The realization that wokeness has transformed itself into a form of pseudo-religion has become increasingly obvious to conservatives. The ceremonies and festivals that occur during the month of June make it hard to ignore as Pride celebrations are increasingly treated as a hedonistic sacrament. The fact that the United States government has heavily invested in these rituals creates an even more bewildering situation which trips the pattern recognition of those who are familiar with our mechanisms of constitutional restraint. As the Department of Defense, FBI, ATF, and Department of Education splash a rainbow across their logos and make passionate declarations of faith, many conservatives start to wonder what happened to the separation of church and state. Christians are regularly told that they must check their moral convictions at the door because they live in a secular society, but the government seems to enthusiastically declare not just its preference but its absolute dedication to the new progressive faith. The truth is that the separation of church and state did not remove the reality of conflicting moral visions. Instead, it created selection pressures that favored an ideology that could circumvent those formal restrictions.
While the modern understanding of the separation of church and state would have been unrecognizable to many of the American founders, it has been interpreted in a manner that essentially banned formal religions from being adopted by government organizations, taught in schools, and eventually from even participating in the public square. The anti-religious jihad, spearheaded by organizations like the ACLU, has been far from even-handed. Christianity, as the traditional religion of most Americans, faced the brunt of the effort to purge faith from civic life but, in the end, any official religion was effectively barred from public institutions. But humans are deeply religious creatures who will seek out a narrative framework to make sense of the world around them. Progressivism, or wokeness if you prefer, has no holy book or formal church, and because it is treated as a political ideology instead of an official religion, it was able to fill the narrative void that existed in public institutions without triggering the defense mechanism of separation of church and state.
Liberalism, and here I do not mean progressive leftist ideology but what most would call classical liberalism, offered a false promise. It led many in the West to believe that social organizations, especially government institutions, could be kept morally neutral by operating on a basic minimum morality that everyone could agree to. But as I have explained in a previous piece, cultural neutrality is impossible, and all institutions must operate inside of someone’s moral framework. With all its competition effectively banned by the separation of church and state, progressivism filled the natural void that was left once true religion had been stripped from public life. To borrow an illustration from the political theorist Curtis Yarvin, progressivism became a super-predator ideology, perfectly adapted to outcompete its religious rivals in a theoretically “secular” society. The ideology that would eventually become known as wokeness was given a legal monopoly to operate unopposed in institutions like universities and corporations that granted status, prestige, and wealth. Progressivism also became the only acceptable form of moral instruction in public schools and government agencies.
For all our modern pretense about progress and reason, the inescapable fact is that humans are deeply religious and always will be. People will always need answers to questions of meaning, identity, and purpose and will interact with those narratives in a spiritual fashion even if the new faith leaves behind the official trappings of the holy book and the church building. This is why the current attempt to return to a neutral civilization by classical liberals, and even many conservatives, is doomed. That experiment has already failed. The God-shaped hole in man must be filled, and the only question is by what. Every nation, organization, and community will be ordered toward some vison of good, and that vision of good will have a religious narrative at its core. Lying about or ignoring this truth does not solve the problem of conflicting moral visions — it only allows someone else to smuggle their moral vision in the back door.
The only reason that this illusion of neutrality seemed even remotely possible in America’s past was that different regions were basically deciding what flavor of protestant Christianity their community would adhere to. While serious disagreements still existed, this overlap in shared values formed a substrate from which a common social fabric could emerge. That unspoken Christian consensus was eroded through a series of sudden demographic shifts, direct cultural assaults, and the disenchantment of modernity. Many liberals assumed that this shared moral vision was the natural human inclination and that it could be safely separated from what they saw as backward religious nonsense. What has now become clear is that Americans separated from that Christian consensus do not maintain some form of enlightened post-Christian secular humanism but instead seek to embrace whatever faith is offered, even if it proves to be an ugly and twisted caricature of true religion. The baseline consensus conservatives refer to as American values turned out to be a very particular strain of protestant Christian ethos, and once the foundation had been demolished, the narrative framework that had been built upon it quickly crumbled.
With the modern interpretation of separation of church and state purging Christianity from most public spaces, the cultural consensus that was built on top of it slowly faded. Cultures and their values are embodied things, it is not enough for them to be written down on a piece of paper, they must be acted out as part of a people’s daily lives in order to survive. Increasingly, progressivism was the only moral vision around which institutions could be organized, and so it became the narrative that was acted out and eventually internalized. Even if wokeness could be purged from every American institution tomorrow, it would inevitably return if the narrative and moral void it left was not deliberately filled with another faith.
As uncomfortable as it makes many on both the center and right, the illusion of cultural neutrality is dead. Some vague return to classical liberalism will not solve the crisis America faces. The only way to defeat progressivism is to replace it with a more compelling and true narrative. The only way to once again weave a social fabric that can bind Americans together is by acknowledging the indispensable nature of a shared moral vision. This does not mean some cartoonish theocracy, it simply requires us to stop denying an essential truth about human nature. Religion isn’t going anywhere, and ignoring that fact does not make us enlightened, rational, or objective. It only leaves us vulnerable to the destructive and hollow forms of belief that we allow to rule us in the absence of true religion. America will be ordered toward a vision of good. Our nation will embody a moral tradition and its citizens will act it out in their daily lives. Every human civilization serves something higher — the only question is: Whom will we serve?