A THEOLOGICAL WAR WITH A SECULAR SHEEN: Cultural Marxism, Wokeness, and Anti-Wokeness

The core of Marxist thought is materialism: there is a class that owns the means of production, and that class subjugates those who do not. Anti-woke activists argue that wokeness is cultural Marxism, in which the material concerns of old-school Marxists are supplanted by concerns over identity categories such as race, gender, and sexual orientation. In this narrative, Marx’s Manichaean conflict between bourgeoisie and proletariat is replaced by conflicts between white and black, men and women, straight and gay, and other oppressor-oppressed dichotomies. Cultural Marxism, anti-woke activists claim, originated from the critical theory of the Frankfurt School. Then these theories left continental Europe and made their way into American academia through Frankfurt School member Herbert Marcuse in the 1960s and ’70s. Marcuse, in turn, was inspired by black radicals, like his student Angela Davis, to create a new leftist movement based on nonmaterial identity politics. Millions of college students were radicalized by these theories and became woke.


Last year, a cascade of books came off conservative presses, each taking turns striking at the recent phenomenon of “wokeness.” These offerings include polemics and instructional manuals such as Woke Army: The Red-Green Alliance That Is Destroying America’s FreedomSchool of Woke: How Critical Race Theory Infiltrated Ameri­can Schools and Why We Must Reclaim Them, and Unwoke: How to Defeat Cultural Marxism in America. Wokeness, the authors contend, is the greatest threat to conservative values today.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis based his presidential run on fighting a “war on woke.” A top DeSantis ally, the filmmaker Christopher Rufo, has established himself as the premier public intellectual carving out a game plan to defeat wokeness. Rufo’s latest book, America’s Cultural Revolution, was published in August 2023 with the subheading How the Radical Left Conquered Everything. Hot on its heels was the publication of the libertarian polemicist Richard Hanania’s The Origins of Woke, which, as the title suggests, attempts to find the patient zero of the woke epidemic.1 A booming anti-woke industry seems to have sprouted just as quickly as wokeness itself, and has recently scored some high-profile victories against elite universities.

While there is no consensus on a one-size-fits-all definition of wokeness—a conservative writer promoting her own anti-woke book went viral last March for struggling to find words while formulating a definition—anti-woke activists do have a profile of the people and institutions they’re fighting against. Anti-woke activists generally zero in on a few classic conservative bogeymen: Marxism, academia, and federal law.

The first anti-woke bogeyman, Marxism, was for much of the past century—and still is for many—the bête noire of American conservatism. In the late 1950s, as the atom bomb race made nuclear fusion a priority of scientists across America, a young conservative intellectual by the name of William F. Buckley Jr. was experimenting with his own brand of fusion. Flush with cash from his oil-developer father, Buckley founded the magazine National Review, intending it to serve as the epicenter of American conservative thought. Along with his senior editor, the ex-communist Frank Meyer, and a ragtag crew of ex-communists, libertarians, social conservatives, and Catholic intellectuals, National Review synthesized what is now known as fusionism: eco­nomic libertarianism plus social conservatism.

While fusionism held sway from Goldwater to Romney, picking up neoconservative hawkishness along the way, the ideology was never fully coherent as the one “true conservatism.” Many early social con­servatives tended to back traditionalists who railed against both the loss of traditional values and laissez-faire capitalism’s supposed promotion of avarice. But what made fusionism stick was that it was the most anti-communist ideology in existence at a time when defeating communism was the defining goal of the American Right.

By labeling wokeness “cultural Marxism,” today’s conservatives are continuing the Cold War’s politics, repurposing the coalition that held together against Soviet Communism to battle against cultural Marxism. Even as the Cold War shrinks in the rearview mirror, and even as Trump’s ascendancy made conservatives more open to redistributive economic policies, Marxism still functions as a major conservative bogeyman, making it easy to convince conservatives that wokeness is simply a new manifestation of an old enemy. But how accurate is this characterization?

The core of Marxist thought is materialism: there is a class that owns the means of production, and that class subjugates those who do not. Anti-woke activists argue that wokeness is cultural Marxism, in which the material concerns of old-school Marxists are supplanted by concerns over identity categories such as race, gender, and sexual orientation. In this narrative, Marx’s Manichaean conflict between bourgeoisie and proletariat is replaced by conflicts between white and black, men and women, straight and gay, and other oppressor-oppressed dichotomies.

This is where the second anti-woke bogeyman, academia, comes in. Cultural Marxism, anti-woke activists claim, originated from the critical theory of the Frankfurt School. Then these theories left continental Europe and made their way into American academia through Frankfurt School member Herbert Marcuse in the 1960s and ’70s. Marcuse, in turn, was inspired by black radicals, like his student Angela Davis, to create a new leftist movement based on nonmaterial identity politics. Millions of college students were radicalized by these theories and became woke.

There is a kernel of truth to this theory, yet a few major questions remain. How did “cultural Marxism” succeed in a society where actual Marxism failed to take root? And why did “cultural Marxism” fail to take root in countries that did take up Marxist thought? If Marxism aims for mass uprisings, why do “cultural Marxists” hold elitist attitudes, focus on elite institutions, and value the niche goals of ever-splintering minority groups?

