THE notion that political ideologies are mutant forms of religion, or “secular religions,” has a long history. Originating among religious critics of political modernity, it eventually morphed into a cherished trope of twentieth century Cold War liberals. Both the conservative Christian and the Cold War liberal versions persist in distinctive forms and regularly rear their heads in contemporary political debate. Conservative Christians who make this argument typically imply that ersatz political religions—say, Bolshevism, or now, “wokeism”—are false religions because they are deformations of real or true religion and usurp its rightful role as the moral instructor of society. This version, rooted in a Catholic critique of modern politics, treats modern political ideologies as fallen, deficient copies of a “real” original.
For complex historical reasons, postwar Cold War liberals transformed the Catholic critique of secular religion into a secular critique of all “ideology.” For them, calling a political ideology a “secular religion” is an indictment not necessarily because “old” religion is true, but because all religion is politically dangerous. To delegitimize them, Cold War liberals compare modern political ideologies or “messianisms” to the early modern Christianity that European liberalism struggled to elbow out of the political sphere. They sometimes argue that modern “secular religion” is in fact more dangerous than traditional religion because it transfers its energies into worldly affairs rather than projecting them onto a heavenly future. To the Cold War liberal mind, political ideology itself, as part of the family of religion, is a threat to political order because it infuses politics with a comprehensive moral worldview as opposed to the dispassionate pragmatism that proper liberal politics requires.
The Trump era witnessed a spectacular reconstitution of the old Cold War liberal intelligentsia, led by a migration of the neoconservatives back to their traditional home in the Democratic Party. Exiled from a Trumpist GOP that no longer offered viable platforms for political influence, they have returned to the home of their liberal ancestors and nestled themselves between what they see as two equal and opposite extremes: in this case, Trumpism and the reawakening political left. Just as it did in the original Cold War, opposition to “secular religion”—in particular, so-called “wokeism”—has created a broad alliance of these neo-Cold War liberals and conservative Christians. The old reactionary Christian opposition to secular religion had long ago rebranded itself in Cold War terms, generally denouncing secular “ideologies,” not as a threat to the church’s privileged role (though that was never far from the surface), but as a subversion of the entire “liberal order.” This is why the likes of Rod Dreher and Andrew Sullivan now describe contemporary politics in similar terms as pregnant with—of course—“totalitarianism.”
Recently, though, the new Cold War Liberals have introduced a new dimension to their position, one that brings them even closer to the religious right. Now, declining American religiosity—underscored by a recent Gallup survey—is offered as a cause of the rise of these deplorable and destabilizing political religions. As Shadi Hamid puts it in the Atlantic, “As Christianity’s hold, in particular, has weakened, ideological intensity and fragmentation have risen. American faith, it turns out, is fervent as ever; it’s just that what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief.” Andrew Sullivan adds, “The most dangerous manifestation of the collapse of the old religions, with their millennia of experience and honing, is the conflation of religious impulses and politics.” Damon Linker, citing Ross Douthat and Tara Isabella Burton, argues that “the decline of institutional religion” is “inspiring forms of ‘heretical’ religiosity unbound by the constraints of received traditions and institutions.
The new Cold War liberalism’s attempts to deal with actual American history are extremely paradoxical and illustrate the pitfalls of using lazy generalities like “religion” and “politics” without an interrogation of how these concepts actually operate in history. This is especially the case in Hamid’s essay, which features two opposed readings of American history. On the one hand, Hamid subscribes to the notion that religion is ineradicable, that “all deeply felt conviction is sublimated religion.” He suggests that this is reflected in the fact that the United States is a particularly creedal nation with a highly visible civic religion, one that often debates its own nature with religious intensity. On the other hand, Hamid argues that the infusion of religious zealotry into American politics is of recent vintage, perhaps little more than a decade old. He writes: “American politics in the Obama years had its moments of ferment…but was still relatively boring.” Since then, however, the politics of American identity have been infused with previously unimaginable “fervor.” For Hamid and other purveyors of this argument, this recent turn to political religion is explained by the decline of “traditional” American religiosity. In Hamid’s case, this occasions a standard-issue Cold War liberal lecture about the dangers of “transforming mundane political debates into metaphysical questions.”
In a move increasingly common among Cold War liberals and conservative Christians alike, Hamid looks back almost longingly to a moment when he imagines Christianity provided Americans with a “common culture on which to fall back.” But this view of Christianity’s role in the American past is extremely stylized and usually comes packaged in airy platitudes. It is also frequently conjoined with an argument that the unifying role played by Christianity in the recent past was somehow apolitical or pre-political. As Sullivan argues, over the centuries, Christianity came to model “humility and conviction” and to “reject earthly power as a distraction from what really lasts.” Hamid adopts the same ethereal idea: “Religion, in part, is about distancing yourself from the temporal world, with all its imperfection.” But such otherworldly notions positively beg for a confrontation with the empirical history of the American Christianity that supposedly played such a unifying role.
