The Power and Peril of Sacred Identity

Years ago, when we were in our mid 20s, a friend told me that as a teenager he would pretend to speak in tongues in church. Why?, I asked, astonished. And how did he get away with it? Wasn’t he obviously faking? He explained: When everyone around you seems possessed by the Spirit, marked as holy, one of the saved, nothing is more natural than to join in. Otherwise, you seem to be not holy, not one of the saved. Though his pretense-laden action was not innocent, “faking it” is too harsh for the way he gave himself over to social enthusiasm. The sounds, empty of meaning, expressed real emotion: eager piety and servile fear.

He was sincerely pious, but others looked more pious, and that threatened his moral identity and social status. Plus, there was a public code of how to express piety, which he could use to reassert his moral identity. The situation was enough for him and his friends both to produce the gibberish and to provide cover, making it seem like grace.

At the time, nothing seemed odder to me, given my youthfully rigid Catholic sensibilities. But perhaps something of the same phenomenon showed up in Roman guise some time later when an acquaintance explained why he broke it off with his fiancée—she was insufficiently devoted to Mary. We don’t speak in tongues. Instead, to express piety, East Coast Catholics give things up for Lent (or for Fridays), memorize our lines, collect statues and relics, and revere the saints, especially Our Lady. But any code to express piety can be misused to assert one’s standing as pious. That’s what my acquaintance was doing. No man truly in love with a woman, more than with himself, has ever dumped her for lack of Marian devotion.

Here’s a progressive version of the same phenomenon: I found myself at a conference a few months ago, around a dinner table with seven other academics. We were five women and three men, all white, of diverse disciplines. I listened curiously to several of the women talking—in a conflicted confessional style—about “white middle-class hoarding.” They all agreed that the white middle class hoards safe, clean neighborhoods, hoards good schools, hoards experiences and opportunities like family vacations and music lessons for their children.

Hoarding implies collecting a good beyond its usefulness to oneself, especially such that others are kept from using it. Confused, I asked for clarification: “Getting your daughter piano lessons doesn’t deprive anyone else’s daughter of piano lessons, so ‘hoarding’ seems the wrong word,” I suggested. After a little back and forth among us women, one of the men, gentle, sincere, and intelligent, intervened to help. He and his wife are moving and are tempted by a house in a good school district. Commenting that his midwestern city still has a high degree of de facto racial segregation, he concluded that buying the house would be part of the white middle class’s hoarding of decent educations. Besides, he added, his “really gifted” kindergartener will “do well no matter what school he goes to.”

People often overestimate their children. For ‘hoarding’ to apply, that five-year-old must be very gifted, indeed, having already surpassed use for a decent elementary school. More than that, the hoarding charge implies that the problems of weak schools are caused by some people keeping education away by not enrolling their kids there. So—such is the man’s implied conclusion—rather than hoarding, he could share educational opportunity with underprivileged kids by sending his son to be with them.

Let’s assume, instead, that the mansplainer’s little boy is not that gifted as to be able to improve a dysfunctional school. Rather, this was pious gibberish. The words at the dinner table expressed emotion and marked status, but the meaning didn’t matter. The meaning of the words—left unthought by the speaker and hearers as they gave themselves over to a social enthusiasm—betrayed a narcissism unable to admit that there are problems not caused and not curable by their actions. The words functioned, instead, to display his sacrificial readiness, his willingness to give up his son’s education for something higher.

I dropped the point rather than continue my quibbles about hoarding. After all, I was playing with fire. Plus, the man’s comment made me feel bad about myself. He understands something I don’t. He’s a better person. He can buy a better house. And his kid is specialer. Hold on a second! . . . Was he confessing his privilege—or bragging about it? And was he going to make the sacrifice—or was he just displaying his willingness to do so, brandishing his piety and subtly shaming me for lacking it? I don’t know. Whatever his conscious intentions, the effect of this type of comment is twofold: to elevate the status of the speaker and to suppress dissent. More questions would prove only one thing—my insufficient devotion to oppressed groups.

