Valerie Tarico sees a parallel between the Woke and Evangelical movements.
I was Born Again until nearly the end of graduate school, a sincere Evangelical who went to church on Sunday and Wednesday with my family and to Thursday Bible study on my own. I dialed for converts during the “I Found It” evangelism campaign, served as a counselor at Camp Good News, and graduated from Wheaton College, Billy Graham’s alma mater. I know what it is to be an earnest believer among believers.
I also know what it is to experience those same dynamics from the outside. Since my fall from grace, I’ve written a book, Trusting Doubt, and several hundred articles exposing harms from Evangelicalism—not just the content of beliefs but also how they spread and shape the psychology of individuals and behavior of communities, doing damage in particular to women, children, and religious minorities.
It occurred to me recently that my time in Evangelicalism and subsequent journey out have a lot to do with why I find myself reactive to the spread of Woke culture among colleagues, political soulmates, and friends. Christianity takes many forms, with Evangelicalism being one of the more single-minded, dogmatic, groupish and enthusiastic among them. The Woke—meaning progressives who have “awoken” to the idea that oppression is the key concept explaining the structure of society, the flow of history, and virtually all of humanity’s woes—share these qualities.
To a former Evangelical, something feels too familiar—or better said, a bunch of somethings feel too familiar.
Righteous and infidels—There are two kinds of people in the world: Saved and damned or Woke and bigots, and anyone who isn’t with you 100% is morally suspect*. Through the lens of dichotomizing ideologies, each of us is seen—first and foremost—not as a complicated individual, but as a member of a group, with moral weight attached to our status as an insider or outsider. (*exceptions made for potential converts)
Insider jargon—Like many other groups, the saved and the Woke signal insider status by using special language. An Evangelical immediately recognizes a fellow tribe-member when he or she hears phrases like Praise the Lord, born again, backsliding, stumbling block, give a testimony, a harvest of souls, or It’s not a religion; it’s a relationship. The Woke signal their wokeness with words like intersectionality, cultural appropriation, trigger warning, microaggression, privilege, fragility, problematic, or decolonization. The language of the Woke may have more meaningful real-world referents than that of Evangelicals, but in both cases, jargon isn’t merely a tool for efficient or precise communication as it is in many professions—it is a sign of belonging and moral virtue.
Born that way—Although theoretically anyone is welcome in either group, the social hierarchies in both Evangelical culture and Woke culture are defined largely by accidents of birth. The Bible lists privileged blood lines—the Chosen People—and teaches that men (more so than women) were made in the image of God. In Woke culture, hierarchy is determined by membership in traditionally oppressed tribes, again based largely on blood lines and chromosomes. Note that this is not about individual experience of oppression or privilege, hardship or ease. Rather, generic average oppression scores get assigned to each tribe and then to each person based on intersecting tribal identities. Thus, a queer female East Indian Harvard grad with a Ph.D. and E.D. position is considered more oppressed than the unemployed third son of a white Appalachian coal miner.
Original sin—In both systems, one consequence of birth is inherited guilt. People are guilty of the sins of their fathers. In the case of Evangelicalism, we all are born sinful, deserving of eternal torture because of Eve’s folly—eating from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. In Woke culture, white and male people are born with blood guilt, a product of how dominant white and male people have treated other people over the ages and in modern times, (which—it must be said—often has been unspeakably horrible). Again, though, individual guilt isn’t about individual behaviors. A person born with original sin or blood guilt can behave badly and make things worse, but they cannot erase the inborn stain. (Note that this contradicts core tenets of liberal, humanist, and traditional progressive thought.)
Orthodoxies—The Bible is the inerrant Word of God. Jesus died for your sins. Hell awaits sinners. Salvation comes through accepting Jesus as your savior. If you are an Evangelical, doctrines like these must not be questioned. Trust and obey for there’s no other way. Anyone who questions core dogmas commits heresy, and anyone who preaches against them should be de-platformed or silenced. The Woke also have tenets of faith that must not be questioned. Most if not all ills flow from racism or sexism. Only males can be sexist; only white people can be racist. Gender is culturally constructed and independent of sex. Immigration is an economic boon for everyone. Elevating the most oppressed person will solve problems all the way up. Did my challenging that list make you think you might be reading an article by a conservative? If so, that’s exactly what I’m trying to illustrate.
Denial as proof—In Evangelicalism, thinking you don’t need to accept Jesus as your savior is proof that you do. Your denial simply reveals the depth of your sin and hardness of heart. In Woke culture, any pushback is perceived as a sign of white fragility or worse, a sign that one is a racist, sexist, homophobe, Islamophobe, xenophobe, or transphobe. You say that you voted for Barack Obama and your kids are biracial so your problem with BLM isn’t racism? LOL, that’s just what a racist would say. In both cultures, the most charitable interpretation that an insider can offer a skeptic is something along these lines, You seem like a decent, kind person. I’m sure that you just don’t understand. Since Evangelical and Woke dogmas don’t allow for honest, ethical disagreement, the only alternative hypothesis is that the skeptic must be an evildoer or bigot.
Black and white thinking—If you are not for us, you’re against us. In the Evangelical worldview we are all caught up in a spiritual war between the forces of God and Satan, which is playing out on the celestial plane. Who is on the Lord’s side? one hymn asks, because anyone else is on the other. Even mainline Christians—and especially Catholics—may be seen by Evangelicals as part of the enemy force. For many of the Woke, the equivalent of mainline Christians are old school social liberals, like women who wear pink pussy hats. Working toward colorblindness, for example, is not just considered a suboptimal way of addressing racism (which is a position that people can make arguments for). Rather, it is itself a symptom of racism. And there’s no such thing as a moderate conservative. Both Evangelicals and the Woke argue that tolerance is bad. One shouldn’t tolerate evil or fascism, they say, and most people would agree. The problem is that so many outsiders are considered either evil sinners or racist fascists. In this view, pragmatism and compromise are signs of moral taint.
