God Vs. Identity Politics
I’ve been saying for a long time here that the racial essentialism of people like Ta-Nehisi Coates is unavoidably calling up the same thing among white nationalists and other right-wing whites. You cannot have it both ways. The black writer Thomas Chatterton Williams agrees. Excerpt:
Given the genuine severity of the Trump threat, some readers of this essay may wonder, why devote energy to picking over the virtue and solidarity signaling of the left? Quite simply because getting this kind of thinking wrong exacerbates the very inequality it seeks to counteract. In the most memorable sentence in “The First White President,” Mr. Coates declares, “Whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies.”
I have spent the past six months poring over the literature of European and American white nationalism, in the process interviewing noxious identitarians like the alt-right founder Richard Spencer. The most shocking aspect of Mr. Coates’s wording here is the extent to which it mirrors ideas of race — specifically the specialness of whiteness — that white supremacist thinkers cherish.
This, more than anything, is what is so unsettling about Mr. Coates’s recent writing and the tenor of the leftist “woke” discourse he epitomizes. Though it is not at all morally equivalent, it is nonetheless in sync with the toxic premises of white supremacism. Both sides eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other, while those of us searching for gray areas and common ground get devoured twice. Both sides mystify racial identity, interpreting it as something fixed, determinative and almost supernatural. For Mr. Coates, whiteness is a “talisman,” an “amulet” of “eldritch energies” that explains all injustice; for the abysmal early-20th-century Italian fascist and racist icon Julius Evola, it was a “meta-biological force,” a collective mind-spirit that justifies all inequality. In either case, whites are preordained to walk that special path. It is a dangerous vision of life we should refuse no matter who is doing the conjuring.
True, and important to say.
Yet I read Williams’s essay in tandem with this one by Justin Dean Lee in the L.A. Review of Books, concerning Mark Lilla’s book calling on fellow liberals to refuse identity politics. Excerpts:
While there is much to commend in this book — Lilla’s wide-ranging expertise, his good humor and sharp wit, his moral seriousness — it is not without its faults, the greatest of which is Lilla’s failure to press his critique to its logical limits.
Meaning what, exactly? Lee says that Lilla misses that his own politics are built on the same shaky ground of emotivism as those he critiques. Lee:
Lilla’s recognition of the deep affinity between Reaganite economics and left identitarianism is the most profound aspect of The Once and Future Liberal. It is also the element around which his entire project unravels. In all his denunciations of both movements he is curiously shy of naming the irreducible heart of their similarity: nihilism.
Whether the will to power finds expression in economic self-determination or in the assertion of one’s identity over-against an other, it remains a groundless nothing, a sheer, arbitrary exuberance. The will to power sits beneath Lilla’s critique just as it resides within the objects of his scorn. This is made clear by his unwillingness to apply his critique of individualism to his own political commitments.
Lee explains that in his piece, and ends by saying that the renewed civic square Lilla seeks isn’t really possible in our culture:
Even if our institutions were more dependable, or if trust could be ensorcelled, the project of reorienting our political discourse to the promotion of the common good is doomed from the start. What do we hold in common? What is the good? Lilla seems to have learned nothing from the criticisms leveled against his highly selective 2007 study of political theology, The Stillborn God. The common good is emphatically not a product of consensus. To posit a common good is, necessarily, to embrace metaphysical realism, and thus to wade into the deep waters of natural law theory. Without the firm ground of first principles, the “common good” is merely the whim of the majority.
And this is perhaps what most irks Lilla’s critics on the left, even if they’re wary of articulating it: any serious — that is, internally coherent — movement away from identity politics and toward a robust discourse of the common good requires that we reintroduce metaphysics into our politics. This entails granting theology a privileged place in the public square at a time when most of the left and the far right are loath to grant it any place at all.
A different Mark Lilla, the one who wrote The Stillborn God, celebrates the banishing of faith to the private sphere. For that Lilla, theology is a contamination best kept hermetically sealed from politics, lest some dark “messianism” raise its head. But the Lilla of The Once and Future Liberal looks back wistfully on the role faith once played in energizing civic virtue, his reflections colored, perhaps, by his own youthful dalliance with Evangelicalism. One suspects that Lilla doubts his ideal of citizenship is really capable of instilling a sense of civic duty “[i]n the absence of a motivating charitable faith.” If the failures of French universalism are any indication, such doubts are justified.
Before we go any further here, I want to draw your attention briefly to an older essay. In 1989, Glenn Tinder published a lengthy essay in The Atlantic, on the political meaning of Christianity. Here are some excerpts:
Here we come to the major premise (in the logic of faith, if not invariably in the history of Western political philosophy) of all Christian social and political thinking—the concept of the exalted individual. Arising from agape, this concept more authoritatively than any other shapes not only Christian perceptions of social reality but also Christian delineations of political goals.