If one of Hamid’s readings of American history is correct, it’s arguably the less dominant one in his essay: that America has been profoundly preoccupied with its own meaning and nature in an at least quasi-religious fashion throughout the entirety of its existence. The prominent civil religion of which Hamid speaks is a product of settler Christianity and its narratives about the colonies as a New Jerusalem or a City on a Hill to which it had been sent for divine purposes. Already prior to the revolution, religion was a divisive force in colonial politics. It would only become more so in nineteenth-century America as the first outlines of our contemporary religious-political landscape began to appear. Hamid unintentionally gestures at the zealous history of American religion otherwise absent from his essay: “No longer explicitly rooted in white, Protestant dominance, understandings of the American creed have become richer and more diverse—but also more fractious.”
We should linger over the words white and dominance: there was arguably no deeper a theological question, nor one more closely connected than the “meaning of America,” than slavery. Slavery’s legacy created not only a durable separation between black and white churches, but also a white Christianity divided along north-south lines. The Lost Cause had a foundational influence on the white Christianity that would eventually spread beyond the South and become the dominant core of American Protestantism. It was precisely because southern Christianity was an ethnocultural ideology, not merely an apolitical “religion,” that it became central to white identity politics in the twentieth century. Aggrieved white Christianity would become the solidifying glue of the modern American right in its crusades against civil rights, social welfare, and every form of the “richness” and “diversity” Hamid celebrates.
“The United States was a profoundly polarized society even at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, and only a deliberately engineered public religiosity could create the brief illusion of a consensus inflected with Christianity.”
The United States was a profoundly polarized society even at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, and only a deliberately engineered public religiosity could create the brief illusion of a consensus inflected with Christianity. This moment is historically important today because it forged not only Cold War liberalism’s affection for a vague, unobtrusive civic Christianity, but also prepared the way for the admixture of Christian nationalism, militarism, and white identitarianism that would drive the modern right’s ascent to political dominance. It is in all likelihood the “vital center” coalition of that period that neo-Cold War liberals are truly nostalgic for, and their own airbrushed history leads them to mistake anti-Communist solidarity for religious consensus. Hamid, at one point, makes the conflation of the Cold War and of Christian consensus explicit, speaking of both as a lost American “common ground.” At one point, he even offers a subtle ode to the virtues of crusades against external enemies: “Without the common ground produced by a shared external enemy, as America had during the Cold War and briefly after the September 11 attacks, mutual antipathy grows, and each side becomes less intelligible to the other.” The truth is that while the Cold War produced a certain amount of elite consensus, it only momentarily papered over the profound social divisions that both predated and outlived it.
THE refusal to examine the imbrication of American religion and politics, as well as the longer history of the Christian right, immediately disarms the new Cold Warriors in the face of the first of their new targets: Trumpism. Here especially, the dissociation of religion and politics and the attempt to protect the purity of “religion” as an apolitical category, intervenes. For Hamid, Trumpism featured “trappings” of religion, “like a tent revival stripped of Christian witness.” Linker similarly suggests that Trumpism was a result of the “religious right’s weakness” and represented a “more fully post-religious right.” Sullivan is closer to the mark in describing Trumpism as a “climax” of right-wing Christian politics, but he, too, holds “Christianism” to be a perversion of Christianity as opposed to a perfectly logical continuation of one of its long-established American strains. Here, as elsewhere, the supposedly recent politicization of Christianity is opposed to a vaguely defined “traditional”—and always apolitical—religion.
If we reject this assumption that politics is an exceptional, deforming expression of American religion — rather than an integral part of its expression — then Trumpism cannot be conceived as a new secular religion that somehow betrays a previously unifying American Christianity. Evangelical Trumpism, especially, is no mutant strain of post-religious or heretical syncretism but is in fact profoundly traditional, produced by a thicket of well-organized, well-funded Christian institutions that created a powerful culture of social practices and solidarity. These institutions are part of the century-old history of the modern American right that begins long before the creation of the more familiar “Christian right” in the 1970s.
At least since fundamentalism’s battles of the early twentieth century, a significant swath of American Christianity has imagined itself as the besieged remnant of a lost Christian nation. It has played a central role in shaping and propagating the major facets of American radical-right ideology, most notably white supremacy and anti-Communism. The hard edges of that reactionary Christianity had to be sanded down to smooth the ascent of New Right from the 1960s through the 1980s. But in more recent decades, drunk on their spectacular success, Republican and evangelical elites have grown insular, flabby, and decadent, willing to play with fire for short-term political gain. They have eagerly tapped into the toxins always just beneath the surface of “respectable” American conservatism.
