Many observers notice the elements of a cult or religion pervading much of identity politics, whatever the cause or grievance that 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 and in corporations, government, professional organizations, sports, media, and the courts.
Fury of the FatherlessThe sexual revolution, made possible by the contraceptive pill and abortion, separated sex from conception and was at the root of identity politics, argues Mary Eberstadt.
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.
“Many human beings, it seems, now lack the parallel implied force that kept those rambunctious younger elephants in line,” she writes.
American AwakeningJoshua 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.
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.
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.
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 classes, whom they can now guiltlessly denounce as deplorable clingers. The level of polarization seems worse than at any time 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 regulations 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.