The other day I awoke to read that a book I had my eye on was to be pulled from the market by the handlers of the Seuss estate. I grew up with that book and wanted to share it with my son, just as my mother once shared it with me. Of course, the book now costs in the hundreds of dollars, which may or may not still be a lower cost than the social price of admitting one was looking for it.

It appears we’ve reached an inflection point in the conversation about “cancel culture.” This follows a predictable course in which a term that once seemed helpful succumbs to overuse, as it is inflated to emptiness or twisted into a cheap partisan cudgel (“Biden has canceled Dr. Seuss”). Because people won’t submit to verbal bludgeoning forever, pushback comes. The most forceful response of late is that cancel culture doesn’t exist at all, and never did, except as a whine when bigots get their just dues. Less inflammatory, and likely harder to brush off, is the charge of hypocrisy. Who can deny that conservative Christians have had their own cancel culture for decades now?

Perhaps lost in this polarization is clarity as to what a cancellation is, and why it feels right at least some of the time.

Social psychologist (and 2014 Mockingbird Conference speaker) Jonathan Haidt is best known for his contributions to Moral Foundations Theory, which divides human moral reasoning along a number of independent axes, termed moral foundations. He notes that, in America, Democrats are more likely to frame all moral questions in terms of whether an act inflicts harm or not, and whether it is fair or not. Republicans, by contrast, will usually include harm and fairness in their moral reasoning, but often give weight (in various combinations) to whether an act would subvert authority, be seen as disloyal, inhibit liberty, or undermine purity.

Haidt himself has been vocal in opposition to cancel culture in academia and broader society, but I want to suggest that his methodology can tell us more than even his own arguments on this front. Haidt, along with many others whose work he cites, has noticed certain religious aspects to the call-out phenomenon. I want to focus on one religious aspect, which becomes clear only if we notice an inconsistency in the language. Again, the typical way for people in Western, individualist societies to frame moral problems is in terms of harm or injustice. This is exactly what we observe in cases of “cancellation”: the offense is cast as inflicting harm on people (perhaps even inspiring violence, however indirectly), or as revealing a fundamental unfairness.

The head basketball coach at Creighton University, Greg McDermott, was recently suspended a week after a postgame speech to his players in which he urged them to “stay on the plantation” after a loss. Unsurprisingly, others associated with the team, both players and staff, took offense at that. One constant in the language used by players and assistants has been the terminology of harm — rather than describing themselves as shocked, offended, or confused by McDermott’s words, the phrasing has been that they were “hurt,” “deeply hurt,” or “wounded.” This (slightly odd) way of using the word “hurt” dominates public statements to a greater degree than one might expect, along with the equally odd (for the circumstances) language of equality and inequality. I don’t think this is a matter of exaggeration. Rather, it is the consequence of a moral vocabulary that only functions in terms of harm or justice colliding with a moral impulse which doesn’t quite fit those categories, and is struggling to express itself.

The University’s move to suspend McDermott (one suspects temporarily) might be interpreted as standard operating procedure in the burgeoning field of sports punishment, but it too might reveal something more. Consider what appropriate moral responses to harm and injustice would look like. In a case of harm, one might expect an attempt to mitigate or pay restitution for that harm. In a case of injustice, one might expect an attempt to right the imbalance and establish fairness. A suspension doesn’t really accomplish either; its function is to remove the offender from view for a time. While it strains credulity to say that McDermott is being “canceled,” the strategy of removal is the defining feature of cancellations. Most often, the goal does not seem to be the amending of a wrong, so much as the removal of whatever caused offense. Cancellation is a kind of purgation. It is the appropriate response not to harm or injustice, but to impurity.

What is peculiar here is that urban, educated Americans are broadly understood not to think in terms of purity (the sanctity/degradation axis of Moral Foundations Theory). I wonder if this judgment isn’t to some degree mistaken. Environmental concerns are typically expressed in the language of harm and injustice, but might instead be seen to operate according to an unspoken logic of purity: nature is pristine, and pollution is, well, polluting. The language of purity does seem to have a hold in a few places, most notably the (often religiously-tinged) organic foods aisle — one’s food and one’s body are sites of purity. However, overt language of purity is still rare, but it is possible that it will not remain so.

The events at Creighton make sense if we interpret them not just at face value, but as taking place within this collision between the narrow vocabulary of harm and injustice and growing public sensibilities around purity. This is why the players’ response so emphasized not just the unity of the team or their own personal offense, but the broader social conversation. We are witnessing attempts to construct a standard of purity for the public space, a social sanctity.

This notion of a purified public space is the obvious truth behind comparisons between the new left-leaning cancel culture and its antecedents on the right, especially the evangelical right. The goal of cancellations is not so much to target unpopular people, as to maintain a shared space free of contaminants. The emphasis on purity and holiness in American Christianity is hard to miss. It has been occasionally addressed by Mockingbird, though more with an eye to its personal aspects. Key to any purity culture, however, is that it is precisely a culture. It is a social phenomenon, and not merely a series of individual emphases on holiness. The perennial goal of American Christianity is to establish a pure Christian society.

