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An Interview with Rod Dreher on Soft Totalitarianism

June 8, 2021

Editor’s note: The following essay appears in the Spring 2021 issue of Eikon.

Rod Dreher is a senior editor and writer at The American Conservative and the author of several books, including The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation and Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents.

Rod Dreher on Soft Totalitarianism

1. Can you explain what Soft Totalitarianism is?

When people think of totalitarianism, what comes to mind is gulags, secret police, torture — basically, Stalinism, or Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four. This is understandable, because that was the twentieth century experience. But if we are looking out for the KGB agents to come roaring down the street to haul us off to prison, we’re not going to see it, and we’re going to miss the softer ways totalitarianism is emerging in our society.

Totalitarianism is a political system in which only one political ideology is allowed, and everything in society becomes politicized. An authoritarian government only wants you to obey politically. A totalitarian system wants your soul. When you see something as absurd as Oreo cookies celebrating LGBT Pride with rainbow-colored fillings, you know that you are dealing with a totalitarian mentality. After the Russian Revolution, the Soviet chess society tried to keep politics from infiltrating the game. They put out a statement saying that they wanted to keep “chess for chess’s sake.” The Communist government chastised them, saying that all things, even chess, must be made to serve the revolution. This is the same mentality that makes Oreos woke.

Hard totalitarianism depended on inflicting terror and fear of pain on people to force them to conform. Soft totalitarianism, by contrast, depends on people being afraid of losing comfort, status, and at worst, employment, to force conformity. Nevertheless, because so few people today will be willing to suffer for the truth, it will achieve by softer means what the earlier version achieved through harsh means. What’s more, I think that the enforcers won’t need to resort to hard tactics to enforce their ideology. They will use sophisticated surveillance technology, like the Chinese social credit system, to regulate consumer privileges and access to jobs. Nobody will be sent to prison for their faith. They will simply not be able to buy or sell if they are judged by the algorithms to be bad citizens. China is well on its way to implementing this kind of control.

Finally, the softness of soft totalitarianism is also a reference to the fact that we are building a total control society for the sake of compassion, in order to create a “safe space” for favored minorities. The other day I was dressed down on my blog for “cruelly misgendering” a transgender man — this, because I called her a “she,” which, biologically, she is. This totalitarianism is therapeutic, you see.

2. You talk a lot about why you were reticent at first to accept the claim that Western society was experiencing waves of Soft Totalitarianism. What was the moment where it finally sank in that this was really happening?

There were two clarifying moments, tied to the same event: the 2015 failure of the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act. All that act would have done would have been to give religious people an affirmative defense in court if they were sued for discrimination. It wouldn’t have guaranteed a win, but would have evened the odds somewhat. We have had this same law at the federal level since 1993. When the state passed the law and the governor signed it, Big Business came down like a ton of bricks on the state, denouncing the law as bigoted against LGBTs. The state backed down. That was a sign of how weak social conservatives are, and how Big Business was decisively coming down on the side of progressives in the culture war.

Around that same time, I began to hear from people who grew up under Communism, but who had emigrated to America, that the things they were seeing here reminded them of what they had left behind. That seemed alarmist to me, but the more I talked to them, the more I began to see their point. They were talking about the way people had to fear for their jobs over opinions they held that violated leftist ideology, and how the standards were rapidly changing. One emigre from Hungary said that he was seeing leftists here smear those they targeted as enemies, without the slightest compunction — just as had been done in the country from which he and his wife escaped. These people all told me that people were forced to say things they didn’t believe — usually having to do with race and gender ideology — for the sake of keeping their jobs, and their friends. I finally realized that they were onto something, and that we Americans were the fools for not listening to them. We really are heavily invested in the idea that it can’t happen here. We are lying to ourselves for the sake of keeping calm in the face of a cultural revolution.

3. To what extent is Soft Totalitarianism related to debates over gender, sexuality, and human embodiment?

To a great extent. It’s all about identity — racial identity, sexual identity, and gender identity. There is a bizarre paradox here: the racialists insist that your biology is your fixed identity. The sexual revolutionaries believe that biology is entirely a matter of will — that having male genitalia is only incidental to whether or not you are a man. Don’t expect logic from any of these people, though. In any case, to the extent that Christians buy into modern ideas about the Self — and many of us do — we are vulnerable to the claims of so-called gender ideology. It is hard for ordinary Christians to know how to resist this stuff, because it is so radical, and has come upon us so fast. Whoever thought we would have to explain what it means to be an embodied creature, with maleness and femaleness a given?

