Identity Politics as Bad Religion
Commentary By Paul Adams, Professor
December 10, 2020
Many observers notice the elements of cult or religion pervading much identity politics, whatever cause or grievance supplies the rationale. Let’s take a look at two—contrasting but not contradictory—recent attempts to explain the religious zeal of current secular identity-based movements.
Both see a new, more intolerant and aggressive orthodoxy that substitutes for Christianity. It may look unhinged, irrational, and emotional—as scenes of protesting students or meltdowns of media personalities sometimes suggest—but this identity-based belief system has achieved extraordinary dominance across campuses, in corporations, government, professional organizations, sports, media, and in the courts.
Each author approaches this phenomenon with a different focus. Both recognize the pain and anguish suffered by those who identify themselves in terms of their (single or intersecting) victim status. But both reject the worldview that divides us between innocents (the victims, especially women, blacks, and those who identify as LGBTQ) and transgressors (usually white heterosexual men) as false and destructive.
Fury of the Fatherless
The sexual revolution, made possible by the contraceptive pill and abortion, separates sex from childbirth and is at the root of identity politics, argues Mary Eberstadt.
Some third of American children now grow up in single-parent households, mostly without their biological father. Many are deeply angry about it, as Eberstadt explores in an analysis of rap music.
The sharp decline in fertility from the 1960s on has deprived millennials and subsequent generations of a rich extended family life with multiple siblings, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. With the decline of family has come a loss of faith, a decline in the sense of living for others and having obligations (to family, God, and nation) that one did not choose. Such a sense of identity, duty, and belonging has come in prior generations with being born, like other mammals, into a family and community. There is, says Eberstadt, no such thing in nature as a lone wolf. We are the only species, she says of our individualistic and utopian tendencies, trying to live in defiance of our nature.
Discussing the 2020 demonstrations and riots linked to the Black Lives Matter movement and Antifa, she argues that the common explanations do not work. The “ritualistic exhibition of destructive behaviors in city after city is without precedent in America,” she writes. Civil rights and anti-war demonstrations of the 1960s were nothing like this.
“So, here’s a new theory: The explosive events of 2020 are but the latest eruption along a fault line running through our already unstable lives. That eruption exposes the threefold crisis of filial attachment that has beset the Western world for more than half a century. Deprived of father, Father, and patria, a critical mass of humanity has become socially dysfunctional on a scale not seen before.”
This theory accounts for the extremes of acting out, the tantrum-like behavior of the young adults rioting and vandalizing downtown cities night after night for months on end. Eberstadt tellingly makes an analogy with the behavior of young elephants unhinged by the sudden loss of a senior male authority figure—a situation ecologists in South Africa found in 2000 that they could remedy by introducing several older bull elephants. That was all it took, she says, “to stop the younger male elephants already there from lethal rampaging against rhinoceroses. Many human beings, it seems, now lack the parallel implied force that kept those rambunctious younger elephants in line.”
Eberstadt’s theory explains these events as a quest for identity by those robbed of the sources of identity, of family, faith, and nation that earlier generations grew up with. Hence the quasi-religious elements of identity politics, the rituals of public shaming and repentance, of kneeling and begging forgiveness, and of bonding with others on the basis of an identity defined by victimhood and oppression. The creation of its own saints and martyrs—even the eugenicist and racist Margaret Sanger—is also part of the new religion of woke.
Joshua Mitchell, in his new book, “American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time,” sees identity politics as a modern, contorted form of Protestant Christianity and Calvinism in particular.
It’s based on a narrative of transgression and innocence, of a taint, as of original sin, that cannot be expunged. But “identity politics declares that there is no original sin, only an original sinner. That is its shortcut” (emphasis in the original). In identity politics, “instead of all of Adam’s heirs being stained, only white heterosexual males are.” Instead of a truly innocent scapegoat Redeemer, “in the world of identity politics groups of mere mortals purport to be innocent.”
This politics rejects those usual sources of identity and belonging—tradition and inheritance. Indeed, it sees American history and the achievements of Western civilization as irredeemably stained from the start. (See the highly criticized New York Times’s 1619 Project, which indicts the Founding Fathers and the liberal democratic republic they launched in 1776 as already “damned” in 1619.)
