ROME — The new challenges facing the West four decades after the decisive alliance between Pope John Paul II and U.S. President Ronald Reagan to defeat communism were at the center of an international conference in Rome Feb. 4.
Sponsored by the Edmund Burke Foundation and other intellectual and political groups like the Center for European Renewal, the Herzl Institute and Nazione Futura, “God, Honor, Country: President Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II and the Freedom of Nations” gathered several prominent figures of the cultural and political conservative renewal in Europe and the U.S., including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
As Western civilization faces growing threats to religious freedom, national sovereignty and the family institution from the inside, the different speakers questioned the relevance of the late 20th-century liberty model for our time.
But if these threats targeting the declining liberal democracies are new in virtue of their form, as U.S. writer and journalist Rod Dreher highlighted while opening the discussions, they clearly recall the climate that prevailed in Eastern Europe a century ago, as Soviet communism spread.
Quoting Russian Nobel laureate and philosopher Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who said “all the evil of the 20th century is possible everywhere on earth,” Dreher mentioned several characteristic signs of a “pre-totalitarian” atmosphere in several Western societies, such as the increasing use of propaganda tools, the spreading of ideologies in collective mentalities and social atomization.
Dreher is a senior editor and blogger at The American Conservative and the author of The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. A forthcoming book will focus on the new forms of totalitarianism and the way to address and defeat it.
In this interview with the Register, he explains the reasons why the rise of anti-Christian ideologies in the West shouldn’t be underestimated and reaffirms the necessity to create international solidarity networks to be able to face the increasingly hostile environment for Christians in the coming years.
In your address that focused on totalitarianism and its new forms, you pointed out that the historical context and societal environment are totally different now than in the 20th century. What are the deepest contextual differences and evolutions?
I think that one of the biggest changes is the loss of Christianity as the guiding force in society, the de-Christianization process. We live in a post-Christian society. I don’t mean by that that there are no Christians left; we’re still here. But the Christian story is no longer the narrative that Western countries use to understand themselves. It has been replaced by worship of the self, dictatorship of relativism, and the tyranny of the self. That makes it so difficult to recognize the coming totalitarianism, because you have been trained to think this is freedom, that to choose what you want is freedom. People who are Christians were trained in a more classical way of thinking, moral theology or moral reasoning. They understand that freedom is not the ability to do whatever you want. Most people in society have become very fragile. They have come to think all of public life is about expanding rights. So, under those regimes of “social justice,” as they call them, and civil rights, to disagree with someone is to injure them, is to threaten them. And that makes all disagreements pathological. That makes the person who disagree a criminal.
What are the tools that are being used to enforce what you often call “soft-totalitarianism”?
One of the main tools of enforcement is shame, the so-called “cancel culture” that we have in the U.S. If you say one little thing that diverges from their ideology, they will try to destroy you and your name, especially professionally. Even if you are not guilty. That is exactly what the communist regimes did. That is the main form of enforcement now in the U.S., but there are also civil-rights laws and the idea of a “safe space.” Everybody wants there to be a civil space for discussion. But the left-wing ideologues make you an unsafe person if you disagree with the slightest thing with them, and they push you out. Once again, the communists did the exact same thing. Just last week I saw that a Swiss maker of chocolate, who was pro-life and involved in Christian activism in his country, was dropped by Swiss International Air Lines after some “LGBT” people forced the company to stop using his chocolate. The companies are complete cowards, and they submit to intimidations because they know the Christians don’t have power, while LGBTs have so much cultural power.
Is the fact that almost 60% of young Americans are sympathetic toward socialism a symptom of the march toward a return of totalitarian ideals?
I don’t think that socialism in terms of social democracy is necessarily totalitarian. The experience of Western Europe tells us that. But the fact that so many young people are so quick to embrace socialism tells me they don’t know anything about the history of the left. Indeed, we don’t talk about history in the U.S. Nobody has a memory of anything that happened more than five minutes ago. This is a big issue. And that also tells us that the police state I was talking about in my talk is something that young people would welcome because it promises to give them all the sexual freedom they want, all the consumer freedom they want, to protect them from the consequences of their decisions. The paternal state would care for everything about them so that they can be free to live as they want. The fact that they want socialism tells me that there is a pre-totalitarian mentality. To be fair, I would mention that my son is 20 years old, he is a Christian but he is in favor of Bernie Sanders, and the reason is that he is very worried about his future economically. I think it is a problem at the political right: We have worshipped the market so much that we have not truly appreciated how fragile the conditions are for the young generations to establish themselves. If we don’t figure out how to address that in an effective way, we are sending so many of the young into the hands of the socialists.