“Evangelical Trumpism is no mutant strain of post-religious or heretical syncretism, but is in fact profoundly traditional, produced by a thicket of well-organized, well-funded Christian institutions.”
The results— brazen racism, bellicose Christian nationalism, and conspiratorial opposition to the federal government and an imaginary “socialism”—represent the reawakening of an older, more openly authoritarian Christian right that is inseparable from political reaction and white grievance. Trumpist authoritarianism is not “filling the vacuum where religion once was,” as Hamid puts it, but occupying a space where politicized religion always was in American history. Throughout the longer history of the American right, conservative Christians have naturally gravitated to politicians who would “punch the bully” on their behalf. They have identified with Trump so intensely—far more broadly and viscerally, in fact, than with George W. Bush—because he speaks a language that has always been part of their DNA, one that has finally found a hospitable external environment in which to re-emerge. Driven by grassroots enthusiasm and an alternative media ecology pioneered by conservative Christian entrepreneurs and wealthy donors, many of the traditional institutions of American Christianity, especially churches, have put their full weight behind conspiratorial, authoritarian politics.
IF the practice of Cold War liberalism always requires two equal and opposite extremes, then its new practitioners have located the mirror image of Trumpism in what they call “wokeism.” Wokeism is a derogatory term for a broad array of ideas and social practices that various intellectuals, writers and religious figures have decided form part of a unitary revolutionary movement. I will instead use the term “social justice politics” as a less pejorative—though still unsatisfactory—catch-all term for the set of activist language and practices that these writers target.
Though most are bitter critics of Trumpism, the new Cold War liberals reserve even more ire for social justice politics, declaring it to be a new, post-Christian secular religion that threatens liberal democracy. “On the left,” Hamid writes, “the ‘woke’ take such notions as original sin, atonement, ritual, and excommunication and repurpose them for secular ends.” As with Trumpism, this is declared to be a false religion since true religion is apolitical. The echoes with the battle against Communism are explicit, often lifted from mid-century polemics almost word for word: “Whereas religion sees the promised land as being above, in God’s kingdom, the utopian left sees it as being ahead, in the realizations of a just society here on earth.” Sullivan echoes: “There is little doubt…that there is a religious component to wokeness. … Many moderns want the experience of religion without God. With critical race theory, as in the past with communism, they can have it” (emphasis added).
Conservative Christians agree: “Secular religion is breaking out across the land,” the never-Trump evangelical David French wrote at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020. “They’re not interested in dialectic, in exchange of views,” former attorney general William Barr, a Catholic culture warrior, declared a month later. “They’re interested in total victory. And that, it’s a secular religion.” Robert Barron, a conservative Catholic bishop who strikes the classic Cold War pose of defending liberal democracy, attributes the “woke business” to the rise of the religiously unidentified and calls it “dangerous for our democracy.” The indefatigable Rod Dreher has churned out numerous posts on the idea of social justice as secular religion.
Nothing has generated a greater sense of decadent, hysterical replay of the past than the war on “wokeness” and the solidarity it has created between right-wing Christians and liberals. In search of a new sense of purpose, these two groups have leapt at the chance to reconstitute the Cold War order that clearly delimited their friends and enemies. Many aspects of contemporary social justice politics, including protest against ossified, traditional institutions, demands for inclusion and representation, eagerness for a reckoning with racial and gender hierarchies, and a particular focus on the university, first appeared in the tumult of the 1960s.
In response, the first generation of Cold War liberals, most of whom had once been socialists, analogized these social movements with totalitarian Communism and “secular religion,” enemies that had solidified their own political identity in the American “vital center.” They opposed their impersonal reason, logic, and authority to the subjectivist and experience-based claims of their students. With fear of “totalitarianism” always lurking in their minds, they reacted in panic about “what happens when a mass gets out of hand and becomes a mob,” as Daniel Bell put it. Though they had seen themselves as socialists and progressive liberals, in the face of student social justice politics, Bell recalled, “we all became somewhat conservative.” Over the next decade, as they became neoconservatives, other Cold War liberals would find increasing common ground with the Christian right.
The contemporary backlash to social justice politics should thus be seen primarily as what it was in the original heyday of Cold War liberalism: as a counter-revolution of comfortable elites against challenges to their authority, using appeals to liberal civic values against the “illiberalism” that animated an earlier anti-Communist alliance. Like the battles between established intellectuals and student protesters in the 1960s, theirs is a self-interested defense of status. Social justice politics ostensibly challenges the dominance of (mostly) older white men in American institutions, a dominance that was successfully defended in the 1960s. (Even now, “anti-woke” writing is the stuff of major book deals, magazine launches, and Substack advances, suggesting that the status quo may be less threatened than many of these writers like to claim.)
“The contemporary backlash to social justice politics should be seen primarily as what it was in the original heyday of Cold War liberalism: as a counter-revolution of comfortable elites against challenges to their authority.”
