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Social Justice: Our New Civil Religion

The old religion is being displaced by a hostile rival. And Christians don't know what to do about it

Good afternoon from Krakow. I have a long, meaty post about the life and death of Father Jerzy Popieluszko, the priest martyred by the Communists in 1984, but I can’t post it until I hear back from the museum researcher I interviewed yesterday, who needs to confirm some facts. In the meantime, take a look at this great post by psychiatrist Scott Alexander, writing at the Slate Star Codex blog.  I bring it up because it helps explain to me why the LGBT phenomenon affects so much of our public life today — and why it feels like a rival religion to Christianity (even though it has quite clearly colonized some churches). According to Alexander — who, let me be clear, is not hostile to it at all — LGBT Pride has become a civil religion in America. In his post (thanks for sending it, reader CL), Alexander reflects on having gone to the recent Pride parade in his city, San Francisco. He begins by thinking about having been in Guatemala to see the vast, multi-day communal celebration of Easter:

This was around the time I was reading about cultural evolution, so I couldn’t help rehearsing some familiar conservative arguments. A shared religion binds people together. For a day, everyone is on the same side. That builds social trust and helps turn a city into a community. It was hard to argue with that. I’m no expert in Guatemala. I don’t even speak Spanish. But for a little while, everybody, old and young, rich or poor, whatever one Guatemalan political party is and whatever the other Guatemalan political party is, were caught up in the same great wave, swept together by the glory of the Easter narrative.

It was the sort of thing, I thought sadly to myself, that would never happen back in America, where we didn’t have the same kind of shared religious purpose, where the liberal traditions like the separation of church and state prevented the same kind of all-consuming state-sponsored dedication to a single narrative. Right?

Wrong (as Alexander says). In the same way, Pride has become a secular civil religion exactly this in cities like San Francisco. In SF, the Fourth of July parades are fairly puny, Alexander says. Not so Pride. Before we get to that, more Alexander preliminaries — and let me remind those who don’t know Alexander’s work that he is not a Christian, and not a conservative:

I’m a pretty big believer in the theory of an American civil religion. For me, the important part of religion isn’t the part with gods, prophets, or an afterlife – Buddhism lacks gods, traditional Judaism doesn’t have much of an afterlife, and both get along just fine. It’s about a symbiosis between a society and an ideology. On the most basic level, it’s the answer to a series of questions. What is our group? Why are we better than the outgroup? Why is our social system legitimate?

For most of history, all religion was civil religion – if not of a state, then of a nation. Shinto for the Japanese, Judaism for the Israelites, Olympianism for the Greeks, Hinduism for the Indians. This was almost tautological; religion (along with language and government) was what defined group boundaries, divided the gradients of geography and genetics into separate peoples. A shared understanding of the world and shared rituals kept societies together. Later religions transcended ethnicity to create entirely new supernational communities of believers. Sometimes these were a threat to their host nation, creating a new locus of cultural power. Other times the host nation converted and lived in comfortable symbiosis with them, and the king would get called His Most Catholic Majesty or something.

But this argument still follows the conservative playbook. Say it with me: patriotism is a great force uniting our country. Now liberals aren’t patriotic enough, so the country is falling apart. The old answers ring hollow. What is our group? America? Really? Why are we better than the outgroup? Because we have God and freedom and they are dirty commies? Say this and people will just start talking about how our freedom is a sham and Sweden is so much better. Why is our social system legitimate? Because the Constitution is amazing and George Washington was a hero? Everyone already knows the stock rebuttals to this. The problem isn’t just that the rebuttals are convincing. It’s that these answers have been dragged out of the cathedral of sacredness into the marketplace of open debate; questioning them isn’t taboo – and “taboo” is just the Tongan word for “sacred”. The Bay Area’s lack of civic rituals (so goes the argument) is both a cause and a symptom of a larger problem: the American civil religion has lost its sacredness. That means it can’t answer the questions of group identity, and that communities aren’t as unified as they should be.

