“Religious insanity is very common in the United States.”
– Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
Between the Coronavirus pandemic, the killing of George Floyd, and the incredible wave of civil unrest and protest that followed in its wake, descending in many cases into orgies of violence and looting, the events of the first half of 2020 seem to have already earned their place in future history books. Other events, however, seem to have been lost in the shuffle.
Perhaps the most underreported and least understood event of the past several months has been the strange death of political populism. For a time stretching for most of Donald Trump’s presidency, and reaching a fevered pitch during the 2019-2020 Democratic primary contest, the conventional wisdom seemed to be that a new ‘horseshoe’ alliance was forming between what had formerly been the radical fringes of both the political left and right – Radical fringes that had been newly empowered by the seemingly unstoppable forces of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
This future seemed so certain that in the Summer of 2019 the Israeli philosopher and conservative political theorist Yoram Hazony put on an entire conference in Washington, D.C. entitled ‘National Conservatism’ in which attendees paid hundreds of dollars for the chance to help pick out the drapes for a right-wing populism of the future alongside big name speakers like Tucker Carlson, Peter Thiel, and Senator Josh Hawley.
Later that same year Bernie Sanders was surging in the Democratic primary, putting the fear of God (or rather, the fear of alienating corporate donors, which, for both Democratic and Republican political establishments, is an equivalent term) into the so-called Democratic “establishment.” The great populist dream was coming together. Soon Sanders would do to the Democratic party what Trump had done to the Republican party in 2016. He would lead a revolt overthrowing the old guard and reconfiguring party priorities away from an obsession with bourgeois identity politics, neoliberal economics at home, and Wilsonian rainbow imperialism abroad. He would turn back toward a focus on the fundamentals of the old Left: improving the economic conditions of wage earners while leveraging the force of a rising working class consciousness to check the power of America’s oligarchic ruling class.
And in spite of the implied potential of a Trump/Sanders faceoff in 2020 there was still real hope that America would complete its so-called “political realignment” and emerge with both its Republican and Democratic parties transfigured by the divine light of populism.
But the dream is now dead. Sanders was outmaneuvered by a united Democratic party which showed itself to be far more capable and willing to crush dangerous intra-party insurgencies than its far less competent Republican counterpart was in 2016.
Meanwhile, the Coronavirus pandemic appeared and began to wreak havoc on both America and the world. It should have been the perfect excuse for a truly populist President to ram through a radical series of much needed reforms, the equivalent of a right-populist new deal: massive infrastructure spending, direct financial support to families, the withdrawal of American troops from foreign conflicts abroad, and potentially even the sorely needed introduction of a public option for healthcare (Patriot Care?).
Instead what America got was a sloppily cobbled together emergency stimulus package, which did the bare minimum to keep Americans from total destitution in the wake of an unprecedented economic shutdown.
In this moment, America’s supposedly populist President was revealed for what, in reality, he always had been: the final incarnation of the shambling corpse of Ronald Reagan, whose decrepit, moldy hand still somehow manages to reach out from beyond the grave to stultify the already crippled imaginations of his fellow party members.
As if these disappointments weren’t enough for earnest young populists of various persuasions, the final blow against their cause came at the end of May, in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
For at least a week afterward, first Minneapolis, then the rest of America was thrown into genuine chaos as an epidemic of mass looting, arson, assault and murder broke out in dozens of major cities across the country. In many places, exasperated police departments simply fell back from affected areas, wilting in the face of a double assault from rioters on the one side, many of whom had become emboldened enough to openly assault officers in the street and their own municipalities on the other, who had begun to harshly discipline or even terminate and charge officers for real or perceived infractions while they were trying, and failing, to maintain order.
It was a revolutionary moment.
But the truly bizarre aspect of these events was the actual reason for the chaos: not a spontaneous revolt against the massive economic inequality of late capitalism, a desperate desire to no longer be forced into bankruptcy in order to be able to pay for basic medical expenses, a righteous uprising against the murder and carnage caused by America’s ceaseless foreign wars, or even a rebellion against state-mandated lockdowns (an issue which has morphed into a monomaniacal obsession among many in Trump’s political base). Rather, while the ostensible cause was the death of George Floyd and an ensuing backlash against the very concept of the police itself, the actual movement that spawned in response to this event turned out to be far more encompassing in scope than a mere call for the reform, or even abolition, of the police.
