when political movements resemble religions

In The Atlantic, John McWhorter suggests analogies between current movements against racism and religious revivals:

Third-wave antiracism is a profoundly religious movement in everything but terminology. The idea that whites are permanently stained by their white privilege, gaining moral absolution only by eternally attesting to it, is the third wave’s version of original sin. The idea of a someday when America will “come to terms with race” is as vaguely specified a guidepost as Judgment Day. Explorations as to whether an opinion is “problematic” are equivalent to explorations of that which may be blasphemous. The social mauling of the person with “problematic” thoughts parallels the excommunication of the heretic. What is called “virtue signaling,” then, channels the impulse that might lead a Christian to an aggressive display of her faith in Jesus.

… The new religion, as a matter of faith, entails that one suspends disbelief at certain points out of respect to the larger narrative. ….

When someone attests to his white privilege with his hand up in the air, palm outward—which I have observed more than once—the resemblance to testifying in church need not surprise. Here, the agnostic or atheist American who sees fundamentalists and Mormons as quaint reveals himself as, of all things, a parishioner.

McWhorter presents this analogy as a critique. He advises: “Social concern and activism must not cease, but proceed minus the religious aspect they have taken on.”

One obvious question is whether McWhorter is right that the anti-racist left is losing because of its rhetorical style. Jeffrey Sachs, for example, thinks it is winning.

But I am interested in a different question: why does political ideology often resemble religion? After all, anti-racist politics is not unusual in this respect.

  • Environmentalism offers an account of original sin (human exploitation of nature), an eschatology (the planet will be wrecked by greed and waste), authorities (climate scientists) whose conclusions must be trusted even though we can’t see or replicate what they see, heretics (climate skeptics), a moral critique of everyday behavior, and a path to salvation through sacrifice.
  • Libertarians define original sin as the influence of the state, which relies on violent force. Its tentacles reach into everyday life through taxation and regulation, corrupting the free condition of voluntary exchange. The state has a satanic tendency to expand, preying on human weakness. Until freedom is restored, libertarians should gather to read scripture (Hayek, von Mises) and convert wavering souls.
  • Marxism offers the whole package: scripture, prophets, martyrs, hymns, icons, metaphysics, eschatology, multiple denominations and sectarian schisms, heretics and excommunications, revival movements, fundamentalist and revisionist strands …

This list could probably be extended to include New Deal liberalism, various forms of nationalism, third-wave feminism, Bonapartist populism, etc.

A resemblance to religion does not invalidate a political movement. I am an environmentalist and I am not shaken by the fact that environmentalism bears a point-by-point similarity to Protestant Christianity. Faith in climate science is a necessary step to saving the planet. Maybe confessing white privilege is a necessary step to racial justice.

But we might ask: do these political movements so closely resemble religions because we have mental habits that we lazily or uncritically apply to new domains? Could we be more effective if we were more original?

Alternatively, are these excellent ways for human beings to organize our thoughts, and that is why they have reappeared in secular contexts after first flourishing in religions?

Also, are these forms of thought characteristic of religion, or only of Abrahamic religions? Some aspects of environmentalism and libertarianism (original sin, individual responsibility as part of voluntary groups) remind me specifically of Lutheran Christianity. They don’t sound at all like Buddhism, for example. Does that mean that these movements are problematically “Western”? Or did the Reformation give us tools for understanding and improving the world that we should be glad to use for other purposes?

See also: is everyone religious?; are religions comprehensive doctrines?; the political advantages of organized religion; the I and the we: civic insights from Christian theology; and avoiding the labels of East and West.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.