The new Puritans: being ‘woke’ isn’t new — it’s pure 1662

Pic: "ayflower in Plymouth Harbor," by William Halsall, 1882 at Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA

Although we’re supposed to be living in a post-religious West, the woke movement is about as thoroughly Christian as any political ideology could possibly be.

It is not just generally Christian, as the historian Tom Holland argues, that all progressive thought is. It doesn’t even take Christian or Jewish tropes about the apocalypse and the chosen people and repurpose them, as the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski argued that Marxism did. It reproduces the mindset and even some of the rituals of a particular form of Christianity, 17th-century Protestantism or Puritanism.

“Woke” in its modern usage started out as a protest against the institutional racism of American police forces, after Michael Brown was shot dead by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. It was meant then as a term to rouse people to the intolerable reality of black people’s interactions with the police force, a situation best illustrated by the testimony of the white woman in Michigan who could not understand why armed police kept pulling her car over for minor or nonexistent traffic violations until one day a relation mistook her large black poodle, Merlin, which was sitting — as it often did  — in the front passenger seat, for a black man.

But the word “woke” very rapidly spread to cover an attitude that stretched much wider than racism. To be woke also entailed particular opinions of transgender questions, on academic freedom, and on the concepts of privilege and oppression. The critic Alan Jacobs points out that the core of wokeness is not so much a set of beliefs as a style of believing.

“‘Woke’ derives from ‘waking up’ to how things are” Jacobs writes, “and that ought to suggest that to commend wokeness is to invite people to participate in a mythical experience.”

From inside a myth what seem to an outside observer to be statements about historical or scientific fact become expression of deep eternal truths: they are “simply the way things are and will ever be”.

Jacobs, a Christian, calls them myths. He does not mean to dismiss them that way. Christians, too, live by myths, he says. But, he argues, to say that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, is not to make a historical statement, or even one that can easily be fitted into history. It is, rather, a belief that makes sense of history, and the same is true about the myths of the work.

Writing about an earlier wave of woke protests, Jacobs continues: “For instance, from within the mythical core it can make sense to think of reading Plato as reading a white person, as participating in whiteness, even though there is no meaningful historical sense in which Plato was white.”

If the core of wokeness is a myth that can be put entirely into words and debated, it can only be brought to life, like other religious myths, by rituals and that is where its close ties to American religious traditions become clear.

You could argue that the originator of woke ideology was probably Jesus Christ, who said “the last shall be first and the first shall be last” which suggested that privilege was a religious concept and one of interest to God. You could trace it back to His mother: when Mary heard the news of her unmarried pregnancy she rejoiced that God “hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart. He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich He hath sent empty away.”

Hearing this passage read out in compulsory chapel every day for five years was cited by the English author Claud Cockburn as one reason why he became a communist in the 1930s.

Like all members of the English upper middle class until the 1960s, Cockburn was brought up on the 1662 edition of Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer,  which sets out two services that are central to the performance of contemporary wokeness — the confession of sins and the public shaming of sinners who will not confess. Every morning the Prayer Book Christian confesses to God that “We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us.”

Just as the Prayer Book Christian must be conscious of sin, the “woke” or the “ally” today must be continuously conscious of their privilege and aware of all the ways in which they fall short of equality. I don’t mean that this is a delusion: it’s all justified, just as the self-reproach of the Puritan is justified. We are all sinners, in fact as well as in myth. We all have privilege relative to someone else.

To brood continuously on these matters might be an unbearable way to live if there were not always sinners even grosser and more deformed by sin than we are, and men even older, whiter, and more privileged as well.

On those despicable unfortunates the Puritans called down the wrath of God. In the Prayer Book there is the service of commination at the beginning of Lent, which summons the curses of God and the congregation on “such persons as stood convicted of notorious sin”: they were “put to open penance, and punished in this world, that their souls might be saved in the day of the Lord; and that others, admonished by their example, might be the more afraid to offend”.

The woke do not put their faith in God, of course. They call down the wrath of history instead. The equivalent of commination on social media today is the hounding of JK Rowling; while in the offline world there is the spread of “cancel culture” whereby people can lose their jobs for things they have said or done years ago — or even for sympathising with those who have been cancelled, as the film-maker Spike Lee has been forced to apologise for having Woody Allen as a friend.

It would be comforting if this could be dismissed with the smug condescension with which we dismiss the Puritans of 400 years ago. But wokeness cannot be wished away. It is too religious for that, which means that the opposition to it will also be a religious phenomenon, with its own sacred values and non-negotiable demands.

The counter-wokeness sacralises nations instead of classes. Its symbols are now the statues that the woke want toppled, and the flags that seem so dangerous and so vulgar to the left (remember when a Labour shadow minister had to resign for tweeting out a photograph of the English flag of St George?).

The law the British government proposes which would allow 10-year prison sentences for the desecration of memorials has nothing to do with vandalism or criminal damage: it is a law against sacrilege, or blasphemy. It is, in other words, a religious reaction to a religious assault. Common sense, and common decency, are found on both sides of this struggle but right now their enemies on both sides are winning.