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Wokeness: old religion in a new bottle

Joseph Bottum on how the decline of Protestant America fuelled the rise of identity politics.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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Topics Long-reads USA

Woke anti-racism certainly appears to have taken on the trappings of religion. White people have been seen washing the feet of black people and asking for forgiveness, a ritual firmly in line with the Christian tradition. And terms like ‘white guilt’ and ‘white privilege’ are treated much as Original Sin used to be – things for which humanity must forever atone.

One person who has long been exploring the religious fervour of today’s increasingly moralistic politics is the essayist and author Joseph Bottum. Indeed, his 2014 book, An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, seems almost prophetic. There he argued that the demise of traditional Protestantism in the US has led liberals to transfer their religious beliefs, habits and passions into the political realm, moralising it in the process. Our age of ‘post-Protestantism’, he concludes, has eroded the boundary between the religious and the political, infusing politics with a religious mindset and discourse.

spiked’s US correspondent, Sean Collins, caught up with Bottum, at his home in the Black Hills of South Dakota, to find out what he makes of the contemporary political moment, woke anti-racism and the phenomenon of cancel culture.

Sean Collins: As you note in An Anxious Age, the collapse of Mainline Protestantism (that is, the older, non-evangelical Protestant denominations) in the US is striking. In 1965, more than 50 per cent of Americans belonged to Protestant congregations. Now it is less than 10 per cent. Why, in your view, is this collapse so significant for broader American society and politics?

Joseph Bottum: In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville identified the central current of America as a current of morals and manners. However much rival sects feuded against one another, there was this central current. And it is the Mainline Protestant churches which provided America with those morals and manners. (‘Mainline’ is a term that was created later, but we can apply it retrospectively.)

The Mainline churches helped define American culture in several ways. First of all, the churches were mostly apolitical, which has had a profound effect on American culture. For instance, there’s never been a great American political novel. The average French streetwalker in a novel by Zola knows more about politics than the heroes of the greatest American novels. What is it to be an American? At the highest artistic level, it is to be concerned about the cosmos and the self. Politics is incidental to Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter and Huckleberry Finn. And that’s because Mainline Protestantism rendered politics secondary to what it deems is most important — namely, salvation and the self.

Second, Mainline Protestantism defined the structure of the family, and the shape of everyday life – baptisms, marriages and funerals. It effectively shaped the social life of communities. When Tocqueville talks about these non-governmental associations in America that he found so fascinating, the two examples he gives are volunteer fire departments and burial societies. People banded together to make sure they had funding, and attendees, for each other’s funerals. This Protestantism will also shape the idea of the nuclear family, provide a sense of the arc of life, and frame how we understand what’s driving our behaviour, and how we think about politics. So when 50 per cent of the country belonged to these churches, these churches were still shaping social life.

The third thing Protestantism gave us was a shared language of the Bible. When Adlai Stevenson, the former Democratic governor of Illinois, was asked why he decided to run for president for a second time in 1956, he said, ‘It was not like Paul on the road to Damascus’. There was a cultural assumption that people would get this sort of Biblical reference. That too gave a unity to American culture. As much as the Lutherans were not the same as the Methodists, and so on, the churches shared what Tocqueville called the central stream, the main current in American life.

In the 1970s, the old Mainline Protestantism starts to break down. A question of what might replace its centrality in American culture emerges. There is a period in the 1990s and 2000s when it seems that Catholicism might provide the moral language that Mainline Protestantism no longer did. In the event, that project failed, primarily because liberal Protestantism did not disappear – it just shifted into post-Protestantism.

Collins: Right, so we now live in, as you put it, a post-Protestant US. But, if I understand your thesis correctly, you argue that the beliefs, mindsets and manners that animated earlier Protestantism have not been abandoned, but instead have been projected on to the political realm. A key transition you cite is the Social Gospel movement, which becomes more prominent during the 20th century. Then closer to our time Christianity gets stripped out altogether, and you are just left with social activism. Sin remains a preoccupation, but it has been redefined as a social sin, like bigotry and racism. Have I got that right?

Bottum: Yes. There’s an extraordinary point here. Walter Rauschenbusch [an American theologian and a key figure in the Social Gospel movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries] lists six species of social sin. If you go through the list, they are exactly what radicals are objecting to now: bigotry, the ignorance of the uneducated, power, corruption, militarism and oppression. It lines up so perfectly with today’s agitation.

