The Great Awokening and Other New Religions

Andrew Sullivan has a post over at NYMag titled America’s New Religions. Sullivan points out that the decline of Christianity in America hasn’t resulted in a decline in religion. Rather, he sees new cults arising that attempt to replace spirituality with politics. He sees different forms of politics emerging on the Left and Right that seek to fill the hole in the lives of people who have abandoned Christianity.

Sullivan refers to the new religion on the Left as “the Great Awokening.”

Like early modern Christians, they punish heresy by banishing sinners from society or coercing them to public demonstrations of shame, and provide an avenue for redemption in the form of a thorough public confession of sin. “Social justice” theory requires the admission of white privilege in ways that are strikingly like the admission of original sin. A Christian is born again; an activist gets woke. To the belief in human progress unfolding through history — itself a remnant of Christian eschatology — it adds the Leninist twist of a cadre of heroes who jump-start the revolution.

I note that American Progressivism has some of its roots in Christianity. During the later half of the 19th century, a fairly broad segment of Christians held a Post-Millenial view of eschatology. That is, they believed that the world was getting better because of human progress and that if they worked harder to increase the rate of progress, the world would sooner be fit for Christ’s second coming. Some of these people believed they had a duty to enforce what they saw as good behavior on their neighbors, and that view fueled such political activity by Christian Progressives as the Prohibition Movement. The idea that the world was getting better fell on hard times in the trenches of the First World War, and the unintended consequences of experiments in social control such as Prohibition further discredited that point of view. These failures led many of those busybodies away from Christianity to other belief systems that provided new rationales for their desire to control others. Heresies resulted from attempts to merge Marxism with the Gospel. Many have ended up choosing Marx over Jesus.

But back to Sullivan’s article. He sees that corrosive forces have also attacked Christianity from the Right, creating mirror image cults to those filled by Progressives.

And so we’re mistaken if we believe that the collapse of Christianity in America has led to a decline in religion. It has merely led to religious impulses being expressed by political cults. Like almost all new cultish impulses, they see no boundary between politics and their religion. And both cults really do minimize the importance of the individual in favor of either the oppressed group or the leader.

And this is how they threaten liberal democracy. They do not believe in the primacy of the individual, they believe the ends justify the means, they do not allow for doubt or reason, and their religious politics can brook no compromise. They demonstrate, to my mind, how profoundly liberal democracy has actually depended on the complement of a tolerant Christianity to sustain itself — as many earlier liberals (Tocqueville, for example) understood.

It is Christianity that came to champion the individual conscience against the collective, which paved the way for individual rights. It is in Christianity that the seeds of Western religious toleration were first sown. Christianity is the only monotheism that seeks no sway over Caesar, that is content with the ultimate truth over the immediate satisfaction of power. It was Christianity that gave us successive social movements, which enabled more people to be included in the liberal project, thus renewing it. It was on these foundations that liberalism was built, and it is by these foundations it has endured. The question we face in contemporary times is whether a political system built upon such a religion can endure when belief in that religion has become a shadow of its future self.

Read the whole thing.