Woke anti-racism certainly appears to have taken on the trappings of religion. White people have been seen washing the feet of black people and asking for forgiveness, a ritual firmly in line with the Christian tradition. And terms like ‘white guilt’ and ‘white privilege’ are treated much as Original Sin used to be – things for which humanity must forever atone.
One person who has long been exploring the religious fervour of today’s increasingly moralistic politics is the essayist and author Joseph Bottum. Indeed, his 2014 book, An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, seems almost prophetic. There he argued that the demise of traditional Protestantism in the US has led liberals to transfer their religious beliefs, habits and passions into the political realm, moralising it in the process. Our age of ‘post-Protestantism’, he concludes, has eroded the boundary between the religious and the political, infusing politics with a religious mindset and discourse.
spiked’s US correspondent, Sean Collins, caught up with Bottum, at his home in the Black Hills of South Dakota, to find out what he makes of the contemporary political moment, woke anti-racism and the phenomenon of cancel culture.
Sean Collins: As you note in An Anxious Age, the collapse of Mainline Protestantism (that is, the older, non-evangelical Protestant denominations) in the US is striking. In 1965, more than 50 per cent of Americans belonged to Protestant congregations. Now it is less than 10 per cent. Why, in your view, is this collapse so significant for broader American society and politics?
Joseph Bottum: In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville identified the central current of America as a current of morals and manners. However much rival sects feuded against one another, there was this central current. And it is the Mainline Protestant churches which provided America with those morals and manners. (‘Mainline’ is a term that was created later, but we can apply it retrospectively.)
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