This essay is adapted from the preface to the forthcoming paperback edition of Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West.
A few months after Return of the Strong Gods was published, the strong gods returned.
Panic struck in March 2020 as a virus originating in China spread around the world. Fear of death and disease rippled through the population, especially among influential, university-educated people, who in the West are especially anxious about their health and safety. Politicians responded by throwing entire countries into lockdown, an unprecedented measure that put society in a state of suspended animation for months.
Nature abhors a vacuum—especially human nature, which is sociable and restless. In June 2020, amid the existential void of the universal lockdown, police in Minneapolis arrested an agitated, unruly black man named George Floyd, who died under restraint. The result was an explosion of protests across the United States that often descended into violence and looting.
We can argue endlessly about what killed George Floyd—drugs in his bloodstream, vicious police tactics, a criminal justice system that targets blacks. We can speculate why protests spread so quickly—systemic racism, endemic violence in poor black communities, networks of professional agitators. But one thing is indisputable: In the vacuum of lockdown, blood cried out from the ground. After a long season of turmoil and confinement, the rhetoric of diversity and inclusion seemed ineffectual. It was replaced by strident demands for retribution, reparation, and punishment. “No justice, no peace.” This is the slogan of a strong god.
We should not judge movements by extreme voices, but anyone who wishes to understand the events inspired by the slogan “Black Lives Matter” must pay attention to what people say, especially people of influence. In early June 2021, a woman named Aruna Khilanani revealed her “fantasies of unloading a revolver into the head of any White person that got in my way, burying their body and wiping my bloody hands as I walked away relatively guiltless with a bounce in my step.” Khilanani is not an anger-addled street-corner crank but a psychiatrist, and her words, uttered in a lecture at the Yale School of Medicine, expressed more than political correctness. She was there to worship the strong god of vengeance.
In the ensuing controversy, Khilanani insisted that she had been exaggerating for rhetorical effect, which was no doubt true. But how and when we exaggerate is revealing. Impatient with calm discussion and meticulous analysis, she will no longer deliberate about “root causes.” Her remarks excluded all softening gestures such as “sharing perspectives” or “hearing new voices.” The hot hyperbole rejected the open-society slogans that have dominated for so long, clichés that soften civic life and make things more porous and fluid, formulations that weaken strong claims and blur sharp boundaries.
Khilanani’s talk of guns and blood points in a very different direction. A powerful consensus in favor of fluid openness was embraced by the left and right in recent decades. I call it the postwar consensus, because I trace its origins to the American-led reconstruction of the West after Auschwitz. In my reading of recent history, that fell name denotes more than a death camp in Poland. It sums up the entire orgy of destruction that began in the trenches of World War I and ended with mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The consensus that took hold after 1945 sought to dissolve the political passions that many deemed to be the underlying cause of those decades of violence. The postwar consensus sought to banish the strong gods.
By the first decade of the twenty-first century, the postwar consensus supported a power-sharing arrangement between the Democratic party, favoring go-fast liquefaction of traditional culture and go-slow economic deregulation, and the Republican Party, favoring go-fast economic deregulation with the hope of not-too-fast cultural deregulation. When I wrote Return of the Strong Gods, the establishment consensus in favor of openness was plain to see. And when I was writing, a rejection of open borders, open trade, and other fruits of the postwar consensus by the populist right was also obvious. The events of 2020 indicate that the strong gods are returning on the American left as well.
Return of the Strong Gods offers a succinct history of the past seven decades, most of which I have experienced as a teenager and adult. I distrust the sufficiency of singular explanations, including my own. Technological innovations (the Pill, for example) shaped that history, as did international events and economic developments. There exists no Lord of the Rings in social analysis, no single explanation that rules them all.
But I remain confident in the basic story I tell. After 1945, our ruling class agreed that powerful loves and intense loyalties make us easily manipulated by demagogues. Our passions hurl us into disastrous conflicts and brutal ideological movements. Our only hope, the postwar consensus holds, is to tamp down our loves and loyalties, to weaken them with skepticism, nonjudgmentalism, and a political commitment to an open society.