What we’re seeing now is an amplification of what I wrote about five years ago: an intense spiritual hunger that has no outlet. There’s no way to see people kneeling, or singing ‘Hands up, don’t shoot’, or swaying while they hold up candles, and avoid acknowledging that it’s driven by a spiritual desire. I perceived this when I wrote about Occupy Wall Street, and it’s become even more like this. It is an intense spiritual hunger that is manifesting itself more violently. Because to the post-Protestants, the world is an outrage and we are all sinners.

Occupy protesters march to Los Angeles City Hall, 1 October 2011.
Occupy protesters march to Los Angeles City Hall, 1 October 2011.

As a follow-up to The Anxious Age, I wrote an essay in 2014 in the Weekly Standard, called ‘The Spiritual Shape of Political Ideas’. The first idea I addressed was white guilt – that there is this inherent guiltiness that comes from being white. This notion has the same logical shape and the same psychological operation as Original Sin. The trouble is that, unlike Original Sin, there’s no salvation from white guilt. But the formal structure of white guilt and Original Sin is the same. How do you come to understand that you need salvation? By deeper and deeper appreciation of your sinfulness.

Similarly, there is ostracising and shunning. Cancel culture is just the latest and most virulent form of the religious notion of shunning, in which people are chased into further appreciation of their guiltiness. Two years ago, the Nation published a poem about an older panhandler giving advice to a younger one, about how to get people to give you money. The Twittermob went after that poem, on the grounds that the poet was a white man from Minnesota. And the magazine apologised, and the poet apologised for writing the poem. That’s what the shunning is looking for. If you profane, if you’re shunned outside the Temple, the only way back is to become fanatic, to convince people that you understand how guilty you are. And even then I’m not sure there’s any way back.

At the very least, one of the effects of the shunning is to frighten everyone into silence. Its purpose is to get people fired, to put people beyond the pale, to get them out of our sight. This is for a couple reasons. First, it is to ensure we are not infected by this sinfulness. And second, it is a public declaration of our power. It says, look how powerful we are, that we can do this to people.

The Twittermob is really an astonishing phenomenon. One of the latest cases is the grocery store, Trader Joe’s. The Los Angeles Times recently ran a piece saying that it was a shame that Trader Joe’s, which many of its readers identify with, wouldn’t give in to an online petition [that called for the removal of ‘racist packaging’ for products like Trader Ming’s and Trader José’s]. This was a petition started by a 17-year-old. The change.org petition against Trader Joe’s never had many signatures [about 6,000 in early August, about one month after it started]. As a columnist noted, more people attend an SEC football game than are in these Twittermobs that have companies terrified.

We live in just the strangest times. But understanding the historical roots of these radicals as post-Protestant, and understanding the spiritual hunger which has no outlet for them, helps us to explain it. This is what happens when you have a Mainline outlook that is broken loose from all of its prior constraints. These ideas used to be corralled in the churches. If you let an idea like Original Sin – that’s a dangerous and powerful idea – loose from its corral, it goes to a place where it can exist, which is politics. One of the great dangers is that religious ideas are in politics. The line that I use is that, if you believe that your ordinary political opponents are not merely mistaken, but are evil, you have ceased to do politics and begun to do religion.

Collins: You refer to the post-Protestants who promote these ideas as the ‘Elect’. From a sociological perspective, why do you prefer to use the term ‘Elect’ rather than say the ‘elite’ or another designation?

Bottum: Ross Douthat, in a column in the New York Times, said that one of the things we need to take from An Anxious Age is the distinction between the elite and the Elect. I chose the term Elect because those people who are part of it are not elite in the sense of having a hundred billion dollars. They are not the elite in the sense of being political figures with lengthy careers, like Bill and Hillary Clinton, or Joe Biden for that matter. They are not elite in the sense they control things in terms of ownership. So we need another term for them. They certainly have elite educations, but that elite education is not translated into the enormous wealth and power that the true elite has. I could have gone with a class analysis, and I do talk about Milovan Djilas’ analysis in The New Class, which is a fundamental book from the 1950s. There’s also the managerial class analysis that dominated American sociology for many years, and is still really informative. But I wanted to push in a slightly different direction.

