Among conservatives today there is an emerging confidence about the nation. But it remains a timid confidence, expressed among fellow-travelers but not in the broader political culture. Awkwardness still prevails. We are living “after globalism,” yet we are embarrassed by our return to the nation.
In the deserts of the Middle East, where I have taught for many years, my students ask me, “Why do you have open borders? Are you Americans and Europeans so embarrassed by your countries that you want to renounce them altogether?” Good question.
This embarrassment is a rather exceptional state of affairs. For the whole of recorded history, the human race has divided itself into nations, with long and binding histories. “My people are this; your people are that.” In the Hebrew Bible, there is mention of seventy nations. Ancient history is the tale of heroic actions, undertaken with a view to defending the nation.
What is the source of the European and American difficulty, which my Middle Eastern students find so hard to grasp? The Latin word natio, from which we derive “nation,” means birth. If you have a nation, you have a birth inheritance. There is the real issue. How should we understand this unease about inheritance, and how should we respond to it?
In Europe and America today, there are a number of clearly distinguishable understandings of inheritance. Those on the left wish to overthrow inheritance altogether. Its burden is too heavy; nothing good can come of it. The left has wished to overthrow inheritance since the French Revolution. For the left of the French Revolution, inheritance was parochial, and it stood in the way of what is universal. That version of the left is with us still today. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the desire to overthrow inheritance often appeared in the form of Marxism. For the Marxist left, inheritance meant capitalism and the bourgeois class that represented it. The bourgeois stage of history, necessary though it may have been, had to be superseded in order for an unalienated humanity to emerge. This version of the left is with us today as well. In the twenty-first century, a new way of repudiating inheritance has appeared: identity politics. This new version repudiates inheritance because it is stained and impure.
The right wishes to hold fast to inheritance. Conservatives who fix on the inheritance of tradition have been a healthy corrective to the left since Burke wrote his Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790. In addition to this sort of defense of inheritance, there are those, also placed on the right, whose understanding of inheritance must be distinguished from the traditionalists’. They see inheritance as an enchanted given, not a fragile legacy. They seem little interested in preserving the prudential knowledge we develop by living inside a tradition and hand down through the generations, in a distinct place; they are more interested in the physiognomic markers of different groups—in other words, in race. This approach to defending inheritance is rising around us everywhere, and we must fight it. It is not based on the difficult trade-offs all those who dwell within a living tradition recognize, but rather on imagined distinctions that invest inheritance with mystical importance. This view of inheritance was tried and repudiated a century ago in Europe. Its temptation will always be there for those who wish to build what they consider an enchanted world rather than one based on prudence. The temptation grows stronger when the living traditions conservatives defend are collapsing or have collapsed, and when the left seeks to destroy inheritance altogether. Absent the living inheritance of tradition, some go on the prowl for another, easier version of it. Nothing more characterizes the current moment, in Europe and in America, than the left’s need to destroy inheritance, and with it the justification for nations; and the right’s need to defend inheritance—even to the point of defending versions of it that the ghastly history of the twentieth century has taught us to repudiate.
The healthy response to the left and to the racialist view of inheritance has been understood for a long time. I suspect Burke saw it; I know Tocqueville saw it. Man both depends on his inheritance, and can rise above his inheritance just enough to build a world with other traditions in a historically constituted polity. With border and immigration issues on our minds these days, it is time we acknowledge the constraint that inheritance imposes—yet not lose hope in its capacious potential. A vast collection of different peoples with different traditions cannot move from their home nation into another without confusion and adjustment—nor without in some measure forgetting the national inheritance each leaves behind. Assimilation not only takes time; it requires a host of formal and informal institutional provisions to ease immigrants into their new national life. These provisions inaugurate the transformation no one fully understands but everyone feels when they undergo it: the replacement of one home by another. There is a workable policy, somewhere between a porous border and an impermeable one, which allows and encourages all citizens within the borders of the state to rise just enough above their inheritances to build a world together.
Under normal circumstances, this sort of understanding might prevail, as it has in the past. These are not normal circumstances, however. Europeans and Americans cannot think soberly about nations and their borders because they are haunted and embarrassed by their national inheritances. The reason for this is the rise of identity politics, by which I mean politics that is concerned singularly with identifying inherited guilt and innocence, stain and purity.
We should not wonder where identity politics comes from. Like the Progressive movement, identity politics is the outworking of a distorted Protestantism—the Protestantism that emerged from the collapse of the mainline churches in the Vietnam era and its aftermath. Once, inherited guilt and innocence, stain and purity, were the stock in trade of these churches. Man’s inherited guilt from Adam was redeemed by the Divine Sacrifice, the scapegoat through whom man’s stain is covered over.
That Protestant framework now plays out in identity politics. All who play by its rules are concerned with one thing: covering over their transgressions by scapegoating another, so that they can be counted among the innocents. If you are non-Western, you scapegoat the West. Many non-Western immigrants who have come to America and been educated in our public schools, colleges, and universities have learned this. Some now hold congressional office. If you are Western, you hide your own stain by scapegoating aspects of the inheritance of the West from which you yourself purportedly suffer: capitalism, dirty fossil fuels, heteronormativity, toxic masculinity, the presence of “deplorables” in your country, and so on. And you must incessantly apologize for that history, and welcome non-Westerners, not because of their talents or competences, nor because they seek the mercy of asylum, nor even because of their difference. You must welcome them because you are stained and defiled, and they are innocent and pure.
