In my previous post, I spent a great deal of time steel-manning the social justice movement. In this post, I will explain a few of my deep reservations about this movement.
First and foremost, I am a classical liberal who believes that the rights of individuals are commensurate, no matter what group they identify with. I see the political world largely through the lens of the individual vs. the state, and so I believe that all groups suffer when individual rights are violated. I believe that the same set of legal and political rights that best serve blacks also best serve whites and gays and any other person. On a religious note, I believe that the path towards salvation and exaltation is the same for everyone (making and keeping covenants with God, taking up the Holy Spirit, and relying on the merits of Christ), even if the details of the journey differ from person to person.
And so I reject the central Marxist premise, as well as the postmodern assumptions that also inform the social justice movement. Like postmodernists, I too am deeply skeptical of modernism and its claims of objective truth — in fact, a colleague at BYU and I wrote a book in which we draw the central assumptions of modernism into question. Yet, instead of embracing the postmodernist idea that there is no truth (and that all truth claims are social constructions), we argue that there is such a thing as divine truth that comes to us from God (even if it is mediated through human instruments, e.g., prophets and apostles).
In short, I do believe that we have access to capital-t Truth (direction from God), and from that divine truth, we can build a share understanding and a shared moral worldview that serves the interests of everyone, regardless of demographics, identity, or class. And furthermore, because it is informed by, inspired by, given life by divine Truth, this shared moral worldview is a social good even if it is at times also informed by human biases. I believe that our social, cultural, and legal norms can be considered a work in progress, and that there are ways to improve upon them; but I don’t believe that they are social constructions that serve only the interests of the powerful.
Understanding the social justice movement as a religion
Many have argued elsewhere that we can talk about the social justice movement as a religion (which some have called Woke-ism, or Wokism). Religions are moral communities, writers James Lindsay and Mike Nayna explain, but “religions are [also] more than moral communities … [M]embers of moral communities of the religious kind often draw a great deal of meaning and direction in life from the overarching ideological visions of their sects.” In other words, religion offers us more than mere prescriptions for right and wrong — it offers us totalizing narratives through which we view the world and find meaning in our lives.
A “totalizing” narrative is one which “gobbles up” all other competing narratives. It becomes the primary lens through which we see the world, the framework by which we interpret every other aspect of our life and experience. Our religion is in part determined by what set of narratives we adopt as our totalizing narrative; which worldview ultimately comes out on top as the one against which all other beliefs and worldviews are measured. In this way, the social justice movement can become a religion that competes with the Restored Gospel as the totalizing lens through which we see the world. (When talking about social justice as a religion, I’ll use the term “Wokism” for the sake of convenience.)
The central narrative
The Restored Gospel offers us what is meant to be its own a totalizing narrative: Having alienated ourselves from God through disobedience, we live in a Fallen world where, left to our own devices, we royally screw things up because of our lack of divine wisdom. Without divine intervention, we are trapped in our sinful ways. However, God loved us so much that He sent has angelic messengers and commissioned prophets to teach us. He then sent His son to die for us so that we can be redeemed from our sins and reunited with Him through repentance. He has established an institution (the Church) led by men and women who are commissioned by Him.
In contrast, the central narrative of Wokism is that society is fallen because its givens, truths, norms, structures, policies have been shaped by the powerful to become instruments of oppression against the less powerful, and that this oppresion has come at the hands of white, cisgender, heterosexual men of European descent who have historically wielded inordinate amounts of cultural power and capital. We have thus inherited a fallen world, and the path towards redemption lies in remaking our norms, laws, and institutions to give more power and representation to former (and currently) oppressed groups.
To be clear, these two narratives are not inherently contradictory. One can be a Latter-day Saint and nonetheless believe that many of our cultural and legal norms should be remade and that underprivileged groups should be given a compensatory voice. We do live in a fallen world and there’s no reason to believe that our cultural, societal, and legal norms are perfect as they are. However, Wokism becomes a competing religion when this latter narrative becomes a totalizing narrative, and “gobbles up” the narrative offered by the Restored gospel — as we will shortly see.
