Thinking In Public

February 24, 2021

Identity Politics and the Spirit of the Age: A Conversation with Political Theorist Joshua Mitchell

Transcript

Albert Mohler:

This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I'm Albert Mohler, your host and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Joshua Mitchell's Professor of Political Theory at Georgetown University; he has also served as chairman of the department there. He earned his PhD in political science from the University of Chicago. His scholarly career has centered on issues of political theory and the intersection between politics and theology, particularly in the United States. Professor Mitchell's the author of numerous academic articles and books. His most recent book is American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time. That's the topic of our conversation today. Professor Mitchell, welcome to Thinking in Public.

Joshua Mitchell:

Thank you very much for having me.

Albert Mohler:

You know, it is a fascinating book, and there are a lot of books out right now in the public conversation about identity politics. I appreciate the fact, I think you get to the deepest level of any of them.

Joshua Mitchell:

Thank you.

Albert Mohler:

And indeed, as a theologian, I want to say it's rare to find someone who's a professor of government and political science who actually is theologically minded and aware, so I appreciate that. But let me just ask you that first title question as we get started: why is the title of your book American Awakening?

Joshua Mitchell:

Well, there's a double meaning here. We've had a number of American awakenings in our history, and my view is, we have... We're witnessing another one, though it's a profoundly distorted one. There are many ways to think about awakenings, but minimally, they are attempts to work through the problem of transgression and stain, longing for redemption, and I think we're involved in a similar moment right now in American history. Everywhere you look, people are trying to establish what's pure, what's impure, who's pure and who's stained. The difference this time around is that it is an American awakening without God and without forgiveness. That's a profound difference. And then the second meaning of the title is that I hope for an American awakening, that once these afflictions can be overcome, that we can have an awakening to what I call liberal competence, a return to liberal competence, which is the true basis of our national greatness politically.

Albert Mohler:

Right, and just to be clear, by "liberal" there, you mean the great tradition of ordered liberty.

Joshua Mitchell:

That is correct.

 

Albert Mohler:

The Western commitment to liberty. There are political ramifications to, of course, your book, the narrative you tell, but you're first addressing issues that are prior to many of the contemporary political debates in the United States. The title still perplexes me. I appreciate your explanation of it, but when I see the word "awakening," I generally think of a positive development. But as you say, this awakening you describe, the one that is currently, at least, changing the awareness of Americans and reshaping the cultural landscape, it is without God, and it is without forgiveness, and I would argue theologically, those eventually go together. But there is hope, and we'll get to that further in the conversation, and you express that hope. But I was really interested at how you take the stain, the need for forgiveness, the sin, and you really describe a society that has become increasingly hostile to theism but nonetheless can't shake the awareness of sin.

Joshua Mitchell:

Yes. So, in the book, I trace really two trajectories that got us here. The one, which doesn't directly answer your question, but I'll flag it now, is that the... My view is that the collapse of the mainline churches did not bring an end to the theological category of stain. Reinhold Niebuhr, who I spent a great deal of time with writing about in my life, he said at the end of his life he thought that he had failed in saving the idea of original sin in Protestantism in America. And while that may be the case theologically, my argument is that this category didn't disappear, that when the Pew Charitable Trust does a poll, and they conclude that so many more Americans now are nones, N-O-N-E-S, my argument is they're looking for the wrong... They're looking in the wrong place and asking the wrong question. Americans do indeed have a theology, so to speak, a perverse one, of purity and stain and redemption, but it doesn't exist in the church anymore, it exists in identity politics. That's the first, in a way, superficial answer. That explains what's happened in America, but there's a larger thread. And while I am certainly not a fan of Nietzsche's conclusions about the West, I think he did get this right, namely that what would happen, he predicted in the 1880s, was that the West would go through a protracted period in which it would retain Christian categories but not the larger Christian architecture, and it would be haunted by this for hundreds of years. And I think that's what identity politics is.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah, and I think you're absolutely right, first of all, and I think Nietzsche was, in his own way, absolutely right, in that Western civilization was not going to be able to shake theological categories. And over the course of my own engagement with these issues, one of the things I've tried to underline is the fact that almost every contemporary political urgency actually has a theological shape. There's some kind of atonement theory behind it, there's some kind of substitution, even, that is being called for, and there are moral categories. You know, even the therapeutic revolution, as Philip Rieff called it, could not overcome and has not overcome the concept of guilt. And it's interesting that that's what Nietzsche identified first and foremost in the argument you make: he said the guilt would continue without any promise of atonement.

