In his extensive writings on political liberalism, the English philosopher John Gray has often taken pains to distinguish between two particular iterations of liberalism in our contemporary context. The two species arise from a basic dispute over the purpose of liberal toleration, though they do not stay confined to that question.
On the one hand, there are proponents of liberal toleration who believe that liberal toleration is the best way to live. On the other, there are proponents who believe that there are many good ways of living and liberal toleration is valuable because it preserves the opportunity for people to explore how best to live their own life.
We'll call the first iteration Liberalism 1 and the second Liberalism 2. Liberalism 1 is confident that there actually is a "right" way of living life, one might say, and that way is liberalism. Liberalism 2 lacks this confidence and grounds its own commitments to liberalism in that soil of what might either be called humility or timidity, depending on your point of view.
Here is Gray:
Liberalism has always had two faces. From one side, toleration is the pursuit of an ideal form of life. From the other, it is the search for terms of peace among different ways of life. In the former view, liberal institutions are seen as applications of universal principles. In the latter, they are a means to peaceful coexistence. In the first, liberalism is a prescription for a universal regime. In the second, it is a project of coexistence that can be pursued in many regimes.
Analyzing Woke Liberalism
The Great Awokening of the past eight years, then, is perhaps best understood as a particular strain of what we might call Liberalism 1. It proceeds on the idea that the best way to live is one of broad inclusion of people's chosen identities and that the only thing to exclude would be anything that infringes on that right to self-identify.
Additionally, because one's sense of identity is so fragile in the digital world and one is so unrooted from tangible identity markers, digital identity becomes a race to identify in a way that is both uniquely tailored to one's own sense of self and to identify in a way that commands deference from others.
So the awokening, if we must call it that, is a kind of political project designed to maximize identity possibilities undertaken by people with few fixed sources of identity, deep wells of anxiety arising from that fact, and a consequent need to identify in ways that both mark them out as unique and tacitly burden others with a call to legitimize their chosen identity. Crucially, all of this is only possible within the space of Liberalism 1 simply because Liberalism 2's modesty and restraint would never allow it to adopt the radical steps required to make our contemporary order possible. This is also why, I suspect, the most relevant example of Liberalism 2 in American life—post cold-war procedural liberalism—has been relatively impotent in the face of this ascendant form of Liberalism 1.
(Note on terminology: I dislike the term 'woke' for many reasons. But also at this stage it is the established terminology used to describe the political ideology I am discussing here. So I will use it reluctantly. My preferred term is "successor ideology," but "Successor Ideology Liberalism" is also much clunkier as a phrase.)
What makes Woke Liberalism complicated is two-fold: First, Woke Liberalism is very much a child of the digital world. Digital technology seems almost inherently to uproot a person from geography and relocates them in the cloud. But once your primary form of identity is established digitally, then the notion of self-creation takes on a whole new level of possibility.
The concept itself is not new, of course. Sartre said that we define our own essence 70 years ago. De Beauvoir, likewise, said that one is not born, but becomes a woman. The notion that the self is not a given thing, but a fabricated one is old and well-established. You can find the seeds for our contemporary challenges in the post-war existentialists with very little difficulty. Yet at the end of the day Sartre was still very much trapped in his body, with all its limitations—even if he did use an absolutely astonishing amount of drugs as if in attempt to escape those confines.
Even so, the capacity that digital tech has to allow for self-creation and self-reinvention is unspeakably more vast than anything Sartre or De Beauvoir had at hand. So it should not surprise us that the mainstreaming of many new ideas not only about sex and gender, but about what it means to be a person more generally would coincide with the advent of digital tech. De Beauvoir might have said that a woman's fertility "chains her to her body like an animal," but it wasn't until modern pharmaceuticals and digital technology that we truly imagined a means of untethering "woman" from anything bodily. Whether we like it or not, digital tech has a way of backgrounding the human body and geographic place in ways that are without precedent in human history. So it is hardly a surprise that this technology's arrival would coincide with a supernova like explosion of alternative identities.
The second difficulty about Woke Liberalism is that its relationship to liberalism is inherently fraught. As Matt Anderson observed many years ago, the sexual revolution has to be illiberal in some sense. It cuts against nature so dramatically that it can only be sustained via an aggressively interventionist regime, aided and abetted by a variety of technological tools that protect the revolution from the ordinary social consequences of its approach to sexuality. Put another way, the sexual revolution and all that has followed from it is unimaginable apart from major technological innovations in pharmaceuticals, surgical interventions, and a deeply modern conception of the state which creates the structures for technological innovation and creates social conditions to accommodate the results of those innovations. But a state possessing such powers and willing to use them to tinker with society in such foundational ways is, in many ways, itself illiberal—at least illiberal in the sense of Liberalism 2.
And yet this illiberalism is often not recognized or acknowledged because its defenders claim that all they are really doing is trying to preserve social norms that offer broad toleration of individually chosen identities and that make it easier for individuals to explore how they wish to live.