The Fall and Sin
The Restored Gospel teaches us that sin is disobedience to God, or anything that alienates us from God. The great, primordial sin is that of pride, which means elevating ourselves above others and asserting our will against God’s will. Mankind fell by disobeying God, and we separate ourselves from God as individuals by prioritizing our own interests over God’s vision for us. We also sin by filling our hearts with malice towards others. As Latter-day Saints do not believe in inherited guilt, but we do believe that the inherited frailties of mortality are an inescapable part of our mortal journey.
Wokism teaches us that those who are privileged have a kind of inherited guilt by virtue of their membership in a privileged class. This fallenness is inescapable because we are all shaped by and products of this system. Because the privileged cannot help but enjoy the fruits and feast on the treasures of privileges, they are personally culpable of this inherited sin (unless they engage in the performances below). To be found indifferent towards the interests of underprivileged groups is a grave sin; and to be found advocating for policies that work against the interests of those groups is the gravest of sins.
Observances and performances
The Restored Gospel teaches us to become like Christ through personal ministry to the downtrodden, such as clothing the naked, tending to the sick, feeding the hungry, or befriending the lonely. We are also taught to develop Christlike values such as charity, patience, humility, meekness, among others. All these things help us become filled with spiritual power and sanctified (i.e., made holy, like God). This sanctification is a gift of grace that comes through making and keeping covenants with God.
Note that personal ministry does not require us to be political advocates for those we serve, or to even agree with their politics. From a Christian point of view, we can serve and befriend gays and lesbians without necessarily supporting their causes or advocating for their interests as a political class. Our goal as Latter-day Saints is the salvation of those we serve, which involves inviting them to make and keep covenants with God. Politics is secondary to salvation.
In contrast, to participate in the religion of Wokism, one must engage in political and social advocacy. Silence is cooperation with the ruling class, and so virtue signalling on social media and in other venues is a way to signal solidarity with the faith. White men who are adherents to this faith quickly become social justice warriors, because their own righteousness and virtue is contingent on whether they are advocating for underprivileged groups.
While Christians might find virtue in personal ministry (befriending, clothing, feeding, and visiting the less advantaged), Wokism sees little virtue in this personal service if we are not also advocating for the interests of the groups they represent. Inviting a gay friend to game night and personally serving them with Christian sincerity is a hollow gesture if we don’t also support same-sex marriage and advocate for gay rights generally. And for Wokism, it is the highest form of hypocrisy to engage in personal ministry and then advocate against the interests of those groups (comparable in magnitude to, say, officiating in the temple while living adulterously).
In the Restored Gospel, redemption is found through the sacrifice of the Savior Jesus Christ, whose pain, suffering, and death makes it possible for us to be cleansed of sin and sanctified through the Holy Spirit. We commemorate this sacrifice in the weekly ritual of the sacrament, in which we partake of symbols of His blood and body. We find absolution from sin through penitence and repentance, as we study our lives, set right our wrongs, and strive to live by covenants we have made with God.
From the perspective of Wokism, the only way to find absolution from the inherited stain of privilege is to engage political advocacy and virtue signalling (the performances of the faith) with extra zeal. However, there is no real narrative of redemption or forgiveness for those who have sinned. It does not matter how zealously an adherent lives out the observances of the faith, if it is discovered that you have ever participated in bigotry in the past (defined broadly as supporting any policy or norm that entrenches the asymmetry of power), you can be swiftly excommunicated from the faith and treated as a pariah (that is, unless you are considered politically useful to the movement). This is often the case no matter how penitent the sinner is, or how prolifically they apologize for their past errors.
This is because the god of Wokism (to whatever extent there is one) requires sacrifices of flesh and blood, careers and livelihood. It is not enough to be excommunicated from the faith and treated as a pariah: social justice requires that those who betray the faith (no matter how far in the past their sins are) must be stripped of their livelihood and removed from any position of public influence. (Which actually makes sense, given that the movement is about rectifying asymmetries of power.) This is why cancel-culture is ritualized Wokism. Any time someone is invited to speak, or given a position of political or social influence, adherents to the faith will scour their social media engagement for any hint of advocacy that works against the faith’s utopian vision.
