Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a symposium on identity politics sponsored by the Ryan Foundation.
Eighteenth-century philosophers had a very simple explanation for the gradual weakening of beliefs. Religious zeal, they said, was bound to die down as enlightenment and freedom spread. It is tiresome that the facts do not fit this theory at all.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
The idea that there are distinct epochs of history, each with distinct types of humanity, each having distinct understandings of the world that are somehow explained by the characteristics of that epoch, has a long history. Nietzsche gave us the noble soul and the resentful soul, the former predominating in the pre-Socratic age, the latter prevailing from Christianity down to the present moment. Before him, Marx gave us feudal man and capitalist man, the former able to understand the plurality of values, the later who reduced that plurality to the monovalent measure of money. Further back, Kant gave us the archaic man, who treated others as means, followed by cosmopolitan man, who treated others as ends. Rousseau gave us ancient man, who was oriented by virtue, and modern man, who is oriented by interests. Luther, working within a biblical framework, gave us Old Testament Man, oriented by the Law, and New Testament man, oriented by the Gospel. Augustine gave us that formulation as well, though more moderately formulated, which left open the way for Aquinas to leave his indelible mark on the Roman Catholic Church.
Many serious thinkers today believe we have gone astray with this sort of analysis, which in one way or another proposes that man is an historical being, without a fixed nature, whose development as a moral agent rests, in some measure, on the epoch in which he dwells. They doubt that this formulation can any longer be endorsed because they have concluded that the hope invested in the historical development of man been unwarranted. Has this idea not given us the moral mess in which we find ourselves today, a world without bearings, in which all things are possible? To catch our breath now that this centuries-long wager has failed, and get our bearings, do we not now need to return to thinkers who held a doctrine of human nature. Alexis de Tocqueville is a strange intermediary between the two understandings. There is much in Democracy in America that suggests historical development. We have left the aristocratic age, he writes, and entered the democratic age. Yet Tocqueville stops short of abandoning human nature in two places: in the realm of religion and in the matter of the sexes. The epigraph that introduces these brief remarks here indicates that the “secularists” are wrong: religion is not an artifact of an earlier age, replaced as enlightened ideas spread. Religion is a permanent feature of human life. And it is because there are eternal longings in the human heart that cannot be erased. Tocqueville’s brilliance was to have seen that the “secularization thesis” that took hold in the academic world a century after he wrote was a delusion. Man is a religious being. Human nature perennially makes its claim.
Tocqueville was, I think, a bit too confident. Man is religious, he thought, because his sorrows and suffering cry out for answers that the world cannot provide. In offering a language of hope, Tocqueville thought that religion “could reign in the democratic age and in all others.” Yet religion in general, and Christianity in particular, offers more than a language of hope; it provides a language of transgression and innocence. About this, Tocqueville says little in Democracy in America. Our problem in America today begins there, with the way we are haunted by the language of transgression and innocence, but no longer have a Christian way of understanding it. This development suggests neither the permanence of religion nor the advent of an entirely new, secular, stage of history that Tocqueville thought impossible to emerge. This strange intermediary is identity politics. Because it is not quite Christian and not quite secular, it is perhaps best understood as Christianity’s Walking Dead. The language of transgression and innocence brought life when Christianity reigned. That is because when Christianity reigned, transgression and innocence could not be decoupled from repentance, atonement, and forgiveness. Without these, life withers. For the moment—perhaps forever?—the reign of Christianity is behind us. What walks about is a ghoulish and deadly creature that lives by killing the living creatures that remain. It does this by scapegoating them, by attributing to them transgressions that must be purged—and giving them no means to repent, atone, or be forgiven. Identity politics is the macabre confirmation of the permanence of the Christian language of transgression and innocence; and it is the chilling confirmation that the age of Christianity has passed.
The Christian understanding of transgression and innocence, of which we seem to have lost sight, is this: man’s sin—his transgression—is original. It is always-already-there. Roman Catholics and Protestants argue about the meaning of this, but they agree, following Athanasius, that original sin means that without God’s assistance, man himself cannot bridge the chasm he had opened up between himself and God. This presented a “divine dilemma,” which could only be resolved through the self-sending of God, to make one sufficient sacrifice. Through this sacrifice, Christ, the Innocent Lamb of God, would take upon Himself “the sins of the world.”
Identity politics is a political rather than religious version of this cleansing, for groups rather than for individual persons. The scapegoat identity politics currently offers up for sacrifice is the white heterosexual man. If purged, its adherents imagine, the world itself, along with the remaining groups in it, will be cleansed of stain. Without exception, every major action-item of the Democratic Party today is traceable to this supposition. Democratic Party pushback against national borders; its unwavering insistence that fundamental political and economic transformations are necessary to address Climate Change; its disgust with “dirty” fossil fuels; its demand for wealth redistribution; and its resolve that every mediating institutions in which citizens gather must be altered so as to become “inclusive”—all of these have at their root the supposition that the nation-state, market commerce, the petro-chemicals that fuel it, the conventional generative family, our civic institutions, and our religious institutions are unclean or obsolete because of the hand white heterosexual man has had in building and maintaining them. In the world identity politics constructs, there is indeed transgression and innocence; but shorn from Christianity, it seeks political means to cleanse the world of its stain. That is why it just purges the transgressor.
Contemporary surveys indicate that Americans have lost or are losing their religion, that the world is becoming secular. The fever of identity politics that now sweeps the nation suggests these surveys are looking in the wrong place and asking the wrong questions. Americans have not lost their religion. Americans have relocated their religion to the realm of politics. The institutional separation of church and state may be largely intact; but the separation between religion and politics has largely collapsed. More precisely, with respect to the language of transgression and innocence, they have traded places. Once, because of the doctrine of original sin, there was a presumption of guilt in the churches and, because of our legal history, a presumption of innocence in the realm of politics. Today, this abandonment of the doctrine of original sin has had the curious effect of lifting the burden of guilt in the churches—and of shifting it to politics. Whatever the law may say about our innocence, the presumption of identity politics is that man—or rather the white heterosexual man—is guilty. This is a dangerous reversal of legal norms that in the Anglo-American world took centuries to develop and to take hold. We can expect this catastrophe to deepen as long as identity politics, Christianity’s Walking Dead, stalks the earth.