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'Return of the Strong Gods'is a thoughtful contribution to American political debate It is incisively written and full of modern observations Mr Reno explains better than any book I can remember the present day progressive's paranoid fear of fascism and neurotic determination to ferret out racism where none exists — The Wall Street Journal After the staggering slaughter of back to back world wars the West embraced the ideal of the “open society” The promise By liberating ourselves from the old attachments to nation clan and religion that had fueled centuries of violence we could build a prosperous world without borders freed from dogmas and managed by experts But the populism and nationalism that are upending politics in America and Europe are a sign that after three generations the postwar consensus is breaking down With compelling insight R R Reno argues that we are witnessing the return of the “strong gods”—the powerful loyalties that bind men to their homeland and to one another Reacting to the calamitous first half of the twentieth century our political cultural and financial elites promoted open borders open markets and open minds But this never ending project of openness has hardened into a set of anti dogmatic dogmas which destroy the social solidarity rooted in family faith and nation While they worry about the return of fascism our societies are dissolving But man will not tolerate social dissolution indefinitely He longs to be part of a “we”—the fruit of shared loves—which gives his life meaning The strong gods will return Reno warns in one form or another Our task is to attend to those that appealing to our reason as well as our hearts inspire the best of our traditions Otherwise we shall invite the darker gods whose return our open society was intended to forestall

10 thoughts on “Return of the Strong Gods

  1. says:

    610Good for a mild wakeup call to the center rightcenter left but still far too centrist Made me want to say 'okay' to a boomer a couple of times

  2. says:

