Other Worldviews

Freedom Fading

Author Greg Koukl Published on 05/01/2021

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—Russian dissident, 10-year forced-labor Soviet Gulag inmate, Nobel Laureate, Christian—lamented the “fallacious belief” that “here such things are impossible,” that totalitarianism could not happen in one’s own country. “Alas,” he wrote, “all the evil of the twentieth century is possible everywhere on earth.”[1]

Read those words carefully. It is the point I have been building towards in the last two issues of Solid Ground.[2]

In the first article, I chronicled my own experiences behind the Iron Curtain in 1976 working with Christians living under brutal authoritarian rule in communist bloc countries like Hungary, Poland, Romania, and the former Soviet Union—places where believers suffered significant loss of personal liberty and, in some cases, severe persecution simply for following Christ.

In the next article, I pointed out that citizens in any culture will ultimately be ruled by one of two fundamental forces: either truth or power. Any nation whose people lack the liberty to pursue, discover, and live by truth will be destined to live as victims of lies and frequently crushed under the heels of powerful oppressors.

I then briefly traced the development of the first great lie—what I called “the primal heresy”—from its inception in the Garden to its current divinization of self that some have labeled “expressive individualism.” At the Fall, mankind replaced the external truth of God’s world and God’s morality with the internal “truth” of bald personal preference and naked individual desire. The act of rebellion that traded truth “out there” for truth “in here”—the outside/inside distinction—marked the birth of what has come to be known as relativism.

Remember, relativism is the ultimate negation of truth, and when truth dies, power is all that remains. The immediate payoff for relativism—the unrestrained narcissism of expressive individualism—may be satisfying for a season, but it’s a fleeting gratification. Bald force eventually fills the truth vacuum, and relativists’ values begin cannibalizing relativists’ liberties. Whoever has the power to nullify liberty ultimately gets to enforce his own preferences. Postmodern people are leaning on a bent reed.

These musings have not been idle reflections, however. Rather, the downward arc of the shifting ethos of the West has revealed a disquieting trend. Liberal democracy—in the best sense of those words—is becoming a thing of the past. America is moving rapidly toward the brink of a peculiar species of totalitarianism that promises to erode freedom, hinder our ability to proclaim the gospel, and compromise our liberty to live peacefully with our Christian convictions.

I have not been alone in my concern. Émigrés from former Soviet bloc countries who fled the totalitarianism of communism for the freedom of America are mortified at the trend. When author Rod Dreher asked if they thought America was drifting toward some type of totalitarianism, “They all said yes—often emphatically”[3] (emphasis in original).


I wrote “peculiar species of totalitarianism” above because what we are experiencing now is actually an amalgam of two forms of totalitarianism—soft and hard. First, a general description, though.

Totalitarianism is not the same as dictatorship, where an individual tyrant’s jackboot stands on the neck of liberty. That is simple authoritarianism. Totalitarianism goes further. Drawing on insight from expert Hannah Arendt, Dreher clarifies:

A totalitarian society is one in which an ideology seeks to displace all prior traditions and institutions, with the goal of bringing all aspects of society under control of that ideology. A totalitarian state is one that aspires to nothing less than defining and controlling reality. Truth is whatever the rulers decide it is.[4] [Emphasis added.]

Notice the militant relativism that makes totalitarianism possible. When truth comes not from the outside but from the inside, power prevails. Truth becomes “whatever the rulers decide it is.”

The indoctrination to an alternate reality at the heart of totalitarianism has a curious effect. When reality is persuasively redefined by the incessant drone of political propaganda and abetted by not-so-subtle social pressures, the populace is gradually persuaded by it and willingly embraces it in large numbers as the high moral ground. Those who do not are vilified as enemies of the good (“haters,” in the current vernacular)—the “good,” that is, as defined by the authorities. Orwell’s “Big Brother” comes immediately to mind.