But Pride can — at least in San Francisco. You really have to see Alexander’s terrific post and let his photos from Pride tell the story about how Pride has become exactly what he says it is: a civil religion. What began as a rebellion against bourgeois sexual and social norms based in Christianity has now displaced those norms, and been completely absorbed by the civitas, at least in places like San Francisco — and not only San Francisco. The photos of Boy Scouts marching in the parade, of law enforcement, of all the top politicians, and of Bud Light Pride ads — this is exactly what the Fourth of July was when I was a kid.

Alexander again:

Am I saying that gay pride has replaced the American civil religion?

Maybe not just because it had a cool parade. But put it in the context of everything else going on, and it seems plausible. “Social justice is a religion” is hardly a novel take. A thousand tradcon articles make the same case. But a lot of them use an impoverished definition of religion, something like “false belief that stupid people hold on faith, turning them into hateful fanatics” – which is a weird mistake for tradcons to make.

There’s another aspect of religion. The one that inspired the Guatemala Easter parade. The group-building aspect. The one that answers the questions inherent in any group more tightly bound than atomic individuals acting in their self-interest:

What is our group? We’re the people who believe in pride and equality and diversity and love always winning.

Why is our group better than other groups? Because those other groups are bigots who are motivated by hate.

What gives our social system legitimacy? Because all those beautiful people in fancy cars, Governor Gavin Newsom and Mayor London Breed and all the rest, are fighting for equality and trying to dismantle racism.

One more Alexander quote, then I’m going to comment:

But I expect [the “religion” of Social Justice] to recapitulate the history of other civil religions in fast-forward. Did you know “pagan” is just Latin for “rural”? The pagans, the people who kept resisting Christianity even after it had conquered the centers of power, were the Roman equivalent of flyover states. Once Pride assimilates its own pagans (and kicks out its own Julian the Apostate), maybe it mellows out. Maybe it becomes more tolerant, the same way Christians eventually started painting Greek gods on everything. Maybe it encounters the same problems other faiths encountered and adapts to them the same way.

And then? I don’t know. Maybe we get a real civil religion again, the way conservatives dream of. Where disrespecting the president (at least if she’s a minority) is considered beyond the pale no matter your politics. Where disrespecting the flag (at least the version with rainbow stripes) marks you as a monster. Where the answers to the old questions: “Who are we? Why are we better than other groups? Why is our social system legitimate?” go back to being sacred, and challenged at your peril. Social justice is the only ideology of the past few decades that’s shown a really impressive ability to produce that kind of taboo among the upper classes; if it wins completely, then the right-wing dream of a country united under a single ideology with strong sacredness values is a real possibility, for better or worse. Parts are already there.

Read it all. It’s the most important thing you will read today, I am sure. I’m not kidding. When you finish, take a look at this terrific analysis about Social Justice as a religion, by James Lindsay and Mike Nayna.

What do I say? Let’s start with this from a post I wrote a while back about The Final Pagan Generation, an account by historian Edward Watts of the life and times of 4th century Roman elites. Watts says that the generation born in the early 4th century was the last one to be formed, culturally and intellectually, by Roman paganism. More:

By the time they died, the Empire was officially Christian, and paganism was fast rapidly declining, though Watts says we have evidence for active pagans as late as the 7th century.

The world of childhood for the final pagan generation was a world in which the gods were intimately woven into everyday life. You couldn’t imagine that they wouldn’t always be there. Children were initiated into the pagan life by household rituals that made religion part of the wallpaper. Reading this early part of the book was a challenge to me. In reading other historians of the early Church, as well as cultural anthropologists, I learned that a religion has to have strong cultural and social expression to last. Paganism certainly had this early in the Christian era. But it wasn’t enough. Why not?

From my reading of Watts, it’s because paganism had become strictly cultural for most Romans. Watts writes that if a Roman elite did not understand festivals and religion, it was not so much a sign of impiety as a sign of a lack of cultivation. You see the difference?  You didn’t have to believe it, but you had to know what it meant.

