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Give Me That Old Time Religion

We recognize that our ancestors had something good—something we lack, something we lost.
Give Me That Old Time Religion

“America is experiencing a religious revival on the political left and that the heart of this revival is the deification of group identity.” So wrote James Patterson in National Affairs last September. The idea goes back at least to 2018, when Andrew Sullivan announced the beginning of a “Great Awokening” in New York Magazine. “We have the cult of social justice on the left,” Mr. Sullivan warned—“a religion whose followers show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical.” 

So, the wokeism-as-religion meme is a few years old now. And yet it’s still gathering steam. 

Its exponents have a pretty strong case, too. Wokeism has its own demiurge, an evil creator-god: the Cishet White Man. He’s the architect of the fallen world in which we live. From grocery stores to the idea of “rational thinking”, everything we see is created by this bad divinity. It’s all designed to serve his own wicked purposes. And what purpose is that? To exploit a sacred victim, whose suffering redeems the world. That would be LGBTs and people of color, of course.

For wokesters, life in this world is only a struggle between the forces of light (Disney, Pfizer, the CCP) and the forces of darkness (Fox News, Chick-fil-a, Joe Manchin). They have their own sacred symbols, their own iconography. They draw strength in their fight by invoking the names of their martyrs. They have their own preachers who share their doctrines with the masses. 

Their priestly caste has grown rich by exploiting their followers. Yet they ward off all criticism with threats of excommunication. They accept nothing but total, unthinking faith in the dogmas of Wokeism. Only then can good finally triumph over evil, and so on. You get the idea.

As I said, there is some truth to all of this. But if any of you readers happen to be religious, I’d like to ask you a question. Does this sound anything like your own experience of faith? Because, to me, it sounds more like a nasty caricature. Who would ever think to compare Wokeism to a proper religion like Christianity? Christopher Hitchens, maybe. But surely not a Christian.

That’s why our grandfathers, most of whom were believers of one stripe or another, referred to these “political religions” as ideologies. They recognized the pseudo-spiritual nature of these movements. Hence, in 1934, the Jewish Daily Bulletin reported that Germans viewed Hitler as “the savior and the messiah.” It’s why Stalin’s opponents decried his “cult of personality.” But they didn’t use the R-word quite as much as we do. 

I think they felt that fascism and communism were unworthy of the comparison. To them, religion was something praiseworthy. It comes from the Latin religare, “to bind fast.” Religion is the debt of praise and worship we owe to God for His many blessings. It’s a matter of duty, of honor, as much as belief. 

True: politicians can manipulate that impulse, inviting the masses to worship themselves. That’s what Hitler did. Brave Christians like Deitrich Bonhoeffer and Arthur Hinsley called him out for it, too. But they wouldn’t have made a habit of calling him the “god of Germany.” That would be giving him too much credit. And so neither would they make a habit of calling Nazism a religion.

It’s interesting how much has changed in just a few decades. The R-word has a completely different connotation. We don’t think of religion as something honorable, exalted, transcendent. The definition we use is cold, almost cynical: a collection of rituals and dogmas. It’s the language, not of the believer, but of the sociologist. Christianity, Buddhism, Nazism, Wokeism, Scientology, Diabolism… they’re all basically the same thing, right? 

As we said, this bland new definition of “religion” must ring hollow for anyone who’s experienced authentic religion. If it becomes our default usage, that can only mean we’re losing our sense of the transcendent. And that “spiritual sense” appears to be atrophying in many believers, too. The poverty of our language reflects a poverty in our experience. 

Take marriage. Today, weddings are seen as an ending. It means you’ve found the person you want to “settle down” with—at least in theory, and at least for now. Traditionally, weddings are a new beginning. The couple was undertaking a grave new responsibility, not only to themselves, but to their neighbors. It solemnizes their promise, both to each other and to posterity. The community rewards and encourages them by throwing them a party and buying them presents.

Yes, it’s a celebration of love. But we don’t throw parties every time someone falls in love. We throw parties when that love inspires two young people to take upon themselves the duty of continuing the human race. And we expect them to make good on their promise—to each other, to their children, to us—even when that initial attraction fails. That’s why we say, “Till death do us part.”

Traditionally, when a couple is expected to have been chaste, marriage is also a kind of initiation into sex. That’s what a honeymoon is for. It’s so they can spend a whole week in bed. If you’re a young adult who’s practiced abstinence all your life, that’s all you really want after a wedding: a week in bed. Today, when couples live together for years before getting married, it is almost the opposite. It signals that they’re finished having fun. They’re not going to sleep around anymore. Again, we use that horrible phrase “settle down.” Marriage isn’t the beginning of their sex life. It’s the end. 

But children are the main thing. At weddings today, you sometimes hear folks ask the bride, “Do you think you guys will have kids?” In the old days, the question would be absurd. That’s what it’s all about: starting a family together. That’s why wedding presents are traditionally useful things, like towels and pots. The whole community gets together to help this young couple start a household together. Why? Because, without families, communities can’t reproduce themselves. We all have a vested interest in helping newlyweds become established, so they can be fruitful and multiply. 

If you’ve been to such a wedding, you’ll probably find it hard to get excited about a couple of 30-year-olds who’ve been living together since freshman year of college throwing a big party for themselves in Cancún. You know what I mean. They use their “wedding registry” to finance a vacation to Australia. They spend the next 20 years on the Pill because they’re “not ready for kids yet.” Then she hits menopause, and they realize they’ve missed their chance. Finally, he goes through a midlife crisis, and she leaves him for another woman.

That’s what happens when marriage is all about the individual spouses indulging themselves. It fails both as a rite of passage and as a “celebration of love.”

