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The Woke Religion: The Elect and the Lost; Implicit Bias and Spiritual Regeneration; Assurance of Being Good

Joseph Bottum sees Wokeism as being pseudo-religion, false food feeding spiritual hunger. That is correct. In every man is a God-shaped hole that he yearns to fill. But this spiritual hunger can be satisfied, at least temporarily, by false food, just as you can satisfy your physical hunger by eating bananas or grass to fill your stomach, or by eating candy to both fill your stomach and temporarily nourish you despite the lack of protein, vitamins, and other essential nutrients.

I haven’t read Bottum’s 2014 book, Spiked has a 2020 interview with him, Wokeness: old religion in a new bottle|Joseph Bottum on how the decline of Protestant America fuelled the rise of identity politics. Bottum is Roman Catholic, which matters, perhaps, to how he sees this.

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.

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.

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.

. 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.

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.

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?’.

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.
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.

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: 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.

Bottum seems to miss one big part of this: spiritual regeneration. The Christian idea is that because of original sin, we are all sinners, lost and unable to revive by our own power. God has decided to save some people, and the Holy Spirit touches them and opens their eyes to their sin. The Elect still sin, but they try not to, because they do love God, something you cannot do on your own without the Holy Spirit. The Elect also try to do good works, out of gratitude to God, not because those in themselves save you. No matter how many good works one of the Lost does, he is damned and deserves the punishment he will get in Hell. The Elect deserve Hell too, except that God has, from pure mercy, decided to save them, at great cost and humiliation to Himself.

The very name “Woke” tells us this. In their theology, we were all at one time hopelessly asleep in our racism, sexism, and privilege (note: this really only applies to white people, just as Judaism really only applies to Jewish people, and the rest of the world is incorporated into the worldview as an afterthought, shoehorned into the theory). Some of us, through no virtue of our own, happen to read a book or hear a teacher who “wakens” us, opening our eyes to our racism. We are still racist–the doctrine of implicit bias– but now we try not to be. Also, we are the chosen ones, superior to the damned, who still deserve to rot in Hell for their racism, not despite being unconscious of it but *because* they are unconscious of it and don’t even think they’re racist. The Woke are good despite their implicit bias, and they are good even if they just have faith, with no good works to show. If they truly have faith, though, and are not faking it just to look good, they will also have works. They will shun unbelievers; they will donate money; they will say pious words; they will condemn the lost; they will fence their faith by avoiding saying things that, while innocent and correct, are also said by the Damned. And they will show their Wokeness by keeping up with the latest doctrine, which is constantly shifting emphasis purposely in order to catch those who are asleep at the wheel or just pretending to be awake.

This is most like a now-dead form of calvinism. Like orthodox calvinism, it has the Elect whose eyes are opened from no effort of their own, who are saved by faith but whose faith can be discerned by their works. Unlike it, there is no Cross, no Christ, no God, and no Heaven or Hell. There is no Person to whom you are grateful for salvation; no Savior; no God to respect; no reason to prefer being Elect rather than Damned. It’s just that if something happens to make you Woke, that is good and you are a better person. The extreme rationalism of calvinism is lacking; indeed, any rationalism is– we are left only with the conclusions and the emotional attitude, without the premises and the reasoning. Like now-disappeared calvinism as it sometimes appeared, Wokeness doesn’t believe in Evangelism. Some calvinists thought missionaries were useless, because if God wanted to save the Chinese, He’d do it in His own way, and He does not need human help. He can touch their hearts anyway, and the missionary can’t do anything without the Holy Spirit doing that, so why have missionaries? That is the Woke attitude. They do not seek to persuade unbelievers, only to intimidate and silence them. When they intimidate them, it is not to convert them, like Charlemagne giving the Saxons a choice between death and conversion. Rather, it is to cleanse the city of the pollution of unbelief, like Ferdinand and Isabella giving the Moors a choice between conversion or exile.

