The Great Awokening
America's Most Recent Religious Revival
Another Great Awakening
In the past year, the United States, a place not unfamiliar with religious convulsions in her short history has been overtaken by a new religious revival. The most destructive riots in American history may not seem like a “religious event.” After all, there is almost no established religion involved in the Floyd Riots or their aftermath. No new religious sect was formally established, nor was controversy over a religious doctrine the cause of the disruption, or so it would seem. Nevertheless, what we experienced over the last year has been the culmination of decades of religious fervor.
Most people are viewing this through the lens of politics or culture. There is a lot of good analysis you can read from that perspective, but if a nation or people is likened to an onion, politics is the external layer, the layer below that is culture, and the very center of it is religion. Religion is at the center of everything. And while this may come as a surprise to people who believe America is a post-religious society—after all we’ve banished religion from public life and are as secular as the Federation is in Star Trek—a post-religion society is as possible as a post-gravity society. You can pretend as hard as you want that it doesn’t exist, but it will always be there. The question is not one of “whether” but of “which.”
What has happened in the last year has had obvious political and cultural effects, but at its root, it is a religious phenomenon. And not just because it contained the accouterments and parodied rites of Christian religion (see below), but because the outburst of 2020 displays religious revealed preferences, society-wide.
No one will forget the immediate cascade of every major corporation turning its social media pages and corporate logo black and issuing a statement condemning racism. What racism had to do with the death of Floyd is still anyone’s guess. Christianity Today ran an article that venerated Floyd, who once attended a Bible study in Houston and helped set up some folding chairs, as though he were the greatest evangelist since Billy Graham. The hagiography was as pathetic as it was comical—the man was a convicted felon, porn actor, and drug addict. He had fathered children whom he had never met. He was by any reasonable standard not a good man. Obviously, this does not mean his death was a good thing. But it does mean something…
What it does mean is that the instinct to immediately canonize an objectively awful person due entirely to his status as a victim demonstrates a very deep religious impulse within a large segment of the country. Religion, more than culture, more than politics, determines whom we venerate and whom we despise. The apotheosis of George Floyd is evidence of a religious phenomenon on par with the First and Second Great Awakenings.
Completely normal, not-at-all religious activity.
Religious History of America
It is impossible to understand American history without recognizing the place religious awakenings have had. Without the First Great Awakening, there very likely would not have been secession from the British Crown, much less a successful one. Without the Second Great Awakening, there would be no strange, idiosyncratically American cults, like the Mormons or the Seventh Day Adventists. Nor would its aftermath have provided fertile ground for abolitionism and the eventual Civil War. The impact of the Second Great Awakening was so great it could be felt in the post-Civil War Era, too, from the beginning of the Gilded Age all the way to the Progressive Era. In fact, Murray Rothbard, whose analysis as a historian was nearly Marxist in its materialism (he admittedly relied heavily on Marxist historians like Gabriel Kolko) was at its best when he analyzed this period through the lens of not economics but religion. His lecture series on this period (and the book assembled from these notes) are worth listening to/reading. In it, he explains the major political divisions in the country at the time (1880s-WWI) were over things like monetary policy (yes, really), prohibition of alcohol, women’s suffrage, and compulsory public education. The divide was not one that was fundamentally on class lines. Or even geography (as the national political conflicts of the past had been). No, the divide on all these issues was religious. Those Rothbard labeled “the pietists” (the great, grandchildren of the Second Great Awakening, revivalistic Protestants and their less fundamentalist, blue-blooded upper middle-class Protestants) on the one side, and what he labeled “liturgicals” (higher church Lutherans, Catholics, made up largely of recent immigrants from Germany and Eastern and Southern Europe) on the other. The pietists favored loose monetary policy, prohibition, an expanded electorate (women’s suffrage), and Christianizing foreign heathens (German Catholics and Lutherans) by force (compulsory public school). The “liturgicals” opposed these measures. They wanted hard money, the Schelling Point of the local tavern, a limited electorate, and to educate their children in their own traditions.
