Why did millions of Americans don surgical masks, insist on an inviolable national quarantine to keep death at bay, then suddenly remove their masks, take to the streets, and protest in close quarters in the name of racial justice? Hypocrisy is one answer. The desire to unseat President Trump by any available means is another. But neither answer goes deep enough. The explanation is identity politics, a fever making America delirious.
Identity politics is an American Awakening without God and without forgiveness. Like Christianity, it seeks to overcome the curse of death. Like Christianity, it seeks to overcome sin. Like Christianity, it recognizes that the problem of sin is deeper than the problem of death, and has precedence over it.
Identity politics does not overcome death, as Christianity does, through faith in Christ, so that man may again have eternal life as he did in the Garden of Eden. Identity politics overcomes death by attempting to build an Edenic world protected from death. Augustine wrote that all reasonable beings understandably shrink from death. But that is not what is happening here. Citizens captivated by identity politics quarantine so that they may remain isolated from death until a vaccine arrives that will inoculate them from death. In the interim, they are content to be served by the least among us, service industry workers who cannot quarantine. This is not medical science doing triage in a world where death is always near; it is a religious longing to be saved from death, no matter the collateral damage done to the livelihoods of millions along the way.
Identity politics does not overcome sin, as Christianity does, through Christ, the sacrificial scapegoat who takes upon himself the sins of the world. Identity politics overcomes sin by offering up a mortal scapegoat: the white heterosexual man, who, if sacrificed and purged, will cleanse the world of stain. The Democratic Party's pushback against national borders; its insistence that fundamental political and economic transformations are necessary to address climate change; its disgust with “dirty” fossil fuels; its demand for wealth redistribution; and its resolve that every mediating institution in which citizens gather must be altered so as to become “inclusive”—all of these have at their root the supposition that the nation-state, market commerce, the petrochemicals that fuel it, the conventional generative family, our civic institutions, and our religious institutions are unclean or obsolete because of the hand white heterosexual man has had in building and maintaining them. Members of this group are not individuals, some very good and some very bad. Instead, each stands for the crimes of the worst among them, just as Adam stands for the sins of all mankind.
For Americans to cover themselves with the fig leaf of innocence today, as Adam did in the Garden of Eden, “whiteness” itself must be vilified—especially if you are white. University presidents and CEOs have been first in line to purchase this cheap and anodyne redemption, which does nothing to solve our problems. Citizens, too, have done this. Only in the world of identity politics does saying “black lives matter” cover you with innocence, so that you can sleep well at night. If, on the other hand, you are a Christian, and you know that the wounds from slavery have not yet healed in America, you know that declaring that “black lives matter” is akin to Adam in the Garden of Eden covering his nakedness with a declaration of his innocence. If sin brought slavery to America, then no fig leaf declaration that “black lives matter” will undo whatever wounds remain. A wound that originates in the darkened heart of man must also be healed there. Much more than fig leaves are needed. Identity politics provides a cheap shortcut to redemption, a fig leaf that hides man from his own darkened heart. “Say this and you will be counted among the cleansed.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
When George Floyd was killed, why did so many Americans suddenly strip off their masks, forego quarantine, and take to the streets to call out transgression? Because even though identity politics is a profound distortion of Christianity, it remains true to Christianity’s deepest insight: Sin, not death, is man's deepest problem. That is why so many adherents of identity politics acted as they did.
What identity politics cannot face, however, is that no amount of “innocence-signaling” undertaken by our educational, corporate, or political leaders will help us address America’s problems. For that, hard work and humility are needed. Identity politics has neither the stomach nor the patience for either; this deformed imitation of Christianity seeks redemption by group scapegoating instead.
Identity politics is the great affliction of our times. It addresses the curse of death not by looking for divine redemption, but by attempting to construct an Edenic world without death. That is why our debates about quarantines and vaccines are so supercharged. We are not arguing about medical science. We are arguing about whether we can construct an Edenic world, or whether we live in a post-Edenic world where death is ever near. Identity politics addresses sin not by looking inward, to the brokenness that only God can heal, but by seeking out singular events—the white policeman who brutally and senselessly killed George Floyd, for instance—that purport to stand for the wretchedness of an entire group of human beings. Purge “whiteness” altogether, identity politics proclaims, and all the problems of the world will come to an end.
No common world can be built from identity politics. Its view of death divides those who can quarantine from those who cannot; its view of sin divides the irredeemably damned from the eternally pure and innocent. Americans will reject this madness when they have had their fill of a distorted religious vision masquerading as a redemptive politics. In politics there is no redemption, only unending labor.
Joshua Mitchell is a professor at Georgetown University.
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