    Rusty Reno editor of the prominent religious conservative journal First Things here couples an original diagnosis of how we got to the vicious decay of now with very muted prescriptions This is a good enough book earnest and intent but it is cramped Reno offers as an alternative not strong gods nor even coherent positive visions of the nationalism and populism of the title but only the tired and repeatedly failed call to return though some unspecified mechanism to vaguely conceived virtue I’m all for virtue but Reno refuses to acknowledge that likely and desirable the strong gods are those who will inevitably as Kipling said with fever and slaughter return to scour the Earth in preparation for the rebirth of actual living virtueIn brief this book is an extended attack on the so called open society created by the so called postwar consensus of how the West should believe We are all indoctrinated that the open society never really defined is wonderful so Reno’s attacking it at first seems like attacking Nutella This is true for liberals for whom unlimited openness has been the goal since John Stuart Mill and for twentieth century conservatives who were long taught to associate openness with anti Communism and thus saw no reason to uestion it until its poisoned fruits came to full ripeness I don’t disagree with any of Reno’s extended history and analysis of the open society; I just think it’s too limited As with Reno’s 2017 book Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society he is too abstract and will not grapple with what can be and with what must be doneI am much exercised as regular readers know with the very recent split among conservatives between those who have come to reject the whole of the Enlightenment as a dead end broadly speaking characterized as post liberals and those who accept Enlightenment principles and thus the premises of their enemies and merely want to dial back some excesses or if denied that by their masters reach Left goals a little slower No points for guessing which group has been in charge while conservatives have gone down to crushing defeat again and again Reno does not fall clearly into either group which I think is meant as a compromise among ever louder competing voices but is really an unstable balancing act in which Reno finally falls between two chairs He starts by acknowledging post liberals such as Patrick Deneen and an early voice Alasdair MacIntyre and if I had not read this book I would have guessed that Reno mostly agrees with them Yet after some wavering he comes down on the side of the Enlightenment—that is of liberalism of atomized freedom and the destruction of all unchosen bonds in a desperate uest for total emancipation For Reno we find it was not 1789 but 1945 which was the year that it all went wrongAs Reno sums his view up in his own italics “The distempers afflicting public life today reflect a crisis of the postwar consensus the weak gods of openness and weakening not a crisis of liberalism modernity or the West” Reno’s argument is that after the horrors of the first half of the twentieth century the ruling classes of the West chose to create societies of “openness weakening and disenchantment” in an explicit attempt to prevent the “return of the strong gods”—“the objects of men’s love and devotion the sources of the passions and loyalties that united societies” Rather than simply trying to wall out only the terrible strong gods the ruling classes chose to wall them all out truth along with fascism; loyalty along with CommunismAt least Reno openly rejects any need for pre emptive apologies wherein as a conservative he would in the past have been expected to first talk at length about the evils of Nazism and fascism and dissociate himself from them He refuses since he knows this is a propaganda trick used to make conservatives behave and look weak Instead he begins with something unexpected but apt—a lengthy attack on Karl Popper whose The Open Society and Its Enemies he identifies as the first philosophical attempt to create the postwar consensus under which openness was the first and only commandment Popper rejected claims of metaphysical truth and insisted we must each seek and create our own meaning—not truth merely meaning a small and ambiguous word Reno then draws a straight line from Popper to George H W Bush’s infamous 1990 address to the United Nations where he demanded that we create “a new and different world of open borders open trade and most importantly open minds”With the Left all words have special meanings and here it is no different “Open” here means not actually open but closed against the strong gods and minatory toward their adherents “Open” does not mean free but coercive—Ryszard Legutko’s “coercion to freedom” where “democracy” only happens when votes are for the Left and “liberalism” is where Left social goals are realized It is no coincidence that that evil little troll George Soros was a student of Popper and named his left wing pressure group most famous recently for losing the vicious battle it waged against the Hungarian people “The Open Society Institute” But none of this is acknowledged by Reno who does mention Soros but fails to draw the obvious conclusion that calls for the “open society” have and always had a double purpose—to avoid totalitarianism of the Right and just as importantly to enthrone totalitarianism of the Left He is so busy being thoughtful that as in the Edgar Allan Poe tale “The Cask of Amontillado” he is walled in by his enemies by the time the talking is doneIn Reno’s analysis Popper was followed and reinforced by many others men such as Arthur Schlesinger and Theodor Adorno avatar of the Frankfurt School and author of The Authoritarian Personality Critically though it is not only from such obvious leftists that Reno derives the “postwar consensus” He also identifies conservatives eually responsible For example he draws a tight connection between Popper and Friedrich Hayek Hayek’s main target was central economic planning as leading to totalitarianism but in so doing Hayek exalted individual choice and rejected any concept of the common good except as arising through individual choice Government regulation was permitted to be sure but only to effectuate individual choices in achieving maximum freedom of play Social consensus for Hayek was a threat if it was anything but hortatory unless it was directed to achieving freedom of individual action During the Cold War this was a powerful anti Communist vision which conservatives endorsed not seeing the sting buried within Reno points out that “Like those in the 1990s who predicted that capitalism would bring democracy and freedom to China Hayek believed that the market mechanism is intrinsically anti totalitarian” Hayek was wrong as we can see both from China and from our own budding totalitarian combination of the Lords of Tech and woke capitalismAnd compounding his sin in the eyes of elderly conservatives who for some reason still burn incense at the altar of William F Buckley Reno analyzes how Buckley starting with God and Man at Yale similarly rejected in practice any focus on the common good and himself exalted atomized individual choice—probably helped along by being called a racist and fascist for even the modest endorsement of public virtue in his first book combined with his keen desire to continue to be socially accepted by Left circles in New York which the name calling threatened to prevent As we all know Buckley spent much of his energy for decades thereafter policing the Right throwing out anyone who was anathema to the Left and ended his life having accomplished nothing He didn’t fight Tolkein’s Long Defeat he fought his very own Short Defeat and took us down with him Reno attributes Buckley’s insipid approach to that “he intuited at least in part that he could engage in public life only if he adapted his arguments to the growing postwar consensus in favor of the open society That meant no strong gods—no large truths no common loves and no commanding loyalties” This is the closest Reno gets to actually defining the “strong gods” Hewing to this line was the only way to “give conservatives a place at the table” but over time “the tactic became a strategy” Maybe so but likely Buckley was simply not the right man for the job That doesn’t mean there was a right man for the job—Reno endorses Yuval Levin’s thesis in The Fractured Republic that postwar America was doomed to follow this path At this point though who knows?In any case that’s all in the first chapter; it’s mostly history Unfortunately three uarters of the book is mostly history and repetitive history at that viewing the creation of the open society from slightly different angles Reno for example ties the initial impulse to avoid totalitarianism to the growth of multiculturalism a “therapy of disenchantment” that denies any role for the strong gods of one’s own society In another thread Reno describes how for a time the Great Books were emphasized not to teach truth but to allow each reader to draw his own conclusions Reno does not engage Patrick Deneen’s argument that the Great Books themselves are mostly part of the problem rather than the solution since most of them are works of the Enlightenment Since Reno denies that there was any societal problem prior to 1945 that is no surprise but again it makes Reno’s argument neither fish nor fowl among contemporary conservative debates and it feels like whistling past the graveyardThus Reno attributes the decay that began in the 1960s and accelerated thereafter to an excessive attachment to the open society not to Enlightenment principles For him it is a problem of disenchantment and he seems in some places to think that we could have held the center if not for that obsession The truth is that the open society is of course merely a later manifestation of John Stuart Mill and his kind While Reno mentions Mill in passing he insists that all this is a postwar phenomenon This is unconvincing The open society is merely the latest guise of the Enlightenment project protean as usual able to pretend in one decade that it is the antidote to fascism and in another to fascistically force bakers to bake cakes for perverts Reno simply skates on by these crucial matters Regardless we are taken on a long ride through Milton Friedman through Jacues Derrida and oddly repeated references to the lightweight economics blogger Tyler Cowen along with a long discussion of Italian writer Gianni Vattimo We also touch on modernist architecture as emblematic of the open society identity politics as the Caliban of the open society and citing Douglas Murray how the open society results in leaders who hate their own people something even on display in Europe than here though Hillary Clinton certainly gave Angela Merkel a run for her moneyFinally we get to solutions Well not really We instead get Émile Durkheim who first pointed out in 1912 that the Enlightenment had destroyed the old gods and new ones were yet to be born Reno does not seem aware that his endorsing Durkheim suggests that he is wrong that the problems arose primarily after 1945 We get a Durkheimian definition of the strong gods “whatever has the power to inspire love” We get talk of “we” and of the res publica and a note that “the open society therapies of weakening” cannot overcome the bad strong gods “the perverse gods of blood soil and identity” Then we get a petering out ten pages of rambling about “us” and recovering virtue recommending mild nationalism and highly limited populism “new metaphysical dreams” concluding “Our task therefore is to restore public life in the West by developing a language of love and a vision of the ‘we’ that befits our dignity and appeals to reason as well as our hearts” What this would look like or how to get there we are not told Weirdly Reno is even aware that this is totally unsatisfactory noting in his Acknowledgements that all his readers “warned me that I come up short in my final chapter” If I were told that I would rewrite my book but Reno seems to think this is some kind of virtueThroughout the book Reno is unwilling to follow his own thoughts shrinking time after time from the obvious conclusions because he is afraid of being seen as too devoted to the wrong strong gods For example after noting the deficiencies of mass democracy he maintains that it is a “blessing” because you see it “encourages the populace to transcend their me centered existence” a thesis for which he gives no evidence and which is contrary to all historical fact He even points out that “the freedom Romans loved was not individual freedom but the freedom of the city the liberty of a people to make its own laws and embark on its own projects” Yet he cannot see that exalting autonomic individuality is fatal and its origin has nothing to do with 1945 Self hobbled therefore Reno offers not strong gods but merely what remains of the strong gods after being emasculated by the Enlightenment and he has no plan for releasing even them from the pen in which our rulers have confined themBut you are in luck today I’ll do what Reno fails to do—I’ll tell you what should be done with the strong gods or rather what will happen with the strong gods who after all exist whether we want them to or not Review completes as first comment

