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Doing the Work

The Protestant ethic and the spirit of wokeness.

The religious roots of wokeness are rather specific, however. What McWhorter calls “religion” is really a quasi-religious offshoot of Protestantism, which is what prompted the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat to write of the “Great Awokening,”alluding to the waves of evangelical fervor that swept the American heartland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Douthat and McWhorter have both drawn on the work of the Catholic commentator Joseph Bottum, who argued in his 2014 book An Anxious Age that the moral fervor of contemporary progressivism should be understood as a secularized inheritance of the Protestant Social Gospel. (Bottum also prefers the term “elect”—in his case, as an improvement on “elite.”)

Understanding wokeness as an essentially Protestant phenomenon helps us to recognize the logic behind some of the rituals that have become customary in recent years: specifically, the public apology. One element that distinguishes the Protestant tradition from the other Abrahamic religions is its emphasis on public avowal. Catholics confess to priests in private and are absolved of their sins, until it is time to confess once more. Many Protestants are encouraged to affirm their virtue by making public confessions of faith.

It has become an all too familiar story: a man, or sometimes a woman, expresses an opinion or uses a word that is considered tone-deaf or offensive; he or she apologizes in public, and offers to do some kind of penance, which may or may not be accepted as sufficient. Apologies of this kind have become so common that people are often inclined to doubt their sincerity. Hence the demand for still more heartfelt acts of contrition, and on and on.

The apology might be for a personal transgression: a professor pronouncing the N-word while reading a literary text aloud, or a physician saying that “structural racism” was not primarily to blame for health problems among African Americans. Or it can be a historical wrong, for which political leaders are pressed to take responsibility. This often occurs in states with a Protestant tradition. Mark Rutte, the prime minister of the Netherlands, apologized this past December for the Dutch role in transatlantic slavery. Rutte was the first Dutch prime minister to do so, and only after much hesitation.

Such apologies can help to heal historic wounds. The West German chancellor Willy Brandt, who fell to his knees at the site of the former Warsaw ghetto in 1970, is rightly hailed for his act of official atonement. But having to apologize for an opinion that doesn’t conform to contemporary moral convictions is of a different order, something one would expect in ideological dictatorships—or strict religious communities.