerate that.” But that strikes me as actually being brittle and dangerous, too. Because I think back to what happened to me back in the first half of the 2000s when I was still a Catholic and started to write about the abuse scandal. I mean, everybody knows that I’m a former Catholic. I lost my Catholic faith after writing about the scandal. But I’ve had a lot of time to think about it. And I realized now that my anger at the injustice of what happened—what was done to the children and all the lies that were told—I allowed my anger at that injustice to overwhelm me. I was absolutely right to be angry about what was done, but I had no way of governing that anger. And it finally just ate away my capacity to believe as a Catholic.
Now, I’m happy to be orthodox. God brought good out of it for me. But one of the very painful lessons I had to learn was outrage can actually be the thing that unhorses you. You can’t just run straight at the enemy screaming, waving your sword. The enemy is wily and he can trip you up on that.
The Christians in the Eastern Bloc who fought Communism had to be wise and not allow themselves to be taken by their passions because they could end up in prison or hurting other people within the underground church. That’s a hard skill for us to learn, but it’s going to be a necessary survival one, I believe.
Jake Meador: This is something I was just curious about. I’m sure that you have far more interviews and notes and stories that you heard than we’re able to make it into the final book. Are there any stories or people you met that had to get edited out that have lingered with you as well? Or any stories you’d be keen to share?
Rod Dreher: Yeah. That’s a good question. But it’s one that’s hard for me to answer. Obviously I didn’t meet Solzhenitsyn. He died years ago. But I would have loved to have talked more about his particular struggle when he came to the west. He gave this speech at Harvard in 1978 at the commencement four years after he came to the west. And I think everybody at Harvard expected that he would come and give this rah-rah speech about how wonderful it was to be in the west. But that’s not what he did.
Jake Meador: No.
Rod Dreher: He talked about how he was an implacable foe of the Soviet system, no doubt about it, but that he could not recommend the west as a suitable replacement for the Soviet system. Because what he saw in the west was a failure of virtue and courage, especially on the part of the elites. And I wish I would have had more time to go into that and explore those insights because all the things that Solzhenitsyn saw in 1978 have been multiplied since then. I would have talked about that as a way of trying to understand the danger that we’re in today.
There’s also one thing that I wish I’d been able to write about more. There was this guy, František Mikloško, who’s in the book. He was a part of the underground church, the second generation. It turns out he was the personal assistant to the underground bishop, Ján Chryzostom Korec. And František took me to Cardinal Korec’s apartment. John Paul II made Korec a cardinal after the fall of communism. But for many years, he was an elevator repairman and street sweeper, even though the communists knew that he was really a bishop.
František took me to the apartment where Korec had lived and told me about the meetings that he would have there with his flock. He showed me a tube, a sort of plastic tube mounted on a base that allowed it to spin. It was like a PVC pipe, maybe six inches across. And when people come to visit him, they would sit across from Korec at the table and they would speak to each other through the pipe, Korec would speak into the pipe and the listener would have his ear there, because they knew the apartment was bugged.
One day, the secret police came and tried to pull him off the street to arrest him. And the bishop was strong and wouldn’t get into the car with him. And he put his arms out straight against the side of the car. František was just standing there watching this bishop fight the secret police… and he prevailed!
So I heard great stories like that. But they didn’t really advance the story I was telling in the book. But what they did is show you that this was a human struggle that took place on the sidewalk in very human ways day in and day out. And I can’t get enough of it, frankly. And I really hope that this book, if it becomes a big hit, that it will inspire writers and journalists to go over there and talk to these people because the stories are countless.
Lies, Liberalism, and Solzhenitsyn
Jake Meador: It’s actually really interesting you bring up Solzhenitsyn because the next thing I actually wanted to ask about concerns him. After I finished your book, I went back and I reread some of his work, starting with the Harvard address, in fact. And I was struck by something because it seems like the threat that you’re wanting to diagnose and raise the alarm about in the book is the kind of emerging pink police state, to use Poulos’ term, and particularly what happens when the pink police state gets all the fun toys that surveillance capitalism can offer it.
Rod Dreher: Right.
Jake Meador: When I was reading Solzhenitsyn, I saw him striking at something more foundational in western social order. He’s alarmed, as you said, by the lack of virtue, the lack of spiritual substance in our politics. And particularly, he focuses on what he calls legalism, where westerners think if the letter of the law is being fulfilled, then all is well. And so the spiritual reality of the law is just nonexistent.
