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American Awakening:
Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time

by joshua mitchell
encounter, 296 pages, $28.99

We Americans tell our history in light of our awakenings, those periodic spasms of panic over the spiritual debts we have piled up against God as well as flesh and bone. This is what the summer’s racial unrest was: a mass attempt to expiate centuries of guilt. If we were purely corporeal beings, perhaps reforms of the systems of wealth and power would suffice, but Americans, in their souls, know better. Sin and guilt must be redeemed, made good, in the spiritual realm.

Joshua Mitchell, professor of politics at Georgetown, has written the most perceptive book on America’s latest outpouring of religious fervor. He begins with the observation that human societies are constituted by a visible economy of material exchanges and an invisible economy of spiritual exchanges. Whereas the visible economy is counted up in terms of revenue and loss, the invisible seeks to hold guilt and innocence in balance. Reflexive materialists that we are, we are tempted to believe that material advancement brings spiritual advancement, that our riches can somehow cover over the debts incurred by our sins. But it is not so. The simple fact that we die and leave our riches behind means that the material world can never set the books right. Whenever we act as though it could, the invisible economy disrupts and mocks our pretenses.

America has gone through four Great Awakenings. The first (1730–1755) and second (1790–1840) were rooted in the conviction that Christ reigns victorious over the invisible economy, that the debts incurred by human transgression have been offset by divine innocence. Christ the Scapegoat, through his unmerited death on the Cross, did what we could not: He paid our debts. He took on the stain of sin in order to wipe it clean. These awakenings had a political significance. By preaching the universality of sin and the wideness of God’s mercy, they helped shape the disparate colonies, and later states, into a nation. One could say something similar about America’s third awakening (1855–1930), which was fired by the social gospel. It sought to employ the universality of divine solicitude to unify the country beyond the divisions of economic class.

We are now undergoing a fourth awakening, and matters are very different. The previous awakenings took place under the firm hand of American Protestantism. But today, Mitchell observes, “we are living in the midst of an American Awakening, without God and without forgiveness.” In the century that separates us from the outburst of the social gospel, our society lost its hope in the Cross but not its sense of guilt. The panic over righting wrongs remains, but gone is the promise of redemption. Without the Cross of Christ, the transactions of the invisible realm must be set to balance wholly within the power dynamics of the visible world.

Mitchell sees the rise of identity politics as a crisis of the invisible economy erupting into the visible. No longer guided by the Christian insight that the universality of sin means its resolution must be a divine act, identity politics apportions guilt and innocence according to a person’s race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, each weighed according to intersectional theory. Guilt and innocence no longer attach to one’s freely chosen actions over the course of a life but are imputed on the basis of one’s inherited and immutable characteristics, skin color above all. The idea of original sin abides but is tragically twisted. It is still something one is born with, but it is no longer universal. Rather, like the Angel of Death, it passes over some and lands upon others.

Identity politics thus creates oppositions among our fellow citizens. Until very recently, one might have said “He is white” or “He is black” as a way to impart specificity to a description. It could be said in a racist manner or not, but its purpose was primarily to differentiate kinds of Americans. Somewhere around the 1990s, however, the term “identity” began to be used, not simply to distinguish one from the other, but to set up a moral opposition. Thus, to identify a person as white carries with it the stain of guilt in relation to the innocent black identity.

By now, however, things have become much more complicated, with a bewildering celestial hierarchy of graduated guilt and innocence as one immutable characteristic is combined with another. Only one thing never changes: The white, heterosexual, cisgender male is the supreme transgressor. He must bear the sins of the world, but unlike Christ, whose expiatory power resides in his innocence, the white man is a scapegoat who deserves his punishment. He is irredeemable not as an individual, but rather as a symbol for a history of oppression and exclusion.

To the extent that identity politics holds out hope for redemption, it entails the purging of all that the white man has built. If enough statues are toppled, classics deconstructed, borders overrun, systems of merit overturned, “the world itself, along with the remaining groups in it, will be cleansed of stain.” This appears to be the hope, Mitchell says, that animates today’s Democratic party.

