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.
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.
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:
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.
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 Theology, Pro Ecclesia: A Journal for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, and Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, Mere Orthodoxy, Providence, and Covenant (weblog of Living Church).
To download Theopolis Lectures, please enter your email.