Joshua Mitchell:

And if I may, this is actually the crisis, this points to the crisis of Europe, because what you have today is profound European guilt about colonialism, about World War I and World War II, about the Holocaust, and yet you have no theological mechanism for having a tomorrow, to use my language. Of course, you have to have forgiveness, atonement, and repentance to have a tomorrow. And so, the deal that the elites are making with the people is this: "We will give you atonement, we will give you a tomorrow, but what you must do is renounce the nation, renounce the conventional family." So, there is indeed a way to move forward, but not through Christian means at all, and that's why there's such animosity toward the nations in Europe today.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah, and any statement of filial piety is now described as a form of toxic nationalism.

Joshua Mitchell:

Yes. And I think this is one of the great challenges we have today. Before I wrote this book, I'd been writing for some time about the need to have a constructive way to think about the nation, that you have seemingly two alternatives, either a kind of grand universalism in which people have no homes whatsoever, and then the way the left portrays it, you've got this other group, these nationalists, who are blood-and-soil types. And it strikes me, we have to find some third alternative between these two. There is one: Tocqueville called it ‘well-considered patriotism’. We live embodied lives, we live incarnate lives, if you want to move in that theological direction, but the left really wants to disembody us entirely.

Albert Mohler:

Yes, disembody us and disconnect us from any kind of tradition, from any kind of past, from any kind of patrimony. All of that is now nothing more than repression. And every day's headlines, just in the very week we're having this conversation, you know, there's a disclosure concerning Johns Hopkins, the namesake of the famous university in Baltimore. And yet, whether it's Elihu Yale, or you just go down the list, the problem is that the left has no category other than, This is absolutely horrible, we have to condemn it." But what do we do with it? There's just no... I mean, it's there. And, of course, you mentioned Germany, all of Europe, but particularly Germany and complicit nations in the Holocaust. There is no answer to "What do we do with it?" You know, Germany very interestingly tried to actually come up with monetary reparations as the way to deal with this, but clearly, even in its own mind and soul, that hasn't been adequate.

Joshua Mitchell:

Right, right. And along those lines, people say to me, "Well, we need to have reparations for slavery," and so then I ask the question, "Well, what would the check be? And once the check cleared, would the debt be paid?" And the answer is, of course, the debt would not be paid. There's still something more mysterious going on. To your earlier point, I think only Christianity can provide us a way out of this and let me explain it in the following way. For the left, the world is irredeemably stained. So, the 1619 Project, for example, makes the claim that the American founding is not good, it's irredeemably stained, it's systemically racist. And I will say, as a criticism of my friends on the right, that there's the disposition to counter this by saying, "No, America's essentially good," and I think theologically, that's not adequate, that the Christian answer provides a way to understand the brokenness of the human situation, and yet not to leave us with that being the final word. So, I think only a Christian understanding of the brokenness of man, the promise of forgiveness, and a life lived in hope and faith can allow us to negotiate between these two untenable alternatives that you see on the far left and the far right.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah, and it's interesting, you underline how, basically, some notion of stain or the absence of stain is the essential issue.

Joshua Mitchell:

Yes.

Albert Mohler:

I'm an evangelical Protestant Augustinian Christian. I believe that the Bible reveals a stain upon all humanity. That does not mean that God has not responded to that with an absolute work of atonement through the Lord Jesus Christ. It is to say that there is not one inch where human beings inhabit where the stain is not present. That's even in our Christmas hymns, you know. Philip Roth, who was an unbelieving Jewish writer, wrote a novel toward the end of his life entitled The Human Stain. And, as I pointed out in a review of that book, it actually showed the lingering biblical influence even on a Philip Roth. The human stain is not unique to one group or another group; it's unique to every single son and daughter of Adam.

