Only a Strong God Can Save Us

Note: I wrote this in April. For a number of reasons (mostly to do with final exams) I abandoned it unfinished. It’s still unfinished, but I think it’s worth putting up what I did complete.

Herman Ernst Freund, “Thor” (1829)

R. R. Reno has a great essay, “Return of the Strong Gods,” in this month’s issue of First Things, which is available in full, without paying, online. Reno works through the very familiar Weberian disenchantment narrative of modernity, but he uses it in a unique & useful way: To call the disenchanted classes to cease their totalizing call for the death of the “Strong Gods” of the past and to realize that the populist revolt in the West is rooted in powerful drives the elite are powerless to undo. Reno gets surprisingly—or, disturbingly, depending on your point of view—close to sounding like he could be published in an alt-right outlet by the end:

As the postwar era’s imperative of disenchantment has weakened the civic covenant, our societies have become more divided. Today, elites are more remote from the rest, and also wealthier and more powerful. This is not a coincidence. A meritocratic mentality supplants the civic covenant as a rationale for wealth and power, and this way of thinking regards social rewards as an entitlement of the credentialed. The future of liberal democracy depends upon the renewal of our civic covenant and a restoration of solidarity between the leaders and the led, as well as among the many citizens of our diverse nation. Multiculturalism only works in empires. For a democracy, it is an impossibility.
The greatest and highest covenant is religious. Faith exposes us to the full truth of our vulnerability: The fate of our souls is not, finally, in our hands. Yet it is also our most profound experience of security and stability, for our souls are in God’s hands, and his power is supreme and everlasting. The religious covenant relativizes our other loyalties. It smashes idols not by relying on the postwar pattern of disenchantment, but instead by romancing our souls with a higher, more powerful enchantment. The most reliable protection against a false and dangerous sacralization of ideology, nation, Volk, or any other populist perversion is not multiculturalism or post-national globalism. It is instead love and loyalty ordered toward the highest good, which is God.

It really is an excellent piece, an argument fully worth appreciating in its fulness— but I still want to push back against a few of its assumptions. I think it is important to get a clear picture of where we actually are, and doing so means admitting some uncomfortable truths.

We have killed the Strong Gods, you and I.

Max Weber is a seductive, but often misleading figure for the English-speaker. For example, despite its roots in Hobbes, the famous idea of the state’s monopoly on violence is ill-suited for the context of America, which continues to distinguish itself from the rest of Western Europe by our strong exceptions for private violence. Not just in self-defense, but also in the elective nature of our prosecutions and police investigations, which may drop inquiries where the victim is seen to have “had it coming.” In fact, the popularity of Weber’s definition in academic circles in the United States has much to do with their discomfort with the wide breadth private violence is given in this country.

In Reno’s case, though, he manages to read Weber into an area Weber died at the dawning of, the interbellum and postwar “disenchantings” of European politics. Or, their supposed disenchantings. Reno elides two distinct phenomena: The rise of “value-neutral” liberalism in America (the state is agnostic as to the question of the Good) and the postmodernist upheavals in Europe. The soixante-huitards were hardly value-neutral liberals in the American sense, but true radicals seeking existential grounding in Marxist/Maoist theory. In fact, the European state has never truly aspired to the American game of value-neutrality, it has instead chosen to condmen some Gods while elevating still others. The French state is still a strong state with ideas of what ideas are acceptable to the state— it is a state still above its people. Yet, the French state has abandoned certain ideals while expressing others, like laïcité, in new forms.

Disenchantment is typically seen as flowing from religious change and religious thinkers typically put the cart before the horse and think that metaphysics has lead the charge. Not so.

The American situation has its roots in the dual-nature of the American founding. In his essay “Hegel’s Ambiguous Legacy for Modern Liberalism,” Charles Taylor, elsewhere a disenchantment theorist in the Weberian vein, defines this nature in the complicated dual-roots of American Republicanism in both the civic humanist tradition, and the newer, rational order ideas of society represented by thinkers like Adam Smith. [1] Madison’s theory of the separation of powers is a theory of the latter sort; it seeks to turn what the civic humanist feared as the death of the Republic—the corruption of private motive—into something that could be neutralized through the machinery of the republican state itself. What Taylor neglects to mention is that, of course, Madison was also a believer in civic virtue as such, it’s just that he (and others) believed the machinery of government may now have a solution to the critical problems of young republics (individual over-ambition putting self-glory above the state) and old ones (the corruption and waning of virtue that comes with senescence). American politics lived with this dual-nature for many years until our own postmodern breakdown, but it was a dual-nature which came out of a very different vision of the state than even that of Revolutionary France, a vision where the state was secondary to the people and where individual glory was still an important part of civic life.

So, the first problem with mustering Weberian disenchantment in service of Reno’s narrative is that it doesn’t explain the roots of value-destruction in both Europe and America equally. The second is the problem that it just doesn’t explain much at all, though it does explain how some elites have self-consciously justified the campaign against the Strong Gods. (I am not going to claim that Reno is saying it explains more than this, but it seems like he is to me, and I find it very unlikely he will ever correct me.)

It’s the scale of a society, not its metaphysics.