  3. says:

    This one was a bit of a chore Thank God it was short 166 pages; it felt longer The first two thirds of the book were particularly weighty and rather dry I do though feel it is an extremely well argued and important work of political philosophy and sociology by one of the most intelligent authors I've ever read Think of William F Buckley on steroidsbut less engaging and not humorous at all In hindsight you could probably read the final two chapters and get the gist well enough A readable treatise on conservative nationalism is Colin Dueck's Age of Iron

  4. says:

    Excellent summary of the many problems inherent in the post war consensus that still dominates leftright anti politics politics

  5. says:

    A maddening book most of which is intriguing but the first and last chapters are obnoxious Begins by saying that the rise of Orban Trump and the nativist right are not as threatening to him as the Southern Poverty Law Center and people who interrupt him to demand that he not criticize homosexuals and other people he would like to criticize Then moves into a worthwhile if idiosyncratic reading of Camus Derrida Friedman Hayek Popper Rawls and others who he maintains ended up creating a twentieth century consensus which he would like to refute An unusual thesis but positively argued well argued and well worth reading This is over 100 of the book’s 170 pages Then he returns to stuff – we must go back toward the times when men and women knew their place which is the center of society everyone has to stand up for the national anthem and on and on The last pages become surreal – he gives his experience reading James Baldwin ending with a declaration that James Baldwin is his brother and then of watching a documentary about the Tuskegee Airmen These experiences do not lead him to think that maybe he should speak sensitively to or about homosexuals but do convince him that the West needs to return to the wisdom of the German writer Ernst Junger ? who I think has not been mentioned previously in the book and is not listed at all in the index which also omits Victor Orban who the reader can find on page XVI Junger as prophet of the twenty first century is also an unusual thesis but not as interesting as the author’s ideas about the twentieth century consensus Just before the author gets to Victor Orban the author writes “Perhaps I’m overreacting responding to the anti fascist and anti racist hysteria of the present moment with my own hysteria One reason I wrote this book was to stem this tendency within myself” So maybe having got his thoughts down on paper he will rethink some of them I myself have concerns that we are told we must read White Fragility White Rage Tears We Cannot Stop and The Half Has Never Been Told but no one is saying we need to read Strangers In Their Own Land Down at the Docks Chesapeake Reuiem or Janesville to learn about other people who have been excluded from the upper class However as the book was published I give it three stars for those who check it out of the library and read chapters 2 through 4 which I think people will all find provocative and useful and fewer stars for people who try to read the whole thing

  6. says:

