Rod Dreher is an American conservative journalist. He has written several books, the most prominent of which are those that reflect on the post-Christian nature of Western society today, including ” The Benedict Option ” (2017) and ” Live Not by Lies ” (2020), in which he formulates the intellectual foundations of Christian resistance to contemporary post-Christian policies. His articles appeared in the most influential world newspapers such as The New York Times and Time Magazine. He was a long-time columnist for one of the most influential American conservative media, The American Conservative. Currently, he has a Substack and writes for The European Conservative.
You dedicated your latest book “Live Not By Lies” to the Croatian Jesuit Stjepan Tomislav Poglajen, who established an underground Catholic community in Slovakia under the name Tomislav Kolaković, aware that after the Second World War Slovakian society would be taken over by totalitarian Soviet communism. How did you discover Kolaković, who is largely unknown in his homeland, and what can we learn from him today?
I first learned about him in 2019, when I arrived in Bratislava to begin research on Live Not By Lies. Some Slovak Catholics who were helping me with my research introduced me to his history. I was astonished to learn about this great man. He gives us a model for how to act today. Father Kolaković was a prophet, as we now know, but many of the Slovak bishops did not want to listen to his warnings about the coming totalitarianism. They thought he was an alarmist. Thank God there were some priests, like Father Vladimir Jukl, and some laymen, like Silvester Krčmery, who took Father Kolaković seriously, and helped him to lay the groundwork for the underground church. I believe that we Christians in the West today are living in a “Kolaković moment” – that is, the calm before the catastrophe. We must do as he and his followers did, and prepare ourselves both spiritually and materially (for example, by building networks capable of continuing the life of the church under persecution), while we are still free to do so.
It seems to us that your last books naturally follow each other. “The Benedict Option” marked the discovery of new ways of connecting Christians in the post-Christian world, while “Live Not By Lies” deepened this research, focusing on secret communities of believers in hostile societies, mostly in communism. Will the content of your new book about the re-enchantment of the world be interpreted in the key of continuity with the previous books?
I hope so. There are growing signs that atheism is passing out of fashion, and that people are desperate for a sense of the numinous, even of the supernatural. This is normal; what is not normal is the way intellectuals of the West, and sadly, even many ordinary people, have been living for the past century: without God. Even among Christians, many of us – perhaps most of us – have allowed our faith to decline into dry moralism and formalism. Late last year, an American Protestant approached me in Hungary, at a public event, and told me that he wanted to talk to me about Orthodox Christianity. He told me that he has been an Evangelical all his life, and though he came to know Jesus through the Evangelical church, he is craving a more powerful direct experience of the Lord. He compared himself to a fish lying on a river bank, gasping for breath. He said that he perceives that Orthodoxy offers what he craves. There are lots of young people like him. We are seeing more and more of them coming to the Orthodox church. I think Catholics are seeing the same thing at the Latin mass, where it is permitted. People want mystery.
In this new book, which will be published in late 2024, I talk about how mystical Christianity is, or should be, normal Christianity. It was like that in the first thousand years of Christianity, but as the West moved into modernity, we gradually lost the mystical sense (though it was preserved in the Christian East). In the book, I explain why it really is true what the Jesuit Karl Rahner once said: that in the 21st century, Christians will be mystics, or they will cease to exist. I explain practical ways Christians can recover the mystical mindset of our ancestors in the faith. I tell real-life miracle stories from our own time, so people will know that God is with us in this special way today, not just in the past.
But I also have a couple of chapters about false enchantment: the occult, psychedelic drugs, UFO culture, transhumanism, and forms of advanced technology. Many, many people, especially the young, believe that Christianity is an exhausted religion, and are turning to these substitutes, seeking an experience of transcendence. These are traps. At best they are a dead end, but at worst – especially with the occult – they will cause us to lose our souls.
I did not set out to write a trilogy, but it seems to be ending in that way. My overall goal is to prepare my brother and sister Christians to live faithfully in these difficult times – a time that is like the end of the Roman empire in the West. St. Benedict, my patron, did that in his time. Well, I am certainly no Benedict, but I am trying to do my best. My books are intended for all Christians, not only for Orthodox, or for Catholics. One of the most important lessons I learned from studying the experience of Christians who suffered in Communist prisons was that they all knew that they were not in prison because they were Catholic, or Orthodox, or Protestant. They were in prison because they were Christians. They learned how to love each other and work together across ecclesial boundaries – a true ecumenism, I think. This is what I’m trying to do as well. It’s not that I don’t believe these differences matter – they do! But in the spiritual war that has overtaken all of us, we must find ways to work together to resist the enemy.
