Conservatives from the U.S. and U.K. have long reacted with alarm at the culture wars being waged on both sides of the Atlantic, but the situation is growing considerably more dire. Many now see two great nations with robust liberal traditions surrendering to a secular woke orthodoxy that threatens to demolish the pillars of free speech and freedom of religion on which the two nations stand.
But we suggest that there is something seriously wrong with this viewpoint: the idea that woke ideology is secular. On the contrary, while many commentators have noted the quasi-religious fervor of social justice warriors, complete with foundational “sacred” texts, go-to advocates (or rather, high priests), taboos and heresy trials, we propose that the time has come to treat woke ideology as being a belief system that places paramount ethical value on identity markers—race, sexual orientation and “gender identity.” It operates as a religion, not least in the legal sense.
If their belief system is successfully enshrined at the societal level—and the winds certainly appear to favor them—it will mean the woke would have to compete on an equal basis with all other faiths, rather than claiming that their beliefs are incontrovertible facts which everyone must honor.
Religion is notoriously difficult to define. It need not involve belief in a deity; Buddha, for example, was not a god, just an extraordinary man, according to his followers. But the woke belief that gender identity, not biology, defines the “real” person, certainly has the look of a metaphysical soul.
In the United States, courts first recognized secular-progressivism as a religion in World War II conscientious objector cases. During the Vietnam War, the Supreme Court found that instead of “belief in a Supreme Being,” a conscientious objector to armed conflict need only demonstrate a “belief that is sincere and meaningful [and] occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by [traditional religion]” to satisfy the relevant statute.
Today, wokeism occupies a place in the life of its followers parallel to that of the most devout Christian, Jew or Muslim. But wokeism seeks to dominate the lives of all citizens in a manner that Christianity, Judaism or Islam never could because the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution forbids it.
Yet, zealous adherents of wokeism seek to establish their ideology as state-sponsored orthodoxy via protected categories in state and federal non-discrimination laws which include gender self-identification. We agree with former U.S. Attorney General William Barr that it is time to examine whether wokeism in public institutions is unconstitutional, because it operates as a state-sponsored religion.
This is happening on both sides of the Atlantic. The high priests of wokeism have weaponized laws to punish teachers, professors and doctors who would not utter support for the idea of human sex change, something that is biologically, and, some would say, metaphysically, impossible. Those who dare to question tenets of wokeism like “a transwoman is a woman” or who fail to use “preferred pronouns” are treated as modern-day heretics who deserve to be canceled on social media, fired from their jobs and even investigated by the police.
This is what I (Bernard) found out the hard way. When the woke came to my secondary school, I gave that fateful sermon to students telling them that while it’s OK to try and persuade each other, no one should be told they must accept an ideology—either wokeism or Christianity. I told them to “Love the person, even where you profoundly dislike the ideas.” I suggested they may (but need not) accept traditional beliefs about marriage and the reality of sex differences. I told them that if the idea of gender identity is, as it appears, incoherent, it can only be partly true.
In the U.K. there is no constitutional protection that prevents the government from establishing an official religion. This makes the danger from wokeism greater in some senses.
But there is cause for hope. U.K. law makes no distinction between religion and philosophical beliefs which impact behavior. The recent judgment in the case of researcher Maya Forstater found her beliefs in biological sex are protected in law. The corollary is that gender identity beliefs have equal, but not greater status than religious ones.
When opinion can become dogma from which no whisper of dissent is permitted, free societies are in danger. We can already begin to see self-censorship among the young who encounter wokeism at earlier and earlier ages. With both public and private schools adopting the tenets of woke gender ideology in curriculum and policies parents, teachers and pupils have few places to turn.
The answer is neither to bend the knee nor to seek escape. Now is the time to shore up the foundations of freedom of speech and religion while we can, before wokeism smashes them and the pluralistic societies which rest upon them into bits. We believe the law of both lands still provide the resources our pluralistic societies need.
This piece originally appeared in Detroit News