At the moment, I am halfway through William Shirer’s remarkable work The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I realize it’s risky conjuring the image of fascist dictators to make a point. Some have done this so frequently and so frivolously that people are inclined not to take such allusions seriously. In this case, though, they ought to. Santayana famously warned, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Shirer noted the precise pattern I described above displayed by Germans in the 1930s, a dynamic (Shirer confessed) even he was vulnerable to: “A steady diet over the years of falsifications and distortions made a certain impression on one’s mind and often misled it.” He then referenced “the most outlandish assertions from seemingly educated and intelligent persons” who were obviously “parroting some piece of nonsense they had heard on the radio or read in the newspapers.” Opposing the nonsense was useless, he wrote, since “on such occasions one was met with such a stare of incredulity, such a shock of silence, as if one had blasphemed the Almighty.”[5]

And so today. The propaganda of the Left regarding sexuality, gender, the “bigotry” and “hate” of Christians, etc., is so pervasive and rhetorically clever, it has become irresistibly persuasive to many who are mystified that some—especially religious conservatives—are not falling into step with the times. Worse, they’re angry at unpersuaded dissenters who now loom as dangerous enemies of the common good.

That siren song of the new order now presses in on us from two directions, creating the peculiar amalgam of totalitarian tyranny I spoke of.

“Soft Totalitarianism”

In soft totalitarianism, compliance is not enforced by government. Rather, private cultural institutions controlled by elites accomplish that task—the academy, the press, “enlightened” corporations, Hollywood, and especially those controlling social media.

Many of us, particularly the young, live out our social lives online—through Instagram, Facebook, Twitter—and manage our lives at the behest of its aggressive stepsisters, Amazon, Apple, and Google. We post, we purchase, we tweet, we opine, we share vital information and also gather vital information using their platforms.

These enterprises provide the bulk of our access to the outside world. It has become obvious to careful observers, though, that these digital giants are not neutral players in this game. We are being watched, and we are being tracked. Corporate Goliaths are assiduously collecting every piece of information they can on our purchasing habits, our preferences, our private lives—even our travel patterns. [6]

Rod Dreher reports that this “surveillance capitalism hoovers up detailed personal data about individuals and analyzes it with sophisticated algorithms to predict people’s behavior.”[7]

The initial goal of this online data harvesting is, of course, monetization of information—profit, for short. But there is a darker side. Sophisticated algorithms have another consequence. “The rapidly growing power of information technology and its ubiquitous presence in daily life,” Dreher warns, “immensely magnifies the ability of those who control institutions to shape society according to their ideals[8] (emphasis added).

Have you noticed how frequently social media moguls have been silencing dissenters by using “community standards” guidelines that appear to guarantee civility in their domains but often serve to weed out political dissidents? Worse, many are able to economically retaliate against nonconformists by demonetizing their platforms or banning them from business access. Even offline, corporate giants are increasingly and openly indoctrinating employees with progressive politics as a de facto condition of continued employment.

This is soft totalitarianism. Left-leaning corporations and other elites are its willing agents, and we consumers are its willing subjects. They have their “bully pulpit,” but they also have their “big stick,” the not-so-subtle social pressures I mentioned earlier.

One of the strongest evidences of totalitarianism is punishment of dissent. Dissidents can be destroyed. Here are a few examples. There are many, many more.

Shaming, Silencing, Canceling

For years, I have noticed a common practice among Christians, even in the relatively safe spaces of churches or Christian retreats: They lower their voice when they mention the word “homosexual.” Why? Because they are afraid. They’ve unconsciously adopted this habit out of fear of being shamed, or attacked, or belittled, or bullied simply for broaching the topic. This fear, of course, is an indirect pressure. Other pressures are not so subtle.

Journalist Bari Weiss reports that in California and New York, secret meetings are being held—not on Zoom or Facebook (too public, too traceable, and too permanent), but in backyards.

Wealthy parents of children enrolled in prestigious $45,000-per-year private prep schools like Harvard-Westlake in L.A. or Fieldstone in New York are mortified that their kids are being indoctrinated in the resentment and fear connected with Critical Race Theory (CRT), “collective racial guilt,” and so-called “white fragility.”