Here’s my hunch (developed in my previous essay “Sacrificial Politics and Sacred Victims”): As a result of the identity-transforming and wisdom-bestowing power of suffering, oppressed and marginalized groups have become sacred—set apart, ontologically elevated, not to be treated like normal people. More specifically, they are treated as sacred by certain people—people like those academics I was having dinner with. The mansplainer’s comment flagged his status as one of the Pious, a privileged person devoted to the sacredness of the oppressed. By even asking questions, I risked seeming like a Blasphemer. The whole conversation should be interpreted as part of an emotionally complex symbolic system—a system animated by a sense of the sacred, a duty to sacrifice for it, and a desperate desire to feel and to be seen as pious.

The privileged progressive academic and the nondenom Texas teenager speaking in tongues are essentially doing the same thing: mimicking others’ sounds to mark themselves as one of the saved. It’s not that progressive pieties or sense of the sacred are “fake.” But clearly a growing lack of theological categories on the Left means that this piety remains unrecognized. Those who practice sacrificial politics don’t see that their sacrifices are sacrifices, don’t see that they’re reifying oppressed categories as sacred objects, and don’t see that “pious show” is the right category for a good deal of their talk. They don’t see that they do what they complain about people of faith doing: “forcing” their beliefs on others through unrelenting preaching, propaganda, public display, pressure, and sometimes punishment. And they don’t see that many of the beliefs they push on others—e.g., the privilege talk, the idea that biology shouldn’t be socially significant, the claim that divergent outcomes always indicate discrimination—are at best matters of faith.

I thank Amy Wax, David Azerrad, and Stephanie Slade for their thoughtful reflections on my hobbyhorse of a theory. I accept the bulk of what they say as friendly amendments. In this response, I want to make some smaller points.

1. We are all unforgiven.

It’s Christian-influenced, but sacrificial politics departs from Christianity drastically, and Slade and Azerrad put their fingers on how. There is no path to forgiveness for the individual who is caught Blaspheming. It makes the system inhumane. After all, we are all born in ignorance, and none of us ever completely escapes. There is also no path to forgiveness for the category—members are told that they oppress others simply by being privileged, and that they are privileged merely by being themselves and not having to suffer the way some other people sometimes do. The Pious sacrifice in search of communal atonement, but (as Slade emphasizes) they don’t achieve it.

2. There are Sacred Victim narratives on the Right, too.

Some conservatives, Blasphemers, Christians, and Men’s Rights groups, while attempting to oppose sacrificial politics, have ended up developing their own narratives of persecution. Sacrificial politics not only shows these groups how to construct a Sacred Victim argument, but it also gives them the stories they need to convince people who want convincing. These groups have so far failed to get any cultural uptake. They don’t have an outgroup following. No one has piety for them. This, of course, further feeds the persecution narratives.

3. Don’t do that.

It is almost impossible to criticize the system without getting sucked into its logic by constructing another Sacred Victim category made of those denied Sacred status. The most important thing people critical of sacrificial politics should do is Not That! The system encourages resentment and self-sacralization among those deemed members of privileged or oppressor groups. Feeling picked on or targeted brings out the worst in people. As Slade notes, sacrificial politics reduces disincentives for “truly appalling” behavior by treating benevolent disagreement as appalling. And it creates an incubator, as Azerrad notes, for “white identitarianism,” and (I add) male identitarianism. We would do better to avoid such excesses.

4. Not being oppressed doesn’t cause other people’s oppression.

The privilege talk implies that one person’s good fortune contributes to someone else’s bad fortune. The point is, for example, to feel implicated in the fact that some gay people can’t bring their partners home for Christmas because you can bring your partner home for Christmas, or to feel responsible for some kids going to rotten schools because your kid goes to a decent school. A sense of privilege gives the Pious something akin to survivor’s guilt. The Problem: it just isn’t clear what to do with the information about this kind of privilege. Thus, the Pious are given to unproductive symbolic gestures—like confessional chatter about their kid’s piano lessons. Confessions of privilege provide a feeling of recovering one’s moral identity, but it’s temporary, and nothing else comes of it (not even absolution).

