Here’s my interview with Georgetown University political science professor Joshua Mitchell on why Protestants are largely absent in American conservative intellectual life and why they are much needed.
Hello, this is Mark Tooley—President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and Editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy. Today, I have the pleasure of conversing with my friend, and sometimes contributor to Providence, Dr. Joshua Mitchell—professor at Georgetown University, who gave a very interesting and insightful speech to the Davenant Institute this past week which prompted my questions for him, that we’ll go through, and this conversation. But Joshua, thank you for joining in this exchange.
Joshua Mitchell: Delighted to be here with you Mark. Mark Tooley.
Tooley: You shared what is obvious to most of us at Providence that Protestants are largely absent in the intellectual conversations of conservatism and America, which is largely been true throughout the last 70 years. Why is that?
Mitchell: Well, let me back up to lay out the puzzle. The puzzle, which I probably should have seen ages ago but didn’t, is that as identity politics began to take hold of the American imagination, I found conservatives utterly ill-equipped to be able to understand it, let alone address it, and push back against it. And I wondered why this was, so I heard, and I continue to hear, conservatives talking about identity politics as if it’s a species of Cultural Marxism or it’s a furtherance of progressivism. And my view right from the beginning because I have a bit of theological training, is that there’s something really quite new about identity politics that it uses at least three tropes central to the Protestant Reformation. And those conservatives who don’t have this Protestant understanding are going to be blindsided by identity politics. These three tropes are: the innocent victim, the scapegoat, and irredeemable sin. Any Protestant who’s read his or her Luther or Calvin knows these terms inside out— knows full well that the Reformation really represents a break within Christianity about the gravity of original sin and, by extension, whether Christ alone can rescue us from that condition or not. So, the great divide that happened 500 years ago was over the question of the brokenness of man. And whether the Church directly can save man or whether the churches and unnecessary mediator anyway, we know this history here. And what we have right now in America is the resurgence of this idea of redeemable stain. Identity politics is fixated upon this category. If you’re Catholic or Jewish this term doesn’t really make sense, if you’re Protestant it does. So, what I’m arguing is that America is largely a Protestant country by culture, even if not officially by religion. And by that, I mean to the category of “stain” is always central in our in our imagination. And so, identity politics has come along and conservatives have been unable to address it; and my conclusion, more recently, is it that is because Protestants have been more or less absence from the Conservative movement. Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, Irving Kristol—two Roman Catholics and a Jew—who, who I think it’s safe to say were trying to figure out, as all newcomers to America do, what their place is in the American regime? And, and I think in the Catholic case, especially since John Courtney Murray’s We Hold These Truths to be Self Evident, there was an attempt to find an American home to defend the Constitutional order. And, and I think there was a kind of sympathy to the overall project, but there really weren’t that many Protestants in the conservative movement. This was really kind of push back against liberalism, which I will take to be a code for Protestantism. And so, the doubts about liberalism really are doubts, I think, about Protestantism. Why I think this is important now is that you have a new group of Roman Catholics—a younger group—that’s emerging, that are not willing to abide anymore by the John Courtney Murray synthesis. I think this worked its way up through Michael Novak; and I think still is present in, say, the person of George Weigel. These are heirs to the John Paul, to the Reagan coalition. They see themselves as part continuing and, in fact, being the embodiment of the John Courtney Murray Catholic synthesis with America. What’s interesting now is, I think the new group of Roman Catholic Conservatives, and I don’t even know if that’s the right name us here, have been away pushed back against this Catholic acceptance of America. Patrick Deneen is a dear friend of mine, with whom I have great disagreements, but I think there’s a kind of honesty and what he’s doing. He’s in effect saying that the John Courtney Murray’s synthesis through Novak and Michael was a terrible mistake for Catholics: That America is a Protestant nation through and through. That the full implications of liberalism are identity politics; and in a funny way I’m agreeing because I’m saying that Protestantism deformed gives us identity politics. So, I think what we’re doing is we’re confronted by a very old problem that emerged in the Reformation. The question before us, as a country, is how do we go forward? My own answer to this is we will not go forward until the Protestant churches reawaken to their fundamental insight about irredeemable sin; and about the one sufficient scapegoat who takes away the sins of the world. And that, in effect, is the crown of identity politics. The parishioners who don’t really know that they’re really practicing a deeply deformed Protestantism.
