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Book Review: “American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time”

New theologies are on the rise in contemporary America. As seemingly far back as 2015, Columbia University professor John McWhorter described the emerging concept of “antiracism” as “a new and increasingly dominant religion. It is what we worship, as sincerely and fervently as many worship God and Jesus and, among most Blue State Americans, more so.” In 2017, journalist Andrew Sullivan wondered openly, “Is Intersectionality a Religion?” And earlier this year, Tara Isabella Burton argued in Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless Age that the “social justice movement” has, for a growing swath of the American public, become a compelling creed. 

The analogy may be old hat by now, but it is nonetheless difficult to deny the distinctively theological features of the belief system that James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose call capital-T “Theory,” and what Wesley Yang has labeled the “successor ideology.” On this view, the history of human civilization is primarily a catalog of horrors, the unceasing exploitation of the powerless by the powerful. And the catalysts for such oppression have been the overlapping axes of personal identity—race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, and so forth—which are more or less immutable.

For those committed to this view, there is only one moral answer to this grisly genealogy: those enjoying privileged status must adopt a consistently confessional posture. They must admit their complicity in the perpetuation of oppression, commit to “doing the work” necessary to rectify that oppression, and cede their own power where possible. Only such measures, the successor ideology teaches, will suffice to heal the wounds of the past.

All of this makes up an account of reality that bears striking similarities to those offered by more traditional faiths. One finds in this view of social justice a comprehensive perspective on history, a thoroughgoing anthropology, a multilayered doctrine of sin, and even a mechanism for justifying oneself in the eyes of higher powers. And now, with American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time, Georgetown University political theorist Joshua Mitchell has produced perhaps the most thoroughgoing treatment of this new theology.

At its heart, American Awakening theorizes that the moral core of “identity politics” (Mitchell’s term for the successor ideology) is the perpetual dialectic of innocence and transgression, grafted onto a distinctive view of group membership that ascribes guilt or innocence on the basis of one’s inborn characteristics. The average white male, for example, is necessarily inculpated in the past sins of other white men—he enjoys unearned privileges on the basis of these wrongs and must spend his life working to dismantle them. As Mitchell puts it, there may not really be original sin on this view, but there certainly are original sinners.

As a genealogical matter, this understanding of transgression and innocence is fairly obviously downstream of Christian theological claims about personal responsibility and the need for redemption. (One might even describe it as a novel understanding of what it means to love thy neighbor.) But the key point of departure from the Christian tradition, Mitchell notes, is the identity-politics understanding of history. Traditional Christianity posits a transcendent balancing of the scales at the end of time—the eschatological moment when justice shall roll down for all people, when God shall “wipe away every tear from their eyes.” By contrast, the contemporary successor ideology demands that the expiation of personal guilt and the healing of past harms must occur here and now, within what Charles Taylor has called the “immanent frame” of everyday experience. Justice delayed, on this view, is justice denied.

There are echoes here of Thomas Sowell’s “quest for cosmic justice”—the belief, animating so many reformist movements over the last few centuries, that age-old scores can be finally settled once and for all by human beings. And for Mitchell, that quest is flatly impossible. To address the obvious example, there is no imaginable top-down policy reform that can, in one stroke, heal a generation-spanning wound such as slavery. No amount of reparations, however staggering, can fully compensate for that horror. Those in search of truly thoroughgoing judgment and reconciliation have no choice but to look to the eternal and the transcendent. (Much more might be said on this point. As I have argued elsewhere, this is not just a moral problem, but also an epistemological one: given the ambiguities of history, how could any finite human being know when the scales are balanced?)

Mitchell’s critique of the identity-politics project does not stop there. As a tool for actually generating political transformation, Mitchell points out, experience suggests that identity politics is a profoundly unstable brew. It may be easy right now to denounce the dominance of white heterosexual males, but if all such men were displaced from their positions of power, who would be next? (White women? Black men? White gay men?) The answer is far from obvious. The widespread language of “intersectionality”—overlapping categories of oppression—might be effectively wielded to unite the dispossessed against white male hegemony, but it paradoxically tends, in the end, to introduce deep fault lines into its own coalition.

Perhaps this outcome should’ve been expected. Just as the Christian on earth always remains, in Martin Luther’s famous formulation, simul justus et peccator—at once both justified and sinner—the human subject of identity politics can almost always be described as both oppressor and oppressed. Compared to white male billionaires like Jeff Bezos, who among us isn’t disempowered?

All of these points are interesting (and to my mind likely accurate), but they also make it easy to write off Mitchell’s book as yet another entry in the glutted market of conservative monographs grousing about modern culture. That would be a mistake, though: Mitchell is keen to point out that the true polar opposite of identity politics is not traditional Christianity, but the abandonment of the transgression/innocence dialectic altogether. If history is any indication, one should expect the rise of a truly Nietzschean right-wing politics that refuses to apologize for wielding power, and that is capable of deeds far more horrible than anything wrought by an identity-politics regime. This too must be resisted—and pushing back against the excesses of the successor ideology, by drawing on its sublimated Christian foundation, is one way to do just that.