Solzhenitsyn views western social order as being self-annihilating, somewhat like Patrick Deneen, because of the way it denies spiritual reality. So while your book is clearly indebted to Solzhenitsyn, it seemed like your critique was focused on contemporary trends, whereas he’s hitting something that is much more fundamental. The sense I got from your book is something like this: Let’s say we did really brilliantly and most of the young left was converted to some kind of Christian orthodoxy. And then we also figured out a way to control some of these surveillance tools produced by big tech too. From reading your book, I think you’d say that the danger has passed. But I don’t think Solzhenitsyn would say that. Can you talk about how you see your critique relative to his?
Rod Dreher: Sure. The sort of things that Solzhenitsyn was talking about are things that I tried to talk about in The Benedict Option. And this is one difference between The Benedict Option and Live Not by Lies, The Benedict Option is more abstract, more general and talks more about decadence, moral decadence, spiritual decadence, and the need to develop a robust and deep set of spiritual practices in order to protect ourselves from that sort of dissolution.
But Live Not by Lies is a much more focused book. It’s so much more hands-on how-to book. I think it should be read in as a companion volume or as a sequel to the Benedict Option. But I didn’t have the opportunity or I didn’t think it was worthwhile in this second book to rehash a lot of the ground covered at the Benedict Option, even though I think probably more people will read Live Not by Lies than the Benedict Option.
Live Not by Lies is by design assuming that you already are a strong Christian, here comes the pink police state, what do you do? It probably shouldn’t be assumed that we are strong Christians though. But you can only do so much in one book, you know?
Jake Meador: Sure, yeah, yeah.
Rod Dreher: I think that the people who don’t have a deep spiritual life are not going to make it. They just aren’t. I mean, everybody I talked to for Live Not by Lies from the Soviet bloc, these are people who were prepared anyway. And they just had to figure out ways to hold on in the face of oppression and the face of all kinds of cross-pressures that came at them, that caused most of the Christians in those societies to conform.
This is one thing that several of them told me at some point and they were really humble about it. But they said that you shouldn’t assume that all the Christians were like them. Very few were. In fact, most everybody wanted to go along to get along. In Czechoslovakia, for example, most of the Catholics there took the government’s informal offer, which is to say that you stay in your house, you’re quiet, you don’t make a big racket about your faith, and we’ll leave you alone.
But Václav Benda and his wife Camilla, they believed as Catholics that they had an obligation to be public in their faith and to share it with other people and to seek the common good, even though their church is being suppressed. And so he tried to do that with his so-called Parallel Polis, which I talked about the Benedict Option.
Benda believed that anytime Christians can make a human connection just to reestablish that contact with your neighbors, even if for just one evening, that you are striking a blow against totalitarianism because the system itself is lying. Oppressive systems depend on making everybody afraid and making people forget that we are all part of a community. So, for the Benda family, this is not only a fight against totalitarianism, but it was obeying Christ and building up the community. But again, they were outliers.
One of my sources said, “You know I’d like to tell you that the church in Bohemia was the main source of opposition, but it really wasn’t.” He said the thing that was at the core of their resistance was their sense of Czech nationhood. Communism was something that was imposed on them from the outside by an imperial power–the Soviet Union. He said that resisting in the name of their nation was the thing that got most of them through. I don’t think that was the case at all in Slovakia, which is a much more religiously observant part of the country. But in Bohemia, that was the case.
Jake Meador: Yeah.
Rod Dreher: And it’s something John Paul II understood. The future John Paul II, young Karol Wojtyla, when he was a theater student in Nazi occupied Poland, he and his friends in the theatrical community knew that the way the Germans were going to try to subjugate the Polish people was to crush their idea of nationhood, and their sense of themselves as a distinct people. And in Poland that also meant crushing their Catholic faith.
And so, what Wojtyla and his crew did was to write and perform plays in secret that would educate people or remind them of cultural themes, of patriotic themes and Christian themes. Saving the cultural memory of their people was the best thing they could do in terms of resistance to Nazi totalitarianism.
