Rod Dreher vs. Me
Live not by lies.
In December of 2020 Christianity Today published my review of Rod Dreher’s book Live Not By Lies. My review boiled down to a simple (perhaps frustratingly so) qualm: the book contains much that is true and important but those elements fail to convincingly argue the major premise. Here are what I consider to be the two essential paragraphs of the review:
Dreher is a seasoned journalist with much experience covering religious liberty battles. Given this, Live Not by Lies makes a surprisingly weak case for an impending woke totalitarianism. Much of the book feels impressionistic, as if switching from historical Soviet testimony to contemporary cultural analysis and then back to Soviet history is itself sufficient evidence. Dreher acknowledges that the religious, social, and political situation of late-19th-century Europe is quite different than that of the current United States, but he sees the difference as mostly irrelevant. He has a low opinion of American Christianity—“the spirit of the therapeutic has conquered the churches. … Relatively few contemporary Christians are prepared to suffer for the faith”—but he says almost nothing about America’s formidable (though not impervious) legal protections for religious liberty. Ultimately, he offers no plausible roadmap showing how a country whose legal institutions are deeply shaped by the First Amendment and a historically religious citizenry could flip-flop into a woke terror.
Could such a roadmap exist? It’s possible. But there are alternatives to consider, such as the one laid out by another Christian public intellectual, Ross Douthat, whose book The Decadent Society argues that American society is far likelier to linger in lazy political stagnation and immovable subcultural enclaves than to succumb to anything genuinely totalitarian. The point is that prophecy is tough work, and people who share the deepest religious and social convictions can nonetheless interpret all the moving parts differently. Dreher’s argument is passionately stated and not without support, but it is not finally persuasive.
Shortly after the review went live, Dreher responded to it. This is the first time I’ve ever engaged his response to the review, but hey, sometimes you gotta let things sit for a year and a half before you know what to say.