The third anti-woke bogeyman is federal law. Another rallying cry of American fusionist conservatism is that the federal government should be so small it could be drowned in a bathtub. Blaming wokeness on the federal government, then, offers another piece of red meat for small-government enthusiasts. Richard Hanania’s new book traces wokeness to federal civil rights law, the sprawling government bureaucracy that formed to interpret those laws, and the managerial class that developed as a result, all leading to the woke “standardization of the American workplace and university.”

Hanania names the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the resulting “dis­parate impact” doctrine of Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971) as chief developments in forcing American institutions to adopt woke standards. “Disparate impact” is the theory that made illegal any “facially neutral employment practice” with an alleged “unjustified adverse impact on members of a protected class.” In Hanania’s telling, such civil rights laws and policies made institutions so fearful of being seen as discriminatory that they overcompensated by developing byzantine bureaucracies (as well as “woke capitalism”) in order to avoid legal and social punishment. Universities were incentivized to create disciplines that taught wokeness and institutions were incentivized to hire those that could enforce woke principles just so they could avoid being accused of discrimination against protected groups.

Taken together, anti-woke activists paint a picture of wide-eyed teens who come into college as blank slates, leave as radicalized leftists armed with the messages of obscure German intellectuals, and enforce these ideas at their newfound bureaucratic positions—positions they possess because of federal civil rights laws. Such genealogies of wokeness deeply appeal to conservatives for the simple reason that they blame factors conservatives are already antagonistic toward. It requires little effort to convince someone that a bad thing came from some other bad thing.

Yet these genealogies—even putting aside disputes over the accuracy of their claims—fail to understand the moral attitudes that drive wokeness and drive people to wokeness. They explain the how but not the why—“this is how wokeness was synthesized and this is how it spread in academia and the workplace,” but not “why does wokeness even exist to begin with,” and “why is it appealing to certain sets of people?”

Awokening as Awakening

In recent years, as the influence of wokeness has increased in American culture, more of its critics have been speaking about it in religious terms, calling its genesis the “Great Awokening.” Religion, to the layperson, refers somewhat vaguely to systems of belief surrounding the supernatural and the sacred. In his book Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America (2021), John McWhorter offers a more precise definition of religion and refers to wokeness as the religion of a group he deems the “Elect”:

I do not mean that these people’s ideology is “like” a religion. I seek no rhetorical snap in the comparison. I mean that it actually is a religion. An anthropologist would see no difference in type between Pentecostalism and this new form of antiracism. Lan­guage is always imprecise, and thus we have traditionally restrict­ed the word religion to certain ideologies founded in creation myths, guided by ancient texts, and requiring that one subscribe to certain beliefs beyond the reach of empirical experience. This, however, is an accident, just as it is that we call tomatoes vegetables rather than fruits. If we rolled the tape again, the word religion could easily apply as well to more recently emerged ways of thinking within which there is no explicit requirement to subscribe to unempirical beliefs, even if the school of thought does reveal itself to entail such beliefs upon analysis. One of them is this extremist version of antiracism today.

McWhorter then lays out seven tenets of the Elect that make them religious: “The Elect have superstition,” “The Elect have clergy,” “The Elect have original sin,” “The Elect are evangelical,” “The Elect are apocalyptic,” “The Elect ban the heretic,” and “The Elect supplant older religions.” Therefore, McWhorter’s thesis goes, the religion of antiracism is just as valid a religion as any commonly recognized religion. McWhorter writes that the Elect religion “is eerily akin to devout Christianity.” Upon closer inspection, in fact, one notices that Christianity is the only religion that fulfills all seven of McWhorter’s tenets, suggesting that wokeness is more than merely “like” Christianity.

Building upon McWhorter’s work, the sociologist Eric Kaufmann wrote a sociological analysis of wokeness for this journal three years ago. Kaufmann states that wokeness, which he calls left-modernism, is closer to liberalism than to Marxism. He rightfully notes that it is helpful to view wokeness as a decentered religion, and notes the striking parallels between liberal fundamentalism and Protestant fundamentalism. Kaufmann defines wokeness as “leftism that seeks to weaken the strong and strengthen the weak” with “a victim-oppressor moral hier­archy, with racial groups deemed oppressed on top, followed by wom­en and sexual minorities, with other intersectional categories lower down the scale.” He utilizes the Durkheimian sacred/profane dichotomy to analyze how wokeness functions as a religion. He compares the American Protestant historical phenomena of Great Awakenings to the “Great Awokening” of 2014. Finally, he points out that secularization makes people more likely to adopt fundamentalist positions, both Protestant and woke.

Yet there seems to be a missing puzzle piece to these sociologies of wokeness. Both McWhorter and Kaufmann note the striking similarities between wokeness and Christianity—particularly to Protestantism. Yet neither takes Occam’s razor and states that the two are similar because there is a direct link between them.

