The Tudor roots of wokecraft

The Reformation was a top-down affair, an agenda imposed by a cultural and political elite

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In January 2019, I received an email from an administrator at Georgetown University, where I was a graduate student. She and my department chair wanted to meet with me to “discuss concerns that have been raised by some of your peers about classroom comments and behavior.” This meeting, they told me, would “function as the start of a conversation.” They didn’t say where the conversation might lead. I concluded that the next step would be a formal disciplinary hearing.

I was terrified. Three-quarters through a two-year program, I was in danger of being forced to leave…

In January 2019, I received an email from an administrator at Georgetown University, where I was a graduate student. She and my department chair wanted to meet with me to “discuss concerns that have been raised by some of your peers about classroom comments and behavior.” This meeting, they told me, would “function as the start of a conversation.” They didn’t say where the conversation might lead. I concluded that the next step would be a formal disciplinary hearing.

I was terrified. Three-quarters through a two-year program, I was in danger of being forced to leave without a degree. And for what? I scanned my memory for deviant statements. There were a few: I’d alluded in print to certain essential biological differences between men and women. I’d made a somewhat dismissive comment about “Twitter feminism” in class. I’d questioned whether my classmates were wise to offer a full-throated endorsement of the bloodthirsty revolutionism of George Jackson, a black radical who would happily have cut their throats.

The weekend before the meeting, I visited my fiancée in New York City. We saw a production of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons.

“I do none harm, I say none harm, I think none harm,” Sir Thomas More says as he faces the ax, “and if this be not enough to keep a man alive, then in good faith, I long not to live.” As the house lights came up, I sat in my seat shaking. I was in no danger of decapitation, but I felt the same forces that had pursued More were now pressing in on me.

The religious upheavals that killed More shook Europe for the next 150 years. Our rights and Constitution also came out of those upheavals, and we cannot understand the madness of American wokery without understanding its religious origins and motivations. As Niall Ferguson argues, analogies with the mid-20th century are useless: “Our time most closely resembles the period after the late 15th century.” Wokeness, despite its apparent descent from Continental theory and postmodernism, is, as Emmanuel Macron has observed, an Anglophone phenomenon. In its core values — individualism, iconoclasm and the building of pure institutions — wokeness is late-stage English Protestantism.

Historians used to say that the English Reformation happened because Catholicism had simply run out of steam. Roman ritual, the line went, had become empty superstition, and when a more enlightened option appeared, the masses shook off the popish yoke. Since 1992 and Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars, that story has changed. Duffy proved that Catholic piety was alive and well in sixteenth-century England. The Reformation was in fact a top-down affair, an agenda imposed by a cultural and political elite. The methods by which Henry VIII and his two Thomases (Cromwell and Cranmer) brought it off will be familiar to any twentyfirst-century American.

First, they created a revisionist historical narrative to justify Henry’s power grab. Cranmer and a team of scholars assembled a group of historical and religious texts called the Collectanea satis copiosa — “sufficiently abundant collections” — a sort of ecclesiastical 1619 Project. Where Nikole Hannah-Jones argues that America is and never has been anything but a racist conspiracy, Cranmer claimed that the King of England was and always had been the supreme authority over the church in his realm.

A bloody form of cancel culture spread across the green and pleasant land. To complain that the new narrative was false was heresy. Formerly universal opinions became unforgivable overnight. Statues of men long-revered but newly vilified were torn down. Books and heretics were burned for theological deviations whose definitions changed from year to year. It must have been hard for the average Englishman to tell which beliefs were safe; in those dark times, there were no blue Twitter checkmarks to tell him. Thomas More, the intellectual giant who was Henry’s go-to ghostwriter, lost his head for failing to comply with the same sort of compelled-speech legislation against which Jordan Peterson has railed so vehemently. Saint or sinner, Thomas More, Gina Carano or J.K. Rowling, if you don’t get woke enough fast enough, you’re next on the chopping block.

To achieve his aims, Henry needed the One Percent on his side. Dissolving the monasteries, Cromwell’s policy of sacking the Church and its holdings, gave the One Percenters skin in the game. But the new ideas, it turned out, were not as radical as they seemed. As a new, regime-friendly aristocracy arose, it reinforced old structures. Play the game, Cromwell hinted, and you’ll come out ahead. American corporations had a similar motivation for jumping on the BLM bandwagon in the summer of 2020.

Once the ruling class has found a way to use new dogmas for financial gain, they’re all in. There’s no going back. The proof of this is in the total failure of the reaction when it arrives. In 1553, Henry VIII’s Catholic daughter Mary came to power with a clear aim: MECA: Make England Catholic Again. Like Donald Trump, she was clumsy and brutal. Like Trump, she was accused of selling her country out to a foreign autocrat, in her case Philip II of Spain. Like Trump, whose ambitious if ill-considered policies foundered in the courts and the deep state bureaucracy, she failed to reverse the institutional changes of the previous reign. Mary might have gotten Parliament to vote the pope back in, but there was no way the nobles were giving back what they’d stolen from the monasteries.

And, like Trump, Mary provoked such a backlash that she actually empowered the cultural forces she and her supporters wanted to crush. After all this, anyone who resisted those forces was tainted by association. As G.K. Chesterton wrote in his Short History of England, she “set herself to burn out ‘No Popery’ and managed to burn it in.” Trump set out to “own the libs,” but succeeded only in making himself into a stick with which the libs can beat their enemies for the foreseeable future.

