It can’t happen here: A review of Live Not By Lies

By Francis X. Maier | Catholic World Report

In January 2017, three days before Barack Obama left the White House, the New York Times published an opinion piece entitled “Reading the Classic Novel That Predicted Trump.”

Written by Beverly Gage, it spoke darkly of parallels between the 1935 Sinclair Lewis fantasy, It Can’t Happen Here, and the incoming new president. In the Lewis novel, a populist bully, Berzelius Windrip, sweeps to power in the Great Depression. He attacks blacks and Jews, the “lies” of the press, and the elitism of intellectuals. He promises “every real American family” a cash bonus. Once in office, he locks up Congress and installs a homespun fascism.

As Gage fretted in the Times:

At a moment when instability seems to be the only constant in American politics, It Can’t Happen Here offers an alluring (if terrifying) certainty: It can happen here, and what comes next will be even ghastlier than you expect . . . If Lewis’s postelection vision is what awaits us, there will be little cause for hope, or even civic engagement, in the months ahead. The only viable options will be to get out of the country — or to join an armed underground resistance.

Time has been cruel to the Lewis novel. Fascism never came close to power in the United States, not even under the dreaded Donald. And compared to Orwell’s 1984 or Zamyatin’s We, It Can’t Happen Here is second-rate literature.

But the Times article is still instructive. It’s the voice of a coastal ruling class freaked by the prospect of troglodytes from the flyover colonies wrecking their lawn party. One needn’t be a Donald fan to read the last four years of media loathing and congressional guerrilla warfare for what they are: a slow-motion coup by the nation’s “right people,” the “best people,” against a vulgar — if, alas, constitutionally legitimate —intruder. Trump clearly earned part of that hostility; but only part. As a think-tank friend likes to quip, nothing is more suggestive of Washington’s entrenched government class these days than the 1978 film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The aliens running things may look human, but they recoil and shriek at any outsider who’s not One of Their Own.

Here in the real 2020, the conditions that produced a “Big Man” style dictatorship — a Hitler or Franco or Mussolini — simply don’t exist in advanced economies. It Can’t Happen Here really can’t happen here without a collapse in the U.S. standard of living. But something worse can happen, as Rod Dreher argues persuasively in his latest book, Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents.

As events would have it, we don’t need an American Caesar or the theatrics of a Rubicon crossing. Our political institutions and public consciousness can be, and are being, transformed from the inside out, without any melodrama. The result, says Dreher, will be a comfortable servitude, a “soft totalitarianism,” run by a technocratic, progressive elite, and supported by Big Data and a compliant capitalism. Everyday life will be far closer to the sunny brain-scrub of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World than the shabbiness and goon-squad brutality of Orwell’s Airstrip One.

Dreher has been the canary in a cultural coal mine for some time. He wrote compellingly about “post-Christian” America long before many Christians were willing to admit the obvious. His best-selling 2017 book, The Benedict Option, linked modern believers to their monastic past for the tools to thrive in unfriendly times. He has two goals in Live Not By Lies, a fitting sequel to his earlier work. He seeks first to explain what’s reshaping American culture and why; and then to suggest the strategies needed today to live and witness Christian hope, despite the changing terrain.

Dreher has a simple, vigorous, engaging style, backed up by exhaustive research and numerous interviews with survivors of Soviet era repression. His book’s title — “Live Not By Lies” — is taken from a 1974 essay by the great Russian dissident, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. And logically so. A survivor of the gulag, Solzhenitsyn committed his life to attacking the mendacity and murderous delusions of Marxist-Leninist ideology. Stalin and his millions of victims were not an “aberration” of the socialist system. They were the inevitable fruit of deceits congenital to Marxist and progressive thought. For Solzhenitsyn, the label “progressive” itself was a misnomer, an example of overweening conceit and skillful self-deception. The materialist view of man was not simply wrong, but a poisonous lie.

Dreher borrows this basic insight and applies it to the smiley-face atheism at the heart of modern technocratic thought. The lie that infects the DNA of atheism kills. Whether the killing is quick and brutal, or a slow, soft strangulation of the spirit, the result is the same.

Part One of Dreher’s book argues, to quote the author, that “despite its superficial permissiveness, liberal democracy is degenerating into something resembling the totalitarianism over which it triumphed in the Cold War.” Dreher examines the seemingly implausible, but very real, parallels between our own society and the ones that gave birth to the totalitarianisms of the last century. Part Two of the text outlines the “forms, methods and sources of resistance” we might use to push back against “soft totalitarianism’s lies.”

The chapters in Part One on “Progressivism as Religion” and “Capitalism, Woke and Watchful,” are especially strong. Anyone imagining big business as instinctively conservative need only remember the speed with which corporations jumped on the same-sex marriage and “gay rights” bandwagon. The lavish business support showered on the “Black Lives Matter” (BLM) movement is also revealing, since — beneath its calls for racial justice — the BLM agenda is toxic to what most Americans believe. The lesson here is simple: Absent a grounding in broadly biblical principles, corporations follow profits, wherever they lead. In Part Two, the chapters on cultural memory, families as resistance cells, and “the gift of suffering,” make for essential reading.

