Puritanism is back, and not just the #MeToo sort. The drama of the damned and the saved, of public accusation, confession, absolution, and condemnation for every sort of social, political, or environmental sin, has become downright tiresome. And woe betide those who reject the orthodoxy of intersectionality, the idea that interlocking structures of power combine to marginalize and oppress certain social groups—a religion of saints and sinners, as Andrew Sullivan has observed, that “like the Puritanism once familiar in New England … controls language and the very terms of discourse.” (“Is Intersectionality a Religion?” New York Magazine, March 10, 2017).
It would not be possible to appreciate the Puritanical character of modern social phenomena without the work of Max Weber. 2020 marks the centenary of the publication in book form The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, in which Weber argued that that industrial capitalism sprang in large part from the attempt of sixteenth and seventeenth-century “Puritans”—especially Calvinists—to work out their salvation anxiety through intensive and indefatigable labor. Rising early, living ascetically, and systematically and methodically pursuing profit (Weber devotes several pages to Ben Franklin), their vocational zeal paid off in wealth and power. These achievements were taken to be evidence of being among the few elected by God for eternal salvation. For how could one prosper without His grace?
Weber’s study of the religious psychology of early Reformed Christians illuminates more than just the origins of industrial capitalism. Americans today are afflicted with their own salvation anxiety, and their attempts to resolve this anxiety have given rise to a psychological economy of secular salvation. Puritanism, of course, was not simply an engine of development. It produced considerable suffering, particularly among “sinners” who were banished, excommunicated, dunked, hanged, or pressed to death. But the economy of secular salvation has brought forth nothing whatsoever of positive value. Its social consequences are entirely undesirable. It has corrupted education, government, and the press by elevating the seduction of “virtue signaling” into a moral imperative and a business plan. Worse, it has fueled the rise of identity politics, a development that threatens utterly to destroy the badly frayed bonds that now barely suffice to hold our body politic together.
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Weber’s account of the ethos of capitalism begins with Luther’s teaching that God is pleased not by monkish withdrawal form the world, but by the fulfillment of one’s duties in the world, duties incurred by the social and occupational positions to which He has providentially assigned each person. The Calvinists embraced Luther’s “moral legitimation of vocational life,” and came to see “the rational formation of the societal cosmos” through work as a primary way to promote the glory of God. But they also maintained that God’s inscrutable will, according to which some few are predestined from eternity for salvation and the great majority for damnation, is utterly impervious to human influence.
Calvin’s followers received the teaching of double predestination with considerable anxiety, for it raised gnawing doubts about their ultimate fate. How might congregants reassure themselves that they were among God’s chosen few? The solution to this problem, Weber argues, was found in “work without rest in a vocational calling,” which was “recommended as the best possible means to acquire the confidence that one belonged among the elect.” For while industry and frugality are reliable means to accumulate wealth, Calvinists and other Puritans considered success in work to be impossible without God’s grace, and thus evidence of His discriminating favor.
The hermetic logic with which Calvin’s followers assured themselves of salvation did more than just promote industrial capitalism. It resulted in a fundamental transformation of the traditional religious ethos of Christianity. “In place of humble sinners … Calvinism now bred self-confident ‘saints’”; the “religious virtuoso,” assured by worldly accomplishment of his membership among the elect, was born. But the quest for certainty did not stop there. Calvin taught that the church was not limited to the elect, but included both the saved and the unsaved. Perhaps inevitably, however, there was pressure to ensure that at least “church administrators and the minister … be among the saved.” Ultimately even this proved insufficient. The congregation “came to be viewed as a community of believers and the elect—and only these persons. In other words, it existed as a ‘sect’ rather than a ‘church.’”
The natural consequence of this development was “hatred and contempt for the sinner as an enemy of God, one who carried with him the marks of the eternally condemned.” But the psychological rewards of membership in the sect of saints outweighed such un-Christian feelings. Purified of the damned, the congregation of the elect saw everywhere the manifest tokens of salvation. Socially reinforced in an uninterrupted context of mutual recognition, their claims to sainthood were self-certifying.
