Disturbing parallels can be drawn between the United States and the Soviet bloc of Eastern Europe, commentator and bestselling author Rod Dreher says.
Dreher, a senior editor at The American Conservative, received a phone call in 2015 that sent him on a journey to investigate whether America is losing its freedoms in the same way that Eastern Europe lost its liberty to the Soviet Union. What he found inspired his latest book, “Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents.”
Dreher joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss the book and what the future may hold if Americans do not stand against the agenda of the radical left.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
Rob Bluey: We are joined on “The Daily Signal Podcast” today by Rod Dreher, author of the new book, “Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents.” Rod, it’s great to have you. Thanks so much for joining us.
Rod Dreher: Glad to be here, Rob.
Bluey: First, congratulations on the success of the book. It’s already a No. 1 bestseller on Amazon and it’s certainly provoking some much-needed discussion about the situation that we face in America today.
I was struck by your introduction and the interviews you’ve done. You talk about embarking on this project after receiving a phone call from a complete stranger. Can you tell us what it was about that call that alarmed you and led you to write “Live Not by Lies“?
Dreher: Sure. This was back in 2015 just before the Obergefell ruling. And your listeners might remember that the state of Indiana passed a state version of the Federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act and it caused corporate America to come down with like a ton of bricks on the state of Indiana.
In particular, there was a little evangelical pizza parlor, evangelical-owned pizza parlor, in small-town Indiana where a TV reporter went and asked the owners, “Would you cater a gay wedding?” And they said, “No, that would be against our conscience. We would serve gay customers. We wouldn’t cater a gay wedding.”
That led to this little pizza parlor receiving hatred from all over the country—death threats, threats of burning them down—and they had to shut the place down.
Well, that sort of thing prompted a phone call from a prominent physician in Minnesota. He called me and said that his elderly mother had been watching all this on TV and told him, “Son, the things I’m seeing happen here in this country now remind me of what I left behind in Czechoslovakia.”
Now, he said his mom is an immigrant to this country, that when she was a young woman, she was put in prison for six years in Czechoslovakia for her Catholic faith. And the fact that this woman in her last years in the land of the free is seeing things happen here that remind her of what she left behind was pretty chilling.
And the doctor called and said, “Look, I don’t know you, but I feel like I need to tell somebody.” Well, Rob, what I did after that was I thought, “This sounds pretty alarming, but my mother’s old too, watches a lot of cable news. Maybe the old lady is really kind of exaggerating.”
So I started checking with people I know who immigrated from or defected in one case from the Soviet bloc and asked them, “Is this Czech lady, is she seeing things as they are?” Every single one of these people, Rob, said, “Absolutely.”
They’re seeing the tyranny of woke culture and cancel culture rise in this country. And they say they can’t believe that Americans won’t pay attention to them and don’t see what’s happening.
Bluey: You said you received that call in 2015 and here we are, fast forward to 2020, five years later, did you imagine at that time and as you’ve worked on the book that we would find ourselves in the situation that we do today in America? I mean, it seems that so much has just transpired in the last five years and frankly, that warning has come true.
Dreher: Yeah, it was prescient. Look, not only the last five years, Rob, but the last five months.
When I finished the manuscript for this book and turned it into my publisher back in early March, I remember thinking, “How am I going to sell this to people? How am I going to convince my fellow Americans that what these people who survived communism are seeing happen in this country really is true?”
Because we don’t like to be alarmed, but then came COVID and then especially came George Floyd and the ramping up of militant wokeness has just been off the charts.
By the time this book came out this week, I thought, “You know what? I don’t need to convince people.” All you have to do is watch TV, follow the news online, and you can see that what these anti-communist dissidents are saying really is true.
Bluey: You mentioned that in order to write the book you spoke to men and women who had once lived under communism, and we’ve had the opportunity to tell some of those similar stories right here on “The Daily Signal Podcast.” And I know that they are incredibly powerful voices. Was there a common theme that you heard from them and something that you want to share with our listeners in terms of their warning?
Dreher: Yeah. The second half of my book “Live Not by Lies” is filled with stories from people in Russia and the former Eastern bloc nations telling about what they’ve been through and giving advice to Americans.
The two most important pieces of advice that I believe they had to offer was, first of all, the importance of solidarity, small group solidarity.