Tooley: And so, identity politics is the ungrateful child of Protestantism.
Mitchell: It’s the prodigal son, which has not yet come home.
Tooley: Yes, yes, looking for the home; and creating great destruction in its search for a home, meanwhile classical liberalism is also the childhood Protestantism but has fewer and fewer defenders, right?
Mitchell: Yes, there’s an intellectual dimension, and I think a sociological dimension. I grew up in the Middle East—my father was State Department—and I came to this country at a fairly formative age: seven or eight. And I realize there’s something going on here [America] that’s not the same thing as what’s going on the Middle East. In the Middle East group identity, for lack of a better word, really does matter. There’s a hierarchy, and it continues to this day—it’s very clear to those who are participating—and I came to American and realized: well, the other these different groups but somehow the United States had been able to put together a pluralistic society of the sort that was frankly inconceivable and remains inconceivable in the Middle East. And I began to ask myself the question why? I did not have a religious training growing up, and so my conclusion has been rather late coming in the last 20 or 30 years. My conclusion, which I think identity politics proves, is that pluralism is a remarkable historical achievement: very few places in the world have it. And I think the reason why we have it in the West is because what Christianity allowed to happen: the old understanding of the scapegoat was no longer possible. So, in the old understanding—the pagan understanding— there’s a problem of in-dwelling stain and the way this is solved is by discharging rage on other groups. This is why “wars between nations were in total wars between gods” as Rousseau says in “The Social Contract.” And the remarkable thing about Christianity is it makes that kind of scapegoating and war impossible. Why? Because the scapegoat is understood to be a divine scapegoat. And it has to be divine scapegoat because the problem of stain is so grave that no cathartic rage toward another group can solve the problem of stain. My argument is that is, in fact, the precondition for toleration for pluralism: you have to have solved the scapegoat, not by focusing on another group, but by recognizing that the solution to the problem, the scapegoat is a divine one. It’s the one sufficient mediator who takes away the sins of the world. This is an astounding insight, psychologically, which I think, has political implications which redound to pluralism and toleration. Now, I think this is largely gone unnoticed, and we have a civilization in which Christianity has won—by which I simply mean for four hundred years the scapegoat problem was understood to have been solved through divine means. But when we no longer grasp that, and here I think the collapse of the mainline churches, and I think even a Roman Catholicism has been implicated here [as well], when we no longer grasp that then the more primordial understanding of the scapegoat reemerges and that’s what identity politics is: it has identified a particular scapegoat, now the white heterosexual male, toxic masculinity, who is the source of all the stains of the world, whether it’s Westphalia, capitalism, dirty fossil fuels, the patriarchal family, the homophobic church—right down the list. And the dream here of identity politics is if we can scapegoat and purge the one source of stain then everything will be fine. So, we are rapidly dismantling the idea of liberal toleration; we are returning to a pagan understanding of the scapegoat; and America simply can’t survive with this new regime type. And I do believe it’s a new regime type. Instead of focusing on what I call “the politics of competence,” which I would add, is only possible if you’ve solved the problem of the scapegoat, we’re now turning to what I call “the politics of innocence and transgression.” And I think the Biden Administration has been proving this. They promised to return to adult competence; the adults would return, but in point of fact almost all of their policies are designed to signal their affiliation and defense of the so-called innocence. So, flying the Pride Flag in Afghanistan, canceling the Keystone Pipeline, and thinking about a $50 trillion new green deal because that’s more important than the real economy; it’s really astounding to watch. But I can see this with a clear head it’s the full implications of this move away from