April 22, 2021

“Thank you George Floyd for sacrificing your life for justice … Because of you and because of thousands, millions of people around the world who came out for justice, your name will always be synonymous with justice.” So spoke Speaker Nancy Pelosi after the conviction of Derek Chauvin, in one of the most telling reactions so far. George Floyd died for our sins, a martyr for the faith.

Every year American police kill about 40-50 unarmed civilians, of whom just under half are black, and while many have become well-known since the rise of Black Lives Matters in 2013, Floyd was the first to have become an icon. Murals were painted across the world and those who mocked him went on trial for blasphemy. His is one of the most recognisable faces of 2020.

The murder triggered a month of protests characterised not just by looting and violence but by strange and bizarre scenes such as the washing of black feet. As Niall Gooch put it at the time: “I am beginning to understand what it must have felt like to be alive in the Middle Ages when one of those hysterical outbreaks began and everyone in your village started quacking like a duck or refusing to wear clothes.”

At the same time, the trend among conservative and classical liberal commentators of comparing American progressivism to a religion accelerated. Certainly the influence of Christianity and, in particular, Calvinism has been well documented, by me included.

It is easy to compare social justice politics to religion because there are so many superficial similarities; it is also fun, because many of our opponents despise religion and prize rationalism. Yet it is also unfair to religious believers and the faiths that inspired them.

Right now, hundreds of millions of Muslims are fasting for the month of Ramadan, during which time they will raise huge amounts for charity — quietly, dutifully and without informing their Instagram followers. They do that because the Abrahamic faiths demand great self-sacrifice and selflessness.

In contrast, political ideology mostly offers only rewards — status, popularity and often jobs and money. While big corporations have been pressured to support social justice campaigns since last May, it’s questionable who will benefit the most; the campaigners certainly won’t be out of pocket.

Religions also inspire great art, while the Great Awokening won’t leave us with a Last Supper, Chartres Cathedral or Shrine of Fatimah Masumeh. We have some murals, yes, but there is nothing transcendental, nothing for future generations to marvel at and to cherish. Most significantly, though, there is no possibility of redemption or forgiveness with today’s political religion. What is often referred to as “cancel culture” is the absence of forgiveness in public life, even for things people said in their youth.

At the height of the Great Awokening last year, 14 of the 15 bestsellers on the New York Times list were about race, racism and the means by which white people could be better “allies”. Yes, there was Christian guilt there, but the phenomenally successful White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism offers no redemption or hope at all. There is really nothing that white liberals, Robin DiAngelo’s target audience, can ultimately do — except to recognise their privilege and feel guilty, because they benefit from the system.

Religions at their most anthropological offer people a means of rubbing along, through the ideas of justice and mercy. There is none of that in the political ideology of our time; it is far more a clash of wills and a battle for supremacy; there is certainly no sense of sacrifice.

The ultimate sacrifice, for Christians, was Jesus’s death on the cross, and Christ accepted his death to save mankind. George Floyd did not; he was not a martyr, he was a victim of murder. Of course, the veneration of Floyd is indisputably Christian in flavour; Jesus himself was a criminal, and the religion turned the moral hierarchy on its head by idolising the despised. Yet the religious fervour of our age is better described as cultish rather than religious — and the differences are important.

The term “Political Religion” was coined by the German philosopher Eric Voegelin in his 1938 book of the same name, which made the point that totalitarian political movements strongly resemble faiths. He later called all modern political movements “ersatz religion” and argued that after the Enlightenment people began to see their own activities as sacred, including their politics.

Which seems prophetic, if that’s not the wrong word.

This was followed after the war by Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium, a book that was talked about a fair bit as last summer dragged on. Cohn looked at various millennial Christian movements that had sprung up during the late medieval era and following the Reformation, his historical account having one eye on the tragedy that had just hit Europe. Most of the movements Cohn described shared certain characteristics, including a veneration of the poor and hatred of the rich, a belief in the inevitability of a future earthy paradise — “the Third Age” — and a division of the world into good and evil.

