What drives identity politics? How should we think about the consequences it poses to American political, economic, and cultural institutions? We have grown accustomed to a stream of virulent and haranguing accusations of systemic racism and “unconscious” racism launched against citizens, institutions, and politicians for many years now. Since George Floyd’s killing those energies have morphed into torrid protests, riots, violence, and unending confessions and accusations of racism. We are in the grip of revolutionary logic and resulting moral panic. And we need to understand what of this is genuine injustice and what is ideological cant. We need to know where this movement comes from and where it could take us, if we’re going to be able to repel it. Joshua Mitchell’s American Awakening answers these questions with a remarkable philosophical and theological investigation into identity politics and its current grip on the American mind.
The power wielded by identity politics consists in its ability to serve the “invisible economy” of man in a distorted fashion. The invisible economy is man reckoning with the fact of his soul, his deeds, and his need to justify them or find absolution. Identity politics speaks in a deadly serious fashion to this permanent aspect of human nature, and we haven’t fully recognized it because of our own estranged condition and unawareness of the authentic needs of the soul. Mitchell’s analysis shows how identity politics distorts basic Protestant theological concepts of transgression and innocence while omitting forgiveness, humility, and charity.
No longer is mankind guilty and in need of divine redemption. There is no longer God and man, but there is a transgressor: the heterosexual white male, who almost alone bears a kind of original sin. As Mitchell observes, “Identity politics declares that there is no original sin, only an original sinner. That is its shortcut” (emphasis in the original). The innocent include racial and sexual minorities compelled together in a faux union to work against oppression. The innocent must redeem their country and the world by bringing low the transgressor and exposing all his sins and works.
Mitchell notes that America’s Protestant Christian theology was once quite certain about what it believed. Man is a sinner, but he found redemption and forgiveness in the sacrifice of Christ. This theological certainty strengthened our politics, Mitchell argues, but not by giving it a theocratic basis. To the contrary, religion’s firmness, owing to the belief that it told the truth about God and man, actually made its pursuits distinct from politics, but not entirely separate from it. This meant that Americans knew they weren’t perfect, and that their government should reflect that it governed and was led by imperfect citizens who did their best under God and the law. The upshot was that this distinction generally enabled our politics to be prudent and limited, shaped according to its own nature. Politics does not contain religious certainty but unfolds amid tension, rivalry, conflict, and debate, in a changing social and economic landscape. We aim to do the best we can with the flawed materials we have to use.
Then things slowly, and then rapidly, changed, Mitchell concludes—and not for the better. Mainline Protestantism removed itself from traditional theology and belief. With this loss in its own salvific seriousness, Americans consequently retreated from the Mainline and began casting about for other sources of existential meaning. Evangelical Protestantism, along with segments of devout Catholicism, has not filled the cultural void that opened with the collapse of Mainline Protestantism. Enter identity politics. In the absence of authentic religious belief, we get fanatical political belief, particularly among younger Americans. This belief lifts an eschatological religious belief into the public square, unleashing fury by the innocents against the transgressors. But this political belief is a quest that is too heavy for the hands of men to carry because it aims to solve human guilt, uncertainty, and suffering in the invisible economy through human means exclusively.
Mitchell illustrates this insight of our changed political-religious environment by pointing to the change in title of Martin Luther King, Jr., who went from Reverend to Doctor in the last few decades. “Reverend” underscored that his legacy was both spiritual and political. In confronting segregation and racism, he touched the thread of something evil, something beyond legal injustice, that could justify such vast discrimination. The change to “Doctor” was not merely an alteration made by a secularized Democratic Party, but one that tied into a core belief in emerging identity politics, Mitchell intones.
The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and many of those who followed him “would have had no part in this scapegoating enterprise.” They knew, Mitchell observes, that they were fighting “principalities and powers” of evil and that the biblical understanding of man under God, of suffering, sacrifice, and redemption needed to overcome them. But that understanding, one that was at the core of the Civil Rights movement, “makes the Democratic Party faithful quite nervous.”
Mitchell notes the “Reverend King’s blood of the cross,” which “points the way to overcoming altogether the scapegoating of one group by another.” By contrast, the contemporary notion of “Doctor King’s ‘struggle with social justice’ is the identity politics code phrase that renders the entire world a battleground between transgressor groups and ever-proliferating groups of innocents, a battleground on which we have every reason to worry blood someday will be spilled.” Doctor King’s new memory now stands enlisted in the ongoing fight for identitarian equality, as successive waves of minority groups have claimed his legacy in their struggle against sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and on it goes.
