Karl Marx would recognise the cult of gender identity as an episode of mass consumerism and elite signalling. “Educate yourself” is the sneer of our social betters. “I was born in the wrong body” is an explicit statement of gnostic faith. (See also “trans women are women, trans men are men,” “trans is beautiful,” and “God is trans.”) This is only the church of the masses, however. Alchemy is always popular with elites, therefore the “non-binary” side of “gender identity” gibberish tends to reflect Hermeticist ideas, such as the Divine Hermaphrodite, in a profusion of flags and micro-genders.
Esoteric systems, being capitalist constructions, tend to do this a lot. Different levels of society will want different versions of the same product, with the upper levels of hierarchy always adopting trends, first to be imitated by the classes below, requiring a regular change of seasons in fashion and etiquette to make everyone happy and keep them buying new things. Esotericism lends itself to this process by adding layers of meaning to mundane words, actions, or products.
Planned Parenthood has reformed their mission. No longer strictly a family planning service, they now provide carcinogenic cross-sex hormones practically on demand, even to minors, creating a new material class for capitalism. Capitalism inflated the demand for this service with a Truman Show-style program featuring the wealthy Jennings family and their eunuch son, Jazz. Glowing support from a well-heeled lobby ensures that the sickening medical experiment is presented as flawlessly wholesome.
Many critics of “gender identity” outside the United States have detected something ineffably American about all this horrid silliness, as if was a strange new breed of televangelism that appeared on Tumblr with prophecies of imminent gender genocide. They are right to think so.
Seeing this beast for what it is brought an end to my time in “netroots.” For a decade, I was involved in progressive online organizing. Leaving behind the world of activism to pursue a new interest in academic history rather than stay in a doomsday cult, I began to analyse “gender identity” as an American faith movement. It helped that I have an eclectic, lifelong interest in theology and the history of religion. Last July, I became the editor of The DistanceMag.com, a publication of LGB United. Our website is focused on the academic-historical, cultural-historical, and literary-historiographical roots of gender identity and “gender medicine” as a universe of ideas.
All ideas have histories, even bad ideas. In fact, bad ideas can have the most consequential histories of all.
Even a cursory background on this topic could become lengthy. Here is a very short version of American religious history: The country was built with doom-casting. Protestants brought millenarian ideas about an impending Judgment Day to North America. The United States got “burned over” with revivalism by 1844, when several American religions were born or in the making: Seventh Day Adventists, Latter Day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah’s Witnesses.
African and Native American faith traditions were subject to huckster appropriation. For the elites, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Transcendentalism pushed American religion towards an individual, even individualistic, experience. “Spiritualism” and séances were popular with the masses. All levels of society indulged in patent medicine, a form of fraud with direct parallels to “gender medicine.” At the moment when Karl Marx wrote that religion was the opiate of the masses, the masses were in fact drinking opium or its derivatives, usually suspended in alcohol, and confusing their resulting euphoria with a sense of wellness.
According to historian Brooks McNamara, the medicine pitches “were structured in exactly the same way as the presentations of tent evangelists.” Showman P.T. Barnum made conscious use of evangelical language and themes. Warning against the blurring of lines between faith and mammon, during the 1880s The Nation denounced Barnum as “the personification of a certain type of humbug which, funny as it often appears, eats the heart out of religion.”
Global trade brought the entire Orient to America early. Indeed, many American city names reflect that fascination: Cairo, Memphis, Alexandria, Baghdad, Mecca, Medina. “New Age” religion was over a century old in America by the 1960s. Indian writer and documentarian Gita Mehta critique western cultural imperialism and colonialism during that decade in Karma Cola: The Marketing of the Mystic East. As rock stars “wiped out the split-reed sax, and mantras began fouling the crystal clarity of rock and roll lyrics…eventually we succumbed to the fantasy that Indian goods routed through America were no longer boringly ethnic, but new and exciting accessories for the Aquarian Age,” Mehta writes. Hare Krishna and Transcendental Meditation and L. Ron Hubbard offered disenchanted post-war Americans a new chance at spiritual fulfilment through another burst of esoteric beliefs. This period saw the injection of pop psychology and the beginnings of the ”self-help” industry, a free borrowing of rituals and practices, a changing moral landscape, a Whole Earth catalog.
Oprah capitalism is a faith without a church. It is a good example of where this led. By dint of her book reading club, Oprah Winfrey, who refers to her career as a “ministry,” is now acknowledged by Yale religious scholar Kathryn Lofton as a key figure in American religious history. Lofton writes that Oprah “preaches prosperity gospel, she advocates books as scripture, she offers exegesis, she conducts exculpatory rites, she supplies a bazaar of faithful practices, she propagates missions, both home and foreign.”
A country without a culture found a world full of them, and in time, reimagined itself as the Rome of hyper-individualised omnifaith with a liberatory global mission.