The excellence of this text flows not just from the richness of its content, or the clarity and passion of its presentation, but also from the providential nature of its timing. We live in a uniquely weird moment of uncertainty: a time of peril from a changing culture, but also of opportunity to witness, with our lives, the power of what we believe. It demands a new kind of missionary work, done family to family, friend to friend, local church to local church. It’s a moment when many of our Christian leaders, including Catholic leaders, seem too weak, or confused, or coopted — or dealing with regimes like China, too deluded — to inspire trust.

But the work of the Gospel still does need to be done. And that’s on us. It’s also why a book like Live Not By Lies is so important.

This article was originally published by Catholic World Report. It is republished here with permission.

COMING UP: For Love of Country: A Catholic Patriotism

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Our country has been through a lot this last year, as we all know. As many people have reacted against the founding and history of the United States, I have found myself drawn towards greater patriotism. By this, I simply mean a deeper appreciation of what I’ve been given by my country and also a growing realization of the duty I have to work for the common good, here and now. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this duty under the fourth commandment that enjoins honor not only to parents but also to anyone in authority.   

It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community (2239). 

Catholics, and all people of good will, are called to a love and service of country in order to work for the common good.  

Eric Metaxas argues that the future of our country depends precisely upon the active role of Christians in his book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (Penguin, 2017). He describes something called the Golden Triangle, an idea he borrowed from Os Guinness, but which ultimately comes from the Founding Fathers. “The Golden Triangle of Freedom is, when reduced to its most basic form, that freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom. The three go round and round, supporting one another ad infinitum. If any one of the three legs of the triangle is removed, the whole structure ceases to exist” (54). John Adams, for example, related very clearly, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” (quoted on 61). Metaxas comments, looking to specific examples around the world, “if you take God and faith and morality out of the equation, everything inevitably falls apart. It cannot be otherwise” (48). It cannot be otherwise. That may sound extreme, but we have many examples from Communist and Fascist countries and now even from movements within our country that aggressive secularism parallels a collapse of real freedom.  

The Constitution established an ordered liberty that requires responsibility and a determined effort of preservation. Hence the title of the book, taken from Benjamin Franklin, a republic “if you can keep it.” We are called to actively preserve our country: entering into a deeper understanding of the “idea” of America that undergirds the Republic as well as showing a loving determination to overcome challenges and threats to its continuance. This is not to whitewash the past, as we all know the injustices of our history. Metaxas argues that we can be grateful for the good and unique blessings of our heritage while also working to overcome failures. “To truly love America, one must somehow see both sides simultaneously” (226). Furthermore, by loving our country we are willing her good, drawing our own selves into the work for her good and helping her to be true to herself. “So that in loving America we are embodying her original intentions — we are indeed being America at her best — and in doing so we are calling her to her best, to be focused on doing all she can to fulfill the great promise which God has called her in bringing her into existence and shepherding her through trials and tribulations all these and centuries — and now” (235).  

As Catholics, we have a lot to offer our country by drawing from our rich intellectual and spiritual heritage. Michael Krom, a philosopher at St. Vincent College, provides us with a great resource in his new book, Justice and Charity: An Introduction to Aquinas’s Moral, Economic, and Political Thought (Baker, 2020). In an age of confusion, Catholics can bring greater clarity in our national discourse on the nature of human life, virtue, and politics. “We live in a time of ideological conflicts, in which the citizens of the nations of the modern world seem incapable of agreeing upon even the most basic of moral, economic, or political principles. Civil discourse has been replaced with violent protest, and reasoned dialogue with character assassination” (2). As Catholics, we should be able to look above all of this, literally: “While the Church does not force us to reject political citizenship, she demands that we direct it to the heavenly, and we can do that by heeding her call to engage the world rather than conform to it. I wrote this book out of the conviction that those who want to heed the Church’s call to engage our culture need to look to the past” (ibid.).  

Dr. Krom shows us that St. Thomas Aquinas has much to teach us about living the good life, in pursuit of a genuine freedom and happiness, and that this should inform a Catholic approach to economics and politics. It is hard to work for virtue if you don’t know what virtue really is, and difficult to act justly toward others if you don’t understand the nature of duty. Aquinas can help us to judge the direction of our country, as “a government cannot be called ‘good’ unless it promotes just moral and economic relationships between its citizens” (121). This is precisely the purpose of government — to promote right order and peace. We can’t just dispense with politics because, “the fact that humans find their fulfillment in political community means that situating their own good with the good of the community as a whole is central to happiness” (125). We are not isolated individuals and can’t attain a good and complete life on our own.  

Our ultimate good, however, is God, not the political life. Everything — all of our choices, including economic and political ones — must be directed to our ultimate goal. There are not “two ends to human existence, the earthly and the heavenly … [T]here is only one end, the beatific vision” (162). In this way the Church informs our citizenship. Krom explains “how inadequate this human law is as a teacher in the virtues, for it is limited in scope to the prevention of those vices from which even the wicked can refrain, and thus leaves those who seek after perfect virtue to their own devices … [H]uman law is in need of a higher law to truly bring about a just community” (155). Unfortunately, we’re seeing that our society is no longer even trying to prevent serious vice. Catholics and all believers have an important role to play, because “the lack of religion in the citizenry leads it down the path of totalitarianism. It Is absolutely critical that a people maintain a strong commitment to a transcendent measure of the common good in order to protect the true flourishing of its members” (171). Krom’s important work on justice and charity can teach us how a Catholic can exercise a proper patriotism, a true love of country.