Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Return of the Strong Gods (Why Do So Many Christians Support Trump?, Part IX)

R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things, a predominantly Roman Catholic journal. Previously, he was a theology and ethics professor at Creighton University. A theological and political conservative, Reno believes that the recent rise of nationalism is a reaction to “the post-war consensus,” the quest for what Karl Popper called the “open society” where there are no transcendent truths but only private interests. Reno claims people are rejecting the open society's “weak gods” and are seeking a return of the strong ones.
By “strong gods,” I do not mean Thor and the other residents of the Old Norse Valhalla. The strong gods are the objects of men’s love and devotion, the sources of the passions and loyalties that unite societies. They can be timeless. Truth is a strong god because it beckons us to the matrimony of assent. They can be traditional. King and country, insofar as they still arouse men’s patriotic ardor, are strong gods. The strong gods can take the forms of modern ideologies and charismatic leaders. The strong gods can be beneficent. Our constitutional piety treats the American Founding as a strong god worthy of our devotion. And they can be destructive. In the twentieth century, militarism, fascism, communism, racism, and anti-Semitism brought ruin… I take it for granted that these strong gods must be resisted. (p. xxiv)
Reno’s critique and description of the post-war consensus with its visions of an open society are not too different from the technocratic liberalism that Michael Sandel laments ("The Tyranny of Merit"). And Reno notes that we can find open society intellectuals on both political left and right:
  • Karl Popper
  • Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
  • Friedrich Hayek
  • Milton Friedman
  • William Buckley
  • Sigmund Freud
  • Albert Camus
  • Jacques Derrida
According to Reno, open society intellectuals fear the strong gods because they believe they will inevitably lead to horrors like the Holocaust, something we should want to avoid. But Reno disagrees. He does not think that the strong gods inevitably lead to the rise of destructive ideologies that folks like Popper, Hayek, and Friedman fear. Moreover, he thinks the return of the strong gods is unavoidable. A desire for the strong gods is part of our DNA. “The sacralizing impulse in public life is inevitable. Our social consensus always reaches for transcendent legitimacy” (p. 136). As such, he argues that we should embrace religious nationalism because it gives our lives a sense of meaning, purpose, and belonging:
The strong god of the nation draws us out of our “little worlds.” Our shared loves—love of our land, our history, our founding myths, our warriors and our heroes—raise us to a higher vantage point. We see our private interest as part of a larger whole, the “we” that calls upon our freedom to serve the body politic with intelligence and loyalty. As Aristotle recognized, this loyalty is intrinsically fulfilling, for it satisfies the human desire for transcendence (p. 155).
Thus, instead of embracing the “globalist utopianism” of the open society, we should seek to cultivate the healthiest kind of strong gods while resisting those that lead to “militarism, totalitarian regimes, and vicious racial segregation” (p. 147). Only by attending “to the strong gods who come from above and animate the best of our traditions” will we be able to turn away from “the dark gods that rise up from below” (p. 162).

I think Reno is partially correct. As the political scientist Paul Miller puts it: “we cannot escape some kind of overarching story of who ‘we’ are, a story that gives us meaning, purpose, and direction” (p. 230). To pretend that most people are not attracted to transcendent stories only creates a vacuum that someone or something will fill.

I am reminded of David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College (not to mention Bob Dylan's 1979 “Gotta Serve Somebody”):
In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. 
If you worship money and things—if they are where you tap real meaning in life—then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth… 
Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure, and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they plant you... 
Worship power—you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. 
Worship your intellect, being seen as smart—you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. 
And so on. (pp. 98-111)
I'd add religious nationalism to Wallace’s list. If we worship our nation, we’ll be eaten alive. Nationalism is the identity politics of the majority tribe, so there’ll always be minority tribes who hold a different vision for our country. As such, we'll constantly be on our guard and looking for ways to suppress them and their vision while promoting ours (and giving others the power to do both). That doesn't sound like a recipe for fulfilling life, not for those in the majority or in the minority. It also doesn't sound very Christian.

