Across the West, a new religious movement is unfolding. This “Great Awokening” professes high ideals in terms that are dangerous to dispute. Anyone who declines to “believe all women” will appear sexist. Anyone who dissents from the movement’s account of racism will appear to deny that “black lives matter”. A few weeks ago, at a rally outside the mayor’s mansion in New York, I witnessed the new liturgy. The overwhelmingly white crowd did a political call-and-response, reciting their new creed. After 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence, those who felt so moved could approach the microphone and say their piece. I had attended anti-Iraq War protests in Washington, DC in 2002 and 2003. This felt less like them than like a Quaker meeting.
Peaceful as this new faith can seem, deviations from it are harshly punished. James Bennet lost his position as opinion editor of the New York Times after his section ran a column by Senator Tom Cotton urging the use of military force to stop riots and looting (not peaceful protest). The editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer was forced to resign over the headline “Buildings Matter, Too”.
Now the nation’s papers seem anxious to remain on the right side of the mob. The Washington Post published an article on the tasteless costume one woman had worn to a party hosted by Post cartoonist Tom Toles. The long, detailed story had no news value. It was framed in such a way as to deflect blame from Toles and the Post. (A story in New York magazine suggested that the Post may have sought to forestall more critical coverage elsewhere by “getting out ahead of the story”.) Predictably, the woman was fired.
A few days later, the popular pseudonymous blogger Scott Alexander, who has eccentric (some might say conservative) politics, announced that he was shutting down his blog to prevent the New York Times from publishing his identity, something that could lead to his firing. Charles Fain Lehman of the Washington Free Beacon wrote that this “doxxing” was possibly “retribution for [Alexander’s] criticisms of modern progressivism”.
W Ajax Peris, an untenured lecturer at UCLA, was placed under investigation for reading Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” aloud in class. Some students were offended that it included the n-word. Gordon Klein, another professor at UCLA, was put on leave after refusing a student’s request to cancel finals in all but name because of the death of George Floyd.
The punitive atmosphere is not confined to the nation’s newspapers and universities. Random citizens are accused of racism in viral videos that lack context or fact-checking. In one, a woman cries in agony, covering her face and licence plate. She knows that her life and career are about to be destroyed. A man claimed that she flipped him off and said the n-word, but no evidence is supplied.
Izabella Tabarovsky, a Russian-born writer who works as a researcher at the Wilson Center, compares the intense enforcement of this new faith to the informal systems of intellectual control once employed in the Soviet Union.
“Twitter has been used as a platform for exercises in unanimous condemnation for as long as it has existed,” Tabarovsky writes in the Jewish magazine Tablet. “But it wasn’t until the past couple of weeks that the similarity of our current culture with the Soviet practice of collective hounding presented itself to me with such stark clarity.” She focuses on the wave of denunciation that crashed over Boris Pasternak when he won the Nobel Prize in literature. Nikita Khrushchev was only partly to blame; the literary establishment also willingly joined in the campaign. This is the most sobering fact of the whole affair. It is one thing if government officials conspire to destroy an innocent man and his art. It is another entirely when people who purport to represent something higher – in this case, Art with a capital A – join in that persecution or look the other way.
Pasternak’s case is a reminder that men dedicated to high ideals have a special duty to stand against lies. This is true of the nation’s journalists, who are (despite some noble exceptions) manifestly failing in their duty. And it is especially true of the Church.
Christian leaders will feel pressure to conform to the new orthodoxy. Understanding that every person is made in the image of God and deserves respect, they will be tempted to submit to a gender ideology that paints all dissenters as trans-hating bigots. Knowing the importance of racial justice, they may find it convenient to endorse a movement that regards our country as irredeemably racist.
If the Church conforms to the new faith sweeping across America, the gospel will suffer. So will all those who do not share the Christian faith but who nonetheless rely on the Church as a bulwark against ideological tyranny. Instead of feigning agreement with this false religion, we should proclaim the true one.