They are horrified and they are scared, with most too frightened to speak up. “The school can ask you to leave for any reason,” one parent said. “Then...you’ll be known as a racist, which is worse than being called a murderer.” Students begged their parents not to be interviewed by Weiss for fear of social shaming. “If you publish my name, it would ruin my life,” one kid said.

“They have a pattern of shaming anyone who…dissents from the group narrative,” one mother explained. “Once someone shames one person, many chime in agreement. The times I speak up to defend those they shame, they attempt to shame me.”

“The ideology,” Weiss writes, “has changed children’s self-conception.” The propaganda is so intense and the sophistry so sophisticated, the kids have begun to believe and internalize the lies. Recall the pattern Shirer noted in Germany.

Though Weiss’s focus was on high-end private schools, the same pattern is in play everywhere—even in some “Christian” schools. Public schools are most vulnerable, though, because the Left controls that educational system in many states. “To resist this ideology is to go against the entire institutional world,” Weiss concludes.[9]

Brendan Eich, creator of JavaScript and co-founder of Mozilla, served as its CEO until 2014. Then news surfaced of a 2008 donation of $1,000 to California’s Prop 8 limiting legal marriage to male-female unions. Though Eich never showed animosity towards the LGBT community in his personal or professional life, activists used social media to publicly pillory him, generating 50,000 signatures from those demanding Eich’s resignation. Because of his classical view of marriage, Brendan Eich was canceled from the company he founded.[10]

West Town’s Nini’s Deli was Yelp’s highest-rated restaurant in Chicago and listed as one of their top 100 places to eat in the U.S. three years in a row. A Cuban-Mexican immigrant couple founded Nini’s, and their sons, Juan and José Riesco, ran it. All were Christians and members of the multiracial, ethnically diverse Metro Praise International church. Nini’s sported a celebrated cuisine of Cuban-inspired dishes and had commercial ties with Adidas, Intelligentsia Coffee, Bang Bang Pie, Molly’s Cupcakes, and Nike.

The Riesco’s success story came to a screeching halt in a matter of days, though, in June 2020. Because they did not publicly signal solidarity with Black Lives Matter, and because of their Christian stance on homosexuality, they were labeled racist and homophobic. Droves of former satisfied customers turned on them, and protesters descended on Nini’s Deli like a tidal wave.

Militants threatened to burn the deli down and kill the Riescos. They found out where family members worked and pressed the employers to terminate them, which they did. Under pressure from activists, all of Nini’s corporate partners denounced them and canceled them. Thousands mobbed the previously popular corner deli and shut it down.

“If you don’t put Black Lives Matter on your restaurant, it’s just guaranteed to get destroyed,” Juan said. The video footage of the hatred displayed in the name of anti-hatred is chilling.[11] The family fled its beloved Chicago in the middle of the night. The Riescos now live in Dallas.

Three years ago, Ryan Anderson published When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment. You can no longer buy it on Amazon, though. The book violates the company’s current standards. “We have chosen not to sell books that frame LGBTQ+ identity as a mental illness,” Amazon’s Brian Huseman wrote.

“Everyone agrees that gender dysphoria is a serious condition that causes great suffering,” Anderson replied. “There is a debate, however, which Amazon is seeking to shut down, about how best to treat patients who experience gender dysphoria. Amazon is using its massive power to distort the marketplace of ideas and is deceiving its own customers in the process.” [12]

Amazon is responsible for 53% of book sales in the U.S. and 80% of all e-books. What other books will they blacklist, and how will this affect what publishers choose to publish?

“In July 2020, Niel Golightly, a 62-year-old Boeing communications chief was forced to resign for an article he wrote 33 years earlier. As a 29-year-old navy pilot, he’d argued against women serving in combat. He has since disavowed those views. No matter. Though Boeing admitted that the executive made “substantial” contributions in the short time he’d been there, the company has “zero tolerance for bigotry of any kind”—and, apparently, from any time, even the “bigotry” of a recanted view voiced half a lifetime ago.

