The author and former theology professor speaks with Daniel P. Schmidt and Michael E. Hartmann about philanthropy, the “open society,” populism, and true freedom.
R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things, a leading intellectual journal founded in 1990 by Richard John Neuhaus to ecumenically confront the ideology of secularism and insist on a place for faith in “the public square.” He also serves as executive director of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, which publishes First Things. After having been a regular contributor to the journal for many years, Reno became its editor in 2011. He had been a professor of theology at Creighton University.
Under Reno’s leadership, First Things is at the center of vigorous and rigorous discussion and debate about the very definition, or the redefinition, of conservatism. The role certainly seems to be relished, by both him personally and the journal institutionally.
Recently, at an American Enterprise Institute event to commemorate the 10th anniversary of National Affairs magazine, Reno provocatively floated the idea of a lifetime cap of one billion dollars on charitable contributions, which certainly caught our attention here at The Giving Review.
His new book Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West argues that the postwar consensus in America and Europe is breaking down. The populism and nationalism upending global politics, he believes, represent a return of the “strong gods”—the powerful loyalties that bind us together. These “strong gods” may supplant the supposedly liberating “weak gods” pushed by liberals and progressives. Their ideal “open society” is an economically prosperous one, expertly and masterfully managed, devoid of any distracting dogmas.
Reno’s previous books include Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society in 2016, Fighting the Noonday Devil—and Other Essays Personal and Theological in 2011, and Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible with John J. O’Keefe in 2005.
Below is the second of two parts of an edited transcript of a discussion that Reno was kind enough to have with us in late November. The first part, in which he talks about rock-climbing, conservatism, and opinion journals and magazines, is here.
Hartmann: During a recent event at the American Enterprise Institute to mark the 10th anniversary of National Affairs, you floated the idea of a lifetime cap of a billion dollars on charitable contributions. Why?
Reno: I think one of the problems that we suffer from in 2019 is gigantism. Conservatives have always been worried about gigantic government and the tendency of the bureaucratic, administrative state to swallow all social functions into itself. But at the same time, we should be worried about other kinds of gigantism, other concentrations of power.
One that worries me is the tremendous concentration of wealth over the last generation. I’m not one of those people who envies Jeff Bezos. You can’t spend billions on yourself—or a hundred billion, in his case—so the question is what’s going to happen to that wealth. One of my worries is that there’ll be an overconcentration of philanthropic activity among a very few, very, very, very few wealthy foundations. That’ll undermine the variety and the local focus of a healthy philanthropic culture.
So I proposed the billion-dollar lifetime cap. Well, maybe that’s not the right way to go. Maybe we should say that you lose your charitable deduction if you give more than a billion dollars to any one charity or related charity. That would force Bezos to find a hundred initiatives to fund with his hundred billion dollars. That would probably be good for our philanthropic ecosystem.
Silicon Valley’s another problem. If you’ve got only a few firms sucking up all the venture capital, then you have less creative experimentation and innovation. So you’ve got to think, how do we deal with that? Or if Google’s way of dealing with competitors is to buy them out and swallow them, well, then maybe you have a problem here about having a competitive ecosystem that leads to genuine innovation. The same thing is true in philanthropy.
The Gates Foundation dominates public-health policy, and it also led the way with the Common Core educational policy. I’m all for them trying to do their best to serve the public, but it’s not good if one behemoth foundation sucks all the oxygen out of creative thinking about educational policy or public health.
Hartmann: So you share harsh critique of philanthropy by the cluster of progressives including Anand Giridharadas and Rob Reich, who are making points about the anti-democratic nature it all?
Reno: Yes. We don’t want to create a shadow government where you outsource policy thinking from our elected officials to a bunch of technocrats that are funded by half a dozen gigantic foundations. That would not be good for democracy. I agree with them.
There’s a conservative way to address this problem and there’s a progressive way. Maybe it’s better to just limit what you can give to any one particular foundation. That would be a better way from a conservative perspective, as opposed to the way of the progressive, who often wants the government to take the money.
Hartmann: Your preference, after sharing the same diagnosis as Giridharadas and the others, would be for localism to supplant anti-democratic gigantism in the philanthropic sector, as opposed to an even-bigger government to prevent the problem?
Reno: Indeed. Jeremy Beer wrote a very fine book, The Philanthropic Revolution. It’s about the shift of early Gilded Age philanthropy, which was often very locally oriented, to the Andrew Carnegie and ultimately the John Rockefeller way, which was the professionally managed foundation. I think that’s an important change.
There’s no reason to reject the professionally managed foundation any more than there is to reject the professionally managed corporation, but one has to recognize what was lost in that transition. How can we shape public policy to encourage a restoration of what was lost, or at least to preserve those elements the older tradition that endure. We shouldn’t just careen into the future without any regard to how the huge new fortunes mostly gained in tech are going to affect our civic culture.
