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July 2023 Issue [Essay]

Doing the Work

The Protestant ethic and the spirit of wokeness

Illustrations by Gérard DuBois


Doing the Work

The Protestant ethic and the spirit of wokeness

Writing about “Woke” has at least two pitfalls. One is that any criticism of its excesses provokes accusations of racism, xenophobia, transphobia, misogyny, or white supremacy. The other problem is the word itself, which has been a term of abuse employed by the far right, a battle cry for the progressive left, and an embarrassment to many liberals.

No one can agree on what woke is supposed to mean. The right has blamed it for everything from the spike in school shootings to the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, while many who are described as woke on the left see themselves as fighting a long-overdue battle for social and racial justice. These disagreements are not just political. In fact, they sometimes seem to be antipolitical. Arguments over wokeness are often tests, as the word indicates, of moral and spiritual enlightenment.

This is why John McWhorter, the author of Woke Racism, decided to drop woke as a descriptor of antiracism evangelists and instead call them “the Elect.” This has the right religious and class connotations. The Elect, he writes, are people who “see themselves as having been chosen . . . as understanding something most do not.” Like pre-modern Christians, the Elect must either convert or punish those who have not seen the light.

The religious roots of wokeness are rather specific, however. What McWhorter calls “religion” is really a quasi-religious offshoot of Protestantism, which is what prompted the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat to write of the “Great Awokening,”alluding to the waves of evangelical fervor that swept the American heartland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Douthat and McWhorter have both drawn on the work of the Catholic commentator Joseph Bottum, who argued in his 2014 book An Anxious Age that the moral fervor of contemporary progressivism should be understood as a secularized inheritance of the Protestant Social Gospel. (Bottum also prefers the term “elect”—in his case, as an improvement on “elite.”)

Understanding wokeness as an essentially Protestant phenomenon helps us to recognize the logic behind some of the rituals that have become customary in recent years: specifically, the public apology. One element that distinguishes the Protestant tradition from the other Abrahamic religions is its emphasis on public avowal. Catholics confess to priests in private and are absolved of their sins, until it is time to confess once more. Many Protestants are encouraged to affirm their virtue by making public confessions of faith.

It has become an all too familiar story: a man, or sometimes a woman, expresses an opinion or uses a word that is considered tone-deaf or offensive; he or she apologizes in public, and offers to do some kind of penance, which may or may not be accepted as sufficient. Apologies of this kind have become so common that people are often inclined to doubt their sincerity. Hence the demand for still more heartfelt acts of contrition, and on and on.

The apology might be for a personal transgression: a professor pronouncing the N-word while reading a literary text aloud, or a physician saying that “structural racism” was not primarily to blame for health problems among African Americans. Or it can be a historical wrong, for which political leaders are pressed to take responsibility. This often occurs in states with a Protestant tradition. Mark Rutte, the prime minister of the Netherlands, apologized this past December for the Dutch role in transatlantic slavery. Rutte was the first Dutch prime minister to do so, and only after much hesitation.

Such apologies can help to heal historic wounds. The West German chancellor Willy Brandt, who fell to his knees at the site of the former Warsaw ghetto in 1970, is rightly hailed for his act of official atonement. But having to apologize for an opinion that doesn’t conform to contemporary moral convictions is of a different order, something one would expect in ideological dictatorships—or strict religious communities.

I should say for the sake of full disclosure that I myself was at the sharp end of something like this, when I lost my position as editor of the New York Review of Books. I had published a controversial piece by a controversial figure. One might have differed, quite legitimately, on the merits of the article. But that wasn’t really the point. Critics believed that the writer, a man who had been tried and acquitted for sexual assault, should not have been given a “platform” to write about his life after the event. By allowing him to have his say, I was guilty by association and, in the opinion of one well-meaning editor at another magazine, should have signaled my repentance with a public apology.

The ritual of public avowals began in Europe with the Reformation. Whereas Jews and Catholics are ceremonially initiated into their religious communities as young children, many Protestants, such as the Anabaptists, declare their faith before their brethren as adults, sometimes in so-called conversion narratives. The idea of public attestation was especially important to Pietism, a seventeenth-century offshoot of Lutheranism. Pietism, in turn, had a great influence on many Christian sects, including the New England Puritans. Puritan churches, as the historian Edmund S. Morgan put it, ensured “the presence of faith in their members by a screening process that included narratives of religious experiences.”

Think of Elmer Gantry, the evangelical huckster in Sinclair Lewis’s eponymous novel. Gantry is a serial sinner and a serial confessor. Near the end of the book he begs forgiveness yet again for his many sins in order to be allowed back into the fold of the true believers, before promptly ogling the “charming ankles” of a young woman in the choir. “Hallelujah!” cry the believers, and Gantry prays:

Let me count this day, Lord, as the beginning of a new and more vigorous life, as the beginning of a crusade for complete morality and the domination of the Christian church through all the land. Dear Lord, thy work is but began! We shall yet make these United States a moral nation!