So lack of evangelism is one difference from standard calvinism in the vein of Calvin, Knox, and the modern American evangelicals. A second difference is hyperconcern with Assurance of Salvation, better phrased here as Assurance of Being Good. Faith is what matters, not works. Works will not save you. Works, however, do show other people whether you are saved. Equally important, they show you yourself whether you are saved. Recall that the Damned don’t know they’re damned. They think they’re good. So how do you know you’re one of the Elect? The heart is wicked above all things, and you might be fooling yourself, like all the people you criticize.

Concern with Assurance is a problem within orthodox calvinism. Calvinists are not supposed to worry about that. We are supposed to trust God, and love God, and do it whether He has chosen us or not. It’s up to God, not me, so it’s useless for me to fret, even though it’s the most important thing in the world to my future happiness. Just as I’m not supposed to try to buy my way into heaven with good works, I’m not supposed to fret my way into heaven with sleepless nights wondering about whether I’m saved. But people do.

Concern with Assurance is a major feature of Wokeism. I think this is because there is no heaven or hell, so the only implications of being Woke are that (a) you have the satisfaction of “esoteric knowledge”, of knowing things that the Damned don’t know and never will know, and (b) you get to be part of the Woke group. The Christian likes having esoteric knowledge and being part of the Church Visible and Invisible, but those are very minor parts of his reward.“Even if he doesn’t have the satisfaction of confident superiority and even if other Christians think he’s a reprobate and shun him, he still has a heavely father who sees him. Not so the Woke. There’s no God to please, no heavenly reward, just Now.”

As a result, the Wokesman is always worrying about whether he’s got his faith right. Does he believe the right things? He knows he’ll fail somewhat, because of implicit bias, but can he still call himself Woke? Will the other Wokespersons continue to call him Woke? Will they cancel him? Will he deserve to be cancelled? If he stumbles, are his apologies abject enough? Has he shed his repentant tears at the feet of the right victims of his unbelief? To show himself, and his fellows, that he is Elect, he must exert himself to the fullest. He must condemn backsliders, ferret out hypocrites, make donations to the right causes, monitor carefully every word he speaks and examine them for mistakes, keep up with the latest reversals of doctrine on masks/no-masks, Biden-bad/Biden-good, transgender-are-real-women/transgender-are-good-but-different, and so forth.

I should perhaps add a benefit (c) to esoteric knowledge and being part of the group. Benefit (c) is the pleasure of righteous indignation. This pleasure, however, palls, and as it palls it drags down your assurance of being good. As Theodore Dalrymple says,

Outrage which may once have been genuine soon declines to mere abstract condemnation, the red-hot declining to the lukewarm; but since outrage is to the mind what whisky is to the body on a cold day, people try to keep it going for the pleasurable sensations it imparts, and it then becomes cant. To someone observing your behaviour and listening to your words, perhaps, nothing has changed; but the inner experience has changed. However, if you have successfully inducted others into your cant, if they echo it and exceed it, you can disguise even that change in the inner experience from yourself because your cant stands validated by others. Cant is a contagious disease, and there is no lasting immunity from it.

Perhaps I am wrong here. Maybe the Woke are more like Holiness Methodists, or maybe like 16th century anabaptist fanatics. Here is the Christian type. I’ll have to inquire to see whose foot this shoe fits. It does fit the stereotype of the fundamentalist Christian, but I haven’t personally ever come across anybody who is like this, so it’s certainly not typical of them and might well be complete slander.

“Most people are lost in sin, but God awakens a few, including me. The Spirit touched me, and now I can see how bad I used to be and how bad everyone else still is. I am not bad anymore though (the difference from calvinism). Now I am saved, and can do no wrong. I don’t even want to sin any more. I do, sometimes, but it’s just by accident and it won’t happen again. I certainly don’t want to break the rules by drinking or dancing or going to movies; in fact, I love the Law with my whole heart. I love it so much that I will not tolerate those things in my church, not even in casual attenders and certainly we must expel anyone who is caught doing such things, unless they do it by accident, like sometimes with me and that high school girl. In fact, it is a dirty shame that drinking, dancing, and movies are allowed in our town even for unbelievers, and we should purify it by passing ordinances against those things, or, preferably, by expelling the unbelievers, since you can’t expect someone like a Jew or a calvinist to refrain from drinking.”

