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Great Awakening, Great Awokening

We're going to need to talk about the Baptists.

Screenshot via Twitter

They love Reverend James Ireland at Liberty University, a leader in Virginia’s 18th-century Baptist Lives Matter movement, better known as the First Great Awakening. In Lynchburg he is made out to be one of the first heroes of religious liberty while America was aborning. I find his story rather sad.

The young Scottish colonist abandoned strong prospects for a family and a comfortable life in his new home to become a criminal religious extremist. Ireland describes feeling as if Satan “immediately laid siege to my soul” when a prospective wife is sent to his school to learn from him for three months (these being very different times). Later, he describes the face of a mentor showing up to get him to come to a ball as “bold and daring as Satan himself.” Ireland had previously made a name for himself in gentry society for his excellent dancing.

Instead, he began seeing Satan in the faces of other people, fell into a deep depression, cut off all his friends, then joined a proscribed religious movement opposed to what they saw as a corrupt religious-political order. Since 9/11 we have learned the importance of intervening when a young person appears to be traveling down the path to radicalization.

Somebody undergoing a dark night of the soul like this might have decided to enter a seminary, or become a monk in an earlier time. Neither being available to him, he was drawn deeper into extremism, given a crash course in ministry training at a North Carolina madrasa and then went off to employ the same playbook as the New Left would almost exactly 200 years later: theatrically commit a crime designed to provoke a reaction from the authorities that would change the political narrative about a chosen issue.

The man with all the experience of his 21 years was then jailed in Culpeper for five months, declining an offer to be let free if he quit preaching for a year. His jailers tried to kill him, the persecution turned public opinion in his favor, and upon his release became a different sort of elite in the northern Shenandoah Valley. Eight years later Ireland’s faction, the sect in Virginia most concerned with the centrality of the Bible, joined forces with the man who cut passages from it with scissors to pass the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom.

Ireland is adored by evangelical conservatives because of his “revolutionary spirit,” as one of his descendants put it, and which he certainly did possess. One can only say that these people have the good sense to be skeptical of more modern figures said to be possessed by revolutionary spirits. If he were alive today, you might find him wearing all black on the streets of Portland.

Though he had the zeal of a convert, Ireland was a re-vert, having been a pious Presbyterian child in Edinburgh, where he heard George Whitefield preach. In his memoir he describes being offended by the Virginians dancing on the Sabbath when he arrived, which he got over and then got under again. You can imagine his jeremiads about the dissipation of elite society in the voice of Cathy Areu. Upon his conversion he chose the more extreme Baptist faction because they “had the warmest preachers and the most fire among them,” which are good qualities when it comes to building a following on TikTok as well.

I do not mean to pick on our Baptist friends, but others have made the connection between the awakening and the awokening; Joshua Mitchell has a book coming out in a few months. It is relevant that our current great awakening is, as Mitchell says, godless. It’s less important to remind Baptists that they were the left wing of their day’s politics—the SBC going woke is a dog-bites-man story, David French has been with us for a long time—as it is to consider how this social model, where success is predicated on your ability to fill a revival tent, will tend to the extreme.

Such a model will attract both sincere demagogues and con artists, and there is something extremely American about it. Donald Trump owes much of his style to a cleric right on the edge between Calvinist theology and commercial self-help literature. From fake-it-till-you-make-it prosperity gospel peddlers to clout-chasing social media stars and trendy witchcraft, we are a nation of Elmer Gantrys. In that book (which of course was banned in Boston), after the death of Sharon Falconer, Gantry, formerly a Baptist, flirts with the New Age-ism of his day, but never sincerely, knowing “with serenity that all of his New Thoughts, his theosophical utterances, were pure and uncontaminated bunk.”

The modern left is less canny, but they are no less willing to associate themselves with bizarre cults. Democratic vice presidential short-lister Karen Bass, who attends a Baptist church in LA, is in hot water because she gave a speech at a Scientology ribbon-cutting in 2010. It’s really something:

Congresswoman Bass responded that the group was subsequently exposed, though only a Californian could think they were fine before that. It’s also fair to point out that Scientology has found bipartisan support in Congress, though it is mostly Democratic. Neoconservative favorite, former Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, was honored by the Scientologists in 2004, and there is of course Sonny Bono. But we can look beyond the Scientologists.

Kirsten Gillibrand is alleged during a Clinton fundraiser to have sat at a table purchased by NXIVM, the cult whose founder was convicted of sex trafficking last year, though he has still not been sentenced. Her father is also alleged to have been paid by the group.

To go back in time a bit, that the ward-heeling strength of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple made him a valuable ally to California politicians is well known. It is less well-known how the favor was returned in the form of radicals who lent Jones a kind of ideological credibility. Angela Davis, whose endorsement of Joe Biden has been trotted out to lend left-wing credibility to the presidential bid of credit card companies’ best friend in the Senate, was once patched into Jonestown to tell the doomed, mostly black People’s Temple congregation that:

“I know you are in a very difficult situation right now and there is a conspiracy. A very profound conspiracy designed to destroy the contributions which you have made to our struggle. And this is why I must tell you that we feel that we are under attack as well. When you are attacked, it is because of your progressive stand, and we feel that it is directly an attack against us as well.”

Rosalynn Carter, the wife of the man who was to be the most recent Baptist president (three out of four have been Democrats) called Jim Jones at her husband’s request in 1976, then found herself introducing him, according to the Washington Post’saccount, during the opening of San Francisco’s new Democratic Party headquarters that year.

The LaRouche movement also grew out of the New Left; his votaries participated in the famous occupation of Columbia University. Their leader’s main difference with their comrades in the post-1968 crack-up was that LaRouche had a more realistic and sophisticated political strategy, while more trendy groups like the Revolutionary Youth Movement and Weather Underground were more interested in guerilla warfare and planting bombs. Today the National Council of Labor Committees is reviled as a strange cult, whereas being part of an organization that plotted to blow up a Columbia University building has not prevented Kathy Boudin from teaching there. Say what you will about the tenets of LaRouche-ism, his people never planted bombs.

It would be wrong to say many Democrats have sound religious principles, but most are at least not friendly with cults. However, enough have been to justify the sense, I think shared by many voters, that when faced with the choice between the stupid party and the crazy party, that they would prefer the stupid party, thank you. Karen Bass saying nice things about the Church of Scientology is a little surreal, a little creepy, very Californian, but her praise of L. Ron Hubbard’s commitment to equality is more of a cautionary tale about people who don’t believe in something believing in anything. You really have to worry about the left when they start acting like Baptists.

about the author

Arthur Bloom is managing editor of The American Conservative. He was previously deputy editor of the Daily Caller and a columnist for the Catholic Herald. He holds masters degrees in urban planning and American studies from the University of Kansas. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The Spectator (UK), The Guardian, Quillette, The American Spectator, Modern Age, and Tiny Mix Tapes.

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