“The final pagan generation was born into a world that contained a vast sacred infrastructure that had been built up over the past three millennia,” Watts writes. Most Christians of that time, like most pagans, didn’t even notice the ubiquity of the gods in everyday life.

“Their children and grandchildren would not either,” he writes. “This was simply a natural consequence of growing up in a world that was full of gods, and always been full of gods, and always would be full of gods, at least as far as anyone could tell in 310.”

Look, I was born in 1967, and raised in a small Southern town. As far as I knew, the world was full of the God of the Bible, had always been full of God, and would always be full of God. You didn’t really have to go to church, because God was there anyway. This was how everybody thought. This is how a lot of Americans still think. This, I strongly believe, is why so many Christians today still don’t understand that we are in a post-Christian society — “post-Christian” in the sense that early 4th century Rome was post-pagan, though most pagans didn’t realize it. The old religion had lost its power. The Christians of that era conquered the cities first, and the power elites. As a sociological matter, it was all over for the pagans at that point.

Julian the Apostate was raised as a Christian, but reverted to paganism. During his short time as Caesar, he tried to suppress the Christian cult, and return the Empire to the old religion. He failed.

Scott Alexander’s analysis of Social Justice religion — of which Gay Pride is the most powerful expression — is very, very important for traditionalist conservatives, including but not limited to Christians — to understand. I had a conversation in Poland with an atheist who is politically moderate, and who recounted an extremely frustrating conversation he had with an academic colleague in London, who was banging on about some tenet of Social Justice. The man told me that he kept trying to make logical arguments showing how she was simply wrong about the topic, as a matter of empirical fact.

“She could not understand what I was talking about!” the Pole told me, his frustration still hot.

This was not an ignorant woman. In fact, he said, she’s a highly trained professional who speaks five languages. But she was blinded by her ideology. What confused and in fact infuriated him was not that this woman disagreed with him, but that she literally did not understand what he was talking about. He explained that as a psychological matter, she could not grasp that he was making an argument based on observable facts and logic.

Of course not. For her, Social Justice is a set of religious beliefs. Paging Dr. MacIntyre! I have had any number of arguments with progressives that never got off the ground, because we could not agree on the most basic premises as a starting point for debate. I have spent most of my adult life working in secular spaces. I’m pretty good at knowing when I’m making an argument based on religious premises, and when I’m putting forth an argument based on non-religious premises — premises that, in theory, are understandable by all. What continues to frustrate me is how so many progressives assume that their impressions and values are objectively true, and that the only thing that keeps people like me from agreeing with them is our bigotry. For sure, there are many religious conservatives who do this. But in the Year of Our Lord 2019, these tend to be people who are in the out group, far from the centers of cultural power. The religious believers who hold the high ground are devotees of the cult of Social Justice.

What makes Scott Alexander’s analysis so helpful to tradcons is that he focuses not so much on the particular moral and philosophical claims of the religion of Social Justice/Pride, but on its characteristics as a psychological and social phenomenon. Seen this way, and seen by comparison to how the Roman Empire lost its old religion, it ought to be terrifyingly clear to traditionalist Christians where this drama is headed. One more passage from my Final Pagan Generation post:

By mid-century, when the elites of the FPG (final pagan generation) were well-established in their careers, the state’s attempt to privilege Christianity and marginalize traditional religion picked up. Constantine died in 337, and civil conflict followed. Roman leaders faced pressure from more radical Christians to step up the de-paganization, and tried to walk a balance between their demands and not upsetting the still large pagan population. In 356, Constantius stepped up the anti-pagan laws.

Interestingly, the pagan elites didn’t take all this too seriously, according to Watts. A lot of temples remained open despite Constantius’s orders that they be closed. The emperor’s policies “might have been disagreeable, but they hardly seemed to be a pressing or universal threat.”

