This is a time of ferment on the American right; that much has become abundantly clear. The post-Reagan consensus built around social conservatism and economic libertarianism is failing, trampled down by an economy that has left middle America behind and betrayed by the fact that Republican donors who bankroll this agenda turned out to never actually care about social conservatism to begin with. The outcome has been a weakening of civil society, a fraying social safety net, and a society marked by isolation, all of which makes us more vulnerable to mental illness and, as we’re seeing today, to actual physical illness in the case of the COVID-19 virus.
In such a moment we should not be surprised by the sight of many intellectuals and politicians seeming to flail about in search of a policy vision for post-Trump America. In the midst of this loud debate, Rusty Reno’s Return of the Strong Gods is one of the better books addressing the debates on the American right. Core to Reno’s argument is the idea that the open society of the post-war years is not able to provide a solid basis for shared culture. And many of the problems we are experiencing today either are due to the lack of a shared culture or are made dramatically worse by the lack of a shared culture. That said, because Reno fails to provide a valid method of distinguishing between types of ‘strong gods’, he begins to flail about as he turns toward prescription. At best, it is a hesitant and uncertain ending. At worst, it is straightforwardly idolatrous.
Popper’s Open Society
What does Reno mean by ‘the open society?’ To define the concept, Reno uses several sources, most notably the post-war philosopher Karl Popper (who wrote a book titled The Open Society and Its Enemies) and the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek.
For these post-war figures, the lesson of the first half of the 20th century was simple: When we allow our societies to define themselves according to narrow, positively defined visions of themselves, tragic conflict is inevitable, bloody, and nearly impossible to resolve. The closed society, in their view, is inherently an incubator for hatred and bigotry which must eventually spill over into actual wars. In particular, the strong gods must be rejected. What are the strong gods?
The strong gods are not golden idols or characters in ancient mythologies, as Durkheim recognized. They are whatever has the power to inspire love—love of the divine, love of truth, love of country, love of family. Love need not be social, at least not in its immediate object. The strong gods are not necessarily public or political. The desert monks of early Christianity sought union with God in the isolation of their cells. A mathematical genius can be a solitary slave to his love of the universal language of mathematics. But love 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. The strong gods of public life are quite simply the objects of our shared loves. They are whatever arouses in us an ardor to wed our destinies to that which we love.
According to Reno’s interpretation of Popper and Hayek, amongst others, the ‘strong gods’ of public life—nationalism, common culture, established religion, and so on—can only lead their worshippers into apocalypse. This is because nations that honor the strong gods have self-conceptions that cannot be compromised. When you have a number of nations all with strongly held self conceptions they are willing to fiercely defend, you end up with long, bloody, brutal wars.
Thus the way we avoid producing more world wars, according to Popper and Hayek, is simple: You must identify weaker, more open means of defining nations. You must then build a sense of national identity around those. By doing so, you deny to the nation the spiritual fuel needed to produce catastrophic wars.
The Success of the Open Society
To an extent this really has worked—it has been 75 years since we had a major war in Europe, which is a relatively long peace by the standards of European history. What’s more, we have achieved a level of wealth and stability in the years following World War II that is unprecedented in human history. The argument is, therefore, not that the open society is an unmitigated disaster. That clearly is not the case.
Rather, the argument is that the open society is premised in a reductionistic way of seeing the human person. Therefore, it fails to adequately acknowledge many genuine goods that people aspire to together and even, in fact, need in order to live fulfilled lives. These needs must either be fulfilled by other bodies that the open society does not include or recognize or people will reject the open society in order to find other ways of obtaining the desired goods.
Thus the triumph of the open society has come with a steep price tag. There are costs Reno doesn’t mention, though he ought to have—the costs to our land, farms, and climate most notably. Indeed, if he had spent any time developing this critique he could’ve aligned himself more clearly with both the Pope Emeritus and the current occupant of Peter’s chair, both of whom have a deeply ecological reading of our culture of death. Unfortunately, Reno misses this opportunity to broaden and enrich his critique.
That being said, these are not the only costs of the open society. There are others—and Reno addresses them at length. He is most concerned with the spiritual cost of Popper’s world. The chief problem is that an open society lacks an account within itself for transcendence. It is wholly imminent and relies on individual people and smaller communities to arrive at their own accounts of transcendence. Or, perhaps, one might say, to define their own conception of meaning and existence.