I didn’t expect this before I went over there, but over and over again I heard that this kept people from going crazy. Just being around other people, even small numbers of people who could see the truth and who are not willing to suffer for the truth really kept them hopeful.
I dedicate the book to a man named Father Tomislav Kolakovic, a Croatian Catholic priest who was doing anti-Nazi work in Croatia in the 1940s. He got a tip that the Gestapo was coming after him. He escaped to Slovakia, his mother’s homeland, and began teaching in the Catholic university there, 1943.
Father Kolakovic told his young Catholic students, “The good news is the Germans are going to lose this war. The bad news is the communists are going to be ruling this country when it’s over and they’re going to come for the church. We’ve got to get ready.”
So what Father Kolakovic did was put together small groups of really dedicated young Catholics, maybe come together for prayer, for study, and also to learn the arts of resistance, like how to endure an interrogation. And they spread … these groups all around the country and built a network.
Now, the Catholic bishops at the time said to Father Kolakovic, “Look, you’re being unreasonable. You’re being alarmist.” But Kolakovic had trained in the Vatican for missionary work in the Soviet Union. He understood the Soviet mindset. And sure enough, when the Iron Curtain came down, the communist government came after the church, just as he had predicted.
But the underground groups of small committed Christians became the backbone for the underground church for the next 40 years. So small groups are hugely important.
A second lesson, this is the most important one, Rob, of the whole book is that we have to learn how to suffer well.
Every single one of these people—I remember one, I talked to one man in Moscow whose face was still partially paralyzed from the beatings he received in a Soviet prison—they all said that if … Christians and everybody, frankly, if they’re not willing to suffer for the truth and for their faith, if they’re not willing to suffer the loss of status, the loss of their jobs, the loss even of their freedom, and maybe even the loss of their lives for their faith and for the truth, they’re not going to make it through what’s coming.
And this is, I think, the real neuralgic point of soft totalitarianism. The soft totalitarianism that’s coming takes advantage of our love of comfort. That’s where we’re really weak.
Bluey: Well, I want to get to soft totalitarianism in just a moment, but to pick up on what you just said, Rod, I heard you talk about this on Tucker Carlson’s show recently and it really struck me that we have in some ways become really soft and comfortable in the United States.
I’m wondering if there are things that we should be not only preparing for, but different ways in which these other people that you spoke to talked about, how as Americans we might prepare for what’s to come and how do we not become so soft and comfortable in this situation that we find ourselves in today?
Dreher: Well, look, all of us in America, myself included, we are really soft and fat and happy because we’ve been free and prosperous for so long. Then we’ve lulled ourselves, especially among conservatives, into thinking that it couldn’t happen here in the land of the free and the brave that eventually the good people of America are going to stand up to all this.
Well, look, I hope it happens too, but we can’t count on it, especially when we look at the research on that that has come out about millennials and Generation Z, about how little they know about communism and how little they value free speech and freedom of religion.
So I think we need to prepare ourselves for the fact that it could cost us our jobs to hold onto our faith. The first thing we need to do is get red-pilled in a way and to see things as they are and see things as these refugees from communism see them, just so we won’t be surprised when this stuff hits.
And secondly, we need to start building these networks of mutual support, prayer support, as well as material support for when the day comes when our people start losing their jobs.
It’s important to get these networks in place right now, Rob, because, as Father Kolakovic said, we have to use the time when we’re free to prepare because the day’s going to come when we won’t have those freedoms.
Bluey: So, Rod, you recently wrote that “America is sleepwalking into soft totalitarianism.” You mentioned this before. You also said, “If we ignore the prophetic voices of those who survived communism, we deserve what we get.”
You’ve described this soft totalitarianism [as] something other than what we traditionally think of with totalitarianism. Can you unpack it for us and explain what you mean?
Dreher: Sure. In America, our idea of totalitarianism is conditioned by our memory of the Cold War and Soviet persecution, as well as George Orwell’s “1984.”
In the Orwellian, Soviet, Stalinist society, the state controlled people by inflicting pain and terror on them. But in the soft totalitarianism that I see coming here, the state will control people—and not only states, but even more importantly, corporations and institutions like universities will control people by manipulating their access to the economy and to status and to all the markers of middle-class life.
They won’t need the gulags to force conformity on us. We’ll do it because we can’t stand the idea of losing our jobs. And look, I don’t mean to make light of that. It’s huge to lose your job, it’s massive, but this is how it’s going to happen. We see it happening right now.
