In a remarkable abuse of their authority, the Pentagon and several senior members of the US military used their official social media accounts to chide Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson. They responded to a segment in which Carlson criticized the Pentagon’s failure to doggedly focus on its primary mission: winning wars. Instead, according to Carlson, the military became taken by matters meant to accommodate some female servicemembers. Popular “news” outlets denigrated his segment as sexist, and members of the military, interpreting his remarks, similarly defended the service of female military members.
Carlson specifically said:
So we’ve got new hairstyles and maternity flight suits. Pregnant women are going to fight our wars. It’s a mockery of the US military… While China’s military becomes more masculine as it has assembled the world’s largest navy, our military needs to become, as Joe Biden says, more feminine, whatever feminine means anymore, since men and women no longer exist… Again, this is a mockery of the US military and its core mission, which is winning wars.
No question his remarks were controversial. Recognizing that the biological realities of men and women are determined and unchangeable, and that they have practical implications, is unpopular, to put it mildly. But the military’s response communicates a change in the degree to which identity politics and “wokeism” have become a fervently held ideology, dare I say the religion of the state. Uniformed members of the military should not step into a domestic political controversy, no matter the subject or how personally offended they or someone they know is. The US military—civilian-led and charged with defending the US Constitution—is perhaps the last institution that has not squandered the public trust.
But Carlson didn’t just offend the sensitivities of some servicemembers (though I’ve heard from female friends who serve that Carlson’s comments didn’t bother them one bit and that they even agreed with him, in principle); he committed a heresy of the religion of the state.
Now, readers of Joshua Mitchell’s American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time would not be surprised at this (albeit, the uniformed military chastising a private citizen might still be surprising, or at least alarming).
Mitchell’s book, one he tells us in the acknowledgments that he wrote in the “convulsive aftermath of the 2016 election,” is a treasure of insights and diagnoses of cultural ailments and political phenomena. He is a professor of political theory and a Protestant Christian, so he is well-armed with the training and education from the great thinkers who have shaped the Free World and, in particular, the American Republic as she was intended.
Contrary to what some commentators conclude, Mitchell instructs that Americans have not lost their religion. Instead, he explains:
Americans have relocated their religion to the realm of politics. The institutional separation of church and state may be largely intact, for the separation between religion and politics has largely collapsed more precisely with respect to the matter presumption of guilt and innocence they have traded places. One because of the doctrine of original sin there was a presumption of guilt in the churches, and because of our legal history, a presumption of innocence in the realm of politics. Today the abandonment of the doctrine of original sin has had the curious effect of lifting the burden of guilt in the churches—and of shifting it to politics. Whatever the law may say about our innocence, the presumption of identity politics is that men—or rather the white heterosexual man—is guilty. This is a dangerous reversal of legal norms that in the Anglo-American world took centuries to develop and take hold.
On the political left, explains Mitchell, the “woke” lift from Christianity critical teachings related to guilt and innocence, and in particular original sin and the need for atonement, and apply them to secular and temporal ends. But unlike what the Christian Gospel offers, the woke left offers no reconciliation, peace, or joy. The fruits of wokeism are perpetual penance, excommunication (cancellation), and humiliation. To be sure, Mitchell’s sharp rebukes are not reserved only for the lefty end of the political spectrum. He has sharp words for the Alt-Right as well, a group that he says seeks “nothing less than to return man to an aristocratic world, which is to say, a non-Christian world.” It, like what plagues the political left, cannot improve let alone save the American regime. Yet it is far less powerful than the identity politics that wokeism brought us.
Mitchell’s contrast of wokeism with Christianity not only explains our confused and confusing times, but also showcases the truth, beauty, and freeing peace of the true Christian Gospel. Moreover, American Awakening feels like a conversation—with whom he has invited such men as Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Alexis de Tocqueville—and it has poetic stretches of biblical references that illuminate and stir the heart and mind like a Puritan prayer book.
