Of all the books to select for review at the beginning of the new year, one would think the category we should most avoid is books on politics and culture. With a presidential election looming, international tensions mounting, and conflict in the Church, perhaps we are safer in probing mythic symbolism of the lilies of the field in the Sermon on the Mount. Is it really possible to identify some of the causal influences for the divisions in our society without tearing each other apart?
Rusty Reno hopes so. R.R. Russell “Rusty” Ronald Reno III is the editor of First Things magazine. He was formerly a professor of theology and ethics at Creighton University. A convert to the Catholic faith since 2004, Reno identifies himself as a theological and political conservative.
Reno addresses the roots of our current divided culture in political and national life in “Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West” (Regnery Publishing), but the causes are not simple to identify. In the aftermath of the devastation of World Wars I and II (with large swaths of Europe destroyed a few times, and at least 80 million combatants and civilians killed), there was a search for a mode of governance that would restrain the nationalistic impulses whose extremes (fascism, racism, communism, totalitarianism, and genocide) were all too sadly known.
Could we craft a society with governments who championed open borders and population flows, an open economy and free global exchange-based capital markets? Would it ever be possible to cap the impulsive angers and resentments based on skin color, religion and ethnicity and learn to embrace a pluralistic, open society?
Enter philosophers and historians, universities and think tanks, alliances, reports and recommendations. Emerging from a consensus that wanted a “never again” approach to the “strong gods”— those loyalties that can be the petri dishes for fascism, racism, and war — the rebuilders of Western Society in the 1950s sought solutions. The postwar consensus sought to weaken the strong ties that had fomented the politics of resentment, of vengeance, or class and economic inequality. We homo sapiens, the experts observed, have this disturbing habit of killing each other with increasing technological efficiency because of dogma — not necessarily or exclusively religious dogma, but any belief or ideology which becomes held as obvious, irreversible, intrinsic, and immune from all compromise, nuance, or evolution.
Although the latter half of the past century saw quite a few regional conflicts and wars, we have been spared another destructive catastrophe in which we could have seen the death counts grow by orders of magnitude. But have we been successful in finding a peaceable world? Have we found peace and flourishing as a world? Reno sifts through the last decades of culture wars, regional conflict, returning economic pressures, and societal fraying as indications that all may not be peaceful in our shared future.
“The Open Society and Its Enemies,” written in 1945 by philosopher Karl Popper, is where Reno chooses to start. It became one of the influential works of the postwar reconstruction. Seeking a diagnosis for the “civilizational madness” that led to global conflict, Popper hypothesized that this new world we create must not replicate a “tribal society” characterized by deference to authority and the subordination of the individual to the larger collective. The goal must be an open society, one that sets free the critical powers of man, and that cannot — must not — ever fall back into totalitarian governments, racial conflicts, or religious conflicts about higher powers. Above all, those strong gods of nation, family, and faith must be controlled, preferably eliminated, or at least subordinated if we plan to survive.
Reno makes the argument that a settled consensus arose in the West that called for relativism instead of revelation with respect to truth claims; situational ethics instead of fundamental moral principles; open markets instead of protection of national industries and employment; and a world of multiculturalism and flexible interfaith common denominators. In this new world, “meaning” replaces the quaint but dangerous notion of truth. The punishment and banishment of all objectors to this “dictatorship of relativism” (as it is termed by Emeritus Pope Benedict) would arise in time and grow in its fury for all who would not accept the new cultural dictates.
Reno describes this project, this “postwar consensus,” as the weakening of strong bonds, a soft, accepting approach to just about everything. In fact, Reno comes to see any Christian religion that received its essential character from this consensus as neither valid nor Christian in nature. Perhaps that explains the growing abandonment of Christian religion in the west. Of course, one of Reno’s major insights is how this postwar consensus informed the Catholic Church.
We were told to reduce our Christian and Catholic tenets to their lowest common denominator and then wondered why our children and grandchildren wandered away with increasing frequency — a trend born out by the latest Pew survey and the experiences of FOCUS missionaries at college campuses in the United States, where 6 out of 7 cradle Catholics leave the faith. Instead of catechesis that is coherent, we have a mix of societal niceties, sentimental aspirations that could have come from Disney screenwriters, and a backlash that threatens to bring even greater division into our treasury of faith. “One, holy, catholic, and apostolic”? Please, don’t judge me, bro!
Reno sees opposition to these current cultural norms in the rise of nationalistic trends that reject the consensus (Trump, populism, Brexit, nationalism, global trade conflicts) and a general advocating for a return to the strong gods of faith, family, and country. Anyone who takes the time to read and reflect upon this short but insightful book will probably come away with surprise, understanding and more than a few follow-up questions
We can only hope that Reno visits our area in the near future, as he has in the past. He just may have a handle on why we are so divided as a nation, as a church, and as a society, and why the paths to harmony seem elusive. Reno sadly has no simple recommendations for addressing these challenges, which is at least honest if not hopeful.
Perhaps “Return of the Strong Gods” does not come with the customary enthusiasm of a new year’s book choice or review, but nevertheless it’s a helpful rendezvous with realities that are complex in their origin and influence. Should you choose to read it, steel yourself for a deep dive across many disciplines of understanding and human activity, and also prepare yourself for greater understanding of our world and the challenges to our shared Catholic faith.
(Send comments, reactions or suggestions on books or resources that might be helpful for Catholics to email@example.com.)