By all appearances, the United States of America is descending into chaos. There are so many examples of this—police brutality, riots, military patrols, hollow political theater, and rising numbers of COVID deaths—that it is difficult to sort out the causes of each in a way that produces a coherent, overarching explanation. Once one considers historical patterns of racism and violence, and the present influence on US culture of Marxist, Maoist and postmodernist thought, the sources of America’s present lunacy become clearer. Yet articulating precisely why each day brings fresh instances of hysteria and violence is still difficult.
Two considerations of American character must be integrated into this analysis. The first: America goes through cycles of religious panics and is presently experiencing an especially pronounced instance of one of those holy meltdowns. The second: through a series of historical circumstances peculiar to the US, these periodic religious panics have, over centuries, been transformed into an unconscious ritual complex. Together, these two phenomena create an unacknowledged, largely performative and wholly stylistic branch of American metaphysics.
Reframe the present mayhem as Mardi Gras carnivals or Roman Saturnalias, which are connected to no specific, abiding doctrine or single, fixed calendar date. Untethered from any permanent orthodoxy, they explode into a riotous expression of collective fervor whenever the public is placed under extreme physical or psychological pressure—and, regardless of their hysterics, these meltdowns tend to follow a particular outline.
These ritualized panics, like nearly all rituals, require a doctrine—even if they make only temporary use of it. Previous versions of such a doctrine for American ritual hysterias have included Protestant camp meetings, perfectionism, the temperance movement, rock n’ roll and 1960s flower power.
For America’s present hysteria, the creed is the seemingly secular ideology of Common Enemy Intersectional Identity Politics (CEIIP, pronounced cheap). By simply reframing this explicitly secular movement in terms of the sacred, the similarities of CEIIP to a religion quickly jump out at the observer. Indeed, many prominent intellectuals have gone beyond religious comparisons.
As John McWhorter, Tom Holland, Douglas Murray and Bret Weinstein have shown, CEIIP (also known as wokeism) is literally a new religion. It prophesies a reckoning for past injustices and, through historical narratives of group persecution, generates a sense of identity and community. CEIIP relies on the unyielding belief that the human condition is perfectible through faith and a collective assertion of will. In order to guard the strictures of the faith from degradation or external assault, CEIIP requires the literal excommunication of heretics and the figurative eradication of apostates and infidels. Perhaps most importantly, postmodern and Marxist elements of racial essentialism, blank slatist biological denialism, material determinism and a host of other mutually contradictory claims generate an orthodoxy requiring a leap of faith to believe.
Among a western populace that appears to have largely, if not wholly, turned its back on organized religion, one might suppose that such crypto-religious characteristics would serve as serious obstacles to the spread of CEIIP. That they have not is due to the ritual practice into which the doctrine has been absorbed. Due to its use of time-tested liturgical practices that ward off aspiring heretics and rival systems of sense-making, CEIIP has achieved evangelical success despite its internally incoherent doctrines. These ritual practices have the power to spread across geographic, cultural and linguistic divides, by generating an emotional experience of practically universal appeal.
This ritual style is called revivalism, and it is both as subtle and as American as a baseball bat.
Revivalism is a method deployed by overbearing or charismatic dogmatists to create a positive feedback loop of emotional fervor. That fervor spreads through the crowd and drowns out internal and external voices of reason. Upon successfully achieving the desired collective hysteria, revivalism acts as metaphysical proof of concept for whatever doctrine it has been paired with. Overriding any potential logical opposition through the production of euphoria and catharsis, revivalism provides a wholly experiential foundation upon which a community can be both formed and defended.
Revivalism has deep roots in American culture. It accounts for much, if not all, of what readers are witnessing in the US—from Trump rallies to statue topplings. It may soon also account for similar pandemonium abroad.
From its birth, the predominant religion in the United States has been Protestant Christianity—a large, billowy tent beneath which worshipers with numerous doctrinal differences often uneasily congregate. While this diversity of denominations has arguably proven a net positive—the religious anti-establishment clause it helped secure for the US Constitution being the prime example—it has also produced a frequently overlooked limitation in the structure of society. With the exception of minority communities comprising Catholics, Orthodox Jews and some Orthodox Christians, widespread participation in Protestantism (itself in part a reaction to Catholic ritual) impoverished the ceremonial aspects of religion that provide community even as doctrinal differences abound.
