Strong Gods
December 11, 2019

Over the past decade, Rusty Reno, editor at First Things, has established himself as one of America’s most interesting cultural and political voices. In his recent Return of the Strong Gods, Rusty offers an eccentric reading of recent history as a collapse of what he calls the “postwar consensus.”

Having faced down Nazis and fascists, locked in a struggle with Soviet totalitarianism, Western thinkers developed a counter-vision of society that stressed personal freedom. The free world was had been, and still was, mortally threatened by authoritarian personalities and systems, and the only way to fend it off was to detach ourselves from tradition, weaken social bonds, open up society. In the name of freedom, the postwar consensus went to war with the “strong gods” of religion, nation, and family. Liberals emphasized the need to relax cultural and moral norms; conservatives advocated economic freedom. Both united in a program of weakening and loosening.

The postwar consensus was anti-metaphysical. Any claim to absolute truth or absolute right and wrong endangered freedom and raised the specter of a reversion  to authoritarianism. Over the decades, the postwar consensus hardened into a dogma and a metaphysics of its own. Thus today “diversity” becomes an absolute good, enforceable by law. “It is forbidden to forbid!” is the one absolute prohibition.

No one can live this way. Freedom is good, but human beings need homes, solidarity, stability. We face a crisis of solidarity, and the ruling class’s attempts to shore up the postwar consensus only make things worse. Human beings need “strong gods,” and they’ve made a comeback. At least, the strong gods of the nation have. On the whole, Rusty thinks this a good and healthy development.

This analysis will be familiar to those who have been following Rusty’s work for the past few years, but there are flashes of unconventional insight. He argues, for instance, that James Burnham’s 1964 lament, Suicide of the West, missed the obvious: “Communism, an ideology born and bred in the West, became the most powerful tool of Western cultural imperialism throughout the world in the decades immediately following World War II. . . .Mao’s communist rule destroyed China’s traditional Confucian culture, paving the way for Westernization. The totalitarian application of Marxist ideology did more to Westernize Russia than the policies of Peter the Great” (72).

Further, Burnham’s critique of the West’s relativism, egalitarianism, and pragmatism tended, ironically, to support the firmness, authority, and clarity of the Communism Burham hated (73).

At the end of the day, though, Rusty’s work is unsatisfying. Rather strangely, for a Catholic writer, the church plays a marginal and subordinate role. It does play some role. The strong gods of public life are returning; the solidarity of “we” is forcing itself into White Houses and Parliaments all over the West. Rusty recognizes these strong gods may be idols that must be be resisted, and he says we need to nurture the gods of hearth and home, and the gods of religious devotion, in order to curb the potential evils of national gods. That reduces the church to a “check and balance” on state power. It leaves the national “we” more or less intact, rather than disturbed by an ecclesial “we.”

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