Joshua Mitchell:

Yes. I am haunted more and more by those passages after Eve eats the apple and gives it to Adam, and God says, "Eve, what was the cause of this?" and she blames the serpent, and Adam says, "Well, the woman that you gave me," which is one of the most beautiful lines in the Bible: "It's your fault, God, you gave me this woman." This is the universal disposition, is to look outside of yourself for a fault that is within yourself, and I think this is really the crisis of identity politics. Properly understood, the human situation is always broken, it's always stained, and then the question is, how do we respond to it? And I think the Christian response is an admission of brokenness and the recognition of the need for God's grace. But what you have with identity politics is a desperate search to cover over with the fig leaf of righteousness your stain and to direct it elsewhere. "If only the white heterosexual male were to disappear, everything would be fine." And this is no defense of the white heterosexual male; my argument is that as soon as he is purged, because it's a profoundly distorted theodicy, you will need to find another group to purge. And I think it will be white women next, and then I think it will be black heterosexual males. So, it will keep going forever and ever and ever, and the only alternative, the only real viable way of thinking about this which doesn't point us in that direction, is the divine scapegoat, Christ.

Albert Mohler:

Yes. Well, I want to come right back to your final words there, but as tempting as it is to jump there immediately, you mention who might be next, and I just want to affirm that by saying that the scapegoating that is taking place right now, even on the part of the LGBTQ revolutionaries, the T is now scapegoating the L. So, you have the transgender people... So, a Martina Navratilova, who was 20 years ago cutting edge as a transgressor, is now a part of the patriarchal conspiracy to rob transgender people of their liberation.

Joshua Mitchell:

Yes. And this is how identity politics ultimately implodes, because each step you make outward, it turns out that the people who were initially the revolutionaries turn out to be the guilty ones. So, gay men and women who say that "Male and female is a category, and I just choose to be with the other side," they are now heteronormative. This is profound pathology. And this is why I say black men are next, because what separates slavery from all the other "innocent victims," I put this in quotes, that the American left is claiming is that slavery deprived blacks of the family. All the others had families. And so, the family becomes the central unit, and the transgender movement is basically calling into question whether that's legitimate at all. And so, how can it be that black Americans, which provide what I call ‘the template of innocence’ upon which all the others build, how can it be that the initial innocent victims, blacks in America, as a consequence of Jim Crow, how can it be that they become the transgressors? And black heterosexual males who believe in the family and believe in the church will be third in line.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah, no, I want to give you some immediate confirming evidence of that, sadly, and that is that one of the most interesting developments in the national discourse after the 2020 presidential election is the fact that, you know, you look at all the voting patterns, one of the most perplexing voting patterns to the Democratic Party and to the political left in general is the increase in the number of black adult males who voted for Donald Trump, the Republican candidate. And so, immediately, they now become one of them.

Joshua Mitchell:

Yeah.

Albert Mohler:

And you can see how quickly this happens.

Joshua Mitchell:

Yes. Yeah, and black conservatives in general have earned the ire of the left. It's a category that can't exist. I mean, one of the central claims of identity politics is that groups are unities. This is its deep, deep pathology, that all whites are one, all blacks are one. And so, if you have a black man who's a conservative, or a woman who wants to stay at home in the family, she's literally rendered invisible. And, of course, this runs completely counter to the claims of the left, namely, "We want to be inclusive." But it turns out that this, the kind of inclusivity that they have in mind, necessarily excludes vast swaths of humanity.

Albert Mohler:

You know, you ended there by speaking of the scapegoat. You didn't just get that category from historical literature. Tell us where you ground that particular conception.