… Can love and reason, though, undergird our politics if faith suffers a further decline? That is doubtful. Love and reason are suggestive, but they lack definite political implications. Greeks of the Periclean Age, living at the summit of the most brilliant period of Western civilization, showed little consciousness of the notion that every individual bears an indefeasible and incomparable dignity. Today why should those who assume that God is dead entertain such a notion? This question is particularly compelling in view of a human characteristic very unlike exaltation.
He’s talking about sinfulness. Tinder points out the necessary paradox at the heart of Christian political thinking:
The fallen individual is not someone other than the exalted individual. Every human being is fallen and exalted both. This paradox is familiar to all informed Christians. Yet it is continually forgotten—partly, perhaps, because it so greatly complicates the task of dealing with evil in the world, and no doubt partly because we hate to apply it to ourselves; although glad to recall our exaltation, we are reluctant to remember our fallenness. It is vital to political understanding, however, to do both. If the concept of the exalted individual defines the highest value under God, the concept of the fallen individual defines the situation in which that value must be sought and defended.
The principle that a human being is sacred yet morally degraded is hard for common sense to grasp. It is apparent to most of us that some people are morally degraded. It is ordinarily assumed, however, that other people are morally upright and that these alone possess dignity. From this point of view all is simple and logical. The human race is divided roughly between good people, who possess the infinite worth we attribute to individuals, and bad people, who do not. The basic problem of life is for the good people to gain supremacy over, and perhaps eradicate, the bad people. This view appears in varied forms: in Marxism, where the human race is divided between a world-redeeming class and a class that is exploitative and condemned; in some expressions of American nationalism, where the division—at least, until recently—has been between “the free world” and demonic communism; in Western films, where virtuous heroes kill bandits and lawless Indians.
This common model of life’s meaning is drastically irreligious, because it places reliance on good human beings and not on God. It has no room for the double insight that the evil are not beyond the reach of divine mercy nor the good beyond the need for it. It is thus antithetical to Christianity which maintains that human beings are justified by God alone, and that all are sacred and none are good.
The proposition that none are good does not mean merely that none are perfect. It means that all are persistently and deeply inclined toward evil. All are sinful. In a few sin is so effectively suppressed that it seems to have been destroyed. But this is owing to God’s grace, Christian principles imply, not to human goodness, and those in whom it has happened testify emphatically that this is so. Saints claim little credit for themselves.
Tinder concludes by doubting that liberal democracy can survive the demise of the Christian faith that animates it. He cites Dostoevsky’s view that people have to worship something; it is in our nature. If we don’t worship the God of the Bible, we will make idols of other things, if only our desires. (This, by the way, is what Dante’s Commedia is about; the Inferno is full of idol worshipers of one sort or another.)
Now, what does this all have to do with Justin Dean Lee’s essay about Mark Lilla’s book?
For one, the fundamental fault Lee finds in Lilla’s book can easily be found among many other conservatives (not that Lee would deny that at all). That is, it is easy to find thoughtful essays by civilized, non-radical thinkers on the right who advocate revival of republican virtues, as Lilla does. But they don’t seem to recognize how much their project depends on a shared religious belief — and not just any religious belief, but Christianity: a religion that insists not only on man’s sacred dignity but also on his fallenness. Or, to put it in Lee’s terms, we cannot escape metaphysics if we want to restore our degraded politics.
This is not likely to happen for a number of reasons, but I’ll focus on my own side, religious conservatives. We ought to be a source of political renewal as a consequence of a renewed life in churches and communities. In fact, that is the long-term political goal of The Benedict Option. The Ben Op is not a withdrawal from political engagement, but rather a reorientation of Christian priorities. We are not going to be a source of political or social renewal anytime soon, because we have allowed our own inner lives, and the lives of our church communities, to become deeply compromised by modernity. As a conservative theologian friend told me the other night, the “sociological reality” of the American church today is “a façade of capitalism and emotivism.” He was talking about Evangelicalism, his own tradition, but it is also true of the entire church.
I spoke recently to an Evangelical pastor about what he’s seeing play out in the church. We were generally discussing the claims I make in my book. He said that he’s dealing with this stuff in his congregation. Folks may sense that there’s something really wrong with things in the world today, and also in the church, but they resolutely refuse to do anything about it, other than what they’re already doing, because that makes them comfortable. They can’t even bring themselves to talk about it. They may actually believe what Christianity teaches, but they cannot articulate it to their children. Many of them believe that it’s the church’s responsibility alone to teach and form their children. Many are just as absorbed in popular culture as any non-believer.
Listening to the pastor, I thought of G.K. Chesterton’s line: “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.” The congregation he’s talking about means well, it seems to me, but they are, in effect, a dead thing, carried down the stream of liquid modernity towards the falls. To be clear, I am not judging their souls; I am judging their sociological state, particularly with regard to being able to pass on a living faith to their children. A congregation that does not regard itself as actively in rebellion against the Empire is going to lay down and die. (I define “the Empire” as the hedonistic, individualistic, relativistic, post-Christian social order.) The days of a comfortable compromise are over. You cannot let the Empire into your soul, and have to fight to expel it.