The answer to the genesis of woke lies right in Kaufmann’s analysis: wokeness came from liberalism. The question, then, is what caused liberalism. The answer, the missing piece of the puzzle, is that liberalism is an outgrowth of Christianity, and especially the Protestant Reformation.

The Christian Origins of Woke

Wokeness, Kaufmann notes, is simply the logic of liberalism taken to its final conclusion. It is not a surprise that the countries that wokeness is most enmeshed in—Western democracies—are also the countries that have adhered to liberalism the longest. Formerly Marxist countries such as Russia and China correctly recognize wokeness not as a product of Marxism but as a symptom of liberalism.

Liberalism is the engine that powers woke grievances. After all, if all humans are created equal, there should be no differences between the rights and achievements of various identity groups. Ibram X. Kendi, a high priest of wokeness, has said that “As an anti-racist, when I see racial disparities, I see racism.” Indeed, if one’s belief system teaches that all humans are created equal, then any situation where one identity group—whether it be race, gender, or sexual orientation—seems to have more rights or privileges than another is thus breaking the faith system’s moral code. In order to remain in good standing with the established code, one must check their privilege.

Conservatives and progressives both nominally claim to be the standard-bearers of liberalism’s egalitarian and universalist framework, although they define equality in different ways. The conservative stress­es equality of opportunity, whereas the woke activist stresses equality of outcome, also known as equity. For a conservative, a system is equal as long as everyone gets the chance to do well based on merit, and disparities in outcome are to be expected. For today’s woke activists, any disparity in outcome must be the result of discrimination, and any instance of discrimination must be rectified through the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

But where does the underlying focus on equality come from? For most of human civilization, there was no concept of universal egalitarianism. Human civilizations had clear and defined hierarchies. This all changed with the Enlightenment, from which liberalism originated. The Enlightenment, so the narrative goes, was a rejection of religious values. Thus, liberalism is claimed to be a secular idea, fit for a time of declining faith in the metaphysical claims of Christianity.

Yet liberal ideas, like any idea, did not arise in a vacuum. New ideologies build off of previous ideologies. And there was in fact an existing system of beliefs all Enlightenment thinkers were familiar with that stressed equality, individual rights, universalism, and continuous progress. As political philosopher John Gray writes in The New Leviathans (2023):

All four of the defining ideas of liberal thought are continuations of Christian monotheism. The primacy of the individual is a secular translation of the belief that each human being is created by the Deity, which has an authority over them which transcends any worldly power. The egalitarian belief that human beings have the same moral status reproduces the idea that all human beings are equal in the sight of God. Liberal universalism—the belief that generically human attributes are more important than particular cultural identities—reflects the idea that humankind is created in God’s image. The belief that human institutions are indefinitely improvable replicates the theistic faith that history is a moral narrative of sin followed by redemption.

That is not to say that Christianity is simply equivalent to wokeness, or that centuries of secularization and doctrinal evolution should simply be glossed over, or that wokeness is a “legitimate” way to interpret Christian doctrine. But no genealogy of wokeness can be complete without tracing it back to its Christian roots.

Christian metaphysical beliefs proved extremely radical in a world defined by stark social hierarchies. Early Christians welcomed both Jews and Gentiles, taught that all humans were equal under God (though how that translated to worldly affairs was always a matter of some debate), and taught that anyone could and everyone should become a Christian. The “Jesus Movement” challenged every major aspect of Roman society. Early followers defied the rigid social hierarchies of the time by asserting that everyone was equal under Christ, a shocking proposition in a world where some people were seen, in Aristotle’s words, as “natural slaves.” Christianity gave everyone religious autonomy by asserting that each individual had the choice whether or not to believe in Christ. People had to willingly accept Christ into their hearts to be saved. And after death, the souls of the saved, from the lowliest slave to the emperor himself, would all go to the same heaven. Anyone could become a Christian, and Christians suffered severe persecution to proselytize.

Christianity’s highest honor was to be martyred for the faith. While the Romans worshiped gods known for their vitality and beauty, Christians worshiped a God that taught altruism and was portrayed in the form of an emaciated figure nailed to a device used to execute slaves. Nearly two millennia later, Friedrich Nietzsche would interpret Chris­tian morality as “slave morality” for its veneration of the weak over the strong: the progenitor of today’s woke oppressor-oppressed dichotomy.

Although Christianity proliferated rapidly after it became the Roman Empire’s official religion under Constantine, its institutionalization also moderated Christianity’s liberalizing elements as the Church formalized and hierarchized. It would not be until after the Protestant Reformation again decentralized the Church that the proto-liberal ideas that defined early Christianity could once more flourish. The resulting explosion of different sects across Europe led to a need for a new system of governance in which different groups would have to live with their differences, laying the foundation for liberal democracy. But in the pre-liberal meantime, some sects had ideas so blasphemous even to other Protestants that they fled across the Atlantic to avoid persecution.

Higher Purpose, Higher Education

The northern colonies in prerevolutionary America served as incubators for some of the most radical sects to spring from the Reformation, known collectively as the English Dissenters.2 The two most famous early sects, the Puritans and the Quakers, developed distinct cultures that appeared to be foils to each other, a phenomenon that would later be picked apart in works such as E. Digby Baltzell’s Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia (1979) and David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed (1989).