    I’d give it a 35 As with most conservative writing his analysis is on point but his prescriptions are wanting The book begins promisingly with incisive explications of the purposeful weakening or relaxing of western convictions as a means of warding off the “strong gods” of Christianity and fascism But Reno’s writing belabors the point and grows cumbersome with examples Also the work spends much too little time actually talking about the return of the strong gods Given the title one expected the majority of the book not to be the gods’ dissolution but their you know actual return Instead we get a scant ending chapter that really is uninspiring

  7. says:

    The heart of this book is an effort to explain why so many Americans elected Donald Trump to the highest political office in our nation why Brexit happened and why nationalist and populist movements are gaining momentum throughout Europe and the West generally etc Although many of our nation's elites remain befuddled and dismiss this phenomena as the close minded behavior of the unwashed uneducated god fearing masses of the fly over territories Reno suggests that there are profound genuine political needs and desires at the root of these movements that have been ignored for far too long These desires have arisen as a reaction to what the author calls the postwar consensus a philosophical and cultural movement which sought to deliberately weaken and lighten through deconstruction critiue an emphasis on relativizing doctrines and political correctness any strong bonds or shared loves the strong gods that we hold in common These strong passions patriotism love of one's own love of God traditional moral values etc were thought to be the sources of conflict and the deeper causes at work underneath the fascist totalitarian regimes that wreaked havoc upon the world in the 20th century Reno traces a line of thought through an analysis of influential 20th century thinkers of various stripes philosophical Popper economic Hayek literary Derrida His analysis here of the concerted effort to fashion an open society after WWII is accurate and compelling This is where the book really shines The author honestly admits in the acknowledgments at the end of the book that the second half of the reflections the what do we do now? section falls a bit short The expression shared loves remains somewhat vague this may be inevitable to a certain extent since this depends very much on how particular groups of people live and the author seems reticent to really take a stance here and declare what these strong gods ought to be In truth the solution or the ideas he offers here in the second half of the essay are never clear or half as compelling as the diagnosis This same thing happens in Patrick Deneen's essay Why Liberalism Failed His diagnosis is very insightful and accurate as well but the end of the essay beyond some references to Wendell Berry does not offer any real answers about where to go next Likewise the second half of Reno's essay rather than moving forward becomes very repetitive and restates too many times points that were already well established in the first half of the essay Perhaps it would have been better here to just cut things short or pose a uestion or challenge for others to answer I think it is important to respect the reader's intelligence and ability to follow the argument and perhaps lead them into areas for deeper consideration rather than cause frustration through redundancy In fact I think it's very much worthwhile just to have someone clearly articulate the diagnosis and I don't see why the same author necessarily needs to attempt to solve the problem or even gesture towards a solution This may be frustrating to some people but the solution—if there even is one—is clearly very challenging to discover and maybe its better to just say honestly that you don’t have an answerIncidentally I just finished a book by Richard Lewellyn called “How Green was My Valley” about a small Welsh coal mining community set in the early 1900’s and I have to say that it seems to embody very closely the kind of community that Reno envisions It is filled with strong loves religious devotion passionate family bonds national pride etc It is also lyrical and profoundly moving in many places Could a community like this be possible again would such a thing even be desirable enough and to enough people? My only other uibble is that in the beginning of the book at the end of the Introduction the author states emphatically that the current state of the West is NOT due to deeper philosophical and historical causes like the natural conseuences of late medieval nominalism enlightenment liberalism and the effects of the reformation in the economic and political order but rather to the postwar consensus for which he argues in the book Isn’t this an unnecessary dichotomy? The loss of truth in favor of meaning does have its roots in nominalism unbridled self will the so called “freedom of indifference” does trace its genesis to liberalism and modern economic theory was undoubtedly and very strongly influenced by Protestantism In other words why can’t we check all of the above?

  8. says:

    Valuable for its uniuefreshunexpected treatment of Popper and certainly pressing The last 40 pages far outshine the rest of the book as its focus turns to the role of love in the political realm and they alone make it a worthy read Here’s one of the most outstanding uotes“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 moved This outflowing of the self makes love the engine of solidarity The strong gods of public life are uite simply the objects of our shared lives They are whatever arouses in us an ardor to add our destinies to that which we love” Certainly worthwhile esp if one is seeking to understand the deep philosophical underpinnings of countercultural conservatism

  9. says:

    The argument is that in the post war era there was a reaction against dogma and authoritative truth claims It was a reaction to the totalitarian movements of the war and thereafter Popper’s Open Society is the ueue for Reno”s explanation of what comes next “openness” becomes the key virtue and replaces truth and from thence the flood gates are opened for all that comes next

  10. says:

    This book presents an intriguing lens through which to consider Western history for the past 80 years Surprisingly it ends on a hopeful note A thought I will keep with me the word “we” is very powerful