You are critical of Catholic integralism as a political project, and integralists are critical of the Benedict Option. However, if we correctly understand Benedict’s option not as a withdrawal from the world, but a new way of connecting in the world, why would such a strategy not be complementary to their vision of social action – not only in politics but also in the culture that shapes ideas about our reality? Even if it cannot result in an all-out revolution, integralism may be able to shift Overton’s window towards a conservative view of current social phenomena.
You understand the Benedict Option correctly. Even today, almost seven years since the book’s publication in the US, I still have to deal with people who believe that I call for a total withdrawal from the world. When someone says that to me, I ask them if they have actually read the book. “No,” they say – but they are sure they know what it’s about! It drives me crazy. I am very clear in the book that there is no escape from this decadence, this chaos, this war. Some people may feel called to run away to hide in the mountains, and if that is what God asks them to do, well, I hope they succeed. But most of us will have to live in the world. How can we do that faithfully? The answer is that we need to develop certain practices and habits, and we need small community.
The late Czech Catholic layman Vaclav Benda, who spent four years in a Communist prison for his faith, said that Christians who are excluded from normal public life should build a “parallel polis” within which they could live out the faith while serving others. Benda did not believe that lay Christians had the right to withdraw from the world. To be a Christian is to have the responsibility to serve others. But in the post-Christian – and increasingly anti-Christian – world of today, Christians must live with serious intention, or they will be crushed by the forces in our culture trying to separate them from the faith. In 2015, when I visited the Benedictine monastery in Norcia to ask for the advice of Father Cassian Folsom, who was then the prior of the monastery, I shared with him my Benedict Option vision, and asked him for his advice. He told me that in the darkness to come, Christians who want to make it through the storm with their faith intact will have to commit to some version of the Benedict Option. It was clear to Father Cassian and to me back in 2015 that this is true. Now, in 2024, you have to be willfully blind not to see it.
About integralism, what I object to most of all is that it is a bad diagnosis of the core problem, and therefore the wrong medicine. How are we going to have a Catholic confessional state if most of the people in it are not Catholic? Such a state would be a monstrous tyranny. In the United States, Catholics are a minority, and the number of Catholics who would consent to live in an integralist state is vanishingly small. And even if you were somehow able to create such a state, will it convert a single soul? Because this is the issue: the conversion of hearts and minds. Mere obedience to the law is not the same thing as knowing and loving Our Lord, and following his commandments. Integralism in the 21st century is about power. If I had been a Spaniard during the civil war of the last century, of course I would have supported General Franco against the Communist Republicans. Franco established the closest thing to a Christian integralist state that we have seen in modern times. And yet, when he died in 1975, Catholic Spain collapsed. There is an important lesson there, but integralist intellectuals of our time seem determined not to learn it. You cannot compel people to believe – and if you try to do it, you could end up driving more people away from the faith.
Or let’s take the case of Ireland, which was not formally integralist, and was not a dictatorship like Franco’s Spain, but which was the closest thing a Western liberal democracy had to an integralist Catholic state. Now the faith has collapsed in Ireland. The reasons are several, but one of them is that the very close collaboration between the Irish state and the Irish church protected sexually abusive priests. We saw the same thing in the US, in heavily Catholic cities like Boston and New Orleans: the civil authorities allowed the church the privileges of hiding evildoers. The strong alliance of the church with the state was terrible for the church. The power that the church had back then gave it the illusion that it was stronger than it really was. Similarly, back in 2019, a well-respected Polish Benedictine told me that the Catholic faith is in real trouble in Poland, in part (he said) because the bishops were so satisfied with the sense of power they enjoyed, thanks to their alliance with the ruling party. They ignored the challenge of converting people and making true disciples of them, and would pay a terrible price. Now we are seeing that the monk was right.