Towards the end of his reign, Constantius’s anti-pagan laws grew even stronger, but paganism was still such a vivid and powerful presence in daily life that the pagan elites felt confident that the danger would pass when the emperor did. Watts judges that in retrospect, the elites ought to have stood up to the emperor in some way, to protect their religion. Instead, they chose to take the easier route, protecting their careers and their money-making opportunities by not antagonizing a powerful emperor. That seemed a reasonable bet.

Constantius was succeeded in the 360s by Julian the Apostate, so called because he had been raised a Christian, but left the faith and sought to re-establish paganism. He rolled back some of his predecessor’s pro-Christian laws, and most controversially, promulgated a law that would have prevented Christians from teaching in schools. Watts points out that these laws were strange, in part because Julian involved the state in regulating pagan belief in ways that it had not been before, even when the Empire was pagan. The laws didn’t survive Julian. According to Watts, the reality of the Empire, at least among the elites of that time, was such that pagans and Christians were already knitted together in a social fabric that could not effectively be sundered by imperial decree. That is, pagans didn’t want to see Christians thrown out of their jobs, or punished.

The fundamental conservatism of that social order meant that radical initiatives on either side couldn’t really work. Watts says that despite the anti-pagan policies of the Christian emperors, temples remained open, and life went on much as it had before. Even though Christian radicals who had the ears of the Christian emperors exhorted them to de-paganize the Empire, the reality on the ground in most places remained largely unchanged.

What’s interesting about this is that even though daily religious realities for most Romans were not very different than they had ever been, this hid from most people the massive changes that were actually taking place. This seems contemporary to me. Liberals may well see Trump as a Julian the Apostate figure, trying to roll back the progressive Sexual Revolution. And there are certainly conservatives who regard Trump that way, and love that about him. But the cultural changes that have overtaken America, and that are continuing to do so, are fundamental, and aren’t going to be undone by government policy.

Furthermore, I believe that Christians see daily life going on locally much as it always did, with the exception, maybe, that their churches don’t attract as many people. Nothing radical is happening in most places. Maybe they think that a sympathetic president in Washington is going to turn things around for the faith. The situation strikes me as rather like that of the pagan believers in Rome in the 360s.

There is no such thing as fate. We are not doomed to lose our ancestral religion. We still have the freedom to act. But look, we have to act in the world as it is, not as we wish it were. One of the young conservative Catholics I met in Warsaw expressed his deep anxiety over what he sees as essentially a “Julian the Apostate” move by the current populist conservative government (for which he voted!) to reinstate the Catholic faith as the source of political and social norms. This man told me that he agrees with those norms, but what older Catholic conservatives don’t understand is how thin those norms, and the faith on which they are based, are within his generation. This was the guy who told me that he believes that Catholic Poland will go the way of Catholic Ireland within a decade or two.

I hope he’s wrong. He hopes he’s wrong. But he said that the disconnect between the world as it appears to the Millennials and Generation Z — the post-Communist generations — and the world of Gen X and the Boomers, whose faith and politics were formed in reaction to Communism, is a chasm.

In Poland, as in America, economic and civic elites are successfully institutionalizing the Social Justice religion. Last night, a reader wrote to me:

I don’t wish to be named, nor have my husband’s company named, but my husband, who works for [a European] branch of the American company [major multinational], just found out that 5 percent of his annual evaluation will now be determined by his work on “diversity” issues.

To date, the [European] branch has mostly avoided overtly political issues, but our ongoing concern has been that the uber-woke NYC office will start dictating diversity to its international branches. Looks like that day is here.

This is completely political, of course; it’s the implementation of identity politics by pretending that they are superficially apolitical. Imagine if a company said that five percent of an employee’s annual evaluation would depend on his work on “patriotism” issues — that is, how hard he had worked to develop as sense among his employees of loyalty and service to the country in the workplace. You could imagine such a thing in the 1950s, a time of “100% Americanism,” and all that. But today, it would be thought of as weird at best, but more likely sinister.