the politics of competence, which I take to be the great liberal achievement, where Christianity has solved the problem of the scape goat up to now. That’s where we are. And I think the question is whether we go back. Understand that, as Protestants did a long time ago, there is a problem of original sin, and there’s only one way of solving it. Whether we carry on in this intermediate condition, which I think is simply impossible, where the scapegoat is identified as an imminent object: the white heterosexual male for the time being; it’ll start to be the white woman, and soon it will be the black man. So, it’s not particular to the white man. Or the third alternative, and this is the one that I’m most worried about among the young, is the Nietzschean alternative. What Nietzsche tried to alert Europe about in the late 19th century was that Europe was stuck: it wasn’t Christian any longer but kept on using Christian categories. I see identity politics as the confirmation of this. And Nietzsche declared that we have to get past this legacy of Christianity. And the way we do this is to have a new way of having a tomorrow. This is in his second essay of “The Genealogy of Morals.” He says that the way we have a tomorrow is not through forgiveness, which is the Christian formulation, but rather through forgetting. This is the real meaning of the Alt-Right: it’s not Richard Spencer, because Richard Spencer is still using the categories of purity and stain; he’s just saying we’re the pure ones, those are the stained ones. That’s not the real Alt-Right: the real Alt-Right wishes to get rid of the various categories of purity and stain and return to the categories of strength or weakness. What I’m finding around the globe war, more in Europe, but in the United States too, is young men who have effectively been canceled, have no social standing, and they’ve reached, to use Bob Woodson’s words, “a stage of racial fatigue,” where they’re tired of being called racists, they’re tired of being toxic; and so you have in a way, a new man’s movement, which is deeply enthralled with Nietzsche, who wanted to get rid of the Christian category of guilt and simply say, well we don’t care: we’ll have it tomorrow by forgetting, so we don’t care about the legacy of slavery, we don’t care about the legacy of colonialism and the Holocaust in Europe. This is a very, very dangerous movement, and, as you can tell what I wish to do is to, along with the identity politics parishioners, save the category of irredeemable stain, but not have it linked to an imminent group. In other words, the Christian understanding is that all of us have irredeemable stain; it’s a vertical relationship between innocence and transgression. There is one innocent victim alone. And what’s happened is identity politics has made it a horizontal relationship: some groups are pure; some groups are not. I want to retain the category of transgression but return it to its Christian arrangement. My concern is if we don’t do that a younger generation will increasingly say we’re done, and they’ll turn to Nietzsche. That is the configuration we’re faced with right now, which is why I do think we should vote; I think we have an obligation to do that in the constitutional regime we have, but I don’t ultimately think there’s a political resolution to this problem; it’s a deep theological crisis in which we are involved with the moment, and I think only a healthy return of Protestantism can save this country. That’s not to say that I believe that this country should become Protestant; what I’m saying is that those who are effectively using this deformed understanding of Protestantism would do well to see that they’re carrying away crumbs from the feast; and the only way they can think through the categories that they wish to think through, namely the innocent victim, the scapegoat, and irredeemable stain, is actually through the through strong Protestant church again.
Tooley: And we are, as I think you have referred to in our earlier conversation, locked in this seemingly Manichaean perspective, where it’s the other side who are to be blamed for everything, and we are claiming innocence for ourselves. Obviously, that contravenes teachings about original sin, in which we were all complicit in the world’s condition. And I think you would identify yourself as a Christian realist and a Niebuhrian, so you would counsel that in our politics we’d have to acknowledge our own contributions to where we are, as opposed to demonizing the other.