In the last third of the book, Mitchell shifts gears rather abruptly to take up two other “afflictions of our time,” which, in his view, will impede American revival even following the potential decline of identity politics: the problem of “management society and selfie man,” and the cultural confusion of supplements for substitutes. The former refers to the strange bipolarity in which Americans feel disempowered to affect the course of structural forces while simultaneously enjoying total sovereignty over their own social media worlds. And the latter refers to the increasing displacement of traditional forms of human relationality—sex, family, commerce, interpersonal communication, and so on—by digital alternatives. These alternatives have increasingly come to serve not simply as adjuncts to the Real, but aspects of the Real itself. (While the language is slightly different, this is essentially the same insight as Jean Baudrillard’s celebrated 1981 text Simulacra and Simulation.)

Despite these challenges, Mitchell is not nihilistic about the future of American society. Specifically, the vision of American life to which Mitchell wishes to recall his readers is the “liberal politics of competence” theorized by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America. To be clear, Mitchell has in mind neither a Rawlsian liberalism that would exclude religious commitments as outside the bounds of “public reason” or a Clintonite neoliberalism willing to hand questions of political economy over to technocrats. By “liberal” he appears to mean “suited to a free and virtuous people,” and by “competence” he means “properly suited to one’s capacities.” That said, while I appreciate Mitchell’s efforts to redeem this language, in a conservative intellectual milieu that has spent the last few years grappling with polemics like Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, a phrase like “liberal politics of competence” is probably too fraught to be useful in this context. Perhaps something MacIntyrean—maybe, “a politics fitted to the flourishing of dependent rational animals”—would be a better fit.

Unfortunately, this peculiar turn of phrase isn’t the only oddity in the text. In many ways, American Awakening reads like the first draft of a book that could’ve done with a more aggressive editor. The volume is unusually structured, with its main points broken down into over a hundred numbered paragraphs rather than smoothed out into a fully cohesive text. Perhaps there’s some organizational logic behind this, but it comes off as simply an excuse for not including transition sentences between sections. And more problematically, very little work is done to link the first two-thirds of the book (Mitchell’s discussion of identity politics) with the last third (covering two other pathologies). As it stands, this last section probably should’ve been converted into extended essays in Modern Age or the Claremont Review of Books rather than grafted onto a largely unrelated text. That lack of connective tissue is a shame, because there are many interesting points of correspondence between Mitchell’s observations.

For one thing, the problem of “management society and selfie man”—the felt experience of impotence in the face of overarching global and societal forces, coupled with deep personal anxieties about one’s own actions and place in the larger order—sounds rather like sociologist Max Weber’s much-debated “Protestant work ethic” thesis. At the dawn of the twentieth century, Weber theorized that the ferocious energy which characterized American capitalism was rooted in Calvinist Puritans’ struggle to “work out their salvation with fear and trembling” in the face of an inscrutable, all-predestining God. Might the modern problem of “management society and selfie man” similarly exemplify Weber’s thesis? Society feels as if it is run by ever-more-unknowable political bureaucracies, Silicon Valley campuses, and investment banks—a kind of immanent secular trinity governing the course of human affairs. And what is social media, in many ways, but a great ongoing frenzy to demonstrate one’s moral worthiness—to signal the right political opinions, build the right audience, and generate the right content? Perhaps this too, is an ultimately religious problem.

In a similarly theological vein, the problem of confusing supplements for substitutes—of trading analog realities for evanescent digital alternatives—may very well be rooted in deep cultural skepticism about the value of an enduring metaphysical order not subject to endless transformation. The digital world is deconstructible and reconfigurable in a way that the analog world is not; to even speak of a fixed natural order, to which digital realities must remain only supplements, is to suggest that there is a kind of normativity to the analog, a transcendent rational order imposing genuine limitations on what human beings may do. That is the linchpin of classical natural-law thinking, and it certainly does not sit well with a culture committed to denying that nature “means” anything at all.

Imperfect though it may be, American Awakening is nonetheless worth reading. Its theological analysis of contemporary identity politics is both elegant and incisive, and mercifully never morphs into a jeremiad against an increasingly fallen modernity. Its prophecies of an emergent anti-identity politics Right may, I fear, prove prescient. And its concluding observations, though uneasily connected to the bulk of the text, are certainly interesting and thought-provoking.

Most compellingly, though, Mitchell sketches out an argument for the goodness of the liberal tradition that doesn’t simply fall back on platitudes about freedom and coercion. Rather than attempting to pretend that the liberal tradition doesn’t actually have deep Christian roots, Mitchell bites the bullet, arguing that in place of the exhilarating and terrible glories of the premodern age—the thrill of smashing pagan temples or laying waste to a foreign city—the liberal-democratic tradition that emerged within Christian civilization opens up the possibility of seeing the Other as a fellow truth-seeker and child of God, rather than merely as an enemy to be destroyed. Given the rise of increasingly strident criticisms of the American project from traditionalist throne-and-altar Catholics, it seems to me that this is the sort of counterargument more Protestants need to be making—one that draws on the inner logic of Christianity itself.

Maybe that is an “American Awakening” we will also end up needing in the end.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

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