Joe Biden and Elizabeth I came to power on the heels of scorched-earth reactionaries. But neither of them assumed authority with a mandate to aggressively advance the cause whether of Protestantism or its distant modern descendant, wokeism. Instead, both cast themselves as reconcilers. Elizabeth created the big-tent via media of the Anglican church. Biden used the word “unity” nine times in his inaugural address. Sure, Elizabeth set up a sort of religious social credit system to tax Catholic holdouts into conformity and ended up executing about as many people as Mary had, but she was much nicer about it. Expect Biden’s iron consensus-building to wield a similarly velvet glove, with aviator shades, Scrantonese platitudes and over-the-horizon drone strikes rather than the Virgin Queen’s lead-faced glamour.

The MECA crowd had a hard time under the new Queen but, luckily for them, innovations in communication technology made it hard for her government to control the flow of information. Catholic printing presses could be smashed in England but papist samizdat continued to pour in from the Continent, as if from a Parler or Gettr that proved impossible to shut down. One of these tracts even found its way into the hands of a certain John Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon. Will’s dad stashed it in his attic like a present-day student downloading Intellectual Dark Web videos to an external hard drive, just in case Joe Rogan gets deplatformed.

The Catholic Gunpowder Plot against James I led to even greater repressions, with reactionary elements branded domestic terrorists and targeted by legislation. The Democrats and much of the media seized upon last January’s Capitol insurrection as an opportunity to do the same. As with the Gunpowder Plot, conspiratorially-minded sympathizers speculated that the January 6 perpetrators were entrapped by government agents in order to justify that crackdown.

By the end of James’s reign, though, it was clear that the biggest danger came not from reactionaries but from progressives, not from Catholics but from extreme Protestants — the sort of puritans who called wedding rings a heathen abomination might today think white milk is racist. King James issued a Book of Sports to try to convince his radicals that not all aspects of English civic life were sinful to the core. The riots that shook Portland and Seattle on Inauguration Day suggest Biden will struggle to contain the far left. But can Biden rein in his zealots?

If radicalism grows, the future becomes bleak. James’s son, Charles I, lost his throne and his head to Puritans who believed it was not enough to be passively anti-Catholic. Their ranks — call them “AntiPa” — concluded that the elites who had driven the top-down Reformation had carried it as far as they ever would, which was not far enough. They saw that the High-Anglican Cavaliers lacked the stomach for real revolution, and decided that they were still papists at heart. A similar rhetoric occurs now in the online right’s mockery of moderate conservatives as “cucks” and its identification of a modern heir to the “King’s party,” the permanent ruling apparatus, in the “deep state” and the “uniparty.”

Real revolution will come to America when a critical mass of the progressive left decides that our elites and institutions are holding progress back rather than moving it forward. If the government fails to deliver from the top down, the mob and its bureaucratic allies will impose their dream from the bottom up. Support for a Constitution they consider tainted from the start by original sins of oppression will mark out the enemies of the revolution. They will have to be driven out from influence, just as bishops appointed by Rome were cut down by Henry VIII.

“And if you cut them down,” Thomas More asks in A Man for All Seasons, “do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?” As our guardrails are removed, we see the same chaos, the same breakdown of shared values, that occurred as the English Reformation peaked with the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the establishment of the Commonwealth, a Puritan republic, in the 1650s. As England’s institutions tottered, a radical millenarian sect called the Diggers set up their own ideal society, not unlike Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), which anarchists declared in the name of George Floyd in 2019. Like CHAZ, the Diggers’ paradise quickly degenerated into violence and exploitation. And they were far from the only kooky cult to appear. The historian Tom Holland:

The streets of London…seethed with contempt for the very notion of authority…Baptists who, as the more radical of the first generation of Protestants had done, dismissed infant baptism as an offense against Scripture; Quakers, who would shake and foam at the mouth with the intensity of their possession by the Spirit; Ranters, who believed that every human being was equally a part of God.

The clown show Holland describes is not unlike the summer of 2020. New sects then sprang up just as quickly as new letters are added to the endless acronym of queerness in our day, each staking a claim to epistemic privilege — whether via divine revelation or victimhood status — that creates an irrefutable subjective reality. With so many competing identities to consider, the center struggles to hold. At the 2019 Democratic Socialists of America convention, the convention-goers, supposedly all united in a common cause, spent so much time bickering over gendered language and insisting that clapping was a microaggression that they hardly said a word about economics or labor policy.

Just as American conservative sites ridicule the DSA, so Royalist propaganda ballads mocked Cromwell and his military autocracy for policing harmless enjoyments (microaggressions against God, so to speak) while merely playing at governing the nation. But absurdity is no guarantee against atrocity. A revolution can produce plenty of both and an interregnum, whether of Cromwell or the Jacobins after the French Revolution of 1789, can drag it out for years.

Our revolutionary wokeness, already installing its absurd logic, will eventually collapse like every prior attempt to make heaven on earth. Perhaps the old institutions, flawed but workable, will survive as they did in England after 1688, where they brought forth a restored monarchy, a Bill of Rights and a new Toleration Act to place enduring restraints on misguided zeal. But probably not: the revolutionary spirit runs deeper in America, for good or bad. When we ask if we have reached “peak woke,” we are also asking if the progressive revolution has finished installing itself as the new normal.

I managed to escape official censure at Georgetown, thanks to some excellent pro bono advice from a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend free-speech lawyer. When my Star Chamber convened, I made it clear to the professors, without directly saying so, that if they took any disciplinary action against me, they’d have another Lindsay Shepherd on their hands. I made a perfunctory non-apology. The classmate I’m 95 percent sure made the anonymous complaint never spoke to me again. From then on, I watched my words more carefully.

It was a sort of happy ending, except it wasn’t so happy and the madness shows no sign of ending. Thomas More also found temporary safety in silence. And you know how that worked out for him.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s January 2022 World edition.