It’s a really hard thing for us to get our minds around as Americans because we always have lived in a religiously pluralistic society, one that takes a separation of church and state seriously. But I found myself as I was over there interviewing people having to get out of that American mindset and to realize that these people just don’t have the strong distinctions like we do. For them their religious and national lives are much more intertwined.
Jake Meador: Yeah, that makes sense. So, this was another thing that was interesting to me while I was reading the book. You spent a fair amount of time with the work of Hannah Arendt and especially her book on totalitarianism. What’s interesting is that I remember a lot of people on the left in late 2016, early 2017, raising the alarms about totalitarianism and citing Arendt as well. I actually even found a story last night that said in the months after Trump’s election, sales on her Origins of Totalitarianism increased 16-fold.
And this relates to broader concerns the left has about democracy in America, of course. They, somewhat understandably, view the Supreme Court, the Senate, the Electoral College, as being undemocratic and potentially opening the door for totalitarianism from the right to creep in over and against the wishes of the majority of Americans.
On a narrow reading, it doesn’t really make sense that you would have the right and left citing the same thinker and raising the same concerns about a slide towards the totalitarian. Could you talk about where you think that shared fear comes from that seems to exist on both sides of our political divide?
Rod Dreher: Yeah, that’s a really good question. Maybe I can start by talking about Arendt’s general diagnosis of where totalitarianism comes from. This is taken from her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, which came out in ’51. She was trying to figure out what the Nazis and Soviets had in common that allowed the people to open themselves up to this kind of government.
The main thing she said that causes totalitarianism was mass loneliness and social atomization. You can’t deny that we’re in that kind of situation now. David Brooks has a really great essay in the Atlantic up now about the collapse of social trust. This is something that’s not just happening among liberals or conservatives. It’s happening among Americans. And it’s really worrying.
We also are in a situation in which ideology is paramount. We’re seeing people on both the left and the right falling for ideological explanations over anything complex. We see people falling for propaganda, for stories that we know probably aren’t true, but many Americans believe whatever they want to believe for ideological reasons. And this is something happening on both sides. We see loyalty as being more important than competence.
Now, this is all about Trump, too, no question about it. Trump has even said that he values loyalty above anything else. But as I say in the book, on the left, we’re seeing loyalty to the ideology, what I call woke ideology, as being something paramount to keep your job in certain universities and companies.
So, all of this stuff is going through society, we are a very fragmented society that is disconnected from our institutions, our civic institutions, our settled ways of life. And we are ready for a demagogue to come in and take power. Now, a lot of people on the left thought Trump was going to be that person. And Trump could have been that person, if he were the least bit competent. I never worried about Trump being a totalitarian. He has an authoritarian personality. And that’s troubling. But I also think he was a bumbling incompetent and a buffoon who couldn’t make it happen, thank God.
I think, though, on the other hand, the left is much better at this. They’re better at running bureaucracies for one thing. They hold all the cultural high ground too. They hold all the institutional high ground. They hold big business also. It’s in the cultural left’s pocket.
So, I think that it’s going to be so much easier for them to implement their kind of totalitarianism. I call it a soft totalitarianism. And they’ll use the ways that they’re getting accustomed to using now on campus and in the workplace to do it.
So, I wouldn’t say that we have no danger of it coming from the right, because again, it’s not like people on the right have maintained the kind of institutional life and civic life and family life that Hannah Arendt would say insulates you or makes it harder for you to fall for totalitarianism. This condition is general in American life. But I think the left is much better prepared to take advantage of this brokenness, the shared brokenness, this common brokenness.
Jake Meador: I was reading a book by Anne Helen Petersen on millennial burnout called Can’t Even at the same time that I was reading Live Not by Lies. At was at first as I was reading Petersen, I was thinking, I don’t know how people who are experiencing the world in this way end up becoming the kind of fire breathing radicals that you need to create a totalitarian state. There’s just not enough energy or capacity there to become that sort of revolutionary. We’re too tired for that.
But then I mentioned this thought to a friend. She said that I had it totally backwards. What we have now is actually the kind of loneliness and isolation and desperation for stability that very naturally leads to certain forms of political totalitarianism because people are looking for some kind of solidity, stability, and predictability in their day-to-day lives. And if we have to make peace with the strong man to have that, we make peace with the strong man. I mean, the right did it in 2016 already. You actually are more willing and more susceptible to it as you become more isolated.