J.D. Vance yesterday, I was doing a webinar with him. J.D. Vance told me that friends of his who are liberals are already scared to death of what they can and can’t say in their workplace. This is not the state. This is not [President] Donald Trump coming and telling them they can’t do that. These are their companies doing it. And this is their fear of victims who have the power to accuse others.
It’s still totalitarian even if it’s not the state doing it or the secret police doing it. The fact is people are changing their ways of living. They’re terrified of what they can say and do because they are afraid of getting on the wrong side of this ideology. Call it hard, call it soft, but that’s what’s happening.
Rob Bluey: Yeah, no, we have seen it firsthand. I mean, The Daily Signal has published things … just recently an article on climate change fact-checked by somebody at Science Feedback and Facebook and a video produced on some of the issues regarding transgenderism via video with a doctor, a pediatrician talking about some of the dangers associated with giving a young children puberty blockers, blocked on YouTube. So we’re seeing it firsthand ourselves.
And you write in the book that the United States could soon have its own version of China’s high-tech social credit system. I’d like you to explain more of that, but you also talked about cancel culture, the rush to condemn others’ views that might not align with your own people, losing their jobs, businesses.
This is really a frightening situation, I think, to many Americans and for those who haven’t faced it directly, certainly something that they need to be prepared for.
Dreher: Oh, sure. And one of the things that I heard over and over again from these people who lived in the communist countries is that the state would whip up mobs against people to harass them, to drive them out, to make them fear for their lives, all to uphold a totalitarian ideology.
So when this woman, this elderly Czech woman, saw this cancel culture mob coming from Memories Pizza, she knew what she was looking at, but this wasn’t something sent by the state. Again, this is something arising out of social media, arising, in some cases, out of universities and out of major companies.
One thing that we don’t see as Americans because of our outdated model of what totalitarianism is, we have no idea how big business, the role of the big business and corporations, especially in Silicon Valley, play in propagating this totalitarianism. Because we still have our mindset on, “Oh, well, if it’s not coming from the government, it’s not totalitarian.” That’s just not true.
Bluey: And in recent months we’ve certainly seen corporations, sports teams, universities, and the media embrace things like Black Lives Matter, the 1619 Project, and critical race theory. It’s been dominating so much of our culture of late.
We’ve also seen a forceful pushback though. I mean, Black Lives Matter recently scrubbed its website of its Marxist beliefs and The New York Times quietly edited the 1619 Project. President Trump just banned critical race theory from federal government offices. But at the same time, it seems like it’s a constant battle we’re in.
Do you have any encouragement about the recent pushback we’ve seen from Americans? And what are some of the other steps and advice that you have for them and what they can personally do about it?
Dreher: Sure. Well, yeah, I’m really encouraged by what President Trump did with critical race theory and that’s thanks to the tireless efforts of Christopher Rufo to bring it to his attention and bring it to the nation’s attention. And I think these things are fantastic.
We ought to stand up and speak out now no matter what it costs us because the more we speak out now and pressure our politicians to speak out against it—I hope the Republican Party will find a spine and start speaking out against this sort of thing—the better off we’ll be.
But I don’t want people to have false hope and to think that this is merely a political problem, that if we just get the right politicians in there and the right judges in there, it’s all going to be settled. It’s not.
This is something that’s coming primarily from the culture and it’s coming from elite culture. That’s such an important factor because, as I learned in my research about totalitarian movements, they always start with an elite. They never go anywhere until and unless the intellectual and cultural elites see them first. This is what happened in Bolshevik Russia and this is what’s happening here.
You have to pay attention to what’s taught in the universities because these people in the universities becoming radicalized, they’re marching through the institutions of society, through museums, through major corporations, and so on and so forth, and through the media. And they are imposing their woke totalitarianism on the rest of us. It’s not going to stay only in the elites, but that’s where it starts.
Rob Bluey: Rod, I’m so glad that you brought that up. I graduated from journalism school nearly 20 years ago at a very liberal college, Ithaca College, in upstate New York. And sadly, I saw then professors guiding students in this direction.
Now I think many of them are probably in leadership positions at these media companies and we’re seeing the consequences of that—not just in the media, as you said, but across the landscape.
