The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Social Justice

Activists in some countries are adopting ceremonies of shame and atonement. To understand why, look to religion.

One story out of many: Dr. Edward Livingston had to resign as deputy editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association because of a podcast in which he claimed that socioeconomic factors and not racism were holding back non-white minorities in the US. The focus on racism was unfortunate in his view and he resented the implication that he was a racist.

Thousands of people signed a petition calling for an investigation. Livingston lost his job. The editor of JAMA, Dr. Howard Bauchner, apologized for the podcast, which he described as “inaccurate, offensive, hurtful, and inconsistent with the standards” of the journal. He, too, resigned. The podcast was of course deleted.

One might disagree with Livingston’s opinion. Perhaps it was inaccurate. But should he have been fired for giving his view? Wouldn’t it have been better if disagreements had been expressed in opposing arguments? After all, structural racism does exist in the US, as well as in many other places, and should be openly discussed. 

Deleting Livingston’s opinions and publicly apologizing for them suggests that this case has more to do with a kind of theology than with a difference of opinion. Livingston failed to keep the faith. He transgressed against a dogma that insists on structural racism being the main reason for social and economic inequalities. It is not enough for individuals or institutions to oppose and remove racial biases; they must continuously affirm their commitment to this goal in public. Failure to do so, or to stick to the prescribed language of antiracism, will result in public disgrace.

Such cases of dissenting opinions on matters of race and gender resulting in confessions, apologies, and firings are happening in other, mainly Western countries. But the spectacle of public shaming, linguistic prescription, and declarations of virtue and ideological purity is especially common in the US, and to a slightly lesser extent in some other Anglophone countries, such as Canada, Australia, and the UK. Why could this be?

One possible answer might be that racism in the US, and the wider Anglophone world, is worse than in other Western countries (I’m leaving racism in China and other parts of the non-Western world aside for the moment). The history of slavery and its long-term consequences still haunt American society and should certainly not be ignored, let alone dismissed as a reason for lingering iniquities. The British Empire was deeply implicated in the slave trade too, even though there were no plantations in Britain itself. 

Imperial history created its own racial hierarchies, to be sure, in Indonesia under the Dutch no less than in Algeria under the French, as well as in India under the British Raj. History education in these countries tended to ignore the dismal consequences of these inequalities. Partly under the influence of Black Lives Matter in the US, this is beginning to change, and high time.

An alternative explanation might be that the colonization of the New World—in the US, Canada, or Australia—led to the slaughter and extinction of many indigenous peoples. Public confessions of collective guilt over this terrible history play a big part in cultural events in many of these countries. In Australia, such occasions usually begin with a ritual affirmation that they are taking place on the sacred ground of the original inhabitants. Similar official testimonies are often required in Canada and, increasingly, in the US. There is nothing wrong with reminders of past wrongs, but their ceremonial nature lends to collective atonement a quasi-religious air. Again, this suggests a kind of theology, rather than historical reflection. The question is where this theology stems from.

There are other countries with lamentable histories of slavery and brutal colonization. In Argentina, for example, only a small number of Amerindians survived European conquest and settlement. Brazil imported more Africans for slavery than any other country. Racism exists in both nations, in complicated ways, especially in Brazil. Yet there appears to be less ideological heat around antiracism than in the US. The Anglophone pattern of disgrace, confession, and apology is lacking.

The reason, I think, lies in different religious traditions. Despite the recent inroads of evangelical Christianity in South America, the Catholic Church is still dominant. Catholics confess to their priests to be forgiven for their sins by God. Public apologies for lapses of faith are not customary among Catholics. This is more a Protestant tradition.

Since the Reformation, Protestants would confess in public not for their private sins to be forgiven by God, but to affirm the purity of their faith. This custom, originally imported to America from Britain, is ingrained in American culture, affecting even non-Christians. Testifying is an essential part of Christian evangelical gatherings, vastly amplified by radio and television, not just to confess sins or lapses of faith but also to cement the believer’s place in the religious community through a public testimony of faith. 

Now, it is true, of course, that this type of Christianity is associated with the right. Most people on the “woke” left would put themselves in the opposite camp. How could they have anything to do with Trump-adoring televangelists in rural red states?

I would argue that the ideological fervor on the identitarian left is a secular version of the evangelical zeal that has marked the cultural history of the US. This isn’t limited to “woke” politics. The convention for celebrities to confess their sins on TV to Oprah Winfrey is part of the same tradition. The sinner hopes to be redeemed in public spectacle. It is a way to be readmitted into respectable society, the secular version of religious community. This explains, in my view, the compulsion for people who have sinned against contemporary views on race and gender to confess, apologize, and atone, leaving no room for discussion.

Some people claim that compared to the ideological vehemence of the far right, the dogmatism and puritanism on the left are relatively harmless. It is true that Trumpian right-wing populism is politically more dangerous. But that is even more reason for ideologues on the left to temper their attacks on liberals for their alleged lapses of virtue or insufficient purity of faith. What is needed to oppose the intolerant right is a more tolerant left, open to different views and reasonable argument. Otherwise, there won’t be very much left to defend.

Ian Buruma, former editor of The New York Review of Books, is a professor at Bard College. His latest book is The Churchill Complex.

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