Joshua Mitchell:

So, René Girard, who's written... who wrote in the late 20th century, Violence and the Sacred, a few other works, has highlighted the category of the scapegoat for many of us who are thinking through Christianity and religion in general. And I read him, and I didn't... In graduate school, I read him but didn't fully understand; it's only been since identity politics that I've gone back to him. And what prompted me to go back to him was the use of terms that are thrown around recklessly in today's discourse. So, for example, somebody is a Nazi, a fascist, a misogynist, a homophobe, a transphobe, and the list goes on, a hater, a denier. These are not descriptor terms. These are scapegoating terms. And one of my arguments with my colleagues on the right who want to call what we're up against multiculturalism or cultural Marxism is that if you look at these terms, these sorts of terms indicate that there's a whole new threat out there. It's a threat of scapegoating. And while, yes, it's true in Marxism there's a scapegoating of the capitalist class, you didn't have it, I remember this, in the '80s and the '70s, that you didn't have it in the way that you have it today. The name of the game is to scapegoat, and the idea here is that if we can just, you know this from Leviticus, you take the stains of the community, you put it on the goat, and the goat gets marched out into the wilderness, and the community becomes pure. Well, this is exactly what is happening. When Hillary Clinton calls a whole vast swath of America “the deplorables” and “irredeemable”, she's scapegoating them and telling her compatriots that if we could just get rid of these people, America could be pure. This is not normal politics, and my argument is, we're not going to be able to get back to liberal politics, the politics of competence, as I call it, unless we can put this category of the scapegoat back into its theological box where it belongs.

Albert Mohler:

Well, good luck with that, because... And I say that as a theologian, because of course, Girard also himself understood that the ultimate scapegoat was Himself Jesus Christ, and of course, I'm holding to an orthodox Christian, that is to say, classically Christian atonement theology. And the word there is "atonement," and of course, that's the one thing that, central to Christian theology, we understand that God can do, can effect, can make happen, and did in Christ. But atonement is, just to put it bluntly, it's above our pay scale as human beings. Any attempt to actually achieve atonement ends up just being another idolatry and collapsed set of hopes.

Joshua Mitchell:

This is why I say in one part of the book that the left is playing with really, really dangerous theological territory. There's a mystery here to atonement that human beings can't fully comprehend. We're fortunately beneficiaries of it, sometimes, not always. But this is what the left doesn't understand. It's playing with fire here, and it will end up beating, destroying everybody who adopts it.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah, because eventually, everyone has to be somebody else's scapegoat. If that's the game, and that's the way the game's played, then eventually... I mean, that's where I think we see the right, the far right, and by that I mean kind of the irresponsible right, playing the same game as the left, just in opposite means, and so…

Joshua Mitchell:

Yes. Can I tell you a story about that?

Albert Mohler:

Yes, please.

Joshua Mitchell:

I've worked... I'm not going to give you the details, but I've worked in Europe with one political party in particular, and it was a party that had pushed back against the idea of the European Union, and I thought was doing so in responsible ways. I would go over and teach Tocqueville to some of their party leaders, talk about how one can think about building embodied communities as answers to the disembodied leftism. And I saw them slowly but surely adopting more kind of blood-and-soil scapegoat positions: "If we could just get rid of those Jews, if we could just get rid of those Africans." And I cut my ties with them, and I said, "This is a dangerous dead end." And so, while I single out identity politics as a phenomenon largely of the left, it is not unique to the left. It is, in fact, unique to the human species, because, back to Adam and Eve, the disposition is always to look elsewhere for the source of your troubles. And until we can turn back and recognize that whatever the imbalances and the transgressions that have occurred in American society, in the final analysis, we're not going to be able to build a world anew unless we look inward and ask ourselves, "To what extent are we involved in guilt and transgression?" instead of blaming others and thinking ourselves pure.

Albert Mohler:

Yes, as tempting as that is. One of the things that I observe right now is that, for instance, if you just take the issue of slavery in the United States, and... race-based chattel slavery, and then Jim Crow segregation, the left looks to that, and as you point to the 1619 Project, says, "Look that’s just further evidence of the fact that that's the reason the United States was established as a nation. It was established in order to accomplish that evil." And I don't believe that for a moment, nor do I believe that slavery and race-based segregation can be separated from the nation's history. On the far right, what I'm hearing is, which is contrary to biblical Christianity, I'm hearing, "There is no stain there," or that we've now reached a point in history where that stain no longer matters. And, you know, I just... I find that just as theologically dangerous and false as what you hear on the left.