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Weber’s analysis of the development of Puritanism helps us to understand the social and psychological economy of the chosen few of our own society. Although the secularized American elite—successful, politically progressive men and women with degrees from highly selective universities and colleges who occupy or aspire to positions of leadership in government, business, education, journalism, publishing, entertainment, philanthropic foundations, and the like—no longer believe in the doctrine of God, they take their bearings by the decayed residue of biblical categories. It is not God they fear and profess to love, but man. Having learned at school to commit themselves to transformative moral action—the contemporary version of the Calvinists’ “rational formation of the social cosmos”—they heed not the internal imperatives of prophetic conscience, but the external ones of social consciousness. They confess and repent not inwardly, but vocally and publicly. For it is the public, or a certain part of it—an entity often as inscrutable and arbitrary as the almighty God who, in Luther’s words, “works life, and death, and all in all”—whose judgment they dread, and whose mercy they hope for.
Like their Puritan forebears, the American elite value worldly success, methodical, purposive work, and instrumental reason. Like the Calvinists, they suffer from a kind of salvation anxiety. Yet the salvation they seek is bestowed not by God, but by congregants of what we might call the Church of Humanity, whose religion of social justice, leveling egalitarianism, and radical societal transformation—all in the service of abstract, undifferentiated humanity-as-such—is the subject of Daniel J. Mahoney’s penetrating study, The Idol of Our Age (Encounter, 2018). And while prosperity assuaged the anxieties of the old elite, it tends to exacerbate those of the new ones, who are suffused with liberal guilt about their good fortune. But the new Calvinists have begun to find their own ingenious ways to make the quest for profit promote saintly self-confidence. The recent, explosive rise of philanthrocapitalism and public-private partnerships means that material success is increasingly entwined with liberal ideals. Many young professionals, keeping social accounts as well as financial ones, find it doubly advantageous to be employed by foundations that promote progressive causes (as most do), or by the law firms and banks that work with them.
Like Weber’s Puritans, believers in the Church of Humanity seek to authenticate their claims to salvation within a social framework. This is the inner meaning of virtue signaling, an activity that is meant to elicit public approval from like-minded people and thus confirmation, if not of one’s virtue, then at least of one’s conspicuous virtuosity. The economy of secular salvation furthermore develops along familiar lines. In principle, the Church of Humanity offers salvation to all. In practice, it is suffused with purifying impulses. Some of its earliest converts were found in the academy, where the need for social validation of its doctrines eventually resulted in an almost complete purge of political conservatives and intellectual traditionalists, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. Today the dismissal of those who dissent from its progressive creed—call them the damned—proceeds across multiple venues, including churches and synagogues.
My Conservative congregation in Tulsa, Oklahoma exemplifies this trend. Our chief rabbi fervently believes that Angela Merkel is a righteous gentile, a moral exemplar of the core values of Judaism. He announced in a High Holyday sermon that he regards Merkel as “a saint” for welcoming more than a million refugees into Germany. He added that the United States should take in five million refugees—nay, an unlimited number. In another sermon, our assistant rabbi told us that, in his youth, he’d seen a nice fishing boat; when he learned that it belonged to a black man, he was ashamed to have assumed its owner must be white. Citing work on intersectionality, he urged the congregation to learn from his thoughtlessness: they, too, were afflicted by unconscious racism that needed to be rooted out of their hearts and minds. Nor is this progressive evangelizing restricted to the sanctuary. A few years ago, the synagogue’s highly successful preschool began offering a regular “Social Justice Story Hour” that was designed “to empower young children to use their strong voices and actions to be kind friends, helpers, and powerful agents of social change.”
When push comes to shove, our rabbis—like a great many other religious leaders in the United States—prefer saintly self-confidence to humble doubt. But if Merkel is to be canonized for her support of open borders, then are not those who oppose her politics condemned by their rejection of her progressive values? And if the Jewish conscience requires us to scourge and purge ourselves of unconscious racism in accordance with the doctrines of intersectionality, then are not those who dispute these doctrines unconscionable? The dynamics of progressive purification are hard at work here, much as they were in early Protestantism. The church becomes a sect.
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The things I’ve just described—the language of empowerment and oppression, the increasing emphasis on social action, the recruitment of the young to the cause of social change, the confusion of morality and politics, and the endowment of the latter with quasi-religious significance—are all too familiar today. They are visible in virtually every arena, from education and journalism to sports and entertainment. But identity politics is shifting the ground on which secular salvation is worked out from virtue signaling to what Joshua Mitchell, a professor of political theory at Georgetown University who has recently completed a groundbreaking manuscript on identity politics, calls “innocence signaling.” It is now no longer enough to show that one embraces what the ancient Greeks called orthē doxa, politically correct opinion. One must also come to grips with the moral stain of membership in one or more of the various classes of historical oppressors—a stain, Mitchell suggests, that the faithful hope to wash away by purging the one truly irredeemable scapegoat: the white heterosexual male.
