It’s been coming for some time, this transmutation of white guilt into a cult, a religion that borrows from and intersects with Christianity but substitutes its own liturgy. In the Nineties, liberal white Hollywood filmmakers began to nourish a fantasy that black people were imbued with magical powers, and they built stories around angelic or Christlike black redeemers who stood apart from and above this fallen race we call humanity. Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance, Cuba Gooding Jr. in What Dreams May Come, and Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile served as spiritual and/or actual caddies to troubled white men, guiding them toward salvation.
Today those “magical negro” films, as Spike Lee dubbed them, get ridiculed by the critical intelligentsia, but the same impulse is visible in different form. White people continue to have difficulty perceiving blacks as individual human beings, instead conferring on blackness a holy quality. Fallen white people can get closer to the divine by showing due deference in any way they can. Books that promise to assist white people with the project of metaphorically scourging themselves — White Fragility, How to Be an Antiracist — bounded up the best-seller lists. Black Americans report, with more annoyance than appreciation, that white friends are calling them nervously, seeking absolution.
The original sin in the White Guilt Cult, the New Church of Anti-Racism, is to be, “uh, Caucasian people.” Parker Gillian, a young black college graduate in Chicago who is in no need of financial support (she grew up in affluence, she told the Washington Post), says that someone from work texted out of nowhere to ask, “What’s your cash app?” and then pinged $20 into her account, unasked. “It is so exhausting being everybody’s one black friend right now,” tweeted a comedian named Sarah Cooper. Black people observing such displays by their white acquaintances can be forgiven for wondering: Is it really a friendship if one party is groveling, throwing money, and begging to wash the other party’s feet? If anything, the Great Awokening’s response to the George Floyd killing seems to be bolstering racial barriers rather than eradicating them. By making a religion of anti-racism, white people carry on with the longstanding project of “othering” black folks.
Anti-racism is the most critical element of a broader new Woke Orthodoxy whose other elements include environmental apocalypticism, feminism, and a severing of sexual identity from genetic indicators. Settling on a term for the new religion will take some time. Wesley Yang’s suggestion (seconded by Ross Douthat) of “the Successor Ideology” is clunky, anodyne, and a bit euphemistic given the righteous, roiling fervor and unnerving credulousness that define the cult. As Dmitri Solzhenitsyn writes in National Review Online, a YouTube prankster named “Smooth Sanchez” who walks the streets of New York demanding that white people kneel before him and declare their privilege receives surprising compliance, even as he signals his charlatanry by referring to George Floyd as “George Foreman.”
Ben Shapiro notes astutely that the new woke religion rushes in to fill a “God-shaped hole” in secular hearts. Devotees immerse themselves in the sacred texts of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram X. Kendi (né Ibram Henry Rogers of Queens), books designed to make white wokesters writhe with a kind of ecstatic anguish. Indoctrination in early childhood is taken up as a parental duty (Kendi’s new board book for toddlers, Antiracist Baby, is a hot seller), parishioners engage in ritualistic incantation of sacred phrases (“Hands up, don’t shoot,” “I can’t breathe”), and there are mass displays of penitential self-abasement. All over the country, guilty white crowds have gathered to reenact the circumstances of George Floyd’s horrifying death. Scores, even hundreds, of parishioners in the new faith prostrate themselves on the ground, hands behind their back, repeating “Mama” and “I can’t breathe.” Sometimes police officers joined these displays, kneeling or prostrating themselves for the sanctified period of time: eight minutes, 46 seconds. Floyd’s death is a kind of new Crucifixion, his final words the new “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The new clergy consists of black thought leaders (Coates, Kendi, Stacey Abrams) and those white people who loudly proclaim themselves allies and proselytize for the organizing dogma, which is that everything is racist. Those who question orthodoxy are kept at bay, derided as “conservatives” who are “arguing in bad faith” if not actual racists. “For example, one is not to ask ‘Why are black people so upset about one white cop killing a black man when black men are at much more danger of being killed by one another?’” wrote John McWhorter in his 2015 essay “Antiracism, Our Flawed New Religion.” “The answers are flabby but further questions are unwelcome,” McWhorter added. The much-promised “conversation on race” consists of repeating points in the catechism to enhance their power — phrases such as “I must do better,” “white privilege,” “systemic racism,” “white supremacy,” “allyship.”
“There is more dogmatism in this ideology than in most of contemporary American Catholicism,” writes the Catholic columnist Andrew Sullivan. “And more intolerance. Question any significant part of this, and your moral integrity as a human being is called into question.” As the fierceness of old religions fades, a corresponding desire for a new righteous fury rises. The fervor sweeping through the South (but not just the South) to pull down statues seen as blasphemous to the new faith loudly echoes the 16th-century rampage through the monasteries that burned icons and laid waste to stained glass. Each successive wave of iconoclasm will take more and more historical monuments until either the new Reformation ends or all blasphemous iconography has been destroyed, with the logical endpoint being Mount Rushmore, with its quintuple heresy: Washington and Jefferson held slaves, Teddy Roosevelt is damned as a racist, the land the monument sits on was seized from indigenous peoples, and the sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, was friendly with the Ku Klux Klan.
woke religion, Ozymandias