June 16, 2021

FANATICS: Politics has become a religion.

As a cultural invention of the United States, woke ideology bears a specifically American religious stamp: that of Calvinism. The Calvinists believed in Predestination. From the moment of your birth, they were convinced, you were destined for Heaven or Hell, and you could do nothing over the course of your life to change that. As the German sociologist Max Weber explained in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, this doctrine bred in the Calvinists of the early United States an obsession with discerning who among them was saved and who was damned. They surveilled each other constantly, searching for signs of who did and who did not belong to God’s “elect.” They policed their own behavior relentlessly, guarding against any possible indication, both to themselves and to others, that they stood outside of God’s grace and were hellbound. Desperate to reassure themselves, they became ostentatious in their displays of austerity, humility, the sacrifice of their egos to a higher calling, and other visible signals of their devotion to God. Their lives became a performance of piety and virtuousness, born of constant, pervasive dread.

Nobody believes in Predestination anymore. Many of us don’t believe in God. But the cultural residues of Calvinism and other puritanical Protestant sects remain with us, in our binary moralism, which divides humanity between the virtuous and the damned, in our scrutinizing of ourselves and others for ethical imperfections, and in our use of public shaming to enforce moral conformity. All of these tendencies fit as comfortably into American left-wing social justice culture as they did in right-wing Christian evangelical culture in the 1990s. Liberal Twitter in 2021 is one big digital Calvinist village, everyone trying to out-virtue-signal one another to prove their ever-tenuous membership in an amorphous club of the morally elite, picking over everyone else’s tweets for signs of political heresy, and calling them out to the mob in a desperate attempt to deflect scrutiny from themselves. The same political culture prevails on college campuses, media outlets, and the non-profit industrial complex. Increasingly, it is becoming the norm in Congress.

Since we’re currently living in the version of the Matrix that was programmed by Tom Wolfe before his death in 2018, it’s worth quoting from in his epochal 1976 article, “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening:” “It is entirely possible that in the long run historians will regard the entire New Left experience as not so much a political as a religious episode wrapped in semi military gear and guerrilla talk.” (That line was written with early ‘70s radical chic in mind, but reverberates quite nicely today, given Antifa’s love of paramilitary cosplay.)

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