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Illustration by Ethan Hendricks, Deseret News

The growing battle over ‘woke religion’

Some faith leaders worry that secular social justice movements are steering the country in the wrong direction

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George Floyd’s death in May 2020 was a wake-up call for the country, prompting new conversations — and widespread protests — about racism and the police.

At the time, many religious leaders welcomed this work. Some even took to the streets carrying “Black Lives Matter” signs.

However, 18 months later, faith-based support for this activism seems to be dropping.

A growing group of pastors believes the needed wake-up call on racism has morphed into a rejection of the Christian faith.

“Today’s critical theories and ideologies are profoundly atheistic. They deny the soul, the spiritual, transcendent dimension of human nature; or they think that it is irrelevant to human happiness,” said Archbishop José Gomez, who leads the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, during a Nov. 4 address.

Despite their secular nature, these social justice movements “claim to offer what religion provides” and are dangerous as a result, he said. Participants become increasingly dogmatic and unforgiving; they have no Bible urging them to love their enemies.

“These strictly secular movements are causing new forms of social division, discrimination, intolerance and injustice,” Archbishop Gomez said.

Others who criticize this same trend have referred to it as the rise of “woke religion.” They blame social justice movements like Black Lives Matter for everything from cancel culture to political unrest.

“Wokeness offers no possibility of atonement other than human sacrifice. Maybe we don’t have to put people to death, but getting them fired and shunned by society is good enough,” wrote Tripp Parker for The Federalist in 2020 in a column criticizing what he called “the new religion of the woke left.”

This pushback against race-related political activism is now large enough to warrant a backlash to the backlash. People of faith who support or participate in the work of social justice movements say religious leaders like Archbishop Gomez are being unfair.

“As a faithful Catholic, I pray that Archbishop Gomez will see how his harmful remarks undermine the wisdom that the Black Catholic community and racial-justice organizers have to offer us all,” said Kyle de Beausset, a Catholic organizer, in a statement released Monday by Faith in Public Life and Faithful America.

Many Americans see anti-racism work as central to their faith, rather than something separate, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.

More than two-thirds of U.S. adults (68%) — including 77% of Black Catholics — say that opposing racism is an “essential” part of being a faithful or moral person, Pew found. That’s 10 percentage points higher than the share of Americans (58%) who say believing in God is an essential part.