On Feb. 1, country music singer Morgan Wallen was caught on video calling a friend a racial slur on the tail end of a rowdy drinking binge. There was major backlash directed at Wallen after TMZ released the video of the incident as well as more backlash against the backlash, with Wallen supporters perceiving the negative response as an extreme and unfair ‘cancellation.’ In the end, Wallen wasn’t canceled in any meaningful way — his streams and album downloads actually went up after the controversy. I am not interested in being a foot soldier in the culture war today — what I would like to talk about are the religious undertones that permeate so much of the discourse around cancel culture. Cancel culture dialogue has become entirely detached from other systems of accountability, including religion. Those who have been canceled have not been frivolously exiled. They are simply being asked to do the work and be better.

Both cancel culture and religion set up a framework to interpret transgressions, assign penance and grant redemption. It is for this reason that scripture is often cited by those being canceled, or those defending them. In the broadest sense of the word, to cancel someone is to withdraw support, be it financial by ceasing to buy their products, or otherwise. Usually, the people being canceled have a high public profile, like Morgan Wallen. But why do we cancel others? 

We have been canceling people in one form or another for as long as society has existed. Cancel culture has been called by many names, such as political correctness, or my preferred phrasing, social literacy. The way I understand it, we cancel powerful people because they have done something to abuse their power which we consider harmful enough to warrant some pushback. Wallen did something harmful when he, one of the most prominent country singers of the moment, used a racial slur with a problematic and dangerous history that dehumanizes Black Americans, setting a terrible example for many of Wallen’s white fans.

But why does the idea of cancel culture inflame so many Americans? Many would say that it is because of the perceived “holier than thou attitude” that can come about. When we cancel someone, many people think we are condemning their undying soul, saying they are permanently barred from public life. The opposite is true. When someone is canceled, we as a society are asking them to take accountability and grow to be better so that they don’t continue to inflict pain on others. 

Kansas state Rep. Aaron Coleman, D-Kansas City, was 19 years old and running for the Kansas Statehouse when it came to light that he had threatened girls with revenge porn when he was a tween and allegedly choked an ex-girlfriend as recently as December 2019. Though he apologized, he accused many of his critics of “Donatism.” Donatism was a movement in the early Christian Church which held that only those who were without sin could serve in the priesthood. In a way, Coleman asserted that his undying soul was being judged by the woke mob. Through this rhetoric, he gained many supporters who were not necessarily sympathetic to him or the facts of his transgressions but wanted to be on the right side of the culture war. The implicit argument from Coleman was that his attempt to make things right, his penance, was being rejected by the mob.

But what was Coleman’s penance? Apparently, it was the simple act of saying sorry, and not much else. But was Coleman sorry? Taylor Passow, the ex-girlfriend who Coleman choked, maintains that the Coleman who blackmailed classmates and choked a partner is not any different from the Coleman who sits in the Kansas statehouse today. Coleman may be negatively affected by these events coming to light, he may even be regretful that he would do such a thing, but he has not done the work to change the person who inflicted that harm. 

After his transgressions surfaced, he vowed to pull out of the race. He eventually dropped out before returning and winning the election and he now sits in the Kansas statehouse. Coleman’s lack of genuine penance is demonstrated by his continued abuse of women around him, even after he claimed he had changed since his middle school days. Coleman is not a victim of Donatism. He was not canceled in the national dialogue for having sinned — he was canceled for having sinned and not done the work to better his character after he had confessed. 

The more prescient example of religious undertones in cancel culture is the response to Morgan Wallen’s actions. Wallen’s sister Ashlyne Wallen put out a statement three days after the TMZ video was released, calling for forgiveness in the wake of cancel culture. In many ways the statement was compelling, but it all hinged on two crucial assertions: Morgan Wallen is a good person, and he is going to do better in the future. 

Do I doubt either of these claims? I don’t think so, but demanding forgiveness when you haven’t yet done your work is not something that we should be giving into. 

Two days after the video surfaced, musician Paul Thorn tweeted, “As it pertains to Morgan wallen….. ‘let he who has not sinned cast the first stone.’ God knows I’ve said things I shouldn’t have said at one time or another in my life and I was forgiven. In today’s world saying I’m sorry isn’t good enough. You must be crucified.” 

Thorn quotes John 8:7 here. This tweet represents an unfortunate yet prominent school of thought. The misinterpretation that people should not criticize each other because they aren’t perfect themselves is rampant among many American Evangelicals. It drags a principle of restraint and compassion to an unreasonable conclusion. In his lifetime Jesus criticized many people and encouraged accountability among his flock. 

Should people be forgiven just for saying sorry? In these situations, an apology is a knee-jerk reaction, worth only as much to tell your brain that your soul is still a compassionate one. An apology is only the first step: People shouldn’t be forgiven for being sorry, people should be forgiven for becoming better. If you are skeptical of this line of thinking, rest assured that this is not some Herculean task. I would have received Ashlyne Wallen’s statement much better if she posted it today or even last week because since then, Morgan Wallen has started strongly on his work to become better. He has accepted his accountability and engaged in conversations with prominent Black organizations. 

In his apology video, Wallen, a Baptist, cited 1 Corinthians 13:11. “When I was a child I spoke like a child, thought like a child, reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” To his credit, I feel that Wallen has handled this situation well. He has confessed, repented and asked for — but not demanded — forgiveness. 

The question is, should Morgan Wallen be forgiven? There is not a yes or no answer to this question. A society cannot forgive someone, only a person can. Do I forgive Wallen? I haven’t figured out if it’s my place to forgive this specific transgression. I do believe that Wallen is on the gilded path to redemption, but whether he arrives safely and soundly is yet to be seen. No human being is beyond redemption, but neither are they guaranteed it without putting in the work of repentance.

Julian Barnard can be reached at jcbarn@umich.edu.

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