The Puritans settled in what is now New England. They were Calvinists that saw themselves, much like McWhorter’s antiracists, as an elect class destined for salvation. Even though they fled persecution, they persecuted other faiths whenever they had power. And they were often in power, even when they were the minority in Massachusetts, due to their sheer desire to exercise control and constant moral browbeating. Puritans were deeply intellectual, founding some of the most prestigious universities today, like Harvard and Yale, to train their clergy. The Puritans are infamous for their obsession with trying to root out heretics, the most notorious example being the Salem Witch Trials.

The Quakers settled in what is now Pennsylvania. They were tolerant of other faiths, even for faiths that would not extend tolerance back. While some had slaves early on, they later became ardent abolitionists. They were antiwar pacifists. They opposed the death penalty. They allowed women to preach. They disavowed animal cruelty. They spoiled their children at a time when other colonists were putting children to the rod. Quakers even disavowed the need for clergy and the Bible itself, claiming that everyone could communicate directly to God via an “inward light,” meaning that every individual had a “lived experience” that no one else could know.

One may notice that wokeness appears to be a syncretic blend of Puritanism and Quakerism. Woke adherents value elite education and moralizing, seem obsessed with rooting out heretics, adhere to orthodoxy, and display a sense of personal salvation, traits that were all characteristic of Puritans, while also displaying the radical openness and commitment to egalitarianism that characterized the Quakers.3

Baltzell noted that “By the close of the colonial period . . . Pennsylvania was, ethnically and religiously, more like modern America than any other colony and diametrically opposite to the homogenous and hierarchical society of Massachusetts,” and that “Although America as a whole has been Puritan and Calvinist throughout most of its history, it has now moved—especially since the 1960s—far closer to the ideas of Quakerism.” Indeed, the closed-off, hierarchical, and smug elitism of the Puritans had little appeal in a country imbued with the spirit of Tocque­villian egalitarianism and Jacksonian anti-elitism. The tolerance and egalitarianism of the Quakers had become core tenets of American civil religion. Even when Quakers began converting to other denominations—many becoming Episcopalians—they retained their moral frame­work, and Quaker values became embedded in the liberal mainline Protestant tradition.4

The power of the Puritans, on the other hand, severely weakened after the American Revolution. Expanding interpretations of the doc­trine of separation of church and state stripped them of their “estab­lished churches.”5 Enlightenment rationalism also spread across the colonies, and liberalism had taken root, leading to a breakaway sect that turned to Unitarianism. In 1805, the Unitarian Henry Ware was appointed to the Hollis Chair of Divinity at Harvard. Under Ware’s influence, Harvard Divinity School became a center of Unitarian rather than Puritan thought.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the son of a Unitarian minister, would be a pioneer in the Transcendentalist movement: a philosophy based on the unity of all creation and the inherent goodness of humanity (a goodness that is often corrupted by society). Unlike Unitarians, Transcendentalists valued intuition (“lived experience”) over empiricism. Transcendentalism would inspire American progressives for generations to come.6

Yet just as Quaker values did not die out with Quakerism, Puritan values did not die out with Puritanism. The descendants of the Puritan elite became Boston Brahmins, who were largely Unitarian and Episco­palian, but still maintained the strict elitism that characterized their ancestors. Even when Puritans turned toward Unitarian and Transcendentalist teachings or toward more mainstream denominations, they never stopped feeling like they were an elect class destined for salvation.

Social Gospel, Social Justice

Traditionalist Christians in fin de siècle America were drawn to fire-and-brimstone populists like William Jennings Bryan, who stressed Biblical fundamentalism, assailed the teaching of evolution in schools, railed against urbanites and cultural elites as vectors of social decay, warned against industrial capitalist avarice, and stood for “common folk.” Meanwhile, the liberal and cosmopolitan Protestant mainline—com­posed largely of descendants of the radical northeastern sects—turned toward a new movement: the Social Gospel.

The Social Gospel, as its name suggests, was the metaphysically Christian analog to today’s social justice movement. The Social Gospel arose in an era when the rapid industrialization of the Gilded Age opened up stark inequalities between haves and have-nots, which were laid bare to the upper classes in muckraking works like Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives (1890) and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906). Social Gospel adherents were postmillennialists who believed that Jesus would only return to earth if humans removed all social sins first. One verse in the Lord’s Prayer served as the movement’s guiding principle: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Social Gospel Protestants leaned far more into the “social” part than the “Gospel” part, focusing less on Biblical exegesis and doctrine and more on hands-on issues like advocating for temperance and providing aid to the poor.

The Social Gospel movement was, for the new elect class, their last nominally Christian pit stop before they fully cast off the Christian cloak. Later on, as faithful observance declined among mainline liberal Protestants, their intellectual descendants retained their Puritanical sense of moral superiority and the liberal desire to rid the world of the “sin” of structural inequality. As theologian James Wood writes, “Social Gospel Protestantism shifted away from almost any sense that sin was personal . . . toward primarily social and structural understandings of sin, which became the exclusive focus as religious belief rapidly declined in American society.”

