“We are living in the midst of an American Awakening, without God, and without forgiveness.”
In recent years, Pew Research has released polls revealing that more Americans, around 26 percent, increasingly don’t identify with any religious affiliation. Some concluded that this “rise of the nones” was evidence of the ebb of religion from American life.
But what if religion wasn’t waning after all? What if, instead, the language and categories of religion—indeed, even religious fervor—simply migrated to a different sphere of American life?
In American Awakening, Joshua Mitchell argues that identity politics is ultimately a relocation of religion to the realm of politics. Through an analysis that is theological, philosophical, and psychological, he offers a penetrative diagnosis of just what ails America: the “three separable but ultimately related ailments” of identity politics, bipolarity, and addiction. While mainline Protestant churches are deteriorating, identity politics wokesters have hijacked the Christian concepts of guilt and innocence, and stain and purity. This is taking place alongside a denunciation of both Western inheritance and the idea of liberal competence.
While vast improvements are constantly being made in the material economy, an “invisible economy” looms over us which measures transgression and innocence. Identity politics comprehends this economy “in terms of the relationship between visible groups.” Rather than focusing on who we are as individuals, identity politics is concerned with the “stain and purity associated with who we are as members of a group.”
For instance, the white, heterosexual man, simply by virtue of his existence as a descendent of a race that historically enslaved black Americans, is irredeemably stained. He is doomed to perpetually atone for the sin of his existence by “innocence-signaling”—supporting social justice causes—although doing so will never completely wipe away the stain of his transgressor status. In reality, there is no healing power to which he can appeal, and his purpose is to serve as the scapegoat for the identity politics innocents, who consist of ethnic and sexual minorities. It is only through their relationship to the transgressors that these victims establish their identity as innocents and are justified.
In making determinations of guilt and innocence, the identity politics wokesters effectively determine who can and cannot speak, silencing all those they deem transgressors while declaring legitimate anything that comes from the mouths of the purported innocents. Rather than focus on who are the most competent practitioners, identity politics banishes the value of liberal competence completely to further its goal of proportional representation.
Because it is vital to clearly determine who the transgressors and innocents are, identity politics must assign an “unequivocal group affiliation” to every person. Yet here the identity politics crowd enters into some difficulties because it ascribes a uniformity to group members that differs drastically from the reality: not all blacks have the same experience, neither do all women or all homosexuals for that matter.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party has not hindered the growth of identity politics and continues to battle the specters of Progressivism and Marxism à la Don Quixote. At the same time, Democrats have let the identity politics wokesters run wild and scapegoat members of the party, few comprehending that many of their own days may be numbered as a result.
The never-ending purge via scapegoating leaves the identity politics adherents in a quandary. Once one group has been scapegoated, another must take its place for victim groups to establish their innocence. For now, the scapegoat is the white heterosexual man, but it is only a matter of time before it is the white woman, the straight black man, and so on. Today’s innocent may very well be tomorrow’s transgressor—it doesn’t matter who. All that matters is preserving the relationship between transgression and innocence. Without it, the identity politics adherents have no way to define themselves, and no way of answering the question of why there is evil in the world.
So where does identity politics lead us? In short, to a dead end: identity politics needs a purity that always requires a mortal group to scapegoat. Thus, when it runs out of groups to purge, “the last indictment will be: the indictment of man himself, for which the resolution will be either the embrace of transhumanism or the eradication of man altogether.”
Mitchell believes “there is no expressly political or legal remedy to our problem.” Rather, people need to work through their misunderstanding of transgression and innocence; only then will our politics change. Two obstacles stand in the way: bipolarity and addiction.
Mitchell’s concept of “bipolarity” refers to citizens’ oscillation between “feelings of extraordinary grandeur and utter impotence.” The modern “selfie man,” constantly entertained by his gadgets and digital “friends,” is filled with a self-aggrandizing impulse that convinces him he doesn’t need his real-life neighbors. Ironically, this sense of radical freedom is juxtaposed with a disposition of “structural fatalism” regarding current societal problems. Feeling helpless in the face of insuperable forces, selfie man looks to global managers to solve these challenges. As the government grows, citizens believe there is little need for them to engage in the nitty-gritty, mediated, and imperfect work of building a world together, exacerbating their alienation from each other.
The root of addiction lies in “the problem of supplements becoming substitutes.” Just as vitamin supplements only yield a benefit when taken with a real meal, so too does the “supplement” of government assistance programs require the “meal” of vibrant civic institutions to yield a true benefit. However, today we have deluded ourselves into thinking that the supplements themselves are the true source of our power. We erroneously conclude that we need more of the supplement, rather than the meal itself. Gorging ourselves on supplements that do not ultimately satisfy us, we find we need more and more of the supplements to function.
Giving in to the temptation to turn supplements into substitutes results in the degradation or loss of liberal competence. As the state steps in more and citizens engage less with their fellows, those societal institutions where liberal competence is developed atrophy in a vicious self-reinforcing cycle.
Mitchell believes that addiction and bipolarity can only be fixed by “face-to-face, real-time relations between citizens in the institutions of society”; that is, through the development of liberal competence, the “meal” that we have displaced through substitution.
The space Mitchell explicitly dedicates to discussing the “solution” takes up a mere 16 pages of the 250-plus-page book. He seems more focused on specifying where the improvement should take place and less on how it should take place—which is the more difficult question to answer. The “where” he offers consists of three pillars of renewal by committing to (1) “the middle-class commercial republic our country was established to be”; (2) “the earnest effort to heal the legacy of the wound of slavery”; and (3) “a modest foreign policy.” While his observations are poignant, this second point, as well as his discussion earlier in the book of the wound of slavery and modern race relationships, might have benefited from more specific and concrete development regarding solutions for reconciliation.
Understandably, Mitchell is undertaking an insular discussion of the problems of identity politics in his book. Yet even as someone largely sympathetic with his diagnosis of our modern socio-political ills, the lack of engagement with primary texts from the thought leaders of identity politics is somewhat disappointing. American Awakening does little to represent them in the terms they understand themselves, before telling us why they are problematic. Including a direct discussion on the specific views of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Ta Nehisi Coates, and Ibram X. Kendi would have been beneficial.
At times, Mitchell’s discussion of liberal competence can feel almost tautological. It goes like this: Identity politics undermines the liberal politics of competence. So too, do bipolarity and addiction. So how can we overcome the ailments of identity, politics, bipolarity, and addiction? By recommitting to a development of liberal competence, albeit in context of an acknowledgment of the need for divine resolution to the problem of transgression, rather than a political one.
Yet perhaps that is where the critical difference lies: identity politics’ problems are, at root, inescapably spiritual. We cannot recover simply by revitalizing our civic institutions. Only by recognizing the universal need for the redemption offered by the Divine scapegoat can citizens “be relieved of the need to scapegoat other mortal groups, look upon one another as equals, and thereafter build a world together.” In this regard—the spiritual depth of its analysis—Mitchell’s work is distinct from previous scholarship on identity politics.
Overall, Mitchell’s book is an invaluable resource in breaking down the religious categories and pathologies of identity politics. If we are to understand the crisis of American communities, the crisis of American politics, or the crisis of the American citizen, we must first understand the religious “substitutism” that is taking place—one that promises too much and delivers far too little.