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“A Politics of Nietzschean Righteousness,” Bradley Watson writes in a book review on September 2, 2020 in Law and Liberty:

“After Buddha was dead people showed his shadow for centuries afterwards in a cave, an immense frightful shadow. God is dead—but as the human race is constituted there will perhaps be caves for millenniums yet, in which people will show his shadow. And we—we have still to overcome his shadow!”

So said Friedrich Nietzsche… How we escape God’s long shadow—whether we can escape it—is the subject of Mark T. Mitchell’s compact and compelling new book, Power and Purity. Mitchell, a longtime professor of government and now academic dean at Patrick Henry College, locates the source of our current woes—both in the academy and on the streets—in … the “unholy marriage” of Nietzscheanism and Puritanism. He captures the reader’s attention by noting the extent to which we are beset by what he calls “Puritan warriors,”… Political theorist Harvey Mansfield has said that you can tell who has power in a society by who’s allowed to get angry.

As Mitchell notes, “The language of rights and the ideals of equality and democracy that pervade our political discourse are unimaginable apart from Christianity.” Even as we move toward a post-Christian age, we remain a “Christ-haunted culture.” … Secular progressives distort … sin to focus almost exclusively on the sins of others, just as they possess an overweening confidence that they’re more virtuous than their ancestors. They are therefore “strikingly—and stridently—intolerant of the past.” … We live in an age of self-righteous secularism, “a toxic combination of the Nietzschean will to power and Puritan moralism.” Our problem… is no longer moral relativism… It is, rather, moral absolutism. “Dreams of political perfection, once deferred to the heavenly kingdom, are reintroduced in the temporal realm. The longing for perfection—born of a Christian notion of heaven—is difficult to forget.” And so the Left now asserts itself in the name of an unattainable moral and political purity—a politics of litmus tests, virtue signaling, and the infliction of punishment without the possibility of forgiveness.

… Conformity on all fronts is demanded, and woe unto those who do not conform. High-ranking corporate and academic officers (never mind ordinary employees) live in fear of being fired for holding views that would have been run-of-the-mill in the very recent past but are now deemed insufficiently woke for the tyranny of the present. Speakers invited to college campuses get canceled, or even pummeled. Government officials are harassed and intimidated in public places, and even in their own homes. The space for non-conformists increasingly contracts in a polity where moral and physical courage are in short supply. Marxists might have thought (with good reason) that businessmen would sell them the rope with which they would hang the last capitalist. …

In our Nietzschean moment, …“rational discussion” is seen as “nothing more than the babbling of men either deceived into imagining a world infused by moral meaning or slyly employing the language of morality to assert their will to power.”

And so the Left opposes rational discourse with its own will to power, … Why debate when you can protest? Radicalizing Tocqueville, Nietzsche observes that democratic times, and ultimately Christianity, pave the way for the “herd” and all the flattened souls who comprise it—because they have nothing else to strive for. As Mitchell says, “They will voluntarily submit to their own emasculation, even wield the knife themselves, as they seek solace in the company and approval of others.” The success of liberal institutions undermines the very virtues and toughness required to build and preserve those institutions.

Nothing can bind us together as Americans if we cannot forgive and to some degree forget, but instead understand ourselves to be in a perennial debtor-creditor relationship with each other.

Following Nietzsche’s psychology, Mitchell suggests the will to power that emerges in late liberalism is often expressed through identity politics, wherein the putatively weak demand—and receive—this voluntary emasculation, relying on residual Christianity to convince the strong that justice demands it. Tom Wolfe foreshadowed just this phenomenon more than half a century ago, in his prescient essay entitled “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.”

