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Identity politics as a (neo-pagan) religious phenomenon

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 15, 2021 | In Reviews

“Surveys may indicate that Americans have lost or are losing their religions; however, the fever of identity politics that now sweeps the nation suggests these surveys are looking in the wrong place and asking the wrong questions.” Those are the words of Georgetown political theorist Joshua Mitchell, in the preface to a fascinating new book, American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time (Encounter, 2020).

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Mitchell sees identity politics as a sort of religious phenomenon: a regression to ancient times when pagan tribes would view their enemies as the root of all the world’s ills, and hope that by exterminating a rival tribe they could eliminate those ills. Primitive peoples sought scapegoats, and in identity politics, the new primitives of the 21st century do the same.

Scapegoating never works, however, because—as the Christian faith taught us—we cannot eliminate the evils in the world. We cannot even extirpate the evil that lurks within ourselves. The problem is not some rival tribe or some alien way of life. The problem is Original Sin. We cannot overcome it, and so—as Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Fortunately the Christian faith also offers a solution to the problem, in the redemptive power of Jesus Christ. He becomes the scapegoat, relieving us of our burden of sin, giving us the promise of eternal justice. But as faith in Christ declines, Mitchell says, the search has been renewed for alternative scapegoats. For now, the white heterosexual male has been chosen to be blamed for societal wrongs. But once white heterosexual men have been pilloried and punished, the search will be on for another class of scapegoats, because of course the difficulties of the world will endure, uncorrected by the cancel culture.

Christian faith made democratic government possible, because once all men were seen as equally flawed, equally in need of redemption, we could recognize our common dignity as well as our common weakness. Mitchell recalls the words of Alexis de Tocqueville: “Jesus Christ had to come down to earth to make all members of the human race understand that they were naturally similar and equal.”

Tocqueville’s keen appreciation for the American character—with its defects and dangers as well as its strength—forms the background against which Mitchell appraises the American political scene today. Tocqueville feared that America’s drive for equality would create strong social pressures toward conformity, so that men who took pride in ruling themselves would in practice be ruled by their neighbors’ opinions. In time they would be, Tocqueville predicted, “greater than kings and less than men.” Mitchell laments: “That day has arrived.”

At its best, American democracy thrived on what Mitchell terms the “liberal politics of competence.” By that phrase he means that in a liberal regime (liberal in the classical sense), men will be presumed competent to handle their own affairs. For generations, under a strictly limited government, Americans did just that. But Mitchell remarks, “A liberal politics of competence is not possible if all citizens are at once greater than kings and less than men.”

The danger to the American character that Tocqueville predicted and Mitchell diagnoses stems from a willingness to accept the comforts of a consumer culture and the largess of an ever-expanding government. We want more material goods, we come to expect more, and we rely on a class of bureaucrats to supply our needs and handle our problems, rather than handling them ourselves.

Moreover, rather than pursuing the most worthwhile things in life—which tend to require serious work—we are tempted to accept substitutes. Mitchell makes an important distinction between supplements, such as vitamins, which might enrich a healthy diet; and substitutes, which replace a healthy diet. He examines some of the enticing substitutes in American life today, and notes that they tend to become addictive, like the compulsive use of social media, or the more deadly compulsive use of opioids. The social media, clearly, can be a useful supplement to conventional social interactions. But when they become the exclusive means of interacting with others, they are dehumanizing. “Supplements cannot be turned into substitutes without cost,” Mitchell warns. “The cost we are bearing today is the erosion of liberal competence.”

In an epilogue to American Awakening, written after the Covid-inspired lockdown of society took hold, Mitchell observes that the mandated public-health measures—social distancing, eliminating gatherings, wearing masks—further undermine the healthy functioning of a free society. Zoom meetings and “virtual” public meetings are no substitute for the old town meetings that won Tocqueville’s admiration. “Are these activities not the ones that Tocqueville more or less predicted would characterize the kinder and gentler despotism that awaits us at the end of history?” Mitchell asks.

Because we are losing our ability—even our willingness—to handle our own problems, we rely still more heavily on the managerial class. But needless to say, the managers cannot handle all our problems. Troubles persist. Someone must be to blame! So the search for a scapegoat resumes.

And now, with an obsessive focus on a public-health emergency, our managers are teasing us toward the delusions that “make it possible to believe that for the very first time in human history, we actually can keep death at bay,” Mitchell writes. Yet deaths will continue, and for that too, someone must be blamed.

The title of American Awakening reflects Mitchell’s argument that the rise of identity politics is due to a third great “awakening” of American religious impulses. But the impulses and attitudes awakened by this movement have already done grave damage, and threaten to do much more, if they are not arrested, and corrected, by an authentic awakening of Christian faith.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: pharmer94 - Mar. 24, 2021 4:26 PM ET USA

    Without having read the book, I would have to agree that it seems identity politics is becoming a "new religion." When God is thrown out of our hearts, that hole isn't left empty... some other idol always fills it in.

  • Posted by: christosvoskresye5324 - Mar. 17, 2021 12:36 PM ET USA

    "... ancient times when pagan tribes would view their enemies as the root of all the world’s ills, and hope that by exterminating a rival tribe they could eliminate those ills." Excuse me, but when and where was this supposed to happen? The Romans may have hated Carthage, but no more than Churchill hated Moscow. The Greeks hated Persia, but Alexander basically became Persian. This sounds more like a cartoon about cavemen than anything ancient pagans actually believed.