It is not surprising that the ascent of Woke Liberalism would have remarkably disruptive affects on the church. It is in many ways a revolution in what it means to be human and such revolutions cannot, by their very nature, pass over the church. Indeed, one way to interpret the evangelical fracturing is as the church's response to Woke Liberalism.
The Ascent of Woke Liberalism Didn't Have to Fracture Us
Though it feels rather remote now, it is important to recall that back in the 2000s and 2010s, popular level evangelical political theology basically did not exist. The two dominant paradigms on offer were a kind of lazy baptizing of conservative fusionism that was shockingly indifferent to historic Christian reflection or a watered down evangelical Hauerwasianism that attempted to locate Christian political witness within the church, all while being mostly unaware of how impoverished evangelical ecclesiology had become.
Evangelical Hauerwasianism of the early 21st century, in other words, could be described in much the same way that Lewis described the popular philosophies of his day: We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful. It moved, in other words, by foregrounding the very thing that evangelicals routinely devalue and misunderstand—the local church. (It may be the case that a fuller encounter with Hauerwas, who has many strikingly anti-evangelical tendencies in his theology, would be a cure of this ill. That is the view of some of my friends, at least.)
That being said, the incoherence of the evangelical project had not yet announced itself in sufficiently explicit ways. The failures of 90s-era decadence had not yet become apparent and the great dechurching was in its early days and, back then, was still easy to miss. Then the mid 2010s began to unfold and in the face of renewed debates over racialization, the redefinition of marriage, and deep hostility to Christian conceptions of sex and gender the poverty of evangelical political thought became readily apparent. And those evangelicals who had lacked a real political theology prior to 2015 were now put on the defensive.
However, for those evangelicals who had looked abroad for political aid prior to 2015 and who had found alternatives to Reaganism or diluted Hauerwasianism the jolt was much less surprising. In this respect, the response amongst evangelicals to Rod Dreher's 2017 book The Benedict Option is perhaps telling for how it identified what became three distinct groups in subsequent years: For our part, we were broadly sympathetic to the book, even while acknowledging (with Andy Crouch) that a lot of the stuff Dreher seemed to find so radical was really just basic Christian wisdom. But the real value of the book, I thought, was in Dreher essentially summarizing many long-standing Christian humanist critiques of the post-war west. If you had read C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Christopher Dawson, W. H. Auden, and so on, then nothing of the past 10 years is all that surprising.
You could also get there via a close reading of Mainline Post-Liberal theology, which is why Brad East made his Mere O debut around that time, observing that the debates involved with the Benedict Option were mostly the debates that were being had at Yale and the University of Chicago Divinity Schools back in the early 80s. Finally, if you spent a great deal of time closely reading (or studying with) Oliver O'Donovan, that also could have prepared you for the crises coming—which is perhaps why Matt Anderson (a close reader of O'Donovan) and Brad Littlejohn (an O'Donovan student) have been two of the most consistent and careful voices amongst young Christian writers in the past 10 years.
In short, there were a number of ways to construct a sufficient social critique prior to 2015. The evangelical fracturing was not an inevitable thing, but something that happened because many evangelicals had become too immersed in Reaganite political and cultural assumptions. They had lost track of older, deeper social critiques grounded in the catholic tradition that would have prepared them for the post-2015 world. The fracturing, in other words, was an avoidable byproduct of American evangelical parochialism.
Unfortunately, because most evangelicals were deeply conditioned to regard the Reaganite consensus as a permanent, stable order, they didn't have any kind of deeper political theology that could either justify the Reaganite order or charter other courses should that regime fail.
These evangelicals struggled immensely with Dreher's proposals in The Benedict Option. His critique cut against many of their instincts evangelistically by suggesting that they needed to regard themselves as outsiders and should give up any dreams of imminent cultural transformation. Yet centrist and center-right evangelicals could still see many significant problems coming toward us and so they felt reluctant to wholly dismiss Dreher, even if many at the time found him to be far too alarmist in his assessment.
Because these evangelicals mostly lacked a political theology able to critique the neo-liberal consensus, they were caught flat-footed when that consensus collapsed in the time since Dreher's book was released. The result is that Dreher's evangelical critics have segmented into two camps. Some have adopted the woke liberal project, to varying degrees—some going plainly affirming while others remain ostensibly orthodox yet do everything in their power, via social media, to code as a standard issue blue state progressive. These evangelicals have mostly adopted the successor ideology, even as they have tried to resist explicitly saying so. (In some ways this probably isn't surprising—the Reaganite project's civic libertarianism cleared the way for the successor ideology on multiple levels. It was, after all, the Gipper who as governor of California was the first governor to ratify no-fault divorce laws.)
