In this conversation with Mark Tooley, Josh Mitchell of Georgetown University offers his reflections on the 2020 presidential election, among other topics.

Rough Transcript

Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and also editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, with the pleasure today of talking to Joshua Mitchell, professor of political science at Georgetown University and also a sometime contributor to Providence. And I’m going to ask him to discuss a little bit, or maybe more than a little bit, about the events of this week in terms of election 2020, and also about a wonderful statement that he and other thinkers helped to organize earlier this fall called “Liberty and Justice for All,” which I was also honored to be included as a signator. Which basically was a defense of Western civilization and much, much more, but Joshua, thank you for joining this conversation.

Mitchell: Thank you for having me, Mark. Good to talk with you.

Tooley: So, I should introduce Josh as an unusual hybrid of Tocquevillian, Hegelian, maybe Lockean maybe Lutheran, and also some Episcopalian thrown in. So, is that accurate, Josh?

Mitchell: Yeah, probably Augustinian. In my core Augustinian perhaps above all, yes.

Tooley: So, as an Augustinian, etc, etc, what is your reaction to the election results this week, and in terms of how they correlate historically and culturally and globally?

Mitchell: The biggest casualty I think is going to be further erosion of the trust in our institutions. I, quite independent whether I supported or detract from Trump, my view is precisely on Augustinian grounds you really need to have in-person voting unless there are strong reasons against it. You have, when you go to the polls, you have representatives of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party looking over each other’s shoulders. You’ve got checks and balances. So, I’m very concerned about that. As far as Trump goes, it’s too early to tell. It still would not surprise me if by some legal challenges ends up in the Supreme Court and he wins. It’s a long shot, but it would not surprise me entirely. I guess my view is, let’s assume that Biden has won and let’s talk about Trump in the past tense, my view is that Trump did perform a valuable service to the conservative movement. He undid, or challenged, two pillars of what had become the Republican Party, and they were both I think in need of replacement. The first one is the pure free market view, namely that markets have veto power over our concern for social institutions and our concern for the middle class. And the second one was the Neoconservative movement the idea that somehow America has a responsibility to export democracy abroad through blood and treasure. Whether you like him or not, Trump has undone both of those, and this has given clearance for a whole new group of conservatives, and I think even some from the old left and liberals to begin to think through a new basis for the Republican Party. And that has already started to happen. You are in some measure involved in that. I think it’s, one could safely say, that the concern here is with a vibrant middle class, and that means that markets don’t have veto power. Market efficiency is not the highest good. This was really the mantra from the Reagan Administration. I remember this from the early 80s, market efficiency was the basis for establishing foreign policy. And there are still many free market conservatives who believe that. I don’t think the post-Trump Republican Party will be constituted along those grounds. And I also think by virtue of lots of religious conservatives being involved who have Burkean sensibilities about how you cannot transform societies. It’s very difficult to transform societies. I think you’re less likely to have a kind of adventurism abroad, your listeners may not know this, but I did spend two years in post-war Iraq and had some suspicions about the Iraq invasion in the first place. But having gone, it seemed to me that the number of US had responsibilities to go there. So, I was in Kurdistan for two years as the president of the American University of Iraq and Sulaimani, and had long talks with my Iraqi friends and Kurdish friends. And some of them were very pleased about the getting rid of Saddam Hussein, that was very important to be sure. But I think what you see emerging are a lot of habits that are very deep in Kurdish society. The habit toward centralization, for example, and so it’s a deeply Tocquevillian lesson I think ultimately about path dependency and about the importance of mediating institutions. You can’t just go on at the top and think you’re going to transform a society. This is I think a terrible error. So, I do think in a post-Trump world you’re going to have a Republican Party that’s thinking through these two issues, middle class and also foreign policy. But I would say one more thing, it seems to me that it’s going to be a concern for the middle class that’s not, if you want to use identity politics language, it’s not simply going to be the white middle class. I think there’s a growing consensus among the young conservatives I’m talking with that we really do need to have constructive understandings about how to deal with race in America. We can’t just pretend that America is a colorblind society and that’s all there is to it. We certainly aspire to that, but there is a legacy of the wound of slavery which has to be addressed. And I think the reason why conservatives have been reluctant to address it is that they think that as soon as you admit that there’s a race problem, you have to go to massive state intervention as a way of addressing it. I think there are very many smart black conservatives, Bob Woodson, Glenn Lowry, William Allen, and a number of others who understand that there’s a race problem, but they’re not interested in growing the state in order to solve it. They’re interested in deeply Tocquevillian solutions, namely let’s reinforce the family. Let’s reinforce the churches. Let’s make neighborhoods more safe. And these are things that we don’t need massive state programs for; we need simply to empower those who are on the ground who are already making a difference in their community. So, I think I’m actually quite pleased, quite independent of whatever happens with this election, I’m quite pleased about a new emerging Republican Party that I think is much more sober about foreign policy, much more sober about markets, and much more sober about race. This is very, very promising. And if I may, to the statement that we made, so as we wrote a statement, a letter to our fellow citizens, and what we decided right from the beginning was this was not going to be a normal conservative statement. My argument for years has been the conservatives have done themselves a great big disservice by thinking about Burke alone and not in the context of Tocqueville. My view is that Tocqueville is the one who points to the importance of mediating institutions. And yes, we can talk about religious liberty, and that’s important, and we can talk about free markets, but really what Tocqueville understood is that the vibrancy of American democracy was going to depend upon the strength of our families and the strength of all the media institutions that we have. And so, we got together and wrote a letter and identified the six or seven mediating institutions which were at risk, education, the church, the family, the press, and we said these are the things that have to be fortified. So, it wasn’t a high-level theoretical set of claims about commitments to which conservatives are oriented. It was really an on the ground observation that this is how we’re going. This is the only way we can make society healthy is fixing up our institutions, and so let’s put our shoulder to that work. And it was prompted not only by the four of us who were thinking about these issues, but the sense that we had in talking with others, other friends of ours, around the country that things had really come undone this summer. And everybody was asking the question, “What can we do?”. And if you’re only thinking in terms of national politics, you’re going to end up feeling very impotent. But if you’re thinking like a Tocquevillian citizen, you’re going to say things like, “Well, this is what’s around me. What can I do here? What do we have on the table here that we can work with?”. And I think that’s what we have to do. National politics is important, but we really have to remember the Tocquevillian insight that we’re formed in, and through these mediating institutions by which we live.

