The Church of Woke: A Moment of Reckoning for White Christians?

I am white (it says so on my birth certificate). I’m not Christian, so there is no moment of reckoning for me with respect to that. But I’m not sure white Christians have a moment of reckoning, either. At least not on moral grounds. At least not specially on the matter of race (that will get me, too, I fear). It’s more about whether conservative Christianity will be allowed to survive alongside the new progressive religion of Woke.

Why is there a criminal investigation into the Black Lives Matter ...
Black Lives Matter rally

Quoting from the setup to the CNN interview with Robert Jones, CEO and founder of Public Religion Research Institute, and author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, “In survey after survey … contemporary white Christians repeatedly deny that structural racism is a problem, that shootings of unarmed blacks are not isolated incidents, or even that African Americans still face racism and discrimination.” 

Jones says, “One of the challenges, historically, has been that the Christian theology developed in white churches intentionally blinds white Christians to racial injustice.” The evidence for this? “White Christians are nearly twice as likely as non-religious Americans to say police shootings of unarmed black men are isolated incidents.” Jones adds, “That is a moral and theological problem.”

The claims Jones make in this interview, claims that are being repeated incessantly and reflexively by establishment voices in the Democratic Party, the corporate media, and the progressive (counter)movement, rest on a false premise—two false premises, in fact, namely that there is structural racism (systemic or institutional racism) and racial bias in police shootings.

Let’s take up the second premise first. There is no systemic racism in lethal police-civilian encounters, as the empirical research makes clear. A dozen or fewer unarmed blacks were killed by police in all of 2019. While every death is tragic, in light of the tens of millions of blacks in the United States, these are isolated incidents. And taking context and crime rates into account, there is no racial bias in police shootings. (Stay tuned for my upcoming podcast and companion blog entry on this for details.)

On the more broad claim of systemic racism, it is true that blacks still face race prejudice and discrimination based on prejudice. So do other groups. I’m unsure whether the United States will ever end prejudice and discrimination. It is human nature to operate according to cognitive stereotypes, and as long as the administrative state and the culture industry prime them by continuing to conceptualize humans in racialized terms, prejudice and discrimination with persist—from all sides. But the United States did end systemic racism decades ago. 

So we might dismiss Jones’ thesis out of hand. However, the appearance of Jones’ thesis, and his claim that this is a “theological problem,” does point to antiracism as a quasi-religious movement.

A couple of days ago I discovered (actually, a brilliant woman in my life directed me to it) an essay by Valerie Tarico, “The Righteous and the Woke—Why Evangelicals and Social Justice Warriors Trigger Me in the Same Way.” Tarico is a psychologist and writer living in Seattle, Washington. In reading her essay, I was struck by its affinity with my own arguments. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to read her blog. You have to read it. It’s rich and powerful in its comparisons.

Tarico discusses the righteous and the infidel—the saved and the damned, the woke and the bigots. In this worldview, every person is seen not as an individual but as an organic member of a particular group, really a creature lying at the intersection of several group identities.

Tarico explains: “In Woke culture, hierarchy is determined by membership in traditionally oppressed tribes … 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.”

People are initially seen either as friend or foe. Seeing the world in black and white terms reduces people to good and evil. If a person is marked supremely good, then they can do no evil. For example, you have probably been told that blacks cannot be racist. Only whites can be racist. You also see this in the claim that, in transitioning from “man” to “woman,” one’s “male privilege” is erased—a privilege that is itself a construct of an identitarian ideology. The question of whether an evil person can do good is conditional, determined by his or her relationship to the spiritually superior categories. In any case, the evil people must be made subordinate to the good people, this determined not by what they do but what they are.

This worldview is straightaway a recipe for legitimizing authoritarian relations. We see it in cancel culture, deplatforming, doxxing, mobbing, and all the other expressions of Wokeness.

In his talks, Richard Carrier notes the way Christianity attracts followers by using a specialized language, what Tarico called “insider jargon.” Insider phrases and slogans mark people as members of tribes. “Transwomen are women” perfectly illustrates the phenomenon. You must agree with this to mark yourself a tribe member. If you don’t, you’re worthy of being canceled.

I argue that specialized language not only frames reality, but produces a reality of its own. It demarcates what is acceptable at the same time is hypostatizes ideological constructs as part of fundamental, albeit cosmological, reality. So one does not simply offend a transwomen by denying she is a woman. One is attempting to erase her as a human being—even if one fully supports the right of people to express themselves as any gender they wish. As O’Brien told Winston in Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is not enough to tell those who define reality that “two plus two equals five.” Those subjected to the party rules must believe “two plus two equals five.” Whether it’s true is beside the point. You are simply not allowed to be a libertarian or a free thinker in the religion of Woke. You are either with the authoritarian or you are crushed under the authoritarian’s boot heel. It’s like living in a Muslim-majority society governed by the sharia.

Tarico lists several of the insider concepts used by evangelicals and compares them to those used by woke people. Here are some of the latter: “intersectionality,” “cultural appropriation,” “trigger warning,” “microaggression,” “privilege,” “fragility.” She writes that “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.”

