Woke Progressivism’s Glaring Religion Gap

Identity politics demands that we "educate ourselves." So why are its practitioners so often ignorant of religious belief?

When I was an undergraduate, my favorite professor was Dr. Messer, an expert on the great 20th-century Southern Catholic novelist Walker Percy.

Percy’s novel The Last Gentleman begins with an epigraph from the philosopher Romano Guardini, predicting a future in which “the unbeliever will…cease to reap benefit from the values and forces developed by the very Revelation he denies” and love “will disappear from the face of the public world.”

To help us understand this abstract post-Christian prognostication, Dr. Messer would tell us a story. His wife had a friend who was educated, cultured, and smart. One day, the friend asked Mrs. Messer a question: “You’re a Christian, right?” Mrs. Messer confirmed that she was. Well then, the friend wanted to know, why do so many church buildings have the letter “t” on the roof?

While this level of ignorance might sound comical, it’s become increasingly acceptable among America’s cultural elites. In his recent standup special “Kid Gorgeous,” comedian John Mulaney sets up a joke about his religious upbringing: “If you grew up going to church and you have adult friends that didn’t, they have a lot of questions. They’re like, ‘Wait, so [your parents] forced you to go? …What do they say in there? What do they do? What did they tell you?’” When mimicking these chronically unchurched friends, Mulaney, himself a lapsed Catholic married to a secular Jew, drops his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, as if his sophisticated New York set sees no difference between the Catholic Mass and the Black Mass. To an entire generation, all organized religion is something mysterious, sinister even.

I’ve encountered the same ignorance about religion during my graduate studies at Georgetown. In a class on how British literature responded to the issues raised by the French Revolution, I mentioned to my Marxist professor that I was interested in writing my paper on Unitarianism, a sect that denied the Trinity and tended toward radical politics. She, the professor, suggested that I might start by reading a newly published book on Methodism. She wasn’t prompting me to shift or broaden my topic; she genuinely didn’t know the difference. She is a brilliant and accomplished scholar in other areas, but trying to study 18th-century Britain, or any other time and place, without knowing anything about its religion seems like an exercise in futility. She herself acknowledged her blind spot in her response to my paper, assuring me that she would put more emphasis on religion the next time she taught the class.

One more example. Last month, San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral (which is, of course, Episcopal) held a “Beyoncé Mass” that featured choral renditions of Beyoncé songs and a Beyoncé-based sermon designed to empower women of color. The entire thing was reprehensible, but there was one moment from Vice’s coverage that really caught my eye. About a minute into the video, Vice reporter Nyasha Shani Foy mentions that the Beyoncé Mass could help attract a younger crowd to church, and then recites some statistics about how drastically Catholic Mass attendance has fallen since the 1950s. I was flabbergasted. Foy, who I’m sure knows an entire encyclopedia of identity politics terminology backwards and forwards, couldn’t be bothered to learn the difference between Roman Catholicism and Episcopalianism.

Of course, this tendency to collapse the distinctions between sects in a sort of lazy ecumenism is partly the fault of Christians themselves. According to the Pew Research Center’s 2015 study of “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” fully 42 percent of Americans belong to a religion different than the one they were born into. This figure, however, is based on Pew’s somewhat arbitrary division of Protestantism into three branches: evangelical, mainline, and African-American. If the endlessly proliferating plethora of over 33,000 Christian sects in America alone were taken into account, I have no doubt it would be higher. The 21st-century habit of casually bouncing between Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, and non-denominational churches looking for good sermons and hip music was unheard of among my grandparents’ generation. If you were born a Lutheran, you died a Lutheran. It seems that even Christians have become ignorant of what makes their particular religious traditions unique.

In a garish instance of the Procrustean bed, we cut our religion to suit our preferences instead of working to conform ourselves to the teachings of our faith traditions, a problem equally evident in mainline and evangelical denominations. As a result, the Church has become corrupted by politics. In 1960, only 5 percent of Americans said they would be uncomfortable with their child marrying someone from the opposite political party. By 2010, the number was up to 40 percent, even as interfaith marriages continued to rise. Commenting on this trend, the Institute for Family Studies suggested that politics has “taken the place of religion as a way of expressing our most basic values.” Of course it has. In each individual life, religion must either rule or serve. As a ruler, it can challenge ideas on every side of the spectrum and defend us against becoming blindly ideological. As a servant, it quickly becomes a mewling, conniving sycophant, eager to please its ideological masters.