What emerged out of the chaos was a purely religious phenomenon, to be more precise: a religious revival. To understand it in any other way is to partake in either ignorance or dishonesty.
In Washington D.C. thousands of protestors laid on the ground in unison and began an almost mantra like chant of ‘I can’t breathe”, in North Carolina a police chief along with other white officers publicly washed the feet of black protestors during a collective prayer asking forgiveness for racial sins, and, perhaps most tellingly of all, the street corner where George Floyd died has now become a new mecca for Christian evangelists and serves to host to both praise and worship services as well as actual baptisms. And countless scenes like these have played out, not only in isolated bastions of left-liberal urban culture, but across the United States, from sea to shining sea.
But, by and large, the creed being preached is a far cry from that hoped for by America’s populists. Social justice, with a very particular set of definitions, not economic justice, is now the order of the day. With racial and sexual identities, not class consciousness, shaping the narrative framework of America’s most recent wave of religious devotees.
And just like that: the populist dream was dead.
As Ross Douthat pointed out in one of his recent columns in the New York Times, this revival marked “The Second Defeat of Bernie Sanders.” Himself a kind of crypto-populist (Ross’s own post-reformocon positions are essentially the Coke Zero versions of contemporary right wing populism: all of the empty fizz, none of the calories) Douthat correctly notes that this new cultural revolution marks the likely total demise of Sander’s left-wing populism (and left unsaid: perhaps the Right’s populism as well). Still, in characteristic fashion, he misunderstands precisely why this is, pivoting instead to the faux-cynicism offered by the implied theory that this new identity-based movement is merely the handmaiden to ‘woke capital.’ Its purpose merely to put “the language of radicalism in the service of elitism.”
Comforting as this theory may seem to populists (crypto or otherwise) of various persuasions there is an undeniable shallowness to it. A shallowness which, as we shall see, is itself an important clue to providing a deeper and more accurate answer to the question of “what killed American Populism?”
Everything Flows From That
If this kind of argumentation, which stresses that obviously religious movements, like our current woke protests, are merely tools of an entrenched elite looking to secure its power and possessions, sound familiar, that’s because they are. In fact, its analysis is transparently Marxist (so much so that, while reading Douthat’s aforementioned column, one half expects him to start decrying the protestors as merely so many “bourgeois running dogs”).
Marx’s own low view of religion is well known and it isn’t necessary to dive into too much detail on it here (his quip about religion being “The opiate of the people” has now descended into cliche). Still the paradigmatic framework used by Marx, and also notably Fredrick Engels, to understand religious phenomena is one that is shared by today’s populists on both the left and right.
“Once religion arises,” Engels wrote : “it always absorbs a well-known supply of ideas inherited from previous generations. In all areas of ideology, tradition is a great conservative force. But the changes that take place in this supply of ideas are defined by class, that is, by economic relationships.”
In other words, according to Engels, religion is a secondary social structure which grows out of past societal economic conditions and then creates a theological framework in which to justify and then conserve them. Religion (especially ‘organized religion’) is then, in Engel’s view, a kind of add on to pre-existing economic and social relationships, which only occurs after the latter’s manifestation. Or as Marx would later state in volume one of Capital: “The religious world is but the reflex of the real world.”
It is hard to survey today’s populists and not conclude that they share Marx and Engel’s basic premises about religion’s societal origins. The left’s Marxist antipathy toward religion, here best represented by the famously irreligious Bernie Sanders, likely needs little explanation in this regard.
The Right’s recent populist turn however, at least in regards to religion, is slightly more interesting, however. Although the Right, particularly in the United States, has been traditionally associated with promoting (or at least giving lip service to) religiosity and so-called conservative “family values,” this famously changed with the election of Donald Trump. Trump, a proud theological illiterate whose ostentatious personality was, even by American standards, incredibly vulgar. But, in this regard at least, Trump is no outlier. The recent wave of Right wing populism, at least in the Western world has been ushered in by a slew of leaders, from Boris Johnson to Jair Bolsonaro, who share Trump’s quintessentially secular and amoral disposition (“amoral” here being distinct from “immoral”).
Hand in hand with this inherent secularity walks a laser-like focus on purely economic matters (Sander’s focus on economic redistribution, Trump’s obsession with the stock market, etc.) with religiosity and issues of public morality pushed, at best, to the background.