As the spiritual economy of salvation, stain, and sin lost its purchase in the United States with the collapse of the mainline Protestant churches, sin did not disappear but migrated to the Democratic Party. It is religion without forgiveness or redemption, with a debt that can never be repaid. (Ask, as a thought experiment, what it would take for the oppressors to pay off their debt in full, to be square and on equal terms with the innocents thereafter.)
The identity politics of our time is a kind of American Awakening, like those Calvinist revivals of the 18th century, Mitchell suggests. But it’s a deeply deformed kind of religion that offers no innocent sacrifice, no ransom to redeem sinners, no forgiveness, and no way out. As new groups recognize their own identities and claim their own victimhood, more categories of innocents are recognized, requiring new additions to the ranks of guilty oppressors.
After heterosexual white males will come heterosexual white females. The status of lesbians has fallen among teen girls seeking a differentiating identity. Even the category of “women” seems to be in trouble, as the woke replace it with such “trans-inclusive” terms as “people who menstruate.”
But it could be worse. Identity politics uses a Christian framework, but without the Christian religion. Only the fumes of an exhausted American Protestant heritage survive. The Nietzschean alternative, forgetfulness, is even worse, Mitchell argues. As found in full in the Alt-Right, it rejects the categories of transgression and innocence altogether. Only those of strength and weakness remain. Rather than falling to their knees in acknowledgment of their guilt about racism, they say they don’t care. Or they embrace the white “identity” that the woke ascribes to them and nurture their own sense of grievance and victimhood.
Many more people, much less than fully Nietzschean, have a kind of racial fatigue. They don’t want to be lectured, or to see their entertainment or the sports they watch used to advance any kind of grievance or woke ideology. If a BBC or Netflix drama is too preachy, too patently woke, they turn it off.
Is There Hope?
What would a way forward look like? We seem stuck in an illiberal world of growing intolerance that brooks no dissent or even silence. It’s a world of vindictiveness, resentment, and cancel culture aimed at suppressing people and sentiments, including those accepted without comment only yesterday as orthodox even on the left. Every revolution devours its own daughters and there’s no apparent way forward.
But before we can find such a way, if there is one, we must accurately diagnose the problem.
In Eberstadt and Mitchell, we find two different approaches and emphases. Eberstadt sees the sexual revolution, with the resulting erosion of family, faith, and nation as sources of identity, as producing a desperate search for an overriding sense of identity in race, sex, sexual preference, and/or gender identity.
Aided and funded by the rich and powerful, things have gone from bad to worse, with a hyperpartisan intellectual and managerial class uncritically accepting Critical Race Theory and using it to fan the flames of civil disorder. Media and academics routinely “blame America first” (as Jeane Kirkpatrick famously put it). Relieved of their own guilty sense of class privilege, they look with open disdain on those of lower class whom they can now guiltlessly denounce as deplorable clingers. The level of polarization seems worse than at any time since since the Civil War.
Mitchell doesn’t hold out much hope either, at least in a secular, worldly form. He diagnoses the problem in terms of bad religion, as a false, pseudo-religious Awakening like the earlier great revivals of religious enthusiasm among American Protestants. It’s a story of transgression and innocence but without hope or redemption. The stain is always there, says Mitchell of the Calvinist understanding of original sin, but it doesn’t have the last word. In the modern religion of identity politics, it does.
In Eberstadt and Mitchell we see ways of looking at identity as more than a political program requiring a political response, new leaders, laws, and regulation to limit the movement’s damage and destructiveness and to defend basic liberties. The search for identity, the longing to belong, has the force, in contorted, destructive form, of a religious energy, an “American awakening.” It calls for a religious response.
The Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre concluded his book “After Virtue” saying, rather than needing a political revolutionary like Trotsky, “We are waiting … for another—doubtless very different—Saint Benedict.” The Protestant political theorist Mitchell points toward a different, very American conclusion, neither revolutionary nor monastic. In need of a profound cultural and religious change of heart, we are waiting for a another—doubtless very different—religious revival, a new Great Awakening.
Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawaii and was a professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of “Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is” and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.