Tooley: Well, I neglected to include among your many adjectives, you’re also a Niebuhrian of sorts. And so, you do bring a unique Augustinian-Protestant sensibility to how you see the world, and a particular spiritual perspective and how you look at America. And like Tocqueville, you see America as ultimately a spiritual project?

Mitchell: Yes.

Tooley: Is that not correct?

Mitchell: And I would press this that, I know this makes people very nervous, but I think America will be judged by history by how we deal with race in America. This could be the great contribution to history, is that we redeem America from the wound of slavery. You mentioned Niebuhr, I’ve been for many years threatening to write a book on Niebuhr, and I kept pushing it off and I kept asking myself the question, “Why did I push it off?”. Well, you might remember Niebuhr’s fundamental concern was he wanted to remind the mainline churches of the importance of original sin. And in a couple of places, he says, “I think I’ve failed in that project.” And my argument in the last few years has been that the reason why Niebuhr, why we almost can’t write about Niebuhr right now, is because we can’t think about original sin. But what I’ve suggested in the book that I’ve just finished which is coming out on November 17, American Awakening, what I’ve suggested is that this idea of original sin migrated, that with the implosion of the mainline churches after the Vietnam era, I should say the softening of the mainline churches, the capitulation to culture after, it wasn’t just after the Vietnam era, but I think it accelerated after the Vietnam era, the churches got softer. But the idea of irredeemable sin actually migrated into politics. And my suggestion is that identity politics is the migration of an idea that actually belonged and was prominent in the mainline churches, namely the irredeemability of man, it’s migrated into identity politics, and for the moment there is an identifiable irredeemably stained group, that’s the white heterosexual male. And unless our listeners misunderstand my position, my position is that after he is purged or scapegoated, the logic of identity politics will require another identity group to castigate, because the innocence is always a relationship between the transgressor group and the groups of innocents. And once you purge the white heterosexual male, there’ll be others that have to step in. And my argument is that first it will be the white woman, and then it will be the black heterosexual male. I’m saying the whole thing is a deeply twisted manifestation of an American Christianity that can’t quite return to Christianity, so you’ve got these categories of stain and innocence, which are fundamentally biblical categories, which have migrated out of the churches. The churches are now about feeling good about yourself for the most part. I know this is a terrible generalization, but they’ve become quite soft. But when the Pew poll indicates that America is increasingly becoming a generation of “nones,” n-o-n-e-s, my response is no, that’s not true. They find their religion in identity politics. They find a way of understanding transgression and innocence in the realm of politics now. And the churches have utterly failed us. So, the reason why I couldn’t write the Niebuhr book, the reason why Niebuhr has become in a way difficult to understand, is because the category of stain has now migrated out of the church. We’re going to have to get that back into the church. And Niebuhr was right on this one, but it’s now outside of the church in identity politics. So, we are involved in what I call an “American awakening,” without God and without forgiveness.

Tooley: In that sense you seem to agree largely with Jody Bottum’s book An Anxious Age in terms of these religious “nones.” The more elitists, or basically the post-mainline Protestants, are still operating in a spiritual realm but not sure how to function.

Mitchell: Yeah, I read Jody Bottum’s book long before I began the identity politics book. But I realized when I read it that he was really onto something important, and that’s right. So, you’ve got guitar builders out in Portland and people who shop at Whole Foods. I mean, this is the Protestant class that has now found another object of spiritual veneration. Long-term, I’m actually hopeful, and let me explain why. Because so much of my, yes, I read Augustine, but the counterpoint to Augustine is always Friedrich Nietzsche. And what Nietzsche wanted to do was to get rid of this language of purity and stain all together. To get rid of all the Christian artifacts and return to what he called it some places “the aristocracy of cruelty.” And he thought that