Rod Dreher: „America is tearing itself apart”

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative, he is the author of the Benedict Option and Live Not By Lies. Mr. Dreher talked to Neokohn about why the American conservatives lost the culture, what do Americans really think about progressive policies, and what can Christians learn from Othodox Jews. An interview. 

The Hungarian version can be read here.

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You were a very ardent critic of President Trump. How do you see his legacy?

I was not of the so called ’Never Trump’ people. I believe Trump did a good thing in destroying the establishment Republican Party. But I also never could become excited about Trump, because even though I agreed with his position on a lot of things, his personality, and his lack of competence really hurt the cause. Now, six months after he is gone, there are some things I miss of course because I hate the way Biden has run. However, I appreciate with Biden the lack of drama. I think right now it is a mixed legacy, but negative. If he can find somehow in himself the strength of character to step back and let somebody else, who is more competent take over, then I think his legacy will be much stronger. But if he insists on all the attention coming to him, getting the nomination of 2024, of course he is going to lose. One thing, that I think will be his strongest legacy from a conservative point of view will be the judges he appointed. I believe that for people like me, religious conservatives, the federal judges will be the last line of defence against the Left over the next 10,20,30 years.

Do you think there is any chance of the Republicans winning back the presidency in 2024?

Absolutely, but so much is going to depend on Trump himself. If he can put he cause of conservatism and the Republican Party ahead of himself, then I think there is a very strong chance. The Democratic Party has become completely owned by the ‘woke’ left, and their policies are very unpopular. They are dividing the country along the lines of race, their gender ideology is just insane.

I think that most Americans whether they consider themselves Liberal, or Conservative don’t want critical race theory taught in the schools. They are uncomfortable with the way their children are constantly propagandized by gender ideology and they hate the way that everybody is now afraid to say what they really think. It’s not a free country.

Well, the democrats are 100% behind that. And they have corporate America on their side, every single major institution in American life, has gone to the left on woke ideology.

It is a fantastic opportunity for the Republican Party to speak out against that, to fight this sort of thing, but it will mean them having to go against their deepest instinct which is to protect Big Business. Big Business is now the great enemy of social and religious conservatives. This is a massive change in my lifetime.

I don’t see the Republican Party at this point really understanding the moment, I think that could change. I think Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, seems to be the best candidate for the republicans at this moment for president. He seems to take the best parts of Trump, Trump’s populism but he marries it to competence, he knows how to be a normal politician, he knows how to get things done, and he knows how not to be so dramatic.

Photo: Merész Márton

You write in your book The Benedict Option: ‘Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles, we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation.’ How do see this in practice? Do you think that conservatives should ignore politics altogether? 

I’m glad you asked the question because one of the things that people who have never read my book think is that, ‘oh, he is telling us to all run to the mountains and hide out’. That is not true. I think we can’t afford to ignore politics, if only to protect ourselves from wider forces of people who want to destroy us and take away our liberties.

Having said that, in the United States among Christian communities there is this belief that if we only get political power and legal power it will solve all our problems.

In the mean time the practice of the faith has gone down very strongly among the young, generation Z is the first generation in American history in which the majority of people have no faith at all. It has happened I think in large part because so many of us religious conservatives were focused on gaining political power we ignored passing the faith to our children, not only in terms of knowledge but in terms of practice of the faith.

On the unwinnable political battles, I am very strongly against the idea of gay marriage, but we lost that fight. Not only did it win at the Supreme Court in 2015, but it is now popular in America. And yet there are still some Christians who think we can fight this. I think it is much more important for us to fight battles that we might actually win, for example against transgenderism, but even more than that to focus our attention, not exclusively but more of our attention on building our communities of faith. We will have to be resilient. I believe persecution is coming, and even if persecution doesn’t come we are saving so many of our young people.

What I would like to see happen is communities act like orthodox Jews. People who live in the world, and work in the world and move in the world but also place their religious identity first, and arrange their lives around living out their religious identity.

When I give speeches about the Benedict Option to Christian audiences I talk to them, I use examples from the Hebrew Bible. For example in the Book of Jeremiah, God speaking to the prophet told the Jews in exile to settle in the city, pray for the peace of the city in Babylon. We also have to look to the Book of Daniel how Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego the three Hebrew youths. They were so embedded in Babylon, they served the king and yet when the king demanded that they bow down before the idol, they knew they had to die rather than apostatize. That is the mentality that we have to recover. Most Christians now in America have been so comfortable for so long that we come to think of our religion as something therapeutic. Those days are over.

