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Pick Your Poison

Pick Your Poison

Listening to right-wing Christian critics of liberal democracy, it’s easy to imagine the tormented becoming the tormenters.

Jackson Wolford
Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents
by Rod Dreher (Sentinel, 256 pp., $27)

Rod Dreher believes there is a great burden on the shoulders of America’s conservative Christians. In his 2017 book, The Benedict Option, he said of the cultural landscape, “Even though conservative Christians were said to be fighting a culture war … it was hard to see my people putting up much of a fight.” Traditional Western values were steadily eroded to the point that—with the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which invalidated a ban on same-sex marriage—“Christians who hold to the biblical teachings about sex and marriage” had “the same status in culture, and increasingly in law, as racists.”

The Benedict Option, named after the Benedictine order of Christian monks, called for a “strategic withdrawal” by Christians from the culture wars—not a surrender but the creation of countercultural “foxholes” within American modernity in which groups of conservative Christians could practice their values in private. They would bear the burden of preserving Christianity’s legacy against the interventions of a liberal world.

In Dreher’s 2020 book, Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, the prognosis has grown more dire. “Despite its superficial permissiveness,” he says, “liberal democracy is degenerating into something resembling the totalitarianism over which it triumphed in the Cold War.” It is not just that conservative Christians have lost the culture war; through liberal managerialism, they are now persecuted in ways similar to those of the religious suppression in the Soviet Union. “A progressive—and profoundly anti-Christian—militancy,” Dreher puts it, “is steadily overtaking society.”

The withdrawal proposed in The Benedict Option now seems less viable to Dreher. He states that in light of liberalism’s pervasive “soft totalitarianism” bent on the “eradication of Christianity,” along with the surveillance technologies that implement it, there is “virtually nowhere left to hide.”

Instead, the subtitle of Live Not by Lies—A Manual for Christian Dissidents”—proposes a more active role for Christians, offering “small act[s] of rebellion” that may strike the “spark of a revolution that saves liberty and humanity.” In this, Dreher follows the writing of Father Tomislav Kolaković, a Slovak Jesuit.

Which acts of rebellion? They range from treating families as “resistance cells” (a now-militarized version of the “foxhole” approach of the 2017 book) to embracing the “gift of suffering,” which presents Christians’ proper stance as a kind of figurative or even literal martyrdom. At the least, Dreher believes that bearing the burden of traditional Western Christian values means accepting a “life outside the mainstream, courageously defending the truth, and being willing to endure the consequences.”

Dictatorial Flirtations

Even among those who, like Dreher, deem American liberalism a totalitarian leviathan that increasingly oppresses traditional values, there are different opinions on how conservatives ought to act out their resistance.

The month in which Live Not by Lies was published also saw the publication of a biography of the Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, Salazar: The Dictator Who Refused to Die, by Tom Gallagher. In January of 2021, two different reviews of the book were published, both of them sympathetic to the autocrat and both suggesting an alternative, top-down model of conservative resistance.

Rather than withdrawing into foxholes of Christian virtue in a secular world, Salazar was precisely what his biographer calls him: a dictator. From his high position, he looked at a Portugal in turmoil and thought maybe, if he put the levers of governance in just the right places and pulled them in just the right way, Portugal would become something better, something new.

Salazar’s proponents agree with Live Not by Lies in rejecting what they call liberal totalitarianism, but break with it by not objecting to the form of Salazar’s dictatorial rule. Salazar is alluring to his modern conservative sympathizers precisely because he represents a formal model of total executive power, albeit one that replaces the liberal substance of contemporary politics with an ostensibly Christian, corporatist substance more sympathetic to a vision of conservative values. If liberalism is a restaurant that insists you can only order menu items, Dreher suggests you give up restaurants and cook your food at home. The Salazar-friendly approach says instead that you should take over the restaurant, fire the staff, and run it your own way.

What, exactly, “taking over” means can vary radically. But from the casually Salazar-curious to the more explicitly authoritarian, what these approaches share is that, unlike Dreher, they do not consider the culture war lost. They intend to fight it on the front lines.

Yet the two approaches are not so different as they appear. Dreher tends to respond to his critics by saying they must not have read his books, but his books are just the tip of the Dreher iceberg. Most people will encounter his ideas through his tweets or his hundreds of blog entries in The American Conservative.

In the same way, Dreher insists his project is not principally a political statement; but you wouldn’t know that from most of the content he produces in the public sphere, where the abstract and historically softened anxieties of Live Not by Lies become sharp and explicit. To take a few examples:

Don’t you know that this is a sophisticated form of war? That this is how it’s going to be from now on for dissenters on the Right?”

Maybe, George, they voted for Trump because they see him as their bodyguard. Liberals like you haven’t stopped the woke crazies.”

Kyle Rittenhouse [a Blue Lives Matter supporter] is not the enemy of civilization; the people he shot [Black Lives Matter supporters] were, and are.”

It Boils Down to Power

Other reviews of Dreher offer more comprehensive criticisms, many of which I share. But let us accept, for now, Dreher’s claims that conservatives have lost the culture war, that traditional values are disappearing, and that politics is no longer truly contested because of liberal totalitarianism. If the best option for conservative Christians is strategic withdrawal and dissent, why does Dreher spend most of his cultural output contesting contemporary political issues? How does that help conserve his traditional values, construct Benedict Option communities, or build a model of dissident resistance that is more than a “political project?”

Dreher appears to judge that totalitarian liberalism requires a “countercultural” resistance, but he continues to act as a political commentator contesting liberal claims. While he valorizes the rebels in the foxholes, his polemics resemble the products of an officer drafting reports from a front line that he rarely visits.

Since The Benedict Option was released, Dreher has denied that he advocated a “retreat” from public life. Instead, he says, he aimed to create Christian communities within the culture. Indeed, Live Not by Lies, designed as a manual for dissent, suggests that the foxholes The Benedict Option describes were made not for escape but for entrenchment. The project was never designed to create a parallel Christian world. It is meant to gain control of this one.

The Salazar approach is honest in its desire to control the levers of the state. In contrast, while Live Not by Lies bills itself as countercultural dissent, it reflects no real counterculture; it is an argument from a pundit’s perch. Even if Dreher’s dissent were to return orthodox Christianity to cultural power, Dreher does not explain how the result would be anything except another soft totalitarianism, albeit one that he finds more sympathetic. Christian dissenters reject liberal politics but seek the managerial influence for which they criticize liberalism.

Live Not by Lies and top-down Salazar post-liberals replicate liberalism’s supposedly totalitarian form while rejecting the individual-rights-based protections that support the religious liberties Dreher bemoans losing. However weak these protections may often be in practice, to offer nothing in their place but raw power and righteous dissent would merely transform often unchecked to wholly unchecked contests of power.

Live Not by Lies frames itself as extending the “prophetic” insights like those of Father Kolaković and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to the present day. Yet it responds to soft liberal totalitarianism with Christian totalitarianism, allowing only a choice between the Salazarian or the insurgent option, from above or below.

If Christian and conservative political imaginations limit themselves to either Live Not by Lies or Salazar, then their alternatives are reduced to ones built on control, choosing between different iron fists and velvet gloves and calling the decision a victory. The chances of either a Christian insurrection or the resurgence of a Salazar may be remote. But with false choices such as these, Christian dissenters risk building one variety or another of a dictatorship that “refuses to die.”

Jackson Wolford is a researcher and writer on topics of religion and social theory working in Washington, D.C. He holds a master’s degree in theological studies from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. You can follow him on Twitter @jacksonwolford.

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