Disenchantment is typically seen as flowing from religious change and religious thinkers, like Reno, typically put the cart before the horse and think that metaphysics has lead the charge. Not so. Disenchantment, rather than flowing from the demise of traditional religion came alongside it, and was due to the breakdowns of society caused by the immense technological and social changes wrought over the last 300 years. In his 1964 lecture “Secularization and Moral Change,” Alasdair MacIntyre convincingly portrays urbanization as such as leading to the secularization of society. He adds another critical insight: America’s supposed high-religiosity (though unaccompanied by religious knowledge on the level of the far more secular United Kingdom) is an artifact of the fact that the churches in America themselves have taken on broad, specifically secular roles, especially in the “Americanization” of immigrants (remember that MacIntyre is writing before the earthquake of the Immigration and Nationalization Act of 1965), but also in the maintenence of America’s unique secular religion. Functions that other urbanized societies had dealt with in other ways where in America the province of churches which were able to take them on because they were already in some sense secular. In terms a samizdat-writing gay bodybuilder will understand: It’s the scale of a society, not its metaphysics.

The weakening of the Strong Gods of religion, of the hearth, of the patriotic community… all of these were because of the disruption of social bonds as such.

We all have killed the Strong Gods. Who were we to drink up the sea?

Where the Strong Gods Still Dwell

One criticism of traditional religious forms in Christianity is how they have become the province of elites. This may have in some sense always been true insofar as elites sustained those practices, but in the conditions of precapitalist (more accurate here than preindustrial) society, the organic interrelationships assured that upper class religious orthodoxy and orthopraxy was the mode of devotion for the lower classes, as well. That is, Weber reversed the causation: The Protestant ethic and the existence of Protestantism was conditioned on the rise of capital and the social upheaval it brought, rather than the Protestant ethic bringing about its rise. That the new forms of religiosity were ultimately more congenial to the free movement of capital was to be expected— the mystery is not in the creation of the Protestant ethic, but rather how the Strong Gods remained strong enough to stay in its way, however imperfectly, in many states.

In America, flattened socio-economic hierarchy and the existence of affordable land reduced the impact of the latter stages of capitalist civilization, even as America in many ways was an exemplar of earlier stages. American society was more democratic, and allowed for a degree of social mobility that baffled European observers. While it is true that America has lost much of this, it is important to remember how much it is still true compared to other Western states, even as they provide more solidity for certain lower classes than we do.

The Strong Gods didn’t just dwell in “flyover” America, they also dwelt in right-wing elites in Europe, in certain social movements, regional identities, and even in the very notion of the strong state which still holds in Continental Europe.

Avant! Maréchal Pepetain!

Yet, Reno is right to see something in common in the elite reaction against the reappearance of the Strong Gods, and also in their shared rise. Right-wing politics in France and the United States have never had much in common, so the seeming convergence of Trumpism and the Front National is best understood as the expression of a new stage of globalism. Rather than representing the Old Strong Gods, though their imagery has been repurposed (see here), it’s really something new.

But to understand why, we first have to understand the elite convergence.

The Cool Gods

…genealogical projects are justificatory, not explanatory.

Where did the attitudes of modern elites come from?

For Reno, it’s the imperative of disenchantment. For certain people on the alt-right, it’s all the fault of the Frankfurt School (and for many of the rest, it’s them, but also all the other Jews, as well). For the autistic members of a certain government-in-waiting, it’s the Calvinists. And it can get more esoteric from there: Maybe it’s nominalism, or even just St. Augustine.

The problem is that genealogical projects are justificatory, not explanatory. Our elites didn’t adopt their views because of general philosophical commitments or even social programming designed by persons who held such commitments. (Even if the latter were true, it’d remain a more interesting question why people found it convincing at all— not all forms of propaganda take!) The intellectual roots of the Davos Man may very well lie in one (or all) of those things, but they don’t tell us why our elites found them convincing.

It’s especially difficult to argue our elites share a sort of shared agenda of disenchantment when even our Boomer radicals don’t really look like those of Europe, not to mention the very different roots of anti-Western sentiment in America (and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the English-speaking West) and the rest of the West. In America, it grew naturally out of the realities of the post-1965 immigration and the liberal commitment to being agnostic about the good. Before ’65, Americans generally did share some notions of the good or at least about the good society, but those had to be suppressed to let both the black man and the newer, brown arrivals in. There was no need to suppress black nationalist sentiment or the racial grievances of the new arrivals because there was never any danger that they w0uld be in the driver’s seat (or so everyone assumed— and still does, even at this late hour). While anti-Western, anti-nationalist thought in Europe also rose in conjunction with the post-colonial Völkerwanderung, it had deeper roots in the experiences of the World Wars, but especially the interbellum rise of movements which sought to reinvigorate Europe with new takes on the Strong Gods and the consequences that followed. Reno rightly points out America doesn’t share this history, so why would we share the same disenchantment drive?

Indeed, the disenchantment drive (as an intellectual current) is in fact much stronger in Continental Europe from French postmodernists to the Italian left and beyond. In America, the drive to suppress all strong belief as such doesn’t exist in the same degree. We still mostly just suppress the wrong sorts of strong belief, which is why even as some American elites take it in with some ironic distance, there’s a lot more affective patriotism in America than abroad, and it transcends class barriers. America’s elites in fact have plenty of Strong Gods left, but they’re the Strong Gods of liberal individualism in the moral realm, combined with a general faith in our private and public technocratic institutions.

[1] Cardozo Law Review 10:857 1989

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.