At the beginning of the 2005 conclave, Pope Benedict XVI preached a now-famous homily condemning what he called the “dictatorship of relativism.” The newly-elected pontiff warned: “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.” Benedict’s words elicited much commentary, including books and symposiums. Yet fifteen years removed from that undeniably important sermon, do Benedict’s descriptions still hold?
Recently, upon entering my local public library in Northern Virginia, I was confronted by a large display of “anti-racist” literature. Prominent on the top of the shelf was a quotation from Ibram X. Kendi, slated to soon speak at the town’s community center. It read,
One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an anti-racist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist. There is no in-between safe space of “not racist.”
In other words, the ascendant ideology of wokeism that my local tax dollars now promote demands obeisance, and there will be no allowance for hesitance, no room for nuance. Skeptics or dissidents will be coerced to submit to the tenets of identity politics or face cancellation. In wokedom’s aggressive demand for ideological purity, there is more “dictatorship” than “relativism.”
In its rigid binaries, we can perceive at least one of the many ways that wokeism acts an ideology that mimics true religion. “We are not allowed neutrality when faced with the question of God,” wrote Ratzinger in his book To Look on Christ. Replace “question of God” with “racism” and we can see what Kendi and the broader anti-racist movement is doing.
Yet unlike Christianity, which is premised upon an invitation to believe, wokeism operates in threats and coercion. We don’t hear the gracious, welcoming words of Christ: “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me.” Rather, we are warned that failure to believe and dutifully articulate the commandments of wokeism will result in social or economic marginalization. Even pious acknowledgement of our sins may be insufficient, as was the case for Sue Schafer, a liberal and Democrat who foolishly wore blackface to a 2018 Halloween party, and was demonized by the Washington Post two years later, eventually losing her job.
Christian faith is defined by love and gratuitous gift that is followed by inner spiritual transformation. Identity politics deals in fear, victimhood, and vengeance that requires outward, superficial conformity. Christian faith directs its adherents ultimately to a person. Identitarianism directs its followers’ attention to impersonal structures and a set of transient, unstable principles lacking objectivity. The Christian’s act of faith is rewarded with a transcendent spiritual reality that broadens his horizons. The woke believer’s vision is progressively narrowed as he seeks ever-new power structures to dismantle and microaggressions to identify.
Though the brilliant Benedict XVI did not exactly forecast the dimensions and texture of the woke dictatorship, he did warn of an impending coercive authoritarianism. In A Turning Point for Europe? he writes: “Either [relativism] becomes nihilism or else it expands positivism into the power that dominates everything.”
Father Daniel Cardó, reflecting on the pope emeritus’s words, explains that the latter engenders a “totalitarianism of the majority,” where “there is no joy.” That joylessness is precisely what we witness in the purveyors of the identity politics that dominate the academy, businesses, entertainment, and, apparently, public libraries. By its very nature, wokeism requires a constant state of agitation, resentment, and superciliousness for its polemical survival.
The consequences of an ideology that peddles hate and bitterness are already being made manifest. Alexandra Kalev and Frank Dobbin noted in Harvard Business Review that many of those completing anti-racist seminars “actually report more animosity toward other groups afterward.” A friend, a lifelong Democrat and HR employee for a prominent D.C.-based firm, told me that despite extensive corporate anti-racist programs, racial tensions since George Floyd’s death are worsening, driven not by “persons of color” incensed by institutional racism, but anxious whites taught to see racism hiding in every cubicle and water-cooler discussion.
To appropriate the late Italian philosopher Augusto del Noce’s analysis of modernity and Marxism, the revolutionary messianism of identity politics may reflect an attempt to create meaning out of a metaphysics of emptiness. That being the case, wokeism, like the political and economic Marxism that preceded it, is better understood as a kind of emotive flailing-about for transcendence in a liberal, materialist world deprived of any sense of tradition, morality, or givenness. As such, it will be co-opted and neutralized by larger, more powerful socio-economic forces. Perhaps the fact that bourgeois white women and global capitalists are two of identity politics’ loudest champions suggest this process is already underway.
Witnessing the dangerous rise of a blinkered, unquestioning tolerance in Western culture, Pope Benedict XVI fifteen years ago condemned a destructive decadence he interpreted as codifying “anything goes” as the zeitgeist of the twentieth-century. His fears of moral relativism have in some senses been realized; the West is certainly more tolerant of sexual practices only recently considered aberrant. Yet identity politics has established new excessively elaborate codes of living and speaking that are anything but “tolerant” and “inclusive.”
Regardless of the accuracy of his predictions, the pope emeritus’s solution is the same: authentic faith in the source of truth and love. Five days before departing the Vatican, Benedict XVI said: “To believe is none other than, in the obscurity of the world, to touch the hand of God and thus, in silence, to hear the Word, to see Love.” True knowledge of and communion with the living God thus remains the best means of overcoming dictatorships, whatever their forms.
[Photo credit: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP via Getty Images]