Joshua Mitchell:

I agree. This is why only Christianity can bring coherence to this, because you've got these two alternative positions, neither of which are tenable, and only a theologically adequate position can render it tenable. On the matter of slavery, I believe we have collective responsibility, collective guilt, not sure how... We have collective responsibility because of what happened in America. But what I'm most troubled by, and I say this in the book, is that identity politics, which professes to help black America, I think ultimately does it immense harm. Identity politics is trotted out... Every year, one year before the national elections, the left screams about racism in America, and now suddenly Joe Biden has been elected, and we don't really hear much about it. We hear a bit about it, but we don't have riots in the street. And the Democratic Party, every four years, says to black America, "I have your back. See how racist America is." And of course, the political implications of what they're saying is, "Only the state can save you." This is what is most troubling. "You can't help, your family can't help, your church can't help, your neighborhood can't help. Only the state can save you."

Albert Mohler:

Well, that's what a Christian theologian would call idolatry.

Joshua Mitchell:

Yes.

Albert Mohler:

And also futility, because the one thing the state is rarely able to achieve is competence. And I don't say that as an anarchist; I'm just saying that no government that has tried to take on omnicompetence has come close to being able to pull that off. And speaking of the human stain, the problem is that all that human sinfulness goes into the same political process. The political process is not a black box, meaning the old philosophical category of an empty box which is somehow free of sin. To the contrary, interest groups only become more powerful and more self-interested in a political process.

 

Joshua Mitchell:

And this is why I defend liberal in the sense that you specified at the outset. The brilliant liberal insight is the one you just identified, namely, human beings are stained. This is why we establish a set of checks and balances in our government. This is why, in fact, we have a market system of economy. Now, there's things perhaps we need to modify about it, but the idea of a market is that you have the right to fail, that you're not going to be protected by the government. You have the right to fail, and so there's a check on your pride and your ambition, perhaps. But this insight is being lost in America today. We're moving to a world in which we've forgotten the stain; we say, "No, there's this need that we have to address. We need to address racism, so we're going to give all the money to the government to do this. There's a need to address climate change, so it doesn't matter that we're going to pick out General Electric, and pick your favorite large multinational corporations that are going to have all the rights to build all the technology. It doesn't matter that those leaders of those corporations might be corrupt, and there might be all sorts of back and forth between regulators and high echelons of the corporations. It doesn't matter." This is a crazy insight, but this is where we're going.

Albert Mohler:

Now, just to continue this through the first portion of what you deal with in your book, the toxin of identity politics is like the worst anti-theology, in my argument, not yours, I would say, that comes out of the ruins of Europe, first of all, and its abandonment of the Christianity that gave it birth. And by that, I don't mean every single person was a conscious believer, but every single person operated within a Christian moral universe, and within a basic biblical metanarrative of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation. And those Christian beliefs and Christian intuitions were deeply drilled into the society, so that, for instance, people did not expect to get ultimate joy, pleasure, fulfillment in this life. The average... I mean, you just look at the diaries, even of the Annales school, you know, you look at the diaries they've uncovered, it's clear that people are looking forward to Heaven. They're aware of the fact that this life has many joys and many sorrows, but even for the Christian believer, there is no ultimate, emphatically no ultimate satisfaction in this life. But identity politics and the worldview of which it's a part actually promises, and I think this is, again, very akin to Marxism, promises an earthly eschatology.

Joshua Mitchell:

Yeah, that's right. I spend a large part of the second half of the book talking about patient and enduring labor, and how identity politics attempts to put an end to this, partly through what I call identity politics bookkeeping. So, for example, "We're going to make sure that America is clean and pure, environmentally pure, but we're going to offshore the mining of heavy metals, et cetera, to China." So, there's a bookkeeping sleight of hand. But it really is as if the identity politics people believe that we've reached the end of history, and that there now needs to be a final reckoning, and the lion has to lay down the lamb, but the lion has to pay for everything first. There isn't a sense that we're not at the end, that there's a long labor ahead, that justice and mercy are finally mysteries that we don't fully understand. And what you see in identity politics is a desperate attempt to have an accounting system where you purge all the impure stuff, you have only the pure stuff, and it can't work. There's a mystery here that people aren't willing to live with. I will say just quickly, at the beginning of Plato's Republic, a book I teach, it's 2400 years old, you have this man Cephalus, and Socrates asks Cephalus, "So, what is justice?" And Cephalus says, "Well, justice is paying your debts." So, in other words, you build a world where everything is worked out, and you can get a complete balance sheet at the end. And Socrates presses him on this, and of course he leaves and goes off to attend to the pagan sacrifices where he pays his debts to the gods. But at the end of the Republic, you're left with the claim that, literally, justice is beyond price. There's a mystery here to justice that we can't fully comprehend. And identity politics is trying to say, "No, here's how we're going to work out justice," and you have it with this intersectionality scale. You know about this, yes? So, white heterosexual males are the top, then white women, and then you go right down the line, and you know exactly what your value is. And theologically speaking, your value, you don't even know your value. This is the problem.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah, but the real morass of intersectionality, which is brilliant in its conception as a way of furthering identity politics, is if you're keeping score, you got to keep score meticulously, and the intersectionality enables you to say, "Well, here's an economically disadvantaged African American lesbian," you know, you just go down the points. But I disagree with the one statement you made, and I just want to say, I think you'll agree with me, by the way, that the problem is, you said, because you have to know right where you stand. I just want to say, that only works for an instant. In other words, intersectionality is such an infinite regression that you actually only... You can only stand in a superior position for about five minutes, and then someone's going to score more points than you in intersectionality, in which case you become the oppressor rather than the oppressed.

Joshua Mitchell:

Yes, exactly. No, I very much agree with this. What is troubling to me is that we're not willing to dwell in a world in which we're constantly exploring, figuring out, discovering who we are, frankly, only with the aid of God, because we're not going to do it without the aid of God, but there's this desperate need for a kind of certainty that identity gives us. And part of the... I'm a Tocqueville scholar, and what Tocqueville argued, he saw this in the 1830s, was he saw these Americans were going to pull into themselves more and more and more, and be self-satisfied with themselves, and this is one way of understanding identity politics, it's "I am this, you can't touch this, this is my safe space," so to speak. And he's very clear that the only way that human beings can actually come to discover a bit more about who they are, and a bit more about who the other person is, is by building a world together, the world of liberal competence, as I say. And so, you know, you can make a claim, and I could say, you know, "My grandfather was Lebanese," which was true, Lebanese Christian. We could make these claims, but they're only starting points. Identity politics wants to make it the endpoint and the precondition of our encountering one another, and that's profoundly pathological.

Albert Mohler:

And another point that Tocqueville would affirm here, I think emphatically, is that there's very little likelihood that this can be resolved on a national level. It's being warred about on a national level, but things are healthier by definition in actual communities of actual people who live amongst one another, do commerce with one another, raise their children with one another. And in that kind of naturally human context, identity politics just profoundly doesn't work, and instead, a real community begins to emerge.

Joshua Mitchell:

Yeah. So, when you're living with real, live people solving real, live problems, it's really not going to do you much good to make a declarative statement about what your identity is. People don't care. Or maybe they care, but you still have to work with them. It's only when you build a world where you can be isolated, and we know this, there's a whole generation of people, both younger ones and, I think, increasingly older ones, who have built a world, say, on the digital economy, where they can step back and live completely isolated lives, and their only commerce with other people is through the Amazon delivery or the Whole Foods delivery. And under those circumstances, you can begin to imagine a world where there's this demonic other person over there. You can never do that when you're living in face-to-face relations. Even if you don't like somebody, you still have to work with them. And after you've solved a problem, the chances are very good that you're going to like them a little bit more than you did before. So, there's a corrective to all this, but it requires, and it’s exactly as you say, it requires these embodied communities. And insofar as the state grows stronger, here I'll wax on Tocqueville just one more minute, insofar as the state grows stronger and people become more and more isolated from one another, it becomes possible for us to believe these things about identity, which you could never believe in face-to-face relations.