Much has been made of the thesis of Moldbug that American Progressivism is essentially godless Puritanism. As a believing Postmillennial Calvinist, I think his idea that Postmillennial Calvinism devoid of faith in God is still an incredibly powerful force, animating much of American progressivism, even to this day is probably more right than it is wrong. When you consider Rothbard’s analysis of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, it fits. Rothbard’s Pietists were the descendants of Moldbug’s post-Christian Puritans. They very much retained the impulse to cleanse and reform the world. The problem was, of course, that what remained of Christian orthodoxy was badly mangled, and the driving force behind this postmillenial impulse was not to see the nations converted to Christ, obeying His commands, but to a generic American civic religion, a sort of Christless Christianity. Think the turn-of-the-century main street you see in The Music Man or at the entrance to Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. The form of Christian civilization is retained, while adherence to the Christian faith has disappeared. It can work for a while, just like the Wile E. Coyote can run off a cliff and not immediately plummet to his cartoon death.1 This generic American moralism held up for a while. It was the religious center of the country throughout the 20th Century, but another religious awakening after the United States emerged victorious in the Second World War would overtake it.
Civil Rights as Third Great Awakening
After the Second World War, the generic American moralism that formed the religious views of the average American gave way to a more radical and secular egalitarianism. Christopher Caldwell, whose 2020 book, Age of Entitlement, is an absolute must-read, described Post-Civil-Rights America as a totally new republic. One of his main arguments in the book is that, despite all its well-intentionedness, once Federal legislation was passed outlawing freedom of association, the new legal standard of “discrimination” and “civil rights” totally upended the bedrock of the constitutional republic. Once the legal system became the arbiter of the oppressor class and oppressed class, you had an entirely different system than anything that existed in America prior. Caldwell’s book made some waves, but his point is self-evident. Once the Pandora’s Box of “civil rights” was opened, it didn’t stop with forcing Southern States to change their voting laws or end segregation, it inexorably lead to feminism and gay liberation being legally enshrined as the law of the land. It made affirmative action the norm. And the Obergefell decision could never have taken place outside the novel constitutional environment formed by the Civil Rights Act.
But the radical transformation was not just a legal and constitutional one, the very bedrock of society has transformed. A religious transformation began to take place. The old generic American religion was quietly replaced with a sort-of secular egalitarianism. To be a good person was no longer to one who “fears God” as it had been in Christian America, or one who “was a good and trustworthy neighbor” as it had been in generic moralistic American religion, but now “someone who believes in equality.”
You can tell that this was the new civic religion because today’s conservatives are the ones who hold most ardently to it. “How dare you call me a racist! I don’t have a racist bone in my body!” the conservative will cry, fully accepting the idea that this is the baseline for what determines if a person is good or bad. If in the 19th Century the last thing you’d want to be called is “unbeliever” or “godless,” and in the 20th Century “un-American” or “Communist,” by the late 20th Century the heretical label of the civic religion became “racist.” You would rather be called a murderer than that.
150 years ago, whether or not you would face legal sanctions, the social opprobrium of producing a work of “art” like “Piss Christ” would have unpersoned you. Even the most notorious blasphemers of the era would not dare to do such a thing. You would never be able to show your face in public as long as you lived. Today, you can utter the most foul blaspehmies imaginable about the Lord Jesus Christ and even the most devout Christians would not even bat an eye. We have heard it all before.
Contrast this with a white person saying the “n-word” today. If you were ever to say it in public, your life will be totally destroyed, no matter how insignificant you are. A white girl uttered the word in a video singing along to a rap song, and when she was accepted to University of Tennessee, the video was released by someone who despised her, it went viral, and her acceptance was revoked. “Papa John” Schattner was fired from the company he founded after he used the word while condemning the use of the word. When you identify words you are not allowed to say without having your life destroyed, you have identified a de facto blasphemy law. And if you have identified what a people considers blasphemy, you have identified their religion. And this religion is the great, great, great grandchild of the Second Great Awakening. And we just witnessed its most powerful revival which made most American cities (literally) burned over districts.
