John Calvin famously called human nature an “idol factory.” This seems to be self-evidently true. We are always creating for ourselves objects or ideas to venerate. If that’s true, then it is also true that we are always creating for ourselves new religions. A religion, to put it very simply, is a set of beliefs and practices centered on that which is “Ultimate.” Sometimes we call the Ultimate “God.” Other times we call the Ultimate other names like work, romance, wealth, etc. These are what Scripture calls idols.
Secularism, far from bringing about the end of religion, has actually ushered in a Cambrian explosion of new idols and their accompanying religions. Or, to go back to Calvin’s metaphor, in the absence of traditional religion, our factories have not shut down. They have gone into overdrive.
What does all this have to do with “cancel culture?”
First, a brief definition. The first thing you need to know about “cancel culture” is that it is a culture. In other words, it is not merely a thing or even and activity. Cancel culture describes a general mood of a group of people. It is an environment where certain assumptions and behaviors are accepted and expected. A “cancel” culture is a culture that encourages and enforces the cancellation of individuals or groups of individuals for various indiscretions or “sins” against that cultural mood. To be cancelled is to be shamed, to be cast out, to be reviled and exiled. So a “cancel culture” is a culture in which this sort of banishment has become the norm.
Cancellation is not unique to social media, but it is a pronounced feature of our social media age. In my research on digital technology, one theme that came up over and over again was that young people feel trapped by social media. They feel an intense obligation to over-share, but they are also terrified of sharing the wrong thing and getting cancelled. Sometimes this wrong thing doesn’t cancel them until years later when it is unearthed and wielded destructively. Parents used to warn their kids about “becoming a statistic.” Now the fear is about becoming a hashtag. This is the tyranny of social media. “You must speak! But be careful because we are watching.” This is one important reason why young people who are habitual users of social media are so anxious.
So, cancel culture is a culture which finds particular expression in social media. My argument is that cancellation is also inherently religious in nature. Cancellation is a new word, but religions, by their nature, officiate in-group/out-group divisions by some version of cancellation. A person can be canceled because of moral indiscretion or because of the abandonment of key beliefs. Both are tears in the sacred fabric that binds religious believers together. True believers would say that a person cancels themselves by their decisions before they are cancelled by the group. In some cases, the cancellation needs to be done publicly in order to provide a warning or a teaching moment to believers.
Is cancellation Christian?
There are actually two questions here. Is cancellation something that Christians do? And is cancellation something that is proper for Christians to do?
The answer to the first question is obviously “yes.” Christians have been consistent cancelers through the years – often to very lamentable and embarrassing effect.
The Puritans, for instance, were fans of cancel culture long before it was cool. The Salem witch trials are one infamous example. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” immortalizes this Puritan cancel culture. But long before the Puritans, the Church was regularly scandalized by excommunications and counter-excommunications leading far too often to public executions.
In more recent years, the American evangelical church has engaged in its own version of cancel culture. The following tweet was recently sent to me by a friend:
Those of us who grew up evangelical in the nineties remember this culture well. Some of the cancellations were of people firmly within our camp – Amy Grant. Other cancellations were of those people or institutions who were dangerously accommodated by people within our camp – rock music or Harry Potter.
So yes, Christians have sometimes been guilty of perpetuating their own culture of cancellation. A culture where cancellation becomes the norm is toxic, but this doesn’t mean that cancellation is, in principle, inappropriate.
Actually, sometimes cancellation is completely necessary. We can point to embarrassing examples of cancel culture on display like Harry Potter, or lamentable examples like the Salem Witch Trials. But would any committed Christian not wish for the sex-trade industry to be cancelled or for the abortion industry or the porn industry to be cancelled? Sure, we can roll our eyes about Harry Potter, but I think we should all agree that there are some products of a godless culture that absolutely should be banished from a Christian’s life. This is nothing more than a reflection of the biblical call to holiness.
Did Jesus cancel people? Well, ask the Pharisees. Did Paul cancel people? Well, ask Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Tim 1:20) or the Judaizers of Galatians. It’s impossible to read the New Testament and not come to the conclusion that truth in doctrine and holiness in action matter. And the person who doesn’t persevere in the truth and the person who is obstinate in sin is in grave danger of being “cancelled.”
Cancel the Witch!
There are two, overlapping circumstances in which cancel culture turns toxic. The first is when there is an absence of grace and the possibility of reconciliation. In this case, cancellation is only interested in punishing the wrongdoer usually as a public demonstration of the canceller’s own virtue. There is never a recognition that “all have sinned.” There is rarely a spirit of charity. Instead, this toxic culture where forgiveness is impossible becomes a reign of terror. The canceller degrades the cancelled by turning her into an abstraction. They want to stone her not because of who she is but because of all she represents. Instead, Jesus says “go and sin no more.” I suppose in this since “cancellation” isn’t even the right word for a Christian to use. Cancellation implies permanence and denies grace.
But the call to go and sin no more reminds me of the second way that cancel culture becomes toxic. A traditional faith like Christianity has standards of belief and practices going back millennia. Religion is necessarily conservative because it is situated around that which is sacred. In other words, religion says that there is something that must be conserved. So, to be “cancelled” (I hate to keep using that word.) means that you have innovated or deviated from a path that has been defined long before any of us were born. The new religions of cancel culture don’t have that established foundation of belief and practice. Instead, the ground of what is acceptable is always shifting under your feet. That which would get you cancelled today might have been demanded of you yesterday. Today’s canceller will becomes tomorrow’s cancelled. Cancel culture in this way is a lawless land governed by a troop of social media enforcers. Nothing is fixed other than the fact that at any moment your beliefs might fall out of favor and get you cancelled. It is not even clear what these new religions are conserving other than some vague need to be “progressive.”
J.K. Rowling provides an easy example of toxic cancel culture. In the late 90s evangelicals were trying to cancel Harry Potter for (in my opinion) ridiculous fears about sorcery and witchcraft. Today, evangelicals often read Harry Potter to their children while acolytes of the new secular religions take their Puritanical aim at Harry Potter. (I’ve heard some argue that America never outgrew its Puritan past. I think there’s a lot of truth to this, but not in the same way that people mean when they say this.)
So what happened? J.K. Rowling recently had the audacity to say that there are only two sexes. This is a damnable belief to hold according to the new religion. Never mind the fact that this was universally and uncontroversially believed for millennia. The new doctrine says this is a hateful belief, and therefore, Rowling must be publicly cancelled. A Facebook acquaintance of mine called her a TERF piece of excrement. For those who don’t know, calling a person a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) is akin to calling someone a witch in the new religion. Not to long ago, a young man calling a woman an awful name in a public setting would receive scorn. Now the young man is applauded as enlightened. He cancelled the witch.
I suppose this is a very roundabout way of saying that the new religions are toxic and so are their cultures of cancellation. Such cultures will not look good through the lens of history. (Do you think of the great cancellations of the past as heroic or as cowardly and overly defensive?) I also don’t happen to believe that such toxic new religions will have much of a life beyond this generation. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but religions grounded in logical incoherence mixed with loveless legalism don’t prove themselves to be attractive or sustainable for very long. Eventually they consume themselves as I believe we are starting to see.