She works with the concept I have been working with, and John McWhorter has been working with this concept, too, and that’s the notion of “original sin.” Tarico writes, “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. 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.)” (That’s her note in parenthesis. I would leave out progressive thought, since it is in many ways the beginning of the rot.)

I hasten to add that there are very particular ways a person can find their way out of evil, but this depends on contradictory rules (apropos of a religion). So, as Adolph Reed, Jr. points out in his essay One Trans Good the Other Not So Much, published in Common Dreams, the theology on this is tricky. He takes on the case of Rachel Dolezal, who claimed to be transracial but was denied permission by the woke to do so and was promptly cancelled once they learned she wasn’t black (since they could not tell from looking at her). You can read Reed’s essay to understand why, but his conclusion is at least worth stating here:

“The transrace/transgender comparison makes clear the conceptual emptiness of the essentializing discourses, and the opportunist politics, that undergird identitarian ideologies. There is no coherent, principled defense of the stance that transgender identity is legitimate but transracial is not, at least not one that would satisfy basic rules of argument. The debate also throws into relief the reality that a notion of social justice that hinges on claims to entitlement based on extra-societal, ascriptive identities is neoliberalism’s critical self-consciousness. In insisting on the political priority of such fictive, naturalized populations identitarianism meshes well with neoliberal naturalization of the structures that reproduce inequality. In that sense it’s not just a pointed coincidence that Dolezal’s critics were appalled with the NAACP for standing behind her work. It may be that one of Rachel Dolezal’s most important contributions to the struggle for social justice may turn out to be having catalyzed, not intentionally to be sure, a discussion that may help us move beyond the identitarian dead end.”

Returning to the CNN interview with Jones, the buried headline is the project to delegitimize conservative and evangelical Christianity and replace it with progressive ecumenicalism centered by a theology that makes whites and the culture identified with them—Western civilization—the chief source of evil in modernity, which they reject in favor of a postmodern situation where all the older truths fall away. It is a doctrine of transcendence in world that was secularized by the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. Detribalized by the dynamics of democratic-republicanism and nationalism, the left seeks to return to some comfort of the chaos of the world by retribalizing the West, which is intrinsically destructive to the values of the West: liberalism, rationalism, secularism, and so forth. It seeks to solve the problem of racism through theological means, which means not to solve the problem of all; as history tests to, solving any problem through religious means does not turn out well for those theologized to stand outside the proper moral order. Paradoxically, it seeks to solve the problem of any real antiracism, i.e., the negation of racism, by rebranding racism. The new and improved racism is antiracism.

Jones’ language is steeped in wokeness and a desire to theologize antiracism (see also Eric Mason’s Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice). This project is, at first approximation, redundant. “One measure of authenticity for white Christians is whether they link reconciliation with justice and repair,” Jones says. “It’s easy for a white Christian leader to jump in a march and put his arm around an African-American pastor. But will we see Joel Osteen preach a sermon calling for white Christians to reflect on the ugly parts of our history? Are pastors going to help white Christians free their faith from privileged claims of whiteness?”

But on closer examination the Church of Woke, while adapting Christian rhetoric of justice and repair, represents a rejection of the core principle of Christianity: personal salvation. Jones reveals the problem without recognizing it. “As long as white supremacy has a hold on our culture, it’s pretty comfortable for white Christian churches to say their theology is about personal salvation and personal lives.” Jones says. “Theology has been constricted to be only about personal piety, disconnected from claims of social justice. Everything outside of salvation has been labeled ‘politics’.”

Leaving the doctrine of predestination to one side, all brothers and sisters in Christ have a way out of their inherited sin: they can be saved. Every person is redeemable in the end. This is not true for white people in the Church of Woke. No matter how many times white people prostrate themselves before black people, no matter how many black feet white people wash, they will never not be white. They are required to be white forever. And since whiteness is intrinsically evil, white devils will always be evil. Antiracism is not an ideology seeking racial equality. This is a theology that strives to invert an imagined hierarchy.

White police officers and community members wash feet of black ...
White police officers and community members wash the feet of black church leaders in Cary, North Carolina

Jones says, “White Christian churches have not just been complacent; they have not only been complicit. Rather, as the dominant cultural power in America, they have been responsible for constructing and sustaining a project to protect white supremacy and resist black equality.” However much this is true, it could not stop the abolition of systemic racism more than half a century ago. Far more powerful than the Christian Church is the Church of Woke. Under the guidance of Woke ideology, the country is well on its way to reclaiming systemic racism.

One last thing. Jones’ says, “Dylan Roof was a confirmed Lutheran, who, in his journal while imprisoned has been drawing crosses and white Jesus and is completely unrepentant.” The construct “white Jesus” is among the most obnoxious images of the Woke religion. Of course, there is no evidence Jesus was an actual historical person. I suppose he can be any race one wishes. Like Santa Claus. But if Jesus was a real person, he would likely have been a Middle Easterner. Since when were Middle Easterners stripped of their whiteness? Has anybody told Kasey Kasim yet?

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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