Mitchell: Niebuhr has always been a critical figure for me, but I have to make an observation about him; and I haven’t quite figured the answer to the question that I pose. You know this: Niebuhr was the great figure 20th century Protestant, both theological and political. But at the end of the Vietnam War, there was a younger generation that came along and didn’t think that highly of him; and for the last 20 years we’ve had various book titles like “Why Niebuhr Now,” “Why Not Niebuhr.” Niebuhr is in a way inaccessible to Americans now in the way that he wasn’t before the Vietnam War. And my view of this is Niebuhr was posing the great question for Protestants of the 20th century, which is that if we give up on original sin, we are lost. And Niebuhr, as you know, concluded that he failed. In fact, as early as the introduction to The Nature and Destiny of Man, which was, as you know, written in the middle of World War Two. (And if that if that wasn’t going to prove that there was original sin what would!) He concluded that he had lost the battle to return the idea of original sin to the Protestant churches. So, my answer to the question why not Niebuhr now? Is because the churches have so failed that, they have now become the venue of politics, in which we work through the category of purity and staying. The Pew Charitable Trust, as you know, has given us an alarming survey in which most Americans now say they’re nones: not affiliated and my view is America’s as religious a country as it’s ever been, but we have to know where to look: it’s not in the churches; people have abandoned the churches, in my view because the churches wanted the God of love, but not the God of judgment, which is to say, wanted the God of love, but not the anthropological view that man is a sinner. And so, the churches have gone there marry ways speaking about “God is love,” but if the Bible is right: that the first human experience is the experience of transgression. Then, if the Church has turned away from it, people will look for a way of thinking through transgression that the churches are not offering. In the early part of the 20th century, it was Freud who gave the then faltering churches church parishioners a way of beginning to think through guilt; now, they were trying to externalize it; they were trying to say, “no this is the super ego. There is no real guilt at all because there is no real God,” but nevertheless, people still had enough of this vestigial Christianity in them to know that guilt was the great question, so they turned to Freud when the churches began to walk away from the problem. And then after this, after Vietnam, maybe it’s even in the 50’s, the Church has turned entirely to the God of love, so now the updated outside church venue is no longer Freudianism; it’s identity politics. We are the most religious country in the world; right now, everybody is daily performing a Passover ritual in which they’re attempting to demonstrate that social death should pass over them because they are innocent: so Black Lives Matter signs; we stand with Ukraine; climate change—and on that matter I’m a firm believer that we should pay attention to the science, but when we use categories like pure and impure, we’re not in the realm of science anymore, we’re in the realm of religion. I’m saying everywhere we look we’re thinking about purity and impure, and the churches can help us because all they want to do is talk about the God of love and not the God of judgement.
Tooley: And then, finally, with the few moments we have left, Josh, is your ultimate counsel that there needs to be a revival of a thoughtful Protestantism to take on these issues and, if so, how would that revival be generated?
Mitchell: I don’t know how it’s going to be regenerated but, but I do believe it’s necessary. I don’t believe American can get on track until those who are enthralled by identity politics turn to the deeper source of what they’re looking for; and that is to say a Reformation understanding of transgression, scapegoat, and victim. I don’t think I don’t think the Conservative movement can help, and frankly I don’t think Roman Catholics and Jews can contribute to this. And I want to be clear the grounds on which I say this. I mentioned at the outset that I grew up in the Middle East; there are Middle Eastern Christians. They’re slowly withering away, but the Middle Eastern Christians can’t solve the problem in the Middle East; it’s going to be because Islam gets its act together in such a way that it doesn’t scapegoat them; and so my view is, if we really want to have a pluralistic society in which non-Protestants are accommodated and welcomed I think the Protestants have to get their act together about how you solve the problem of the scapegoat. If you don’t have this Protestant resurgence, it’s very clear where this goes anti-Semitism is always lurking right under the surface, and so if Protestants don’t get their act together, Jews will be scapegoated as they have throughout Christian history (and we already have creeping anti-Semitism). It’s one of the great deplorable things that occurred, for which we should all be ashamed, but the scapegoating will continue and I think it’s safe to say that devout Roman Catholics are already feeling this pressure, so I think part of the reason why many of the younger generation are not buying into the John Courtney Murray, Michael Novak vision and, in fact, are turning toward Integralism because they are feeling scapegoated. Protestants have to get their act together so that others can have a place, and if they don’t, all the others, and the top the groups that maybe gave rise to the Protestants insight the Germans, the others in Europe—everybody’s going to get scapegoated; there are no winners. Just as in the Middle East, Muslims have to get their act together so that the minority communities can live so together; so too in America, I think, Protestants have to get their act together so that we can have real pluralism.
Tooley: On that note, thank you Josh Mitchell for an, as expected, very fascinating conversation.
Mitchell: My pleasure Mark; good to see you.