Wokeness as Post-Protestant Neopaganism
February 9, 2021

It is now commonplace to characterize Wokeness (or “Wokeism”) as a religion, or at least religion-like. What I would like to explore is an elaboration on this emergent consensus, supplementing it with some theological analysis.

Wokeness, I propose, is a form of post-Protestant neopaganism. It resembles dynamics which are characteristically Protestant but it marginalizes and distorts central tenets of Protestant theology. It is animated by a Protestant spirit in the context of decline in belief in Protestant doctrines. The point here is not to pile on Protestantism—the author is an ordained Protestant minister himself—but to provide a partial explanation of the emergence of Wokeness and the appeal to Protestants as well as other members of our post-Protestant society.

Post-Protestantism and Neopaganism

Joseph Bottum has proffered the thesis that the decline of the mainline is the central story of the past fifty years in America. Mainline Protestantism had, until recently, played a central role in shaping the moral framework of American society; its decline has left a vacuum which has been filled by religious-like forces. Those forces are not directly related to any branch of Christendom and are not necessarily oriented to a supernatural destiny. Rather, Wokeness seeks religious meaning in immanent realities; it locates the sacred within this world. This constitutes it, according to the recent study by Steven D. Smith, as a form of neopaganism.

Manifestations in Wokeness

What are the characteristics of Wokeness, particularly in its third-wave antiracist form, that resemble aspects of Protestantism, and how are these twisted into a secularization of Protestant teachings so as to become neopagan? Without going into great depth, here are some prominent examples:

  1. Wokeness is profoundly iconoclastic. It must tear down any image which draws attention away from the vision of its devotion. Though iconoclasm existed within Christianity before the Reformation, it came into sharp expression with many of the early Protestant movements, and icons are still broadly rejected in much of Protestantism. The vision of Woke devotion which must be safeguarded is not the transcendent God of Israel, but the future society of justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion which the faithful must pursue with undiluted passion.
  2. This is related to the moral perfectionism and social activism inherent in much of Protestantism. Charles Taylor discusses the various movements of “Reform” which culminated in the Protestant Reformation. These place extreme pressures on the individual believer to reform her own life and to contribute to the transformation of the broader society as fruit and assurance of saving faith. The Woke feel a profound duty to be personally transformed and to bring society into conformity with the dictates of its vision of reality. But unlike Protestantism, which inspires such good works as evidence of a faith that saves before a righteous God, the Woke desire to be on the “right side of history.” But they are just as anxious for assurance.
  3. Many of the fundamental tenets of Wokeness are insufficiently substantiated by evidence. In fact, reason, evidence, science, math, etc., are increasingly opposed by the Woke who characterize such tools of logic as expressions of “Westernoppression and “white supremacy.” This pitting of reason against faith in Wokeness resembles fundamentalist forms of Protestantism (though, clearly not all of Protestantism). The key doctrines of Wokeness are held in fideistic fashion and are closed off to reasoned refutation. This is especially true with regard to standpoint epistemology, which is predicated on the idea that one’s “lived experience” as a member of an oppressed group provides one with special access to truth which is not open to debate. This resembles naïve forms of Protestant appeals to testimony as opposed to logic and evidence when bearing witness to the truths of the faith.
  4. Wokeness, like Protestantism, is more creedal and confessional than institutional and sacramental. It centers on key beliefs to which one must assent. It preaches a fall narrative with the events of 1619 which produced the original sin that inescapably infects all whites and “white adjacents”—thus, reducing the scope of original sin while retaining the Reformed doctrine of total depravity but applying it in Manichaean fashion to particular groups—the wake of which subtly but pervasively corrodes all aspects of society as evidenced in group disparities which are, ostensibly, simply due to ongoing discrimination. Diversity is promoted as an unqualified good (except in terms of thought and economic outcomes), and the goal is to “include” and “give voice to” the “marginalized” without discrimination. There is no Tradition into which new voices are incorporated and to which they must assimilate; they simply speak their truth and “can do no other” (à la Martin Luther). Similar to Protestantism, no institution mediates redemption—in fact, it appears that no salvation is available to those who bear the immutable stain of association with the oppressor groups—but the Woke pursue conversion to its teachings with evangelical fervor. The Woke are enlisted in bearing witness as the elect endowed with a special mission before the masses of the unenlightened in hopes that others might join in their confession. Only a post-Protestant phenomenon could be called the “Great Awokening,” hearkening to the Great Awakenings of Protestantism.
  5. Wokeness also reflects a distorted view of the Protestant teaching regarding the priesthood of all believers in at least two ways. First, its leading voices do not come through clear institutional channels, but rather consist in charismatic authors who produce “prophetic” literature (e.g., Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist, and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility). These texts form an unofficial canon, though its authors do not constitute a formal magisterium. Second, the focus on equity has resonance also with a simplistic, but radical, view of the priesthood of all believers, à la Thomas Müntzer.
  6. The iconoclasm and neglect of institutions betrays a sensibility which is insufficiently historical. Tradition and inheritance are cast aside for the great social revolution, similar to Puritan primitivism according to a simplistic view of sola scriptura. For the Woke, all falls under radical critique according to solis moribus. Nothing from the past can be appreciated if it fails to conform to the ever-shifting standards of the moment.
  7. Wokeness also engages in Puritanical hunts for the unrighteous—not just in public action, but even increasingly in private attitudes and thoughts. Though it is true that the medieval Catholic Church pursued similar paths with the Inquisition, the Woke mechanism resembles Puritan models; the court is less a central authority than various forms of democratic mobs who scour society for offenses and utilize the weapons of social shame (i.e., doxxing) and ostracism (i.e., cancel culture). The Woke have a tendency to be highly judgmental and, though they most often operate through various mob forces, they are willing to appeal to administration and use the law to compel behavior which they think is just and righteous.