There are almost 80 million Evangelical Christians in the United States, that’s a huge number. Why couldn’t they stop the cultural change? Also, there was a long period when Christians were the majority in America. So how did this happen?

That is a great question. I think there is two answers to it. First, the most important answer is evangelicals, and conservative Christians in general do not occupy positions of power within elite networks. This is how sociological change happens. You have to get into places of influence within culture making positions, not just political influence but more importantly influence in the media, in the academia, in the entertainment industry etc. Conservative Christians have been completely absent or mostly absents from these places. I think it is true that sometimes they’ve been excluded and more often than not they excluded themselves. So, this is how you can get a majority people who do call themselves Christians but they have much less cultural power, than you would think. This is why we can keep electing republican presidents, republican Congresses, and yet the culture continues to secularize and become more and more Liberal.

The second reason is that so many Christians consider themselves being part of middle-class culture. They identify as Christians but if you look at the actual lives they lead they are just as assimilated to middle class norms as everybody else.

Christian Smith a top sociologist of religion in the US in the year 2005 he published a book in which he said the real religion of Americans is what he calls ‘moralistic therapeutic deism’. It is a fake religion that has colonized Christian institutions and Jewish institutions too. He says it is a religion that only has a few beliefs: God exists, he wants you to be happy, he wants you to be nice and you only have to contact him when you want something, and everybody goes to heaven except really bad people like Hitler. There is truth in all of those things, God wants us to be happy and he would like us to be nice, but this is not Biblical religion.

It is a kind of psychological credo for the middle class to feel comfortable in everything. It doesn’t require sacrifice, it doesn’t require the prophetic mode. If this was the Christianity of Martin Luther King he never would’ve led the civil rights movement. This why Evangelical Christians not been able to change anything, because they never pushed back these aspects of American cultural life, that most challenged Christianity. There is a reason why in the Bible, the prophets always talk about the corrupting aspects of wealth. Well, we can look at modern America this is what has happened. As we have become more richer and free in our personal lives, we have lost the ability to transform the society, rather the society has transformed us.

Photo: Merész Márton

What do you think is the difference between European and American conservatism? 

I think most American Conservatives are basically Liberals, Classical Liberals. Europe has a much deeper Conservative tradition that goes way back, and also has a deeper connection to the land, to traditions etc. In America conservatism is just a right-wing version of liberalism. American conservative politicians since forever have talked about freedom, we want more and more freedom. But I think historic conservatism requires virtue.

Some of the most interesting intellectual conservative debates are happening in the Continent. The biggest problem I think with European conservatism is the connection between the radical right and anti-Semitism, and the legacy of the II. World War.

In the US there is problem with the lack of depth. This new generation they only seem to exist to ‘make liberals mad’. I don’t see much intellectual substance there. Part of that is a reflection of living in the age of the internet. Trump is reflection of that. Lot of the things he accomplished were completely erased when Biden took over, because Trump thought ‘owning the libs’ were the same thing as governing. And many Americans especially the younger generation think so too.

Having been here in Europe for three months, having seen Hungary from the inside, and having understood the lies that the western media tell about Hungary and about the Orbán-government, it made me want to spend more time in Europe enganged in the fight for religious liberty here. I am not saying the Orbán-government is flawless it has problems. But conservatives in Europe seem to understand the stakes of where we are much more than Americans do.

What do you think is the reason for the rising anti-Semitism in the US? Recently there has been so many attacks against religious Jews.

It’s complex. The American media would like you to think that this is all coming from the right. But it’s not. It’s coming in part from the left-wing intellectuals, the BDS movement, it is open, they don’t even try to hide it. They characterize it as progress, as standing up for the victims. Many of these antisemitic attacks for example in New York are being carried out by black people. I used to live in New York, there is a tremendous amount of animosity between Blacks and Jews, especially Orthodox Jews in New York. It is a complicated story between those communities. Our media is so liberal that they won’t identify black people as the aggressors. Black people are just people, like everybody else, they are good, and they are bad. In the ideology of our media black people and other racial minorities can only ever be the victim so when Jews are attacked, even though they are a very small minority, and a very vulnerable minority it confuses the way the media thinks about this. So they tend to downplay the racial angle.