The relation to consumerism and free markets in conservative thought has been evolving over the past years. How do you explain that?
We are beginning to see a change, for sure. I wrote a book in 2006 called Crunchy Cons, where I talked about how I am conservative and Christian, but I don’t completely agree with the Republican Party on its worship of the free market. And that was controversial back then. They said that maybe I am a socialist, which I am not. But Catholic social teaching says that men are not made for the market and that the market is made for men. That was very radical among the conservative mainstream back then. But Trump has done a lot to put this on the table for discussion. And we’re starting to hear similar reflection with journalist Tucker Carlson. On his show every night on Fox, he will talk about “woke capitalism.” He is on the right, and he is attacking Goldman Sachs and major corporations for [harming] the family and communities. This is something completely new, that we never saw on the right.
It is not about being in favor of a socialized economy, but, rather, for economic responsibility. These things are arising now on the right because people are becoming more skeptical of sort of mere liberal talk about worshipping the market. And now they realize they made an idol of the wrong thing.
What kind of populism do you think Donald Trump represents?
Trump is problematic. I didn’t vote for him in 2016. And I would never vote for a pro-abortion Democrat. Trump is very vulgar; he doesn’t have strong moral beliefs. But on the positive side, he destroyed the establishment of the Republican Party, which was preventing us from talking about certain things. And I think that’s good. He also appointed good judges.
In terms of populism, [he is] forcing the Republican Party to think about the working class and the class that was left behind, people in the middle of the country, a whole world that had been totally forgotten by this new economy. They are considered disposable and deplorable because of their so-called “backward social views.” Trump speaks for them. I am from a small town in Louisiana, and I understand very well why people vote for Trump. I don’t think that Trump has been very good at executing the policies he promised, but I am so grateful to him for at least opening the space within the conservative movement for dialogue. I think there will be no coming back to a pre-Trump Republican Party. Now every Republican that wants to become president will have to be more populist and think about representing these forgotten people.
Let’s talk about The Benedict Option. It has had a significant success and impact in Europe. Do you think that its success in the Old Continent can be explained by the same reasons as those of its success in the U.S.?
The book sold well in the U.S., but I think it sold proportionally greater in Europe. It is in 11 languages now, and France was the first country to publish a translation. When I visited France in the autumn of 2017 for the book tour, I was amazed to see that the audience for my book was made of Catholics under the age of 40. And it is almost the same in every other country in Europe. Why is that? I realize that in my book, I made an argument that we are in a post-Christian society and if we want to save our faith, we need to live in more radical ways. The older generations, aged over 53, don’t want to believe that it is true; they want to believe that if we just do what we have been doing, but doing it with more accustom, everything will change. On the contrary, people 40 and under in Europe know that it is an illusion. They have lived already through the de-Christianization of their societies. I think that it is why the book has been so successful here in Europe.
Whereas in the U.S., I still have to convince Christians that it is over for us — over in the sense that they don’t have cultural power anymore. I have a feeling like, when Trump leaves office, whether it is next year or in four years, things will become much more clear for Christians who still believed that everything was okay. Because there is this aggressive laïcité [secularism] of the Democratic Party, which is going to come with great force against Christian institutions, especially Catholic and Protestant schools. They will be facing persecution by the state.
How did European heritage and the current situation inspire you to write this book?
Europe is my homeland. Everybody who lives in Western civilization comes from Athens, Rome and Jerusalem. I became a Christian because of Chartres. I was 17 years old. My mom won a trip to Europe through her church, and she sent me instead. I was the only young person on the bus. The bus tour stopped in different churches in France, and I was annoyed to see so many churches, as the 17-year-old boy that I was just wanted to see Paris. And on the way to Paris, it stopped at a church one hour away from the city: It was the Chartres cathedral. I met God there. I was so overwhelmed by the presence of God and the glass and the stone of this cathedral. I knew I was in the presence of the Divine. I walked out of that church not as a Christian but as someone on a search. And my search eventually brought me to Christianity. These old churches in Europe are my spiritual and cultural home. I love it, and I want to defend it.
Have you ever met a religious figure that could be the new Benedict of Norcia, and if not, how do you think such a character should face of the current challenges?
I haven’t met any potential St. Benedict for now. But I encourage people to find the Benedict in themselves. My hero is Benedict XVI because I love him so very much, but I would also mention Marco Sermarini. He is a lawyer in his 50s, an ordinary man from a small Italian city who got an inspiration to build a community [the Compagnia dei tipi loschi of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati]. He is very traditional in his Catholicism, but his community is not oppressive; it is full of joy. He is quite an ideal for me.
