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When Love Isn’t Quite Enough

On June 1, a Twitter follower tagged me in a post. He’d recently read my book Christianity After Religion, in which I suggested that the decline of religion in the United States might not really be an erosion of faith but was instead a transformation of faith akin to earlier Great Awakenings in American history.

The old religious world is failing, but the Spirit is stirring anew.

— Christianity After Religion

He enjoyed the book. However, he noted that it was published in 2012 — eleven years ago. He asked if the publisher planned a revision. How might a new edition change? He was particularly interested in how I understood the rise of Trumpism.

In 2020, I suggested to my publisher that we do an updated version. They took a pass. I’ve thought about the Twitter question for a while now — and haven’t really been able to get it out of mind. I answered his tweet and said, “Trumpism is hyper-backlash” over and against the creation-focused, democratic, and pluralistic Great Awakening that I described in the book’s pages.

Trumpism is hyper-backlash.

Anti-LGBT protesters start a brawl at the Glendale, California school board meeting on June 6, 2023.

Yesterday, the Southern Poverty Law Center issued its yearly “hate and extremism” report. Here’s their summary — and it is about backlash:

In 2022, the hard-right movement succeeded in burrowing deeper into people’s lives in visible and material ways, even if it did not have widespread electoral success. Its fingerprints are everywhere: people’s homes, schools, doctors’ offices, libraries, bars, restaurants, churches and other community spaces. The fear and pain experienced by Black, brown, and LGBTQ communities went far beyond any individual incident, deeply disrupting their ability to participate in an inclusive democracy. . .

While voters rejected many of the most extreme candidates in the 2022 midterm elections, the country remains in a reactionary political moment — explained, in part, as backlash to progressive successes both real and perceived. The right is increasingly expressing fear of a so-called “great replacement” of white people and depicting demands for LGBTQ equity as dangerously radical in the wake of visible progressive mobilizations, including the racial justice protests of 2020 for Black lives and a growing trans rights movement. Backlash is a political strategy employed by the right — one that, the historian Lawrence Glickman has written, shifts the “focus from those denied equity under the law and demanding justice to those who [imagine] threat or inconvenience in the possibility of social change.”

I wish we could just remind people to love their neighbors. It would be wonderful if a call to love would solve the problems listed in the SPLC report.

Love is, of course, an answer. And while most people of faith can agree on the command to love our neighbors, we need to face the reality of this moment.

What is happening among us — the transnational struggles with democracy and attacks on human rights — is far more than a failure to love our neighbors. Most of today’s nationalist and anti-democratic movements aren’t about disliking others; they aren’t about “hate” at some emotional level. They aren’t even about feelings of fear.

They are, instead, a recognizable political reactionary agenda to deny certain groups their rights and reestablish power among those of particular classes, races, and/or religions.

And while I appreciate the power of preaching and teaching, not even the most compelling sermons about love — or shaming others about loving the neighbor — are going to change what are calculated strategies to deny the humanity, safety, and flourishing of our fellow citizens.

Readers sometimes ask me if I still think there’s a great awakening. I remind questioners of an important claim in the book: Awakenings can be stopped by backlash movements. Awakenings are not inevitable.

Christianity After Religion borrowed some of its framework from the late William McLoughlin, a noted historian at Brown University. In 1978, McLoughlin’s work Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform suggested that events of the 1960s and 1970s might have constituted a “fourth Great Awakening” in the United States. But he worried that it was incomplete — and wondered if it would be met by a backlash.

“There almost always arises a nativist or traditionalism movement within the culture that is an attempt by those with rigid personalities or with much at stake in the older order,” he wrote, to organize a backlash to “return to the ‘old-time religion,’ ‘the ways of our fathers,’ and ‘respect for the flag.’” McLoughlin insisted that backlash movements always scapegoat others (especially immigrants and those at the margins of society), and they work to maintain high levels of “chronic stress” among their adherents. Fear doesn’t start backlash political movements — fear fuels them. It was possible to turn history backward, Loughlin said, especially if some group re-asserts the authority of an “absolutist, sin-hating, death-dealing” God as its motivation. Theocratic political movements are nothing new, and they have succeeded in the past.

Love must be our answer — loving God, our neighbors, and creation. But love is far more than good feelings or emotions. Love must be organized, active, and committed to the full dignity and worth of everyone. It isn’t enough to preach against hate. Hate is infiltrating our everyday lives — like the poisoned air filtering down from northern wildfires — hardly visible until the air is so thick with toxins that no one will be able to breathe.

You can’t get rid of the smoke. You have to put out the fire.

Visit Diana’s website here.

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