One could create a running list of examples to illustrate this phenomenon, but perhaps the best one, which really encapsulates the entire tendency, was arch-populist Tucker Carlson’s monologue from August of 2019 in which he stated:
America’s core problems are, in fact, economic. Could your kids earn enough to form stable families, have their own and live in dignity? Everything flows from that. And that’s what most Americans of all colors worry about most. So, of course, it is the one thing our leaders hate to talk about. That is not accidental. Again, it is by design. What you are watching is class war disguised as a race war.
Or, to put it even more succinctly, as Carlson later stated: “…every minute that you’re angry about race is a minute you’re not thinking about class…”
Here we can see the populist mind at work: political content aside, the implicit assumption embedded in Carlson’s monologue is almost identical to the one at work in Engels’ thought. Namely, that economic conditions form the basis from which all other social realities flow, including religion, of which the social justice inspired protest movement currently transfixing America is perhaps the clearest manifestation of in recent memory.
Thus, in the cases of both contemporary left and right populism, we hear an echo of Engels’ 19th century conceits. Their message is rather clear: religious concerns (which encompass all concepts of non-economic justice, collective and individual codes of moral conduct, and abstract conceptions of the good) are downstream from economic and class realities. In this world, economic exchange is the basis upon which society is originally constructed and from which all other secondary aspects, such as religion, flow.
Therefore, if “abstract” religious concerns about “justice” or morality attempt to usurp the place of class politics (the “true” reality) the most likely explanation is that, as Carlson insists in his monologues, it is being used as a cynical ploy by those further up the economic ladder to misdirect citizens away from the “real” issue. The implication being that these concerns are merely so much “false consciousness” the adoption of which serves the interests of the ruling classes.
In order to coherently hold to this position however, one is forced to at least implicitly agree with Engels’s historical placement of religion as a development which occurred relatively late in social evolution. This is why he could say that religion and all of its manifestations are “secondary social structures” and not primary ones, a belief which logically must be held by all economic populists. As he asserted in 1876: “Tribes developed into nations and states. Law and politics arose, and with them that fantastic reflection of human things in the human mind – religion.”
The only problem: absolutely none of it is true.
Cities of God
While the Marx/Engels theory of the origin of religion was little disputed by their contemporaries (living, as they did, at the height of arguably the most materialist century in human history) a few have since taken issue with it.
The Russian theologian Alexander Men for instance noted in The Wellsprings Of Religion that according to Engels,
beliefs grow up from the soil of the basis, are preserved by tradition, and are changed, also under the influence of the basis. But the actual history of religion overturns Engels’ view. The most colorful charismatic manifestations of spirituality are not all easy to tie up with economics, and, in the face of tradition, they are often openly opposed…The teaching of Buddha, the Gospel, and the Koran, in many aspects, broke with generally accepted beliefs, but this break certainly did not mean that their novelty arose from changes in economic relations.
Men is, of course, correct here. Still, such a counterargument, which depends on a non-philistine appreciation of theology and history, would likely be met with little more than hand waving dismissals from those who’ve already implicitly bought into Engels’ theory (upon which, after all, so many of their political goals are implicitly riding).
But a far more fascinating, and for those who have tied themselves to Engels’ theory a far more devastating objection is raised by the archeological record itself.
For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the conventional wisdom had told a relatively straightforward story concerning the rise of human civilization with which most people are familiar: for millennia, human beings lived in small, nomadic bands of hunter-gathers. This changed with invention of agriculture (also called the “Neolithic revolution”) which happened approximately 10,000 years ago, after which time cities and higher human civilization, including organized religion, began to develop.
So far, so good. At least for Engels’ theory. The problem however is that this theory, and in particular Engels’ claim about the origin of religion, has come under immense strain in recent years.
In 1994 a German archeologist made a highly unusual, and, in some ways, unbelievable discovery at a site in southeastern Turkey called Gobekli Tepe. At the site he uncovered a massive temple complex consisting of circles of massive T shaped columns, some with elaborate carvings of animals and other symbols indicating they were likely used for potentially elaborate religious ceremonies. The most shocking part of the find, however, was the age of the site. It is approximately 11,000 years ago.
Thus, according to the conventional theory of human development: Gobekli Tepe, dating from at least a thousand years before the rise of agriculture, simply should not exist.