Put it another way. My fellow millennials have probably noticed that members of our grandparents’ generation were far more successful in their relationships than were our parents. That’s largely because divorce was still taboo for our grandparents. When couples take the “till death” thing seriously, it changes the whole dynamic of their relationship, beginning with courtship. They’re more careful about choosing a spouse. They learn how to mediate their differences better. They’re more willing to compromise, to adapt, to learn from each other. They have no choice. 

Our parents didn’t have that same incentive to make the relationship work. There was always an eject button. As usual, G.K. Chesterton saw this coming a mile away: “The sincere and innocent Victorian would never have married a woman reflecting that he could divorce her. He would as soon have married a woman reflecting that he could murder her. These things were not supposed to be among the daydreams of the honeymoon.”

Of course, you might still find the old idea of marriage too onerous. But then why do we make such a bother about “redefining” marriage? Why not do what the old hippies did and reject it as a lingering vestige of the patriarchy? 

I think it’s because, while few of us would choose to live by those old-fashioned values, most of us still value the old-fashioned ideal. We recognize that our ancestors had something good. Something we lack. Something we lost. Couples want to be celebrated for getting married without any of the responsibilities. 

But that’s what the celebration is for. Imagine if some desk jockey in the Pentagon put in for a Purple Heart because he stubbed his toe on the water cooler. Not only would his award be meaningless: it would cheapen those given to men and women who actually saw combat. Honor without sacrifice is worthless. It’s not even honor. But the poverty of our language reflects the poverty of our experience.

At the end of the day, we’re just a bunch of deracinated moderns trying, and failing, to understand what these words (“religion,” “marriage,” etc.) meant to our ancestors. They are like ancient runes. We sense they have power, but we can’t really fathom what that power might be. 

In time, I think, the power will fade. As we said, “religion” has nearly lost its meaning already. By the time I hit 70, believers will be a dwindling minority in this country. Meanwhile, churches are eager to talk about anything other than God. And divorce rates are already falling, though mostly because young couples aren’t bothering to get married in the first place. Pretty soon, we won’t even have a sense of what’s been lost. 

Then this gap between us and our ancestors will grow even wider. Tocqueville said of our young republic, “There is hardly a pioneer’s hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare. I read the feudal drama of Henry V for the first time in a log cabin.” In that play, King Henry says, 

We are no tyrant, but a Christian king;
Unto whose grace our passion is as subject
As are our wretches fetter’d in our prisons:

Puritanism! Fascism! Integralism!

A little later, Henry says to his future Queen, Katherine,

… but a good heart, Kate, is the sun and the
moon; or, rather, the sun, and not the moon; for it
shines bright and never changes, but keeps his
course truly. If thou would have such a one, take
me; and take me, take a soldier; take a soldier,
take a king.

Katherine is a little wary of all that flowery stuff, because she’s sensible. To us they sound bogus, because we’re cynical. She’s suspicious of Henry; we’re suspicious of love.

The past is a country we can hardly begin to recognize. Our own fathers are alien to us. No wonder we hate them so much. Men always hate what they don’t understand. Who can deny that our ancestors had a rich inner life—far richer than ours? We may call them naïve, but who can help being jealous of their naivete? We’ve been cheated out of our innocence. 

That, to my mind, is where conservatives have a chance to flourish. That’s our advantage. It’s not that we know better than progressives: It’s that we know we don’t. We’ve worked hard to keep alive the memory of a time when men knew the meaning of words like religion and marriage, God and love. 

We’re not better than “the left.” That’s not the point. The point is to be better than ourselves. The point is to lift ourselves out of this existential poverty, and to bring as many of our neighbors with us as we can. That’s the real duty of a conservative today: to live—to really live.

Michael Warren Davis is author of The Reactionary Mind. Subscribe to his newsletter, The Common Man.




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Give Me That Old Time Religion

The newest American Conservative (July 17 issue) is full of excellent articles (sorry, no links as of yet).  To name just a couple, W. James Antle III writes an interesting report on the electoral struggle of Rep. John Hostettler (R-IN), one of six Republicans to vote against the Iraq war; Chilton Williamson levels a devastating and powerful […]

The newest American Conservative (July 17 issue) is full of excellent articles (sorry, no links as of yet).  To name just a couple, W. James Antle III writes an interesting report on the electoral struggle of Rep. John Hostettler (R-IN), one of six Republicans to vote against the Iraq war; Chilton Williamson levels a devastating and powerful critique of the aimless life of acquisition and consumption Americans embrace.  Crunchy cons, Pantagruelists and traditionalists, take note.  These two alone are worth getting a copy of this issue, and there is more to be had besides these. 

I wanted to start out with this preface highlighting all the good articles in the 7/17 issue, because I also feel compelled to comment on a number of rather egregious errors in Marcia Christoff Kurapovna’s “Reconciling Christendom.”  In what seems to have been intended as a crash-course in church history and ecumenical relations between Catholics and Orthodox, Ms. Kurapovna made several mistakes and omissions, some theological and others historical, that are irritating to me for their inaccuracy but still worse they are misleading for those readers who are less familiar with the particulars of the divide between Catholics and Orthodox.  These errors and omissions do not facilitate the cause of rapprochement between the two churches in the Truth, which is a goal that all faithful Christians of both confessions ultimately hope for, but rather confirms in the minds of skeptics and anti-ecumenists that those interested in ecumenism are strong on a spirit of reconciliation and weak on matters of substance.  For those unfamiliar with teachings of the Faith, these errors can confuse, mislead or even scandalise those through misrepresentations of Christianity.  For those unfamiliar with Orthodoxy, which includes a great many Christians, these errors and omissions can also present a less than clear and accurate portrait of the Orthodox Church, and this also requires some correction.




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