Shaming and shunning—The Woke don’t tar, feather and banish sinners. Neither—mercifully—do Christian puritans anymore. But public shaming and trial by ordeal are used by both clans to keep people in line. Some Christian leaders pressure members into ritual public confession. After all, as theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Nothing can be more cruel than the leniency which abandons others to their sin.” Shaming and shunning have ancient roots as tools of social control, and they elevate the status of the person or group doing the shaming. Maoist struggle sessions (forced public confessions) and Soviet self-criticism are examples of extreme shaming in social-critical movements seeking to upend traditional power structures. So, it should be no surprise that some of the Woke show little hesitation when call-out opportunities present themselves—nor that some remain unrelentingly righteous even when those call-outs leave a life or a family in ruins.
Selective science denial—Disinterest in inconvenient truths—or worse, denial of inconvenient truths, is generally a sign that ideology is at play. Most of us on the left can rattle off a list of truths that Evangelicals find inconvenient. The Bible is full of contradictions. Teens are going to keep having sex. Species evolve. The Earth is four and a half billion years old. Climate change is caused by humans (which suggests that God doesn’t have his hand on the wheel). Prayer works, at best, at the margins of statistical significance. But evidence and facts can be just as inconvenient for the Woke. Gender dimorphism affects how we think, not just how we look. Personal responsibility has real world benefits, even for people who have the odds stacked against them. Lived experience is simply anecdotal evidence. Skin color is often a poor proxy for privilege. Organic foods won’t feed 11 billion.
Evangelism—As infectious ideologies, Evangelicalism and Woke culture rely on both paid evangelists and enthusiastic converts to spread the word. Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) and related organizations spend tens of millions annually seeking converts on college campuses. But many outreach activities are led by earnest student believers. Critical Oppression Theory on campus has its epicenter in gender and race studies but has become a mainstay in schools of public health and law as well as the liberal arts. Once this becomes the dominant lens for human interactions, students police themselves—and each other. Nobody wants to be the ignoramus who deadnames a transgender peer or microaggresses against a foreign student by asking about their culture.
Hypocrisy—Christianity bills itself as a religion centered in humility, but countervailing dogmas promote the opposite. It is hard to imagine a set of beliefs more arrogant than the following: The universe was designed for humans. We uniquely are made in the image of God. All other creatures are ours to consume. Among thousands of religions, I happened to be born into the one that’s correct. The creator of the universe wants a personal relationship with me. Where Evangelicalism traffics in hubris cloaked as humility, Woke culture traffics in discrimination cloaked as inclusion. The far left demands that hiring practices, organizational hierarchies, social affinity groups, political strategizing, and funding flow give primacy to race and gender. Some of the Woke measure people by these checkboxes to a degree matched in the West only by groups like MRAs (Men’s Rights Activists) and white supremacists. The intent is to rectify old wrongs and current inequities–to literally solve discrimination with discrimination. One result is disinterest in suffering that doesn’t derive from traditional structural oppression of one tribe by another.
Gloating about the fate of the wicked—One of humanity’s uglier traits is that we like it when our enemies suffer. Some of the great Christian leaders and great justice warriors of history have inspired people to rise higher (think Desmond Tutu, Eli Wiesel, Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela). But neither Evangelicalism nor Woke culture consistently inspires members to transcend tribal vindictiveness because neither, at heart, calls members into our shared humanity. Some Christian leaders have actually proclaimed that the suffering of the damned in hell heightens the joy of the saved in heaven. Some of the Woke curse those they see as fascists to burn in the very same Christian hell, metaphorically if not literally. They dream of restorative justice for criminal offenses but lifelong, ruinous retribution for political sinners: Those hateful Trump voters deserve whatever destitution or illness may come their way. Unemployed young men in rural middle America are turning to Heroin? Too bad. Nobody did anything about the crack epidemic. Oil town’s on fire? Burn baby burn.
I know how compelling those frustrated, vengeful thoughts can be, because I’ve had them. But I think that progressives can do better.
Ideology has an awe-inspiring power to forge identity and community, direct energy, channel rage and determination, love and hate. It has been one of the most transformative forces in human history. But too often ideology in the hands of a social movement simply rebrands and redirects old self-centering impulses while justifying the sense that this particular fight is uniquely holy.
Even so, social movements and religions—including those that are misguided—usually emerge from an impulse that is deeply good, the desire to foster wellbeing in world that is more kind and just, one that brings us closer to humanity’s multi-millennial dream of broad enduring peace and bounty. This, too, is something that the Righteous and the Woke have in common. Both genuinely aspire to societal justice—small s, small j—meaning not the brand but the real deal. Given that they often see themselves at opposite ends of the spectrum, perhaps that is grounds for a little hope.
Note: In this article I didn’t address why, despite these discouraging social and ideological dynamics, I continue to lean left. In the frustration raised by excesses of Woke culture it is easy to lose sight of more substantive issues. Here is some of my list: The best evidence available tells us climate change is human-caused and urgent. Market failures are real. Trickle-down economics has produced greater inequality, which has been growing for decades. Inequality is a factor in social instability. Social democracy (the combination of capitalist enterprise with a strong social safety net) appears to have produced greater average wellbeing than other economic systems. Investments in diplomacy reduce war. Reproductive empowerment is fundamental to individual political and economic participation. The Religious Right more so than classical liberals control social policy on the Right. Government, when functioning properly, is the way we do things that we can’t very well do alone.
I would like to thank Dan Fincke for his input on this article, and Marian Wiggins for her generous editorial time.
She writes about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society.