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These Aren’t Protests, They’re Religious Ceremonies

Welcome to the liturgical woke, which eerily feels like off-brand Christianity.
'Black Lives Matter' protests continue in NYC

At a park in New York City, I witnessed something odd. A group of women silently formed a circle in the middle of a large lawn. Their all-black outfits contrasted with the surrounding summer pastels, and they ignored the adjacent sun bathers as they began to kneel and slowly chant. They repeated a three word matin. The most striking feature of this scene was its familiarity. Any half-decent anthropologist would label this a religious ritual.

Yet, few are willing to explicitly describe these events as part of a religion. The women may have been kneeling in a circle while chanting, but they repeated the words “black lives matter.” Politics obscures the obvious. Wokeness is a religion, and conservatives must act as if large parts of our institutions are run by this cult. 

Americans are united in their disgust at what happened to George Floyd. Everyone agrees: A minor run-in with the police should never lead to death. Yet, the past two weeks do not actually seem connected to the events in Minneapolis. Most East Coast yuppies would have trouble placing Minneapolis on a map. Does it really make sense to gather in a mass crowd during a pandemic because of something that happened a half-continent away? It does when you recognize that it’s a religious movement. 

Wokeness has been identified as a religion by several writers and commentators. Linguist John McWhorter wrote an article on “Antiracism, Our Flawed New Religion” several years ago. Harvard professor Adrian Vermeulle wrote a must-read analysis of the liturgical nature of liberalism in 2019. And all the way back in 2004, historian Paul Gottfried wrote a prescient book on the topic with the subtitle “towards a secular theocracy.” The increasing intensity of woke culture suggests that this is no longer just a curiosity, or a point of ridicule. It is the most clear-eyed way of viewing current politics, and this is most obvious when viewing the protests. 

The nationwide protests are best understood as religious ceremonies, and this can be seen in the way they keep engaging in off-brand Christianity. In Portland, Maine, protestors lay stomach down on the sidewalk in order to ritualistically reenact Floyd’s arrest. They prostrated themselves in the exact way Catholic priests do in their ordination ceremony. Journalist Michael Tracey noted the religious feeling in New Jersey protests. Protestors knelt and held up their hands in a mirror image of how Evangelicals pray over each other at revivals. The Guardian ran an article on how people must keep repeating the names of police victims, and protestors routinely chant a list of names as if it is a litany of the saints. It is a transparent attempt to transform the victims into martyrs. And while Floyd’s killing is a tragedy and an outrage, he had no agency over his death.

Perhaps the appropriation of Christian liturgy is just coincidental, and not evidence that the woke have become a cult. It’s not like they’re trafficking in classic cult behavior, like trying to separate devotees from their family, right? Wrong: Taking a cue from the Scientologists, The New York Times ran an op-ed encouraging readers to stop visiting, or speaking to family members until they pledge to “take significant action in supporting black lives either through protest or financial contributions.” Very normal! Shaking down family members for money by threatening not to talk to them is classic cult behavior and is not how well-adjusted adults voice political opinions. The insidious engine of this religious impulse can be seen in the most egregious ripoff from Christianity so far.  

In North Carolina, a pastor organized an event where white police officers knelt before her and washed her feet. She claimed God told her directly to do this. Only the most delusional would try to call this a protest. This is a pathetic perversion of Christian liturgy. To state the obvious: washing feet is a Christian tradition with Biblical origins. Washing feet was a chore reserved for the lowest servants. Jesus, God himself incarnate as man, washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper. The disciple Peter objects to this and doesn’t want Jesus to lower himself. Jesus replies “if I don’t wash you, you don’t really belong to me.”

The white people washing feet are only pretending to lower themselves. In reality, they’re symbolically placing themselves in the role of God. For white people, woke anti-racism offers a way to worship themselves. “White privilege” is a purely subjective concept that allows unremarkable white people to recast their own ordinary lives in a flattering light. It’s not enough to simply point this out and laugh at it. The religious nature of the woke has real policy implications.

The woke make policy decisions in reference to the values of their religion. Back in January, it was considered racist to be concerned about the coronavirus. CNN ran headlines about how racism was spreading faster than COVID, Al Jazeera ran an op-ed with a headline suggesting racism was the more dangerous epidemic, and New York City politicians encouraged people to join crowds in Chinatown. Now, after months of stringent social distancing, suddenly the “experts” are telling us that massive crowds gathering in every city around the globe won’t impact the ongoing pandemic. A certain type of person pretends to be above all culture war topics, and always wants to get back to the “real issues.” Yet it should be clear that in any long and protracted economic struggle with China, the woke cult has the ability to distort priorities and jettison all good sense. You may not be interested in the culture war, but the culture war is interested in you. 

In 2014, and 2015, many conservative pundits made a name for themselves laughing at the “SJW” phenomenon on college campuses. Older conservatives loved to make jabs about “snowflakes” who they predicted wouldn’t be able to tough it in the real world. This was a complete misreading of the situation. Woke Yale graduates do just fine in their careers, and these extremist students are now rising through institutions of power. Ivy League-educated lawyers are throwing molotov cocktails in New York. The scholastics grew out of an institutional arrangement where Christianity was the official religion of the university. Wokeness is the scholastic form of anti-racism. It is enshrined in our institutions because the Civil Rights movement coincided with the formation of our new upper class.

In the 20th Century, corporations and government grew to unforeseen scale. Experts, managers, bureaucrats, and new types of lawyers were required to run these organizations, and this changed the nature of the middle class, and how people achieved power. As Fred Siegel argued in his book “Revolt Against the Masses,” this new class became conscious of itself as a distinct class through the Civil Rights movement. The South was a poor and backwards place, and the new class of experts could use their position to correct a grave injustice.

Civil Rights legislation then needed more lawyers, managers, and bureaucrats to enforce. The concrete forms of discrimination in the Jim Crow south slowly disappeared as racism was openly confronted, but we are left with a class structure that still defines itself around these issues. Those with power have a vested interest in finding ever new forms of racism because this allows them to create new instruments to fight racism. Universities and corporations create more and more administrative jobs that produce a brahmin class whose only purpose is to keep vigilant for bigotry. This is why the woke capital phenomenon cannot be dismissed as posturing. One implication of this is that striving political leaders who seek to enter the upper class must prove their anti-racism bonafides again, and again. Another, much darker, implication is that we may live in a theocracy. 

Wokeness is a gnostic cult that asks its sectaries to adopt a platform of national self-loathing. These are not protests. They are religious celebrations. The cult needs to be consistently classified as a religion, and conservatives must resist the temptation to view it as merely a silly sideshow distraction. Its bizarro liturgy is increasingly enshrined in all of our institutions, and conservatives must act as if a cult has hijacked the nation.

James McElroy is a New York City-based novelist and essayist, who also works in finance.