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Opposing Wokeness is Not Enough
A parable from my homeschooled life.
Several years ago, a sizable segment of American evangelicalism decided that biological macroevolution was the most pressing public theology issue of the times. The near total embrace of Darwinian theory in American public schools in a very short amount of time was a moral disaster that immediately wedded political power to a bankrupt ideology. The sneering attitude of certain cultural elites toward creationism and an observable streak of anti-religious and anti-American sentiment that attended it convinced many evangelicals that evolution was not an issue, but the issue, downstream from which flowed all others. Winning the culture war for the hearts and minds of future generations meant, above all, winning the war against evolution.
This belief took hold of many conservative evangelical communities. As a result, several well-funded institutions and movements emerged to combat evolutionary ideology. The homeschooling movement became a self-consciously anti-evolutionary movement, and its textbooks openly advertised their creationist content as an appealing reason to homeschool. Many expressions of the anti-evolution movement stayed on message while becoming accessible to a broader group of evangelicals. But some didn’t. Some institutions and groups watched as the conversation around culture war shifted and changed among Christians, and decided that the Christians who had stopped talking about macroevolution were making a huge mistake, perhaps even consciously capitulating to secularism.
These particular groups and movements decided to define themselves wholly in terms of opposing evolution, which they still believe is the core ideological issue of the day. But in order to define themselves in this way, they had to start drawing lines in strange places. They had to characterize Christians who didn’t think of origins the way they did as less than faithful, perhaps even apostate. Consequently, these groups became pulled in two directions: creationism advocacy in the secular public square, but also polemics that criticized and warned against compromise from other Christians. The tribal circle was drawn more finely, and a non-trivial number of charlatans and hucksters—gifted at telling the diminishing tribe what it wanted to hear, and themselves targets of criticism—were admitted as friends of the movement.
Over the years, these groups and institutions bled from the inside. The charlatans and hucksters were often exposed as such. Their rhetoric became increasingly self-conscious, until the fundamental arguments against macroevolution became secondary to the need of the group to assert its own necessity against the lukewarmness of everyone else. In the end, many of these groups that still had a voice ended up giving that voice to other issues, and the core worldview concerns about origins were sidelined as the movement made the crucial pivots to ensure public relevance.
What I’ve just described is a narrative that I’ve been able to watch in real-time over the course of my life. It is almost impossible for someone who wasn’t enmeshed in homeschool culture in the 90s to understand just how central anti-evolution was to many communities. Just the sheer number of institutions and thought leaders whose sole function was to combat evolution was incredible. That number is far reduced now. And you know what’s interesting? Few of the people who still strongly object to Darwinian origins seem to care. They’ve moved on, not from their beliefs, but from the banners.
So when I read about how some influential conservatives, including Christians, have been baptizing Vladmir Putin’s regime because of its opposition to LGBT ideology, I sense the same lesson repeating itself again. The belief that sexual or racial wokeness is the issue, the culture war, is incredibly alluring because of the news and media cycle. But it is also a belief that deeply compromises both theological and intellectual integrity. Yes, there are many expressions of social justice that are harmful and should be opposed. But one of the clearest signs that wokeness has monopolized our attention in a destructive and non-Christian way is if we find ourselves making excuses for or “whatabouting” violent assaults on the innocent.
Sohrab Ahmari’s comparison of Russian sanctions to woke cancel culture is a five-alarm fire. It’s a crimson-red master alarm that something in the popular conservative imagination has been badly crippled. I call it negative epistemology: the shaping of conscience around enmity. It is possible to hate wokeness more than you love human life, and Russia’s unjustified war in Ukraine (along with its appalling human rights record) is a litmus test for a conservative movement that desperately needs to know if the shoes fit.
It is possible to criticize Darwinian evolution without speaking and living and advocating in such a way that suggests your identity is tied up into such criticism. It is possible to engage in holistic discipleship that discusses origins and biblical interpretation, but also has a wide enough view of doctrine and history to know that disagreements shouldn’t automatically equal disfellowship. Some evangelical leaders and groups failed to learn this lesson, and the result is that not even their patrons talk very much anymore about their fundamental theological concerns. The same fate awaits anti-woke evangelicals who are so eager to cut off an emerging secular ideology that call good evil and evil good. And in the meanwhile, friendships and institutional partnerships will be scrapped because of tribal lines, drawn weakly in the sand of presentism and doomed to be washed out with the same tide that has brought in new problems generation-in, generation-out, since the way to the tree of life became blocked.