That dream of publicly manifest holiness is as old as the country itself; Roger Williams and Anne Hutchison were canceled way before it was popular. The early history of New England is in part the story of the transformations of that dream under various pressures, internal and external. The Puritans learned the same lesson that every other tribe learns in pursuit of holiness: without strict boundaries and an appetite for policing them, public spaces become mixed spaces, and mixed spaces are impure. Thus, the tendency in the modern world has been for purity to become the concern of subcultures, schismatic or self-isolating groups. Rarely does a modern culture become so monolithic that it can maintain a broad public notion of sanctity without appearing to close in on itself or fragment. This is probably for the best. Certain attempts to establish purity on a national scale succeeded only in such gobsmacking violence that they stand as bywords for modern evil.

Another way to think about this problem is to say that set of ideas we call liberalism, with its values of tolerance and intellectual openness — the world of globalism, pluralism, and free trade in both goods and ideas — is underwritten by a set of strategies to turn down the temperature on holiness. Some might be surprised to consider how much those strategies depend on Christianity for their justification. This implies a paradox, that both the dream of the holy people and the rejection of public holiness arise from the same source. We are called to present our bodies to God as holy and living sacrifices, not being conformed to the world. The one who wrote those words hung out and preached in marketplaces precisely because they were mixed, impure spaces. What this suggests is that if Christians have anything remotely useful to say about cancel culture, it will have to be in light of the paradoxical Christian concept of holiness.

In the first place, we ought to recognize the sophistication with which holiness is treated in the Torah. The “you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” of Exodus 19:6 (which is echoed in 1 Peter 2:9) does not issue forth in a simplistic division between Israel, where everything is holy, and the outside, where everything isn’t. That is simply not achievable in this world. What we observe in the law, especially as we look at the tabernacle and the arrangement of the camp around it, is something like concentric circles of holiness. God is holy, and so is present in the holy of holies, which is holier than the holy place (the sanctuary) of the tabernacle it resides within, which is holier than the camp proper, which is holier than what is outside the camp. Holiness is graduated and fenced, so that impurity might be mitigated, and the presence of a holy God to a not-nearly-as-holy people can be managed without canceling (in an absolute sense) everybody. We might compare this to the strategy of Disney in attaching a little warning to certain old films — this is a graduated approach which allows the existence of things that are not quite pure precisely by marking them as impure. It isn’t an unqualified embrace of cancel culture, but a careful mitigation of impurity.

A functioning society requires more than mitigation, however. There is also a need for means of restoring people who have fallen on the wrong side of the divide. The purpose of the various purification rites and sacrifices is, in part, to accomplish this restoration. Everyone is unclean some of the time. The goal is to keep that uncleanness from becoming sin (these are not identical in the Bible), and failing that, to restore sinners by separating them from their sins.

As Isaiah learned, however, the only way a holy God can ultimately be present to a people of unclean lips is by sheer forgiveness. The seraph with the burning coal conveys a holiness so potent it reverses the whole scheme, overcoming corruption rather than itself being corrupted. This is the same logic at work as when the woman suffering from hemorrhages touches Jesus’ clothing and is healed. Our Lord is holiness itself, but holiness in the most peculiar package. He is wrapped in impurity, surrounded by it, saturated with it, as Luther says, God so deep in the flesh that his skin smokes. Christian faith begins with the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit whose very name is holiness, to those who are not holy. It rests upon the one who is found with the unclean, suffers with them, and dies with them. Again and again the New Testament tells us of the peculiar meeting of holiness and impurity in Jesus himself. He who knew no sin became sin, became a curse. The very boundary between the holy of holies and the unholy world rends at his death.

Christianity is not a rejection of the Old Testament concept of holiness, but its peculiar concentration, such that true holiness is at last given outside and apart from the law (and so apart from the structures of gradation and cancellation) in the man Jesus. The holiness that Christians receive in him is thus not a thing that must be shielded. “You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world,” he says, and supposing he means it, there is no fear of corruption. Holiness is not concentrated into a pure space, but sprinkled and hidden within the whole mass, like yeast. This mixing will always appear to Puritans (whether Christian or secular) as contamination, as the destruction of holiness. The proper response to that is most aptly given by the author of Hebrews, who tells us that Jesus suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy by his own blood; therefore, “Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured.” Outside the camp is the place of maximal un-holiness — it is the ungoverned space where anything goes.

America has never really been an “anything goes” place, not even on the frontier — though the idea of the lawless frontier is powerful. We have always placed some things outside the camp, and so have managed a minimal notion of public holiness, by way of saying, “Well, at least we’re not that.” The ugly fact is that, much of the time, that has meant, in part, Americans of color. There is some truth to the explanation that what we call cancellation is just the reversal of a monstrous standard of holiness that long stood invisible (yet perfectly well known) to all but those who suffered under it. Calling attention to this has, apparently, spurred the re-emergence of more openly ethno-nationalist politics in the United States: overt rather than implicit calls to racial purity. Purity is a zero-sum game.

What we are observing, then, is the conflict accompanying the construction of a more rigorous, visible standard of public holiness. Perhaps “cancel culture” is as good a term for that as any. I confess my skepticism as to whether such an approach can long endure, or at least endure at the current intensity; the fact that no model of purity is even close to universally shared is precisely why there’s a feeling of national coming apart. Either way, Christians are faithless if we think we can live untouched, retreating behind the walls to brood over our own petty holiness until everything dies down. Neither can we live by it, so dominating and shaping the culture that our law of holiness wins out. It is the call of faith always to look outside the camp, to attend to those who are called unholy, to proclaim the holiness of God precisely in these spaces, and in that small way to contribute to a public space that is more mixed and less obsessed with its own dismal purity.


Cartoon image via the New York Times