Evangelicals require a new strategy for understanding whether a theological “meeting of the minds”—that is, fellowship in the truest and deepest sense—can be possible between those who disagree about political and cultural issues.
Two Questions on Authority
Over the last several years, American evangelicalism has become increasingly divided. And while that claim is certainly nothing new—particularly for readers of American Reformer—what’s particularly striking about this rift is how ambiguously defined the core concern still seems to be. Political commentators, to be sure, have been keen to lay the blame at President Donald Trump’s feet, arguing that the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections were crucial litmus tests.1 But that causal story does little to explain why these disagreements have lingered into 2022, with Trump no longer on the ballot. Whatever is driving this cleavage within the evangelical movement, it is something larger than electoral politics.
The obvious answer to this question, for many, would be the rise of “wokeness” or “cultural Marxism” or “progressivism” or something similar—a novel “successor ideology”2 diametrically opposed to Christianity in critical ways, and now spreading like a virus through congregations and other institutions. This ideology, for its part, is understood in terms of the distinctive complex of political beliefs and values dominant within secular white-collar environments in contemporary America: a strong emphasis on the salience of race, valorization of marginalized or “subaltern” groups on the basis of the fact that they are the subaltern, an embrace of “intersectionality,” and so forth.
There have been many efforts in recent years to nail down a workable definition of this thing called “wokeness.” And those efforts are entirely understandable. After all, to define a thing is to wield power over it. (A familiar trope of horror literature is that a demon can’t be exorcised until its name is known.) Defining “wokeness”—and in particular, defining it against Christian orthodoxy—allows a clear line in the sand to be drawn between Christians and the “woke.”
But it is time to confront an important fact: these efforts have largely failed, because no one actually agrees on what counts as “wokeness.” There is no catch-all definition of the term that can do the work that many evangelicals want it to do. Indeed, the quest for such a definition—at least within a Christian context—may be futile in principle.
Now, that observation certainly isn’t meant to suggest that the concerns of many evangelicals about the trajectory of their denominations and institutions are misguided. They are not. Rather, ongoing efforts to distill a fixed “essence of wokeness,” which can then be used as a criterion for categorizing individuals as either “woke” or “Christian,” are probably destined to fail, for reasons that are distinctive to the Christian tradition.
Without a better understanding of what is actually meant by “wokeness,” evangelicals concerned about the disintegration of their institutions risk stumbling into the dynamic that writer Samuel James has called “the hamster wheel of anti-wokeness,” in which “[m]istakes and misjudgments by major evangelical institutions galvanize the anti-woke into periodic mobility, which lead them into their own overstatements and exaggerations, which in turn give credibility back to mainstream evangelical leaders.”3 No progress in understanding is made, relationships are damaged, and the Church suffers for it.
Accordingly, evangelicals require a new strategy for understanding whether a theological “meeting of the minds”—that is, fellowship in the truest and deepest sense—can be possible between those who disagree about political and cultural issues. This strategy must be one that takes the how of theological reasoning every bit as seriously as the conclusions reached through that reasoning. And it is a strategy that relies on just two very simple questions.
But first, some groundwork must be laid.
In his popular recent volume Christianity and Wokeness, Owen Strachan defines “wokeness” as “[t]he state of being consciously aware of and ‘awake’ to the hidden, race-based injustices that pervade all of American society; this term has also been expanded to refer to the state of being ‘awake’ to injustices that are gender-based, class-based, etc.”4 For present purposes, this definition will suffice as a reasonably representative one.
Arguments against this “wokeness” tend to rely heavily on origin stories, which often look something like this: First, there was Western civilization, in all its strength and glory. Then came an evil influence from outside, an intellectual poison that ensnared the minds of the unwary. And it was a one-way train from there to the toxic, cancellation-happy culture that predominates today.
But there are at least two different historical stories, or genealogies, of “wokeness.” And assuming there are certain elements of truth in each, one is left with a messy intellectual account that does not make for effective polemics, and left without a stable criterion for maintaining doctrinal boundaries in practice.
The first narrative—the “discontinuity narrative”—lays the blame at the feet of 1960s-era academics, many of whom were disillusioned Marxists, who are accused of introducing a disruptive poison into the West.5 According to some versions of this narrative, Marx’s account of economic oppression was transposed into a “cultural” key, honed and refined by the Frankfurt School, and mainstreamed in Western universities.6 Where this narrative controls, those opposed to “wokeness” tend to think of it as a kind of heathenism, an anti-Christian rival faith. (The best-known version of a narrative like this one is probably Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay’s Cynical Theories.)
The second narrative—the “continuity narrative”—locates the seeds of “wokeness” within the Christian tradition itself. Friedrich Nietzsche was keen to point out that Christianity has always been particularly concerned for the oppressed—and indeed, the faith’s care for the vulnerable and downtrodden was one of the key factors that distinguished early Christianity from its Roman pagan surroundings. As Joshua Mitchell argues in American Awakening, it is not difficult to see echoes of this concern for justice—for a final eschatological reckoning and the casting down of the mighty from their high places, one might say—in contemporary political discourse that often gets characterized as “woke.”7 Where this narrative dominates, critics of “wokeness” see their target less as heathenism—a rival faith—than as heresy, a “sub-Christian” deviation ultimately springing from a common root.
The difference between these two narratives can be summarized simply: Is “wokeness” a self-conscious subversion of the Christian tradition, or a conscious extension of it?
And here the definitional problem comes into view. For one thing, whenever “wokeness” is formally defined, that definition inevitably tends to be overinclusive, implying opposition to efforts to become aware of, and to fight, injustice in general. Was the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s really “woke” in the modern sense? Intuitively, it feels anachronistic and wrong to project this definition backwards into the past.
More importantly, the Christianity/wokeness dichotomy that underpins Strachan’s book—and others like it—is a dichotomy that depends on the premise that “wokeness” is, in its essence, something anti-Christian. But identifying and fighting injustice is clearly a significant element of the Christian tradition, historically speaking. Indeed, those Christians who would advance “woke” arguments—who would allege, for instance, that the deconstruction of oppressive power relations lies at the heart of the faith—simply reject Strachan’s dichotomy on the basis of the continuity narrative (they would, of course, also reject any characterization of their views as “heresy”).
In short, because there are two dueling narratives about the origins and nature of “wokeness”—one of which happens to be a plausible account of “wokeness” as an extension of Christian ideas about justice and inherent equality—it simply doesn’t work to label some cluster of concepts and priorities as “woke,” and assume that this can self-evidently mean “anti-Christian.” Or, put differently, it is hard to question the influence of “wokeness” on theology in a context where both parties self-identify as Christians, because all one needs to do is label themselves as such. And given the continuity narrative, there’s at least a plausible “hook” for both parties to do so.
The crucial flashpoint is what it means to address an alleged injustice Christianly. And this question is a “how-question”—a matter of the way in which a Christian makes his or her case for a revision of existing teaching or practice, rather than being about any single teaching or practice as such.
When conservative federal judges interview applicants for law clerk jobs—one-year positions, in which young lawyers serve as research and drafting assistants for sitting judges—one of the most important considerations is whether the applicant is an “originalist.” Originalism, generally speaking, is the judicial philosophy that the original public meaning of the Constitution—in all its historical particularity—ought to govern how present-day judges interpret the text.