“These people could be regarded as remote precursors of Bakunin and of Nietzsche” and the “armed bohemians of National Socialism”, he wrote of one such group, the Brethren of the Free Spirit.

The Brethren believed in “a quasi-mystical anarchism — an affirmation of freedom so reckless and unqualified that it amounted to a total denial of every kind of restraint and limitation”. In order to come closer to God, they first had to engage in group sex and surprisingly the group didn’t have much trouble attracting recruits, until the Church cracked down on them.

More disturbing were the Flagellants, large groups of people who would proceed from town to town and whip themselves into an agonised, bloody fury, accompanied by weeping crowds. The flagellation movement had started in Italy in the 1260s, during a period of great stress, with an epidemic and a civil war, but over the decades had been taken up by the Germans, who made it far more extreme and violent, and also adding uniforms.

When the Black Death struck in 1348, it led to huge Flagellant processions and hysterical scenes wherever they went. But on top of spreading the disease, the group soon turned violent, possessing an angry, quasi-revolutionary element and a hatred of clerics, the rich and, most of all, Jews. Horrific pogroms followed, despite the Pope’s condemnations.

The Flaggelants had spread all over Germany, France and the Low Countries although strangely it never took off in England; a group arrived in London where they set up shop outside St Paul’s, proceeded to whip themselves and cry… and were met with stony, embarrassed silence. They soon left. The Flaggelants were eventually suppressed by the Church — bizarrely, its leaders were taken to Rome and publicly beaten, which surely can’t have been a terrible punishment.

The period culminated in the most extreme event of all, the Münster rebellion of 1534-5, when a group of Anabaptists created their own proto-communist paradise. It ended — incredibly! — with mass murder. The Münster rebels believed in equality, a dream of many Christian cults and one which in Cohn’s lifetime had also led to millions of deaths. It is an unachievable goal, but it still inspires believers today, even if the focus has moved from the individual to the group.

The leader of the Münster rebellion was an actor, a reliable force for evil throughout history. He had used the moral anarchy of the Reformation to charm, bully and sexually exploit — also a characteristic of cults throughout the ages, and one that distinguishes them from religions (a fuzzy difference at times). The political cults of today often have similar psychological dynamics.

Cult members are expected to give everything, body and soul, and this means keeping away from non-believing friends, and even denouncing family members who oppose the cult’s goals. One of the most disturbing trends of 2020 were videos of teenagers denouncing older family members for their racism or “white supremacy”. One teenager crowed on social media when her mother was punched at the Capitol for her opposition to BLM.

There were echoes of Soviet Russia and Mao’s China, both of which encouraged young people to denounce anti-communist family members. Many of the children who did so then suffered psychological traumas in later life as the enormity of what they had done dawned on them. But, then, the lure of peer popularity is incredibly strong with adolescents.

Cults enable bullying to flourish, endorsed by the ideology. Being a vehement believer in a cause, locked against powerful and malignant outside forces, is the perfect vehicle for anyone with sadistic or even violent tendencies; it has been seen throughout history, and it is quite obviously on display in many of the social justice causes of recent years.

We live in an age of changing social mores, and the speed of moral change was illustrated last year by the warnings Sky Cinema issued about old films reflecting the different social values of the year they were made in. One of the movies featuring this warning, a remake of Aladdin starring Will Smith, was made in…. 2019.

This kind of moral confusion is the perfect environment for bullies and sadists because it is far easier for people to be punished for using the wrong language, or having the wrong opinions, and for many it is a ruthless competition to reach the top. Most of the nastiness is mercifully online, but we had a taste of the medieval at one point when a latter-day mini-Münster — the CHOP — sprang up in Seattle.

The victims of that utopian experiment, not being part of the litany of the saints, have been largely forgotten, but the underlying violent energies of the social justice movement shouldn’t be. George Floyd the man is dead, and his family have received the justice they deserve, but George Floyd the icon will live on, a powerful symbol for the faithful as they strive to build a third age of racial equality.