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: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.