Descendant of Social Gospel Protestantism

A major difference between Protestantism and Wokeness is the near-absolute refusal of forgiveness; or at least its lack of resources for atonement and reconciliation. The main mechanisms to deal with the evils which are thematically foregrounded in the Woke vision are for one to escape condemnation by joining the opposition while at the same time denouncing, shaming, and scapegoating others to demonstrate their purity and righteousness. This results in a strange combination of anxiety and arrogance which characterizes much of post-Protestant thought, according to Bottum. The only existential assurance in light of such evils which is available to post-Protestants is the moral superiority which comes from the feeling that they oppose these social forces. But, as Bottum so elegantly narrates, this is really the product of the transformation of Protestant theology in America as a result of the Social Gospel movement at the beginning of the twentieth century, spurred on by the work of Walter Rauschenbusch.

Social Gospel Protestantism shifted away from almost any sense that sin was personal instead toward primarily social and structural understandings of sin, which became the exclusive focus as religious belief rapidly declined in American society. And there was already in Rauschenbusch’s thought little room for a supernatural Christ (other than mere exemplar) or a transcendent, future kingdom (other than as inspiration to transform this world). The supernatural realm was narrowed to social evil as a sort of dark magic, and salvation increasingly consisted in taking an oppositional stance and thus finding oneself as part of the new class of the enlightened—or “Woke.” Assured of their moral righteousness, those in this group—one could call them the “elect”—are tempted to bask in smug superiority over those who either fail to recognize these realities or refuse to perceive the world in the same way. These elect feel that their mission is to fill the void left by the loss of the Mainline at the center of society, providing a new moral framework to guide the nation. Contemporary Wokeness is thus a descendent of the Social Gospel movement and constitutes a form of post-Protestant civil religion. The new elect are characterized by a religious fervor but have little place for faith in the Christ of the Bible in whom Protestants believe.

Immanent Religiosity

Thus Wokeness does truly resemble religion. This is why Charles Taylor’s explanation of our modern world as characterized by the disenchanted, “immanent frame” of “exclusive humanism” is not entirely sufficient to capture the moment. But he is correct that the supernatural battle has been reduced to a degree so as to locate the demonic in social processes and structures, and the horizon of moral imagination does appear to largely terminate upon this-worldly realities. Thus, it is more accurate to apply Smith’s thesis—that new forms of immanent religiosity continue to emerge in modern societies, which secularize Christian concepts and locate the sacred here. Wokeness is thus neopagan. Its adherents are not mere disenchanted, logical positivists, but rather passionate believers who have found deep meaning, existential assurance, moral superiority, and self-transcendent purpose by opposing dark, mystical forces which wage war on modern society. The sacred are the innocent victims of pernicious social forces and salvation consists in demonstrating one’s own innocence and purity by awakening to these realities, feeling moral indignation, and opposing them—largely through the mechanisms mentioned above of denouncing, shaming, and scapegoating others who are “complicit” in the various purported systems of oppression. Conciliation is not really in sight and a tenuous unity is secured by shared indignation at transgressors in this Manichaean vision which cleanly identifies good and evil along group lines. Mere humans are envisioned as the source of evil and thus these humans constitute the proper scapegoats to appease societal wrath and bring about social harmony.

Americans have not lost religion, but have migrated their religious energy to the realm of politics wherein purity and innocence are signaled by denouncing transgressors in hopes of exorcising the social evils of bigotry, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. These are conceived as offenses against human or civil rights, not as sins against a transcendent God. The Woke seek to usher in a sort-of final judgement analogous to the one proclaimed in the Bible through a societal reckoning in the present while making sure that they stand on the right side as to be judged by future generations—or “History.”


In a world which was shaped by a Protestantism that, up until recently, provided a unifying moral framework for our nation, Wokeness fills a void and has a certain appeal to Protestants themselves and their fellow citizens. As Tom Holland has persuasively argued, we cannot shake Christian categories and conceptions in the West, but their meanings can shift. Wokeness meets a religious need by mimicking a Protestantism that our society has largely left behind. The religious energy and concern is narrowed to this-worldly realities, and thus can be identified as neopagan.

Rev. James R. Wood is a PhD candidate in Theology at Wycliffe College (University of Toronto), graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary (ThM, 2018), and PCA pastor. His writings focus on political theology, ecclesiology, and sacramental theology and have appeared in the Journal of Reformed TheologyPro Ecclesia: A Journal for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, and Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian StudiesMere OrthodoxyProvidence, and Covenant (weblog of Living Church).  

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