Integralism is a second-order issue. First, let Catholics work to evangelize and convert people. Then propose an integralist state. That’s how it should work. In America, there are many non-Catholic Christians – Protestants and Orthodox – who share a lot in common with Catholics, and who have many of the same political goals. But you could never convince us to desire to live in a state in which we would be second-class citizens because we are not Catholics.
You are an Orthodox Christian. From a religious perspective, how do you view the Russian Orthodox Church and its role in the war in Ukraine?
A disaster. Everything I just said about the mistake that the Catholic Church in certain places has made by relying on its relationship to political power also applies to what the Russian church has done in this war. I don’t think it is realistic to expect the Russian church, or any national church, to openly defy what the state does in times of war. But it grieves me that the Russian church has been so eager to bless everything the Kremlin does. I think in the end, it will hurt the church’s authority in the eyes of many Russians. This is a real tragedy.
We think it is not unfair to say that you are one of the American conservative intellectuals advocating more isolationist American foreign policy. At the same time, we can notice that in the conservative current of the American right there is much more sympathy for Israel’s struggle against Hamas than for Ukraine’s struggle against Russia. How do you explain that? Looking only from the perspective of American interests, isn’t Russia a much bigger threat (or at least a potential threat) to the USA than Hamas?
The word “isolationist” is controversial, and I don’t accept it. I don’t believe that America can or should be truly isolationist. But I am sick and tired of the US acting as if it has the right and the responsibility to involve itself in wars around the world. I was living and working as a journalist in New York City on 9/11, and saw the south tower of the World Trade Center fall, with my own eyes. It was massively traumatizing. I believed everything the US government said back then about the solemn mission to spread democracy to the Arab Muslim people. The idea was that this would solve the problem of Islamic terrorism. People like Patrick Buchanan, the Catholic political intellectual, warned that this was self-deception, that we could not impose liberal democracy on Arab Muslims by force. Buchanan and others like him were denounced by many other conservatives for being, yes, “isolationist.”
But they were right! Iraq was a disaster for America and for the region. I believe that America had a far greater right to attack Afghanistan, which had given al Qaeda shelter. But it was absurd to try to build a liberal democracy in such a country. It ended up costing us thousands of American lives, and something like one trillion dollars – only to have the country return to Taliban rule.
On the matter of Ukraine, I regret that Russia invaded. It ought to have left Ukraine alone. But it is also true that the United States did a lot to provoke Russia. If Russia or China made a military alliance with Mexico, and proposed bringing Mexico into a military alliance that would result in Russian or Chinese bases near the US border, there is no way that Washington could allow that to happen. I think Russia was in the same situation regarding Ukraine. We know now that shortly after the war started, Russia and Ukraine were on the verge of signing a peace deal – until Boris Johnson, acting for Britain and the US, flew to Kyiv and told Zelensky not to sign it, but to prepare to fight. So America and Britain were prepared to wage a proxy war against Russia, even though it bled Ukraine dry, with little prospect of success. This is a terrible, shameful thing. You don’t have to support Russia – I don’t – to see that.
I don’t believe Russia is a serious threat to the West. It is too weak. China, on the other hand, is a different story – and Washington has thrown so many weapons and so much ammunition into the Russia-Ukraine war that America is left weak in the face of rising China. The US no longer has the manufacturing capacity to quickly replace what we have used in the Ukraine war. Besides, how seriously do Europeans take Russia as a threat? Most European countries do very little defense spending, and have allowed their own militaries to degrade to the level of a glorified police force.
Regarding Israel versus Hamas, much of the visceral response Americans have to that conflict has to do with our own terrible experience on 9/11 with Islamic fanatics committing mass murder against innocent civilians. Nevertheless, this is Israel’s war, not America’s. Hamas is not a national security threat to America. I support Israel 100 percent, but I do not believe the US should involve itself in the fighting.
You have been living in Hungary lately. What can you single out as the most significant difference between European and American political life? Are American conservatives and progressives substantially different from European ones?
This is not an easy question to answer, in part because I don’t speak Magyar, or any other European language, so I can’t follow the intricacies of the political discussions in Hungary or in Europe. My understanding is only general. That said, it seems clear to me that Europeans are far more oriented towards thinking about the collective than we highly individualistic Americans are.
