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Traditional religious visions and the return of the strong gods

By Dara Macdonald - posted Tuesday, 17 August 2021

Most non-secular religions have a transcendent principle. Heaven and hell are not made through material conditions. Secular - or woke versions - of religions want to create heaven on earth (or at least avoid hell). If the goal of a religion can be actualised through material means, then it stands to reason that the demands of the religious adherents will become political. Transcendent religions on the other hand traditionally have adherents that wish to be left alone to fulfil the tenants of their religion. 

People with traditional religious leanings have long been associated with centre-right parties everywhere in the world, but particularly the anglosphere. The reason for this is best understood by the strand of thought known in the US as fusionism:

The philosophy of "fusionism" was developed at National Review magazine during the 1950s under the editorship of William F. Buckley, Jr. and is most identified with his associate editor Frank Meyer. As Buckley recounted the founding he "brokered" between "an extraordinary mix" of libertarians, traditional conservatives, anti-communists and even an anarchist to produce the ideas and writings that produced modern conservatism. He identified Meyer's synthesis as the most likely best solution of defining conservatism.

Liberty - or freedom from government intervention - was the glue that held all these seemingly disparate groups together. Whereas for libertarians freedom was for freedom's sake, social conservatives wanted the freedom to act out moral codes of behaviour. 

In other words, people with transcendent religious ideas tend to hold a constrained view of government, if for no other reason than they don’t believe ultimate good or the meaning of life whatever the transcendent goal of religion is - can’t be achieved through politics. Some of the greatest proponents of secular government were deeply religious Christians like John Locke and the founding fathers of the US, but this is not a dichotomy. Separation of church and state is a naturally occurring phenomenon if understood that it serves neither ‘god’ nor government to have one meddle in the affairs of the other. 

It is only when religion becomes material in its goals (or needs) that it seeks to mesh with the state and provide fodder for an unconstrained political vision, e.g. The Islamic State.

Christianity might have given birth to the secular state, but as societies become not just post-Christian but Woke, many that hold traditional religious beliefs want a Return of the Strong Gods.

Fusionists failed the conservatives on their team, whilst in many ways, freedom prevailed; the freedom to act out religious morality became harder in the age of complete individualism and civic totalism. 

From this insight that liberalism left religious freedom behind comes a strain of post-liberal thought on the right.


R.R Reno who in his book The Return of the Strong Gods states that the old religious and national religions or ideas were swept away with the liberalism of the Mont Pelerin Society (and particularly Karl Popper). These thinkers, Reno argues, essentially viewed any form of emotional attachment to god or country as the cause of the rise of totalitarianism. The banishment of the Strong Gods such as love of country can’t last long, he argues, for the emotional motivators of yesteryear will always hold sway and make a return if people feel they have been sold a faulty bill of goods in radical individualism.

Adrian Vermeule is another post-liberal thinker. He argues for a kind of common good conservatism, particularly in the courts that instead of mere originalism or textualism the court should interpret the law to do good. Whose idea of good is always the question here though? Then there is Patrick Deenen who wrote probably the most decisive, if not well known, an account of the post-liberal right in Why Liberalism Failed?

What is most significant about this desire on the right for the old gods to return with a vengeance is that it leads those on the conservative right to advocate for policies that are inverse to the limited government policies of the past. 

No longer do these ‘common good’ or ‘utilitarian’ conservatives have qualms with breaking political or institutional convention to further goals. Whereas previously it was conservatives that held to a constrained vision of the state preferring not to break or revolutionise anything (or stick to process) this new wave of conservatives that serve the old and strong gods see the political power they continue to gain (such as in the voting in of Donald Trump in 2016), and the cultural power they continue to lose and instead of trying to win back the culture they decide to wield the power they do have to influence the culture.

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This article was first published on The Conservative Vagabond.

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About the Author

Dara Macdonald writes at The Conservative Vagabond.

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