In the aftermath of two devastating world wars, many Western liberal democracies suffered steep declines in Christian faith. While adherents of the Social Gospel sought to do on earth as it is in heaven, those who stopped believing in a Christian heaven still kept working to build a heaven on earth. The earthly (rather than heavenly) focus of Social Gospel teachings allowed it to reach more than just Christians to form the foundation of a post-Protestant civil religion. Today’s social justice adherents need not have a Protestant background to adopt its tenets. Like Christianity itself, social justice is a universalist faith anyone can join. For example, many Reform and secular Jews assimilated into this universalist faith as they attended the universities of the formerly Protestant elect. Those Jews put their own spin on the Social Gospel by incorporating the concept of tikkun olam, which they interpreted as a calling to “heal the world” via social justice.7

As liberal Christians shed their Christian metaphysics, they still kept their basic moral structures, which is where the anti-woke bogeymen do in fact come in. As Nick Burns points out in this journal, “The ethical thinness of [Max] Weber’s concept of science as a central principle of the modern university made it vulnerable to the encroachment of politically oriented moral principles into the space left open by the departure of the Christian deity.” Indeed, critical theory, with its goal to “dismantle power structures,” serves as the new sacred text of those who have lost faith in older tomes, and of those who seek to assimilate into the new beliefs of the post-Protestant class. “Cultural Marxist” ideas could not have taken root in a society that did not already subscribe to liberal values. Only weird (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) societies, based on the Christian principles of an inherent equality of all human beings and a need to correct all perceived injustices, could be swayed by such arguments.8

Anti-woke conservatives are correct when they blame academia for propagating wokeness, but not in the way they conceive of the matter. America’s earliest colleges were founded to train clergy, and American academia still retains the same purpose—with the new Christian clergy calling themselves “secular humanists.”

The New (Counter-)Reformation and Its Discontents

In his book An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, former First Things9 editor-in-chief Joseph Bottum discusses “the great unspeakable thought that it is somehow more Christian not to be a Christian.”

Indeed, if Christianity is the progenitor of liberalism, which in turn gave birth to leftism, then it is perhaps not surprising that the leftists assailing Christianity for being an oppressor force in some sense believe themselves to better exemplify the Christian moral ethos than those who still profess to be Christian. In many ways, today’s social justice warriors are the descendants and inheritors of the Christian values that set America’s moral standards for much of its existence.

To most conservatives, it is anathema to hear that Christianity provided the moral foundation for wokeness, and vice versa. It may seem ridiculous at first glance: after all, some of the most fervent opposition to wokeness comes from conservative Christians who promote Christianity as its antidote. Meanwhile, woke “secular humanists” often blame Christianity for what they perceive as the world’s social ills, hoping that Christianity will cease to exist as a social force. Both sides have a motive to deny that wokeness has Christian roots, as it would force both sides to suffer the cognitive dissonance of recognizing that they, in some sense, are two sides of the same wafer.

As Aaron Renn has pointed out, American Christianity now exists in a “negative world,” where being seen as a Christian is, for the first time in American history, a negative thing. Progressives, and a sizeable number of liberals, tend to view conservative Christians—and the Re­publican Party’s status as the nominal party of Christian (or “Judeo-Christian”) values—with suspicion, seemingly for being both too Christian (dogmatic, oppressive, reactionary, authoritarian, anti-science) and not Christian enough (selfish, cruel, racist). It is not uncommon to hear progressives invoke Jesus’ teachings about helping the poor and welcoming the stranger to criticize Republican policy on social spending and immigration, while simultaneously blaming Christians for everything wrong in the world. Those on the woke left make much hay accusing American Christians of not living up to Christian values for electing Donald Trump: a philandering businessman who once claimed that his favorite book was the Bible, yet referred to Second Corinthians as “Two Corinthians.”

Such conundrums underpin the current sectarian infighting among American right-wing intellectuals. Even though most reject wokeness, they have very different rationales and motivations.

American Evangelicalism, long considered a conservative counterweight to liberal mainline churches and a bogeyman of liberals and progressives, has grown increasingly splintered. While evangelicalism simply refers to putting emphasis on being “born again” and is not inherently political, the term is typically used today to denote socially conservative Protestants. Renn notes that “today there is a culture war within evangelicalism itself,” in which some evangelicals have turned toward wokeness while others remain conservative, with evangelicals on all sides criticizing each other for various political and theological transgressions.

To further complicate matters, the ascendancy of Donald Trump has given the term a stronger political bent. Conservative Republicans (including even Catholics and Muslims) are increasingly identifying as evangelical, while liberal evangelicals are increasingly shunning the label. Trump is especially popular among the growing number of evangelicals who seldom or never attend church and do not put much emphasis on fighting “Religious Right” issues like abortion or sexual morality. As American evangelicalism fragments theologically and becomes more of a political signifier, new factions have exerted growing power on the American right.