Rod Dreher: Oh, that’s true. One person I met in eastern Europe said that people in the west didn’t really understand communism. What they didn’t get is that communism provided an answer to people who are desperate. These people had had everything taken from them. They didn’t know what they believed in, didn’t know which way to go. Communism came in there with a ready-made answer for their anxieties. And it was the wrong answer. It was a bad answer. But it was an answer.
The novelist Nadine Gordimer says that for young people who have no future and are desperate, communism or fascism becomes the way out. I talked in the book about a dinner I had in Moscow at a home of an orthodox family, Russian orthodox family. I had spent the past three days doing lots of interviews with dissidents and others. And I was just so shocked by the bloodthirstiness of the Bolsheviks and what they did to that country.
And sitting there at dinner with that Christian family, I just blurted out very naively, “I just don’t understand why anybody ever took the Bolsheviks seriously.” And the father looked at me and said, “You want to know why the Bolsheviks were taken seriously?” And he went back to the 1600s and started giving me a grand tour of Russian history at the time of the czars.
And it was one thing after another. Story after story of the powerful exploiting the poor. And the church in Russia was allied with power and helping it to exploit the poor. Basically, he wound up saying that by the time we got to the early 20th century, people had had it. And yeah, what the Bolsheviks said was evil and wrong, but you can’t really blame people for being desperate for their lives to change.
In a similar way, I had a story from this woman. I didn’t interview her. She died a few years ago, but I read her biography. Heda Margolius, she was a Czech Jew, who survived the Nazi death camps. She came back to Prague, one of the few survivors in her circle, came back to Prague and became a communist. And she became a communist not because she was necessarily converted to Marxism and Leninism, but because she was desperate for hope.
Their whole country had been destroyed. Her people had been murdered. And the communists were the farthest she could get from the Nazis. She said it really was that simple. We needed hope. And, of course, her husband, who was also a Jew, was also a communist. He became a minister in the first communist government there, and they very quickly turned on him and executed him. And she realized, she discovered the hard way that communism was a lie.
But I think it’s a very important thing, Jake, that we keep in mind that the openness to totalitarianism comes from somewhere. When you have people my age, I’m 53, who are living much more stable lives, if we don’t look and see the kind of economic prospects that millennials and gen Z folks have, and if we don’t do something for them, then we are leaving them as prey to demagogues who promise them the moon.
And one more thing I’ll say that came to mind just as you and I were talking here. Back in 2013, I went to a conservative evangelical college to give a talk and I was sitting around with the professors, some of the professors before my speech, just having dinner. I was asking them about what they saw on campus.
One of the professors said, “I really don’t know if any of these kids are going to be able to start families.” I said, “That seems crazy to me. This is a conservative evangelical college. Why would you say that?” And I thought he was going to give me an economic answer. His answer was, “Because they’ve never seen what a stable family is like.” And there was nodding all around the table at this. And this is 2013.
There I was at a conservative evangelical midwestern college, which I thought would be one of the most stable, healthy places around. And these professors were telling me that these kids, good kids, had come out of such broken families situations that they lacked the social trust to be able to commit themselves to stable marriage and family. So, all of these things, they don’t sound like they’re connected to totalitarianism. But of course, they are because nobody can live in that kind of instability forever.
The Challenges and Dangers of Hospitality
Jake Meador: What you said there leads very naturally into the next thing I wanted to ask you. This is a line from Arendt that I saw quoted a ton as I was planning for this interview. She said, “The ideal subject of a totalitarian state is not the convinced Nazi or communist, but people for whom the distinction between facts and fiction, that is the reality of experience. And the distinction between true and false, that is the standards of thought no longer exist.”
What I’m wondering about, building off of the question about loneliness and isolation, is how Christians should confront this kind of alienation. To borrow a phrase from a friend, you might say we have a calling to hate the lie and love the liar. And so, I’m wondering, what does it look like to firmly oppose something such as gender ideology on the left or a kind of moral relativism that you see on the right, but also make it clear that your door is open to offer shelter and support, perhaps even to people that could betray you and hurt you? How do Christians win the trust of those people whose ideas we oppose?
