Book review by Daniel Bennett. Daniel Bennett teaches political science at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. He is the author of Defending Faith: The Politics of the Christian Conservative Legal Movement (University Press of Kansas). The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.
This November’s presidential election could be understood in many different ways. It could be seen as a referendum on Donald Trump’s eventful first four years in the White House. It could be viewed as a response to the president’s impeachment and acquittal in Congress. Or perhaps it could be taken as just the latest election in which a majority of Americans are frustrated with an uninspired, binary choice. But there is a larger narrative unfolding in the mind of First Things editor R. R. Reno, with much more at stake than just the next four years.
In Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West, Reno traces the condition of Western society in the aftermath of the “postwar consensus.” Prioritizing openness and free markets in order to prevent global catastrophes like the two world wars, this consensus has shaped the most influential thinking of our age, from Karl Popper and Jacques Derrida to Friedrich Hayek and William F. Buckley. Reno says it has affected most aspects of society and culture, including politics, economics, education, and even architecture.
In terms of preventing another global conflict, the postwar consensus has been an unmitigated success. But at what cost? As Reno tells the story, the West is now facing several pressing challenges that ought to be laid at its doorstep, including widespread addiction, disenchantment, and loneliness, along with a general loss of social solidarity. And the ruling class—comprised of liberals and conservatives alike—is too focused on maintaining this consensus to notice or care. Yes, countries may not be perpetually on the brink of war, and free trade has made the world more prosperous and closely connected than ever before. But while the postwar consensus has safeguarded and strengthened the global community, Reno sees a loosening of the ties binding individuals to community and nation, ties that lend their lives stability and purpose.
Notably, in assigning blame for these developments, Reno does not focus on just one faction of the political ruling class. He has no shortage of criticism for the political left, referring to identity politics as a “cancer” and expressing impatience with those who “despise patriotic ceremonies and traditions.” But he also takes to task those on the political right who have bought into the postwar consensus—proponents of free market capitalism, he believes, have contributed just as much to the hollowing out of Western society as cultural liberals have.
Reno does not believe we can correct these problems under our current political and social arrangement. As he writes in his prologue, “We need to face the challenges of the twenty-first century, not the twentieth.” Instead, he argues, Western society must welcome back the “strong gods” it once tossed aside. What exactly are these strong gods? One is clearly nationalism, which Reno equates with “cherish[ing] self-government.” The postwar consensus demonized nationalism as a driver of conflict, but Reno sees it—and its cousin, patriotism—as a positive force for unity at a moment when society is remarkably fractured. Two other strong gods are the family and the church, institutions that started breaking down as the postwar consensus emphasized other, potentially competing values.
But if there is a leader among the strong gods, it is populism. This is a belief system bigger than Donald Trump or Brexit or Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister. Populism, according to Reno, challenges the hegemony of the “leadership class.” It emphasizes “strong borders, not open ones; advantageous trade, not open trade; loyalty and patriotism, not open minds.” And it reflects “a growing sense that ‘we’ needs shoring up.” Reno believes that by embracing the strong gods of populism, nationalism, and the like, the West can address the negative effects of the postwar consensus, effectively confront the challenges of the past century, and put itself on a stable footing going forward.
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Source: Christianity Today