In a newly established democratic republic where religion formed the basis of many citizens’ beliefs about ethics and purpose, this ritual vacuum forced the relatively few, though important, shared points of doctrine amongst worshipers to serve as the narrow foundation of a national culture. As such, these shared tenets were under seemingly constant, tremendous strain as they attempted to secure social stability among a people whose founding characteristic was rebelliousness.
From 1800 to the 1830s, out of this strain and its accompanying ritual vacuum emerged revivalism. Revivalism plugged the participation-shaped hole in American culture through the use of one of the Trinitarian components Protestantism frequently, if sometimes nervously, deploys: the Holy Ghost. Since the time of the first Pentecost, it was recognized that the Holy Spirit could spontaneously generate explosions of emotion capable of infecting entire groups and, in the process, produce new rituals—the celebration of Pentecost as a holy day being the foremost example.
Gilbert Seldes’ book The Stammering Century is the definitive history of how ritual hysteria became not only a unique mode of religious expression in the US, but one of the foundational character traits of the American cultural style. Published during the global upheavals of the late 1920s, The Stammering Century analyses the “cults and manias” of nineteenth-century America and their fanatics, “radicals and mountebanks.” Seldes’ analysis provides as much insight into his own radical era of Prohibition, Bolshevism and fascism as it does into the present.
Anyone skeptical as to whether the United States’ current meltdown can be attributed to revivalism should read Seldes’ descriptions of the religious camp meetings that were the true start of this hyperemotive, shadow ritual. After describing the holy rolling, speaking in tongues, convulsions, spasms and general emotional abuse and manipulation that characterized these meetings, Seldes comments:
The revivals of the 1800s to 1830s have been called the source of almost unimaginable evil in the United States. They settled on it the hysteria system of approaching salvation. They were responsible for a state of nervous uneasiness which was reflected in politics, in domestic life, and in every social practice … [Revivalists] held fast only to excitement … most of the later winners of souls had no standard but numbers. How many they saved—not how they were saved, or how lasting their safety—was their great question. Their methods were ignoble, brutalizing. They made sick souls or intensified maladies which might have been cured.
How was such “unimaginable evil” possible in the first place? Seldes urges readers to understand the circumstances of the meaning deprived, culturally starved, materially myopic pioneers attending these meetings in search of purpose and comfort:
recall that the very utterance of the name of the Lord by the Revivalists smashed for a moment the systematic impoverishment of the American spirit. If we fail to see this … we cannot understand fully the witches’ sabbath of religion which his labors created … Something was needed to break down the monotony of an exceptionally materialistic existence. Circumstances favored neither art, nor sport, nor intellectual, nor physical diversion of any kind. No release of the physical pressure was to be found even in immorality or perversion … The camp meeting originally performed the function of a carnival, or a kermesse, or an orgy—festivals established by the wisdom of the ages in three great civilizations to give release to the impassioned body or the tortured mind.
But what of the motivations of the leaders of these carnivals, the revivalists?
[the] Revivalist seriously believed in his conversions and believed that no matter how a man was brought to confess Christ, his confession was justified. It was a work of God … Some of them must really have believed that without hysteria there could be no genuine conviction of sin or regeneration. And yet it is easy to see that, as they substituted hysterical outbursts for the reasoned conversion of the soberer churches, hysteria itself became important without thought of its meaning. The Revivalists naturally chose those methods by which they could excite the emotions and bring crisis on crisis of hysteria. People were struggling for conviction, their lives were desperately divided by an inner conflict, and they knew that acceptance of Christ gave peace. It is easy to see how they could whip themselves up into a frenzy of anxiety and eagerness and despair to imitate the frenzy they saw around them. The ‘jerks’ [convulsions] themselves became a ritual.
Seldes was not the only one to make such observations. William James comments: “revivalism has always assumed that only its own type of religious experience can be perfect; you must first be nailed on the cross of natural despair and agony, and then in the twinkling of an eye be miraculously released.”
Today, revivalism permeates virtually every part of American culture.