The issue of transcendence is central for Reno and rightly so. Years ago Anthony Esolen described the importance of the transcendent in human development in Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, sardonically writing that,
‘The beginning of philosophy is wonder,’ said Aristotle, and if that is so, then what is its end? Nothing other than the fulfillment of wonder: the contemplation of truth, the unchanging Good, the First Mover. Aristotle is reticent about it, as befits someone who does not wish to reduce his dearest love to a checkout slip in some educational cafeteria. But dogs do not wonder, nor do the birds contemplate. Man, when he is thriving, does both. And that is what we must ensure that our children should not do, lest their hearts move toward the unpredictable. They must not be stirred by what David Hart has called ‘the beauty of the infinite.’ Will it make them less than human? Yes, indeed. But the fully human, wild and prone to fighting and loving, destroying and building anew, is not what the modern world requires. We are past all that.
Reno makes a similar point near the end of the book.
First, this excerpt:
I sympathize with the post war figures discussed in these pages. I, too, fear the power of the sacred in public life. Anyone who reads the Bible knows that divine power can annihilate as well as uplift, destroy as well as sanctify. But it is perilous to ignore certain truths about our humanity.
Durkheim was right. To be human is to seek transcendent warrants and sacred sources for our social existence. As a consequence, a too rigorously anti-utopian outlook is itself dangerously utopian.
Then the key passage further along in the final chapter:
The project of peace without love cannot go on much longer. Man was not created to be alone. We do not desire calm, not even when satiated by countless pleasures. We yearn to join ourselves to others, not only in the bond of matrimony but in civic and religious bonds as well. The ‘we’ arises out of love, a ferocious power that seeks to rest in something greater than oneself. In the first half of the twentieth century, perverse loves destroyed a great deal in the West, not just lives and buildings, but cultural legitimacy as well.
It is not surprising that Popper’s open society and Hayek’s spontaneous market order gained the upper hand. Nevertheless, the death camps, gulags, atomic bombs, and killing fields, however horrible, did not destroy human nature. Our hearts remain restless. They seek to rest in loyalty to strong gods worthy of love’s devotion and sacrifice. And our hearts will find what they seek.
Earlier Reno invoked the idea of common objects of love, though he called them “the common objects of our shared loves.” Now he writes that our hearts are restless. To invoke both common objects of love and restless hearts is to invoke the ghost of Augustine, yet Augustine is a strange conversation partner to draw into a project such as Reno’s, for Augustine would see this entire way of framing the conversation as an exercise in idolatry.
The Augustinian Shadow Over Reno’s Work
In Book 19 of the City of God, Augustine considers the question of the greatest good that human beings can work toward together and how the cities of man and of God think about that good. Almost immediately, he condemns any attempt to find the greatest good in this life on grounds that the greatest good humans can enjoy is life with God and that cannot be fully experienced in this life. This is a central insight for Augustine, because it makes clear that ultimately there is only one supreme good that truly satisfies, only one supreme good that humans desire—to know and love God.
While Reno does not suggest that transcendent goods can be realized in this life, he does have a tendency to relativize the differences between man’s true supreme good and the various idols that human beings prop up in place of that good. Thus the curious way in which Reno moves from “love of the divine” to “love of country.” In Reno’s taxonomy, these are both strong gods. In Augustine’s, they are (most commonly) rivals—and whoever loves country more than Christ is not worthy of the life eternal.
This is the besetting problem for much of Reno’s recent work. He is routinely sharp and incisive—of all the post-Obergefell books lamenting the demise of Christianity in America, I think Reno’s Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society was the best. Likewise, Return of the Strong Gods is one of the clearest critiques I have read so far of what has gone wrong in the western world in recent years. There is a sense in which Reno’s last two books are arguably superior versions of two of the defining books in recent conservative media: Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option and Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed. And yet, for all his invocations of Augustine, Reno is not Augustinian enough to save him from some serious failures.
In a recent interview with the Atlantic‘s Emma Green, Reno defended President Trump (who he endorsed in 2016) on immigration issues. There is, of course, a prudential case for slowing the number of immigrants coming in from our nation’s southern border. But often this prudential case is a fig leaf to conceal something more alarming. Green probed further to see if that was the case with Reno:
When I asked Reno about the president’s comments referring to Mexicans as rapists and criminals, and the family-separation policy that left dozens of migrant children stranded in government vans for 24 hours or more, Reno replied, “I don’t do policy, but if we don’t gain control of the border, it’s going to be a serious problem for the entire generation.” There are “sociological limits” to how many immigrants can be assimilated into the United States, he said. When I asked him whether he would be as concerned if there were a surge of migrants at America’s northern border, he admitted that this would be less worrying: “Canadians are so similar,” he said. “Part of it has to do with the cultural fit.”