Yet here we are — and overall, the churches are doing next to nothing to prepare the faithful to understand this phenomenon, much less resist it. From what I see, most pastors, like most parents, seem to be hoping that if they just sit quietly and wait, this curse will go away. This is a foolish strategy. Transhumanism is coming next. There are very powerful people in this culture — many of them in Silicon Valley — who believe this to be a good thing. If you accept the transgender understanding of human sexuality, then you have in principle accepted transhumanism. It all has to do with the refusal to accept limits, and the belief that the human person is entirely a creation of the self. I’m telling everybody to get Carl Trueman’s new book, The Rise And Triumph Of The Modern Self, to help them understand how we got here.

4. As an Orthodox Christian, can you help our audience understand what Orthodox Christians believe about the complementarity of male and female?

Orthodoxy teaches that “male and female He created them,” as Genesis teaches. What that means is that our maleness and femaleness are irreducible elements of our ontology as creatures of God. St. Maximus the Confessor, back in the seventh century, said that maleness and femaleness are “energies” of human nature. This language means that masculinity and femininity are not chosen, they are given. True, we can individually have trouble living them out, due to our own fallenness, or cultural reasons. But maleness and femaleness are written into the nature of human reality, and cannot be denied or revoked. And the story of salvation makes no sense without the gender binary. It matters that Christ was born of a woman. It matters that the Messiah was, and is, a man, and that the church is the Bride of Christ. The fruitful encounter of the Bridegroom with his Bride creates new life. Salvation is not simply a matter of holding the correct opinions about who Jesus is, but is also about being integrated into reality, out of our fallenness. It is about dying to self so that Christ can live within us, and restore us. If our masculinity or femininity is broken for whatever reason, then Jesus will heal it, though we might have to carry the cross of that brokenness through this life, only experiencing full restoration in the next life. The point is that for the Orthodox, masculinity and femininity are fundamental categories of human existence. We experienced the fall as males and females, and we will be restored in Christ as males and females. The traditional family — one man, one woman, and their children — are an icon of Christ and his church. We live in iconoclastic times.

5. You are not an evangelical, but your work is tied closely to their public ethics. When you see criticisms of evangelicalism being called “patriarchal” for its stances on complementarity, as a member of a tradition that is far older than Protestantism, how do those criticisms land with you?

We Orthodox call our most senior bishops “patriarchs,” and we constantly refer to the Fathers of the Church. Patriarchy is a great thing! Patriarchy is part of the God-given hierarchy that structures reality. I do not believe — nor do I think evangelical complementarians believe — that men are innately superior to women. Rather, I believe, and Orthodoxy teaches, that men and women have particular roles to play in society according to their natures. Please don’t hear me saying that women can’t be doctors, or anything like that. That’s not what I believe. I am glad that women have more opportunities in society to follow their gifts into the professions. At the same time, men and women are not interchangeable, either in jobs or in social roles. I am the father of three children, now growing older, and believe me, there are things that my wife has given them in their childhood that I simply could not have done, because she is a woman, and brought certain gifts to the nurturing of our children. And there are things I gave the kids that she could not, because I am their father. God made men and women to work harmoniously for the greater good of our children and the community. This requires patriarchy, but it cannot be a harsh and cruel patriarchy. This is not the biblical model. Anyway, Orthodox Christianity is so saturated with positive associations with patriarchy that it is bizarre to see how completely modernist egalitarian evangelicals are. This is a total break from Christian tradition.

6. You wrote a provocative essay years ago called “Sex After Christianity.” Can you re-state some of the themes from that essay and whether, since its original publication, you think your thesis still stands?

The idea is that sexual morality was not peripheral to Christianity, but near its core. Christianity brought a radical new way of understanding sex and sexuality, one that challenged pagan models, and that demanded justice for women and those sexually vulnerable people exploited by Greco-Roman power dynamics. The secular Jewish social critic Philip Rieff saw in the 1960s that Christian sexual teaching was inseparable from its binding social model, but now that was rapidly being lost. In that essay, I argued that it is going to be very difficult to hold on to Christianity if we reject what the Bible tells us about sexuality. Christianity gives us an anthropology, a particular understanding of what a human person is — and within that anthropology, sex takes on a new meaning. In Christian understanding, what people do with their sexuality cannot be separated from what the human person is.

Many Christians today think of the changing mores of sexual behavior are merely about revising sexual ethics. I argued back then that it’s actually about replacing Christian cosmology with a rival one. I published that essay in 2013. Everything that has happened since then has only made my thesis more clear, and confirmed it. We see so many young Christians wanting to revise the church’s teaching to assimilate the sexual revolution — and we see the same thing from older Christians, desperate to keep the church “relevant.” This is going to be the death of Christianity wherever it is tried. At a meeting in 2015, I heard a successful middle-class evangelical woman express frustration that Christians were too hung up on the culture war, and that she wanted us all to “get past this obsession with homosexuality so we can start paying attention to evangelism.” That’s a perfectly gnostic view of what Christianity is. I get why this middle-class woman was frustrated and impatient with the teachings of the Bible, but the cheap grace she wanted to free her from the cost of discipleship was a poison pill.

