Following John McWhorter, I wrote recently about the religion of Antiracism. Tara Isabella Burton calls it the religion of social justice. We're talking about much the same thing, a novel religion that is a shadow form of Christian orthodoxy.
"Social justice is a religion," she writes in Strange Rites, one that offers its adherents a coherent outlook on the world, purpose, meaning, community, and rituals. It succeeds where other faiths have failed: "It has reenchanted a godless world" (177). She elaborates:
"It takes the varied tenets of intuitionalism - its prioritization of the self, emotions, and identity, its New Thought-inflected suspicion of authority, its utopian vision of a better world born phoenix-like from the ashes of the old - and threads them together in a visionary narrative of political resistance and moral renewal" (178).
Social justice religion has a theory of the self and original sin: "we are fundamentally blank slates, whose oppressive and oppressed identities are violently imposed upon us from without, by society" (179). In this Pelagian theology, "insofar as we are marginalized, society has warped our fundamental goodness." Liberation takes the form of "self-love as political resistance, a reclamation of a person's innate and inherent dignity, stolen by hegemonies of power" (180).
At the same time, social justice religion denies the existence of a "self" in a traditional sense. It has virtually no place for the soul. Identities "are so inextricably linked to our social place that we have no self outside them." The privileged especially are enmeshed in our social place, all but inescapably so (180).
For the privileged, enlightenment and salvation can happen - if it can happen at all - through "the difficult work of self-denial" (181) and becomes "a kind of self-unmaking" (183). Checking privilege "challenges the checker to at once examine how society has shaped them and imagine who they might be without it - their innate self, unformed by privilege" (183). The message is: You have no self except the socially constructed one; now, dismantle your socially constructed self.
In some cases, social justice religion offers a path to a new self, particularly "when it comes to gender." Transgenders and "those who do not feel they fit the standard gender binary . . . transcend what they see as the tyrannical societal association of gender norms with genital sex" (183).
This is why sexual fluidity has become so central to social justice religion: Transgenders are icons of self-unmaking and self-remaking. They symbolize the radical repentance to which all the privileged are called.
Social justice religion has a built-in epistemology. On its premises, "institutional wisdom - particularly the academic or scientific status quo - isn't wrong or false, it's actively harmful" because it keeps us from "the truth we have before our very eyes. Our feelings are, in a very real sense, facts" (185). Perceptions are "inherently authoritative," and "assaults on our perceptions have the same ontological status as physical violence" (185).
Social justice is energized by an eschatological promise: "that human beings can, should, and shall do better. The new world that will inevitably arise from the ashes of a patriarchal, racist, homophobic, repressive, Christian society will be infinitely better, fairer, and more loving than what has come before" (178).
Social justice has succeeded in "galvanizing a moral community - a church - through its ideology and its rituals of purgation and renewal" (189). It has its own modes of discipline to police its members and to identify, and demolish, its enemies.
Burton thinks that social justice is one of the two "Remixed" religions with the potential to serve as a new American civil religion (the other is techno-utopianism). As a civil religion, "social justice culture has it all." If it's "America's new civil religion - or, at least, one of them - it comes by that claim fairly" (188-9).
Worshipers in the religion of social justice exhibit admirable passion for putting the world right, and a relentless zeal for self-renunciation and discipline. Their passion and zeal are misdirected. But the fact that this faith captivates the imaginations of so many young people is an indictment of a lethargic Laodicean church, which promises little and demands less.
Social justice religion borrows key elements of Christian orthodoxy - an analysis of sin and evil, a way of salvation, spiritual disciplines, a community with a mission, a hope for a future of peace and justice. Even its epistemology overlaps in important ways with Christian critiques of rationalism. Jesus calls us to unmake our old selves, and may call us renounce ancestral privileges (as Paul does in Philippians 3).
But all its Christian borrowings are distorted because of what social justice religions lacks - God and Jesus and the Spirit. It's a Holy Church of Christ Without Christ.
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