Gobekli Tepe completely flips the conventional view, along with Engel’s own assertion, completely on its head, as the lead archaeologist of the site, Klaus Schmidt, discussed with a journalist reporting for Smithsonian Magazine:
To Schmidt and others, these new findings suggest a novel theory of civilization. Scholars have long believed that only after people learned to farm and live in settled communities did they have the time, organization and resources to construct temples and support complicated social structures. But Schmidt argues it was the other way around: the extensive, coordinated effort to build the monoliths literally laid the groundwork for the development of complex societies.
The immensity of the undertaking at Gobekli Tepe reinforces that view. Schmidt says the monuments could not have been built by ragged bands of hunter-gatherers. To carve, erect and bury rings of seven-ton stone pillars would have required hundreds of workers, all needing to be fed and housed. Hence the eventual emergence of settled communities in the area around 10,000 years ago. “This shows sociocultural changes come first, agriculture comes later,” says Stanford University archaeologist Ian Hodder, who excavated Catalhoyuk, a prehistoric settlement 300 miles from Gobekli Tepe. “You can make a good case this area is the real origin of complex Neolithic societies.”
Put simply: Organized religion appears to not only have preceded, but also to have at least in part caused the development of both agriculture and permanent human settlements. Men and women joined together in society not merely to exchange and produce material goods but explicitly for worship of the divine, making the development of civilization as we know it a product of religion rather than the opposite. Engels’ rush to impose a strained materialist narrative onto pre-history which would logically cohere with his bastardization of Hegel’s dialectic has run headlong into a contradictory reality.
Marx and Engels’ utter failure to properly understand the deep religious roots of human civilization and society are not just theoretical matters either. As the late American historian Alexander Saxton pointed out in the pages of Science & Society in 2006, Marxism’s at best highly incomplete critique of religion “left secularism itself isolated, and intellectually disarmed, against the resurgence of religious belief that followed the Second World War.”
And recent events seem to indicate that precisely the same thing is now happening to America’s populists, who have vastly overestimated the value human beings attach to material conditions and vastly underestimated the inherently religious appeal of abstract concepts like justice, equality, and personal sin.
In this sense they reveal themselves for what always essentially were: reactionary necromancers attempting to resurrect the long rotted corpse of the politics of the 19th and 20th centuries and utterly lacking in meaningful political imagination of any kind.
An American Religion
Perhaps the strangest part of this failure of imagination on behalf of our benighted populists is their oft cited claim that this new movement is somehow utterly divorced from the American tradition. A tradition which has always been deeply steeped in the kind of religious revivalism we are currently witnessing from the Black Lives Matter movement and its various offshoots. The fact that it is at times violent and chaotic, seeking the suppression of those who dissent from its metaphysical assertions about the nature of morality in no way negates this.
Violent, chaotic, and potentially insane as this movement may ultimately be, it is not, as some of the more consistently foolish members of the American political right tend to believe, a foriegn import of some kind that is at odds with the principles of America’s founding.
In fact, there are more than a few incidental similarities between the two movements. Both were violently revolutionary, and sought the suppression and persecution of dissenters.
If one is only familiar with the hagiography of the American Revolution offered by textbooks and television documentaries this may sound strange. But the truth is that the American Revolution was a remarkably violent affair, with much of the violence taking place far from the battlefield and being targeted at Loyalist civilians who refused to back the Patriots’ rebellion against their sovereign rulers.
Mobs of revolutionary Patriots frequently targeted the private homes of individuals believed to be Loyalists, causing extensive property damage, and inflicting physical violence, with the goal of terrorizing their victims into either fleeing or recanting.
Alongside the breaking of windows and ransacking of loyalists’ houses, the horses and livestock of Loyalists were frequently killed and mutilated, with barrages of musket balls sometimes also fired into their houses. In Middleborough, Massachusetts Bay Colony, a Justice of the Peace was dragged from his house by a mob intent on drowning him in a nearby river and was saved only after being convinced by his young, distraught, children to recant his loyalist views. Countless similar incidents of mob violence occurred throughout the thirteen colonies in the years preceding the Revolution.