Chief executive David Calhoun emphasized Boeing’s “unrelenting commitment to diversity and inclusion in all its dimensions, and to ensuring that all of our employees have an equal opportunity to contribute and excel” (emphasis added). The irony of his own statement escaped him, of course.[13]

Soft totalitarianism is frequently enforced with an almost spiritual passion. Former Attorney General William Barr observed:

The secular project has itself become a religion, pursued with religious fervor…including inquisitions and excommunication. Those who defy the creed risk a figurative burning at the stake—social, educational, and professional ostracism and exclusion waged through lawsuits and savage social media campaigns.[14]

“Hard Totalitarianism”

Indeed, the soft totalitarianism imposed by cultural elites can be harsh. When the government steps in, though, the totalitarian amalgam thus created between soft and hard can be Orwellian. For the sake of space, let me briefly offer two instances, though examples like these are increasing at an alarming rate.

In 2013, former Atlanta Fire Chief Kevin Cochran self-published a book for his men's Bible study that condemned homosexuality as contrary to God’s plan. For his efforts, he was suspended without pay for 30 days and told not to comment publicly on the affair.

When, in violation of then-mayor Kasim Reed’s directive, Cochran organized a public relations campaign on his behalf, he was terminated, even though the city’s legal team admitted he had not engaged in illegal discrimination. With the help of Alliance Defending Freedom, Cochran sued and settled out of court for $1.2 million.[15]

As I write, a nefarious bill is moving through the United State Congress that, among other things, effectively erases any physical distinctions between the sexes. It’s called the “Equality Act” and has already passed in the House.

Though federal law already prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, this bill treats sex as a psychological state of mind unrelated to biology. Consequently, males who self-identify as females cannot be denied access to female-only areas that guaranteed privacy in the past. Note the bill’s wording:

An individual shall not be denied access to a shared facility, including a restroom, a locker room, and a dressing room, that is in accordance with the individual’s gender identity.[16]

Further, the Equality Act would actually end equality in women’s sports by preventing women from competing on an equal basis with other women. Biological males—normally excluded from competing against females (that’s the point of women’s sports, after all)—could not be excluded, by law, if they self-identify as females. Women will not only lose races, they’ll lose scholarships, too, as also-rans to biological males who will easily defeat them.[17]

Worse, this act explicitly exempts itself from the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, removing any safe harbor for Christians resisting the provisions of this bill on religious grounds.

Since “discrimination against a married same-sex couple could be based on the sex stereotype that marriage should only be between heterosexual couples, the sexual orientation of the two individuals in the couple, or both,”[18] churches would be vulnerable to criminal prosecution simply for adhering faithfully to biblical teaching. That is how far down the slope we have slipped.

The act also prohibits “discrimination on the basis of pregnancy…or a related medical condition,” using wording that has already been interpreted by courts to include abortion. Thus, those who refuse to perform abortions could be vulnerable to punishment.[19]


At times, the tsunami of change we’re facing seems overwhelming for its force, dizzying for its speed, and chilling for its darkness. It’s easy to begin feeling helpless, but that is not our path. There is another way.

In September 1974, Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Soviet Union and sent into exile. His final salvo was an essay suggesting a remedy for the common citizen, the ordinary person dwarfed by the totalitarian state. He titled it “Live Not by Lies.”

Most of us are not in a position to effect any immediate change in the culture at large. That does not mean we’re powerless, though, he argued. The lies that drive the system can be resisted by ordinary people being faithful to truth while living lives of simple integrity. This approach entails two things.

First, we refuse to be cowed by pressure to affirm falsehood. Like the noble Christians at Nini’s Deli, we stand our ground. We live consistently with our convictions, firmly holding to truth even when we can’t defend it well or make sense of it to outsiders.