If the church — I’m talking about all Christians in America — is so compromised that it can only serve as a chaplaincy to late capitalism, then it cannot be the leavening that society needs. In The Benedict Option, I quote Philip Rieff saying that a culture begins to die “when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling, first of all to the cultural elites themselves.” This is where we are in the church today — and by “the church,” I’m not simply talking about the institutional church, but also mothers, fathers, grandparents, all of us. With the Millennial generation, the bottom is dropping out of religious belief — and we cannot blame them for that. Who raised them? Who formed them? At the same time, the vast number those who still profess religious belief are in thrall to the pseudo-Christianity called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
My point is that without realizing what we were doing, we American Christians have allowed ourselves to be catechized by the post-Christian culture, such that we are rendered inert, and unable to pass the faith on to our children — who, having been catechized by the post-Christian culture, are unable to receive it.
So, to recap: Justin Dean Lee rightly says we cannot have a politics of the common good without substantive agreement on what the Good is, or how it might be known. Liberalism, in both its classical and progressivist forms, is agnostic on that question, or at most assumes things (“all men are created equal”) that cannot be sustained absent a shared commitment to a metaphysical ideal. Last week in Paris, talking about these things with Alain Finkielkraut, the philosopher said that he sees no exit for the French, because they have concluded as a society that there is no realm beyond the material. Most Americans would deny that they believe this, but that’s not the way we live, not even Christians. It is true that we Americans are not as far gone into atheism as the French are, so we still have time to recover. But to recover, you first have to recognize the problem. You first have to recognize that the way you are living as a Christian is not going to survive the prolonged encounter with liquid modernity.
Ta-Nehisi Coates and Richard Spencer are both atheists who have found a strong source of belief in their respective races. Spencer, a Nietzschean, has said that Christianity is a religion of the weak. They have drawn the line between good and evil not down the middle of every human heart, as that great Christian prophet Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did, but between their race and the Other. There is immense power in that kind of tribalism, and it lies in large part because it denies the fallenness of one’s own people. Where in contemporary American Christianity can we find the resources to resist falling prey to the malign power of racialism, in all its versions?
They are hard to locate because we American Christians have been almost as compromised by radical individualism, emotivism, and the worship of technology as everybody else. How can we witness to the “common good” in the public square when we don’t have a robust idea of it within our own communities of faith? That Evangelical theologian friend I mentioned above told me that so many Christians today see the Bible as only one of many sources of authority in their lives. They cannot rightly order their lives as Christians because whatever they say they believe, the real authority in their lives is the Choosing Self.
This is why American Christianity does not offer effective opposition to the allure of identity politics of the left or the right — and indeed, why it so easily succumbs to the same thing. It is true that we all have multiple identities, but for the Christian, his fidelity to Jesus Christ, as revealed in the Bible (and, for many of us, in the authoritative teachings of the apostolic church), has to be primary. It has to be the identity that gives all the other identities order, meaning, and legitimacy. I am neither proud nor ashamed of my race, but I do not believe in the racialism of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Richard Spencer because it is impossible to reconcile with the Gospel — which, as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said, directs us to judge not by the color of one’s skin, but by the content of one’s character. Near the heart of the power of identity politics — which Justin Dean Lee rightly identifies as a pseudo-religion — is its power to explain, to absolve and to bind. It explains the tribes suffering by blaming those outside of it. This absolves those who embrace the identitarian ideology of their sins, and releases them from the responsibility to examine their own consciences in light of the transcendent truth. And it binds them in a brotherhood of the sanctified — sanctified not because of anything they have done or accomplished, but simply by their membership in the tribe.
Only a strong Christianity can counter this nihilistic tribal religion. But this we do not have today. I am on record as strongly disapproving of some of the antics of Milo Yiannopoulos, but he and I are on the same page here, in this excerpt from an interview with America magazine, which he says they refused to print:
What does masculinity mean to you?
It means a willingness to expose yourself to enemy fire, whether or not you wear a uniform, in order to defend the good — your family, your church, your country, your civilization. Now the men in uniform are much better men than I, but even I can do a bit to defend those things with the gifts God gave me.
Our Lord, as always, showed the way: He endured the horrors of the Passion to defend and redeem the whole world. I’m with Rod Dreher: Anybody who only preaches a namby-pamby God, and not the highly masculine God of Scripture, is leaving young men vulnerable to the monstrous false gods of race and ideology.
Boys struggling to become men are always potential barbarians, because they hunger for masculinity but aren’t sure where to find it or how to productively express it. Our Lord revealed it to them, but too many in the Church keep masculinity hidden or the subject of shame.
To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, if you will not have God — not the MTD God, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who is also the God of the saints and the martyrs — then you had better prepare to pay homage to Ta-Nehisi Coates, Richard Spencer, Donald Trump, and all the other rising avatars of identity politics.