Others, unwilling to embrace woke liberalism, effectively began their political theological reflection by explicitly seeking a force strong enough to counter woke liberalism. The difficulty is that this is the wrong place to begin one's theopolitical reflection for the simple reason that the doctrines being defined will have a primarily pragmatic source rather than a scriptural one. They will be defined less by what Scripture teaches and more by a highly specific, contingent need—a need that can be addressed in any number of unbiblical ways. (It is within this context that something like Stephen Wolfe's relative indifference to biblical texts is notable and is a striking point of contrast between his approach and that of O'Donovan, whose Desire of the Nation is in large part a meditation on what the Bible actually means when it uses political language.)
For these right wing radicals, too late to recognize Dreher's argument and, as a result, too reactionary in their recovery, the resulting outcome ended up bearing a striking resemblance to the woke liberalism they theoretically wish to reject. Both systems are marked by an excessively online characteristic, by an illiberalism that crops up in alarming ways (as the past week has amply illustrated), by a tendency to use bullying and swarming tactics to cow their opponents into submission, and by a solution that centers a powerful political leader to accomplish what more traditionally republican political forms have been unable to do.
The reason the Christian Nationalists won't defeat the woke liberals, in other words, is simply this: They are the mirror image of one another—identitarian, illiberal, and vituperative, so much so that they can't possibly build a mass movement, co-exist with others who do not share their extremism, and altogether lack the temperament necessary to forge coalitions.
What is needed now is a kind of theopolitical reset, one which recognizes that the pressing problems facing us today are chiefly ones of technology and the bevy of identity and mental health issues that flow out from it, and that the solution to these woes cannot be exclusively or even primarily political in nature, but rather encompasses a broader range of actions and strategies aimed at community building, virtue formation, and the pursuit of sustainable, long-term success.
Politically speaking, a modified version of Gray's Liberalism 2 is desirable in as much as it identifies ways of coexisting amidst deep difference. Such a liberalism needn't be metaphysically agnostic or defined by a naked public square, to be clear. Religious claims can be admitted to such a public square and taken seriously. But there must be a baseline realism about what can and cannot be accomplished politically and about the costs of attempting to accomplish some of the more fantastical elements of either Woke Liberalism or Christian Nationalism. But the political program is in many ways the least interesting and important.
The larger questions for the American church have less to do with politics and more to do with how we got into this mess and how we can get out of it—and most of the answers will not be found in the political system. They will be found, rather, in the domain of spiritual formation and the cultivation of Christian disciples, equipped and called to radiate the love of God in a thousand spheres of society. How can we begin this work of centering spiritual formation? Well, the first place is through supporting local churches. Everything will have to begin there. But after that, where should we turn next?
One idea: Instead of continually setting our money on fire on dead-end political campaigns, as happened recently in Lincoln's farcical mayoral race and as no doubt will happen on a far larger scale in 2024, the American church should dedicates its resources to Christian schools. I know of one school in Kansas that is subsidized so generously by area Christians that the cost to attend has fallen so low that virtually anyone can afford it. The outcome is that there are more people in Christian schools in this town than there are in public schools.
This is much rarer than it needs to be. To take just one example from here in Lincoln, rich area Catholics lit a million dollars on fire paying for billboards and mailers for a terrible candidate only so their candidate could lose by the exact same margin as the last candidate the GOP trotted out who did not have any of that money. Given that the local diocese has closed a couple schools in recent years, it seems probable the diocese could have put that money to far better uses than the pathetic Geist campaign did. Now let's apply that same principle across the nation as we gear up for an election year next year. There will be so much money spent in utterly stupid ways on candidates with no chance of victory or even any real influence. So what if we don't set that money on fire and instead invest it in Christian schools to increase teacher pay and reduce tuition costs for students?
Secondarily, we also need to dedicate resources toward the formation of new institutions to help incubate an emerging ecosystem of Christian public life, and toward the tasks of discipleship and catechesis that will form the leaders of these new institutions and movements. Tim Suffield says this will only work with patronage. He's correct. But for a patronage model to work, Christian non-profits need to view their donors as being just as integral to the mission as their producers and leadership. Their donors need to be as clear on the vision and purpose as the other two groups. If non-profits take large amounts of money from people who do not understand the mission sufficiently, they will eventually find themselves in crisis, forced to choose between appeasing donors that don't actually understand the work or producers who do and care about it but are not able themselves to support it financially.
These will not be fast fixes. But such is life: What takes centuries to build can be torn down in days. Building is always harder than deconstructing and we are seeking to build. But this way lies hope, for this way lies a path that actually is recognizably Christian in its approach and this way lies a path that doesn't simply rely on fantasy to make all the bad things go away.
The fracturing didn't need to happen. And what has been done can be reversed. But for that reversal to happen there will need to be a turning away from the dead ends of the successor ideology and Christian nationalism and a turning toward something aimed at durable success wrought by genuine Christian formation and intelligent institutional management and creation.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).