“…The purity of grievance without personal responsibility unlocks a secret and previously untapped fount of virtue, for what could be more virtuous than a blameless victim?” But Mitchell notes this is a residuum of Christianity, a new religion without reconciliation, humility, or forgiveness… Identity politics cannot tolerate forgiveness as it seeks to alleviate pain by constantly “lashing out.” …

“Higher” education plays an important role in this war on reason.It is not truly Nietzschean precisely because of its moralism and its demands for herd equality and tolerance—for some version of democracy… As Nietzsche warns:

The overall degeneration of man down to what today appears to the socialist dolts and flatheads as their ‘man of the future’—as their ideal—this degeneration and diminution of man into the perfect herd animal…this animalization of man into the dwarf animal of equal rights and claims, is possible, there is no doubt of it. Anyone who has thought through this possibility to the end knows one kind of nausea that other men don’t know—but perhaps also a new task!


Mitchell has done us a great service by locating the source of our national embarrassments in Nietzsche—a far more plausible candidate than John Locke. … He even opens the possibility that our old, pre-Nietzschean institutions might have some life left in them…. Readers will find themselves clamoring for more—but this is as good a place as any to start.

The refreshing brevity of Mitchell’s work necessitates some shortcuts. For example, it’s important to note that the twisting of American Christianity to secular purposes is far more attributable to early Christian progressives—Richard Ely, Walter Rauschenbusch, Father John Ryan, et al.—than it is to the Puritans. So Puritanism is a poor—or at least radically incomplete—stand-in for the secular millenarianism that Mitchell describes.

… he seems to come perilously close to suggesting that our deracinated Christianity is the more or less inexorable outcome of a long process of overcoming. So was Nietzsche right, after all? Does Christianity’s revaluation of all values inevitably result in…this? And, if so, why? Mitchell leaves us with the starkest of choices: “Nietzsche or Christ, Dionysus or the Crucified, the will to power or the will to truth.”

But perhaps Nietzsche himself gives us grounds for optimism. The land wherein the murderer of God dwells—like the murderer himself—is unspeakably ugly. The murderer says God:

looked with eyes which beheld EVERYTHING,—he beheld men’s depths and dregs, all his hidden ignominy and ugliness. His pity knew no modesty: he crept into my dirtiest corners. This most prying, over-intrusive, over-pitiful one had to die….on such a witness I would have revenge….The God who beheld everything, AND ALSO MAN: that God had to die! Man cannot ENDURE it that such a witness should live. Thus spake the ugliest man.


Nietzsche says this man is to be found in a valley that all animals avoid, “even the beasts of prey.” The only exceptions are the fat green snakes that go there to die. The valley is known as “Serpent-death.”

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Someone shoudl write a book on the Left and Humor. Leftwing humorlessness is very old. In the 3rd Republic, the monarchists had all the witty French writers. You’ve heard the joke about how many feminists it takes to screw in a light bulb, a very old joke. National Review had fun as part of its mission. Actually, what’s interesting is not that there are funny conservatives as that there aren’t funny liberals nad they frown on the entire idea of humor. Their idea of wit is more like “Fooey on you!”, and the delicate twist of the rhetorical knife is beyond their ken. Why? George Bernard Shaw was a leftwing humorist. Tom Lehrer songs. Are there others? Perhaps this is linked to the Left’s idea of the POlitics As Sacred Rite. “Some things are too serious to joke about”, but that includes pretty much every political issue. One is not supposed to enjoy politics– it is a crusade. Rules for Radicals had to tell them to make demonstrations fun, and I bet many of them don’t like that advice at all, and probably the organizers have to try to make demonstrations fun but assure the demonstrators that they’re really not having fun at all and their only motivation is righteousness and meeting guysand singing in the fresh air aren’t anything anyone would ever think about.
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