And I argue that the wheel of history is turning. The gods of weakening are losing their power over public life. Donald Trump horrified the establishment because he derided the open-society consensus. His brash Americanism, his promises to tear up trade deals, and his loud talk of building a wall thrilled voters who wanted reconsolidation not deregulation, protection not limitless openness.
You can find Trump odious or inspiring. You can reject or affirm his political priorities. But a sober observer recognizes that Trump rose to prominence because an angry populace felt betrayed by the postwar consensus. What I did not see while writing the book is that the American left, which opposed Trump bitterly, would pivot to affirm the return of its own strong gods.
Only yesterday, multicultural managers and HR bureaucrats spoke solemnly of diversity and inclusion, vague notions that serve the gods of weakening. Today, however, the same managers and bureaucrats add “equity,” a term that signifies a change in direction. Equity operates in the domain of justice, and justice promises not “diversity” but the right result. Equity encourages strong measures—condemning the unjust, punishing the oppressors, denouncing the unfairly advantaged and the wrongly privileged. Diversity is a feel-good word. Equity topples statues.
I cannot pretend to know the future. I can only take the measure of present trends. The postwar consensus trusted that a better future could be achieved by removing barriers, setting aside traditional mores, empowering individual choice, and letting markets decide. The sudden prominence of the rhetoric of equity suggests that many on the left are losing confidence in the promise of an open society. They now demand racial and sexual quotas, hard numerical measurements that cannot be evaded with avowals of good intentions. As the right demands clear and enforced borders, the left demands clear and enforced results. It wants a just society (as it conceives of it), not an open society. And it is willing to rule with an iron fist to achieve that goal.
I am suspicious of those who turn too quickly to Nazi Germany for analogies that illuminate our present distempers. But if we remain sober and do not allow ourselves to be swept up into moral and political panic, we can detect parallels. In the 1920s, conservatives in Germany distrusted the procedural justice and commercial ethos of the Weimar Republic, believing that a good society would not automatically evolve in accord with liberal principles and market forces. The future, they argued, must be shaped by a decisive act of will. A similar view is emerging on the left. Progressives are impatient. Free speech? Merit? Procedural justice? Laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race? These formal commitments must be set aside, we are told, because they stand in the way of transformative justice.
And so it is not only Trump and the populist right that wants the strong gods to return. Many on the American left look to blood for answers, a vengeful and punitive image that suggests strong gods with grim designs. They champion blood’s binding power, its demand for justice, and its powerful symbolism of moral and political urgency. The signs of the times suggest that the historical thesis of the book is correct. The postwar era is ending. The strong gods are returning. Let us work to ensure that they are ennobling, not debasing, that they rebuild and renew rather than tear down and degrade.
Return of the Strong Gods has been criticized from a number of angles. I will not try to respond to all of them, but it is useful to consider some. Some have complained that my talk of “strong gods” is imprecise and obscure. Yes, but every consequential episode in human history is blurry and opaque, including the past seventy years. My aim is to illuminate, as best I can, our political and cultural struggles, which have become intense. The metaphor of “strong gods” casts useful light on our situation.
Friends counsel that I should be less enthusiastic about the return of the strong gods. I am fully aware of the dangers they pose, which is why, following the Bible, I urge a politics of noble loves. The Book of Wisdom begins with an extended allegory. Lady Wisdom goes through the city, explaining to men the bad consequences of their liaisons with prostitutes and loose women (a metaphor for idolatry). But the men are smitten, and the arguments of Lady Wisdom have no effect. Returning to her palace, she prepares a great banquet and sends her beautiful young attendants into the public square to draw in the men of the city. They come to feast, and their perverse loves are corrected by the higher love of Lady Wisdom. The opens society tries to buy peace with dispassion and small ambitions, encouraging critique and other techniques of weakening. This approach will not succeed in the long run. The only reliable safeguards against debased political passions are elevated ones.
Though many defend the status quo, I will not raise my voice in defense of the dying postwar consensus. I argue that the West overreacted. Intent on countering the evils of Auschwitz and all it represented, we embarked on a utopian project of living without shared loves and strong loyalties. Human nature was never going to allow that project to succeed. We are made for love not open-ended diversity, limitless inclusion, and relentless critique. The postwar consensus went too far, emptying our souls and desiccating our societies. So yes, the strong gods can be dangerous. But they make transcendence possible. They restore to public life spiritual drama and shared purpose.