One faction is the postliberals, a group of intellectuals that eschew liberalism for an elite conservative class that governs for a “common good.” As one may expect, the movement is full of Catholics, with a disproportionate number of converts versus cradle Catholics. Whereas it is rare for a cradle Protestant to convert to Catholicism, especially compared to Catholic-to-Protestant converts, such converts are a dime-a‑dozen (perhaps also a Dimes Square-a-dozen?) among postliberals. These conversions are emblematic of a turn away from liberalism—and thus Protestantism—for a faith that places greater emphasis on order, tradition, and hierarchy, elements that Catholic converts believe Protes­tantism lacks.10

Postliberal thought leaders are a veritable who’s who of Catholic intellectualism: political science professor Patrick Deneen, whose books Why Liberalism Failed (2018) and Regime Change (2023) serve as a denunciation of liberalism and a roadmap to a postliberal future; Compact founders Sohrab Ahmari and Matthew Schmitz; and constitutional law professor Adrian Vermuele, whose “common good constitutionalism” fuses Catholic integralism with American legal jurisprudence to form a non-liberal and non-originalist reading of the U.S. Constitution. Postliberals look past Western liberal democracies and approvingly cite Viktor Orbán’s Hungary as a template for their own policies, and some fantasize of a world where the Catholic church has worldly authority over all nations, or where the United States adopts an explicit­ly pro-Catholic immigration policy. Many postliberals have positioned them­selves away from the Catholic Church’s official hierarchy by standing against the liberalizing aggiornamento of the Second Vatican Council and reject what they see as the fence-sitting of fusionist Catho­lics. A highly publicized debate between the classically liberal, evangelical Protestant David French and the postliberal Catholic Sohrab Ahmari in 2019 revealed deep fault lines in conservative circles between the old-guard, National Review libertarian fusionists and the newer postliberal Right.11 The postliberal emphasis on Catholic social teaching includes principles that others on the right balk at, such as more interventionist economic policies and skepticism of liberal free speech.

Both Protestant conservatives and Catholic postliberals, however, are in conflict with those on the Right who eschew all forms of Christianity and its egalitarian tendencies. This new faction of the American Right, which may be called the Vitalist Right or the Nietzschean Right, is non-Christian or even anti-Christian. Its thought leaders are typically pseudonymous social media personalities that blend crude shock value and post-ironic humor with anti-immigrant, anti-feminist, and anti-woke sentiment; promotion of white identity politics and blood-and-soil nationalism; and religious practices based on pagan vitalism. They are avid promoters of the “great replacement theory”: the claim that globalist elites are inducing mass immigration of nonwhite people into Western countries in an effort to destroy Western civilization. A key driver of their ideology is a visceral reaction to the atomizing effects of neoliberalism, with frequent derisive mentions of “globohomo” (global homogenization).12

Christianity, to the Nietzschean Right, is the bane of Western civilization. An influential text for them is Jean Raspail’s novel The Camp of the Saints, a dystopian polemic that envisions Catholic priests and Christian churches and charities welcoming masses of violent and unassimilable nonwhite people into Western countries. The nonwhite immigrants then proceed to slaughter vast swathes of the white Western population and seize control of Western governments. In Raspail’s tale, white Christians are portrayed as weak-willed, too welcoming and trusting of non-natives, and thus enablers of their own deaths. The values that Jesus taught—welcoming the stranger, being loyal to Christ over kin, helping the poor and downtrodden, being meek and peaceful, turning the other cheek when faced with persecution, making sure that the first is last and the last first—are shown to have destroyed Western civilization. Originally published in 1973, The Camp of the Saints has seen a resurgence in popularity over the past few years as immigration and national identity have come to the forefront of Western democracies’ politics, including being favorably cited by Trump adviser Stephen Miller and French right-wing populist leader Marine Le Pen.

As Shadi Hamid has written for this journal, “If there were a tagline for today’s populist moment, it would probably be something like ‘It’s not the economy, stupid.’” Hamid drew on the work of Eric Kaufmann, who documented in his book Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities (2018) that a significant portion of the past decade’s rise in right-wing populism came from fear of demographic change rather than support for trade protectionism or isolationism. This shifting focus from Christian-derived universalism to ethnic nationalism shows the type of identity-based politics that arise after the decline of the universalist and egalitarian Christian metanarrative.

While the Nietzschean Right still exists only as a fringe movement, it has received increased coverage from both right-wing and mainstream outlets, including a cover story in the Atlantic about its most famous figure, Costin Alamariu, who holds a political philosophy doctorate from Yale and posts online under the pseudonym Bronze Age Pervert. Alamariu’s first book, Bronze Age Mindset, has garnered a cult follow­ing on the right, suggesting a move away from Christianity among young Republicans—even as the election of conservative Christian Republican Mike Johnson as House Speaker has revived progressive fears of an impending theocracy. As the “Bronze Age” moniker implies, the Nietzschean Right believes that Western civilization was better off in a pre-Christian and pre-liberal era free of egalitarian “bugmen,” who are “motivated by a titanic hatred of the well-turned-out and beautiful.”