The Restored Gospel invites us to treat prophets and apostles as moral authorities. Because of our fallen nature, we cannot access truth through our own endeavors alone; we are lost without divine guidance and instruction. God sends messengers to give us glimpses of HIs divine truth. He speaks through mortal people who — though imperfect and who still operate from many of their own biases and flaws — have a divine authority to declare God’s will for His people. We honor them as worthy of our time and attention, because of their station as chosen servants of God.
In contrast, the moral authority of Wokism is centered in members of historically disadvantaged groups, especially those at the intersections of various under-privileged identities — because only they can truly advocate for their interests and advance the power symmetries that the social justice movement strives for. Furthermore, the moral authority of prophets and apostles is suspect by virtue of their membership in the privileged caste (they are all white males). They are part of the bourgeoisie who cannot help but advance the interests of white males. From this view, we must rely on the moral authorities of Wokism to show us which of the teachings of prophets and apostles advance the oppression of underprivileged groups, and which do not.
The Restored Gospel teaches us that we should love all people as children of God, and thereby share in the same universal love that God has for all of us. Our scripture reads, “[God] inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God” (2 Nephi 26.33). This contributes to our broadly egalitarian vision for society, in which all individuals are seen as having equal voice; as well as our condemnations of racism, bigotry, and all other forms of enmity. We condemn all forms of hate, and view all people as sinners before God. We believe in personal ministry to all, without respect for demographics or class.
In contrast, Wokism often expressly rejects the injunction towards universal love. From a Wokist point of view, not all hate is Hate; a black person who hates white people can be tolerated, even celebrated, if that hate threatens the perceived asymmetry of power between the two groups. Bigotry towards Christian wedding vendors — in fact, targeting them for legal and social harassment — is tolerated, since this once again helps advance their utopian vision of society. One could say that (in its extremes) Wokism even places value on “compensatory” hate. Wokism embraces a tradition of contempt for sinners (those who advocate for policies and norms that reinforce the interests of privileged groups).
How social justice claims the souls of Latter-day Saints
In the end, I am convinced the extremes of the social justice movement are functioning as a competing religion that offers its own central narratives of sin and redemption, its own moral authorities, and its own moral prescriptions. And more than that, those competing narratives are at times at direct odds with the Restored Gospel, or at least obscure and distort important Gospel truths.
This does not mean that there are no merits to the claims of social justice warriors. Some of their premises are true (or at least partially true)! There are real injustices that we sometimes don’t even notice because we aren’t equipped to see them. There are indeed a number of truths we accept as “givens” that are nothing of the sort, and which are social constructs that serve historically powerful groups. There are indeed widespread disparities of wealth, power, and social capital.
What makes Wokism a competing religion is that their worldview becomes a totalizing worldview, one through which they begin to examine all other faith claims. For example, a Latter-day Saint who converts to Wokism will start to believe that the spiritual interests of men and women, of whites and blacks, of cisgenders and transgenders, of heterosexuals and homosexuals, are not commensurate and thus cannot be understood, much less addressed, by white men — which means that the prophets and apostles who lead the Church are simply unequipped for the task at hand.
And so the lack of female representation in the highest quorums of the Church becomes alarming to them, as well as the relative racial homogeneity among the Quorum of the Twelve or the First Presidency, or the lack of any open homosexuals in any of the higher level of Church leadership. Such a non-diverse group of individuals simply cannot, in this worldview, represent the spiritual interests of a diverse Church population. And so the moral authority of prophets and apostles is drawn into question, and they begin to look towards other voices as moral and spiritual authorities instead (such as minorities within the Church, and especially those who advocate for sweeping social, policy, and doctrinal changes).
They begin to view The Family: A Proclamation to the World as an instrument of oppression, an attempt by white men to reinforce norms that serve the interests of cisgender, heterosexual males. They start to believe that many of the divine truths that Latter-day Saints accept as revelation (or at least inspired) are in fact social constructions — and more than social constructions, they are artifacts of white privilege, and instruments of hate and bigotry. They see the Church’s actions in defense of Proposition 8 or religious freedom as indistinguishable from any other political activism that entrenches the power asymmetries that lead to the oppression of under-privileged groups.
They begin to call into question the very idea of divine commission and revelation, which can be seen as an attempt by the existing bourgeoisie to entrench their power by cloaking it in the pretense of divine mandate. The Book of Mormon becomes reinterpreted as a racist screed (despite the clear evidence to the contrary). And before long, we’ve drawn into question everything that Latter-day Saints believe, and Wokist converts within the Church soon end up renouncing the Church and its teachings entirely.