Echoes of this sentiment can be heard every Sunday when televangelists invite people to come forth with their arms aloft and confess their sins to millions of viewers before they deposit a financial contribution. The same thing could be witnessed, in decades past, on more secular (but hardly less ceremonial) television programs like The Oprah Winfrey Show, where talk show luminaries act as confessors to erring movie stars.

The individual in this Protestant tradition has a very different relationship with his or her community than do pious Catholics or Jews. Salvation is not sought primarily by belonging to a hierarchical church or synagogue. Protestants have to find their own way to God’s blessing, through self-examination, public testimony, and the performance of actions that demonstrate impeccable virtue. This has to be a constant process. In his famous book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber observed that the Protestant ideal is more demanding than the Catholic aim of gradually accumulating individual good deeds to one’s credit. Sins are not forgiven in rituals of private atonement—cleaning the slate, as it were, for one to sin and be absolved. Rather, salvation lies in “a systematic self-control which at every moment stands before the inexorable alternative, chosen or damned.” God helps those who help themselves. For the chosen, the signaling of virtue can never stop.

For Weber, it was the “spirit of hard work” that characterized those striving to meet the Protestant goal of ethical perfection. This could be interpreted literally, as the work of accumulating wealth through honest labor. But this labor, and its material fruit, go together with the spiritual work of moral improvement. There are clear contemporary parallels in what theorists of antiracism call “doing the work,” which functions as both a sign of one’s current enlightenment and of his or her commitment to continuous and endless self-improvement.

To be one of the chosen in Protestant—especially Calvinist or Puritan—thought is not to be a saintly monk, dedicated to worship and quiet contemplation, but to be a kind of spiritual entrepreneur, whose faith and virtue are expressed by ceaseless activity improving the world, as in making “these United States a moral nation.” That is why Weber argued that Protestant faiths were so well-suited to capitalist enterprise. To work hard is not just a spiritual duty, but a worldly one: if the hard work results in great wealth—well, that too is a sign that one can be counted among the blessed. Moral zealousness in the Protestant tradition is entirely compatible with a belief in progress combined with material success. The Catholic veneration of saints who lived a life of monastic poverty is alien to this sensibility.

Weber approved of individual enterprise, industry, rational social organization, and other benefits of the Protestant ethic. But he was also keenly aware of the harsh intolerance it could engender. “This consciousness of divine grace of the elect and holy,” he wrote,

was accompanied by an attitude toward the sin of one’s neighbor, not of sympathetic understanding based on consciousness of one’s own weakness, but of hatred and contempt for him as an enemy of God bearing the signs of eternal damnation.

The problem with dogma, whether it concerns original sin, the immortality of the soul, or antiracism, is that it prohibits skepticism. To have reservations about something that is treated as sacrosanct is to be an unbeliever, or worse, a heretic, and thus someone to be cast out. “To the Elect,” writes McWhorter, “racism is the equivalent of Satan.”

What’s more, the Elect see the works of Satan everywhere. Writing in this magazine in 1964, the historian Richard J. Hofstadter diagnosed the “paranoid style” as a recurrent feature of American politics, whose adherents turned all social conflicts into a “spiritual wrestling match between good and evil.” Some of its earliest manifestations involved Protestant “militants” who were concerned that the country was being infiltrated by “minions of the Pope.”

Individualism and civic virtue are the clichéd pillars of North American society, already aptly described in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Then there is the long-held illusion of relative classlessness. Class hierarchies were for the Old World; America aspired to be a nation where anyone could make it. Naturally, capitalism cannot be separated from the rise of the middle class in Europe and its gradual replacement of the landed aristocracy (and the clergy in Catholic countries) as a ruling elite with its own marks of status. In majority-Protestant countries, these marks had everything to do with the sense of having been elected on account of superior virtue.

Consider those unsmiling dignitaries in seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, solemnly grouped around oak tables, dressed in sober black clothes and white ruffs, administering charity to the deserving poor. Some of them might have become wealthy from trading with slave plantations in Brazil and other Dutch colonies, or indeed from the slave trade itself. But as staunch Calvinists, they would have seen themselves as the chosen ones not because of family lineage or land ownership, but because of their moral righteousness. The same was true of Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads, drawn from Puritans and Presbyterians, who rebelled against the autocratic King Charles I and his popish ways.

