A specter is haunting the West; our elites see intolerant authoritarianism—along with a plethora of related “-phobias” and “-isms”—everywhere. Populist eruptions and governments from Brexit to Budapest to President Trump are perceived as confirmation of their fears, necessitating increasingly ferocious efforts to defend liberal democratic pluralism and its virtues of openness, tolerance, and inclusivity.
In his new book, Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West, First Things editor R.R. Reno argues that these fears are mistaken. Rather than protecting us from intolerance and fascism, they are casting out the human loves that sustain cultures and nations against such darkness.
Unlike many writers sympathetic to nationalism and populism, Reno does not direct the blame for our present discontents upon anything so broad as liberalism, modernity, or the Reformation, or anyone so specific as John Locke or William of Ockham.
Rather, he addresses the postwar consensus that blamed the horrors of two World Wars on the “strong gods” that inspire strong loves and strong truth claims. The strong gods are not “golden idols or characters in ancient mythologies…They are whatever has the power to inspire love.” In public life, they are “the objects of our shared loves,” including not only the nation but also its symbols and heroes. And they have been banished as disturbers of the peace.
Reno presents the philosopher Karl Popper, author of The Open Society and Its Enemies, as a preeminent apostle of this “negative piety.” Popper argued that the Western philosophical tradition inaugurated by Plato was oppressive because it sought to know the truth, and “insofar as truth is known, it must be affirmed, which is to say obeyed. Therein lies the danger…Popper sees any form of transcendence as implicitly totalitarian.” In this analysis, we would be better off without capital-T Truth, for it divides us; it does not bring peace, but a sword.
Therefore, the postwar imperative of “never again!” necessitated disenchantment, openness, and weakness to dissolve the “strong beliefs and powerful loyalties thought to have fueled the conflicts that convulsed the twentieth century.” For instance, the project of the European Union is not just of easier trade and travel, but a deliberate dissolution of national identity and loyalty.
Reno demonstrates the development and eventual dominance of this viewpoint by examining a variety of figures, including George H. W. Bush, Friedrich Hayek, Albert Camus, and Jacques Derrida. Each contributed to the consensus against the strong gods and the trend, only accelerated by the end of the Cold War, toward greater openness: open minds, open economies, open borders, and open marriages.
Reno does overlook John Lennon, whose “Imagine” might be the purest popular expression of this: “Imagine there’s no countries/It isn’t hard to do/Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion, too.” A peaceful “brotherhood of man” will be achieved by weakening and dissolving strong loves and loyalties, when there are no differences worth killing or dying for.
Reservations about this program have withered among Western elites. Reno notes that “the center-left reconciled itself to openness in the economy, the center-right made its peace with ever-greater cultural openness.” The letters LGBT are now brought to you by Wall Street.
Of course, the demands of tolerance are not universal. The strong gods are still suppressed and exiled, and the heretic-hunting inquisitors of diversity have become more paranoid and vindictive in triumph. Pronouns are policed, nonconformist bakers are punished, and from the campus to HR, the bureaucracy of tolerance is a hybrid of the Kafkaesque and the Orwellian. New forms of intolerance and oppression are constantly discovered, and the exquisite sensibilities of the “woke” are able to detect racism, sexism, and so on down to 1 part per million.
Advocates of the postwar consensus point to populist outbreaks as evidence that these repressive measures are necessary to protect the open society from its enemies. But the current populisms in the West are responses to the excess and failures of the postwar consensus, not to its absence. The immediate danger is not that of dark, strong gods, but of a vacuum. Our problems are not those of a closed society, but of one that is too open. We are not suffering from too much solidarity and loyalty, but dissolution.
This is exemplified by a leadership class that is disloyal to those it seeks to lead. On issues of economics and immigration, the rhetoric of openness has gone hand in hand with the ruthless exploitation of cheap labor and the disavowal of economic solidarity with fellow citizens. As Reno notes, “Our center-left leadership class will promise to subsidize working-class consumption, but it won’t reorient the global economy toward their employment.” Welfare, yes; jobs, no—just give the proles some cash so they can distract themselves with cheap consumer goods made in China. The costs of working-class decline are just one more thing for corporations to outsource.