That’s one of the reasons why I decided to help create The Daily Signal. I think it’s one of the reasons you wrote “Live Not by Lies” and why you do the type of journalism that you do.
So when it comes to the media specifically, it seems like there’s great frustration and also a lack of trust with the media. But what are some of the other things that we as conservatives or Christians should be thinking about doing and using our platforms to spread this message?
Dreher: Yes, and thank God for The Daily Signal and for Tucker Carlson and for alternative media.
Right now, we have the liberty to spread the message and we should. We should never let up on it because we have to wake our own people up. And even sympathetic liberals, Rob, who are suffering now, they never thought they would. They thought they were on the right side, but you can never stay on the right side of the woke. They’re going to come after sympathetic liberals too.
I’ve been trying to tell some of my conservative friends, “Look, if you’re not listening to Joe Rogan, you need to be listening to him. You need to be listening to Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying and James Lindsay and Bari Weiss, people like that.”
We need to form these networks and alliances even outside of the conservative sphere because we’re all going to have to stand together. If we don’t stand together and fight while we can, we will hang separately.
Bluey: Rod, I’d like to shift for a moment to talk about the role of faith and religion. You write in the book that we’re living in a post-Christian world. And I personally see this and the growing number of young people who don’t believe, and also in the hostility toward those who have Christian beliefs.
I think you can look no further than the attacks on Judge Amy Coney Barrett and what she’s facing. She awaits her confirmation hearings before the Senate. Why should this be of concern to us, these attacks on faith?
Dreher: I say the Amy Coney Barrett nomination has been what I call an apocalyptic moment. Now, the word “apocalypse” in the original Greek means an unveiling. What it has unveiled is the deep contempt, the incomprehension as well as contempt that so many in this culture have for faithful Christians.
Somebody like Amy Coney Barrett would have been completely par for the course 20 years ago in most of America. And even still in a place like where I live, Louisiana, she still lives, but not in the elite centers and not, sad to say, even among young people in red America.
So, I think that Christians are seen and will be seen as the last obstacle barring the completion of the sexual revolution.
I think about back in 2016, Rob, when an influential evangelical ethicist named David Gushee, when he flipped from being against same-sex marriage to being for it. He wrote a really prophetic column warning fellow Christians that this issue is going to find you wherever you are. You will not be able to be neutral about it.
And Gushee believed that Christians should change their mind on it, should accept LGBT in all possible ways. He said that the only obstacles in the way to full LGBT acceptance are conservative Christians. And right there is the answer that you’re looking for.
Most conservative Christians I know, like myself, we don’t hate LGBT people, but we also can’t bend on something that we believe is true. And we’re going to pay the price for that in this country and we need to be ready for it.
Bluey: In the book you quote Pope Benedict and you talk about this as a profoundly anti-Christian militancy. It really is shocking … and discouraging in some respects to see the poll numbers of those who don’t believe or who have walked away.
But also, I want to ask you about this because I had a personal experience just recently. I was shocked to hear a sermon from a rector promoting the concepts of critical race theory. So it’s not just the lay parishioners, but it’s also the church leaders who are promoting it.
What’s your advice to people of faith as we work within our own Christian communities to help fellow believers confront some of the lies that we’re being told on a host of these issues?
Dreher: Man, that is so depressing, but it’s true. I’m hearing this from a lot of my conservative evangelical friends, that wokeness and, [in] particular, critical race theory is cutting right through their communities.
Well, I think we have to educate ourselves about what critical race theory actually teaches and why it cannot be reconciled with biblical Christianity.
Racism is wrong. Racism is evil, no doubt about it. But what critical race theory does is it teaches a form of thinking about race and the human person that is based only on racial identity. And that’s not what Christianity teaches.
Christian social justice is creating a society in which everybody can live out the kind of life that God wants for them to live out, to flourish as fully human. But critical race theory and those theories of social justice see society as nothing but an arena of power and struggle for power.
And they draw the line between good and evil, not down the middle of every human heart, as Solzhenitsyn said and as the Bible says, but rather between different groups, between whites and blacks, between gays and straights, and so on and so forth.
Critical race theory and so-called anti-racism really does come to the church disguised as an angel of light because every Christian ought to be against racism, but this is really, really a lie.
Rene Girard, one of the great intellectuals of the 20th century, died a few years ago. He said that when antichrist comes that he would try to, or an anti-Christian philosophy would try to, be more Christian than the Christians. And I think that’s exactly what we’re seeing in critical race theory.
