Our politics is a proxy for a confrontation over the religious character of America

But what those same debunkers so often fail to appreciate is that the secular West and the post-Christian world have been busily reinventing the same rites and rituals that have been with us since the beginning of human civilization, often in the shape of barely disguised repurposing of familiar Christian forms. E.g.: Both Christian conversions and gender conversions are characterized by “confirmations” that are part of an extended social ritual in which a person often chooses a special name and leaves behind the old identity while being presented to the community under the new identity. Saint Paul insisted that the old man must die so that the new one might live in salvation, and his epigones go so far as to observe a taboo against even mentioning the old man (“deadnaming”). The social and the religious overlap: Victorian debutantes were “coming out” a long time before Lil Nas X did. (And surely his was the least-surprising coming-out of a pop singer since Rob Halford’s.) Adopting distinctive dietary restrictions was a common form of spiritual observance long before American progressives declared war on gluten and animal products. Donald Trump was not the first guy to put on a ceremonial red hat and declare himself God’s man on the ground. Ritual genital mutilation as a rite of passage did not begin at the Johns Hopkins Center for Transgender Health.

From veganism to pronoun magic, these quasi-religious phenomena represent quests for meaning and understanding in new forms. If people in our time urgently feel the necessity to seek out new forms of meaning and understanding, it is because they have lost touch with the old ones. And if the new ones have produced despair and chaos rather than fulfillment and order, we might consider what there is to be learned from that.