Populist claims that the system is rigged resonate because there is truth in them. Elites are insulated from the worst effects of the cultural and economic dissolution they support. Reno observes that, “For all their talk of an open economy and open society, those in the upper echelons of our society work very hard to protect their children.” Everyone wants a secure future for their children, even if it requires ideological hypocrisy—just look at well-off white liberal parents in New York City and the schools they send their children to.
A broader sense of solidarity no longer informs our culture and economy. We are becoming homeless; a place to live is not the same as a place to belong, and the postwar consensus has deconstructed the sources of belonging. We were told that diversity and inclusion would provide “a home without walls” in which everyone felt welcomed and accepted, but this has not come to pass. Those subjected to these therapies of the open society still seek loyalty and solidarity, which often leads to nurturing grievances and embracing identity politics.
The postwar consensus is in crisis because it is unbalanced; the more dominant it becomes, the more destabilizing its neglect of basic human needs for belonging and solidarity becomes. Reno therefore declares that “We don’t need more diversity and innovation. We need a home. And for that, we will require the return of the strong gods.” The peace and prosperity the postwar consensus promised (and to some degree delivered) is not enough, for humans are not livestock.
The Anti-Human Consensus
We are not fulfilled by a boundless world of autonomous individuality and weak loves. We long to love and be loved. We long for a “we” to belong to and share our love with. In Reno’s words:
We desire to live shoulder to shoulder with our fellow man in the service of shared loves. So no, we are not safer with never-ending critique, the spontaneous order of the free market, technocratic management of utilities, and the other therapies of weakening. Disenchantment will not make our society more humane. When the open society becomes an enemy of shared loves, when critical intelligence wages total war against our anchoring convictions, our spiritual, cultural, and political consensus becomes anti-human.
Discontent is the inevitable result of a political and cultural consensus that is, “at root, fearful of love.” Men may do terrible things for strong loves and loyalties. The strong gods may demand dreadful sacrifices. But “the project of peace without love cannot go on much longer. Man was not created to be alone…We yearn to join ourselves to others, not only in the bond of matrimony, but in civic and religious bonds as well.” Thus, it is not a question of whether the strong gods will return, but what they will be.
The strong gods are coming back. They cannot be wished or sneered or critiqued away. Denouncing tribalism and complaining about ingratitude (as many advocates of the current consensus do) will not keep populism and other passions at bay. Limiting and restraining the dark potential of the strong gods of politics requires the stronger gods of family and faith.
G.K. Chesterton’s observation regarding the Roman Republic remains relevant, for “only men to whom the family is sacred will ever have a standard or status by which to criticize the state. They alone can appeal to something more holy than the gods of the city; the gods of the hearth.” We may also appeal to a God above the gods of the city. A man’s love for God above him, and for his family around him, provide strength that can defy the demands of the state.
As Reno puts it, “The perverse gods of blood, soil, and identity cannot be overcome with the open society therapies of weakening.” They can only be defeated by strong gods that ennoble and elevate. Therefore, he concludes that our task “is to restore public life in the West by developing a language of love and a vision of the ‘we’ that befits our dignity and appeals to our reason as well as to our hearts.”
Reno ends with this call to action, but he has not provided a definitive treatise. Rather, this slim volume is a self-conscious conscious reframing that surveys subjects from statesmen, theologians, and philosophers to architects, authors, and economists. Readers may quibble with parts of it (I would place much more emphasis on the continuity between liberal ideology and the postwar consensus), but the broad argument is persuasive and timely.
This book provides a disenchantment and deconstruction of the postwar consensus itself, revealing that it is not an eternal verity or the sole legitimate basis for culture and government, but a contingent response to the catastrophes of the last century. As such it was understandable, but mistaken. The goal of preventing fanaticism and authoritarianism was laudable, but the method of draining away particularity and its loyalties was not.
Endless openness is making us lonely, homeless, and anxious amidst our material plenitude, and has enervated the elevating loves that alone can resist the strong, dark gods of this world. The strong gods are returning. We will choose whom we serve by who and what we love.