By Michael Warren Davis
Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents
Rod Dreher (Sentinel, 2020)
On September 18, Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at the age of 87. At once, this country was filled with the sound of progressives weeping and gnashing their teeth.
From what I could gather, none of them knew Ginsburg personally. Most likely, none of them paid her much notice until 2016, when it dawned on the Democrats that Donald Trump might be able to replace the most pro-choice justice in American history with a pro-life conservative. That would potentially signal the death of Roe v. Wade. In 2017, when Ginsburg’s health continued to decline, lefties began offering to give up their own vital fluids to sustain her until the Democrats took back the White House. An editor at The Washington Post penned a column memorably titled, “Dear Ruth Bader Ginsburg: If you need anything—blood, organs—take mine.”
None of them cared about Ginsburg the woman, who lived a long life and enjoyed tremendous professional success. If any of them believe in God, none seemed the least bit concerned that He might hold her to account for the millions upon millions of unborn children whose murder she facilitated. (We ought to be more charitable and offer prayers for the repose of her soul.) Ruth Bader Ginsburg—the woman, the human being, made in the image and likeness of God—has long since disappeared. In her place arose “The Notorious RBG,” a demi-goddess in the mythology of Social Justice.
No one person more perfectly embodied this confluence of left-wing politics and pop culture than Ginsburg, which was the inevitable result of my own infantilized generation (the Millennials) taking the helm of our liberal democracy. We think only in brands—brands we can buy and display as status symbols. Those who wear RBG tee shirts and play with RBG finger puppets no doubt bonded over their Hello Kitty backpacks and Hollister polos back in school.
Seeing progressives in a manic-depressive state over Justice Ginsburg’s death, I remembered watching my middle school classmates going to pieces when Michael Jackson died in 2009. None of them listened to his music, but the phony mourning made them feel like they were part of something. How little has changed.
In his new book, Live Not By Lies, Rod Dreher warns us that the Hitlers and Stalins of our age will not wear funny mustaches and slick uniforms as they did in the 20th century. “The totalitarian temptation presents itself with a twenty-first century face,” he writes. Here, ladies and gentlemen, is that face. It’s the face of grown women screaming in anger and disbelief into the cameras of their iPhones over the death of their fallen hero. It’s the face of grown men who tweet about collapsing on the floor, sobbing, on hearing the news of Ginsburg’s death.
So long as Millennials remain dominant in American politics, this will remain the prevailing mode of discourse. My generation was abandoned by our parents and our teachers. We were never given a moral education for fear of stunting our “individuality.” We were never taught to reason. We were never taught to control our emotional or carnal impulses.
That’s why there isn’t one real “individual” in America under forty. We all became slaves to peer pressure, and to our own base appetites. That’s the great danger of this moment in American history. We are being ruled by children—children who can’t tell right from wrong, and who lack all self-control. Like all children, our new ruling class won’t hesitate to punish any deviation from their the latest infatuation with ostracism, abuse, and perhaps even violence.
The new totalitarians are overgrown children, which is why the new totalitarianism will be defined by these three characteristics: emotivism, hedonism, and conformism. It will look less like Nineteen Eighty-Four and more like Lord of the Flies.
❧In Live Not By Lies, Mr. Dreher does a fine job of warning against these false assumptions we harbor about totalitarianism. The next generation of fascists will take us by surprise: We’ll be looking for jackboots, but they’ll come in Nike Airs. Many will dismiss them as fragile, silly, or flippant; they’ll forget how vicious even sweet, timid children become when seeking the approval of their schoolyard friends.
Live Not By Lies is at its very best when describing our “pre-totalitarian culture.” Many right-wingers, for instance, would almost entirely dismiss the role that Big Business will play in enabling the new generation of fascists. They’re locked in a Cold War mentality, which sees communism and capitalism as antithetical. In fact, we’re developing a unique economic system—“woke capitalism”—which serves as the very engine of that coming revolution.
Virtually every major corporation has bowed to the successive demands of the pro-choice lobby, the LGBT movement, and lately Black Lives Matter. Amazon will refuse to sell books that conflict with progressive orthodoxies. Google will modify search results to promote “diversity.” Twitter bans users who “misgender” people suffering from gender dysphoria. Bank of America has vowed to no longer do business with gun manufacturers. PayPal defunds users they consider far-right.
The rise of woke capitalism, Mr. Dreher writes, is accompanied by the rise of surveillance capitalism. American consumers have actually paid corporations to place the mechanisms of the surveillance state in our homes. Take “smart speakers,” like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home. These devices record every conversation within earshot.
For now, that data is being used to help Silicon Valley more effectively micromarket their products to consumers. Yet what if the government were to seize that information and use it to implement a Chinese-style Social Credit System? Or what if those corporations were to ban any customers from using their products? So many of my generation would be lost without Google search, Google Pay, their Gmail account, their Chromebook laptop…
“Big Brother is not exactly who we expected him to be—a political dictator, though one day he may become that,” Mr. Dreher observes. “At the present moment, Big Brother’s primary occupation is capitalist.”