This movement toward cafeteria Christianity also has consequences outside the Church. Christians have given secularists the impression that Christianity is whatever one makes of it, so why should those secularists bother to educate themselves? With 33,000 denominations all claiming to be correct, it’s not much of a stretch for an atheist to claim that his idea of Jesus must be just as valid as that of the 2,000-year-old Roman Catholic Church. As Christianity has lost its grounding, Christian religious identity has been taken less seriously, despite the rise of identity politics. Anyone who fails to stay up to date on the newest permutation of LGBT (last I checked, it was up to LGBTQQICAPF2K+) leaves himself vulnerable to angry demands that he “educate himself.” Yet Mulaney’s crowd, my Georgetown professor, Mrs. Messer’s friend, and Nyasha Shani Foy all see nothing wrong with being blithely ignorant of something that, for many people, defines them far more than their race or gender.

Appropriation of Christianity doesn’t seem to be an issue either. I have multiple Facebook friends who insist they aren’t Christians but still never miss an opportunity to secular-splain that Jesus would have supported universal health care or open borders or whatever the progressive cause du jour happens to be. Now try that with an identity other than Christianity. “I’m not black, but what MLK really meant was…” You can guess how that would be received. Or compare the praise secularists heaped on the Catholic-themed Met Gala with their vitriolic reactions to Selena Gomez wearing a Hindu bindi in a music video.

Still, all is not lost. When organized religion becomes mysterious and occult, it will certainly drive some people away, but it will also gain the power to attract dissatisfied secularists looking for something more. First, though, Christians will need to start taking their own faith traditions more seriously, not just as personal choices, but as historically and doctrinally grounded institutions. Switching from one to another may become necessary, but it should never be done lightly or in a way that implies they are all interchangeable. Christ prayed that his followers would be one. By utterly disregarding that instruction, American Christians have opened the door to the total erasure of their religion from the American cultural consciousness.

Grayson Quay is a freelance writer and M.A. student at Georgetown University.

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61 Responses to Woke Progressivism’s Glaring Religion Gap

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  1. Ian Grey says:

    Or for brevity’s sake, make the argument for why the GOP–as opposed to conservatives–would ever stop talking about it if Obama had said just one of our monster’s remarks, if he’d said, say, “the great thing about being famous is I can grab white women by the p*ssy”.

  2. Thrice A Viking says:

    Olga, “tenants” are renters or lessees. I believe you mean “tenets”, which are principles.

  3. Auguste Meyrat says:

    Great article that brings up an important problem for religious and nonreligious people alike. Christians intent on reforming their churches or bringing in new people will always run into the problem of so much ignorance. Churches and their leaders done a poor job catechizing, ironically for the sake of attracting more coverts and being more inclusive. The ongoing exodus from Christian churches should cause their members to reconsider this strategy.

    I also appreciate the term “secular-splain.” It’s frustrating that this type of thing increases as the population becomes more ignorant about its Christian heritage.

  4. Rotunda says:

    “In a class on how British literature responded to the issues raised by the French Revolution, I mentioned to my Marxist professor that I was interested in writing my paper on Unitarianism, a sect that denied the Trinity and tended toward radical politics. She, the professor, suggested that I might start by reading a newly published book on Methodism. She wasn’t prompting me to shift or broaden my topic; she genuinely didn’t know the difference. She is a brilliant and accomplished scholar in other areas, but trying to study 18th-century Britain, or any other time and place, without knowing anything about its religion seems like an exercise in futility. She herself acknowledged her blind spot in her response to my paper, assuring me that she would put more emphasis on religion the next time she taught the class.”

    Hmmm… the trouble with this example is that, although Unitarianism may be a large cultural force in New England and so on, Methodism is more relevant to *British* religion (and the literature about it) in the 19th century. So unless we get down to specifics, that professor may have been offering good advice unwittingly.

  5. EliteCommInc. says:

    “Seriously, really, please show me the scripture that says American agents can tear apart families and house toddlers in cages–possibly forever. Tell me why healthcare, food for kids, and pay parity for women is crazy socialism against Christ’s will. Explain why compulsive mendacity, mocking vets, the disabled and families of dead heroes while bragging about committing serial sex crimes for decades, explain how that’s in God’s will.”

