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In 2018, Pastor Eric Mason wanted you to embrace being a “Woke Church.”
But by 2022, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, R, was proudly proclaiming that “Florida is where woke goes to die.”
These days it seems like wokeness is everywhere. While some people use the word positively, the vast majority seem to use it pejoratively — whatever woke is, it’s bad.
So, what is “wokeness”?
“Like any theory-driven discipline—wokeness has its own vocabulary, definitive literature, and intramural discussions,” Owen Strachan explained in his book Christianity and Wokeness: How the Social Justice Movement is Hijacking the Gospel and the Way to Stop It.
Because of this, even though we can spot wokeness, or wokeism, just about everywhere, sometimes defining it can be difficult. Strachan says that he “uses this term to describe the collective ideas and activism of Critical Race Theory, intersectionality, and people who identify as ‘woke’ more generally.”
That’s a good starting point for a workable definition. In a longer primer that I wrote on this topic, “Social Justice vs. Biblical Justice: An Incompatible Difference,” I explained,
“The animating heartbeat of modern Social Justice is radical deconstruction. In summary, Social Justice — as commonly used and understood in American society — now refers to political actions taken to liberate those perceived to be in an ‘oppressed’ identity group suffering under the ‘oppressors.’ These political actions include dismantling, deconstructing, or reordering society and its structures. The ‘oppressed’ identity groups in this narrative most commonly include racial minorities, women, the LGBT community, and so forth.”
I would argue that this description holds true for wokeness — just turn the dial up to 10. Wokeness is, in many ways, the more radical and aggressive version of “social justice.” It’s critical social justice on steroids or, should we say, “cross-sex hormones.”
What do I mean when I say that wokeness is “critical social justice?” What I mean is that it goes beyond the social justice equation by adding in the explicit incorporation and weaponization of what’s known as “Critical Theory.”
Critical Theory came out of the Frankfurt School, which was founded in Germany after World War I, but its scholars eventually immigrated to the United States and took up residence at Columbia University.
Critical Theory is explicitly Marxist in its origination and roots, and like Marx, divides the world into categories of “oppressor” and “oppressed.” But the Frankfurt School sought to translate Marx’s economic project into a much broader, all-encompassing social critique.
In a succinct and helpful summary, Wikipedia explains that “Critical Theory (capitalized) is a school of thought practiced by the Frankfurt School theoreticians Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm, and Max Horkheimer. Horkheimer described a theory as critical insofar as it seeks ‘to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.’”
In other words, Critical Theory is all about finding, revealing, critiquing, and ultimately dismantling hidden “power structures” across all of society.
Just what might these oppressive power structures be? Primarily God, religion, the family, traditional values, sexual morality, free market economics, and even — as we see today in the transgender movement — the biological reality of the sex binary.
As Dr. Bradley Green suggests in his article “Critical Theory and the Gospel,” “What critical theory offers is—in its own way—a kind of alternative theology or religious vision of the world.”
Green is right, and this brings us back to wokeness. So far, we can see that some key features of wokeness are that it is 1) a more virulent and unbiblical form of social justice; 2) born out of Critical Theory; and 3) ultimately functions as a totalizing worldview/false religion that seeks to destroy the entire Western worldview built on Christianity, the family, and traditional values.
One scholar of Critical Theory and wokeness, Michael Young, defined it like so: “Woke: the view that society is oppressive; oppression is the result of identity-based discrimination (racism, sexism, homophobia); which operates via systemic power through cultural hegemony; which we are socialized into; and the solution to this is to rebuild to the whole system.”
Strachan, Green, and Young are all correct — they each highlight a piece of this metastasizing movement that is remaking America. In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that in our present moment, wokeness is perhaps the singular most destructive force wreaking havoc across our nation.
This is because wokeness, as defined here, is nothing less than the call for the entire American system of equal justice before the law; equality of opportunity, not outcome; judging people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin; and natural order to be thrown out the window.
In short, wokeness proposes an alternative future of an egalitarian Marxist utopia, one that can never come to pass. Then it looks at some real and some imagined disparities in the existing society and critiques it for being oppressive based on sex, gender, religion, etc. Now that it has revealed the disparities, it calls for social action to rectify the oppressions.
Out of this, we get “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” (DEI) programs on college campuses and corporate H.R. offices that practice reverse racism. We get “Environmental, Social, and Governance” (ESG) investments that seek to destroy fossil fuels and prop up unprofitable climate change schemes. We get Critical Race Theory (CRT) that teaches minority students to hate America and teaches white people to view themselves as guilt-laden oppressors. The list goes on and on.
But at the end of the day, wokeness is simply this:
Cultural Marxism applied to every area of life by the media, massive corporations, politicians, and bureaucrats.
It’s important to understand and label wokeness so we can fight it. As Young has also argued,
“We need to use labels to be able to point at, highlight, and otherwise tag woke concepts so that they can be seen and then held up and examined for criticism. Using labels like ‘woke,’ ‘CRT,’ AND ‘Critical Social Justice,’ lets us tag woke ideas so we can hold them up to the light and examine them. Labels help us point out wokeness to other people so they can see it too.
This is what the woke want to avoid.
What the woke want is to act like all the bits of woke activism we see are unconnected phenomena spontaneously springing forth in the name of justice in an organic and decentralized way. They want to act as though things like BLM, Defund the Police, ‘Diversity, equity, and Inclusion,’ and Drag Queen Story Hour are diffuse and unconnected movements when in fact they are all connected by their adherence to an underlying worldview and ideology.”
So, rest assured, wokeness is not, as the proponents like to claim, simply “being awake to and aware of social disparities and injustice.” Wokeness is nothing less than a complete rejection of Western Civilization and its foundation — Christianity. It’s a counterfeit religion built on the false promises of a Marxist utopia. If we let it, it will replace God in a heartbeat and force the entire nation to worship DEI quotas, ESG scores, and cross-sex pronouns instead.
Because of this, Christians and conservatives must reject — and fight against — wokeness everywhere we encounter it.
In biblical terms, wokeness is our modern version of King Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statue in Daniel 3. It is the idol of our present day, and just about all of the powers that be — media, colleges, corporations, and government — are demanding that we bow to it. That we call all white people oppressors. That we pretend men can be women. That we act like we don’t even know what a woman is. That looting and rioting are “fiery but mostly peaceful” protests. That George Floyd was some martyred saint. That children should get groomed in the classroom by LGBTQIA+ teachers or mutilated as part of “gender-affirming” care. That 2+2 doesn’t always equal 4.
As Christians, we must refuse to bow to the idol of wokeness. We must, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, speak the truth about God and reality. When threatened with the fiery furnace for defying the woke idol of the day, we must respond, and I’m paraphrasing,
“There is no need for us to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If our God, whom we serve, can save us from the white-hot furnace and from your hands, O Woke, may He save us! But even if He will not, you should know, O Woke, that we will not serve your god or worship the golden statue of LGBTQIA+, CRT, DEI, ESG, and Planned Parenthood, which you set up.”
That’s wokeness. It’s critical social justice. It’s a false religion. It’s the biggest threat facing our nation today. This means that Christians cannot avoid the fight or keep playing footsie with it. We must drive it back into the darkness through the preaching of the Gospel and savvy political maneuvering. It’s no exaggeration to say that the very future of our country — and our children’s lives — depend on it.
Follow William on Twitter! @William_E_Wolfe
Ready to dive deeper into the intersection of faith and policy? Head over to our Theology of Politics series page where we’ve published several long-form pieces that will help Christians navigate where their faith should direct them on political issues.