Yet almost no one appears completely innocent when passed through the dispersive prism of intersectional identity politics—nor, frankly, would anyone want to be. Intersectionality offers its own, immanentized version of the Christian eschatological hope that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. I recently found in a photocopier at my university a chart entitled “Intersecting Axes of Privilege, Domination, and Opression [sic].” According to this chart, oppressors include those who are “male and masculine,” “female and feminine,” “male,” “white,” “European,” “heterosexual,” “able-bodied,” “credentialed,” “young,” ”attractive,” “upper and upper-middle class,” “anglophones,” “light, pale,” “gentile, non-Jew,” and “fertile.” If you are infertile, Jewish, dark-skinned, poor, ugly, old, unschooled, disabled, LGBTQ, non-European, neither masculine nor feminine, gender-deviant, and don’t speak English, you are among the happy few who stand on the very top rung of the ladder of victimhood—at least until further categories of oppression are discovered. Everyone else is simultaneously a victim and victimizer, varying only according to the degree to which any particular individual may be relatively overdetermined as one or the other.
This framework of purity and pollution effectively sets each against all in a struggle to avoid being targeted. Those with means use wealth and fame to purchase indulgences by conspicuously promoting progressive causes and candidates. Those without show inquisitorial zeal in exposing and condemning oppressors, activities now volatilized by electronic media that promote “flash mobs” and “doxing.” Such indulgence-seeking and Puritanical witch-hunting only accelerate the spread of identity politics and the destruction of social bonds. Nor are these effective means of individual self-protection, for ideological purges inevitably eat their own.
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Precisely because it rests on the apotheosis of humanity-as-such, the pursuit of secular salvation exercises a strongly leveling influence in contemporary society. Nor is it surprising that the evolving creed of the Church of Humanity, sanctified by collective feelings of resentment, envy, and indignation, consists in empty, humanly reductive, and punitive concepts. All of this is foreshadowed in the philosophical analysis of pagan theogenesis undertaken by ancient Athenians in the circle of Socrates.
In Aristophanes’ Clouds, a man hoping to wriggle out of his debts goes to Socrates in order to learn the art of unjust speech. When he promises to pay him, Socrates replies “What sort of gods will you swear by? For first of all, gods are not current coin [nomisma] for us.” The word he uses is etymologically related to the noun nomos (custom, convention, law) and the verb nomidzein (to believe or acknowledge in accordance with custom). Socrates implies that gods—including the Olympians, whose graven images adorned Greek coins—are minted by particular communities, within which they function as tokens of social exchange. Their political, moral, and psychological value is purely conventional. It is collectively conferred by the community; each credits the gods only because all do. But Socrates does not, so to speak, take American Express.
It is well that he does not. A story about viciousness disguised as piety unfolds in Plato’s Euthyphro, set at a court where Socrates has come to face young Meletus’s charges of impiety and corrupting his agemates. Euthyphro is indicting his father for murder—a shocking breach of the norms of filial piety—in order, he says, to cleanse a household stained with religious pollution. But his father had slighted him by refusing to recognize him as a prophet and religious expert, and his strict adherence to principles of ritual purity is evidently rooted in a desire to avenge his wounded pride. Euthyphro supports his behavior by appealing to the intergenerational conflict of the mythological immortals of Hesiod and Homer, who are more Godfathers than gods. He asserts that whatever the gods love is pious just because they love it. Their every whim and wish is our command: an offer we can’t refuse. But Euthyphro imitates these gods in making his wish their command, letting his rage coalesce into a conviction of religious obligation.
Socrates’ exactly contrary proposal is bracingly, philosophically purificatory: the gods love what is pious just because it is pious. The brute fact of desire does not make something desirable; similarly, he implies, it is a thing’s intrinsic properties that make it valuable, not the mere act of valuing it. Yet readers cannot help noticing that paganism as explicated by Aristophanes, and piety as reflected in the character of Euthyphro, are exceptions to this rule. In the Euthyphro, Socrates describes conventional piety as “art of commerce for gods and human beings.” But the Athenians are overinvested in this highly inflated market, and will not allow him to continue to expose its irrational mechanisms. Like Euthyphro’s father, who scrupulously adheres to sacred and ancestral law (he consults Athenian religious officials in the matter that leads his son to charge him with murder), he must be destroyed in the name of piety itself.
