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The Theology of Identity Politics

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The Theology of Identity Politics

A new book reminds us why politics and religion—including secular religions—don’t mix. December 31, 2020
Politics and law
The Social Order

American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time, by Joshua Mitchell (Encounter Books, 242 pp., $28.99)

In American Awakening, Georgetown political theory dean Joshua Mitchell unmasks identity politics for what it is: a toxic outgrowth of Protestant Christianity that threatens the American regime of liberty and self-government. The book builds on popular critiques of wokeness by placing the phenomenon in the grander scheme of our post-1989 experiment in secular hyper-liberalism.

While other writers have noted the religious fervor that underpins wokeness, few have gone beyond caricaturing it. For many religious-minded people, to speak of any similarities between identity politics and Christianity sounds like wild exaggeration. Yet Mitchell argues compellingly that the absence of God and forgiveness is the only substantive difference between the moral paradigm of wokeness and the Christian one that it seeks to replace. His argument reveals an entire alternative theology undergirding identity politics.

Both the Christian and woke worldviews build moral orders around the categories of innocence and transgression—but with vastly different effects. In Christianity, original sin stains all human beings as transgressors, so the path to redemption cannot lie within anyone who belongs to this world. The woke worldview amounts to a shortcut to the same salvific end; though Christians believe that Jesus Christ descended from heaven to achieve salvation for all in a world beyond this one, identity politics places the keys to the kingdom within human grasp, in the here and now—provided one belongs to the right group. By claiming the mantle of innocence that identity politics confers, oppressed minorities can extricate themselves from transgression altogether and demand justice and moral redress by means of exacting payment from the transgressors. And only by scapegoating themselves and others of their group can white, heterosexual men—the transgressors, in the identity politics schema—cleanse themselves of the stain of their own natures.

Mitchell begins his inquiry by tracing how the categories of innocence and transgression migrated from religion to politics, beginning with the decline of mainline Protestant churches in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. This migration, he argues, was problematic enough, but the new secular religion is troubling for a more consequential reason. By placing atonement for past transgressions at the center of politics, wokeness seeks to apportion power in proportion to innocence. Note how in woke terminology “speaking as” a member of an innocent group instantly confers a legitimacy akin to what writer Coleman Hughes calls “heightened moral knowledge.”

The regime that results is antithetical to what Mitchell calls the “liberal politics of competence.” By “competence” here, he means not mastery of any particular skill but the combination of ability and duty that both allows and compels citizens to work with one another in tackling common problems. In Mitchell’s sense, “competence” forms the basis of liberal democracy by placing the onus on citizens themselves to address challenges collaboratively on the basis of self-interest. By excluding those it deems transgressors from the ranks of “competent” citizens, writes Mitchell, identity politics neuters liberal democracy altogether.

In these polarized times, much of the dynamic that Mitchell describes has become apparent even to those not politically inclined. One avenue of inquiry that Mitchell leaves to others (Yoram Hazony recently explored it in Quillette) concerns how liberalism itself, practiced à la lettre, has laid the path for its own dismantling by enabling the poison of identity politics. Liberal thought, Hazony argues, never intended self-interest to be a guide for individuals acting in a vacuum; it is only through communal association that we can properly exercise our liberty.

This nuanced understanding—what Tocqueville called “liberty, properly understood”—has been undermined by a retrospective embrace of classical liberalism that reduces the Lockean social contract to the pursuit of individual self-interest alone. A connoisseur of Tocqueville, Mitchell is at his best when he reads in the Frenchman’s philosophy a foreboding of today’s ills—if not of identity politics directly, then of the derangements that nourish it. Mitchell defines those derangements as bipolarity and addiction. On the former, Tocqueville was visionary. He foresaw the trouble that would befall America when individuals came to see themselves as “greater than kings and lesser than men.” By greater than kings, he was referring to man’s temptation to abuse his natural right to liberty, leading to a decoupling of American self-government from the moral presuppositions on which it was founded: the preference for the local, communitarian scale of public life. The forces pulling us in this direction are exacerbated by social media, which gives us access to a universe of fictional interactions that bestow the illusion of control, even as we withdraw from the neighborly bonds of community.

As for “lesser than men”: a centralized federal government was already emerging at the time of Democracy in America (1835), though its author didn’t live to see the progressive agenda that began to put it into effect in the twentieth century. But beyond statism, other factors have worked to diminish man’s appetite for liberal competence. Globalism elevates the everyday challenges of politics to a global scale, where allegedly only remote and unaccountable institutions are competent to manage them, further alienating man from the duty of competence. Mitchell refines Tocqueville’s warning with a political theory of our present predicament. He calls the twinned operation of these forces “management society” and “selfie man.” The first describes the empowerment of distant globalist bureaucrats, while the second describes the ordinary man lured away from competence by the fantasy of holding a digital grip on the world.

By addiction, Mitchell means the coming into being of another danger foreseen long before Tocqueville. “Substitutism,” as he charitably calls it, is man’s tendency to withdraw progressively from the duty to build a common world with others by replacing key elements of that experiment with crude approximations. Twitter, for instance, provides us with the self-satisfying illusion of being engaged citizens, even as it isolates us from the real world where citizen engagement actually matters.

American Awakening is an ambitious book, seeking not only to translate the deep theological assumptions driving the woke agenda but also to draw parallels between them and older derangements in liberal democracy. Though many others have sounded this alarm, Mitchell’s warning is compelling. The liberal-democratic experiment of citizens shaping reality together through common duty toward one another is incompatible with identity politics—for religion and politics pollute one another when mixed.

Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images

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