Just as with the water in David Foster Wallace’s now-famous allegory of the fish, the religious underpinnings of liberalism are all too often invisible to its most zealous adherents. No less than any other religion, liberalism includes faith-based doctrines such as a divine will (progress) and salvation (the right side of history). And much has been written on how liberalism’s elevation of the individual apart from the group betrays its Protestant Christian heritage.
Still, one of liberalism’s most distinctive features is its absolute lack of self-consciousness. The liberal is rarely aware that they are anything at all.
This makes it refreshing to see Andrew Sullivan’s frank acknowledgement of this fact in his recent column “America’s New Religions.” Though politically a liberal, Sullivan is not blind to the existence of liberal theology. Perhaps this is because, as a Catholic, Sullivan does not embrace liberalism to the exclusion of all else. He rejects the view of the liberal optimist who claims that meaning and morality can be apprehended by purely “rational” means, and criticizes harshly the emptiness that devotion to material progress alone engenders in the human soul.
In spite of this skepticism, Sullivan is committed to the preservation of a liberal political system and worries that the rise of “political cults”—particularly “the cult of Trump on the right” and “social-justice ideology” on the left—threatens its stability.
The Problem of Political Cults Is Mainly a Liberal One
One must assume that Sullivan mentions these two examples together only in order to avoid mixing his thesis with partisanship. Although such a concern is understandable, it is disappointing to see Sullivan get so far only to abandon subtlety in the final analysis. His overarching point about the existential fact of religion is quite true, but he glosses over the differences between the “new religions” he identifies to the point of misunderstanding them.
There is an asymmetry between the “social justice ideology” (a.k.a. intersectionality) that Sullivan points to on the left and Trumpism. The former is an all-encompassing set of beliefs, with a positive vision of how to reshape the world. The latter, on the other hand, represents few if any coherent beliefs. While intersectionality can be understood in the absence of Trumpism, the inverse does not hold true. Trumpism, to a great extent, exists in reaction to intersectionality, functioning as a stopgap against it. Drawing an equivalence between the two, as Sullivan does, confuses the reasons for their existence and popularity. If any resolution is to be found, a deeper understanding is required.
Intersectionality fits squarely into Sullivan’s definition of religion as “a way of life that gives meaning, a meaning that cannot really be defended without recourse to some transcendent value, undying ‘Truth’ or God (or gods).” Indeed, he, and many others, have previously remarked upon the intricate system of beliefs and practices that define the Intersectional faith. Among the more recognizable are original sin in the form of privilege, confession in the form of privilege-checking, and even the demiurge of White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy. Intersectionality’s devotees do not merely chant slogans, but frequently break down in tears as they do so. Whether a sign of genuine religious ecstasy, or of fear and pain aroused by the implications of intersectionality’s teachings, these reactions go well beyond normal political behavior. Such features attest to the existence of an Intersectional religion, complete with a standard doctrine, set of rituals, and derivation of meaning.
Furthermore, intersectionality’s influence only continues to grow. This past week, Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Kirsten Gillibrand tweeted her commitment to an intersectional future, indicating that she believes this to be a winning message on the American left. But intersectionality’s gains are not merely rhetorical. Twitter’s implementation of transgender ideology into its code of conduct heralds a future in which the most powerful media corporations on the planet reserve the right to unperson heretics.
The religious language is no exaggeration. Apple CEO Tim Cook himself invoked it while endorsing censorship of hate, remarking, “Choosing to set that responsibility aside in a moment of trial is a sin.” Meanwhile, The New York Times continues to employ Sarah Jeong, having deemed her long history of anti-White tweets acceptable in light of “the fact that she is a young Asian woman” and “subject of frequent online harassment.” The subtext, of course, was that Jeong’s behavior could be excused as falling outside the intersectional definition of racism: “prejudice plus power.” It is not hard to see why Intersectionality’s conquest of the world’s wealthiest corporations, most influential media organizations, and an entire American political party might lead infidels to adopt a defensive posture. Which brings us to Trumpism.
Trumpism Is a Response, Not a Religion
True, some of Trump’s most credulous supporters interpret his every immature tweet as one more move in a grand game of 3-D chess. And yes, the QAnon theorists are as deranged as the acolytes of any cult. But even the most conspiratorial forms of Trump support do not fit Sullivan’s own criteria for religion. Trumpism contains no canonical rituals or beliefs. Supporters covering for the mistakes and repeating the slogans of their favored politician is hardly a unique phenomenon. And while the passion of political expression has undoubtedly become more extreme, this has been driven not by the burning faith of the zealot but by the anger of the self-identified “forgotten.” If Trump is anything for his supporters, it is Avatar, not God. There is no illusion of infallibility, simply interests which persist independent of Trump’s many failings.
Chief among these interests is the desperation to stymie Intersectionality’s inexorable march. The clearest expression of this is in Michael Anton’s “The Flight 93 Election” - perhaps the most influential political essay of 2016 - which endorsed Trump in the following terms: “A Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.”
Hillary Clinton aside, the point still stands two years on. While the enthusiasm of a Trump rally may not at first seem to conform to the reluctant and precarious image of Trump support that Anton articulated, once one considers that the alternative is a fanatical progressive crusade that openly intends to crush its opposition, it all makes a lot more sense. Provided one’s enemy is sufficiently bloodthirsty, even the most otherwise distasteful of allies can make the difference between life and death.
This is what is so baffling about Sullivan’s and so many others’ criticisms of Trump support. If they argued that an ascendant intersectional religion actually wouldn’t be so bad, that would be one thing. But instead, they focus in on Trump’s personal failures—his rudeness, his immaturity, his vice—as if it should somehow make a difference. Sullivan writes, “Because [Trump supporters’] faith is unmoored but their religious impulse is strong, they seek a replacement for religion. This is why they could suddenly rally to a cult called Trump. He may be the least Christian person in America, but his persona met the religious need their own faiths had ceased to provide.”
For Sullivan, it is somehow strange that Christian conservatives don’t surrender to compelled transgender ideology in schools just because the alternative is a man who has had extramarital affairs. But choosing to ignore Trump’s obvious problems is not a sign of blind faith. It is a perfectly rational calculation in light of what awaits conservatives on the other side of the bulwark he represents. For as long as Intersectional theocracy remains the alternative, all this criticism reads as complaining about the facilities on a life raft.
Sullivan ends his piece by lamenting “how profoundly liberal democracy has actually depended on the complement of a tolerant Christianity to sustain itself” and wishing in vain for a return to faith which “seeks no sway over Caesar.” It’s a perfectly understandable desire. But it is one which all the radical centrist think-pieces in the world will do precisely nothing to achieve.
Sullivan’s vaunted institutions have all already fallen to the Intersectional faith. If the tide can be turned, it won’t be without dirtying our hands. That’s not religion, it’s reality.