The latest iteration of this religion, which is called “wokeness” is driven by Critical Theory. Talk about this is all the rage now, but this is something that has been around since the mid-20th Century. It is nothing new. When Boomers were protesting the war in Vietnam, and they weren’t high on dope and LSD, they were studying the thinkers behind it like Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse. And in the 70s and 80s you could add Habermas and Foucault to that list. This stuff has been around a long time. But it didn’t reach the forefront of American culture and religion until George Floyd’s body expired on camera for the whole world to see. Now “anti-racism” is the American civic religion. The first thing a triumphant religion does is create new holy days.
It doesn’t matter that this religion is nonsensical. The Charles Finney of the Great Awokening, Ibram X. Kendi cannot be bothered to give a coherent definition of “racism.”
In Kendi’s own words “racism” is “a collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas.” Forget the fact that he is an entirely unimpressive figure, that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. A gradeschool child knows you are not defining a word if you have to use that word in its own definition. This is the leading antiracist public intellectual. This is not a battle that will be won on the merits. If you answer this fool according to his folly you become like him yourself. This is superstition being peddled to hopeless rubes.
This is a civic religion that has also formed a dividing line among established religions. Every single denomination in Christendom, whether they be Catholic, Orthodox, High or Low church protestants, all of them have both woke and unwoke factions. As a conservative, Reformed, evangelical protestant, I have more in common with baptists and dispensationalists and charismatics who are not woke than those who agree with me on every point of doctrine of the confessions which we hold to together.2 I am not even certain I don’t have more in common with Catholics and Orthodox, who would condemn me as a heretic, than I do with those who hold the same confession as I do, but also believe white=racist. When I see the centers of power in conservative evangelicaldom signal that they are adherents to wokeness I know that there is a religion they hold to more deeply than the confessions they nominally profess. They are overtaken by the spirit of the age. They have been caught up in the Great Awokening.
Where to go from here?
The center cannot hold. Things are going to fall apart. There are tens of millions of unwoke people, who are rightfully alarmed by Critical Race Theory. I have guys who are only casually interested in politics who clearly watched an episode of Tucker Carlson the night before with someone on like Chris Rufo explaining how insidious this stuff is, who come up to me with eyes wide open shocked that this is going on. Tens of millions of working- and middle class Trump voters exist, and are increasingly alarmed by this stuff. That it has made its way into the public consciousness is thanks to the work of men like Rufo, and James Lindsay and Tucker Carlson. Boring, dense academic subjects are not accessible to normal working people. Truck drivers and contractors are not going to read Foucault or Adorno. But they do watch guys who have read them and those influenced by them. And they are aware that this new religion has overwhelmed the country. As great as Rufo and Lindsay can be, the battle is not going to be won through argument. If you watched that clip of Kendi, can you imagine having an argument with that guy or anybody who thinks like him? They are religious zealots. They are impervious to reason. Facts and logic are not going to win the day. They must be (peacefully, politically) driven out of public life. CRT bans at public schools are a great start but this must go much, much further.
This brings us ultimately back to religion. You cannot fight something with nothing. You cannot fight a religious war just by being against that religion. You must fight it with a competing religion. And there is one that has deep roots here in America. Evangelical Protestantism, in its various iterations, is what founded the country. The woke will even admit it (when it is useful to accuse the Christians who built America of genocide). It formed the religious core of America ages ago and if wokeness will ever be combated it will again. To be perfectly honest, there is great hope for Christian revival in America. Our enemies have taken away every possible alternative away from the populist right. “Trump didn’t work, so I guess we have to believe in Jesus.” The churches and church leaders who recognize that they must be the Schelling point for anti-wokism will grow by leaps and bounds. And this is what must happen, there must be an army of tens of millions American Christians, totally impervious to the satanic accusation of wokeness because they are washed in the blood of Jesus Christ.
Apart from Jesus Christ there is no hope.
A previous edition of this post said “Roadrunner,” which is preposterous because, as we all know, Roadrunner can simply run back onto solid ground.
This is why I almost never engage in debate about baptism or other adiaphora. Not because I don’t have very strong opinions, but because we are in the midst of the most serious religious war in a few centuries.