Christian allies warn that I am insufficiently alive to the danger that populism will make an idol of the nation. In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates recounts the teaching of Diotima, his mentor, who observed that we often love finite goods as if they were ultimate. But this is not reason to despair. For once aroused, love’s ardor can be directed toward a ladder that rises from lower loves to higher ones. I hold the Platonic view. There is no guarantee that we will climb the ladder of love. Misjudging lesser goods as the highest good (the essence of idolatry) always remains a danger. But the unstated premise behind Return of the Strong Gods is that life without love is a greater evil than life in which finite loves are made absolute. I have argued for this premise in other works (see especially the essays in Fighting the Noonday Devil). Put simply, to love wrongly is dangerous, but however debasing, it is human. By contrast, to fail to love is inhuman. The deepest failure of the postwar consensus, then, is that it trains us to be loveless and therefore to be something less than human.
Let me issue my own theological warning: Beware iconoclasm. It is a heresy born of the fantasy that we can eliminate the possibility of idolatry by destroying every object of love other than the highest, which is God. Thomas Aquinas taught that grace perfects nature; it does not destroy nature. Family, team, city, country—these social spheres rightly win our love and command our loyalty. We can be seduced and blinded by our loves. A great deal can go wrong, which is why Jesus warns us that our love of God may require us to hate our father. The same holds for fatherland. But our capacity for perversion does not destroy these natural goods. They remain worthy of our love if we will but love rightly.
Liberal allies worry that I court a dangerous illiberalism. Their concerns are overwrought, but they have a basis in truth. Our liberal traditions aim to limit the role of religious and metaphysical passions in public life. In this regard, liberalism harkens to the gods of weakening. The open-society consensus gained traction after 1945 so easily because it drew upon the liberalism that is an important part of our Anglo-American inheritance. Like my liberal critics, I cherish this inheritance. Let us by all means defend the Bill of Rights and other honorable components of our liberal tradition. But let us also remember that liberalism tempers and moderates; it does not initiate. It weeds the field but does not plant. When liberalism becomes dominant, as it has done in the postwar consensus, civic life withers, for liberalism offers no vigorous language of love.
For everything there is a season. I argue that our historical moment begs for the restoration of shared loves. We must not fail to meet this need. In my estimation, only an uplifting politics of solidarity can counter identity politics, which makes a dark promise of solidarity, one based on blood, chromosomes, and sexual appetites. In this historical moment, full of the confusion and danger that attend the collapse of a governing consensus, we need something more than liberalism. We need strong gods, purified by reason and subordinate to true religion but nevertheless powerful enough to win our hearts.
I have cryptically thanked Philip Rieff in my acknowledgements. I never met him, but as a young theological scholar I read his books. A brilliant sociologist, he despaired of the desacralization promoted by so-called critical reason, which he believed was leading us to an anti-culture, a “third world” of spiritual impoverishment heretofore unknown to men. And Rieff despaired over his despair. In his agony of unbelief, he pointed me toward a fundamental truth: It is more precious to love than to know.
Of course, the Bible says as much. Love of God is the first commandment, and as the First Letter of John teaches, “Love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God.” As I have already noted, Plato strikes a similar note. I should not have needed Philip Rieff to guide me to such an obvious truth. But I did need him. He reasoned his way to the dark bottom of the postwar consensus, allowing me to see that the opposite of love is not hate but death, the placid cessation of aspiration and desire, the tempting void of nothingness.
The spasms of violence in the twentieth century rose to great heights, casting a long shadow over our moral and political ideals and even over our spiritual imaginations. The postwar consensus was originally modest. I would have supported the efforts of men like James B. Conant, and in fact I did in my younger days. But as it developed and became more and more rigid in its dogmatic openness, that consensus became an enemy of love.
I am more than sixty years old. The only society I have known is the one dominated by the postwar consensus. I am therefore a largely blind guide to whatever comes next. But of this I am sure: It will require a restoration of love. And love is roused by the strong gods, which is why they are returning.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.
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