Rod Dreher: (pause) Man. Heavy silence. I don’t know the answer to that. And I think it is becoming incredibly difficult to do that. I’m old enough to remember back when I was in college. People strongly disagreed with each other, but there just seemed to be so much more willingness to give grace to the other side and not to dehumanize them for disagreeing with you. And that seems to have gone away, especially in the era of the internet and social media.
I don’t want to make the standard critique about how social media makes us behave in inhuman ways to each other, but it happens to be true. But I still see the fear that people have, the understandable fear that if they make themselves vulnerable to someone who hates them, then that person has the power to destroy them. And I’ll tell you something that happened to me and this is something I’ve written about on my blog.
I experienced what it’s like to have your entire career put in the crosshairs of someone who has the power to destroy it. Back, gosh, I don’t know, 10, 15 years ago, when I was working at the Dallas Morning News, there was an incident with one of my colleagues, an African American man, who I’d gotten along with very well for the whole time I was there. He was a good guy.
Anyway, he decided that something I’d said about a mob that burned down an embassy in Pakistan was racially offensive. I think I called them “the savage mob.” And he said to call them savages was offensive and was creating a hostile work environment.
Now, he didn’t come to me even though we were friends. He went straight to our boss with this. And she came to me. When someone uses that language, “hostile work environment,” that means something legally. And I knew that with the way the culture of our company worked, that they would never take my side against an employee of color. So, I withdrew what I said. I put it on the editorial board blog.
But I told my boss, “I think this is blackmail. This is a form of manipulation. And I despise it. But I also have kids to support.” I don’t think that was living by lies in the Solzhenitsyn sense. Because if the guy had come to me and said, “Hey, that language bothers me.” I would have apologized to him, said I meant no harm by it, and changed it.
But the fact that he was willing to escalate it all the way to human resources without talking to me first, that is the problem.
Now, this isn’t just a problem for the left. It was like this in ages past for people who got on the wrong side of right-wing politics. Either way, it’s wrong.
The fact that the stakes are so high now on cultural conflict and that people do not give you the benefit of the doubt at all, means that people can’t take that risk, or that it requires an immense amount of courage to take the risk. I’ll give you an example too.
As a Christian, I don’t know where that leaves us. One of my subjects, a Czech man, told me that he had a terrible crisis of faith when he was in Prague at university. There was a Catholic priest at his university, who was beloved by the students and was believed to be a priest they could trust. But it turned out, of course, he was an informant, a government informant to the secret police. And it just absolutely shattered this man as a young man over there.
He told me that they all had to learn that the only people you could really trust were your family. Everybody else could be the person that could get you sent to prison.
Can I say too that it just troubles me as a Christian because we ought to be the people who take in others and who take risks to be hospitable? But I don’t know what that means now, I genuinely don’t. Because our enemies could destroy us. And I don’t think that gives us the right to shut our doors. But I’m trying to understand myself exactly where the line is.
Jake Meador: Yeah. That’s the thing that I was thinking about too. There’s a story from the Reformation that has always haunted me on this question. There was this radical Anabaptist named Dirk Willems. I don’t know if you know the story. He was in Northern Europe somewhere, probably Holland from his name, I suppose. And he gets arrested and he’s being taken to prison.
He manages to escape. He’s running away from his captor. And he runs out onto a frozen lake. He’s light and runs across the ice without a problem. And then the captor chases him and falls through the ice. And that’s when Willems goes back and gets the man out of the ice. He saves this man’s life. But then he is arrested again and is executed later.
And so I’ve always wondered since I first heard that if that story is a summary of what some Christians are called to be willing to do. I don’t know. It’s easy to say that in theory until you’re the one having to make that call, and it’s your livelihood on the line or your family. But it’s the thing that haunts me. If we choose not to take those risks, are we actually making the problem worse? Are we contributing to that loneliness and isolation?
Rod Dreher: I think inevitably we are contributing to it. But I don’t want to blame the victims for what the persecutors are bringing about. Nevertheless, I think this is going to be one of the areas where the church has to do some deep thinking. I’m talking about myself too in all this. During COVID it’s easy to not open your door. Nobody can open their doors!
Jake Meador: Right.
Rod Dreher: But I do wonder about this. Take the ubiquity of smartphones now. I know people who are worried about dinner parties they go to, not Christians necessarily, but they are worried about their social engagements, worried that they have to be afraid that something they might say in an offhand manner, that some will record it and then blast it out for the world to see to destroy them.