Solzhenitsyn counseled not to say, write, affirm, or distribute anything that distorts truth. Rather, walk out of meetings where discussion is forced and truth is not allowed to be spoken.[20] Refuse to affirm what you do not believe. Just say no, but do so respectfully, even when the price for fidelity is public shaming, silencing, or canceling.

Second, we act. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil,” the saying goes, “is for good men to do nothing.” Resisting takes inner courage, of course, and courage starts with small steps. It also takes a group, a family, the Body of Christ. We stand together. It takes outward virtue, too. We are careful to live with integrity in all areas of our lives.

Be direct but courteous in the face of opposition. If asked what your preferred pronoun is, graciously say, “I don’t have a preferred pronoun. I have a sex. I’m male [for example].” When pressured at the office to participate in “sensitivity” seminars that go against your convictions, respectfully decline. If pressed, say, “It appears you’re using your influence as my employer to get me to accept your politics. Do you think that’s a proper use of your power and authority?”

Be prudent, however. Carefully weigh the risks of resistance, counting the cost. Not all hills are worth dying on—but some are.

If we’re clever, we can leverage the culture’s own values against it. For example, when considering adopting a radical sexual education curriculum, our local school district asked (disingenuously, I think) for input from the community during their public meeting. Here is what I wrote for my wife to deliver that evening:

We are a diverse community, and the school board values diversity. That means there are diverse understandings about controversial issues like human sexuality.

Traditionally, parents have been the ones to carefully inform their children about these issues at a time and in a way appropriate for their age, and within the protected environment of the family. The government—represented here by the school board—has not traditionally been allowed to interfere with educating issues so critical to family and so appropriate to private parental nurturing of their children. To do so would be to have individual family beliefs and values overridden by whatever group happened to be in power at the time.

No one set of personal values should be allowed to dictate the beliefs of our children in a public education system that includes such diverse groups as Muslims, and Christians, and Orthodox Jews, and Buddhists, and humanists, and atheists, and so many others.

Public values shared by all, on the other hand—values like honesty, kindness, truth seeking, integrity, respect, etc.—should be encouraged by all, including the schools, since they are agreed upon by all and are not controversial.

However, contentious and divisive personal views should not be forced upon our children. This is indoctrination and replaces the parent’s rightful role.

When government takes over the responsibility of informing our children’s private and personal moral values instead of the parents and individual families doing so, it is a step towards oppression and a significant and serious violation of the diversity and multicultural respect the school board stands for.

If any group in power gets to force their personal values on our kids, then when a different group gets power, they will be able to force their personal values on that group’s kids. Neither is consistent with diversity, tolerance, or appropriate American liberty.

Please, I respectfully implore you: Leave that job to the parents of the children that belong to them…and not to the state.

Until now, it’s cost us virtually nothing to be Christian in America. I am convinced those days are rapidly coming to a close. “A time of painful testing, even persecution, is coming,” Dreher warns. “Lukewarm or shallow Christians will not come through with their faith intact.”[21]

Choosing not to live by lies can change culture over time, but that is not its immediate purpose, in my view. Its purpose is not principally pragmatic, but ethical. We live not by lies because it’s wrong before God to do so, even if it costs us.


[1] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956.

[2] Find “Iron Curtain Diary” and “The Primal Heresy” at str.org.

[3] Rod Dreher, Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents (New York City: Sentinel, 2020), xi.

[4] Ibid, 7–8.

[5] William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960), 247–8.

[6] Note the sobering documentary “The Social Dilemma,” available on Netflix.

[7] Dreher, 76–77.

[8] Ibid, 71.

[9] Bari Weiss, “The Miseducation of America’s Elites,” City Journal, March 9, 2021.

[10] Alistair Barr, “Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich Steps Down,” The Wall Street Journal, April 3, 2014.

[12] Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg, The Wall Street Journal, “Amazon Won’t Sell Books Framing LGBTQ+ Identities as Mental Illnesses.”

[14] William Barr, Justice News, “Remarks to the University of Notre Dame Law School,” October 11, 2019.

[18] Ibid.

[20] Dreher, 18.

[21] Ibid, 160.