Civilizations tend to repeat the ideological pattern that made them strong in the first place. At first, these patterns have theological form and substance. But if belief in God becomes obsolete, they tend to continue the same pattern in secular form, minus religious substance. To visit my neighbor’s home at Christmas is to enter a palisade of tinsel, baubles, winking lights, and lots of little reindeer and elves—but no hint of Christianity to be seen.
A Little Spiritual History
For two millennia the Christian nations of the West have been nourished and deeply inspired by the expectational vision and promise expressed most notably in the Book of Revelations of a perfect, 1,000-year Kingdom of Heaven to come with the return of Christ. That promise has supplied a deep Western psychological wiring, so to speak, that operates to this day and is plainly heard in the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom Come.”
That vision of a perfect future world got really fired up politically by the prophetic end-time scheme of Joachim of Fiore, a 12th-century Calabrian monk who taught that all history is divided into three Ages. The first is the Age of Law and the Father (all pre-Christian history, a time of fear and servitude), the second the Age of the Son and the Gospel (a time of faith), and the third, yet to come, the Age of the Spirit (the Second Coming, and the perfect 1,000-year Kingdom of Heaven).
Mille in Latin means one thousand. Hence the label “Millenarian” as a descriptive term for believers in the Kingdom to come. A complete history of the fanatical religious movements—enormous mobs of distraught, wild-eyed Taborites, Hussites, Adepts of the Free Spirit, Anabaptists, and so many others—who wandered all over Europe in thrall to one or another prophetic vision of personal salvation through faith in the Kingdom is fascinatingly laid out by Norman Cohn in his landmark study “The Pursuit of the Millennium” (1957). He describes Joachim’s Third Age as an egalitarian time of love, joy, and freedom, in which “God would be revealed directly in the hearts of all men.” Directly! It was, he adds, “the most influential prophetic system known to Europe until the appearance of Marxism.”
Eventually, this specifically European prophetism found fertile soil in America where it was ecstatically expressed in at least four continent-wide “Great Awakenings” (the original form of “Wokeness”) from the mid-18th century well into the mid-20th. The first was sparked in 1741 by preacher Jonathan Edwards, who in a famous fiery sermon pointed his accusing finger at “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” He inspired belief in a deeper piety and a higher standard of personal morality in hundreds of thousands. This specifically American kind of spiritual awakening eventually took original, sometimes fanatical root in the form of a half-dozen new-invented American religions such as 7th Day Adventism, Jehovah’s Witness, Pentecostalism, Southern Baptism, and a few others fascinatingly explored by culture critic Harold Bloom in his eye-opening book “The American Religion” (1992).
Some Disastrous Recent History
By the early 20th century, however, following the catastrophe of World War I, God was increasingly deemed an abject moral failure and got kicked out of the building, especially by millions of disillusioned, grimly atheistic university graduates emerging from the fever swamps of higher learning. By this time, the soft liberal democracies of the West had been on a path to extensive secularization for more than a century. But the old wiring remained. So if God is really dead and gone, went the thinking, then we have to create the Kingdom on earth by ourselves.
The possibility of a perfect secular world soon became the ideological objective of a lot of Western leaders, but especially of the most vicious modern dictators prepared to liquidate millions of their fellow citizens to achieve it. Soviet International Socialism (Communism) and German National Socialism (Naziism) became the two most prominent European promissory visions of a perfect, socially just world —an end justified by any means.
When, in 1996 after the fall of the USSR and its long history of unspeakable cruelty and the slaughter of so many of its own people, the Russian Communist Party was attempting a comeback by electoral means, Time magazine asked Gen. Albert Makashov if they had anything more specific in mind than restoring Soviet power, he replied, “What is our maximum program? The Kingdom of God on earth—or communism, as we call it—before the third millennium.”
Meanwhile, in the middle of the long communist debacle, Adolph Hitler directly plagiarized Joachim’s entire historical scheme (minus God) for his national-socialist “Third Reich” (German for “Third Kingdom”) which, he boasted to the world, would last “for a thousand years.” That’s what I mean by saying the wiring is still very much in place. Both tyrants were following the same centuries-old Western wiring to create a social system so perfect, as the poet T.S. Eliot remarked (of all such promissory systems), that “no one would have to be good.”
Our Woke World: A Caricature of Christianity?
