America Is in the Grips of a Fundamentalist Revival

But it’s not Christian.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve participated in church services and prayer meetings where I prayed fervently for revival. We cried out for another Great Awakening. It was through repentance and reconciliation that we’d truly heal our land. I must confess, I wasn’t sure I’d ever live to see a truly large-scale religious awakening. But here we are. Here it is. There’s just one catch.

It’s not Christian.

It is, however, quite fundamentalist.

Look, I know full-well that there is nothing original about observing that many Americans have transformed politics into a religion. The phrase “Great Awokening” is a direct callback to arguably the most significant Christian religious revival of our nation’s past. It’s not original, nor is it surprising. We’re hard-wired for a spiritual purpose. After all, Ecclesiastes 3:11 declares that “God put eternity” in the hearts of men. 

The signs of political-religious fervor are incandescently clear. Here’s John McWhorter, writing in The Atlantic, describing the religious elements of what he calls “third-wave antiracism”:

[T]hird-wave antiracism is a profoundly religious movement in everything but terminology. The idea that whites are permanently stained by their white privilege, gaining moral absolution only by eternally attesting to it, is the third wave’s version of original sin. The idea of a someday when America will “come to terms with race” is as vaguely specified a guidepost as Judgment Day. Explorations as to whether an opinion is “problematic” are equivalent to explorations of that which may be blasphemous. The social mauling of the person with “problematic” thoughts parallels the excommunication of the heretic. What is called “virtue signaling,” then, channels the impulse that might lead a Christian to an aggressive display of her faith in Jesus. 

McWhorter was discussing anti-racism, but his analysis applies to elements of the intersectional left more broadly. Here’s Andrew Sullivan with a similar analysis:

[Intersectionality] is operating, in Orwell’s words, as a “smelly little orthodoxy,” and it manifests itself, it seems to me, almost as a religion. It posits a classic orthodoxy through which all of human experience is explained — and through which all speech must be filtered. Its version of original sin is the power of some identity groups over others. To overcome this sin, you need first to confess, i.e., “check your privilege,” and subsequently live your life and order your thoughts in a way that keeps this sin at bay. The sin goes so deep into your psyche, especially if you are white or male or straight, that a profound conversion is required.

Make no mistake, political religious fervor is not contained to the left. There are times when Trumpism veers directly onto religious turf. Sometimes quite explicitly. Observe the First Baptist Church of Dallas choir sing a hymn called “Make America Great Again”:

Spend any time around the new Trump right, and you’re immediately seized by how closely it tracks that ‘ole time religion—with Trump serving as the charismatic circuit-riding evangelist. People wonder about his deep bond with so many millions of rural Americans, but it’s obvious to observers who grew up in the South—even if Trump’s a New York reality star, he’s still connecting with a deep (and idealized) rural cultural memory.

The result isn’t just enthusiastic political support (political rallies and preacher-style rhetoric are nothing new in American politics) but a sense of identity, fellowship, and religious passion that’s syncretistic with Christianity, with Trump serving as the Lord’s mighty instrument of justice and righteousness. 

So, yes, secular religion is breaking out across the land. That’s old news. Here’s what’s new—it’s growing so very dark. We don’t need to repeat all the recent excesses of cancel culture to know that many anti-racist progressives are in the midst of a hunt for ideological heretics, and even the oldest sins can’t be forgiven. Consider that on Friday a Boeing executive resigned after an employee complained about an article he wrote 33 years ago opposing women in combat.

(For the record, I’m now ineligible to work at Boeing because I wrote against Pentagon policy changes permitting women to serve in ground combat roles a mere five years ago, and I stand by my argument.)

And if you think religious Trumpism is sweetness and light, you haven’t been paying attention. In fact, right-wing Trumpism is trying its best to build its own cancel culture, aimed at purging right-wing institutions of anti-Trump voices—or at abusing them and hounding them online and in real life. Cruelty isn’t just a means to an end. It’s often the point.

At the edges of Trumpism sit the racist alt-right and the followers of Q, a conspiracy theory so bizarre, incomprehensible, and paranoid that you strain to understand how anyone can believe its claims. Yet it’s growing in strength, and it occupies a deeply spiritual place in the lives of its adherents. 

This darkness requires us to circle back to a word in the opening paragraphs of this essay—“fundamentalist.” The more I experienced the extremes of both left and right, the more I felt like words such as “illiberal” or “authoritarian” or even “religious” didn’t quite capture the totality of the devotion and the darkness of the world view. “Fundamentalist” is a better match. Our nation’s secular revival looks and feels very much like the fundamentalism I’ve seen with my own eyes. It looks and feels like the fundamentalism I’ve experienced. And so, on Friday, I tweeted this:

I want to be clear what I mean when I say “fundamentalist.” The word isn’t a mere synonym for “religious” or “evangelical” or “orthodox” or “devoted.” Each of those words (hopefully) describe me! One or more of those words can describe members of many faiths, including revivalists in the Great Awokening. I’ve met many secular, woke, intersectional, pronoun-announcing folks who are also open-hearted and open-minded. Politics may be their religion, but their practice is not grim.

