Religion, they say, is dead.
“White Christian America,” spat out as a pejorative, is in deep decline. Even the Republican nominee, Donald Trump, pays only lip service to Christian ideals. The future is a dark and murky place, now that the past is receding. American culture has never been quite secular; always a sense of Christian morality has been woven through our civic fabric. Now America, like Europe before it, is about to go atheist, to experience the flight of religious feeling from the public sphere. This decline is most pronounced on the left, which has long since disavowed protections for religious liberty and often seems that it views Judeo-Christian religion as something akin to fascism, or to an odd tribal cult to be viewed with an anthropological fascination.
But heralds of the end of religion, especially on the left, are wrong. Religion isn’t dying; it’s just being replaced by a new form of religious expression.
Take a look at the most recent invective from the identity-politics Left: “An Open Letter on Identity Politics, to and from the Left.” Published on Medium last week, and signed by a supposedly wide coalition of leftists, it immediately became a lightning rod. Materialist socialists viewed it as a heresy, the triumph of virtue-signaling feminism, a tool to stifle any dissent; feminists and racial-justice advocates, meanwhile, trumpeted it as if it were The Communist Manifesto.
Heralds of the end of religion, especially on the left, are wrong. Religion isn’t dying; it’s just being replaced by a new form of religious expression.
I’ll confess: It’s not easy to make it through “An Open Letter on Identity Politics.” Not inconsiderable in its length, it’s full of polemical phrases — “We call upon progressives to acknowledge that all politics are identity politics” (emphasis in original), for example. It’s self-important, presumptuous, supremely convinced of its own righteousness. Having a productive discussion with the authors of the piece, involving fair treatment of disagreements and a willingness to take all viewpoints seriously, seems like a Herculean task. They have found the enlightened path; it must be adhered to with rigor.
Perhaps that is why “An Open Letter on Identity Politics” seems so profoundly religious. It carries a sense of zealotry and sheer conviction that would not be out of place in a Houston megachurch. One of its most prominent assertions — indeed, one that it spends considerable time demonstrating — is that its signatories are the Left, that they are the ones for whom the Left works and therefore the ones who deserve centrality in the Left’s movement. This is an anointment of the Chosen People by those people themselves. From that anointment proceeds the development of their theology.
Language, as a moral vocabulary, is at the core of this new leftist ideology. So too is it at the core of religion. In 2000, the English philosopher Roger Scruton wrote a love letter — he called it an “elegy” — to England, to the country as it existed in his childhood. For Scruton, Englishness has much to do with the Church of England; it is the Church, he argues, that gives Englishness meaning and imbues the land with a sense of holiness. His description of the Anglican Church is worth considering: Its key elements are “the language, the stories, the hymns, the liturgical response to the world and its misdoings,” all of which “had crystallised around the Anglican rite.” The language is of especial import: “It was this language that the English Church held in trust, and which formed the real essence of its religion.”
Read “An Open Letter on Identity Politics” and Scruton’s remarks will seem oddly relevant. For the entire manifesto is awash in a highly specialized vocabulary, a manner of speech and diction so rarefied as to become totally inscrutable to the outsider (the sort of person, you’d think, the Left is trying to win over). The word “occupied” is capitalized. -Isms, -phobias, and -izations follow each other in rapid succession. Terms are uttered with a certain reverence, a secular sacredness; this language dare not be challenged, for from that language — and the stories, and the hymns — flows the essence of this creed.
And from that language is derived the response to the world and its misdoings. The self-anointed Left that has authored this piece lays down its Three Commandments (ten is just too many these days): that progressives recognize all politics as identity politics, that progressives accept that “abuse is not dissent,” that progressives “clean up their own house.” These are their sacraments, a tripartite rite of introspection and cleansing performed at the altar of an identitarian god, without which there will be no salvation. The steps proceed from the general to the specific, from characterizing the nature of politics itself to limiting the bounds of political speech to going about sanctifying and making pure — making holy — one’s own little congregation.
There is something deeply Puritan, too, in the strict doctrinairism of the new leftist ideology.
English religion has always been characterized by its lack of consensus, by its interplay between Anglicans and Dissenters, between those who subscribe to the Crown’s religious orthodoxy and those who seek their own path. There is an element of Anglicanism in the open letter, insofar as its signers would like to see their quasi-theology reign supreme over all the institutions of the state, with an idealized intersectional socialist as their Henry VIII. But one would be more correct to call this class of leftists the New Puritans, for the state they aspire to lead would see the stifling of dissent, the propagation of a single ruling ideology, and the gradual constriction of the culture within an increasingly narrow set of prescribed limits.
There is something deeply Puritan, too, in the strict doctrinairism of the new leftist ideology. To stay on the side of the righteous, one must maintain an impossibly deep knowledge of the language that itself is an ideology — so deep a knowledge that it has not been mastered even by the letter’s signatories, who have appended three corrections, apologies for using terminology not quite (though almost) fitting what their subjects would like them to use. Not that any of this matters outside the Movement, of course; in fact, I’d venture to say that the obsession with language — akin to monks’ spending untold hours studying the most obscure theological questions and rarely venturing from their cloisters — impedes their efforts to garner popular approval and political success for their social agenda. In the world of these contemporary leftists, Luther has not yet translated the Bible and made it accessible to the masses; the Left’s politics of language remains a sequestered, highly exclusive pursuit. The way the Left is going, perhaps it always will.
“An Open Letter on Identity Politics” seems profoundly religious in another way. Why do its signers insist so indignantly that they are the core of the Left? Because “for many of us,” they write, “it is where we live, work, fall in love, find our friends, make community and find the support for our continued survival and well-being.” Left-wing activism, in this conception, is not merely political; it’s not even limited to the bounds of culture. It encompasses all of life, from the individual level to the communal. It is, apparently, where the signers find the will and the strength to keep on living: a method of organizing life and giving it order and meaning through social bonds, communities, and the power of love. Sound familiar?
And they have their own apocalyptic vision, too, their own conception of the end days. This is the end of history. For Marxists, once ascendant and now marginalized, the end of history would come in the dictatorship of the proletariat and the elimination of states. For these new leftists, the vision is similar, but with important differences. They endeavor to see the elimination of petty differences between people, the equalization of all classes, the destruction of nationality, indeed the end of politics itself, at least politics as a series of questions about the composition of the body politic. Like a Millennialist cult, they have a distinct notion of what will arrive when their prophecies come true; their obsessive quest for ideological cleanliness, for self-purification expressed through an increasingly rigorous policing of language, is all done in the knowledge that you’ll want to be able to count yourself among the righteous once the end days come.
Religion in its traditional form has begun to fade away from the mainstream; its influence on culture has declined, its grip — some might call it a stranglehold — on the norms that govern our society has loosened. But the deep need for a moral language has not disappeared, and will never disappear. Now that Christianity no longer serves as the vehicle for that sort of moral communication, a new order has begun to take its place on the Left. Read “An Open Letter on Identity Politics” and you’ll start to understand what that looks like.