The philosophical underpinnings of American constitutionalism are intimately linked with the shape of American religion as a social and political force. For example, Locke and Rousseau left us with the “tabula rasa,” the idea that people are blank slates, and all inequalities are a result of social oppression. Steven Pinker calls this “the secular religion of modern life.” The tabula rasa is “seen as a source of values, so the fact that it is based upon a miracle — a complex mind arising out of nothing — is not held against it,” Pinker writes. “Challenges to the doctrine from skeptics and scientists have plunged some believers into a crisis of faith and have led others to mount the kinds of bitter attacks ordinarily aimed at heretics and infidels.”
This is the domain of “critical theory” and “social justice.” Likewise, the gnosis of “gender identity” invokes the fallacy of Cartesian dualism, presuming a split exists between a person’s individual gender-spirit and their material body, a condition that capitalist enterprise proposes to ameliorate.
America has always been a religious nation, though not always institutionally religious. Faith has been a personal matter to Americans, privately formed rather than socially or politically constructed, since the founding of the nation. Syncretistic by nature, American religion sweeps up any ritual practice or idea it encounters, creating individual faiths, each from their own mix-and-match pastiche. No religion springs into the world fully-formed; all religions borrow from before. Syncretism is moreover an imperialising force. Sometimes empires reach out from the centre, at other times they welcome new ideas from beyond their frontiers. Gods are incorporated into pantheons, myths revised, and idols erected to celebrate not one single faith, but an all-encompassing, world-explaining civic religion. American civic religion — the shared principles of political discourse — made room for this possibility from the beginning.
Even with the decline of mainline Protestant churches, Americans are not actually becoming less religious now than they used to be. Rather, Americans have deprecated stuffy church traditions and orthodoxies from their religious menus in favour of more diverse consumer choices in religion. It is not the first time such a realignment has happened, here or elsewhere.
Likewise, profit and prophecy are eternal partners, but in the 21st century, American advertising has applied the heuristics of religious faith with all the manipulative scheming of a fast food laboratory testing hamburger meat flavours on rats to see which ones are the most addictive. As a result, ancient errors have been resurrected and magical thinking cultivated in a generation, on purpose, to transform them into tribal capitalists.
Two publishing waypoints stand out for this analysis. In 2006, Patrick Hanlon, the self-described “Charles Darwin of branding,” produced an incomplete, yet coherent monograph, Primalbranding: Create Belief Systems that Attract Communities. As per the title, shared rituals and meanings are the core elements of all cults, making it possible for consumer brands to create “communities” of customers with a religious zeal for their products. Hanlon offers a seven-point program for creating this “magic glue.” Imitating all the best prophets, Hanlon thus transformed himself into a cult, or “brand,” or icon, to be packaged and sold to his believers.
More recently, in fact on the cusp of the covid pandemic, Tara Burton identified a religious “remixing” taking place in America. Writing in Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, she notes a common individualistic refrain. “Among the most common sayings I heard among the people I interviewed was ‘I make my own religion,’” Burton observes. Religious consumerism reigns. “If ‘sex sells’ was the unofficial advertising mantra of the Mad Men era, then ‘spirituality sells’ is the slogan for post-2016,” she writes.
Above all, the new believer demands “authenticity,” what Burton calls “the idea that one’s actions are in harmony with one’s emotions.” It is here that “the lived experience” takes over, discarding objective evidence for depth of feeling, so that faith can take over entirely and steer people into madness. There is no “authentic self,” but people in soft societies will spend fortunes to find one.
This is an old story. Child sacrifice is old, and awful, and now it is happening with puberty blockers. Magical children being kept pure and sacred are not a new thing in the world, either. Witch hunts are an ancient form of scapegoating, lately revived for women who object to “gender identity” in law and policy. De-transitioners, the apostates of “gender affirmation,” are shunned harder than Amish apostates. Whistleblowers are subject to harassment that would make Scientology squirrel busters pause to reassess their values.
Nor is the word “cult” overly pejorative here. After all, what sort of “social movement” threatens suicide if they don’t get what they want? Separates children from families and encourages self-harm? Physically attacks disbelievers in public to terrorise them? Warns of apocalypse and embraces righteous violence? The honest answer is a cult. Cyanide grape Flavor Aid-swilling cults do those things.
Even the language of “transgender” is rife with counterfeit mysticism. “Gender identity” is not quite a religion, perhaps, but it is clearly a faith movement that remixes very old, bad ideas in the old American way, then exports it to the world, repackaged as salvation.
Good read thanks. Transgenderism is cultish but is it a cult? That is who is the narcissistic personality by name leading dependent souls like a latter day Pied Piper? Also why do critics of identity politics refer to critical theory as a basis for the latter? Only Honneth approximates to a legitimising intellectual authority in this regard. Habermas and his predecessors including Adorno give no comfort to the current madness of IP. American individualism and the postmodern turn have been the main sources of this ideological shift which is anti realist, anti democratic and anti science. I explore these points more in my recent book Identity Politics: Where Did It All Go Wrong? Thanks for keeping this needed discussion rolling.