Here’s the key thing: the elites who are imposing this kind of thing don’t see it as political in any way. They see it as building stronger corporate culture around the values they want to see expressed in society. As Scott Alexander points out, all the old “patriotic” values are now highly contestable. I mean, come on, even the Betsy Ross flag is a source of division. Not Pride, not Diversity. If you question Pride, if you question Diversity, you are the contemporary equivalent of a McCarthy-era dirty commie.

Progressives do not want to hear this, but I hear all the time from Christians (and sometimes Jews and Muslims) who work within academia or corporate America, and who are genuinely afraid for their futures. They believe that they will be forced to express belief in Pride, on pain of losing their jobs. This is by no means paranoid. I spoke the other day in Warsaw to a senior manager in a giant Western firm doing business in Poland, who told me how if you expect to rise in the company, you will have to affirm “diversity,” as defined by the religion of Social Justice.

I was reminded of what readers who serve, or once served, in the military have told me: that starting under President Obama, the culture of the US military changed so that if you don’t actively promote LGBT ideology — not just politely tolerate LGBT service members, but openly affirm their identities — you cannot expect to have a military career. I’ve been hearing the same from Christians rising in corporate America now, and who are facing deep conflicts of conscience over this.

The point is: this is how a new religion displaces an old one. 

I repeat this passage from Scott Alexander, about a future America under the new Pride dispensation:

Maybe we get a real civil religion again, the way conservatives dream of. Where disrespecting the president (at least if she’s a minority) is considered beyond the pale no matter your politics. Where disrespecting the flag (at least the version with rainbow stripes) marks you as a monster. Where the answers to the old questions: “Who are we? Why are we better than other groups? Why is our social system legitimate?” go back to being sacred, and challenged at your peril. Social justice is the only ideology of the past few decades that’s shown a really impressive ability to produce that kind of taboo among the upper classes; if it wins completely, then the right-wing dream of a country united under a single ideology with strong sacredness values is a real possibility, for better or worse. Parts are already there.

Yes. It already owns the upper classes. The young have been thoroughly socialized by schools, media, and popular culture, into this new civic religion. Progressive Christian churches have gone over. Earlier this year I was in the Boston area, and you can scarcely pass a Protestant church without seeing rainbow flags flying out front. Though you don’t often see this same proclamation of loyalty to the new religion outside Catholic parishes, it is there in fact. A couple of years ago, on my first visit to the University of Notre Dame, I was shocked to see a huge rainbow flag gay pride banner hanging in the student center. More important (sociologically, at least) is the collapse of belief in gender norms among the young:

Youth in the US are far more comfortable than previous generations with people not identifying as either a man or a woman. Almost 60% of those aged 13 to 21—members of “Generation Z”—believe forms that ask about gender should include options besides “man” or “woman,” according to a recently released survey from the Pew Research Center. This compares to half of Millennials (aged 22 to 37) and just over 30% of Baby Boomers (54 to 72).

Traditional Christians have to resist assimilation into the norms of Social Justice religion, because most of them — especially on gender ideology — are profoundly anti-Christian. If Scott Alexander is right, and Pride parades express the new civil religion, then we have to ask: what kind of civil order is this?

It’s a civil order in which the Sexual Revolution has displaced the American Revolution, or to be more precise, it’s a civil order in which the American Revolution has been assimilated into the Sexual Revolution. To be fully American is to be a sexual revolutionary. It’s a civil order in which sexual individualism is the highest value — the value that binds us as a nation. 

This is what I mean when I say in The Benedict Option that we are fast getting to the place where faithful Christians are going to have to decide between being a “good American,” and being a faithful Christian.

How should social and religious conservatives resist this? I don’t think the answer is clear-cut. People persist in believing that in The Benedict Option, I counsel surrender and a full-on retreat. It’s not true, as anyone who reads my book with clear eyes can see. I think that we have to fight for what we believe to be true, and for our religious liberties, as hard as we can, with all the legitimate means at our disposal.

Where I differ from many of my fellow social and religious conservatives are on two points, generally.