It is really interesting that many evangelical Christians are completely pro-Israel. Almost fanatically pro-Israel. It has been really interesting to see evangelical churches now flying the Israeli flag along with the American flag. As the left has become more openly antisemitic, the right especially the religious right has become much more filosemitic.

Photo: Merész Márton

Another unusual phenomenon is this new anti-American feeling in the US. Some say that the flag is racist, the National Anthem is racist. How did this happen?

This is probably the most important question in American life right now. It is a difficult thing to answer but I think our country is tearing itself apart. This is being led by elites. It started in academia but it spread to all the other institutions. Big Business as I mentioned, law, medicine, entertainment it has even now gone to the US military.

And it is tearing the country apart because they are teaching that ours is a bad country. We have to acknowledge history, there is evil in our history, we have to acknowledge that, there has also been a lot of good.

I was born in 1967, three years before I was born in my own town in the deep south, it was illegal for white people and black people to eat at the same restaurant. Thank God, that’s over and it ended because brave people dr. Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders fought that evil in the name of American greatness, in the name of the constitution basically, also in the name of biblical religion. It is not a coincidence that the civil rights movement was led by black pastors. That seems like ancient history now.

I am seeing statues taken down all over the country, there is a cultural revolution going on now. And what is being replaced and what is now becoming the new establishment is something I don’t recognize.

Where do you think this will lead to?

I think it is going to lead to a great deal of dissolution, maybe even violence. I think ultimately it will lead to an American version of the Chinese social credit system. Because there are a hell of a lot Americans who do not agree with any of this, but it seems so far they haven’t awakened. How can you fight it when you can lose your job for believing the wrong thing? This is what is happening everywhere now. It has happened so fast, I can’t believe this is actually America.

I wrote my new book Live not by Lies because people in America who went to America from the communist world primarily Central Europe and Russia they’ve been saying now for ten years that the things they are seeing happening in America remind them of what they left behind. Most Americans don’t take them seriously because we imagine it couldn’t happen here. But it is happening.

In a different version, we don’t have Stalin, we don’t have Gulags, we don’t have the secret police but we have a situation now that so many people are terrified to say what they really think for the fear that they will be punished ideologically. This is real, the left denies it but this is really happening.

At some point people are going to fight back. I fear most of all that because the left controls institutions and it is now pushing racial division as progress that we are just giving fuel to white supremacist. Because if you tell people you are bad because your white, pretty soon people are going to say no I am not and they are going to be attracted to actual racists who tell them you are not bad, let’s stand up to them. And that’s when violence happens. And I think the state will began working with corporations to create a social credit system. It will make impossible for you to have a job if they define you a racist, a homophobe a transphobe. We already see this happening after January 6th which was a horrible attack, people should be punished for attacking the Capitol. But we are now seeing the US government start to try to search for so called domestic terrorists. The government has been taking with the British to do searches on American soldiers social media accounts to see if they have typed in anything negative about Black Lives Matter, because that could indicate that they are white supremacists.

As this leftist and woke ideology becomes the successor ideology to actual liberalism the pressure to conform will be more and more.

So, looking at all this as an American what do you hope for?

My hope is in God. I am not optimistic about the future.

I think America is in decline, I wish it weren’t. We will have to try to fight it, but our society has become very decadent.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn said that when he first went into the Gulag he heard the older people say that what happened in Russia, happened because Russians have forgotten God and he didn’t take that seriously. The more he lived in the Gulag, the more he came to understand that was true. God exists and there are truths that exist objectively. If we refuse to live by them we will suffer. And I think that is happening to America too.

I tell people I am not optimistic, but optimism is not the same thing as hope. Maybe this is a Christian thing, I don’t know. I definitely think it is something from Biblical religion. As Christians we believe that humanity killed God, God became incarnate as the Messiah and humanity killed him. But three days later he was resurrected. This gives us a point of view on suffering. The idea is that we can’t escape suffering but if we suffer for the truth and if we unite our suffering to God, then God in some way, maybe we don’t live to see it but he uses our suffering for the redemption of the world. It is really hard to be optimistic, but we must be hopeful that God is in control. I don’t know any other way to live.

Jonathan Tobin: There is a powerful political force that is still very pro-Israel

Editor-in-chief of JNS, talks to Neokohn.hu about his work, war in Gaza, Democrats and Jews in the United States, and the decline of the sense of Jewish peoplehood in America.