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Religion & Liberty: Volume 30, Number 1

Return of the false gods

Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West | R. R. Reno | Gateway Editions | 2019 | 208 pages

Numerous books have been written in recent years on the demise of liberalism in today’s age of “populism” and social disintegration. The newest entry is Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West by Rusty Reno, the editor of First Things. While Reno has been seen as the main protagonist behind that journal’s new, critical view of liberalism, he, in contrast to others, says that this is “not a crisis of liberalism, modernity, or the West.” A liberal society “can be wealthy and moderate,” and “the marketplace can generate wealth and give us elbow room to make up our own minds about how to live.” Those who try to trace “the cancerous tumor that is killing the West” to liberalism or nominalism miss the target. Instead, he sees the “post-war consensus” of “liberalism” at fault. 

Throughout his book, Reno returns to the peculiar and vague concept of “strong gods,” which are “the object of men’s love and devotion, the sources of the passions and loyalties that unite societies.” They can include traditions, national or local identities, historical narratives like the American founding, or modern ideologies – such as the concept of objective truth itself.

Strong gods can be destructive, as they were in the first half of the twentieth century. “Dark gods stormed through Europe, eventually setting aflame most of the world and bringing death to millions,” he writes. They can lead to eccentricity, as we saw in the age of “militarism, fascism, communism, racism, and anti-Semitism.”

Reno posits that, as a reaction to this destruction, the postwar consensus adopted a system that opposed strong gods per se, whether good or evil. The newly adopted mantra held that “whatever is strong – strong loves and strong truths – leads to oppression, while liberty and prosperity require the reign of weak loves and weak truths.” The alleged weakening process, he writes, developed into a “negative piety” in which all objective truth is scorned as “a threat to liberal norms.” Postwar liberalism amounts to the “strong conviction about the danger of strong convictions.”

Reno is “not opposed to the anti-totalitarian struggles of the last century.” Indeed, “by certain measures, the postwar consensus has been remarkably successful” in establishing peace and prosperity. Yet, Reno writes, it has become unhealthy. 

Reno analyzes many different thinkers across the postwar political spectrum who, in his opinion, advocated such views: Karl Popper, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Albert Camus, and Jacques Derrida. He writes that they shared a common attempt to disenchant the world, which, in contrast to the pre-war era, was now considered laudable. Instead of trying to nurture strong gods, the West should let technocrats and experts develop impartial policy through scientific, cost-benefit-analysis. Economically, the market, through spontaneous order, would lead to a similarly impersonal process. He derides this as “a utopian dream of politics without transcendence, peace without unity, and justice without virtue.”

In a particularly luminous chapter, Reno shows how even architecture has sunk into this world of sameness and simplicity. The great cathedrals of Europe tried to connect buildings with the community, its past, and transcendent truths. Today, architecture “reflects an explicit ideology of negation,” where simple design – or any sign of openness – is considered great, as long as it does not relate explicitly to a country’s or community’s heritage, or offend anyone.

This culture of negative piety leaves societies and individuals ill at ease. By ignoring the possibility of objective truth and replacing it with hyper-personalized values, Western society naturally feels lost. In an uncentered, technocratic world, those who are losing out in the alleged win-win of liberalism need to “worry that they will have no role in the globalized economy.” 

What is his solution? For Reno, it should be a cautious return of the strong gods: “The political and cultural crisis of the West today is the result of our refusal – perhaps incapacity – to honor the strong gods that stiffen the spine and inspire loyalty.” In contrast to the previous century, the West should adopt “noble loves,” which must be broadly shared so that genuine community can develop. This requires society to reevaluate the concept of “the common good.” Indeed, our world “begs for a politics of loyalty and solidarity.”

Yet the identities of these strong, unifying gods remain vague. And although Reno clearly opposes totalitarianism, the concept remains a slippery slope. He mentions the noble loves of solidarity, country, and religion – but also of self-government, sovereignty, freedom, and reason. But taken to the extreme, any of these gods can create unintended consequences. For instance, extreme solidarity can lead to socialism, extreme patriotism to nationalism of the imperialist variety, extreme freedom to libertinism, and extreme reason to a scientism that rejects faith and tradition on supposedly rational grounds. Postwar liberals’ realization that strong gods tend to create fanaticism deserves our gratitude. Many of them correctly argued that moderation creates the stable and cohesive society necessary for these “noble loves” to be followed in a prudent way.

Reno cogently explains how ever-greater openness and diversity eventually lead to disenchantment and a soft totalitarianism. However, he underestimates the positive principles liberalism successfully instituted in the postwar era, like greater equality and justice. Further, some of the thinkers he accuses of emptiness or negation, such as Hayek, passionately believed in a positive view of society. Indeed, the postwar West is far from devoid of its own “strong gods.” The Left believes in equality, social justice, or Mother Earth; libertarians believe in freedom as an inherent good. Just because Reno does not agree with these strong gods does not mean that liberals lack them.

Reno’s diagnosis is missing one crucial component of the postwar consensus: the consistent advance of political centralization since 1945. Throughout the book, Reno erroneously argues that postwar politics has favored free markets, free trade, deregulation, and entrepreneurship. It almost seems as if he thinks EU bureaucrats and the Washington “swamp” get their plans from the works of Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises. 

Over the last seven decades, governments have become more and more intrusive – building lumbering welfare states, which they financed through massive public debt and sky-high taxes, and inserting regulations into all areas of private life. Their thirst for centralization has shackled the market through regulation and cronyism. Some national powers have been assumed by supranational organizations like the European Union, constraining the very sovereignty that Reno says he seeks to revitalize. This centralization has hurt social institutions like the family and the church. It leaves people feeling alienated, while a small political elite sets policy for hundreds of millions of strangers. 

Due to this oversight, Reno discounts any decentralizing ideas by the postwar thinkers he analyzes. He admits that “only a few actually make the laws.” At the same time, he criticizes William F. Buckley Jr. for calling for more pluralism, because “it disperses, rather than concentrates” power, and he lambasts Hayek for arguing in The Road to Serfdom that people seek the peace and “freedom to build up once more their own little worlds.”

Reno brilliantly shows how “our leadership class is so thoroughly blinded by the postwar consensus” that it ignores the problems citizens face today, including “atomization, dissolving communal bonds, disintegrating family ties, and a nihilistic culture of limitless self-definition.” Why, then, does he still trust these few to govern the many? Why not advance real self-government by decentralizing and strengthening local institutions? Why not include subsidiarity as a strong god? It often seems as though Reno takes centralization for granted, underestimating its damaging effects and its role in the negative piety and social disintegration he diagnoses.

It almost seems that Reno realizes his oversight in his afterword. “Men always rally around the sacred,” he writes, so we have to be careful that the public square does not displace the sacred. “We easily imagine the nation as more than our civic home; it is our savior. To combat this idolatry,” we need to supplement this political community with “the domestic society of marriage and the supernatural community of the church, synagogue, and other communities of transcendence.” Or, put differently, public life needs to be complemented by a strengthening of civil society and private institutions.

This is the crucial point to take away from Reno’s sometime vague but overall thought-provoking book: A renewal of our society, of our institutions, and, for us Christians, of our faith, is possible. This renewal “will be painfully difficult.” It might take time. But “our task is to use our freedom and intelligence in doing so. We must return to the terrain that can be stabilized, though never finally fixed. This is a religious, cultural, and political task. It is ours.” It should remain ours, and it can most effectively be achieved when power is devolved from the leadership class into the hands of the people. 

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Kai Weiss is the research and outreach coordinator at the Austrian Economics Center and a board member of the Hayek Institute