Samuel Adams, that ever-praised icon of the American Revolution, led the legendary “Sons of Liberty.” A Patriotic group which was, in reality, little more than a vicious paramilitary street gang that employed terroristic tactics against not only the British military, but also Loyalist civilians unlucky enough to be living in Boston at the time. Pioneers of the brutal method of public humiliation known as ‘tarring and feathering,’ the group was also responsible for sacking and burning down the house of Thomas Hutchinson, the royal governor of the province.
The parallels between the activities of America’s first patriots and today’s current woke protestors are truly striking indeed. And they go beyond merely shared tactics of mob violence and terror.
As John N. Gray, one of the keenest and most brilliant observers of religion currently writing, noted in a recent column, today’s woke militants and revivalists have far more in common with the millennial cults of the middle ages than they do with Communists or Bolsheviks.
But Gray also has the clarity of mind to realize as well just how much these new militant revivalists have in common with the patriots of the American Revolution:
The foundational crimes of the American regime — black slavery and the seizure of indigenous groups’ lands that followed the War of Independence—are real enough. But so, in its continuing formative influence, is the mythology from which America was born. A Lockean fusion of Protestant religiosity with an Enlightenment faith in reason was the founding American religion…
More than the faux-Marxian musings of postmodern thinkers, it is the singular American faith in national redemption that drives the woke insurgency. The self-imposed inquisitorial regime in universities and newspapers — where editors and journalists, professors and students are encouraged to sniff out and report heresy so it can be exposed and exorcised — smacks of Salem more than Leningrad. Saturated with Christian theology, Locke’s Enlightenment liberalism is reverting to a more primordial version of the founding faith. America is changing, radically and irreversibly, but it is also staying the same.
As Gray briefly hints at in his essay, the American Founders saw their experiment as a unique attempt to break with the Old World. Not only from the direct control of its kings and emperors, but also from its very history.
Or as Thomas Paine, by far the most talented and influential propagandist of the Revolutionary period, put it: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
Is there any single sentiment that better embodies the ambitions of our current woke revivalists than this one?
The inherently American nature of the bizarre beliefs and rituals of today’s woke revivalists go far beyond their profound similarities to America’s founding radicals, however.
There is something profoundly ecstatic about the street brawls, protests, and riots put on by the woke revivalists. An undeniable sense that most individuals involved are experiencing a genuine personal awakening, becoming “woke” in the same way evangelicals became “saved” as well as partaking in a genuine feeling of deep spiritual connection with their co-revivalists. A phenomenon that has deep roots in the history of American religion, regardless of its theological details. As the late, eminent American literary critic Harold Bloom noted in his book The American Religion:
I remember, in the summer of 1969, brooding on the Woodstock rock festival, and finding in it many of the stigmata of the great camp meetings of American revival tradition…The backwoodsmen and their families, like the young Americans at Woodstock, underwent the singular experience of blending into an Orphic unison, in which denominational differences dissolved. Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists at once became American Religionists, rapt by ecstasy.
But Bloom was also astute enough to also note the inherently violent nature of the American religious experience:
American revivalism, with its endless Great Awakenings, is as recurrent a phenomenon as American violence. We don’t have crime waves any more than we have Great Awakenings; violent crime and religious revivalism are constant throughout our history. Crime waves are journalistic fictions, Great Awakenings are scholarly fictions, and both conceal the troubling near identity between the religion of violence and the violence of religion.
Many more pages and even entire books could (and in the coming years, likely will) be written about the great woke revival of 2020 and its, likely quite significant, place in the history of American religion.
Perhaps once this corpus is finally completed, America’s would-be populist revolutionaries will be able to look back, their Owl of Minerva having finally flown, and appreciate exactly why it was that the Populist dream was dashed so abruptly.
The answer they will likely uncover is that, in their own over-eagerness to reorient American politics toward a focus on the inherent cruelty and backwardness of its economic system, they failed to provide an equally robust spiritual narrative that would appeal to their hearts and imaginations as much as to their pocketbooks.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, they, like their ideological predecessor Engels, refused to adhere to one of Christ’s simplest teachings: that man does not live by bread alone. Which is the realization that human societies, regardless of how sterile and liberal their modern pretensions may be, will always turn out to be, just like Gobekli Tepe, inevitably projects of collective worship of one form or another. Where there is ultimately very little neutral space for diametrically opposed concepts of justice and morality to coexist. Even if this unsightly truth can temporarily be obscured by the collective mystification brought about by widespread economic prosperity.
For the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.