But unlike with Trumpism, neo-Cold War liberals may not be wrong to notice some parallels between religion and social justice politics. The student movements of the 1960s were, after all, heavily populated by Christians who protested against “industrial society” as much out of a communitarian religiosity as from a deep commitment to Marxism. For anyone who is or has been part of a religious community, it is not difficult to identify ways that the language and rituals of social justice politics create social meaning and generate new ethical codes. These are not a purely cultural or religious phenomenon, but have roots in deeper sociological transformations, including internet community and identify-formation, economic stagnation and inequality, and the unresponsiveness of traditional political institutions. They are also potentially new, not merely a replay of the past. Which suggests that, to understand history as is it is actually unfolding requires (critical) curiosity and openness, rather than a perpetual resort to platitudes that misdiagnosed reality in their original incarnation.
Now, as then, Cold Warriors are stuck with the inadequate category of “secular religion,” leading them to see disruptive social movements—and even those that barely even qualify as disruptive—as analogous to the “totalitarian” ideologies of the twentieth century. If all future social movements are merely berserk replays of the past, then they never call for truly historical explanation, and can be crammed into the recycled interpretations and alliances of a half-century ago.
IF it’s a mistake to describe Trumpism and social justice politics as secular religions, not least because one of the two is an actual religion, it may not be wrong to see them as linked in a mutually radicalizing feedback loop that is accelerating the decline of religious identification in the U.S. Some commentators, including Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy arm, have argued that right-wing Christian politics are driving America’s dissociation from religion. Social justice politics’ search for a secular ethical code may in part be a reaction to the stranglehold that right-wing Christianity exerts over American political life, especially in red states—a key ingredient of the political immobility that has radicalized American politics in every direction.
But perhaps posing the question of American division primarily in terms of secularization was a misdirection from the beginning. Class conflict may take on cultural dynamics, such as a battle between generations, but it is not produced by them. Analyzing the battle between the Trumpists and social justice politics is thus only useful to the extent that it points us toward deeper material explanations. The American political system, shackled to eighteenth-century documents, paralyzed by decentralization, and captured by oligarchic interests, finds itself hobbled in a moment of deeply felt need for change. This immobility intensifies a widespread sense of crisis and the absence of a future. Profound economic stagnation has produced what Dylan Riley calls two equally-matched “distributional coalitions”: opposing blocs of ruling-class elites who grapple to secure a shrinking economic pie for their clients, but without any real plan or even ability to regenerate the economic growth that would be needed to establish hegemony over a broader segment of the population. Of course, in a functioning democratic system, the Republican Party in its current form would not be able to win elections. So the deadlock is held in place artificially by counter-majoritarian institutions, creating a system in which every detail of politics, mirroring the broader economic situation, is truly zero-sum.
“Analyzing the battle between the Trumpists and social justice politics is only useful to the extent that it points us toward deeper material explanations.”
One of the two coalitions locked in this zero-sum logic is now completely coterminous with the triumph of reactionary religion. American Christianity—in particular, the white evangelicalism whose obsessions and ethos have swallowed it up—has been central to the formation of an apocalyptic politico-religious dogma that unites the disparate factions of the Republican distributional coalition, from the oil billionaires to the car dealership owners to the rural farmers. This type of religion is not a perversion of pure Christianity, but one of its many historical incarnations, and the one that has happened to achieve political power. It is a central filament in the weave of the broader American right over the past century. It didn’t need the recent trend away from religious practice to mutate into a “secular religion”; it was always at once and equally a religious faith and an ethnonationalist ideology. Its political success, which has taken place in defiance of its numerical weakness and wildly polarizing effects on American politics, has likely accelerated the trends toward religious disaffiliation and the hunger for an alternative ethic of justice. But these longings are not the products of the abandonment of a mythically unifying Christianity, they are the triumph of the authoritarian and oligarchic project it has long sanctified.
The new Cold Warriors mistakenly believe they can escape the chaos of our moment by resorting to familiar categories and alliances, especially those forged during a period of anti-Communist solidarity they mistake for consensus. That mythological belief has nurtured a nostalgic defense of a civic Christian unity that could, like the mid-century Red Menace, unite liberals and their bedfellows on the Christian right who have not yet embraced authoritarianism. But the chaos itself has been generated by the true, belated disappearance of the Cold War as a structuring logic in American politics. What is emerging in its place is a complex tangle of contradictions, bits of the past and of the future at once, that require analytical curiosity and an ability to separate fact from moral panic. If Cold War liberalism was a “fighting faith,” as Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. put it in its heyday, then the problem is that it’s always fighting a bygone war from a nostalgically transfigured past.
David Sessions is doctoral candidate in history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The New Republic, Jacobin, Dissent, Commonweal, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidsess.