Pedro Gonzalez, an associate editor at Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, writes in a recent white paper of “two motives driving the normalization of transgenderism: ideology and interest, or those who are true believers and those who merely see transgenderism as an avenue for increased profit and power.”
“The result, however, is the same,” Gonzalez warns: “a society that lives by lies, the undermining of the family, and a radical reimagining of the relationship between the individual and their body and the citizen and state.” We are being warped by this explicitly capitalist faith enterprise.
Which, to be clear, is not a progressive battle cry. “Transgenderism and consumerism naturally go hand in hand,” Gonzales says, “because transgenderism — the notion that one can pick their gender like a glittering new fragrance from the shelf — is the ultimate form of consumerism.”
That may be a surprising statement in a report (PDF) that was commissioned by a conservative organization, but it points to the idolatrous character of consumer culture, which has always had its critics in religious circles. We are observing an old argument anew. Like any religion, Christianity has been countercultural and institutional at varying times and places. American religion has likewise vacillated between intuitional faith and institutional faith, that is, between personal religion and organized religion, since the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. Ministers and pastors have long railed against “humbug” that “eats the heart out of religion,” to quote one 19th century clerical criticism of P.T. Barnum.
The report for American Principles Project is comprehensive and worth reading in full, but Gonzalez does not explore this point much further. He should do that. For example, he might read Tara Isabella Burton’s Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, published in 2016, to deepen his understanding of the moment we live in.
Burton writes about the trend of “Remixed” American spirituality, “how more and more Americans — and particularly how more and more millennials — envision themselves as creators of their own bespoke religions, mixing and matching spiritual and aesthetic and experiential and philosophical traditions.”
Believers are profitable, and we are made to believe, embarked on “the pilgrimage none of us can get out of,” Burton says. Increasingly, Americans “want to choose — and more often than not, purchase — the spiritual path that feels more authentic, more meaningful, to them.” Hallelujah, let the cash registers ring.
Transgender “medicine” has much in common with the history of patent medicine frauds. Commercialized spirituality is old, but now it is hyper-powered. “Consumer capitalism, and the corporate takeover of the spiritual marketplace, has effected a kind of institutionalization of practices that, in previous decades, were primarily associated with the grassroots fringe,” Burton says. “More and more brands, seeking to capitalize on the spiritual gap in the market, are packaging and marketing religious and spiritual products, finding ways to integrate them seamlessly into lives defined by the capitalist machine.”
Call it the Oprah effect, for she is an avatar of the trend. “If ‘sex sells’ was the unofficial advertising mantra of the Mad Men era, then ‘spirituality sells’ is the slogan for post-2016.” We live in an age of “spiritual branding” now. “Even brands that don’t offer specifically religious or spiritual products are increasingly looking to spiritual traditions to improve their bottom line,” Burton writes.
What we call ‘wokeness’ in corporate communications is in fact mammon, a form of false worship, or self-worship, a consumerist pseudo-spirituality in which for-profit corporations sell themselves as moral arbitrators.
“Consumer capitalist culture offers us not merely necessities but identities. Meaning, purpose, community, and ritual can all — separately or together — be purchased on Amazon Prime,” Burton writes. “Self-care has become both a call to emotional authenticity and an ascetic challenge: to put in the labor to perfect the body in the service of a soul whose emotions, desires, needs, and wants are considered not just valid but authoritative.” The customer is always right, therefore the customer is the authority. Intuition is God now. Our “sense of meaning is based on narratives that simultaneously reject clear-cut creedal metaphysical doctrines and institutional hierarchies and place the locus of authority on people’s experiential emotions, what you might call gut instinct.”
“Among the most common sayings I heard among the people I interviewed was, ‘I make my own religion,’” she observes. The internet plays a prominent role. Social media “alchemizes” identities and “enchants” users in the great Remixing. Burton notes that “50 percent of queer people…call[ed] themselves religiously unaffiliated” according to the most recent Pew survey in 2016. For better or worse, the relationship of many Americans to their churches had been broken over social issues related to sexuality, and now gender was the follow-on, creating pressure on liberal churches to “include” transgenderism as a gnostic faith tenet.
A substantial number of people who carried the old rainbow flag have now taken up the “progress flag” and carried on with their “authentic selves” not as atheists, but as Remixed.
According to surveys, the fastest growing religious category in America is “unaffiliated.” Within this demographic, 72 percent “say they believe in, if not the God of the Bible, at least something.” They are not secular, though they are non-sectarian. Polling has “found them to be slightly whiter and significantly more left leaning than average … a staggering six points more likely than the average American to have a college degree. The study also found that women were slightly more likely than men to embrace the SBNR label.” That is also a good description of political support for transgender activism.
Transgenderism is not an institutional faith movement, though it certainly seeks power within institutional frameworks. It is a Remixed religious faith movement, the most successful of our time, and patently consumerist. Its missionary activity seeks to “consciously stress the moral and ideological importance of ‘rewriting the script; or ‘remaking the rules’ when it comes to societal behavior, rather than adhering to traditional or institutional norms,” as Burton describes, not mentioning academic Queer Theory. For example, some lesbians can have penises now, because those men say so, and their words are magic. Script rewritten.
Burton worries that American culture is at risk if “desire for personal authenticity and experiential fulfillment takes precedent over our willingness to build coherent ideological systems and functional, sustainable institutions.” For if everyone is their own priest, then who will kneel?
Echoing this concern, Lucy Tatman observes in her essay “The Religious Elements of Gender-Identity Ideology: Preliminary Notes” that ‘gender identity’ is uniquely “poly-monotheistic,” meaning that every gender-soul is held to be self-created and also sinless. As Tatman notes, this is a heresy in Christianity, heretofore. Furthermore, “when gender-identity ideology is framed as a contemporary form of religion, it is inherently accompanied by the right to refuse to consent to its tenets,” Tatman argues. Normally this is true, but faith in gender-being is also marked by involuntary conversion. Doubt is blasphemy. We will all use the magic pronouns or else.
Authenticity, the great spiritual obsession of the masses right now, is “the idea that one’s actions are in harmony with one’s emotions,” Burton says. Faith, too, is a feeling. Put bottles of feeling on a shelf and Americans will buy them. They will call the artificial feelings ‘authentic.’ They will pray to the bottles. We do it all the time. The ads tell us to. The advertisers use music because they know that it moves us in spiritual ways.
Wokeness is therefore a thing that happens in high-level capitalism as people look for ways to feel more authentic about themselves. Gonzalez quotes this paper by Chinese professor Zheng Xiaoying describing the phenomenon of “compensatory consumption,” or “behavior which aims at coping with psychological deficit or threat” through purchasing power.
“A core theme of consumer behavior research is that people consume a product or service not only for its functionality, but also for its signaling value,” Xiaoying notes. Craving salvation for their sins as First World residents, “compensatory consumers are not merely buying a product — they are signaling their virtue, standing against injustice, announcing their rejection of ‘assigned gender,’” Gonzalez elaborates. “Every purchase is an act of liberation and rebellion against perceived threats to the self-concept.”
People want to feel virtuous. Consumer choice creates an illusion of virtue through the purchase of virtuous products. We know they are virtuous products because they are branded as virtuous. This bland beer has Dylan Mulvaney’s face on it, that’s how you know you are drinking an inclusive brand of beer. Drink it and pretend to like it and you will feel better about living in country that has endless cheap beer while the climate changes and kids dig up the rare earth metals for your cell phone using their bare hands in a toxic mudhole.
Indeed, the very absence of real challenges left for young Americans seems to create the environment in which pronouns become a divisive issue. “The hysterical rhetoric about transgender people being ‘endangered’ by dissenting views actually fuels compensatory consumerism,” Gonzalez says. Drink the shitty beer because it will own the right wingers. Report the Twitter terfs all day today and call it “activism.” As I keep saying, negative partisanship is the most underappreciated force in American politics.
As Americans collide over these issues on the internet, Burton sees “political narratives of both social justice and reactionary atavism that are battling it out as our new civil religions.” Writing before the effects of Tumblr or the campus culture revolution were apparent, let alone the rise of Donald Trump, Burton noted that social justice activism shares “a fundamental distrust, if not outright contempt, for institutions and scripts.” Events since then have crystallized her vision. Obedience is out of fashion. Everyone is wearing their own personal Jesus.
Religion fills important places in our minds where the terror of the unknown persists. Religions don’t even need to tell us about invisible worlds to erect myths that can explain the real world and calm the nervous primate-mind.
“The most successful of our modern new religions provide a clear, if nontheistic, account of the meaningfulness of the world,” Burton says. Technology is the new magician’s medium. Writing when the smart phone was still new, she envisions “a religion for the new generation of Americans raised to think of themselves both as capitalist consumers and as content creators.” In this brave new spirit-world, Burton envisions the successful faith will be decentralized and horizontal.
A religion decoupled from institutions, from creeds, from metaphysical truth-claims about God or the universe or the Way Things Are, but that still seeks — in various and varying ways — to provide us with the pillars of what religion always has: meaning, purpose, community, ritual.
False profundities are profitable. Strange Rites “is, in large part, about charlatans,” Burton writes. “It’s about capitalism and corporations and the new cuthtroat Sillicon Valley of spirituality.”
It’s about people who want to sell us meaning, brand our purpose, custom-produce community, tailor-make rituals, and commodify our very humanity. It’s about how the Internet and consumer capitalism alike have produced experientially satiating substitutes — many, though not all of them, poor — for well-developed ethical, moral, and metaphysical systems. It’s about the denatured selfishness of self-care, and the way in which ‘call-out culture,’ at its worst, serves as psychic methadone, providing us with a brief and illusory hit of moral belonging.
We don’t need churches anymore, now. We have smart phones. Heaven is a virtual paradise free of hate speech. “Community” is now divorced from geography. Spiritual “knowledge” is the first page of Google results. Religious hybridity is the new normal. Only one percent of Americans say they are Buddhist, but eight percent of Americans say it has influenced their “spiritual life.” Buddhism is as much a practice as a religion, too, and "mindfulness” is a secularized form of Zen.
Burton sees a kind of ‘runaway warming’ effect at work: “The more individualized our religious identities become, the more willing we are to mix and match ideas and practices outside our primary religious affiliation.” Children of couples from two different faiths are the most likely to leave organized religion, so the proverbial American melting-pot is helping to make this happen.
Protestant religion was companion to the printing press. Burton now sees the “religions of the internet” as postmodernist and pagan, or perhaps the better word is “tribal.” That would be the word choice of Patrick Hanlon, the CEO of ThinktopiaⓇ and the prophet of “primal branding.” According to the website for his personal brand of brand advice, it is “THE ORIGINAL SOCIAL ADVOCACY ENGINE” (emphasis original) and a proud partner with many corporate behemoths, including the king of internet and workplace wokery, Google.
We have abandoned traditional marketing by rote to create a clearer, more constructive way to build Brands. By defining the pattern behind community building that has existed for tens of thousands of years, we can systematically build audiences, customers and the Word Of Mouth that is at the root of your success. Primal Branding® is systematic, definitive, predictive and helps us build Brand communities around people, places and things all over the world. People not only believe you, they believe in you.
“People not only believe you, they believe in you.”
To be clear, the “you” here is a company that is selling a product. People sell products, however, which is where a Dylan Mulvaney comes in. The “Trans TikToker” with the infamous Bud Light cans was a data-driven choice developed for dated brands that are desperate for youth appeal. Mulvaney’s median Instagram follower is too young to drink. Think back upon Joe Camel, the dubious cartoon hero that R.J. Reynolds used to target children with cigarette appeals, and recall that cross-sex hormones are carcinogenic, and then remember that a cancer diagnosis counts as “gross domestic product” for economic accounting purposes.
As a literal advertising guru, Hanlon published a book in 2006, unsurprisingly titled Primal Branding, proposing a seven-part system through which the aspiring company or celebrity may create an “internal culture” that supports their “brand identity” by maintaining a cult of belief within a community of consumers. Singer Taylor Swift applies a Hanlon-like marketing strategy by telling her fans which colors of stage costume refer to which album, posting updates that explain the meaning of her bracelet charms for sale, and so on. We are seeing this all the time, now. It has become so commonplace that we no longer notice.
While definitions of religion vary, Burton’s criteria of “meaning, purpose, community, and ritual” are all met within Hanlon’s program. We also find them in what I shall call the “LGBTQIAlphabetsymbols community.” Rather than quote Hanlon at length, let us regard “transgender” as a Hanlon brand cult, and see how well his seven-part system applies.
1 - His first element of branding is a creation story. According to the movement’s mythology, transgender people started the Stonewall riot, granted gays and lesbians freedom from the cisheteropatriarchal oppression of The Man, and have always existed since the beginning of time. Transgender pseudohistory would be an entire series of articles all by itself, a toilsome debunking, because a divinatory narrative of their creation had to be created out of other people’s history with a fair bit of fraud to glue the whole thing together.
2 - Next comes a creed, a statement or system of belief. Wokeness supplies the creed. Signal your brand’s wokeness and everyone will know your creed. The statement “trans women are women, trans men are men, nonbinary identities are valid” is a gnostic creedal statement.
3 - Icons are Hanlon’s third element. The “progress flag” is an icon. Drag queens and transgender celebrities are “icons.”
4 - Any cult worth joining will have rituals. These include shared community activities, such as prayer and feasting, that bring members of the “tribe” together. An entire calendar of days, weeks, and two whole months of the year exists to remind the gender-affirming tribe they exist. Other rituals surround the changing individual, such as a child coming of age; young transgender influencers speak in spiritual terms about starting their cross-sex hormones. Good surgical results are displayed with beatific pride. Bad ones are hidden; the faithful tell the victim of medical malpractice in their replies to keep believing, it will all come true if you just believe hard enough.
5 - All successful cults have “pagans,” i.e. nonbelievers, apostates, or heretics. In the gender cult, “trans exclusionary radical feminists,” or TERFs, are held to be the satanic spawn of right wing reactionaries and the arch-sorceress JK Rowling. Anyone with the mildest criticism of transgender ideology, or the outcomes of transgender medicalization, is a TERF, and therefore what Scientology refers to as “fair game” for destruction. Again, negative partisanship is a helluva drug.
6 - What Hanlon calls sacred words are similar in concept to buzz words, terms that people “in the know” use to communicate meaning. Although transgender-affirming words come from the English language, they are imbued with esoteric (hidden) meanings for the believer as well as exotrinsic (universally shared) meanings with outsiders. When the believers say “woman,” they secretly mean anyone who identifies as a woman. Press them on what they mean by that word and they often speak in tongues.
7 - Finally, Hanlon points to the role of the leader. Every person who identifies as transgender or nonbinary or genderfluid or neogender, and takes on the most mundane role, becomes a “first.” A role model to young “trans kids.” President Joe Biden wins media plaudits for his leadership when he calls this project “the civil rights movement of the 21st century.”
Pedro Gonzalez sees the backlash to the elite power of this emerging mammon-cult growing responsively. “Public exposure to transgender ideology and its advocates, particularly those in the education system promoting radical ideas about sex and gender to children, often deliberately without parental consent or knowledge, has led to increased public skepticism and outright anger,” he says. “The attempts to indoctrinate children have personalized the issue for millions of Americans in a way that few issues do.”
Gonzalez examines John Money, the infamous pedophile psychologist who invented “gender identity” as a concept, and notes that Money’s sickening experiment on the Reimer twins became an article of false faith during the 1980s. Critic Milton Diamond “said that some believed in the John/Joan case ‘almost as a religious entity,’ and nothing would sway them of its success,” he writes.
We might add that because John Money remains the original academic root citation for all claims that “gender identities” exist as coherent psychological phenomena, his problematic legacy has been rationalized. Money is now an echo of the demiurge in classical Gnosticism: a world-creator who personifies evil, and causes suffering, rather than providing salvation, which instead comes only through secret knowledge (see “God is trans”). Money’s attempt to imprint “sexual signatures” on the Reimer twins by making them enact penetrative positions is no longer a case of sexual abuse, anymore, but attempted “conversion therapy” of a “cis boy.” See how that works?
This innovation has not been inspired by medieval Cathars, to be clear. Rather, as Patrick Hanlon and Tara Isabella Burton suggest, “gender identity” echoes ancient heresies because human beings are not really as original as we think we are, and our beliefs are complex, composite, and increasingly personalized as consumption. Consumerism wants every one of us to feel wholly original as we select our beliefs from the shopping cart. They are selling a lie, a humbug, a false faith. An all-American sales pitch.
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So many great insights in this piece, Matt. Food for thought, being a life-long left-coaster who has explored many "spiritual" paths to help me deal with life and find my own ground of belief. How much have I been simply subject to marketing? In the early 90s, one friend described new age religion as "Christianity Lite,' which always struck me as funny and true. I do not trust religion, but I sometimes find the framings or rituals or trappings to be helpful and/or beautiful. And I wonder about the evolved need in humans for some kind of religion. The music so often draws us in. Amazing Grace can make me weep and is beyond Christianity or dogma in some profound way I have witnessed again and again in my work with elders. It is deeply human. We want to grab onto something, and as you write about here so well, the market is right there to sell us the icons, the creeds, the holy days. I wrote a song many years ago called Graven Images about the human need to find meaning and even love through artifacts ranging from a "GI Joe with flowers around his neck" to pagan goddess figurines to old movie icons. I come back again and again to thinking the way out of religion and how much it harms us is through direct contact with nature. So many of the PITT parents have found that to be helpful with their gender-confused kids.
Another excellent article, many thanks. So much to think about, as usual. This beautifully written passage of yours says it all really, so much in it about the sad truth of our modern lives: "This bland beer has Dylan Mulvaney’s face on it, that’s how you know you are drinking an inclusive brand of beer. Drink it and pretend to like it and you will feel better about living in country that has endless cheap beer while the climate changes and kids dig up the rare earth metals for your cell phone using their bare hands in a toxic mudhole."