One might accuse those smug worthies of the Dutch Golden Age of hypocrisy, of enjoying wealth made on the backs of colonial slaves and still pretending to be holier than thou. But one can see traces of this same Protestant self-righteousness (and hypocrisy) in the behavior of quite a few people today. Equivalents among our contemporaries might include Phil Knight, the co-founder of Nike, who approved an ad campaign against racism featuring NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick before donating money to right-wing Republican politicians. Or Jeff Bezos, whose company Amazon emblazoned its home page with a Black Lives Matter banner while selling facial-recognition software to police departments.

Unlike during the first Great Awakening, the current wave of puritanism is not the preserve of gullible rural folks gathered in makeshift prayer tents, but of highly educated urban sophisticates. Today the Elect tend to operate almost exclusively in elite institutions: from banks and global corporations to prestigious cultural foundations, museums, and medical organizations, to quality newspapers and literary magazines. But being better off than most people is no barrier to feeling virtuous, so long as the Elect publicly avow their commitment to the quest for social justice.

It has become almost mandatory, for example, for Fortune 500 companies to publish a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) statement that swears allegiance to the right values, regardless of how divorced those values are from what the company does. “We are on a journey from awareness to commitment to action” (PepsiCo, Inc.); “Diversity and inclusion are the foundation of our culture, and reflect our values of doing what’s right” (Lockheed Martin); “We have long been committed to promoting inclusion, diversity, and equity” (Goldman Sachs). These words may sound hollow, coming from a junk food producer, an arms manufacturer, and an investment bank, but what matters is that they be recited, like the Protestant liturgy, in public.

The same hypocrisy reigns at high-end private schools, such as Dalton in Manhattan (with tuition fees up to $61,000), where there are now three full-time diversity officers, as well as a team of psychologists trained to cope with “race-based traumatic stress,” and yearly antibias training sessions for parents and students. Amherst College (tuition $66,000), meanwhile, offered to provide white staff and faculty members with a new Colleague Resource Group to guide them through “a series of self-reflection activities and action steps to begin and dive deeper into the work of anti-racism.” In this teaching, white privilege is like original sin. Rich or poor, one is born with it. A white person can only be considered an antiracist so long as he or she keeps confessing culpability, just like Protestants who believe they are born sinners.

One might argue that antiracism is particularly important in fancy schools and businesses, where minorities have historically been underrepresented. If one is going to do something about privileged attitudes, why not start at the top? An element of guilt might also explain the zeal for such measures at the most prestigious institutions. A less charitable explanation is that it is easier to perform the rituals of antiracism—hiring diversity officers, mandating antiracist training sessions, making noble statements—than it is to pay higher taxes for improving public schools and services. Hiring a thousand diversity officers at Dalton is not going to do much for poor black children in Harlem or the Bronx. The danger of this approach is to frame “actual social and economic forces,” as Joan Didion once put it in another context, such that they are “personalized and ultimately obscured.”

James Baldwin, writing about white liberals’ lack of understanding for why black men and women joined the Black Muslims in the Sixties, said that their incomprehension

revealed the little connection that the liberals’ attitudes have with [black] perceptions or [black] lives, or even [black] knowledge—revealed, in fact, that they could deal with the Negro as a symbol or a victim but had no sense of him as a man.

Discussions that are unmoored from material conditions, where nearly everything becomes a symbol, are one of the signs that we are dealing with a Protestant mindset, rather than a political one. The Elect like to talk about the “structural” nature of oppression, but the public performance of progressive virtue, or indeed of anti-woke attitudes on the right, often becomes a substitute for discussions of serious and systematic reform.

What distinguishes the Elect is not simply wealth. Donald Trump and his billionaire backers have vastly more money than the college professors and museum curators who place themselves among the enlightened. Nor is it necessarily a matter of birth, even though the cost of elite education does widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. For the present-day inheritors of the Protestant ethic, status is defined by having the right opinions on social and cultural issues.

This is connected to a broader shift on the left: from representing working-class economic interests to promoting cultural and social causes. The shift, which is visible in many Western countries, coincided with the diminishing power of labor unions. This was especially true in Britain and the United States in the Eighties, when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan pushed the idea that freedom was primarily a matter of free markets. But cultural politics, including racial identity, feminism, and gay liberation, all necessary and commendable causes, had already begun to take hold among progressives in the Sixties.

The great wedge in the United States was the Vietnam War, supported by many union members who were not particularly progressive when it came to civil rights for black people. Writing about the Democratic politics of that period, Richard Rorty claimed that left-wing liberals had long assumed that eliminating the injustices and “selfishness” of capitalism would also do away with the blight of racial discrimination. During the Sixties, however, the left began to switch its focus from economic selfishness to social and cultural sadism. “The heirs of the New Left of the Sixties,” he wrote, “have created, within the academy, a cultural Left. Many members of this Left specialize in what they call the ‘politics of difference’ or ‘of identity’ or ‘of recognition.’ ” And the interests of workers, especially white workers, have never occupied a large part in this.