First, far too many of us believe that victories in politics and law are sufficient. Julian the Apostate was the Roman emperor, with far more power than any president or Supreme Court justice in our time. And yet, even he could not turn back the tide of cultural change by decree. The primary war is within the hearts and minds of the people, and within their institutions. Any political or legal victory we achieve is only going to be temporary, and fragile, if the people of a society reject its premises.

Second, and related, it is far more important to preserve the living memory of the Christian faith than it is to achieve political victories. It is not an either/or proposition. Ideally we can do both. But politics depends on culture first. Victory in the political and legal spheres is hollow if we have lost the hearts and minds of the next generation. Unless our faith and its virtues live on within practicing Christian communities, our victories will die when we do, as surely as paganism in late imperial Rome faded when the last pagan generation went on to the Elysian Fields.

The new book I’m working on is not a religious work, per se, not like The Benedict Option. But it will be a good companion work, in that it regards the religion of Social Justice we’re now confronting as a form of soft totalitarianism, aided and abetted by technology. In the book, I’m asking those still alive with memories of the old, hard Communist totalitarianism to tell us how they resisted, so that we younger people can incorporate that wisdom into our own responses to the soft totalitarianism we’re faced with today. One message that I’ve been getting from younger Christians in every formerly Communist country I’ve visited to research this book: older Christians, the ones leading the resistance, are mostly out of touch with the social realities that the young deal with. Consequently, the forces of religious and social conservatism are losing, and losing badly, despite their political victories. People my age and older, we have to start listening seriously to the young who share our convictions, but who have a greater sense of social reality than most of us do.

We are not fated to lose this war! One lesson I hear over and over from anti-communist dissidents: almost none of them expected Communism to fall in their lifetimes, or in several lifetimes. They figured it would fall eventually, because it’s based on lies about human nature. Still, they thought that it would take a very long time for it to collapse finally. In fact, Soviet communism lasted fewer than 50 years in Eastern and Central Europe.

Poland was the most important battleground, and two Poles — Karol Wojtyla and Lech Walesa — were among the handful of most important warriors who brought down the Evil Empire. Poland was so important because of all the Soviet vassal states, it was the only one where the Christian church was powerful enough to mount meaningful resistance to the State. As I’ve learned in my reading and in personal interviews here in Poland, the Communists knew that the Church — not just the institutional Catholic Church, but the consciousness of the people as followers of Jesus Christ — was unconquerable in Poland, and should instead be managed and co-opted. Several older Poles I’ve spoken to in these last few days have testified to how the first visit of the new Polish pope to his homeland — John Paul II’s 1979 pilgrimage — turned the tide against the Communists, because it was the first time since the advent of dictatorship that the Polish people felt that they weren’t alone.

Today in Poland, the Church is bitterly divided. The face of the enemy was quite clear in 1979, when Poland’s greatest native son returned in triumph as the Holy Roman Pontiff. Forty years on, nothing is as clear, and the bonds that once united Christians and Poles have been greatly diminished. This is even much more the case in truly post-Christian societies like the US and Western Europe.

Among us social and religious conservatives, we can and we must have deep and urgent discussions about how to respond to these challenges. What we cannot do, though, is live under the illusion that we are not at war with a rival, hostile religion. One of the most successful tactics that the victorious progressive forces in the culture war employ is denying that there is a culture war. If our cultures and societies were being besieged by radical Islam, we would understand this more clearly. In fact, I know Christians who are far more worried about radical Islam than they are about the religion of Social Justice.

They’re wrong. And it matters. Few or our kids are going to become radical Islamists. Many of our kids are becoming Social Justice Warriors, because the SJWs have already conquered the elites in US society, and elite institutions. When your advancement through the normative institutions of a society depends on affirming and putting into practice the religion of Social Justice, you are well on your way to displacing the old religion.

Don’t forget what Philip Rieff wrote in 1966:

The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling, first of all to the cultural elites themselves.

With that in mind, re-read Scott Alexander’s post about Social Justice/Pride as the new civil religion of America. I’m not kidding, my fellow social and religious conservatives, when I tell you that it’s the most important thing you will read today.



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