Virgil describes Aeneas, a devoted son and steward of ancestral ways who carried his father on his back from the burning city of Troy, as pius or “dutiful.” The piety of Euthyphro and Meletus is something else. Meletus claimed that old Socrates’ speech harmed the Athenians. The Church of Humanity similarly condemns old books and ideas that fall afoul of progressive values. Beauty, a thirty-something professor recently informed me, is a concept tainted with “whiteness”; studying Aristotle, another confessed at a conference, infected her with virtually ineradicable racism. Socrates tried to do justice to gods and men alike. How much longer will this new generation suffer teachers and scholars who attempt to do justice to Socrates?
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Pagan theogenesis plays a pivotal role in the Bible. In the episode of the Golden Calf, rebellious Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai recapitulate in distorted form the revelation that took place there forty days earlier. They displace God, reject the Law, rewrite the past, and lay claim to a future shut off from transcendent truth and being. In these decisive respects, they furnish the prototype of the contemporary Church of Humanity.
Here is Robert Alter’s translation of Exodus 32:1-4:
And the people saw that Moses lagged in coming down from the mountain, and the people assembled against Aaron and said to him, “Rise up, make us gods that will go before us, for this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.” And Aaron said to them, “Take off the golden rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” And all the people took off the golden rings that were on their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he took them from their hand and he fashioned it in a mold and made it into a molten calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.”
Aaron coins a dumb, lifeless image to replace the living God who had already warned the Israelites against making gold or silver idols (Exod. 20:23). The medieval commentator Rashi suggests that Aaron shaped the metal with “a goldsmith’s tool … like the stylus used by a scribe.” Aaron’s work is a debased image of what is happening high above on Mount Sinai, where God writes the Decalogue on stone tablets with his finger. Before that divine Word can be published, the Israelite mob—itself a fused, undifferentiated mass—speaks for the amalgamated god they have so forcefully commissioned. They weirdly address themselves in the second person, twisting the pronouncement that introduces the Law—“I am the LORD your God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exod. 20:1)—to suggest that they have received this new god from on high. This monumental act of self-deception only partially obscures the fact that they are worshipping their own collective power.
At stake in the episode of the Golden Calf is not simply whether the Israelites will obey the Law of God, but whether they will succeed in authoring a radically revisionist history of the Exodus. The proclamation that “These are your gods … who brought you up from the land of Egypt”—meaning, in effect, “We ourselves broke the chains of slavery”—licenses the next day’s bacchanalian jubilation (Exod. 32:6). In declaring that they freed themselves, they rewrite the story of their liberation in such a way as to erase all debts to God and Moses.
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Ascetic, self-controlled, dutiful, and God-fearing, the old Calvinists bore little resemblance to the idol-worshipping Israelites at Sinai. Yet they, too, thought to liberate themselves from psychological enslavement through a kind of self-exaltation. The material transformation of the “societal cosmos” glorified God, but it also certified their saintliness and gave them wealth and power—consequences that, however much they might have been loath to admit it, found natural support in their appetites.
It is the new Calvinists, however, who are the true epigones of the Israelite idolaters. They effectively divinize the human collective. They are oblivious of their cultural inheritance and of history. But they go further than their ancestors. They invent new forms of past and present slavery so that they might lead humanity into the future as liberators and saviors. But having closed themselves off from eternity, they are poor judges of our life in time. They do not understand that the Promised Land they envision is a mirage, or that the path they have set us on leads into Hell. For while the Israelite rebels were satisfied to gratify simple (if powerful) appetites, the new Calvinists have awakened furious, deeply destructive passions. The idol they have loosed from the dark depths of the human psyche is no gold calf, but the rough beast that stalked the globe in the middle of the last century. It is a revenant monster that will devour us all, including those who summoned it.
Burdened by uncertainty about their eternal destiny, the old Calvinists sought to assure themselves of God’s favor. The new ones feel the weight of another kind of predestination, that of historical contingency, and seek to secure only the favor of other human beings. They regard the brute givenness of racial, ethnic, and sexual identity, and of myriad natural and social inequalities, as a yoke of injustice. But like other modern revolutionary impulses, the moral imperative to correct newly-discovered injustices manifests itself in an astonishingly destructive naïveté fed by inexcusable ignorance. The old banner under which the new Calvinists march is tattered and blood-soaked and hopelessly twisted, and should long ago have been retired. It reads fiat iustitia et pereat mundus: “Let justice be done, and let the world perish.”