In his new book, R.R. Reno seeks to reacquaint us with the moral and political significance of what the sociologist Emile Durkheim called the “strong gods,” which Reno describes as “love of the divine, love of truth, love of country, love of family.” He wants to wean Westerners from the 20th century’s “postwar consensus” that still unites us “culturally, even spiritually” around “anti-totalitarian, anti-fascist, and anti-nationalist” narratives. These narratives have committed us to worshipping “weak gods”—openness, diversity, multiculturalism—to protect us from the strong gods of nation and religion that might turn back the clock to 1939 or 1914.
The postwar consensus once made sense, Reno says, but in our day its imperatives have become “flesh-eating dogmas” that deprive us of solidarity. Reno sensibly observes: “It is not 1939. Our societies are not … marching in lockstep. Central planners do not clog our economies. There is no longer an overbearing bourgeois culture bent on ‘exclusion.’” It is time for the weak gods, spawned by a 20th century that seems to be refusing to end, to be ushered off the stage. It is time for the “return of the strong gods.”
The acids of free trade, identity politics, multiculturalism, mass migration, gender fluidity, drug overdoses, and abortion are dissolving our societies, Reno claims. The postwar consensus in many ways caused or reinforced these baleful trends and is incapable of confronting them. The enforcement arm of the consensus views the rise of populist politics through exclusively anti-fascist, anti-racist lenses and therefore condemns it without understanding that such politics might be the rattle of great confusion and anomie. In this regard, Reno asserts that “Trump, Viktor Orbán, and other populist challengers are not choirboys or immaculate liberals.” But, Reno says, “their limitations are not nearly as dangerous to the West as the fanaticism of our leadership class, whose hyper-moralistic sense of mission—either us or Hitler!—prevents us from addressing our economic, demographic, cultural, and political problems.” An elite class that insists on addressing these evident problems in our politics and culture with more “openness” and politically correct policing “will shipwreck our nations.”
Our times demand the recovery of the strong gods that can “unite societies” because they are “the objects of men’s love and devotion.” These gods of “King and country” can give us solidarity because “the ‘we’ is their gift” to us. Strong gods unite us, but as Reno also states, they can destroy us. Short shrift, though, is given to the latter concern by Reno because, he says, we have been thoroughly indoctrinated with ideologies of disenchantment that now automatically lead us away from love of country, family, and religion.
Why does Reno, a Catholic and the editor of the predominantly Christian journal First Things, discourse so heavily on the strong gods? Doesn’t he want the primary stress to be on the God, and how that God both limits and legitimizes government? Reno says that Durkheim’s analysis “is not discordant with the biblical view,” because in the “Judeo-Christian tradition, governing powers are not deities, but their dictates are tinctured with divine legitimacy.” The word “tinctured” is doing a great deal of work in that sentence; it deserves its own chapter just to explain how that tincture works.
Reno also notes that our love for the strong gods “is always eccentric. It impels us outside ourselves, breaking the boundaries of me-centered existence. Love seeks to unite with and rest in that which is loved. This outflowing of the self makes love the engine of solidarity.” If this is true, and I believe it is true, then we better be right about not only the strong gods we love but the limitations we place on the ecstatic nature of that love.
State power is a volatile weapon, never more dangerous than when its rulers believe themselves on the side of the angels. Reno might recall the minimal consensus that shaped our country’s founding that both facilitated and limited the national government’s powers, accorded authority to the states for particular matters of self-government, and refrained from establishing a national religion while leaving state governments largely free to legislate on matters of morality and religion (a freedom the 14th Amendment later narrowed). Our political debates are still oriented broadly by the contours of this consensus, with conservatives wanting to breathe new life into it. Should the “strong gods” replace it and anchor a post-constitutional America rooted in the “we” of solidarity? It’s a question the author does not address.
Have Americans truly pulled away from national loyalty, religion, and marriage under the guise of Reno’s postwar consensus theory? The evidence is mixed. To be sure, many of our dominant intellectual motifs support Reno’s thesis. The militancy of transgender ideology, woke capitalism, and transnational progressivism on the liberal left is striking. The rise of certain secular trends such as the “nones” expressing no institutional religious belief, inclines us in the direction of obeying the weak gods. Our politics, however, remains brutally competitive. The conservative legal movement, despite the fact that progressives own much of legal pedagogy in America, punches beyond its weight. As for the decline of religion, the solution, at least for Christians, is found in the Gospel itself. I am skeptical that the strong gods are of much use on that score.
Reno heavily focuses on solidarity—defined as the historical and living elements that unite a nation—as a “ministry of the strong gods” to us here below. However, there is no mention, even in passing, of its twinned accompaniment in the principle of subsidiarity, according to which power is best and most fairly used when it is exercised closest to those who are subject to it. After all, the voices of dissolution Reno is rightly concerned with equally dismiss subsidiarity. Their universal humanitarian and egalitarian goals demand the dismantling and reworking of local and national boundaries, to say nothing of our bodies and their borders. But healthy national orders acknowledge the moral formation of their citizens in families and communities and other local and associational entities.
Likewise, there is no discussion in the book of the proper ground, nature, or use of political freedom. At one point, Reno indicts free markets as anarchistic because markets have no higher purpose. Here’s a purpose: Americans go to work every day to provide for their families and loved ones. Their consumer purchases in large part are for the people they care about and love. This is a crucial piece of self-government in the life of a free and responsible American, as much as it’s also about markets and the good things they make possible. Part of civil order and the common good is liberty, self-governance, and local rule. While a purely autonomist liberty is dangerous to good order, authority without due regard for self-government must also be avoided.
According to Reno, one thing is sure: Postwar conservatism will be of little assistance in re-adorning the stripped altars of the strong gods. Its quarrel with the postwar left “has been a sibling rivalry.” While the left, in its commitment to openness, focused on the autonomy of the individual, the right focused on market deregulation and economic freedom. He argues that both left and right in the West agree on a technocratic, economistic politics, and are equally against “metaphysical temptations” and have “encouraged a discourse of critique that unmasks” claims of truth.
Reno is right about aspects of libertarianism and progressive ideology, but he is wrong about American conservatism as a whole. Ironically, he quotes from Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences (1948), a book that defined the intellectual horizon for many postwar conservatives in America. Weaver’s very metaphysical book argues that philosophic nominalism has become our curse and points to a return to serious classical philosophical study in order to heal the West. Other examples of postwar conservatives who wrote in a metaphysical and natural-law key, even more influential than Weaver, easily come to mind: Russell Kirk, Willmoore Kendall, Whittaker Chambers, Harry Jaffa, Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, among others. Reno’s predecessor at First Things, the late Father Richard Neuhaus, offered metaphysical and natural law teachings in virtually every number he edited, while assembling a group of ecumenical and interdisciplinary scholars who resolutely defended on metaphysical and moral terms the American founding, markets, and constitutional law. In the process, Neuhaus shaped the minds of countless conservatives.
American conservatism has struggled to stem the tide of the weak gods. It also hasn’t exactly been a fair institutional contest. Rather than displacing much of that heritage, a most un-conservative move, and substituting Reno’s “strong gods” for it, we should develop William F. Buckley Jr.’s statement of conservative belief in Up from Liberalism (1959): “freedom, individuality, the sense of community, the sanctity of the family, the supremacy of conscience, the spiritual view of life,” with each element held “in proportion as political power is decentralized.” No strong gods or weak gods are necessary.