Discover more from Social Studies
Politics has become a religion.
It’s not hard to see why wokeness is so frequently compared to a religion. The metaphors are everywhere: the washing of feet, the prostrations, the proclamations of faith, the sacraments, the martyrs, the confessions, the heretics, the hallowed ground, the Original Sin, the evangelism. Last summer’s protests for racial justice often had the look of a religious movement. Many of its practitioners saw it explicitly in those terms. Even the snarky phrase for this moment of mass political enlightenment, “The Great Awokening”, is derived from the name of an early American religious revival.
Like its eighteenth century namesake, our current awokening has arrived at a time of increasing secularization in the United States. While still a comfortable majority, the percentage of Americans who identify as Christian has dropped by double digits in the last decade, while the percentage who are unaffiliated with any religion has risen by nearly ten points. The biggest drop in religiosity by far has been among liberals.
If religion gives meaning to the lives of the faithful, there are a lot more Americans now who lack that meaning than there used to be, and they’re concentrated on the left side of the political spectrum. It’s not difficult to imagine these people seeking the kind of meaning that religion would otherwise have provided them — a sense of belonging to a larger community; a feeling of collective purpose; an affiliation with a temporal reality that transcends the duration of a single human lifespan — in other things. In their politics, for example.
The problem is that politics is, in important ways, the very antithesis of religion, and in a democratic society, the more politics takes on the shape of faith, the more intractable and dysfunctional it becomes. That’s because politics, when put to its proper use, is the search for what disparate groups share in common, and the bargaining over their differences. Religion is practically its inverse; at its root, it’s tribal. And so as our politics have taken on the character of religion, they have become tribal, too.
As a cultural invention of the United States, woke ideology bears a specifically American religious stamp: that of Calvinism. The Calvinists believed in Predestination. From the moment of your birth, they were convinced, you were destined for Heaven or Hell, and you could do nothing over the course of your life to change that. As the German sociologist Max Weber explained in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, this doctrine bred in the Calvinists of the early United States an obsession with discerning who among them was saved and who was damned. They surveilled each other constantly, searching for signs of who did and who did not belong to God’s “elect.” They policed their own behavior relentlessly, guarding against any possible indication, both to themselves and to others, that they stood outside of God’s grace and were hellbound. Desperate to reassure themselves, they became ostentatious in their displays of austerity, humility, the sacrifice of their egos to a higher calling, and other visible signals of their devotion to God. Their lives became a performance of piety and virtuousness, born of constant, pervasive dread.
Nobody believes in Predestination anymore. Many of us don’t believe in God. But the cultural residues of Calvinism and other puritanical Protestant sects remain with us, in our binary moralism, which divides humanity between the virtuous and the damned, in our scrutinizing of ourselves and others for ethical imperfections, and in our use of public shaming to enforce moral conformity. All of these tendencies fit as comfortably into American left-wing social justice culture as they did in right-wing Christian evangelical culture in the 1990s. Liberal Twitter in 2021 is one big digital Calvinist village, everyone trying to out-virtue-signal one another to prove their ever-tenuous membership in an amorphous club of the morally elite, picking over everyone else’s tweets for signs of political heresy, and calling them out to the mob in a desperate attempt to deflect scrutiny from themselves. The same political culture prevails on college campuses, media outlets, and the non-profit industrial complex. Increasingly, it is becoming the norm in Congress.
Weber once wrote that politics is the “strong and slow boring of hard boards” (the phrase from which Matthew Yglesias, who coined “The Great Awokening,” derived the name of his substack). By that he meant it is tedious and incremental, not an activity for those who dream of heroic feats, of quick and radical change, or of utopian outcomes. It is the business of transaction and deal-brokering over profane and parochial interests. It is not the arena for saving souls. But from Obama to Bernie to Trump, a politics of salvation is the bill of goods we’ve been sold. And it’s what the most rabid political partisans have come to expect, whether they’re MAGA or DSA, as politics has come to supplant religion as the way we imagine communities of kinship into being.
In “The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life,” Émile Durkheim, the early 20th century French sociologist, analyzed the patterns of ancient tribal religious rites in order to ascertain the social function of religion. Durkheim focused in particular on the traditional rituals of Australian aboriginal tribes, whose cultures developed largely in an age that predated a modern division of labor. Today we live in an infinitely complex network of relationships of production and exchange. As soon as we get out of bed and make ourselves a cup of coffee, we are relying on the labor of a thousand strangers: the farmers who grew the coffee beans, the shippers who brought them to us, the municipal workers who maintain our supply of water, the plumber who installed our pipes, et cetera. In pre-modern times, by contrast, each individual, along with his or her immediate family members, had to tend to each life-sustaining task by themselves: dig the well, grow the crops, carry the water, build the fire. This meant that although they belonged to a tribe, each tribal member led a fundamentally solitary existence. Aside from self-defense in the event of an invasion, there was no material reason for the mass of individuals in a geographical area to come together as a group, much less to identify themselves with that collective. How, Durkheim wondered, did a society emerge out of this bunch of disconnected individuals living isolated day-to-day lives?
Religious rites and rituals, Durkheim argued, stood in the breach of the absence of bonds of material necessity. The Australian aborigines worshipped the divine by participating in intensely physical rituals, such as long, frenetic dances around bonfires, in the presence of totemic objects. These rituals sent their participants into ecstatic convulsions. Durkheim called this experience of hypnotic group enchantment “collective effervescence.”