The short-term outcome of a bout of revivalism is always that people freak out. In considering the long-term effects, however, there seems to be one somewhat accurate predictor of overall positive or negative outcomes. The more elaborate the doctrine to which these almost always personally transformative manias connect themselves, the more likely it is that the outbreak will lead to collective disappointments or tragedies. As Seldes makes clear, when a particularly convoluted utopian doctrine becomes overwhelmed and absorbed by revivalism, it reliably wreaks lasting havoc on citizens.
CEIIP is just one more excited utopian movement with a convoluted doctrine that has been swallowed by revivalism. We are witnessing a masochistic rampage, which is also inseparably interested in looting designer goods, saving the environment and perfecting the moral condition of every unconscious human mind. The hubris needed to frame, let alone perpetuate, a riot of this sort can only be of a fanatical, religious bent. As Tom Holland points out in his book Dominion, wokeism has a Protestant Christian pedigree—that this doctrine would find itself alloyed to a particularly Protestant ritual should therefore come as no surprise.
Yet, what is the appeal of an ecstatic Protestant ritual to a group of young people, many of whom identify as Marxists? Seldes argues that, at its onset, revivalism spread rapidly across the cultural landscape, whipping people up into a frenzy due to its ability “to break down the monotony of an exceptionally materialistic existence.”
Sixty years of widespread, Edward Bernays style hyper-consumerism have eroded the shared cultural values of the west. The Madison Avenue exploitation of the human appreciation for shiny new things has, over the past several decades, mutated from a Freudian sales tool into a fast spreading, seductive and shallow metaphysics, which asserts that identity and meaning, are derived almost exclusively from the stuff that you own.
Under these circumstances, revivalism provides emotional content in an otherwise antiseptic life. This causes people to act out in a manner that performs their individualism, while remaining within the ritualistic parameters of a script that provides a sense of community, based on a shared experience that defies logical refutation.
In light of the number of post-World War II American cultural exports that have devoured folkways and traditions across the globe, the magnetic pull of this hysterical American religious ritual—especially at a time when people in the west are struggling to find meaning—is frightening. Revivalism is not merely a modus operandi furorem of American life, it is the ritual enshrinement of the most terrifying and appealing aspect of our metaphysical convictions: if you freak out in the prescribed manner, you will attain meaning, purpose and even salvation. This is far more threatening than reheated Marxism and Maoism mashed up with postmodern doctrines—it is the hysterical power source at the heart of American culture.
Revivalism is the unique American contribution to global spiritual life, and a significant source of much of America’s artistic creativity. America has not given the world a dominant religion: it has given the world a style of religious experience. America’s style is its true religion—and its religion has repeatedly eaten other cultures from the feet up.
Consider rock n’ roll.
Rock ’n roll is American in origin and now exists everywhere. When Bill Haley’s “Rock around the Clock” was first played, it caused riots. When rock n’ roll took hold in Britain, chiefly through the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the power of lyrically concise love songs filtered through its style was so intense that people shouted so hysterically that the bands could not hear themselves play. Concertgoers pissed themselves in such large numbers at certain tour dates that members of The Beatles affirmed that they could smell nothing else and could see the resulting steam rising from the stadium seats. Perish the thought of what havoc rock n’ roll could have wrought had it come equipped with an elaborate and logically inconsistent doctrine fiercely at odds with the scientific method.
It may seem unlikely to readers that such a phenomenon could be distinctly American—after all, religious manias have occurred in practically all civilizations. But what if this wave of insanity does not entirely make sense because you have witnessed it so often, and for so long, that you have forgotten how to see it? What if what you are seeing in the US is merely a chaotic close order drill for one more—particularly sinister—invasion of American culture that will be as successful as many of the others?
