In the 1980s, “secular humanism” became the great bogeyman of the Religious Right and their political allies.
If a public school refused to promote conservative Christianity, that was due to secular humanism. When government officials took steps to enforce separation of church and state, they were really establishing secular humanism. In fundraising appeals, religious extremist groups bent over backward to shoehorn in references to secular humanism.
Secular humanism does exist. It’s a nontheistic philosophy that stresses science and reason and rejects supernatural beliefs. But in the hands of Christian Nationalists, the term became Silly Putty – they twisted it into whatever shape served their needs.
‘Woke’: The new Christian Nationalist bogeyman
You don’t hear much about secular humanism these days because the PR strategists of Christian Nationalism have moved on to new terms. And their favorite one these days is “woke.”
A Barbie movie comes out that stresses feminist themes? That’s woke. The U.S. women’s soccer team loses to Sweden in the World Cup? It’s because they were too woke. Books are being banned in public schools and libraries? Don’t worry, they had to go because they were full of woke ideas. A political leader expresses solidarity with members of a marginalized group? She’s fallen prey to wokeism. Disney and other corporations let members of the LGBTQ+ community know that they value their patronage? They’ve gone woke. A public school institutes a policy to help vulnerable students? More woke stuff!
The great thing about a term like “woke,” from the Christian Nationalists’ perspective, is that since it doesn’t mean anything, it can mean everything. Like secular humanism, it can be portrayed as a nefarious force lurking pretty much everywhere, threatening your family and seeking to undermine the very foundations of the country.
Fomenting fear and anxiety
The idea is to keep people in a state of fear and anxiety and to motivate them to do something – donate to a cause, vote a certain way, show up at a rally, go to a school board meeting and yell, etc.
The question Americans need to be asking themselves is not what it means to be woke. The term is rapidly losing any meaning it may have had due to the machinations of Christian Nationalists and their allies in the secular right. A better question to ask is, “Who benefits when a word like ‘woke’ is brandished to keep us in a perpetual state of fear over a nebulous concept no one can actually identify?”
And here’s the answer: political demagogues and their religious extremist allies who understand that the more frightened you are, the more likely it is you’ll let them run your life.
That – not a conjured-up straw man like “wokeism” – is what we really need to be on guard against.
Photo: DisneyWorld in Orlando is, according to Gov. Ron DeSantis, a hotbed of “wokeism.” Getty Images.