Observing the protests and public discourse that have swept the country since a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, Joseph Bottum sees what looks like nothing so much as religious fervor. He traces the rise of this fervor to the decline since the 1970s of the Mainline Protestant denominations that once dominated American life. In an interview by Sean Collins, Bottum explains the deeply Christian impulses behind what has come to be called “wokeness”:
What we’re seeing now is . . . an intense spiritual hunger that has no outlet. There’s no way to see people kneeling, or singing “Hands up, don’t shoot,” or swaying while they hold up candles, and avoid acknowledging that it’s driven by a spiritual desire . . . that is manifesting itself more violently. Because to the post-Protestants, the world is an outrage and we are all sinners.
[Take, for instance, the] idea of white guilt—that there is this inherent guiltiness that comes from being white. This notion has the same logical shape and the same psychological operation as Original Sin. The trouble is that, unlike Original Sin, there’s no salvation from white guilt. But the formal structure of white guilt and Original Sin is the same. How do you come to understand that you need salvation? By deeper and deeper appreciation of your sinfulness.
Similarly, there is ostracizing and shunning. Cancel culture is just the latest and most virulent form of the religious notion of shunning, in which people are chased into further appreciation of their guiltiness. . . . If you profane, you’re [pushed] outside the Temple [and] the only way back is to become fanatic, to convince people that you understand how guilty you are. And even then, I’m not sure there’s any way back.
We live in just the strangest times. But understanding the historical roots of these radicals as post-Protestant, and understanding the spiritual hunger which has no outlet for them, helps us to explain it. This is what happens when you have a Mainline outlook that is broken loose from all of its prior constraints. These ideas used to be corralled in the churches. If you let an idea like Original Sin—that’s a dangerous and powerful idea—loose from its corral, it goes to a place where it can exist, which is politics.