But you can drive yourself crazy going the other way too. You never take any risks at all. You keep yourself completely safe. I don’t think anybody can live that way. I really don’t know the answer. I think we have to try to be as fearless as possible. But how do you do that and what does it mean to be prudent?
Jake Meador: Right. So near the end of the book, you say something about how the American church doesn’t have any experience dealing with this kind of totalitarianism, with the exception of the African American church, and you specifically name them as being the one example America has of a church that has to deal with that sort of danger.
Rod Dreher: Right.
Jake Meador: And so, I’m wondering, how would you see their experiences perhaps also helping to fill out the picture a little bit for American Christians of what it looks like to live in a society that’s hostile to you and your belief? Are there lessons that they could offer that would kind of complement what you’ve learned from the Eastern European believers?
Rod Dreher: Well, yes, there has to be. But I’m not the one to write that book. I hope that this book will inspire some African American writers to ask that question and go deep into the black experience. The difficulty about it is I don’t think that black people in America were persecuted for their religion as much as for their race. The church was the only thing they had, the only institution they had to help themselves keep it together under this terrible persecution. And I think that that might be what they have to give us, how we have to draw close to the church when we’re being persecuted from the outside.
I got this question for The Benedict Option, too. It’s like, why don’t you talk about the black church in The Benedict Option. Well, the answer there is primarily because it’s a hard story to tell as a white person in these times. If I didn’t tell the story, then I would be accused of ignoring the black church. But if I had told the story, I would have been accused of culturally appropriating.
I think the historical example of the black church as a center of resistance, and of maintaining identity, and of giving hope to persecuted people, both under slavery and under Jim Crow, is something powerful.
I just don’t know how it would relate to the kind of persecution that I think we’re going to receive, which is not going to be hard persecution, like being thrown in jail or being lynched. It’s rather going to be something more subtle, which is being pushed out of your job for what you believe or not gaining access to certain institutions. It’s going to be a soft totalitarianism. I think that that might be one limitation on the story the black church has to tell us. But I really would love to see a writer explore that.
Jake Meador: Yeah. Okay, that’s helpful. Thank you. One last thing I wanted to ask about: So you publish a lot of reader comments and stories on your blog–a lot of your case studies on soft totalitarianism come from readers, for example. So how do you make decisions on what to publish and what not to publish? How do you see reader contributions helping or hurting the voice and style of your blog?
Rod Dreher: There’s no system to the way I go about doing my blog. There’s always far more material coming at me than I have time to focus for.
Jake Meador: Sure.
Rod Dreher: When I’m thinking about writing my blog, about what to write about, well, I write a news blog. I mean, if I wrote only about the things that really interested me, it’d be a lot more about books and food and a lot less about politics. But I work for a political magazine, and I need to stay on top of these issues, especially I have this profile as a social conservative and a religious conservative, so I need to stick with that.
But as I become more interested in the idea of soft totalitarianism, I have seen the way that the left has weaponized issues of race, sexual orientation, and gender in some ways, against social and religious conservatives. And it’s probably at the forefront of my concern because nothing matters to me more than preserving the faith through the generations. I want to pass it on to my kids and hope that it’ll still be there for their kids. We’re talking about eternal life here. So, I think about the things that are coming at the church and at individual believers that threaten that.
And it turns out that for the past few years, the greatest threat has come from LGBT rights. I wouldn’t say that people arguing for LGBT rights are completely wrong. They have some reasonable concerns. But I feel that there is no hearing given to religious conservatives to our point of view on any of this stuff.
I can remember being at the Dallas Morning News. I was talking with a colleague of mine who’s a younger Republican and he was a churchgoing Catholic. And I was complaining to him about how biased our newspaper was in its coverage of the same-sex marriage issue. This was, I don’t know, about seven years before Obergefell. And it was a live issue.
And there we were in Dallas, Texas, which is a very conservative place, a lot of active evangelicals there and Catholics. And we just didn’t play it down the middle. We were engaged in advocacy journalism. And I said, “I don’t think this is fair at all.” And my colleague said, “Well, if this were the civil rights era, do you think that we ought to give equal time to the Ku Klux Klan?” And that just knocked me flat.