the crisis of the West would take the following form — that that the West would think it had rejected, it would reject the church but not all the trappings of the church. So, it would reject all the churches but it would not reject the idea of equality, not reject the idea of dignity of persons, and dignity of work, and not reject the idea of guilt atonement, repentance and things like this. But it wouldn’t have the Christian architecture anymore. And my argument is that Nietzsche was right, that is exactly where we are. We’ve got identity politics, which has the trappings of Christianity without the architecture of it. Now that’s the bad news, but that’s also the good news because if we really are lost, if we really go to the next level, we will be in the Nietzschean stage where, according to Nietzsche, the way we have it tomorrow is by forgetting; the way a Christian has it tomorrow is by repenting of his or her sins. And by forgiveness and atonement that’s how you have it tomorrow. If you’ve got the broken, you’ve got a broken human being who’s always turning toward darkness, eventually the weight, the debt becomes so heavy that you can’t have a tomorrow. The gospel good news is that in fact there’s a way to have it tomorrow — it’s through forgiveness, atonement, and repentance. And so, history is forever. And this is very Niebuhrian, too, forever turning toward darkness and being pulled back to the light. Turning toward darkness so you have a tomorrow only through forgiveness, repentance, and atonement. The Nietzschean argument is the way you have it tomorrow is by forgetting meaning. You forget the guilt. And my worry is that the next stage that we’re going to be facing, if we don’t return identity politics to pro-Christianity proper, the next stage we’re going to be facing, and we’re seeing it already in the alt-right, is you’re going to have people saying they’re reaching to use Bob Woodson’s word “racial fatigue” and “misogyny fatigue.” They’re just tired of being told that they’re irredeemably stained and there’s nothing they can do. And so, they say, “Forget it. I don’t care what happened. I don’t care about the Holocaust. I don’t care about colonialism.” And that’s what the alt-right movements in Europe are doing right now. They’re saying, “We’re tired of bearing this weight of guilt without any sort of way of atoning for it, and so we’re going to forget.” And these are really the two great choices before us. In my view, we can either return to a Christian way of having a tomorrow, namely through atonement, repentance, and forgiveness, or we’re going to turn to the Nietzschean way. So, at least identity politics knows the right language. It’s atonement, repentance, innocence, and guilt. At least we still have that Christian language. The really frightening thing will be when enough people who are indicted by identity politics say we don’t care anymore, we’re choosing Nietzsche. And without going into details, I have worked overseas in Europe with a political party that I think is moving more in this direction. I tried to, I’ve tried to, pull them back. They’re rejecting this. There are so many alt-right nature movements that are emerging now in Europe as a consequence really of this very dangerous game identity politics is playing, namely here’s guilt, you bear it, there’s no way you can get rid of it, you have to live with it forever and pay the political consequences. Human beings can’t live that way. We’re not put on this Earth simply to bear guilt. And they’re either going to find a Christian way to resolve the problem, or they’re going to turn to Nietzsche. So, that’s the broader picture of the historical moment I think we’re in, which is why identity politics is deeply pernicious, a deep distortion of Christianity, and yet the hopeful part of this is that it’s still at least using the language. And I think the answer then is to talk to people who are committed to this language of innocence and transgression and to suggest to them that ultimately this is not the meal. They’re feasting on crumbs. The meal is the Christian understanding of these things and how we have a tomorrow. So, an identity policy that never looks forward, it’s always looking back to find transgressions, there’s no possible tomorrow for identity politics. So, anyway we’re living, as I said earlier, we’re living in a moment of American awakening. We’re living out an American awakening without God and without forgiveness. That’s where we are in this intermediate Christian stage that Nietzsche wants us to finally throw off, and which I want us to say, “Look, we’ve gone too far. We have to go back to the real substance of this, which is Christianity itself.”