While in that state, individual members of the tribe ceased to perceive themselves as individuals. They transcended their mundane sense of selfhood, feeling themselves viscerally connected to one another, on a higher plane of existence. They saw themselves as one. They regarded that realm, that experience of collective being, as the realm of the sacred, and they conferred that sanctity upon the totem, which represented this intangible sacred entity known as the tribe. They worshipped the sacred totem, but in doing so they were really worshipping themselves — their existence as a social collective.
When they returned to their homes, they carried the experience of this transcendental collective existence, this sacred identification with the tribe, with them back to their isolated lives. Over time, the intensity of these emotional attachments would fade, and it would be time to gather again to recreate it anew. This is how religious ritual generated and re-generated, from discrete individuals, the social reality of the tribe.
As societies became larger, denser, and more urbanized, material production and exchange became more complex, and work became specialized. Vast and intricate networks of material interdependency emerged. This division of labor created a material basis for social cohesion; accordingly, the need for religious ritual as a mechanical means of generating the collective dissipated, and modern societies became increasingly secular.
But collective effervescence never vanished entirely. We see it every time chants and costumes and choreographed motion are used to generate a collective spirit, to transform disparate individuals into a unitary group identity. We see it, of course, in churches, but also at football games, political protests, and military marches, at raves, cosplay conventions, Phish shows, Burning Man festivals and Juggalo gatherings. And, I would argue, we see something akin to it in digital format on Twitter.
Over the last year, we have suffered through as profound an experience of mass social isolation as global civilization has ever undergone. Locked down in our homes, we turned to the internet to recreate our stymied lives online. With internet usage jacked up by 40%-100%, we experienced one of the most chaotic periods of political tumult in living memory largely through our computer screens. Trump, pandemic, Black Lives Matter, riots, impeachment, a presidential election, the January 6 “insurrection” — all of this melodrama processed through the polarization-inducing algorithms of Facebook and Twitter. If our politics were already moving toward tribalism, the pandemic turbocharged our velocity along that trajectory.
For the Aboriginal tribes, the ecstatic rituals that engendered in individuals’ minds the consciousness of the collective served to obviate their sense of social isolation. But they also did something else: they allowed tribal members to conceive not just of their in-group, but of their out-group. In a region populated by people who looked, sounded and lived not too dissimilarly from one another, religious rituals forged distinctive social groupings out of demographically uniform populations.
But later religions found other, negative ways to generate the same effect: through prohibition and exile. By regulating social behavior, condemning the heathens and executing the heretics, Christian sects starkly delineated the boundaries of their communities of faith. In so doing, they reified the community as such. By designating who lay outside of it, even by entirely arbitrary standards, they constituted the in-group as a social reality.
It’s a dynamic that’s familiar to anyone who has tested the ever-constricting boundaries of permissible speech on Twitter. By perpetually improvising new, often arbitrary rules of language and belief, ideologues on Twitter generate the in-group of those who willingly abide by those rules by banishing the out-group of those who are either ignorant of the rules or who defy them knowingly. These rules and protocols are sufficiently elaborate and non-intuitive to guarantee that the only people really capable of following them are those who are already intimately acculturated to the particular social milieu from which they stem. Upon those who are in the know is thus conferred a select social status, masquerading as political virtue — not unlike the Calvinists who secured their social prestige by proving their standing among God’s favored by way of ostentatious shows of righteous living and religious conviction. It’s elitism, but it looks like piety.
The Twitter dogpile is the political equivalent of the banishing of the heathens — perhaps not in the gravity of its consequences, but in the function it serves of reproducing the community of the elect. And given the sadistic glee with which so many partake in it, it may also serve as a virtual experience of collective effervescence. We revel in the ritual of casting out the sinner, because it affirms the existence of the Tribe of the Woke, and our membership within it.
Do we actually care whether or not @MissLibra1984 believes that trans women are women, or whether @DonkeyKongNYC is indeed a bootlicker? Is that why we heap scorn upon them — because it does a thing to improve the lives of trans people, or to hold the police accountable? Is it the gratification of protecting the marginalized that makes it so fun to join the mob, pick up a stone and chuck it at the poor sap who didn’t know the rules? Is it in the service of our political principles that we @ some Karen’s employer and demand she be fired from her job? Is it our commitment to creating a better world that inclines us to laugh at her misfortune when we read about it in The Daily Beast? Is she really the asshole? Or are we?
Once upon a time, politics served the purpose of weaving together livable compromises out of divergent interests and values. We didn’t rely on political identities to give our lives meaning. Political parties, factions, and institutions were merely the instrumental means through which we brokered a relatively peaceful co-existence with those who didn’t see eye-to-eye with us. Occasionally, and often heroically, it was the basis upon which we mobilized opinion to annihilate those with truly anti-social agendas. But ultimately, it was the toolset with which we built a practical working peace.
Today, politics is a competition for tribal allegiance, the means by which we proudly declare our intractable differences with others. Like religion, it is an instrument we use to forge communities of kinship with one another, but only by declaring war on those who lie outside of them. It is no longer the basis for co-existence in a pluralist society, but the stick with which we draw our battle lines. It is the domain of sectarian holy war. In a democratic society, it will be the vehicle for our undoing.