Since the death of George Floyd, a movement that condemns America as “systemically racist” has convulsed our public consciousness. Sixty years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — and despite decades of affirmative action, massive social welfare spending and a two-term Black president — we are told that “white supremacy” deforms America today, as it has throughout history.
The movement to eradicate “white privilege” manifests in demands to defund police and in the toppling of statues — not only of Confederate generals, but of figures such as Theodore Roosevelt, Ulysses S. Grant, even George Washington.
Educational, business, media, nonprofit and entertainment institutions have taken up the “systemic racism” mantra with breathtaking speed, issuing statements declaring their virtue and right thinking.
Yet something is profoundly amiss in the frenzied movement that has America in its grip. This movement elevates passion over reason and dogma over data. It contemptuously rejects, and attempts to silence, calls for objective analysis as self-evidently racist.
In the process, it requires adherents to turn a blind eye to its stark inconsistencies. For example, while its votaries blocked Interstate 94 and torched whole neighborhoods in the name of justice for Floyd, who died at the hands of police, they are silent about the rain of gunfire and soaring death toll from Black-on-Black violence in Minneapolis since then. As of Friday, the city had had 37 homicides in 2020 — nearly twice as many as this time last year — and at least 274 people have been shot, nearly a 60% increase. Nationally, about 90% of Black murder victims are killed by other blacks, where the race of the killer is known, according to the FBI.
What is unfolding before our eyes is a new secular religion. For all its claims of “inclusivity,” this new faith is deeply intolerant. It has roots in the American past that would likely surprise its adherents: the Puritan era of our nation’s earliest religious zealots. Progressives are now engaged in doing theology without God. “ Woke is the new Saved,” in the words of commentator John Zmirak.
Parallels abound. One of Puritan theology’s core tenets is “innate depravity” — the doctrine that humans are inherently wicked as a result of original sin. The woke faith preaches an updated version: America’s original sin is white supremacy.
For white people, “having racist assumptions is inevitable,” according to Robin DiAngelo, author of the bestselling book “White Fragility.” “Straight white men have been involved in a witness protection program” that “absolves them of their crimes,” she declares.
The Puritans divided humans into the saved and the damned, the saints and the sinners. The woke faith does the same, classifying people as either oppressors (white) or victims (nonwhite).
The new faith’s adherents view themselves as the “elect,” redeemed, as it were, by a predestined grace. They are convinced they possess a higher truth, and are committed to imposing it on others.
Like their Puritan forebears, the woke faith’s adherents believe that heretics — whose false doctrine imperils the larger community — must be rooted out. Dissenters must be humiliated, shunned and branded with Hester Prynne’s scarlet “A” of shame.
Yet the new faith does offer a way for white Americans and other sinners to find salvation. To join the righteous, they must confess their sins — “check their privilege” — beg forgiveness, do penance and vow to become an “ally” of the oppressed.
Today, a Puritan-inspired witch-hunt mentality is ablaze all around us, bent on destroying the reputations and livelihoods of those who show the slightest hesitation to profess true doctrine. “Bigot and hater” are the new “witch and wizard,” as commentator Mary Eberstadt has observed.
The list of heretics fired or compelled to resign grows every day. It includes a New York Times editor who dared to publish an opinion piece — reflexively branded as racist — by U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton; Grant Napear, the Sacramento Kings announcer, who tweeted that “ALL LIVES MATTER…EVERY SINGLE ONE!!!”; and leaders of the Poetry Foundation, who issued a statement denouncing systemic racism that some deemed too vague.
“Forced conversions” to the new faith are also becoming commonplace. Drew Brees, the New Orleans Saints quarterback, first criticized athletes’ kneeling during the national anthem and then issued a groveling apology. Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-fil-A, sought absolution for past sins by shining the shoes of a Black rapper. Politicians kneel in repentance and whites in tony neighborhoods display a “Black Lives Matter” sign on their lawn.
What explains this lightning-speed capitulation? For many young people — restless after the COVID-19 lockdown and often knowing little of history or religion — conversion to the woke faith can be part of a search for meaning in our post-Christian society. For corporations, professing “solidarity” with the new religion is good business.
But for the movement’s leaders, this secular faith offers much more. Its goal is to dismantle as irredeemably racist the sinful nation in which we live and to build — in the Puritan phrase — a new City on a Hill, made in their own image.
Katherine Kersten is a senior policy fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.