The theological roots of the above three factions lie in Protestantism, Catholicism, and paganism, respectively. The idea that politics is inherently religious is not a new one, having been most famously espoused by the anti-liberal jurist Carl Schmitt, a thinker that both Vermuele and the Nietzschean right are fond of quoting. The war for the future of the American Right—or any political war—can be viewed as fundamentally religious in nature.

In 2015, the conservative Catholic columnist Ross Douthat tweeted out an ominous message: “A thought sent back in time to the theocracy panic of 2005: If you dislike the religious right, wait till you meet the post-religious right.” From what has already been seen of existing post-Christian right-wingers—pagan vitalists as well as “eugenicons” ob­sessed with the heredity of IQ—such a secularization will likely lead the American Right in a far more reactionary direction. The current brouhaha over Christian nationalism will likely pale in comparison to what could come next.

More Christian than the Christians?

Indeed, the entire American culture war might be best understood as a war over the future of Christianity, even if the combatants themselves do not recognize it in these terms. The talking points of both sides seem stuck in a previous generation, with conservatives continuing to stoke fears of Marxism and progressives continuing to stoke fears of Christian theocracy. The big irony is that it is progressives who are the new theocrats enforcing a Christian-derived morality, while conservatives increasingly abandon Christian churches and lurch toward economically populist proposals, views that Reagan-era conservatives would have called (and some still call) “Marxist.”

All this is part of a broader social shift in which terms like “Christian” and “Marxist” increasingly serve as markers of tribal identity rather than metaphysical belief. Daniel K. Williams, a historian of American religion and politics, has remarked on the fact that “De­clines in church attendance have made the rural Republican regions of the country even more Republican and—perhaps most surprising—more stridently Christian nationalist.” This is not to say that such de-churched Christians are not “real” Christians or are merely using Christianity as a tool to control others, as progressives have long accused conservative Christians of doing. Rather, just as progressives abandoned Christian metaphysics while retaining versions of Christian morality, conservatives are retaining Christian metaphysics while aban­doning Christian morality. Williams notes that, among the rising number of non-churchgoing white Christians in the South, “Many are liberal or libertarian on matters of personal liberty, such as marijuana and premarital sex, but they’re still strongly conservative on issues of race, gender, and Christian nationalism.”

Writing in the American Mind, the right-wing personality Peachy Keenan dubs this demographic “pornservatives”: “the type of person who on paper or in person looks like a good old-fashioned red-state conservative, but in practice is living a morally dubious lifestyle antithetical to anything that resembles ‘conservatism’ or ‘trad’ values.” She illustrates this dynamic with pornservative caricatures: “You may see Trump signs on the lawn, and even a cross on the wall, but church attendance has fallen away and the kids are either stoned or dealing with baby daddies.”13

This journal’s editor, Julius Krein, notes in an essay in the New Statesman that “Today, it is progressives, rather than Bible-thumping evangelists, who are more likely to demand public adherence to a strict moral orthodoxy, pressing for new educational curricula, speech codes and civic observances,” and that the progressive mentality “emphasises moral absolutism over pragmatic policy” and seems “aimed more at personal atonement than societal transformation.” Indeed, today’s progressives are the new Bible-thumping evangelists—only with books like How to Be an Antiracist or Gender Queer instead of the Bible.

Joseph Bottum’s worst fear is quickly being realized. American progressives are nominally anti-Christian, yet are the spiritual inheritors of finger-wagging fundamentalist moralism, with their monogamous marriages, clean-cut families, college-going children, Protestant work ethic, moral absolutism, rigid social norms, and feelings of being “cho­sen” to be on the “right side of history.” American conservatives, on the other hand, gladly claim the Christian mantle, yet increasingly don’t go to church and live hedonistic lives. The election of a thrice-married serial adulterer, and the messy personal lives of elected Republicans like Madi­son Cawthorn, George Santos, and Lauren Boebert, have seriously damaged the Republican Party’s claim to be the party of family values. In all aspects but the metaphysical, American “secular humanist” pro­gressives now appear to be more Christian than the Christians.

A wild card in American Christian discourse is that, as immigrants from Latin American, African, and Asian countries increasingly make up the pool of practicing Christians in the United States, the cultural image of Christianity may increasingly become associated with nonwhite and immigrant groups. As the epicenter of both global Christianity and American Christianity shifts toward the populations of and in the Global South, the very public image of “Christian” is bound to change with it, possibly opening up unpredictable new rifts along religious and racial lines. As right-wing populists increasingly seek to realign politics toward questions of ethnic demographic change, Christian identitarianism may prove to be an awkward fit.

Religion is always unpredictable, however. Few expected the original pre-Constantinian “Jesus Movement” to become the largest religious movement in the entire world. American history is also filled with nadirs in Christian faith that ended up reversing after Great Awakenings replenished religious fervor. Indeed, there is still a stubborn persistence of conservative religion in American public life. Brad Littlejohn has written in these pages that “With each new decade of the past half century, pundits have pointed to data showing what looks like a decline in American religiosity. . . . With each new decade, though, the same commentators have had cause to lament an America still seemingly in the grip of faith-based politics.” In the same vein, some now forecast that wokeness will soon be put to an eternal slumber. Yet the Great Awokening caught many off guard in 2014 and slowly waned before reawakening in the summer of 2020.

