This November’s presidential election could be understood in many different ways. It could be seen as a referendum on Donald Trump’s eventful first four years in the White House. It could be viewed as a response to the president’s impeachment and acquittal in Congress. Or perhaps it could be taken as just the latest election in which a majority of Americans are frustrated with an uninspired, binary choice. But there is a larger narrative unfolding in the mind of First Things editor R. R. Reno, with much more at stake than just the next four years.
In Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West, Reno traces the condition of Western society in the aftermath of the “postwar consensus.” Prioritizing openness and free markets in order to prevent global catastrophes like the two world wars, this consensus has shaped the most influential thinking of our age, from Karl Popper and Jacques Derrida to Friedrich Hayek and William F. Buckley. Reno says it has affected most aspects of society and culture, including politics, economics, education, and even architecture.
In terms of preventing another global conflict, the postwar consensus has been an unmitigated success. But at what cost? As Reno tells the story, the West is now facing several pressing challenges that ought to be laid at its doorstep, including widespread addiction, disenchantment, and loneliness, along with a general loss of social solidarity. And the ruling class—comprised of liberals and conservatives alike—is too focused on maintaining this consensus to notice or care. Yes, countries may not be perpetually on the brink of war, and free trade has made the world more prosperous and closely connected than ever before. But while the postwar consensus has safeguarded and strengthened the global community, Reno sees a loosening of the ties binding individuals to community and nation, ties that lend their lives stability and purpose.
Notably, in assigning blame for these developments, Reno does not focus on just one faction of the political ruling class. He has no shortage of criticism for the political left, referring to identity politics as a “cancer” and expressing impatience with those who “despise patriotic ceremonies and traditions.” But he also takes to task those on the political right who have bought into the postwar consensus—proponents of free market capitalism, he believes, have contributed just as much to the hollowing out of Western society as cultural liberals have.
Reno does not believe we can correct these problems under our current political and social arrangement. As he writes in his prologue, “We need to face the challenges of the twenty-first century, not the twentieth.” Instead, he argues, Western society must welcome back the “strong gods” it once tossed aside. What exactly are these strong gods? One is clearly nationalism, which Reno equates with “cherish[ing] self-government.” The postwar consensus demonized nationalism as a driver of conflict, but Reno sees it—and its cousin, patriotism—as a positive force for unity at a moment when society is remarkably fractured. Two other strong gods are the family and the church, institutions that started breaking down as the postwar consensus emphasized other, potentially competing values.
But if there is a leader among the strong gods, it is populism. This is a belief system bigger than Donald Trump or Brexit or Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister. Populism, according to Reno, challenges the hegemony of the “leadership class.” It emphasizes “strong borders, not open ones; advantageous trade, not open trade; loyalty and patriotism, not open minds.” And it reflects “a growing sense that ‘we’ needs shoring up.” Reno believes that by embracing the strong gods of populism, nationalism, and the like, the West can address the negative effects of the postwar consensus, effectively confront the challenges of the past century, and put itself on a stable footing going forward.
Return of the Strong Gods is sweeping yet concise—the ground Reno covers in just 170 pages is impressive. But the book’s weaknesses are clear in part because of that very succinctness. One consistent problem with Reno’s work is the lack of support he lends to his secondary claims. For example, when discussing the problems of modern education, he writes, “Most education professionals think it’s good for young children to have transgender teachers.” While we occasionally see stories of drag queens in libraries and gender fluidity in the classroom, it is something else to claim without evidence that “most educational professionals” recognize this as a good in itself. A collection of anecdotes does not a consensus make. Reno’s characterization about those protesting Donald Trump’s inauguration—“overwrought women in ridiculous hats”—is similarly problematic and ultimately unhelpful.
The book also occasionally falls prey to odd errors and omissions. For example, in criticizing Barack Obama’s infamous observation that many in the white working class “cling to [their] guns or religion,” Reno writes that Obama’s remark was directed toward “those who were insufficiently appreciative of his leadership.” But Obama said this during his first presidential campaign in 2008, in the context of a larger description of people being left behind by the same leadership class Reno is inclined to criticize. And though Reno critiques the “open borders” sentiment that permeates the postwar consensus, he omits any discussion of the waves of immigration during other periods of American history. In his discussion of the “shared loves” that fuel patriotic attachment, for example, what would he make of the experience of Ellis Island?
Reasons for Skepticism
The message at the heart of Return of the Strong Gods may be tempting for Christians. The central critique of the postwar consensus is that it has transformed society from a connected, united, and shared community to an atomized, anomic shell its past self. Of course, Christians should seek community with those around us, and if the postwar consensus has made that more difficult, then why shouldn’t Christians oppose this arrangement? And there is plenty to lament about the state of contemporary society from a Christ-centered perspective, including the well-documented decline of the traditional family unit and the diminishing influence of the church in our culture.
But are the strong gods the answer? There are reasons for Christians to be skeptical. The values of nationalism and patriotism are not inherently bad, but elevating them the way Reno wants could turn them into the very idols he decries. Moreover, this book conjures some of the more worrisome features of recent debates over the heritage and future of “liberalism” in the West. Culturally conservative writers like Sohrab Ahmari and Patrick Deneen have taken aim at America’s emphasis on individual rights and freedoms, blaming the liberal tradition for undermining faith, family, community, and the common good. Yet as other (equally culturally conservative) writers like David French have countered, Christians need not abandon the whole of liberalism simply because it produces some results they do not like; indeed, this would be a case of the cure being worse than the ailment. Liberalism long predates the postwar consensus, of course, but I cannot help wondering whether a similar caution applies to Reno.
As we continue to struggle with our role in a changing, increasingly inhospitable culture, we would be wise to remember where our identity ultimately lies: neither in our nation nor in our culture, but wholly and completely in Jesus. Such knowledge should equip us to engage our culture in a way that confidently transcends its conventions, rather than shaping our behavior and solutions to the culture as it is or has been. Put differently, Christians can respond to the challenges of the postwar consensus without embracing a return to some sort of pre–postwar consensus.
Despite its shortcomings, Return of the Strong Gods is successful in prompting serious reflection on the challenges of our moment. And considering that the strong gods do appear to be knocking on the door of the West, this is precisely the sort of reflection in which Christians ought to be engaged.
Daniel Bennett teaches political science at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. He is the author of Defending Faith: The Politics of the Christian Conservative Legal Movement (University Press of Kansas).
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