    1. the government is secualr institution. i would that it work in conjunction with christ — but it doesn’t.

    2. the description of what is taking place at the border as you describe is myth – in other words — it’s a lie. children are separated from the adults briefly to confirm relationship to said adults and provided some immediate care — it is not and never has =been permannanet – if the parents are in fact the patrents

    3. jesus suffer not the little children to come unto me — he did not say, suffer not the little children to arrive escorted or in violation of the law with their parents to get us goodies meant for citizens.

    4. I am not sure what mythical planet you dwell on, but on this one in this country i think it has been effectively established that there is no pay gap in which men are paid above that of women — that gambit is game that is not linear nor as simple as comparing pay stubs.

    5. ohh good grief — the president does not mock vets. he responds to attacks with some level of harshness, if one doesn’t desire to be so attacked — they might want to adjust their tone. That does not mean I support some of this president’s tactics — but thus far none that you have mentioned fit a no no from me.

    6. as for locker room talk and braggadocio well, let’s just say, i agree, discretion is better part of valor — but it happens that people are sometimes indiscreet — said indiscretions were not criminal.

  6. EliteCommInc. says:

    “Or for brevity’s sake, make the argument for why the GOP–as opposed to conservatives . . .”

    I trhink the more relevant position here is why the

    church of christ and not the church of beyonce’

    No better advocate for the treatment of women than jesus christ, in my view.

  7. Will Harrington says:

    Tancred wrote “Christians in the past were not all that well-informed about their religion but they knew the basics and believed because it was part of their cultural milieu and they were raised to believe by their parents. ”

    About the only blanket statement that you can trust about history is that blanket statements are a god indication that the statement is wrong. This particular one does not take into account all the people through history who made a conscious choice to convert.

  8. Jennie says:

    This was an interesting read. I do have two questions/observations that come to mind immediately after finishing the article:

    You suggest that not being able to recognize the cross for the religious symbol that it is demonstrates a comical level of ignorance. Would you feel the same level of ignorance was evident if someone was unable to identify holy symbols belonging to religions outside the Christian realm (Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc.)?

    Another issue: You do not distinguish between “religion” and “Christianity.” According to this article, ignorance of “religious beliefs” actually means an ignorance of Christian beliefs. These are not interchangeable ideas.

  9. Tony D. says:

    So as a woke leftist, I should try harder to be well informed about things I neither believe in or care about.

    Well, now you know how we religious conservatives feel, being expected to pay attention to things like homosexuality and “transgenderism” that we would, quite honestly, prefer not to think about at all. Welcome!

  10. Ian Chai says:

    Interesting article about the religious ignorance of the Western liberal elites.

    Regarding his secondary point starting from the paragraph “Of course, this tendency to collapse the distinctions between sects in a sort of lazy ecumenism is partly the fault of Christians themselves”, however, denomination-hopping could also be due to the recognition that we have the central unity in Christ, regardless of secondary issues.

    Over the years, I have come to believe in sacraments, due in part to the influence of Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters who were clearly committed to following Jesus, as well as my own study.

    Yet, I am currently a committed member of my local Baptist church, even though I disagree with its teachings on the sacraments.

    This is the lesson of Romans 14 — we can disagree about secondary issues without breaking fellowship.

    As for its main point, I went to Germany on a research trip a couple of years back, and my host was a very nice German professor who took me around sightseeing during non-work time.

    At one point, we were looking at the beautiful Gothic architecture of a historic church building, and he said that he didn’t know if the church was Catholic or Protestant. I noticed a parking spot that said “Pfarrerin” (feminine for pastor or priest) and I surmised from that that it must be a Protestant church.

    He was immensely impressed that I could figure that out. But if you know about the current Catholic beliefs that priests have to be men, it was obvious. But to him, it was so impressive. I was surprised that he found it so impressive, but in light of the main point of this article, it isn’t so surprising.

  11. ctw says:

    It’s a nice article, but I don’t know who you think you’re talking to or about. I grew up enveloped in the religious traditions that fuel today’s religious right in support of the current regime and must point out that what you call “Christianity” would barely register as such in that context. Not only that, the comments here indicate that your readers have no idea what sort of Christianity exists outside of their elite communities.

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