Previous Posts

Paul D. Miller. 2022. The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

R. R. Reno. 2021. Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West. Washington D.C.: Regnery Gateway.

Michael J. Sandel. 2020. The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

The Tyranny of Merit (Why Do So Many Christians Support Trump?, Part VIII)

It’s been almost a year since I last explored why so many Christians voted for Trump. As I’ve already documented, there is some evidence that factors such as education, income, and cosmopolitanism may have been a factor. However, these may mask a deeper malaise, what Michael Sandel refers to as the “tyranny of merit,” or perhaps better, the “politics of humiliation.”
It is a mistake to see only the bigotry in populist protest, or to view it only as an economic complaint… the election of Donald Trump… was an angry verdict on decades of rising inequality and a version of globalization that benefits those at the top but leaves ordinary citizens feeling disempowered. It was also a rebuke for a technocratic approach to politics that is tone-deaf to the resentments of people who feel the economy and the culture have left them behind… these grievances are not only economic but also moral and cultural; they are not only about wages and jobs but also about social esteem. (pp. 17, 18)
Sandel locates these grievances in what he calls the technocratic conception of the public good and its corresponding meritocratic ethic. The former is “bound up with a faith in… the… belief that market mechanisms are the primary instruments for achieving the public good.” (pp. 19-20). Market-driven globalization has generated increasing inequality and devalued national identities. Those who benefit from it have “valorized cosmopolitan identities as a progressive, enlightened alternative to the narrow parochial ways of protectionism, tribalism, and conflict.” (p. 20). Sandel argues that by 2016, the Democratic Party had become the party of technocratic liberalism, which reflects more the interests of professional elites than blue-collar and middle-class voters.

Sandel contends that technocratic liberalism frequently employs a “rhetoric of rising” that holds that people “who work hard and play by the rules” should rise as far as “their talents will take them.” He notes that political elites on both the right and left invoke this phrase. Obama was particularly fond of using “you can make it if you try,” a line he employed more than 140 times in his speeches and public statements.

The problem is that not everyone can make it, not even those who try and do play by the rules. Economic mobility in the United States isn’t what it was 60 years ago. Consider, for example, the following graphs. The first (from “Our World in Data”) plots income inequality in the U.S from 1939 to 2021. As it shows, economic inequality began to increase in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The second graph (from “Opportunity Insights”) plots mobility rates by birth cohort. Specifically, the y-axis represents the percentage of children who make more than their parents, and the x-axis indicates the year someone was born. It clearly shows that the dream that children born in America will have a higher standard of living than their parents has become less and less likely. Technocratic liberalism isn’t all that many believe it’s cracked up to be.

The meritocratic ethic that accompanies technocratic liberalism implicitly holds that those endowed with the gifts our market society rewards deserve more esteem than those who do not possess such talents.  This has had harmful consequences: 
Among the winners, it generates hubris; among the losers, humiliation and resentment. These moral sentiments are at the heart of the populist uprising against elites. More than a protest against immigrants and outsourcing, the populist complaint is about the tyranny of merit. And the complaint is justified…

Meritocratic hubris leads winners to “inhale too deeply of their success… It is the smug conviction… that they deserve their fate, and that those on the bottom deserve theirs too. This attitude is the moral companion of technocratic politics” (p. 25)
We see evidence of this in the language used to describe those who have not made it: “trailer trash,” “flyover states,” “those who cling to guns and religion,” “deplorables.” It also appears in the media. One study found that television shows portray blue-collar dads as stupid, impotent, and the butt of jokes - think Archie Bunker and Homer Simpson. By contrast, they portray upper-middle class and professional dads favorably. Facts like these have led Joan Williams, a professor at Hastings School of Law in San Francisco, to criticize and lament what she calls “the class-cluelessness” of progressives. (p. 202).

Think what you want of Donald Trump, but he intuitively tapped into the sense of humiliation felt by many Americans. He appears to have been more aware of the malaise sweeping much of middle America than those of us who believe we have their best interest at heart. It’s difficult to tease out whether the politics of humiliation has disproportionately affected theologically conservative Christians (at least, I have yet to locate relevant data). Still, if it has, we shouldn’t be surprised that they hitched their future to the candidate who at least acknowledged their sense of humiliation.

Previous Posts

Michael J. Sandel. 2020. The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.