And I realized that this is how most of my colleagues understand this issue, as one of the church is the equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan when it gets right down to it because of the way Christians, traditional Christianity teaches about homosexuality.
So, I’ve seen that as a template for me about how distorted our media are and the people who tell stories are, not just the news media, but the entertainment media. I see people who believe the things I do religiously and otherwise being demonized more and more, such that we don’t get any kind of fair hearing. And it’s going to be really, really bad in the end. So, that’s kind of a rough and satisfying way to explain it.
I think what you’re probably really asking, too, is about the way I write about race on my blog, am I right about that?
Jake Meador: Yes, that’s something that’s been on my mind a lot.
Rod Dreher: Yeah. So I’m somebody who grew up in the first generation to go to integrated public schools in the deep south. There was so much about our history that I didn’t know because nobody talked about it. It’s really weird when you think about it. I was born in 1967 and I didn’t really learn anything about the Ku Klux Klan or Jim Crow or any of that stuff until I was well into my teenage years because nobody talked about it, even though my school was 50% black.
In any case, I remember reading, actually reading the things that Martin Luther King preached and wrote, and being so moved by them by his vision of a colorblind society and how deeply rooted it was in the gospel. And I took it to heart. Now, and this is simplistic, but I’m just going to summarize because we’re running out of time.
Today I see that all completely being thrown away. Now it seems you’re considered to be racist if you say that we should want a colorblind society. Saying that people should be judged not by the color of the skin, but by the content of their character, that’s considered a racist statement. And I don’t want my kids to grow up in a society where they feel privileged by their white skin or they feel guilty for their white skin. I don’t want them to judge other people that way either. It seems unchristian to me and it seems certainly unjust.
But I feel like we’re in such a moral panic in this country about issues of race and identity. If I’ve overreacted on my side… I’m prone to that, and if I have, then I need to own that.
But at the same time, I feel that so much of the conversation around issues of race is so manipulated and so many people who have more conservative views, even views that would have been 100% aligned with what Dr. King said, have to be quiet about it. And I know this is a fact because I hear from these people all the time. I can remember myself going to diversity training courses in the different newsrooms where I’ve worked and realizing that you’re being an idiot if you even admit vulnerability in any way. Because given that information over what’s going to be used against you, you had to fear that.
And in this way, Jake, to go back to what we started talking about, this is how it mimics a totalitarian society. When giving any personal information or even admitting vulnerability can be weaponized against you by your enemies, then you have to live in fear all the time, and in paranoia and anxiety. It’s a terrible way to live. Nobody of any race or any sexual orientation, or of either sex should have to live that way. But we’re building that kind of society. And we’re building that kind of society in the name of justice.
Christians should not be afraid of the phrase “social justice.” It was coined, I believe, by a Jesuit priest in the 19th century, if I got my history right. But we have to remember that for a Christian, a just society is one that broadly conforms to what God says is true and that we can never live in a socially just society that goes against what God says in his word about what is real and what isn’t.
So, to be specific, a socially just society is not a society in which we have abortion. As Christians, I think we have to be careful that when we fight against social injustice as we should in the case of racism and other forms of discrimination like that, we have to be careful to realize that our ultimate standard of justice is biblical, not secular, and that there can be times when what strikes us is just will strike secular social justice warriors as unjust. And that’s the moment when they turn on us and not as opponents who happened to be wrong, but as enemies who have to be eliminated. That’s the thing that drives so much of what I write.
Figuring out the demands of justice requires subtlety. We have to always keep the political truth in front of us that as Eric Voegelin, the political thinker, said, “Don’t immanentize the eschaton,” which is a fancy way of saying, don’t try to create heaven on Earth. Don’t go for utopia, because that’s the surest way to create hell on Earth.
And when I see what we’re doing now in the name of social justice in so many cases, it’s not to deny that there is injustice in the world. But we have to be extremely careful about how we go about fighting that injustice. The Bolsheviks didn’t come from nowhere. They were responding to clear injustices and cruelties in their societies. They ended up making it a million times worse.
In a similar way, when I studied what the Bolsheviks did and how they drew the line between good and evil between social classes, on the bad side, the evil side, the goats were the bourgeoisie, the sheep, the good, that was the proletariat, the workers and the peasants. And that’s where virtue was, based on how their power relations in society depended on or rather social Justice and virtue depended on making sure that the bourgeoisie were disempowered. The proletariat was empowered.