Hartmann: Has there been any receptivity to the idea you floated?
Reno: People mostly I think I’m crazy when I say these things. But I pushed in the pages of First Things a tax on supersized university endowments, because I think you have the same problem there—a concentration of educational power and a very small number of lead institutions that set the tone for the rest of higher ed. That’s not good for our country. There’s no reason why the taxpayer ought to be subsidizing the overconcentration of cultural power.
Lo and behold, the tax bill of 2017 has a tax on supersized endowments. It’s not as significant as I would like it to be, but it’s in there. You make these kinds of suggestions in public and sometimes policymakers take them up. This is my point about how I think magazines of ideas still matter. They affect the public conversation.
Who knows? Maybe my idea is stupid and nobody will take it up, but if it’s not floated, then no one’s going to think of it, right? Practical politicians and their staffers are very focused on the machinery of legislation and the brute realities of political survival. You need to have magazines like First Things, or National Review, or Commentary, and others. They are where we can float ideas.
This is a great time, actually, for magazines of ideas because the consensus is much more up for grabs now than it has been since the Reagan Era. We pretty much had a pretty good idea what our basic commitments are and we were fine—and then attacked the left, which is always an honorable activity!
Openness and imbalance
Hartmann: Why’d you write Return of the Strong Gods?
Reno: I wrote an essay under that title and my friend Tom Spence at Regnery called me up and said, You know, I think there’s a book there. Often, editors know better than writers what they should write.
This is an idea that I’ve been toying with for a long time. I’m very taken by this Richard Weaver quote about how men’s minds work at three levels. There are specific beliefs, there are general principles, and there are metaphysical dreams. Over the last half dozen years, I’ve been trying to discipline myself to ask, What’s the dream here on the left? What do they want? What’s their utopian hope? What’s the end state that they dream of, imagine?
I kept coming back to the theme of openness and fluidity, porousness and inclusion, diversity, borderlessness. Certainly, inclusion is a strong theme. Also, if you go to academia, where I’ve spent a great deal of time, transgression is a big theme. Why is transgression viewed as such a redemptive word? Why are the bourgeois trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art smitten by it? Why would they endorse or champion art exhibits that emphasize transgression? In my book, I try to show how transgression and other leading themes promote the metaphysical dream of openness.
Hartmann: Liberal establishment philanthropy paid for many of the concepts you just described, isn’t that right? Is there a philanthropic “weak god” that needs to be, well, strong-armed?
Reno: You can do a genealogy of cultural Marxism, and I do it in my book. I’ve got a section in there on The Authoritarian Personality by Theodor Adorno and others. Max Horkheimer led the research project. They were out of the Frankfurt School. The basic concept is that Christianity, capitalism, and the family as traditionally understood create a character prone to racism and fascism. There was establishment philanthropic support for the underlying study. So the question returns: why the establishment support? Why did the trustees of Harvard acquiesce to the open-society motifs?
You guys probably know what the stats are, but is it like 90% of the philanthropic money for research goes to liberal or progressive projects? Once you start rolling university endowments into this, I think it approaches 90%. Why does it go left? Why cultural left? By the time you get to the 1980s or even the ’70s, it’s not about labor unions and the American worker, which was the traditional left. It’s really about cultural liberation. It’s about being culturally progressive, which always means more and more openness.
My book’s thesis is that the traumas of 1914 to 1945 created a profound anxiety about totalitarianism—reinforced, of course, by the Cold War battle against the Soviet Union—and that therapies of openness and transgression were seen as ways of fending off the “strong gods” of conviction and loyalty that would lead to totalitarianism.
You can do a Google search of word use, and if you look at use of the word “meaning” in publications, there’s a very sharp spike after 1945. “Truth” is a strong god; “meaning” is a weak god.
Hartmann: Now, of course, we hear people say “my truth” and “your truth.”
Reno: Right, which is way of neutering whatever strength there is in the word “truth,” because “truth” is something that’s strong. If it is true, then you’ve got to accept it, and you’ve got to conform to it—whereas “meaning” is softer, more plastic, more personal.
You can ring the changes on this. Consider transgenderism. Yeah, it’s a bit extreme, says the liberal living in Oak Park or wherever, but it’s probably good for society. We should loosen up on our views of the what it means to be a man and a woman, he thinks. It will help promote an open society.
Hartmann: For a larger study, we at the capital Research Center, where I work, did a one-year snapshot in 2014 of the flow of policy-oriented philanthropy, and it was imbalanced by a more than three-to-one magnitude for liberals over conservatives. It did not include higher education.
Reno: You figure for every law-school clinic that has even remotely conservative inclinations, you’ve got a hundred funded out of the basic law-school budget that are the other way. Then, the faculty appointments in the humanities and on and on. The only area of academic life where conservatives have a little bit of a shot is in economics. because you can be a libertarian conservative and not pose a threat to the cultural consensus on the left.