This is also why “black Americans became but one identity group among many in the Democratic Party.” Mitchell borrows from community builder Robert Woodson to argue that this change has not served African-Americans well. This is not merely owing to the addition of victim groups, thus eclipsing the singularity of the black experience of oppression in America. Rather the ideological change achieved by identity politics has tied the power of black Americans to the transgressors’ constantly confessing their sins against blacks. This has led to the state’s interminably expanding its offerings to them, and to economic and social actors’ constantly expanding opportunities to blacks as blacks, independently of all meritorious considerations. Woodson argues that this switch has transformed how black Americans understand their own history in America. As black scholars such as Glenn Loury and John McWhorter have argued, their sense of personal agency has greatly diminished. Dismissed are the heroic acts of sacrifice and courage, and “the remarkable models of self-help—accomplishments of black entrepreneurs and mutual aid societies during eras of the most brutal racial repression and slavery.” Mitchell’s inconvenient truth is that the addition of new rights claims—women’s rights, gay rights, transsexual rights—seemingly requires blacks to remain victims who receive status from identity politics rather than enabling them to strike out on their own as confident, independent American citizens no longer in need of progressive leaders and their political patronage. But that invites discussion of the type of politics that identity politics will bring.
Identity politics, Mitchell firmly states, aims at the destruction of a “liberal politics of competence,” replacing it with a politics of unforgivable transgression on the part of white heterosexual males and unending innocence of “people of color” and the LGBTQ community. This liberal politics of competence appeals to a decentralized America, with a vibrant civil society and a government that governs through and under the law. It crucially depends on free and responsible Americans who self-govern with their neighbors and expand opportunities for themselves by cooperating with one another. This is what Alexis de Tocqueville referred to as “Self-Interest Rightly Understood,” and it is the key virtue of liberalism: a recognition that we don’t aim for monolithic religious or ideological conformity, but rather to live free and dignified lives under the law on terms acceptable to our neighbors. This allows liberal citizens and responsible persons to build families, homes, careers, wealth, religious institutions, and a decent political order.
This liberal competence is impossible under identity politics. There’s no dialoguing, partnering, or compromising among neighbors and political actors unless they proceed on the acceptable terms of guilt and innocence. We’ve been given previews of how this will look. Take Princeton President Chris Eisgruber, who confessed his institution’s transgressions in an open letter that cited Princeton’s “systemic racism” and need to overcome a record of inherent wrongs committed against minorities. Princeton academics penned a subsequent letter that proposed the creation of an anti-racism committee that would ideologically investigate faculty writing and scholarship. Should such committees form, it will mean nothing less than the onset of hard despotism in the academy, one requiring the incantation of Ibram Kendi–inspired antiracist oaths by its members and students. A similar process would surely unfold in journalism, entertainment, and much of the federal administrative bureaucracy, making it almost irrelevant that no existing legislation would require or enforce identity politics measures. Enforcement would come by “dear colleague” agency guidance letters.
If these decrepit circumstances emerge, Mitchell notes, then the white male transgressor will be replaced at some point with a new scapegoat, a new original sinner. The logic of identity politics’ need for innocence to be vindicated against a transgressor demands it. That next group will likely be white women, followed by black men, and maybe Hispanic men after that. All will eventually fall under the identity politics knife of oppressor and guilt, as its needs for power and unity remain, which can only come from the blood of a master class oppressor. Thus does the revolutionary logic complete itself, ending in the ruin of many lives.
We must also know the resources that we have as Americans to move beyond the dead end of identity politics. If identity politics is ultimately a fanatic religiosity tied to the idol worship of victims, then, yes, we have to respond with the liberal politics of competence. However, before we can get to this realistic and humble politics of self-government, Mitchell is telling us that we have to recover the truth about God and man. This biblical understanding of man, his dignity, and freedom under God and the law is our foundational response to identity politics and its endless scapegoating. Mitchell’s robust theological conservatism pinpoints that identity politics feeds our desire to be elevated above our weaknesses and sins, placing them on the other—but like so many other idols it only leads straight to perdition. For helping us understand the grave peril identity politics poses to America, we should be grateful to Joshua Mitchell.