But of course, it is a false hope. René Girard observed that discharging ­societal rage by creating human scapegoats brings no lasting catharsis. Only a divine scapegoat can break the cycle of guilt. As Mitchell puts it, “Christianity’s deepest insight, perennially violated by Christians themselves, is that no mortal group can cover over the sins of another group.” To accept the work of Christ means to stand against the false promise that order can be restored by scapegoating others.

Scapegoating gains support from those who hope to escape its fury. Stroll down the hallway of any academic department and you’ll see door after door festooned with “safe space” stickers, rainbow decals, Black Lives Matter signs, the latest flier from the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion office. Each one is an attempt at what Shelby Steele calls “disassociation.” I may be white, even male, even married to a white woman, with white kids, but I am not the one you are looking for. He is over there. These rather obvious attempts at what Mitchell calls “innocence-signaling” must be backed up by a readiness to denounce fellow whites for their thought-crimes. Mere sentiment will not suffice: “Silence is violence.” This explains why efforts at diversity and inclusion at colleges and corporations so often amount to little more than certain whites turning states’ evidence against other whites.

The polar opposite of identity politics, as well as its antidote, is what Mitchell calls “the liberal politics of competence.” He knows, of course, that it has become fashionable among a certain type of conservative to highlight the ways in which the self-interest upon which a liberal polity is built invariably eats away at the polity’s underpinnings. They argue that conservatives, and especially Christian conservatives, ought to give up on liberalism and seek a politics informed by higher inclinations, such as the virtues of courage, justice, prudence, and temperance.

Instead of taking this argument straight on, Mitchell notes that “liberal thought did not emerge from the search to replace virtue, but from the search for an alternative to the untamed, disruptive, cathartic passions of religious war.” Liberalism’s aim was to fashion a society that could ward off the postlapsarian tendency to resolve societal upset by one group’s scapegoating another. Though self-interest is surely not one of the virtues, it compels us to enter into creative relationships with those different from ourselves. The requirements of collaboration in the building of a workable society may not result in mutual love, but they put a cap on mutual hatred. Mitchell is hopeful that liberalism can once again help us achieve a measure of peace amid the fundamentally religious conflicts of identity politics.

It is tempting simply to denounce the current craze to remake our ­society in the name of diversity, ­equity, and inclusion, and Mitchell surely gives us plenty of reasons to do just that. But one problem with such a posture is that it gives us nothing meaningful to say to those who are captivated by identity politics, a large number of whom are our students and even our children. Mitchell allows us to make some sense of the mixture of concern and hatred that so often marks their political sensibilities, and so helps to orient us amid today’s debates.

The concern for the less privileged encouraged by identity politics is praiseworthy, as is the moral revulsion at the horrors of the American past. Indeed, to agonize over the fact that transgressions forever outpace justice is about as pure an expression of Christianized Western civilization as one can find. In their very effort to distance themselves from their American and Christian inheritance, our social justice warriors are giving that inheritance new expression, albeit shorn of its most appealing elements.

Nonetheless, there are aspects of woke politics that must be denounced. The ease and even joy with which too many condemn, slander, and seek to destroy those who have done or said something deemed racist, sexist, or homophobic is disgraceful. The lack of mercy shown even to those whose “thought crimes” are unintentional or the result of not knowing the new rules bespeaks unbridled aggression rather than biblical charity. There is nothing inclusive or tolerant about such behavior. Far from building a diverse community, such scapegoating makes community impossible.

Condemning whole groups of wicked oppressors is not only evil but futile. Human beings are too entangled in sin for scapegoating to do anything other than produce the need for more victims. Redressing the tremendous transgression of American enslavement and post-emancipation degradation of African Americans by scapegoating another set of Americans on the basis of their race is not progress but a reinvigoration of the worst aspects of our past, a new Jim Crow of those who are pure and those who are dirty and defiled. A thoroughly Christian vision of a post-­racial American future, Mitchell insists, must inform all efforts to heal our racial wounds. If this happens, America just might have yet another, and much better, awakening. 

James F. Keating is associate professor of theology at Providence College.