Could our present fevered Great Awokening be a new, secular form of Puritan revival rooted in the divinity of various group identities (gender, race, sex, class, color, and so on), instead of in individual identity? Does group identity now signal a secular salvation separating the saved from the unsaved? It would seem so. For we are daily subjected to a myriad of public confessions of group guilt, to the public cleansing of historical group sins, and to a social-justice gospel empowering believers to sniff out previously hidden sin in themselves and others. The unWoke are no longer sinners in the hands of an angry God. They are sinners in the hands of angry puritan reformers preaching the urgent need for a “global Reset” (code for the overthrow and remake of Western civilization in its entirety).
There is more. Wokeness comes with its own rigid orthodoxy and transgressors are considered heretics to be punished immediately, beginning with public demands for penance (“check your privilege”); the casting out of demons (“cancellation” and “deplatforming”); and, of course, insistence on the public right to disturb and instill guilt in large crowds of the faithless with shows of personal piety by “taking a knee.” Finally, as in former periods of religious public madness and delusion, the remedy for sin is forced confession, recantation, and self-purification of all inherited micro-aggressions with the goal of liberating Unwoke souls from slavery to their own spiritual blindness.
Then come the ceremonial defacings and violent mob destruction of statues and paintings of Unwoke Western heroes—a direct replication of the Puritan smashing of Catholic idols and altars in the 17th century—while civic employees quietly rename streets and public institutions to purge them of association with past sin, and clear out unWoke books from libraries and schools.
The new Woke catechism has global ambition, and there are suspicions it is but the cutting edge of a transition from traditional soft Western socialism to a hard totalitarianism that is being accelerated with the help of sweet-sounding if confused ideological tools. The most radical of these is called EDI (“Equity, Diversity and Inclusion”), a soft-Marxist initiative dividing the whole world into oppressor versus oppressed classes that has already spread like wildfire into every government office, media outlet, digital platform, and corporation in the land as an established faith and may be seen in documents such as “Global Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Benchmarks: Standards for Organizations Around the World.”
Superficially, EDI is a powerfully attractive set of egalitarian notions aiming for the proportional reconstitution of every institution according to, well, to the proportions of human beings in the surrounding society at large according to exact ratios of sex, gender, race, class, and so on. Evidence for failing to achieve an exact proportionality—for example, fifty-fifty men and women on all corporate and public boards—is searched out in every act of public, private, or unconscious opinion, and all institutions are judged guilty until proven innocent by Woke purveyors of EDI who have purified their thought sufficiently to judge and condemn the fallen with an irritating confidence.
Western Wokeness began in American universities, quickly spread to Canada, and is now invading Europe, to the chagrin of such as President Emmanuel Macron of France who has warned of the moral plague of American universities. And prior to the Ukraine war, President Vladimir Putin of Russia warned the West that communist Russia had already embraced and destroyed itself with exactly this kind of blindly doctrinaire Wokeness.
A New Caste System?
In an extensive analysis, author James Patterson points out in “Wokeness and the New Religious Establishment” (National Affairs, Summer 2021), that “Wokeness is the opiate of the elites,” and asks: Has it already become a new state religion? For until conversion to Wokeness, citizens are assumed to belong to what has been described by some critics as a lower, maximally “Unclean” caste (because born into “privileges” like whiteness, masculinity, heteronormativity, cisgenderism, capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, and so on), and so they must engage in endless acts of atonement not expected of the caste of the blameless “Clean,” who bear a myriad of oppressed identities. Refusal to acknowledge and atone for your caste privilege makes you an untouchable.
He adds, pointedly, that “the hiring of diversity, equity, and inclusion administrators at public universities to oversee the production of clean identities is akin to those universities hiring Priests or Rabbis to oversee adherence to Catholicism or Judaism.”
But America and many other Western nations have strict constitutional laws prohibiting the promotion of religious belief in public institutions, schools, and universities. So if the new Woke liturgy currently disemboweling educational and institutional life throughout Western civilization is ever judged “a religion” by the courts (as was atheistic “Secular Humanism” by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1961 case Torcaso v. Watkins), then all public institutions preaching “belief in the divinity of identity, the concept of the Woke faith community, … and the moral code grounded in the struggle against oppression,” may sooner rather than later be in for some big legal and funding surprises.