American Awakening is packed with biblical wisdom for Christians of every color, both sexes, and almost all political persuasions. But if you’re a Christian who’s attracted to identity politics, Mitchell wants to convince you that what’s attracting you isn’t a legitimate political extension of Christianity but rather an idolatrous substitute.
Comparing identity politics to a religion is nothing new or unusual. Voices ranging from Andrew Ferguson to Voddie Baucham have done so. The very language of being “woke” has religious overtones (cf. Rom. 13:11).
A graphic example of this mixture of religious language with identity politics can be seen in a video of a woman protesting comedian Dave Chappelle’s supposedly transphobic Netflix special, repeatedly shouting “Repent, [expletive]!” As Rhys Laverty observed, this type of “preaching” offers no good news but rather “an endless, inescapable purgatory.”
To Laverty, Joshua Mitchell would say “Amen.” Mitchell, professor of political theory at Georgetown University, is the latest Christian thinker to critique the religious nature of identity politics. In his book American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time, he argues “we are living in the midst of an American Awakening,” much like the Great Awakenings of the past—only this time “without God and without forgiveness” (41). Identity politics is the dogma of this new awakening and involves “the pride of believing that we ourselves are clean, that transgression is someone else’s problem, and not our own” (225).
American Awakening is packed with biblical wisdom for Christians of every color, both sexes, and almost all political persuasions. But if you’re a Christian who’s attracted to identity politics, Mitchell wants to convince you that what’s attracting you isn’t a legitimate political extension of Christianity but rather an idolatrous substitute. His chief claim is that “Christianity has not disappeared from America; rather, the Christian categories of transgression and innocence have moved into politics” (34). And unless they’re moved back where they belong, our society is doomed.
False Atonement: Scapegoating Straight White Men
Christianity teaches the doctrine of original sin—all mankind is fallen in Adam and inherits his guilt and stain at birth. The only way to have our stain removed is by having it transferred onto the divine Scapegoat, Jesus Christ, who bore our sins in his body on the tree (1 Pet. 2:24; cf. Isa. 53:6; John 1:29). This is the heart of the Christian gospel: salvation by substitution. What can wash away our sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
But when this message is rejected, the need for cleansing doesn’t just disappear. Instead, we seek to cover our guilt by other means, either engaging in penance ourselves or else finding scapegoats to blame. This has been a driving force for false religions throughout history: the effort to achieve innocence by scapegoating something (or someone), thus appeasing the gods.
When scapegoating moves from religion into politics, we get identity politics. And according to Mitchell, “The scapegoat identity politics offers up for sacrifice is the white, heterosexual man. If he is purged, its adherents imagine, the world itself, along with the remaining groups in it, will be cleansed of stain” (xxi).
Straight white males make a natural scapegoat (I speak as one). In intersectional scorekeeping, we rank dead last. As males, we’re guilty of oppressing women. As whites, we’re guilty of oppressing racial minorities. As heterosexuals, we’re guilty of oppressing those who identify as LGBT+. And worse, according to identity politics, we’ve also “broken the world…economically by [our] invention of capitalism…and environmentally by the greed of [our] industrial capitalism unleashed” (72).
Some of these concerns are legitimate. All of them also require clarification. But, as a whole, this condemnation feels like an updated version of the old “white man’s burden,” only this time with white men cast as the villain instead of the hero.
Mitchell presses the religious nature of this scapegoating further. In embracing his role as scapegoat, the straight white male doesn’t literally have to die (though hopefully demographic destiny will diminish him in due time). But he’s required to forever engage in acts of “innocence signaling.” In a Passover-like ritual, he must display the acceptable “signs of innocence on his front door—or more likely, his office door—for all to see.” Examples include stickers declaring “This office is green,” announcements about upcoming “diversity training,” and New York Times articles excoriating Donald Trump (xxiv–xxv). When they see the blood, they’ll pass over you. Just remember, this is a daily ritual, not a yearly one—so gird up your loins.
Some might wonder if Mitchell is blind to the genuine racial injustices of the past (or present) or whether he may be unwittingly carrying water for true racists. I don’t think he is. He spends an entire section of the book condemning the alt-right as yet another perverse alternative to Christianity (104–20).
But given how broadly the definition of racism has been expanded (10), in addition to being lumped in with other dubious social justice issues (like LGBT+ rights), Christians of all colors will have to risk being falsely accused of this sin by certain hostile sectors of the American public. Our goal is to not actually be a glutton or a drunkard or a racist—rather than to avoid being called one at any cost (Matt. 11:19). God knows our hearts, and he’ll vindicate all who truly love him and his people on the Last Day, if not sooner.