When Elon Musk shared a meme about “The Current Thing” in March, he intended to call out woke progressives who identify with an ever-changing constellation of causes that seemingly shift from day to day. This is especially evident on Twitter, where at the time it was newly fashionable to display the flag of Ukraine in one’s bio.
But “the current thing” is a phenomenon on the political right, too, and it can be argued that the passionate alignment with political and social causes directly flows from the breakdown of religious institutions and the widespread loss of meaning.
Like Musk’s tweet, Helen Lewis’ recent article in The Atlantic “How Social Justice Became a Religion” gets the story half-right. But the real takeaway both missed is that wokeness — like MAGA-mania or “Atheism Plus” — is a symptom of broader social forces, not the cause.
Simply put, secular fervor is becoming the defining paradigm of our age. That is why news cycles sometimes resemble zombie movies, with the devoted moving from one cause to another — aka, the current thing.
Even though conservatives are more likely to be religious than liberals, there is plenty of secular fervor fermenting on the right. Nate Hochman, a fellow at National Review, highlighted as much in a piece in The New York Times in which he wrote, “The conservative political project is no longer specifically Christian.”
When you look at the research from the 2016 GOP primaries, Trump did relatively poorly with religiously observant Christians, winning the votes of only 32% of weekly churchgoers, compared to over half who went “a few times a year” or “seldom.” By comparison, he won nearly two-thirds of people who don’t go to church at all.
“Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church,” Notre Dame researcher Geoffrey Layman has noted.
This led some to assert that the MAGA movement filled a vacuum created when people turned away from traditional authorities, whether church or fraternal organizations, that gave them both cause and purpose. Reflecting on some of these survey findings in The American Conservative, Timothy Carney wrote, “They came to Trump seeking what they had lost because they had lost church.”
In Trump, many found a pseudo-religious figure capable of animating their lives. Reza Aslan wrote in The Los Angeles Times about Trump’s ability to harness the “kind of emotional intensity from his base that is more typical of a religious revival meeting than a political rally, complete with ritualized communal chants (‘Lock her up!’).”
This trend doesn’t seem to be slowing down; recent polling data shows that fewer than half of Republicans today believe Christianity to be an important aspect of “being American,” down 15% from four years prior. Yet it’s far easier for publications like The Atlantic to feature stories of evangelical Christians devoted to Trump than to acknowledge the areligious bend shaping the modern Republican Party.
That doesn’t mean that the dwindling number of religious Americans no longer support the party; they do, but they increasingly hold less political sway.
Among other things, the decline of organized religion in Western life has amplified political polarization. Peter Beinart saw back in 2017 that religion’s fading centrality in American life was supercharging political discourse to an unprecedented level. “For years, political commentators dreamed that the culture war over religious morality that began in the 1960s and ’70s would fade. It has. And the more secular, more ferociously national and racial culture war that has followed is worse.”
Today, the fastest growing segment in American religious belief is the areligious “nones,” those unaffiliated with any movement. Unsurprisingly, it was within the most atheistic spaces that we first saw the extremes of wokeness spilling out of campuses.
In retrospect, wokeness seems to have been the canary in the coal mine, as the language surrounding it has been rich with religious symbolism. In Vox, Matthew Yglesias described “The Great Awokening,” riffing off religious revivals of centuries past. The canceling of deviants (excommunication), the stain of privilege (original sin) and the nonconformists challenging the woke order (heretics) all correspond with religious belief.
In practice, such condemnation leads to a whole lot of hostility. Whereas previous generations wished for their children to marry people of the same race or religion, today it’s political prejudice that rules all.
Once a fellow countryman, the political Other has become a caricature of derision.
This August, Pew released a report on the growing hostility Americans have for their fellow countrymen. As NPR summarized the findings, “Among Democrats, 63% see Republicans as immoral, up from just 35% who said so in 2016. For Republicans’ part, 72% see Democrats as immoral, up from 47% seven years ago.” A majority of Americans now believe that those across the political divide are close-minded, lazy, unintelligent and dishonest.
When the foundations of social meaning and community evaporated, politics stepped in. Driven by 24/7 news-cycles and toxic social media algorithms, the organizing principle of everyday Americans have become less about broad national identities and more about narrow political ones. This is the great, overlooked insight that “the current thing” offers us.
Many of the talking heads riffing off Musk’s tweet got lost in the weeds of cognitive psychology, the virality of ideas and the influence of social media. All missed the deeper point that the human mind is wired towards religiosity. Untethered from traditions, institutions and rituals, most humans — left or right, religious or atheistic — seek to fill what philosopher Blaise Paschal called a “God-shaped vacuum.”
For some it can be local sports teams or celebrity personalities. But for a growing segment of Americans today that void is being filled by politics.
Despite Friedrich Nietzsche’s infamous claim, God never died. God is alive and well today, although many still don’t see him.
Most of us simply know him as: The Current Thing.
Ari David Blaff is a Deseret contributing writer and freelance journalist in Canada. His writing has also appeared in Tablet and Quillette.