I also mention another guy in the Benedict Option named Giovanni Zennaro. He is a young guy with four kids. He and his wife decided to put together a small community of Benedictine young families, and they’ve just bought a house near Norcia. And they want to all move there and try to work and live in family community. It was inspired by the Benedict Option. These young people have a lot to lose, but they see a greater and higher objective for their life. They want to show that a different way of life is possible. They got the blessing of their bishop, and they’re working with the monks of Norcia. I think this is the kind of thing we need.
Is there any specific European country or group that can be a leading force for the West?
As someone who grew up at the time of John Paul II, I always thought of Poland as a fortress of faith. When I went there last year for the first time, I was shocked to hear from young Catholics that still go to Mass. They feel that Poland is maybe 10 or 20 years away from becoming Ireland. They fear that Catholicism has become mostly cultural. I don’t know if it is true, but this concern is very real there.
I have not found in my travels a lot of reasons to hope very broadly for the Church because we are all in crisis. But when I meet these small communities of young Catholics who really see through the fog to the reality of our situation and want to find ways to live by the truths they were taught by the Church, their families and traditions, it is a beautiful thing.
I cannot say that one country has it better than the other, but I have seen in Eastern countries of Europe like Poland or Slovakia a very strong sense of what we are losing, especially because they do have a memory of what it was like under communism and what the communists tried to take from them.
One thing I find, too, is the sense that we have to form networks across national boundaries. It has been a great pleasure of mine since I’ve been starting the “Benedict Option” project to connect with Christians in Italy, France, Germany, Spain and Eastern Europe so they can know each other. We need to know each other because we don’t know how important it will be in the future to know where your friends are. One thing I’ve learned from talking to the Christians who suffered from communism is how bad it can get very quickly. I keep talking about soft-totalitarianism, but the people I speak to, who grew up under communism, tell me, “Stop saying ‘soft’; what is happening is getting very hard.” So, maybe I am not alarmist enough, but we’ll see.
We must reject strongly the attacks that we are receiving, but one important thing is that we can’t say what we are against without saying what we are for. The first time I went to Subiaco, I was so overwhelmed by the beauty of what the Lord did for St. Benedict; and one reason why I am a Christian today is because of what happened in that cave in the sixth century. It is part of the essence of Roman and European civilization. If we don’t love it and defend it, it is like betraying your own father.
You left the Catholic Church for Eastern Orthodoxy years ago, and yet your highest model for rebuilding our civilization is St. Benedict of Norcia and his new Catholic disciples of today. How do you explain that?
I am an Orthodox Christian. And St. Benedict is an Orthodox saint, also. All these saints were part of the Church before the [Great] Schism. But even if I were a Protestant, I would look the same to Benedict, because he is a spiritual father of all of us who believe in Jesus Christ. Even Protestants could look to what he did and why he did it as a source of hope and inspiration. As someone who loves the Catholic Church, and I am grateful to what it gave to me, and who especially loves Joseph Ratzinger, I want to try to build bridges among the Churches. I believe that today we need to build solidarity in the face of the coming oppression. I don’t believe in false ecumenism: I want Catholics to be Catholics, Orthodox to be Orthodox; but I also realize that we have a common interest in the brotherhood that creates bonds between these — bonds of love, fidelity and duty. We have to speak up for each other. If persecutors come for the Catholics or the Protestants or the Orthodox, we must stand up for them, because, ultimately, these persecutors will come for us.
What prevents you from coming back to the Catholic Church?
I don’t believe anymore in the claims of Catholicism and its authority. But I have to say that to look at what happened in the Catholic Church under Pope Francis is very concerning for me: the Amazon synod, for example, and the presence of pachamama. I saw this and I thought it was a sign of such a profound spiritual disorder. I have a lot of very good Catholic friends, and I pray for them so that they can resist that sort of thing within the Church. When I became a Catholic in 1993, the Church looked very different. It was under Pope John Paul II; and when I left in 2006, Pope Benedict was in charge, and it still looked like a solid rock. It is not the case anymore.
I didn’t go the Orthodox Church because I thought it has no scandals. We have these problems in every church. But the mistake I made as a Catholic was to make an idol of the institutional Church itself. I was so intellectually arrogant; and that is not the Catholic Church’s fault — it is mine. That left myself quite vulnerable. I started reporting on the sexual scandals when I was a columnist at the New York Post in 2001. I thought I had prepared myself for this by having the right arguments in my head. However, this wasn’t about arguments, but about facing real evil. If I had prepared myself spiritually more, through prayer, more devotion, I might have had the strength to resist it. I tell every Christian that if they think that just because they have the arguments straight in their head, they’ll understand anything, they’re wrong. They need to pray more in their body.
Solène Tadié is the Register’s Rome-based Europe correspondent.