The American Left has completely given up on class and economics, and instead embraced the kind of identity politics that people in the media, in academia, and in Hollywood love: a politics based on race and sexual identity. If Franklin D. Roosevelt came back today and saw how much the Democratic Party loathes the white working class, he would not be able to believe it. The European Left may not yet be as woke as the American Left, but it’s getting there. From what I can tell, both the Left in Europe and in America more or less hate their own civilization, and seek salvation in the arms of the “Other” – which is why they support mass migration, and in countries like France, a bizarre alliance with Islamists.
The American Right is confused. It still suffers from Zombie Reaganism – the term we use to describe an establishment Right that can’t come up with new ideas on its own, so falls back on Reaganism, which is forty years old. Trump was a counterforce, and is a counterforce, but he stands for nothing but Donald Trump, so there has not yet been a set of coherent policies to emerge from Trumpism. It’s mostly a cult of personality. The Florida governor Ron DeSantis has failed in his attempt to be the presidential nominee. He is a strong executive, a man of courage and competence – but he never had a chance against the Trump cult. American conservatives prefer the emotional rush they get with Trump, never mind the fact that as president, he was not terribly competent.
European conservatives tend to think more deeply than Americans do. I suppose that was always true, but you really see it sharply now, in the age of Trump. A few years ago, Marion Maréchal, the young French Catholic politician from the Le Pen family, went to America to speak at the annual CPAC convention, which is an important gathering of the US Right. She gave a fantastic speech about what the Right has to say about the cultural and political crisis – a speech that was philosophically strong, but also accessible. I am sure that almost nobody in that hall had the slightest idea what she was talking about. It was a holistic speech, by which I mean she talked in deep ways about the connections between religion, the family, politics, and democracy. You simply do not hear American conservative politicians talk like that.
A good way to understand the difference is to compare Viktor Orbán with Donald Trump. They are only superficially similar. Love him or hate him, Orbán is a very, very intelligent man, and a hugely talented politician. Donald Trump is a shallow narcissist and showman. If Trump had even half of Orbán’s intelligence and capacity for practicing politics, America would be transformed. But he doesn’t, so we Americans will keep muddling along.
Is Hungary a political laboratory whose ideas about, for example, migration will be accepted by the European mainstream tomorrow? Do you think that Orbán’s rule will hold, or will it end up like Poland in the recent parliamentary elections, where the ruling conservative option lost power relatively unexpectedly?
I think it is a laboratory, which is one big reason why I want to live there. Orbán combines a concrete nationalist political vision with real political skills. Unlike American politicians of the Right, he doesn’t give a damn what the media think of him. Unlike Republican politicians, Orbán doesn’t care about being “respectable” in the eyes of those who hate him. He is willing to take the fight to the Left in substantive ways. And you know, he’s often correct. The streets of London filled up last autumn, after the October 7 atrocity in Israel, with Muslims showing their strength. It was the same in other European capitals. In France, as we know, elites fear a civil war with unassimilated Muslims. Meanwhile, one of the safest European capital for Jews is … Budapest.
Viktor Orbán was right about mass migration, and is right. In their hearts, most Europeans know this, but cannot bear to admit it.
Viktor Orbán was also right about the Russia-Ukraine war. Like most Hungarians, he has no particular love for the Russians, but he is a realist. He did not allow himself to believe the romantic propaganda about Ukraine that so many politicians and media people in the West did. They called him “Putin’s lapdog” – but now that poor Ukraine is destroyed, and will soon be forced to reach a peace agreement with Russia, we see that Orbán was right in early 2022 about the urgent need to settle the war through a peace deal.
Despite what The Guardian and The New York Times think, Hungary is a democracy, and the people can always vote Orbán and his party out of office. One day it will happen, though the Hungarian Left has a long way to go before it appears as a credible governing coalition. This is one big thing that Western media coverage of Hungary ignores: how incompetent the Hungarian Left is. But Hungarians see it. I fear that the Poles are about to experience the pain of seeing their country turned into a vassal state of Brussels. The fate of Poland under Donald Tusk might end up being a warning to Hungarian voters not to experiment with the Left.
As I see it, either Europe as a whole will become more Orbán-like in its policies – that is, favoring sovereignty, strong borders, and opposing with strong, concrete policies the decadence of the European cultural elite — or it will cease to exist. There is no alternative.
Interviewed by Matija Štahan and Tomislav KardumLast modified: 11. 1. 2024.