The Declaration of Independence famously opens by stating that “all men are created equal” because they are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” There is no universal claim to equality and “rights” without a belief in a shared Creator, and thus a “liberal” settlement that can moderate the political conflicts of the present seems difficult to imagine. When liberal Christians stop going to church, they turn woke; when conservative Christians stop going to church, they turn reactionary. Contemporary political commentators often claim that politics has replaced religion as the great divide, but today’s furor over wokeness is really another theological war with a secular sheen.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume VIII, Number 1 (Spring 2024): 222–40.

1 Coincidentally enough, Hanania wrote his own critique of an anti-woke book for this journal back in 2021, in which he criticizes the author Vivek Ramaswamy’s strategy of getting the government to label wokeness as a religion in order to prevent its spread. 

The southern colonies, on the other hand, were home to established, not radical, faiths. Anglicanism was common among the southern gentry, and Catholicism had regional influences, such as in Spanish Florida and French New Orleans. By the time of the American Revolution, Protestant evangelicalism had led to Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist dominance. This article does not focus on the American South, as it was not the South that developed wokeness.

It may seem puzzling at first that an ideology could be a fusion of two seemingly opposed value systems, but that didn’t stop National Review from fusing libertarianism and social conservatism.

4 The term “mainline Protestant” is thought to originate from the Philadelphia Main Line, a group of affluent suburbs where most residents were members of liberal Protestant denominations. Philadelphia was heavily shaped by Quaker influence, so it is not a surprise that mainline Protestantism has always had Quaker elements, even as Quakers themselves declined in number and converted into mainline denominations.

Puritan churches once were the “established church” in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, meaning that they were official state churches that received taxpayer funding.

The life of Thomas Wentworth Higginson is an excellent example of how the descendants of Puritans maintained their sense of moral righteousness as they became Unitarians and Transcendentalists. Higginson, born in 1823, was descended from the earliest Puritan families to settle in New England in the 1600s. He attended Harvard Divinity School, only to leave after his first year to organize against slavery and to study under the Transcendentalist Unitarian minister Theodore Parker. He later went back to divinity school to finish his degree, and soon became a Unitarian minister, where he preached abolition, temperance, labor rights, and women’s rights. Higginson was one of the “Secret Six” that provided abolitionist John Brown with money and supplies needed to stage a slave insurrection. He was also active in the Free Religious Association, an organization that sought to abandon all traditional religions for a new universal religion. Such an idea would be the precursor to Unitarian Universalism.

7 Whereas anti-Semites today like to blame Jews in academia for “cultural Marxism,” the correlation actually runs the other way: Jews gave up their faith and assimilated into liberal Christian values, including sometimes literally converting to Christianity. The Jews that resisted assimilation, Orthodox Jews, are a solidly Republican bloc. A similar assimilation is occurring among Asian Americans, who have swelled the ranks of the same colleges over the past few decades.

This is why non-liberal societies scoff when woke values are presented to them, such as in China, where woke people are derided as baizuo (white left): people that “only care about topics such as immigration, minorities, LGBT and the environment, who have no sense of real problems in the real world, who only advocate for peace and equality to satisfy their own feelings of moral superiority, and who are so obsessed with political correctness that they tolerate backward Islamic values for the sake of multiculturalism.”

First Things is an ecumenical conservative Christian magazine that was founded by Richard John Neuhaus, a liberal Protestant who later became conservative and converted to Catholicism.

10 This is not to say that those who convert to Catholicism necessarily do so for those reasons. The inner machinations of religious faith vary depending on one’s metaphysical understanding of the world, and some elements will always be a mystery. This article takes all claims of faith at face value.

11 A similar scenario played out early on in fusionism’s development, where the Catholic intellectual L. Brent Bozell Jr. parted ways with his best friend and brother-in-law William F. Buckley Jr. a few years after National Review’s founding. Bozell found Buckley’s politics to be too libertarian and not socially conservative enough. Bozell was raised Episcopalian before becoming conservative and converting to Catholicism in college. He praised the dictatorship of Francisco Franco in Spain, whose policy of nacionalcatolicismo (National Catholicism) meant that the Catholic Church was hegemonic over all aspects of public and private life.

12 “Globohomo” refers to the claim that globalist elites are conspiring to destroy unique civilizations by turning all the worlds’ cultures into a consumerist monoculture. The term is used throughout white nationalist and other alt-right circles. Both “globohomo” and “great replacement theory” are often used as anti-Semitic tropes, although some use it to place blame on non-Jewish causes, like various left-wing parties wanting immigrants on the basis that immigrants will vote for them.

13 Similar sentiments can be found in works such as J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, in which Vance notes the existence of and castigates those who claim to be hardworking conservative Christians but in reality have deeply dysfunctional home lives and immoral habits.