❧Following the publication of The Benedict Option, Mr. Dreher was accused of being a “retreatist,” even a “defeatist.” Why? Because, as he says in In Live Not By Lies, Mr. Dreher believes that “The culture war is largely over—and we lost.” That seems to be the central thesis of his work. He made the assertion early in The Benedict Option but didn’t spend much time defending it. The first half of Live Not By Lies is devoted to proving that thesis; the second half, to surviving the coming anti-Christian, totalitarian regime.
Now, one might argue that Christians are just one election away from reclaiming total control over this country’s political, religious, economic, and cultural institutions. So far, nobody has tried—probably because they can’t. After reading Live Not By Lies, there can be no shadow of a doubt that Mr. Dreher is right. He isn’t a pessimist, but a realist.
At its best, then, Live Not By Lies is a kind of prequel to The Benedict Option. The BenOp is not, as Mr. Dreher’s critics claim, a retreatist manifesto. It doesn’t lay out terms for unconditional surrender. It’s a manual for Christian partisans who have been driven into the jungles. The culture war, traditionally understood, is indeed lost. The Benedict Option is like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War for a new phase of cultural guerrilla warfare.
The Empire is now too decayed to salvage. The Dark Age is coming, whether we like it or not. Will we be able to resist the barbarian hordes? That depends on whether we’re committed to doing the hard work of building intentional communities and resilient institutions: parishes, homeschool co-ops, independent businesses, farmers’ markets, and the like. Yes, we must keep up the fight. But we must also have our bastions of orthodoxy—little enclaves of Christendom—where we can rest safely at night, and where our wives and children will be safe from harm. Live Not By Lies makes that fact abundantly clear.
❧Maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself by asking for a long-term vision. But it seems clear to me that there can be no restoration of Christendom—no plan beyond mere survival—that doesn’t include the Catholic Church being restored as the central pillar of Western civilization. How could it be otherwise? Mr. Dreher himself writes in The Benedict Option that the decadent Renaissance humanism of southern Europe and pietistic Protestantism in the north delivered two fatal blows to the Middle Ages, the only stable, integrally Christian society the West has ever known.
Now, as then, the problem with the Catholic Church isn’t fundamental: it’s institutional. But the Catholic Church is the only foundation upon which a stable, integrally Christian society may rest. For “What is Christian culture?” asked Dr. John Senior. “It is essentially the Mass.”
That is not my or anyone’s opinion or theory or wish but the central fact of two thousand years of history. Christendom, what secularists call Western Civilization, is the Mass and the paraphernalia which protect and facilitate it. All architecture, art, political and social forms, economics, the way people live and feel and think, music, literature—all these things when they are right are ways of fostering and protecting the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.If our BenOp project doesn’t involve purifying and restoring the Catholic Church, it’s not worth fighting for. Anyway, what’s the alternative?
I understand the desire to link arms with our fellow Christians against our common foe. Still, when we talk of restoring a Christian society, we must ask: “What do you mean by ‘Christian’?” If Mr. Dreher is fighting to restore the Christian society championed by Catholics like Augustine of Hippo, Thomas More, Robert Bellarmine, and Christopher Columbus, then I’m with him. But if he’s content with Calvin’s Geneva or Luther’s Saxony, then I am not.
This isn’t mere sectarianism. If we’re to restore Christendom, the purification and restoration of the Catholic Church must stand at the very heart of that endeavor. The Catholic Church is the foundation upon which Western civilization was built. It must be rebuilt upon the same rock, not the shifting sands of “Judeo-Christianity” (whatever that means).
❧I pray fervently that Mr. Dreher will return to the Catholic Church—not only for his sake, but for ours. I’m afraid the Benedict Option project will remain incomplete until Mr. Dreher commits to restoring the Holy Catholic Church as the central pillar of Western Christianity. Our real exemplars aren’t Soviet dissidents—however faithful, however brave. We should be guided, rather, by men like Saint Benedict, who understood that the West could only be redeemed by repairing the Catholic Church.
We may survive in our BenOp communities, of course. But no confederation of “intentional communities” can restore Christendom to its glory. We aren’t strong enough to build a new, purer society on our own. We must have the grace of the Sacraments, the guidance of the Magisterium, and the strength of Tradition behind us. Otherwise, we’re building castles in the sand.
All of that notwithstanding, Live Not By Lies is indispensable for any Christian hoping not only to survive the fall of the Empire but to see a new Christendom emerge from its ruins. Those who are optimistic about the future of liberal-democratic capitalism will be thoroughly disillusioned—and they’ll thank Mr. Dreher for it.
Having realized that things are, in fact, much worse than they seem, they must then read The Benedict Option with fresh eyes. They must prepare for total war against modernity. Modern Man, in all his infantile fury, is surely gearing up for total war against us Christians. Those who don’t heed Mr. Dreher’s warnings and study his writings will not survive the coming Dark Age.
Live Not By Lies will cement Rod Dreher’s reputation as the most important Christian thinker of our age. And rightly so. If only the scales inhibiting his vision of Catholic Truth would fall from his eyes, the path ahead toward a restored Christian society would become more clear.