Suppose you analyse this class in terms of its members’ answer to the question, ‘How do you know that you are saved?’. In the past, people would say ‘because I believe in Christ’ and the rest of it. But the modern version of this question is, ‘How do you know you are a good person? And how can you have assurance of your goodness?’. Which is Max Weber’s question in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism – and Weber says this anxiety about salvation actually has economic and political consequences. Let’s apply that Weberian analysis and ask what are the consequences of being worried about your salvation, phrased in today’s terms of being worried about being a good person. If it’s all about social ills, then you know you are a good person if you are opposed to those social ills, if you are anti-racist, even if you don’t do anything. You are convinced of your own salvation. You are one of the Elect if you adopt this stance of being opposed to the great sins.

Democrats from the House and Senate kneel in silence to honour George Floyd in the US Capitol Visitors Center, 8 June 2020.
Democrats from the House and Senate kneel in silence to honour George Floyd in the US Capitol Visitors Center, 8 June 2020.

Now, younger people are not going to put up with the hypocrisy of knowing you are a good person but not actually doing anything. And they are starting to be violent. Members of the Elect are much more economically and socially insecure than the elite, but they have the same education, they’ve got the same social markers. In some ways, we are seeing an intra-class warfare between the Elect and the elite.

Collins: Or an inter-generational divide within essentially the same group?

Bottum: Yes. And it’s extraordinary because the young members of the Elect are winning against the old elite. Young staffers at the New York Times forced James Bennett, the editorial page editor, to resign. And that’s incredible. Every old newspaper editor I knew – in generations before mine – would have looked at a letter signed by hundreds of junior staffers criticising an editorial decision, and said ‘I’m sorry that you’re quitting’.

Collins: Yes, today’s leaders in cultural institutions and universities seem to lack backbone. They have espoused this politically correct rhetoric for years, but it’s like they didn’t truly believe it or act on it, and now the younger generation are calling them on it.

Bottum: Right, the younger generation are not going to put up with the hypocrisy. That’s part of it. The second part is, when they see the old power figures tremble, they start thinking, why aren’t we in the positions of power? Then class elements, elitism, start to creep back in. But the original impulse came from seeing leaders like college presidents being hypocrites. They were just mouthing what they thought was just the latest line of the old liberal consensus. What they didn’t fully intuit is that the old liberal consensus was completely gone, and the new line had become something very radical. If today you were to put forward any of the shibboleths of high liberalism of the 1950s, you would be denounced as a terrible conservative.

Collins: Many, myself included, can see how politics has taken on this religious fervour you identify. But to play devil’s advocate, what would you say to those who say that the latest upsurge and awakening is just a rational response to unacceptable police brutality. That we’ve tolerated racial discrimination for too long and this is the chance to address it.

Bottum: Race is the problem that we have never solved in this country. After the Reconstruction era, in the aftermath of the Civil War, we lost the national will for solving the problem of race. Segregation was evil, second only to slavery, but not by much. And the Great Society welfare state of the 1960s has manifestly proven a failure. So, we have never solved this problem.

What I object to is the idea that deep feeling is going to solve the race problem. Or that absurdly utopian ideas like abolishing the police are going to solve the problem. We don’t live in a utopia, and those ideas are only going to cause more problems. The Elect has not been called upon to be responsible. Its members are simply objecting, and they are objecting for reasons that are at least half, and probably more, emotional. Which is to say, they are only objecting to feel good about themselves. To look at that in any objective way, it’s so irresponsible. All it does is create more unhappiness in the name of your own self-righteousness. This is what I call the self-love of self-hatred. It’s ‘I’m such a sinner and aren’t I wonderful for knowing that I’m a sinner’. The irresponsibility comes because they aren’t governing.

Collins: For a white person to declare his guilt, to say ‘I have white privilege’, doesn’t do anything to address any racial inequality or change the material circumstances for black Americans. It seems very self-centered, narcissistic.

Bottum: It is a way of you telling yourself that you know you are saved, that you know you are a good person.

Collins: I’ve also noticed a tendency to avoid detailed analysis of economic and social conditions, or concrete policy reforms. Instead, the issue of race after George Floyd is a simple moral denunciation, or a vague reference to ‘systemic racism’. You hear ‘Why do I have to keep explaining this?’, ‘I’m so exhausted’, and so on, as if the issue was beyond debate.