The first word of freedom
Hartmann: So what should a conservative philanthropist or philanthropy professional do with your thesis about “strong gods” and “weak gods.” Just fund or continue to fund strong ones? Some might argue it’s better to cede the field and spend elsewhere.
Reno: Part of the answer is that conservatism itself is in a state of uncertainty. Conservatism evolved in the Buckley consensus as, if you will, a right-wing form of openness that emphasized economic openness, while the left emphasized cultural openness. You get cultural deregulation on the left, and you get economic deregulation on the right. Typically, conservative funders accepted this division of labor, basically abandoning cultural questions, because it just seems as if all you get is grief if you’re not behind the openness project. They’ve doubled down on economic deregulation.
But these are related to each other. They’re not antagonistic, as we see in somebody like Emmanuel Macron or Angela Merkel. The Western European situation is clearer. For the last 10 to 15 years, there’s been a fusionism of sorts. Establishment leaders want Europe to be more market-friendly and more culturally open, more multicultural.
The conservative has to ask himself, What kind of conservative am I? Am I worried mostly about a kind of cultural collapse of our country, or an economic stagnation of our country? I worry about the collapse.
Schmidt: Is there a deficiency in the understanding of freedom on both the left and the right?
Reno: Yes. In a book I did a couple years ago called Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, I start with freedom and end with freedom because that’s the American word. That’s our thing. We can’t let go of freedom and succeed politically or culturally in the United States.
Friedrich Nietzsche said that the first word of freedom is “no”—that is to say, I will not do that. We think of freedom as “yes,” I want to do that and I can. But actually, most people get pushed around and that’s been the human condition. We’re pushed around by people who are more powerful, by principalities and powers that rule the world, as St. Paul says. Freedom is having a solid place to stand, where you can say “no,” I’m not going to do that.
Thomas Jefferson recognized that democratic culture rests on the yeoman farmer. It was a myth in terms of sociological reality, but it was an attempt to capture the idea of the self-sufficient family that is not a peon of some high master and can therefore participate in democratic deliberation. Jefferson’s yeoman farmer could do so as a free man.
We need to think about freedom in that way—moral freedom, so people are not enslaved to their own vices and addictions, as well as economic freedom, where you stand on your own feet and so on. That’s important, and we need to defend that. We should be thinking, for instance, about recapitalizing the middle class, so that it has property and can then make decisions about how to live.
The Return of the Strong Gods fits with what I’ve thought about for freedom for years, which is that people are freest when they are empowered by a stronger love or loyalty. It’s commitment, not openness, that gives people the ability to say “no, doggone it, I’m not going to do that.” I’m not going to kowtow to political correctness. I’m not going to accept it when the social consensus tells me what I can and can’t do. This requires confidence, in myself, to be sure, but that rests in confidence in my ideals, or confidence in my business plan—or my philanthropy, for that matter. Having that kind of confidence depends upon having what I call a “strong god.”
Schmidt: You can correct me if I’m wrong, but the populism of today is a little bit different than the William Jennings Bryan populism, or Shay’s Rebellion, or the Andrew Jackson moment because of what you just mentioned—nobility and freedom.
Reno: In Bryan’s days, you had industrialization, the late 19th Century switch from majority agricultural employment to majority urban employment. You had anxiety on the part of small-town and agrarian America that its way of life was being imperiled.
You get some of the same anxiety today, but it’s much more acute culturally, because the family—which is such a crucial foundation for a person to have a stable life—has been so deteriorated in much of working-class America. No stable economic foundation for the middle class, no stable moral, familial foundation, and then also a decline of religiosity. No father at home. No Father in Heaven. Not good, as Trump sometimes likes to say.
One of the eye-opening experiences with me came when I was rock-climbing, actually. One of the good things about rock-climbing is that I often go climbing with younger people from different kinds of backgrounds. A young kid that I climb with, a software engineer, is from Gary, Indiana. His Dad works in the steel mill and has lived in the same house and been married to the same wife for some 40 years.
My friend is one of four sons. As I said, he’s a software engineer. Another’s done very well in finance. Then, his two other brothers have criminal records and have struggled with drug addiction. So consider the father. He cannot pass on his way of life to his children. Two sons were able to make it, that’s great, but the other two become part of the underclass. If you told me you either your four children can have stable middle-class lives, or two can be in prison and two can be successful investment bankers, I’ll say I want the first option. If I have to sacrifice two of my children for the success of my other two, that’s not a very good deal.
That’s the populist frustration. It’s not going to be solved just by upward mobility, because people sense that if you maybe make a mistake or just hit hard times, you really are in serious trouble. That level of uncertainty is not sustainable. That’s not good for our society. It’s not good for the human condition.