When the first documented COVID case appeared in the United States 16 months ago, few would have predicted the religious revival it ignited. Unlike the four previous Great Awakenings that expanded Christianity’s American footprint, this revival exposed what now is the country’s most politically powerful religion: Secular Science-ism.
Pollsters have for two decades noted the rise of the “religious nones,” people who claim no particular religious affiliation or beliefs. This group makes up less than one-third of the population but skews toward the higher educated, upper income and politically liberal classes. Pew Forum’s research indicates “solidly secular” Americans are 50% more likely to have a college degree and incomes over $150,000 – and 71% of that group identifies with the Democratic Party.
The COVID-19 pandemic revealed these “nones” really are not without a religious belief structure, however. Their behavior is driven by the kinds of impulses, demands and leaps of faith they sometimes deride in more traditional religions.
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Rejection of the afterlife and focus on this earthly life pulls secular liberals toward caution – perhaps to an extent that risk tolerance drives, rather than follows, political ideology. This zealous pursuit of a no-risk lifestyle leads to ridiculous and self-contradicting requirements like Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s edict that summer campers wear masks while canoeing, or the continued closure of schools after teachers have been vaccinated.
The Science-ism practiced today has its own clergy – epidemiologists, with the Centers for Disease Control constituting a holiest of holies, and Dr. Anthony Fauci as a pope. Left-wing belief in an inevitable positive progression of humanity licenses the worship of our betters, even elevating scientists over science, putting clergy over scripture.
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Adherents hung on every word Fauci uttered about COVID, and defended him viscerally, even when his advice conflicted with prior pronouncements or cited evidence. They put up yard signs expressing their witness to neighbors, reading: “In this house, we believe in science,” as if it were a creed and not an academic discipline.
A hallmark of any religion is the insistence that devotees make economic sacrifices, and in Science-ism this took the form of economic shutdowns implemented by blue-state governors. Liberals grabbed the moral high ground only affluent perches such as theirs can afford, and with missionary zeal embraced widespread economic harm for the nation and for less comfortable neighbors.
In Islam, Judaism and other established religions, the most orthodox adherents demonstrate devotion by wearing symbolic religious clothing in routine daily life; Christians do it with cross-themed jewelry. Same for Science-ism, whose zealots not only wear masks in crowds, but also while they exercise outdoors, walk their dogs or drive their cars alone, even after vaccination. For them, mask wearing is not merely an attempt to limit exhaled aerosols, it signals a sincere, if irrational, belief structure.
This spring, as COVID case data – real science – indicated the thresholds that triggered mask mandates were no longer being met, Secular Science-ism demanded that data be ignored and sacrifice maintained. President Joe Biden called the March relaxation of COVID rules in Mississippi and Texas “Neanderthal thinking.”
Now as even blue-state governors reluctantly rescind mask mandates, liberals who run some local governments and institutions have stubbornly clung to the piety high that only compelling your neighbors can bring.
The real test of any faith is whether an adherent sticks with it once it is confronted with claimed truth it cannot prove – and many secular liberals are powering through those tests, clinging to the myths of outdoor transmission and purification rituals of wiping down surfaces to rid them of imaginary virus particles.
The personal voids created by the rejection of traditional religion will always demand to be otherwise filled.
The fundamentalist nature of this secular theology is demanding in a manner more severe than even that of the separatist Amish. The rabid practitioners of Science-ism do not just insist they should be left alone to practice their extreme beliefs; they insist on a theocracy in which all of government’s decisions turn on them as well.
What is unique about COVID that brought this new left religiosity to the fore? Perhaps it was this pandemic’s perfectly layered components – its disproportionate racial impact, its beginnings with right-wing anger toward China, its clean trades between health regulations and economic capitalism, and its policy debate weighing personal responsibility versus forced collective action.
The emergence of this militantly secular religion will not go away as COVID death counts steadily decline. While a coronavirus revealed the political power of Science-ism, the fulfillment its sanctimony gives its adherents will not subside. The personal voids created by the rejection of traditional religion will always demand to be otherwise filled.
Liberals have embraced climate change as their feared apocalyptical Judgement Day. They eagerly impose penance on Westerners for the sins of consumption and growth, in the form of more expensive and less reliable energy; smaller homes, vehicles and families; higher taxes, and restricted diets. They are happy to require sacrifice from others, namely fossil fuel workers and their communities.
Lacking room for grace or redemption, they see humanity needing to save itself, through an economy of scarcity tied to the imposition of strict regulations and higher costs.
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The most liberal dogma increasingly focuses on structural racism as America’s inherited Original Sin, and insists no baptism can wash away its stain. To compensate, educated White liberals have adopted their own self-flagellation, whereby they publicly and constantly confess their irredeemable privilege. They will continue to invent new rituals and sacraments, like the wearing of masks and other virtue signaling, to demonstrate their piety and to give their lives meaning.
Given their education, income and influence inside the Democratic Party, these religious zealots will stay politically powerful. Unless the rest of us can persuade them to rejoin more time-tested faiths, we’re going to live with this pursuit of a God-less theocracy for decades to come.
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Brad Todd is a Virginia-based Republican strategist and ad-maker and the co-author of “The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics” (2018).