What the social justice movement misses
When social justice advocates dismiss the Book of Mormon as racist, they miss out on the beautiful egalitarian ideals contained within the book. The Book of Mormon shows us two peoples (possibly of different races) who were primed to be enemies forever, but who instead found total harmony and unity through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When they finally did disintegrate into total warfare, it was along ideological lines, not racial lines.
When social justice advocates insist that we change our doctrines and allow same-sex couples to be married in the temple, they are essentially making women superfluous in God’s eternal plan for His children. If men don’t need women (and vice versa) — if two men can achieve exaltation and eternal posterity without any help of women — then we are essentially rendering women redundant (and vice versa).
What they miss is that in our doctrine of eternal marriage, we establish that gender is not some superficial characteristic, but something beautiful and vital about our eternal identity as sons and daughters of God. Our doctrine establishes that neither men nor women can achieve their eternal exaltation without the other, which gives both genders an essential place in God’s plan for us — an egalitarian vision unmatched by that of any other faith.
What social justice advocates miss is that our stance on abortion could single-handed shift the balance of political power towards racial minorities. Blacks have had, on average, an abortion rate nearly three times that of whites in the U.S., and this means that, proportionately speaking, whites outnumber blacks in the U.S. far more than they should today. (Much of this is due to disparate economic pressures, no doubt, which are largely not the fault of blacks.) What they miss is the gender-selective abortions worldwide that are entrenching male interests within already-male-centric societies and killing millions of unborn females.
What social justice advocates miss is that while relaxing the restrictions on divorce has made it easier for women to leave their abusive husbands, it has also made it easier for husbands to abandon their wives and children. They miss the way our belief in strong marriage norms protects women and obligates men to fulfill their duties to their wives and children. What they miss is that convenient, elective abortion reduces the costs and burdens of sex for both women and men, and thus decreases the natural incentives towards permanence and fidelity within relationships — which, again, disproportionately hurts women.
They miss the fact that disadvantaged communities struggle just as much from broken families as they do economic hardships, and that the Proclamation on the Family can help disadvantaged communities find strength once again. (Note, this is not the prosperity Gospel — I don’t place the blame for broken families entirely on individual moral failings, especially when that is what they’ve seen modeled for them within their community and family. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ can help lift us not only from personal sins but also from the brokenness we inherit from our parents and circumstances.)
What social justice advocates miss is that our belief in continuing revelation is what makes it possible for us to adamantly reject past racism within our Church, and past bigotry towards others. We have an institutional framework and a strongly reinforced doctrine that holds that God is continuing to teach, lead, and guide us, and that this means there can be surprises ahead of us as we strive to find ways to involve minority groups within our faith. And we can’t do that if we draw into question their moral and spiritual authority in the first place.
By treating the Q15 as old, white males with little or no spiritual or moral authority, they neuter the very key that makes members of our faith incredibly responsive to ongoing revelation from God. Should they succeed at getting us to dismiss prophets and apostles as spiritual leaders, they may find themselves mourning once again as members start to ignore those same prophets and apostles when they advocate for policies that could advance the interests of the very groups social justice warriors favor.
But more likely than that, what social justice advocates miss when they plead for more diverse (and non-U.S.) representation in the highest quorums of the Church, is that the non-U.S. Church membership is centered in areas that have entirely different social and political priorities than American social justice advocates. When the Church begins to recruit more apostles from Latin America, Africa, and other nations, social justice advocates may find a Church even less interested in the politics of the social justice movement than before.
And despite that, if they look closely, they will find a Church that is marching forward, seeking the spiritual redemption of all mankind, without respect to race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. They’ll find a religion that embraces diversity of thought, opinion, background, and lifestyle, and yet unified by covenants with God and a shared moral worldview. This unity in diversity is not simply offered anywhere in social justice movement, which instead shows us a never-ending, always evolving struggle for power, with no shared moral vision. They’ll find an incredibly progressive faith that is deeply concerned about justice, fairness, and equity — but which simply rejects the Marxist version of what those ideals look like.