Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West

By R. R. Reno. Regnery Press, pp. 208. $28.99 

Review by George Sumner

A preamble to this review is in order. Rusty Reno is a colleague of mine from doctoral study at Yale and a personal friend. I agree with him on many of the moral theological issues most contentious in our time.

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Return of the Strong Gods is for the most part a critique of American social and political thought since World War II. He finds in intellectuals like Popper and Hayek a tendency toward what he calls a cultural “weakening,” of truth-claims, social bonds, even patriotism toward country, in order to insure that the West not return to fanaticisms like fascism.

This led in time to the fragmentation and diffusion, the unraveling in thought and life, we now see, and in response to which we need strengthening of truth-claims and social bonds. Reno’s is an intellectual version of popular culture’s “me to we,” the move from individualism to community. He lays out this weakening/ strengthening dichotomy convincingly, with insightful and pungent things to say about a range of thinkers along the way.

To this either/or, I now offer several “yes/but” responses. At the outset Reno claims that his critique is not of modernity in general, (as one would find in thinkers like Alasdair MacIntyre or Charles Taylor), but specifically of post-war American thought and policy. “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” (pg. xviii). But why should we not see these distempers as an example par excellence of the crisis of liberalism?

Let me press this rejoinder with the help of a thinker Reno esteems. In the face of entirely secular ways of seeing culture, Reno finds solace in the seminal sociologist Emile Durkheim’s insistence in Elementary Forms of the Religious Life that humans will eventually find gods around whom they as a society may rally.  Sooner or later, American society will be somehow “re-enchanted.”

I however wonder if his appeal to Durkheim might not also lead to another, less welcome conclusion. For the heart of Durkheim’s argument is that societies worship gods who reflect their own social relations. (I would be surprised if Reno did not share my admiration for the great Catholic and Durkheiman Mary Douglas, who has mined this vein systematically). In other words, The “weakened” vision of the good and true in contemporary America, in a Durkheimian view, looks like how our post-modern communities and families are (dis)organized in a diffuse, individualized way. In other words, our problem does have to do with modernity in the West per se. It is then deeper than any set of political solutions from left or right can readily fix.

My second response has to do with a second, related agendum to be found in this book. It is not hard to find elements of a platform for the nascent “national conservative” movement of which Reno is a part. To its anti-immigration, pro-protectionist, populist agenda a few inconvenient truths may be offered. Let me offer a personal example. Half a dozen times per year I attend fiestas after confirmation services for Mexican immigrants in the “flyover” state of Texas. The congregations are patriotic, family oriented, devout Christians. They are more aligned with Reno’s “strengthened” vision than many. How do they lead to the “deconsolidated, fragmented” nation Reno fears could result from immigration? Or does “immigration” function here as a political shibboleth? As to trade, there too a real debate could be had, but so far the protectionism of the present administration has mostly succeeded in hurting the core groups in their base.

Which brings us to the obvious elephant in the middle of Reno’s argument: the Trump administration. He does an understandable en passant move: Trump is but an epiphemenon of working class distress, an occasion to rebuke progressivist excesses. This unwillingness to offer any direct criticism of the President is a by-now all-too-familiar response on our national political scene. But Trump is a genius exactly in weakening truthfulness and the “we’’: alas he is relevant to the thesis of the book. A costly paragraph pointing this out would have strengthened Return of the Strong Gods.

But let us not end this reflection on so negative a note. Reno knows where the real strengthening is to found, hard slog though it be in post- modernity. The religious congregation, the virtues, micro-solidarity across dividing lines, outposts of the “Benedict Option” against the tide: at this level of on-the-ground realities Reno’s argument illuminates and encourages. As for the national and political, his nascent movement would do better to cleave to the localism of a Yuval Levin than to the acidity of a Tucker Carlson. To be sure, in 2019, the mainlines are culturally compromised, the Catholics scandalized, the evangelicals sold out. Still it is the Church that is, by God’s grace, America’s best hope for the strengthening Reno calls for.

The Rt. Rev. Dr. George Sumner is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.

About The Author

The Rt. Rev. Dr. George Sumner, ordained priest in Tanzania in 1981, is the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. He has served in cross-cultural ministry in Navajoland and has a doctorate in theology from Yale. Bishop Sumner is married to Stephanie Hodgkins.

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Doug Simmons

Bishop Sumner’s “fiesta” illustration regarding immigration hints at the real problem. We have allowed a confusion to exist between ethnicity and culture. This country has long functioned as a successful multi-ethnic society because of the commitment of those various groups to the common “American” culture. The idea of a “multi-cultural” society is a fantasy that will not, can not, work because a viable functioning society requires a common core culture to unite it. A commitment of all of the various sub-groups to Christ and the Church could serve to be that uniting common core, but it is extremely unlikely and… Read more »