To understand the distinction between fundamentalism and, say, evangelicalism or other forms of devotion, I want to go back to Ecclesiastes 3:11 and quote the entire verse: “He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also put eternity in their hearts, but no one can discover the work God has done from beginning to end.” 

Let me quote another verse, this one from the New Testament: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

Both of these passages speak to the existence of an immovable, irreducible amount of uncertainty in this world, including mysteries about God Himself.

Recall the end of the book of Job, when the righteous, suffering man demands an explanation for his plight from the God of the universe, and the God of the universe responds with an extended soliloquy that essentially declares, “I’m God, and you’re not.” And what is Job’s response? “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth.”

As a consequence, while there are many, many things we can know about God—and many things we can learn—we must approach our faith and our world with a sense of existential humility. 

And that is exactly the quality that the fundamentalist lacks. It’s the fierce existential certainty of the fundamentalist that is so often the root of authoritarianism and illiberalism. I’m reminded of the old religious maxim, “Error has no rights.” That impulse lies at the heart of much of the Christian nationalist/integralist critique of classical liberalism. That impulse lies at the heart of the speech code and the metastasizing intolerance of woke capitalism. 

In a culture stripped of existential humility, the only valuable speech is the speech of those who speak existential truth. Dissent harms the body politic by introducing error. Thus “free speech”—as an independent liberty interest—cannot possibly be in the common good. The common good is advanced only by truth, and thus only truth has rights. 

And what is that fundamentalist truth? Strangely enough, it can shift. A fundamentalist can be both absolutely certain of their faith and endlessly adaptable to new revelation. Opinions held one year ago can be an anathema today. New leaders can rise and make new spiritual demands. Indeed, fundamentalism can be just as much about whom to follow as what to believe. 

The deeper the fundamentalism, the more inscrutable its language, culture, and beliefs to those outside the circle of trust. At the extreme edges, like QAnon, the belief system can seem so nonsensical that you’re tempted to wonder about the emotional and mental health of its adherents. But even the practices of more “acceptable” or “mainstream” fundamentalism can seem both strange and cruel.

Try explaining to someone outside “the faith” the idea that it’s necessary to destroy a man’s career over a 33-year-old essay expressing an entirely mainstream political position.

Try explaining to someone outside “the faith” the idea of paying up to $2,500 for two women to come to your home and berate you to the point of tears for your alleged racism and white supremacy. 

Try explaining to someone outside “the faith” well, this:

Fundamentalism is the disease, and illiberalism and authoritarianism are two of its political symptoms. Fundamentalism purports to fill that eternity-sized hole in the human heart, and it thus provides a person with a sense of burning purpose and meaning. It is not a grift (though grifters do prey on fundamentalists). It is not malicious (though a sense of righteous certainty can justify and excuse malicious acts). It is an identity. 

What is to be done with our nation’s toxic fundamentalist revival? Here’s a short but difficult list: First, reaffirm  our nation’s commitments to pluralism. It is central to our classical liberal founding that error does, in fact, have rights. Second, construct and cultivate opposing institutions that model the values of humility, charity, and free inquiry that we seek to advance. Third, maintain a wide-open door to converts. And fourth, pray without ceasing for our nation and its people. 

As longtime readers know, I grew up in a church that had strong fundamentalist roots. I’ve seen many people leave fundamentalism and enter religious communities that were rich with the fruits of the spirit, including love, joy, peace, patience, and kindness. I have not, however, seen people battered, mocked, and berated out of fundamentalism. Indeed, anger and intolerance directed at the angry and intolerant often only serve to deepen the fundamentalist’s sense of conviction and purpose.

In other words, the “fight fire with fire” logic of the competing fundamentalist strains of the American secular revival is precisely wrong. One flame doesn’t eradicate (or even permanently defeat) the other. They both feed each other, until the conflagration spirals out of control. Instead, fight this fundamentalist fire with water, the living water from the Holy Spirit of a loving God. 

One last thing ... 

Our present national crisis should make us angry, but that anger shouldn’t focus on our friends and neighbors. They are not the enemy of our souls. I like this new song from We the Kingdom. I’ve highlighted the group before (they’re from my church), and they’re a reader favorite. Their new song is fierce and defiant—and aimed at exactly the right target:

Photograph by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images.