Right out of the gate in the Preface, Mitchell feeds the reader this morsel:
We live within two economies. The one involves payments made and payments received; the other involves something deeper and more impenetrable—an economy within which we are to prayerfully abide, but which we cannot alter. The betrayal of Christ by Judas in the Gospel of Matthew illuminates the collision between these two economies. Judas, the treasurer for the disciples, the one who weighs and measures in the visible economy, is incensed that expensive ointment has been poured out on Jesus his head. The ointment could have been sold, and the proceeds given to the poor. Jesus replies: “the poor will always be with you”—which is to say there is an invisible economy in which the scales of justice do not balance in the way that Judas wants them to. Concluding that Jesus is not the revolutionary Judas had expected him to be, he betrayed Jesus for silver coin, which he presumably wants to use to help balance the scales of justice in the visible economy. For the Christian, man, try as he may, cannot resolve the imbalance of payments in the invisible economy. Only God can; and he will not do so until the end of history.
So if we, as a people, finally rid ourselves of the stranglehold of identity politics, what should we replace it with, or perhaps return to? A competence-based, self-interested (properly understood!), liberal citizenship where we cooperatively face-to-face build our world together.
Mitchell continually points us to a great friend of the Americans, Alexis De Tocqueville. Tocqueville, Mitchell reminds us, said man in our democratic age is prone to isolation. Tocqueville wrote in 1840 that “without local, face to face relations that draw him out of himself, liberty will be lost. In these cases and more isolated citizens are understood not to be citizens at all, but rather subjects of pride, solipsism, and self-aggrandizement.”
This brings the reader to the second, though shorter, section of American Awakening, wherein Mitchell describes the problems of bipolarity and addiction. These issues further exasperate our national sickness and zap us of a functioning nation with able and healthy citizens who can build a world together.
The concluding section on how all of this relates to American foreign policy is where I found the book most disappointing because this part is much too short and deserves to be unpacked. Mitchell is one of the rare scholars who can see how the ideologies at home affect the intellectual root causes of our problems in foreign policy.
My own view is that the Biden administration has correctly elevated the connectedness of policies at home with those abroad. The administration has even placed repairing “democracy at home” at the center of its foreign policy agenda so that it might “lead by example.” Yet it continues to promote the very thing that plagues us—identity politics. This is because the Biden administration has embraced neoliberal universalism, an ideology that Mitchell explains is not liberal at all.
It was the universalism of the neoliberalist intellectuals that culminated in the Reign of Terror and the chop of the guillotine. Mitchell contrasts the French liberal universalist cause with the American cause, and gives a forceful defense of John Locke as an American intellectual forefather. Locke, according to Mitchell, is not the source of today’s neoliberalist universalism. Locke never would have endorsed a revolution based on abstract, universal rights à la French Revolution. Locke was a defender of property and the Christian family, Mitchell teaches, and, “if Locke must be painted as a universalist, it ought to be a Christian universalist—which is to say, he believed that God would unify His kingdom at the end of history.” But to the point, the American Revolution, contra the French Revolution, was one of particular truths: citizen self-government, property rights, and national self-determination.
But even more than Locke, whom Mitchell describes as “perhaps the first great liberal thinker,” Michell continually points us to the wisdom of Alexis De Tocqueville, “perhaps the greatest liberal thinker of all.” Toquevillian liberalism is truly liberal, unlike the neoliberal intellectuals’ authoritarianism, which deals only in universalist abstractions while scorning everyday citizens who are busy building and living in communities. These everyday Americans have particular religions, families, children, and habits. Thus, the answer is not liberal universalism; it is liberal pluralism. From this line of argumentation, Mitchell concludes that the United States must abandon the faux liberalism of the universalist intellectuals and take up the Toquevillian liberalism, which necessarily demands a more modest foreign policy that permits pluralism, globally and domestically. Abandoning the universalist neoliberalist foreign policy concurrently with the neoliberalism of identity politics of innocence will give us the space—the grace—to permit Americans to live freely, together, and to build a liberal politics of “competence.”
The reader might feel the need to read American Awakening a couple of times to see how some sections tie together, but they do. Mitchell gives us an invaluable map to help us see where our country’s intellectuals took some catastrophically wrong turns, and points the way for patriots with the grit and courage to help guide us back on course.