It reminds me, Rob, frankly, [of] what you said of what I was told by so many of these Christians in the Eastern bloc. They said most Christians capitulated to communism. The ones who withstood it were only those who could understand, who could read the signs of the times, understand what they were dealing with, and had the faith and the small faith communities that enabled them to resist.
Bluey: I think that’s such great advice and an important thing to remember, Rod.
Your book, “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming,” about your younger sister’s battle with cancer had a profound influence on my life and the things that we should cherish. Growing up in a small town, myself in upstate New York, they certainly connected with some of the things that you wrote in that book.
I want to thank you for writing it, I’ve always wanted to do that, and telling such a deeply personal story.
As the parent of three kids myself, I’m obviously worried about their future. And I would like to ask for what your advice is to parents in particular. How can we raise our children to be critical thinkers and avoid some of the problems that you warn about in “Live Not by Lies“?
Dreher: Boy, thank you so much for asking that question. There’s a whole chapter in my book about the family as a locus of raising resilient dissidents.
I profiled the Benda family of Prague. They were a strong Catholic family who raised six kids under communism. The patriarch Vaclav was a good friend of Vaclav Havel and he went to prison himself for four years, but the family not only resistant communism, but in what is now one of the most atheist countries in Europe, the Czech Republic, they’re all still Christians and their children are Christians.
How did they do it? Well, I talk about this in the book. One of the key things that they did, and this really struck me, was they not only raised their kids to be critical of the society that they were in and how to spot evil in the society that they’re in. And they taught them the importance by word and by deed, by example, the importance of being morally courageous. But they also filled their imaginations with the true, the good, and the beautiful.
I asked the mother, Camilla, who is now quite old, I said, “So what did you do to help your kids with this?” She said, “Well, even when my husband was in prison, I would read to my kids for at least two hours a day. I would read them things like fairy tales and classical literature because they needed to understand what was good. They couldn’t just be against something. They had to be for something good and true and beautiful.”
She said, “I read them a lot of Tolkien.” I said, “Oh, that’s interesting. Why Tolkien?” She looked at me, Rob, and said, “Because we knew that Mordor was real.”
So that really shook me up and made me realize that, again, it’s not sufficient just to tell your kids what’s bad in the world and what they shouldn’t do, but we have to fill their moral imaginations with the good, the true, and the beautiful so they will have something to draw on.
More practically, I would say, take the smartphones away from your kids. That is one of the worst things you can do for them is let them have smartphones.
They’re so many conservatives I know, conservative Christians, who hold all the correct opinions about who the villains are on the culture and so on and so forth, and yet they give their little kids smartphones. That is just setting them up for a disaster.
Bluey: Well, Rod, thank you for sharing that advice. I will take it to heart and I’m sure our audience will as well. I want to encourage you to check out Rod’s book. It’s called “Live Not by Lies.”
Rod, I also want to give you the last word on today’s interview. Any closing thoughts you’d like to share about the book or other things that you’d like to pass along?
Dreher: I end the book on a really hopeful note. I talked to a young man in Bratislava, a young photographer named Timo Krizka, who was a toddler when communism fell. So he was raised in freedom. He had privileges that his parents and grandparents couldn’t have imagined, but he said he was really unhappy in all this because he never could seem to get enough success or get enough money.
He started a project where he went around his country talking to elderly people who had been in the gulag for their faith and just trying to find out what their experiences were like.
Timo told me that he realized that these people who even today didn’t have much of anything, … they were so serene and so happy because their time in prison had taught them that there is nothing more important than the love of God.
And Timo said even though he lives in freedom and prosperity, it really taught him how to focus on the good things in the world. The things that are transcendently good and true, most of all his faith.
And this is a lesson that all of us need to hear. Even if we’re not going to be thrown into a prison for our faith, we could still lose our faith if we don’t understand that there is something transcendent about it and that we have to be willing to sacrifice everything we have for the love of God.
Bluey: Rod Dreher, thanks so much for sharing that with us. The book is called “Live Not by Lies.” Again, I encourage you to check it out. Rod, thanks so much for joining us on “The Daily Signal Podcast.”
Dreher: Thanks for having me, Rob. It was great.
This transcript has been corrected to reflect accurately a reference to those who defected from the Soviet bloc.