Reno is a Roman Catholic. His magazine has gone so far as to defend Pope Pius IX’s decision to abduct a Jewish child who had been baptized while dangerously ill so that he could be raised in the church. The magazine has published a number of integralist intellectuals. And yet when pressed by Green, Reno tacitly concedes that he would sooner admit a large number of white secular progressives into the nation than his brown co-religionists from Mexico and Central America.
I raise the point because I think it is the sharpest example of how Reno needs to become more Augustinian. If you place all of the social beliefs that can inspire love into one bucket labeled “strong gods,” and do not distinguish sufficiently between types of strong gods, then your politics will inevitably become an exercise in national legitimation, whatever one’s nation might do. It is a path to jingoism, for nationalism is a strong god that gives us meaning and human hearts are restless without meaning. And so, unsurprisingly, Reno finds himself effectively defending white America since a kind of white supremacy has always been baked into American nationalism. Augustine, at least, is not interested in “strong gods,” but in the God of the Bible. Any other god that would claim our love is, to Augustine, an idol.
In other words, Reno identifies any force that inspires love under the category of ‘strong gods.’ But not all strong gods are alike. This ends up linking the chief concern I have with Reno’s work with the chief concern I have with Yoram Hazony’s: On what moral grounds may we critique nations that are acting in their own self interest and to protect their common way of life?
Reno does try to reason his way out of this problem at points. He himself notes that he is a Catholic and would like to see a Christian revival in America. At other points he speaks of ‘guiding’ the return of the strong gods, which suggests that we are called to disciple the strong gods—and, of course, the life of discipleship begins with repentance. But if the strong gods are made to repent, are they still strong gods?
City of God: Book 19
In Book 19 of The City of God, Augustine argues that while Christians can make use of temporal peace for good ends and even enjoy the benefits of such peace, they must never make that peace ultimate because to do so is to practice idolatry. Moreover, in chapter 21 he argues that a society that does not render to God his due but ascribes its highest meaning to temporal goods is inherently unjust. Further,
where there is not true justice there can be no assemblage of men associated by a common acknowledgment of right, and therefore there can be no people, as defined by Scipio or Cicero; and if no people, then no good of the people, but only of some promiscuous multitude unworthy of the name of people.
What this means, then, is that according to Augustine, who Reno himself invokes at multiple points, a nation that has a thick cultural identity that inspires love but that is not ultimately subservient to God is idolatrous. And the proper response to idolatry is not to be cobeligerents with the idolaters, but to call the idolaters to repentance.
Indeed, here we must return to the critique made by the closed society’s critics. If it is true that the nationalism of the pre-war era led to ethnic cleansing and catastrophic wars, then it seems that we should critique such societies far more severely than Reno himself does. Indeed, if these strong gods required acts of genocide we might ask if the strong god of early 20th century nationalism might better be named Moloch.
None of this takes away from Reno’s adept critique of what the open society has become. The open society is genuinely disordered. It attempts, at best, to be religiously neutral. And, in practice, it really does undermine the worship of God and flourishing of human people. Yet by attempting to make peace with the strong gods of the pre-war era and even in regularly conflating very distinct types of positive forces that promote social cohesion, Reno undermines his excellent critique of the Poppers and Hayeks of our world.
In a move that is amusingly reminiscent of the one currently being made by the Democratic party, Reno is tacitly denying the possibility of a more authentic form of social reform in order to return us to the failed world that came directly before his current foe. Just as the Democrats seem to think a return to Obamaism, which simply yielded Trumpism, can solve our nation’s problems so Reno seems to think a return to the strong gods can resolve the problems posed by the open society, which itself only arose as a repudiation of those strong gods.
Again, we should be fair and note that Reno does at times talk about guiding this return. So he does seem in some sense to recognize the dangers of the strong gods and the need to evangelize and disciple their worshipers. But the way in which this is done is under-developed. And what we are left with is a work that feels double-minded, aware in some limited sense of the danger that the strong gods’ return creates, yet unwilling to make a wholesale critique of them because of his distaste for the world that the strong gods are likely to overthrow with their return. But, one can’t help wondering, what else might the return of the strong gods destroy?