Bottum: Right. But also it’s defining the Church. It’s a way of saying you either have this feeling or you don’t. And if you don’t, you’re evil, and if you do, you’re good. Christian theology, and Christian spiritual practice, has dealt with this for millennia. This is the distinction Calvin would make between justification and sanctification. The idea here is that we no longer need to argue it, because any argument of it is engaging with people beyond the pale. They are outside the Church, they are the profane. They are just wrong. What are they wrong about? They are wrong in the central feeling of moral goodness. This is the attempt to get others to shut up.

We are living in the age of the ad hominem. The fundamental way to answer a claim is to say something about the person who said it. Whether it’s a tu quoque, or an abusive ad hominem, or poisoning the well – the ad hominem is a whole genus of different species of fallacy. How do we know others are wrong? They are wrong because some bad people have said it too. Bari Weiss [the former New York Times op-ed editor] must be wrong [about the illiberal environment at the Times], because Ted Cruz forwarded her tweet. That’s a wonderful ad hominem – guilt by association. It’s not about the content of what is said, it’s about the people who said it.

Why should Trader Joe’s give in, and say how stupid and guilty it was for not realising the error of its ways? Because otherwise its managers and staff are not good people. It doesn’t matter if there is any objective truth to it. The only thing that matters is where you stand. Are you one of us, or are you one of them?

 Demonstrators march through Miami to protest police abuse on 7 December 2014.
Demonstrators march through Miami to protest police abuse on 7 December 2014.

If I can show that you are one of them, then your only response is to apologise abjectly, even though you didn’t know. You didn’t know that touching your middle finger to your thumb is making a white power symbol. It doesn’t matter whether you knew that. A Hispanic driver for a power company in California got fired because his hand was hanging out the window, with his finger touching his thumb. A women photographed it and declared it was the white power symbol, and the power company fired him. It’s really astonishing.

The single worst piece of journalism in my lifetime appeared in the Washington Post in June this year, about a Halloween party that occurred two years before. A woman had shown up in blackface. Every newspaper editor in the past would have said, this is about a non-public figure from two years ago. Go back and find me some news. Instead, the Washington Post devoted 3,000 words to it. When you get to the end of the article, you discover that the company the woman worked for had already fired her, because the Post was writing a story about her.

It’s not enough to be one of the good guys, to be on the right side. You have to be bulletproof against any charge. You have to be constantly abject. You have to agree with your condemners, or you’re evil. The [French philosopher] Merleau-Ponty wrote about this in terms of the Moscow showtrials – about the psychological process by which people can come to confess their own guilt about something that, at some level, they know they are not guilty of. So the psychological aspect is interesting. But this mode of permanent abject contrition is best understood in its religious modes. This is what you get when the Church of Christ becomes the Church without Christ, and these old Protestant concerns enter the public square, enter politics, divorced from and freed from their old constraints. To paraphrase GK Chesterton, the world is full of Christian ideas gone mad.

Collins: Why does the Elect have to go as far as to ‘cancel’? You could imagine a movement promulgating certain moral ideas in society, and hoping to win converts. Such a movement wouldn’t necessarily feel the need to purge others, who didn’t agree with them, from their workplaces and colleges. What drives the Elect to go to those lengths?

Bottum: Look, you wouldn’t want a Satan worshipper turning up at your Church on a Sunday. You would drive them out. But of course these people don’t live in churches any more. This is what happens when those old ideas break loose and become modes of behaviour in politics. They don’t want these people in their church, but their church is politics. Their congregation is Twitter. They want these people not to exist, they want them banished. There are the power reasons for this: look at how powerful I am; I am a 17-year-old kid, and I had a major US corporation kow-towing to me. But there’s also this kind of religious sense that we can’t let sinners into the church. That’s what shunning was for, to get people to confess their sins, to realise their sinfulness. That’s what we’re doing now – it’s just that the church, the locus of faith, is no longer your congregation on Sunday. It’s public life.

This demand that politics somehow solve everything is an apocalyptic, religious sense of politics. For hundreds of years American jurisprudence has worried about the impact of religion on politics. What’s really extraordinary is that it is finally happening – politics is becoming religionised – but it’s being done in the name of anti-religion.

Joseph Bottum is an essayist, editor and author of numerous works of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, including An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) and, most recently, The Decline of the Novel (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).).

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

All pictures by: Getty.

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