In Europe, where guilt over colonialism played a similar role to white American guilt over slavery, this political tendency often took the form of Third Worldism. Non-Western dictators were idealized, as long as they called themselves socialist, and the world’s ills were blamed on Western imperialism. This led to many absurdities—the worship of Mao or, in some misguided circles, admiration for Cambodia’s murderous Khmer Rouge.

The politics of difference were often initiated by black people, women, gay people, and others who felt the sting of discrimination. Only later were they taken up by members of the white elite. To dismiss this as merely a kind of fashion item, as Tom Wolfe did in his famous piece “Radical Chic,” about Leonard Bernstein’s cocktail party for the Black Panthers, was amusing but a little unfair. Some figures in the New Left were interested in economic disparities, as well as questions of identity.

But the distance between the left’s cultural priorities and its economic agenda became a serious problem for progressives in the Nineties. By that time, the differences between liberal and conservative economic policies had become minimal. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was widespread disillusion among liberals regarding anything that smacked of socialism, or indeed anything that involved the state as a strong actor for socioeconomic improvement. Few people longed for a revival of labor power either. As Peter Mandelson, Tony Blair’s trade secretary, once said of Blair’s new-look Labour Party: “We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.”

Liberals, like moderate conservatives, were also intensely relaxed about globalization—a kind of borderless global economy, overseen by pan-national institutions. Corporations were free to manufacture their products wherever labor was cheapest. And immigration to richer countries was encouraged—by progressives because they believed in multiculturalism, and by conservatives because it kept down the cost of labor at home.

There is no doubt that many people benefitted from globalization—not just corporate CEOs but professors, writers, filmmakers, journalists, actors, conference organizers, foundation managers, and museum curators—in short, precisely the kind of people who tend to make up the Elect. I count myself among them. As an international journalist, I appreciate the benefits of living in a cosmopolitan world of generous immigration policies, individual enterprise, and mixed urban populations who enrich cultural and culinary life. I think international trade agreements are a good thing on the whole, and I support the European Union.

But beneficiaries of globalism like myself cannot fail to see, especially since the 2008 financial crisis, that not everyone profits from it. Industrial workers in wealthy countries have lost jobs when factories moved overseas. New immigrants have often competed with already disadvantaged populations for the lowest-paid jobs. The E.U. has not been good to poorer European countries, such as Greece, in times of crisis. Meanwhile, the inclination among educated liberals to denigrate national feeling can be perceived as a way to rob people who are less well off of the one thing that gives them a sense of pride.

That conflicts of interest exist is inevitable. Every conceivable system creates winners and losers. But too often, the Elect have resorted to a smug moralism. On one side are those who avow all the enlightened attitudes; on the other are the unreformed who, in Barack Obama’s words, “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

A similar dynamic can be seen when Europeans who are critical of the E.U. are dismissed as “xenophobes.” Or when people who complain that they no longer feel at home in their old neighborhoods are called “racists.” In some cases, or perhaps even many, these labels might apply. But self-righteousness carries a strong air of hypocrisy when those who benefit from a particular political and economic order also claim the moral high ground and denounce their critics as wicked sinners. Worse than that, the moralism of cultural politics, and the obsessive insistence on race, sex, and gender, often buries the fundamental problem of our time, which is the dangerous divide between rich and poor.

The black Marxist thinker Adolph Reed put it this way:

If the only actionable injustice is discrimination, then there’s not really any basis anymore to talk about economic inequality as a problem. That happens as the society is becoming increasingly unequal in economic terms.

The tendency of cultural and social elites to apologize for our good fortune and anxiously affirm our moral credentials does nothing to bolster the less fortunate.

The Elect are fighting the wrong class war. Progressives should be on the side of all people who are vulnerable and in need of protection against powerful interests. The quasi-Protestant obsession with the morality of public figures won’t result in necessary reforms. Statements that affirm inclusivity, diversity, and racial justice sound radical, but often distract from the much harder challenges of improving public education and health care, or introducing tax reforms that create greater equality. This work will do far more for the welfare of poor and marginalized people than demonstrations of virtue.

The Democrats’ relative success in the last midterm elections showed a growing awareness of this among progressive politicians. Concentrating on local economic problems helped many Democrats to win seats. There is a chance that Western democracies will overcome the current waves of right-wing populism and left-wing moralism, but the prospects will be much better if the Elect can learn to temper their puritanical zeal. They can begin by paying a little more attention to Marx and spending a little less time dwelling in the long shadows of Luther and Calvin.

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May 2020

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