7. Do you see any course correction on the horizon?

Not in the short term. Ours is a profoundly decadent society. I think we are going to see a mass apostasy — and in fact are seeing it. Too many of our people want to be their own gods. The best thing we in the faithful churches can do is to build thick communities of discipleship within which the faith can survive what’s here, and what’s coming. That’s a hard thing for evangelicals to hear, but it’s true. What does evangelism mean in a world in which we can’t even hold on to many of our own children? We desperately need to evangelize ourselves, and to place more emphasis on discipleship. We cannot give the world what we do not have.

8. What advice would you give to Christians to prepare for the perpetual onslaught of hostility to be directed against them?

My last two books take up this question. In The Benedict Option, I argue that we Christians have lost the culture, and our inability, or our refusal, to face that hard fact is leaving us undefended in the face of this onslaught. My contention is that we have to form thick communities of faith and practice committed to countercultural living. Anything less than that, and we will be assimilated. People who didn’t read The Benedict Option assumed that I was saying to head for the hills. I don’t say that, though I really wish there were hills to head to! There’s no escape from this crisis, but there are things we Christians can go to make it more endurable without losing our faith. My more recent book, Live Not By Lies, is based on the warnings the people who grew up under Communism are sounding. It is a lot like The Benedict Option, but more direct. Based on my interviews with Christian dissidents in former Soviet bloc countries, the most important thing we Christians today can and should be doing is preparing ourselves to suffer for the faith, and for the truth. There is no other way out. An old Russian Baptist pastor told me, as we stood in the snow on a Moscow street corner, that I needed to go back to America and tell the churches that if they aren’t prepared to suffer for the faith, then their faith is nothing but hypocrisy.

9. What should Christians and Christian parents be doing right now to catechize their children when it comes to facing challenges from an increasingly secularized culture?

Well, I think we have to emphasize how being a follower of Jesus makes us different, even weird by the standards of this culture — and why that is fine. We also have to prepare them to suffer for the faith. That’s a tall order when dealing with kids, but I don’t know what else to do. You have to be age-appropriate, obviously, but you shouldn’t shelter them. In Live Not By Lies, I tell the story of the Benda family, a Christian family in Prague, and how the parents raised their kids to be faithful during Communism. They were too young, the kids were, to really understand what Communism was about, and what their parents, and their parents’ friends, were doing to resist it in the dissident community. What their mom did was read them stories — The Lord of the Rings was huge — and their dad showed them movies; “High Noon” was a big one for that family. The kids gained a knowledge through stories of what good men and women were supposed to do when put to the test. They couldn’t understand Communism, but they could understand that good and faithful people should bind together in a fellowship to serve the good, no matter what evil throws at them. They couldn’t grasp what their parents were doing to fight totalitarianism, but they could grasp that the “High Noon” sheriff played by Gary Cooper stood up to the bad guys even though none of the cowards in the town would stand with him. This is the kind of indirect catechesis that is so effective, or at least the Bendas found it to be so.

10. You are often criticized for hyperbole and doomsday analysis. Is that a fair criticism of you?

You know who says that? People who are desperate to believe that everything is going to be fine, despite all the evidence. Maybe my prescriptions for how to meet this crisis are mistaken. If so, then please help me see my mistakes so I can correct them. I’ve got kids, and I want to be preparing them for the world as it is, not the world that I hope is coming. But I have no patience at all for people who dismiss my warnings because they want to preserve their peace of mind. The world as we Christians have known it is collapsing fast. Now is not the time to tell ourselves pleasing lies. Now is the time to prepare to resist.

I dedicate Live Not By Lies to a Catholic priest named Tomislav Kolakovic, who died around 1990. He escaped the Gestapo in his native Croatia in 1943, and settled in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, and taught in the Catholic university there. He told his students that the good news was that the Germans were going to lose the war. The bad news, though, was that the Communists were going to be running the country when it was all over, and that the first thing they would do is come after the churches. Father Kolakovic started a network of prayer groups to prepare people spiritually and otherwise for resistance. The Slovak bishops chastised him for being alarmist. They said that it would never happen there. But Father Kolakovic had studied the Communist mindset in seminary, because he wanted to do missionary work in Russia. He could read the signs of the times. Sure enough, when the Iron Curtain fell over that country, a harsh persecution befell the church. Father Kolakovic’s followers were ready. The priest and his confederates had prepared the underground church for just this moment.

I believe we are in a Kolakovic moment in America today. Let he who has ears to hear, hear.

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