This summer, those protesting for social justice have torn down statues of saints and national heroes. That checks the iconoclasm box. They’ve chanted, prostrated themselves, and even sung together. That checks the ritual box. They’ve talked about themselves as a movement aimed at raising consciousness and bearing witness. That checks the revivalist box. They’ve inspired cancellations, firings, public shamings, and the pulping of books. Those check the boxes for witch hunts, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, anathemas, and heresy trials.
It is obvious that there is a religious quality to the progressive movement these days. Contemplating this fact has made certain conservatives nervous, alarmed, or even apocalyptic. Why? Simple: New religions tend to rise up and destroy the old one.
Edward J. Watts’s fascinating book, The Final Pagan Generation, describes a period of time in the Roman Empire when a whole generation of Christian and pagan elites intermingled in relative peace, and the civilization-spanning presence of pagan temples and feasts still formed something like the social and civic backbone of Roman society. Slowly, and then all at once, a rising generation of Christians decided that this cultural arrangement was past its sell-by date and ended it. The older, conservative Roman pagans barely sensed the threat coming, but then, seemingly overnight, the ordering ethos of their civilization had been torn down and replaced. The temples came down, and fast.
One wonders if such a moment is coming for America. Could it be that the pressure building on our constitutional system is greater than we suppose, and institutions such as the Electoral College, the Senate, and the nine-person Supreme Court will fall apart in a matter of months? Could the churches themselves be in danger?
Maybe. But let’s tap the brakes.
The progressive “religion” we see in the streets is an outgrowth of the old faith. Its values are not repudiations of the old world, the way that the Beatitudes so directly contradicted the pagan ethos. Instead its commitments are morbid, or exaggerated — the Christian virtues set loose from one another to run wild. It demands reconciliation, but lacks forgiveness. It demands equality, but overlooks virtue and moderation. It puts a victim at the heart of the social order, but the reign is not one of peace. In some cases, this movement is an elaboration of existing American civic religion. Some of it clearly comes out of, harkens back to, and tries to recreate the spirit of the black Church during the civil-rights movement. In this way, it fills a gap in a culture that is increasingly unchurched.
There is, however, another half of the story, because the protest movement is also a demotic reaction to a political culture that is in plenty of respects undemocratic. Many of the “reforms” progressives now propose are meant to stack the deck in their favor by changing the constitutional structure of the American political system — e.g., to blunt the strength the Electoral College gives rural states, or to weaken the power of Republicans in the Senate. But their belief that the system lacks democratic legitimacy may not be due entirely to its constitutionally enshrined counter-majoritarian features.
Instead, much of what this movement resents and opposes as an offense to democracy is the result of a political conversation dominated by policy wonks, technocrats, and “experts.” In lieu of the deliberative culture of compromise that characterizes a healthy democracy, many of our social-justice warriors enter politics as if they are making a victim statement before a panel of elite judges. Dramatizing their hurt is perhaps the only way they can move the normally distant court of public opinion in their direction.
In other words, this iconoclastic, loud, brash, and sometimes destructive movement in our streets is partly a product of alienation from the responsibilities of our strange dual citizenship, our duties and our claims in the city of man and the City of God alike.