I think that we run that risk in this society and even in the church of thinking that virtue inherits in groups, as opposed to within individuals. And God judges every human heart. And I think about how dangerous it is to fall into a sense of righteous anger at the people like the evil Catholic bishops. That was one way I used to think, back when I was in the middle of writing about the scandal, as a Catholic.
I was so caught up in the manifest wickedness that was throughout so many of these bishops. But I fell into believing that, without even realizing what was happening, I fell into thinking that if we could just get rid of these bishops and then things would be better. Well, yeah, maybe a lot of those bishops did need to go, but the problem of human evil was right there in my own heart.
I can remember the summer of 2002. We were living in New York City and my wife could see that I was just so torn up with anger, anger over 9/11, which we’d been part of months earlier, but also an even greater anger at the abuse scandal because we were faithful Catholics. She had me go to see a therapist.
And I told the therapist during our first meeting what was going on and how angry I was from 9/11. And we didn’t even get to the Catholic part yet. But he said at the end of our session, he said, “Well, by the time we’re done, I’m going to help you see that given the right set of circumstances, you could have been flying that plane that flew into the World Trade Center. You could have been Mohamed Atta.” I wanted to slug the guy. I’m like, “No way. I couldn’t have been that guy. No way.” Thing is, Jake, I could have been that guy. And I could have been Bernard Law. I could have rationalized my own evil because that evil rests in every human heart.
So, when I hear people today railing against this or that person or a group of people for being evil and bearers of privilege, yeah, well, maybe they are. But the people who are claiming virtue today, social virtue by membership and their certain social class or race or what have you, we saw what happened in the Soviet Union and the communist countries when people who thought virtue and social justice met vengeance. It doesn’t end well. I think Christianity and the Christian church can and should be the moderator of virtue here and bring us all together under conditions of repentance and grace and reconciliation. But I just don’t know how possible that even is today in a post-Christian society.
Jake Meador: That actually is perhaps a fitting note to end on. It reminds me, again, of Solzhenitsyn. He’s the one who had that quote about good and evil and the human heart, isn’t he?
Rod Dreher: That’s right. The line between good and evil runs through every human heart.
Jake Meador: Yeah. And so, if you have a society that is legalistic in the way that he means it, which is to say you’re dependent on processes and systems and written codes to shape how you relate to neighbor, then you are going to have a very hard time cultivating relationships of trust and affection with neighbor, because all of your exchanges happen at this remove, filtered through whatever your processes are.
Rod Dreher: That’s right. Friendship is one of the key elements of a healthy society. And I think we’re living through a time right now, ideologically and otherwise, where friendships are really strained. I mean, I’ve lost friends this year, a good friend, because of political dispute, and it hurts. We want to be people who stand on principle. We want to be people who stand up for what is good and condemn what is wrong. But at the same time, the most formative event, probably in my life, at my spirituality was that whole experience of losing my Catholic faith.
And I’ve had to really reflect on how I allowed myself to get into a position where my anger and my insistence on justice destroyed me spiritually, all at the same time, saying that I was right to … The sins that I called out, the crimes I called out in my own church, I was right about that. But where did it leave me in the end? It left me broken spiritually.
And it was only by the grace of God that I did not lose my faith entirely. I became orthodox, but not because I think the Orthodox Church is free of sin. But I became a very different kind of Orthodox Christian than I was Catholic because I could see how little all my intellectual systems, my systematic faith, how little it helped me in the end, deal with the fact that my heart was on fire with rage at the evil that these bishops had done.
And I need to probably think about that, Jake, to be honest about how the things that I had to learn myself about how to live as a Christian and how not to live as a Christian, and that has guided me in the past 14 years of being an Orthodox Christian, how those lessons might apply to navigating our own controversies over social injustice.
And I’m not talking about just telling other people what to do. I’m talking about telling myself what to do because I was bullied a lot as a kid. I hate a bully worse than anything. I think that’s probably one reason why I react so strongly to some of the social justice warriors because they strike me as bullies. And the fact that they might be bullies for the right side of something doesn’t make them any less bullies.
Jake Meador: Alright. Well, I think we should wrap up now. Thank you so much for doing this. I enjoyed it.
Rod Dreher: It was great. Thanks for having me.