In this kind of politics, Europeans and Americans dare not defend their nation and its borders. They are stained with the blood of their national inheritance, and no one who is so stained has a right to speak or act. Be of good cheer, however; identity politics offers you its gospel Good News. Your path to redemption is clear: Renounce your national affiliation, and embrace E.U. or world government. Only then will your sins be forgiven. There is no redemption within the framework of nations, for they transmit the guilt and stain. That is what identity politics teaches. It is why monuments to the past are being torn down all around us. To defend them, or the nations, is to reject salvation itself.
We must be clear why identity politics has overshadowed the reasonable, responsible position on nations and their borders. The proximal cause in America is the collapse of the mainline churches. The deeper cause is that the West remains under the spell of the Christian categories of transgression and innocence, even if its churches no longer provide a compelling account of just where and how transgression and innocence play out in the world, and in eternity. Pondering the future of the West in 1887, Nietzsche wrote, “It is the church and not its poison that offends us.” By this, he meant that in his own century and for the next several centuries, the West would neither return to Christianity nor fully renounce it. The recent appearance of identity politics in America and in Europe—the politics, but not the theology, of transgression and innocence—confirms Nietzsche’s prophecy.
The inability fully to repudiate or embrace the religious inheritance of the West has made it difficult for many Europeans and Americans to sleep at night. Compounding their debilitation has been a parallel development, which could not have arisen at a more inopportune moment. On both sides of the Atlantic, citizens are haunted by the historical wounds their nations have authored—in America, the wound of slavery; in Europe, the wounds of genocide and colonialism. These historical wounds highlighted the need to “make all things new.” To what healing power could European and American transgressors appeal? More than half a century after the wound of slavery reappeared in America during the civil rights era, and the wounds of genocide and colonialism in Europe became painfully visible in the aftermath of World War II, the answer given by identity politics is that no healing whatsoever is available to either the Americans or the Europeans. What of the aggrieved, innocent victims? Because forgiveness has been banished, their portion is unyielding and unending rage.
Let us have our reasoned discussions about nations and their borders. Those on the left, whose chosen path to redemption has been the embrace of E.U. or world government, will not listen. For them, anything less than the complete renunciation of the nation is a defense of filth. Those on the far right who have gone beyond the inheritance of tradition to the inheritance of race will not listen either. They, too, want purity—of blood.
If we wish to keep our nations, if we see the limits and dangers of the left and of the blood-right and want to avoid them, our debates about policies will not be enough. Something deeper is needed, namely, a spiritual awareness that the world cannot be made pure by man. Christianity once declared that man’s uncleanness was overcome only through the sacrifice of “The Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” Today, we are seeking worldly solutions to man’s transgressions and uncleanness. The repudiation of the nation has become the path to salvation for Western man—the man who still seeks salvation, in a world in which he believes God is dead. That is the real reason why conversations about nations and their borders are so difficult to have.
Not only does identity politics declare that our nations are stained; so, too, are our families and inherited religious establishments—in short, the mediating institutions that are so necessary for all of us, and especially the least among us, if we are to thrive within our national home. Tocqueville long ago noted that “local life is composed of coarser elements” with which elites will always grow impatient. Identity politics declares these elements to be stained and impure. Until we are able to believe and declare that suffering, hardship, prejudice, impurity, and stain are not arguments against life, and that no prior transgression can destroy hope, we will have no answer to the indictment identity politics levels against inheritance. This is the greatest problem conservatism faces today. It will haunt any defense of the nation and of mediating institutions.
It is time for a healthy reconsideration of the free-markets-for-their-own-sake dogma, which has been implicated in the evisceration of the American middle class. We have much to answer for on this count, and we must adjust our course. Some say that the free-market view of man must be replaced by the inheritance-of-tradition account. More prudent, I believe, would be to decide that the free-market view no longer has the veto but still has the vote—as it must in a commercial middle-class republic such as ours.
As Americans, we are beguiled by happy tales suited to our pieties about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Identity politics recognizes a deeper truth, one that Protestants are disposed to recognize. The happy tale offered by both the free-market view of man and the inheritance-of-tradition view is dumb before the question of suffering and death. We know the Jewish and Christian answer to this question: the blood of the lamb, at Passover and Easter. Identity politics, I have suggested, has another answer, namely, that death passes over the innocents through the scapegoating of the white heterosexual male. This is a bad answer—theologically incorrect, and politically dangerous because it will lead to pagan wars between tribal groups. But identity politics at least knows the question to ask, especially here in residually Protestant America. It is the question of suffering and death. Unless we provide an inheritance-of-tradition account that goes beyond the happy tale that tradition can make us virtuous and healthy-minded, we will be as ineffective against identity politics as the free-market view of man has been.
We need an account that is hopeful rather than happy. Hope, after all, supposes a nearly broken world of inheritances, some of which guide us well and some of which do not. Hope sees a world that one day will be redeemed. We need look no further than the history of black America to recognize that some inheritances lead us terribly astray. And we need look no further than the words of Martin Luther King Jr. to recognize that for much of black America, hope triumphs over the portion of their inheritance that has been unhappy. Living in hope requires of us reverence and thankfulness for the traditions that help us on our pilgrim’s journey here below; it also alerts us to the awful mess we make of things while we await a redeemed world. A conservatism that celebrates the former and ignores the latter cannot succeed. In their heart of hearts, Americans do not want happiness. If they did, identity politics would not grip the American soul as it does today. Americans want an honest accounting—of their faults, and of the awesome promise that lies ahead. Identity politics identifies our faults but leaves us without hope; a happy conservatism ignores our faults and sees no need for hope. Both fail, though for opposite reasons. To regain the soul of America, we need a theology of hope, and a political conservatism informed by it.
Joshua Mitchell is a professor at Georgetown University and a visiting fellow in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at the Heritage Foundation. A version of these remarks was delivered at the 2019 National Conservatism Conference in Washington, D.C.