I would argue that “wokeism” is not a Christian religion. Though it is centered on some sort of redemption, there is no forgiveness. You are never released from the bondage of the sin of slavery. You are never washed clean and are canceled forever if you do not comply. Christ forgives all sin, he welcomes back the prodigal son, and he does not hold grudges. Most important of all, Christ recognizes all people as unique individuals made in God’s image. “Wokeism” does not acknowledge that humans are more than their skin color, gender, or sexual preferences. It does not recognize that humans have the capacity to understand other’s suffering, or any uniquely human characteristics. It has removed humanity itself. When you remove humanity, it’s very easy to get to genocide. It is precisely for that reason that I believe this is more than a secular revival. When I hear Mao… Read more »
“Rock ’n roll is American in origin and now exists everywhere.” Huh? Its last gasp was back in the 2000s. It’s pretty much gone today. We can only hope that the social justice cult dismantles the American security state. Bring our troops home and stop the endless wars. It’ll be the only good thing to come out of it. Europeans in particular are completely disgusted with us. European intellectuals are nearly unanimous in the conviction that Americans and Europeans no longer share a common “strategic culture.” America is dominated by a “culture of death,” its warlike temperament the natural product of a violent society where every man has a gun and the death penalty reigns. The cause of US withdrawal enjoys significant support from everyone in Germany. They think the Yanks can’t leave soon enough. “They shouldn’t be allowed to fight their battles with Russia here. Far from ensuring Europe’s… Read more »
Good article, but it seems to me that the woke are not ecstatics. They are like the Puritans — Protestant of course but devoted to gloom and suffering and hellfire and privation. Born Againers are ecstatics, but Puritans are not, and the woke are the later.
“Overriding any potential logical opposition through the production of euphoria and catharsis, revivalism provides a wholly experiential foundation upon which a community can be both formed and defended.”
Another basic way in which “wokeness” closely resembles religious revivalism is that both express a rigidly dualistic, all-or-none, black-or-white, saved-or-damned vision of life and the world–a binary cognitive style and implicit metaphysic which some historians have traced ultimately to the teachings of the ancient Persian prophet Zoroaster, who visualized history as an aeons-old war of Light and Darkness, Ormazd and Ahriman. Being starkly binary and dualistic, “wokeness” and revivalism see everything in gloomy black or dazzling white, with no middle ground, no room for various shades of gray, no possibility of there being people who are good but imperfect, decent but fallible, well-meaning but misguided, well-intentioned but capable of stumbling. They resemble Protestant fundamentalists who zealously hold everyone to a strict Puritanical morality, who refuse to admit anything like the Catholic distinction of “mortal” and “venial” sins–for such Protestant zealots, even the slightest deviation from their code is what Catholics… Read more »
English comedian John Cleese, who calls himself politically “centre-left”, though some hostile British media have called him a reactionary for favoring Brexit, was quoted by Karl Quinn in Australia’s “Sydney Morning Herald” for 30 July 2020 as calling “the narrowing of public discourse” today’s main “trouble,” so that if you express a view outside a narrow ideological orthodoxy, “they’ll label you a fascist”. Quinn then quoted Cleese as describing “woke people” as “basically insane.” The “wokes,” Cleese complained, “take a perfectly decent idea which is ‘let’s try and be kind to people’ and then take it to absurdum.” They “sit there patiently waiting to be offended, and when they’re offended, they can really feel good about themselves.”
Today’s “Revivalist” woke politically-correct intersectionalist left-wing “Social Justice” cult is basically “Protestant” rather than “Catholic” in its demand for perfect total righteousness and holiness for all believers. Catholicism has always had both demanded an ultra-strict ultra-devout strongly ascetic life-style for priests, monks, nuns, and those qualified to become canonized saints, and a laxer, more permissive ethic for the ordinary laity, who are allowed to marry, have sex (within marriage), eat meat, drink wine, own property, make money, and serve in the military, acts largely forbidden to the Church’s “religious virtuosos” (as Max Weber called them). As Weber also once put it, the Protestant Reformation abolished monasticism and emptied the monasteries, but also tried to turn the whole world into a monastery, with EVERYBODY (and not just a small elite of priests, monks, and nuns) required to follow an equally strict morality, mainly differing from Catholic priesthood and monasticism in allowing… Read more »
Thanks for another interesting Areo article. But, like most such articles (and not just on Areo) it seems to studiously avoid the slightest consideration that religion, any religion, might actually be true. Any insight into a group of people is marred and limited if one always assumes they are either liars or deluded.
“This ritual style is called revivalism, and it is both as subtle and as American as a baseball bat.”
Not so. Such mass hysteria, religious or otherwise, is centuries older than the USA. Medieval Europe’s Dances Of Death and Flagellants are but two examples.