Tooley: And you addressed much of this in your last article for Providence, asking the question shall America be a Christian society judging individuals or a tribal society constantly implicating various identity groups?

Mitchell: Yeah, this is why, here I come back to Niebuhr, the idea of original sin has many detractors, but when sin is original what it means is that it’s always already before any genetic lineage that you might have. So, it’s, my case, my father is Lebanese Christian, so it doesn’t matter that I come from a Lebanese family or one half of my family, is that it’s always already there. Why that’s important is that if you feel guilt and it’s not original, you can say well the reason I’m feeling bad, the reason why there’s a poison around me is that there’s those people over there, and so you get tribal conflagrations. The sort of thing Rousseau talked about at the end of The Social Contract. You get wars where the gods are invoked, and it’s not really the people that are fighting, its gods themselves. Why? Because there’s a kind of ecstatic revelry, ecstatic rage, it’s scapegoating an enemy. And the Christian claim is guilt is actually so deep, the origin claim of original sin is that sin is so deep, you can’t find a resolution to it by scapegoating the other. Well now if you lose that insight and you still have the guilt, what you’re going to have is you’re going to have attempts to find purity by scapegoating other groups. And that’s what identity politics is really up to. So, in the final analysis, Niebuhr was right. We do need to grasp some understanding of original sin so that we can understand that it’s prior to any identification we might have as a group, and therefore it will not work to resolve the problems that we have by scapegoating another group. My argument is that the whole of liberalism which treats people as persons rather than members of group rests on this Christian understanding that there’s no mortal scapegoat that can solve our problem. It’s precisely when sin is original, we realize we can’t see ourselves as members of a group, but we have to see ourselves as individually fallen and redeemed by the divine scapegoat. You take away that and we return to more archaic understandings of the scapegoat, which is exactly what identity politics is doing. It’s saying we can solve this problem of impurity by scapegoating groups. This is basically a return to paganism. The one caveat I would make is that it’s a mix of paganism and Christianity, because what Christianity gives us is the interiority of the person. So, the deep sense of guilt and a deep sense of feeling and sentiment. So, it’s what you have with identity politics is this mixing of on the one hand Greeks group, scapegoating, but profound internal suffering that you that you can only get with Christianity. That’s why you’ve got both group scapegoating and safe spaces for individuals who are so psychologically wounded, you feel this deep interior weight, this burden, that they need all sorts of protection. So, it’s this very bizarre amalgam containing archaic pagan roots and this Christian insight about interiority. It’s a very twisted moment we’re living in, and I think Nietzsche got it right — we’re going in Europe, the West is going to be caught in this halfway condition where it can’t quite fully go back to Christianity and can’t quite reject it either. And I think that’s what identity politics is.