5. It’s not called “Self-Sacrificial Politics.”

Azerrad suggests that the name is inapt: “sacrificial politics” in contrast to Christianity “turns out not to require much sacrifice at all.” I disagree. The Pious sometimes engage in self-sacrifice—akin to fasting or Lenten sacrifices. Think of Kristen Bell refusing to get straight married until gays could also marry. When the Pious sacrifice in this mode, it’s usually neither productive nor harmful. Christianity tries to refine all sacrifices into self-sacrifices, on the model of Christ sacrificing himself for others (reversing the typical thing, to sacrifice something else on behalf of oneself). Most of the sacrifices in sacrificial politics, however, are the scapegoat kind: that is, they utilize third-party symbolic substitutional victims. These sacrifices are the main output—and the most objectionable aspect—of the whole system. I want people to recognize the public excoriations of Blasphemers as a (modern, bloodless) form of human sacrifice.

6. The Pious (not the Sacred) hold the power.

The Pious look bestows sacredness and can take it away. The Pious elites running institutions, masters of indirection, cast their power on the Sacred activists and their guilt on the Blasphemers they punish. Doing so protects their and their institutions’ prestige, even if their piety is not totally insincere. Critics of the sacrificial system should not focus on the young zealous activists. Instead, look to the powerful privileged adults who—quaking in their boots at the prospect of a bad news cycle—pretend to take orders from students and social media mobs.

7. Blaspheming isn’t cool.

Many who are not Pious may be tempted to Blaspheme, to exult in the status as open unbelievers, as though it were edgy and courageous. Anyone who has been religious knows how obnoxious it is when people go out of their way to mock or insult the sacred. Part of decency is not antagonizing people unnecessarily.

8. As a counter strategy, mundanizing beats profaning.

Feeling persecuted increases people’s devotion. Profaning someone’s sacred object is a recipe for more pious people and more intense piety. So unnecessary Blasphemy is usually counterproductive as well as rude. For someone who opposes the sacred/sacrificial system, the goal should be to desacralize, not to desecrate. We want to recognize the person’s full mundane humanity, and that requires getting over sacralizing the Suffering Other. Slade rightly calls for a politics of dignity as opposed to a politics of sacredness.

9. Piety competitions produce fashion-waves of nonsense.

One acquaintance—a brilliant hipster rad-trad Catholic convert—wants Trump to dissolve Congress and coronate himself; Queen Melania the Catholic will then make our country legitimate. This is unalloyed nonsense, but “integralism” is trendy in a certain subculture. Piety is drawn to weird positions. If pious person P suggests some pious thought to pious person Q, the latter can’t say “that’s a little farfetched” without displaying the limits of his devotion. Zealots feed each other’s zealotry. Young adults—eager to assert a newfound moral identity, desperately afraid of social judgment—are especially vulnerable to this dynamic. Sacrificial politics is driven by piety competitions online, on college campuses, and in activist circles, and this is a recipe for recurring waves of nonsense.

10. It’s not all nonsense.

Some groups are more vulnerable to abuse than others. Different groups face different patterns of abuse. We should not be complacent or accepting bystanders. For those skeptical of the system, it is natural to grow weary of oppression talk and thus to become callous—as though every time a black, female, gay, or gender-nonconforming person raised a concern of abuse or mistreatment or discrimination it is simply victim-playing and pious show. It would be a mistake to let callousness or complacency lead to a dismissal of all claims. Similarly, it would be a mistake for us to look on with suspicion every time people who share a common experience or background find retreating to each other’s company valuable. It’s important that we not let politics blind us about people. That would make us complicit in the biggest mistake made by sacrificial politics—a concern for categories before individuals.

Piety is not itself nonsense. We cannot do without the recognition that some things are higher, off-limits, and worth sacrificing for. Each of us has a personal need to recognize sacredness, and together we have a political need to do so. But it’s tough labor to separate what’s genuine and worthy in some sacred system from the nonsense and status seeking that too often are piety’s unfortunate natural byproducts. This necessary task does not discriminate between left and right, black and white, gay and straight, male and female, or traditionally religious people and self-identified secularists. It belongs to us all.