Many people today, especially conservatives and Christians, find it alarming that basic human connections and loyalties keep weakening in favor of impersonal economic and administrative arrangements.
The tendency has been going on for a long time, it’s radicalizing, and it’s backed by mainstream leaders who express mingled contempt and horror at the “deplorables” and “bitter clingers” who want to maintain traditional ties of family, faith, culture, local community, and nation.
Experience and circumstances have persuaded many people that political countermeasures are hopeless. That’s one reason there’s so much talk of the “Benedict Option.” If normal human ties are weakening, Christians can make good the loss by building local Christian community. If they can help the rest of society they will, but recent experience suggests that their efforts won’t have a large effect any time soon.
R. R. Reno, editor of First Things, shares the concerns, but has written a book telling us that the problems don’t go as deep as many fear. That book, Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West, says that they result from something more specific and time-bound, the response of Western elites to the catastrophic events of 1914-1945.
As he puts it, “the distempers afflicting public life today” are “not a crisis” of anything as basic as “liberalism, modernity, or the West.” Instead, they “reflect a crisis of the postwar consensus, the weak gods of opening and weakening.” (In the book, “weak gods” are principles that weaken social bonds, “strong gods” the loves that strengthen them.)
That consensus made sense at first. Postwar Western elites believed that the disasters of the recent past had resulted from strong gods gone too far. These are the common loves, like patriotism and love of justice, that bind particular societies together. During the period leading up to and through the First and Second World Wars, these loves had overreached. The results had been horrific.
The postwar response was to weaken these binding principles through “weak gods” like tolerance and inclusion. That response was accepted by all significant leaders of thought: conservatives and progressives, intellectuals and practical politicians. They differed in many ways, but their overall approach was consistent enough to result eventually in the fairly coherent public order we see today that proclaims diversity and inclusion as supreme values and favors both free trade and free love.
Originally leaders tried to maintain a balance between stability on the one hand, and openness and the critical spirit on the other. Tolerance was expected to show a certain moderation, and accept the need for basic commonalities. As time went by, that balance was lost. The weak gods, who had become supreme and unrivaled, grew ever more insistent and single-minded in their demands.
From this point of view, the 60s weren’t really rebellious, they were a natural expression of the growing demands of the weak gods. Those demands continued to grow, and they accelerated after the fall of communism had eliminated the last remaining external reality check on Western society.
The result is that the process has continued far beyond the limits of its usefulness. It has led to growing estrangement between elites and ordinary people, and to the breakdown of everyday arrangements like the family that the latter depend on to lead orderly, productive, rewarding, and social lives. Under such circumstances, why keep promoting it?
Reno believes that elites should recognize that today’s populism is not incipient Hitlerism. Instead, it’s a sign that the consensus in favor of weaker social ties is now damaging the lives of ordinary people. Times change, and now demand that those ties be strengthened. People need them, free and responsible government depends on them, and unless they are renewed we will face a future dominated by “oligarchy and an unaccountable elite.” So if our elites want to show public spirit, they should consider what they can do to help prevent such an outcome.
But here we get to the hard part. It is easier to weaken people and societies than to strengthen them. The human ties that sustain us can’t simply be constructed. As Reno says, “the particularity of the ‘we’ is always a gift. Patrimony comes unbidden.” But neither are strong human ties simply given. Husband and wife don’t create marriage as an institution, and each receives the consent of the other as a gift, but both must make an effort for the union to flourish and endure. Something similar is true of every community people live by.
So we have to start with what we have and build on that. But what will we be able to rely on? Reno’s primary answer is national community.
He wants elites to give up their contempt for ordinary people, their relentlessly critical attitude toward national histories, institutions, and ways of life, and their one-sided internationalism. Instead, they should accept and support popular patriotism, the love of the people for the people and places that make up their country, and their concern for mutual obligation among citizens. Mutual loyalty within a particular society makes political participation possible. That builds community, which we now need more than ever.
But that’s not enough, as the author recognizes. For love of country to turn out well it needs to be limited and supplemented by attachments that precede and rise above it. The strong gods like communism and extreme nationalism that led to the disasters of 1914-1945 were themselves replacement deities that grew up in response to the dissolution of such attachments.
So the family as traditionally conceived should be fostered rather than attacked. Our elites need to drop their fascination with exotic family forms that are supposed to liberate us from outmoded prejudices in favor of something more natural, traditional, and functional. And they should recognize the need for religion to give people a place in the world and keep national loyalty and other partial loyalties sane and grounded.
But how would all this work? The specifics remain vague.
The natural and traditional conception of the family requires sexual distinctions and complementarity. Reno suggests a sober conversation about such things. But a sober national conversation about sexual matters seems unlikely in a nation full of damaged, willful, and vocal people.
With respect to higher loyalties, Christianity would serve in concept, but the author doesn’t believe it can work practically any time soon. So we’re left with religion in general. But that is either a vague feeling or a collection of inconsistent views that all claim supreme validity. How will such things promote social solidarity?
As to nation, technology is making distance irrelevant and every place more like every other place. And there is no longer an American people joined by a common history and culture that can sustain everyday life. Such things have ethnic and religious implications that no longer unite. So are we to be united by abstract freedom and equality? That combination leads to Reno’s weak gods. Or perhaps by a common love for pop culture, pro sports, consumer goods, and celebration of the military?
A problem the author does not discuss directly is justice. In the absence of an authoritative religious or cultural tradition justice loses touch with human nature and substantive goods and becomes a pure abstraction whose demands grow endlessly. It is now thought to demand a state of affairs in which every type of person finds the social world equally welcoming and supportive. As such, it sums up the weak gods’ most radical demands. To change that and make Reno’s strong gods once again morally respectable among respectable people we will need a fundamental change in ways of thinking. That will be hard to bring about.
Such are the difficulties involved in overcoming what the author calls the weak gods. But the future has no blueprint, and we cannot know what will ultimately lead to a decisive change in the correlation of forces that has led to our present state. Reno has retold the story of recent decades in a helpful way, and there is a great deal of truth in his account. This book presents a line of argument that needs pursuing. As such, it is a major contribution to current discussions.
Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West
by R.R. Reno
Regnery/Gateway Editions, 2019
Hardcover, 208 pages
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