Tooley: And then finally, Josh, related to your point about offering hope, it seems like our ostensibly post-Christian age, post-Protestant age, is increasingly apocalyptic in its conversation, its attitudes, its warnings. Obviously, an Augustinian sensibility would argue against this constant threat of apocalypse. How do we do that?

Mitchell: Well, this is wonderful. So, I just finished teaching some small first portion of The City of God, and I focus on the preface to The City of God, and in fact, just a couple of lines of it we wait in steadfast patience until justice returns in judgment. The idea of hope recognizes that the justice of the world is never quite complete and that at the end there’ll be a full accounting. Identity politics can be understood as an impatience with that accounting system, an attempt to bring about a final reckoning right now. So, the full weight of slavery must now be paid for. The full weight of colonialism must now be paid for. In Europe, the full weight of nationalism must now be paid for by renouncing the nation and making the European Union project the way in which Europeans can buy atonement from the sin of nationalism. So, this, you’re very right, this Augustinian idea that somehow God is in charge of the timeline and that what we will observe in the world of time is a partial justice, this cannot be endured by identity politics. Another really good way of looking at this is through the lens of the parable of the wheat and the tares. So, in the parable of the wheat and the tares, the servant plants the wheat, comes back to the master, says “Master, we’ve got weeds growing with wheat. Shall I pull them up?”. And the master says, “No, don’t pull them up. Lest by pulling them up we’ll pull out the good wheat with the bad weeds. Leave them until the harvest and they’ll be separated at the harvest.” Well, we know what this means. It means that all of time as this is this mixed aspect to it. We can’t fully get rid of evil. When we do, we’ll probably rip out the good things. In Tocquevillian language, to get rid of the coarseness of local life by having national projects, we’re going to get rid of all the important mediating institutions by which we live. So, the identity politics insight is really captured with the problem of this identified in the parable of the wheat and the tares, namely an impatience with the intermixed nature of good and evil in the world of time. Thomas Jefferson was a mixed figure. All of the Founding Fathers were mixed figures. The Christian understands that we live in a mixed world and have to wait in patience and in hope. But with identity politics, there’s an acknowledgment of the stain but an in inability to live with anything that’s impure. This carries over even to the climate change movement, and I’m all for advancing technologies and getting rid of fuel so don’t get me wrong, but what I’m troubled by is that as it were spiritual overtones of this, we have clean energy and dirty fossil fuels, these aren’t scientific categories, these are religious categories. And I get very nervous when in the name of science, we’re actually doing something that’s answering a religious impulse. We have to be able to live in an intermixed, somewhat dirty world. And it’s through faith and hope that Christians are able to do that, knowing that there’ll be a balancing at the end of history. But when you get rid of the idea of a balancing that God does at the end of history, you get the impulse to try and do it right now. And that’s what we have with identity politics and impatience with the impure world of time.

Tooley: Joshua Mitchell of Georgetown University, thank you for a, as expected, fascinating conversation, and we look forward to your impending new book.

Mitchell: Thank you.