Albert Mohler:

I also want to say that, as a Christian, I am fascinated by, and at least somewhat... Well, I'm certainly instructed by, I want to be encouraged by, the fact that there is this deep, now even tangible sense that people around us, even the most self-declared secular people around us, want to find a way to be innocent, or at least not to be guilty. And of course, I think immediately of the Gospel  hymn: "What can wash my sins away? Nothing but the blood of Jesus." I think that hunger is there because they're made in the image of God, and they have an awareness of their own moral responsibility. And I think they're trying to get rid of that by channeling that into this very strong political energy, but it's not going to change the way they're able to think as they close their eyes at night.

Joshua Mitchell:

Yes. In fact, I use that very phrase to people on the left who argue with me. I say, "You're going to go to sleep at night, and you're still going to be haunted by guilt, no matter who you scapegoat." So, you mentioned at the very outset that there's reason for hope, so let me anticipate one way in which this might be true. I'm at least comforted, and you just said this, really, in another way, I'm comforted that we're still trying to figure out the problem of purity and stain. I would be very, very worried if we had gotten to this Nietzschean place, because this is what Nietzsche wants to replace all of this Christian stuff with, where the only categories we have are strength and weakness. I mean, that's what Nietzsche wants to replace this Western thing with. He thinks we need to go back to the pre-Greek, pre-Socratic Greeks. And so, I'm at least satisfied that the left is feasting on crumbs, to use my language. They don't know where the meal is, but they know they hunger. And so, that is actually an encouraging thing.

Albert Mohler:

Yes indeed, and a humbling thing to me, as a theologian. I found a few pages in your book to be particularly irritating, and so I want to direct your attention to these pages.

Joshua Mitchell:

Because true, or because not true?

Albert Mohler:

You're going to have to explain a little bit more for me to understand. But in your paragraph 36 and following, this is about page 55 in your book, you suggest that it might be argued that Protestantism is behind identity politics. So, I’vefollowed this argument as carefully as I can, but it's not connecting for me. Help me here.

Joshua Mitchell:

Okay. So, I will put it this way. The mainline churches went soft.

Albert Mohler:

Yes.

Joshua Mitchell:

And I mentioned Reinhold Niebuhr, and I know Niebuhr…

Albert Mohler:

They went pagan, as a matter of fact.

Joshua Mitchell:

... has his problems as well, quite aware of these. But what at least Niebuhr understood was that, slowly but surely... Even in World War II, when he writes Children of Light and Children of Darkness, he's trying to get this idea of original sin out, even then, the Americans weren't prepared to really wrestle with original sin. So, I don't wish to say Protestantism. In fact, my argument is that I don't want to press this too hard, but I think the Protestant insight about the depth of sin is exactly what we need to go back to, or rather, the Augustinian understanding of the depth of sin is exactly what we must go back to. In fact, it's the only possible way out. And I do have arguments with my Roman Catholic friends, and I have dear friends and colleagues, and we're on the same side on many of this, and what I say to them is that it's not clear to me that invocations, for example, of natural law are going to help us in America address this problem, that the way we're going to get through this is by working within the category of stain fully. And this, of course, is the Protestant/Catholic divide: How deep is the stain? And my argument is, identity politics is proof that it is so incredibly deep that people are twisting in the wind to try to work it through, even though they've done it in a deeply distorted way. So, I don't wish to say Protestantism. I do think it was the collapse of the mainline churches, which were the ones that, at one point, perhaps in the 19th century, they did have some deeper understanding of sin, and that's been progressively lost. So, the churches have to recover, the Protestant churches must recover, the mainline churches, I think, have to recover, or they disappear, and they are disappearing, as we know.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah, that's what I'd say. You said they went soft; I want to say they went pagan. I mean, it's a... There's plenty of religiosity there; there's just no historic deposit of the faith of Christianity, which is what they're at war against, because of course, that's a part of the project of patriarchal oppression from the past. And Reinhold Niebuhr, by the way, has been a conversation partner I've engaged with ever since I was in my early 20s, and I was about 27 or 28 when I realized I'd been completely misreading Reinhold Niebuhr. And it is because I was assigned to read The Nature and Destiny of Man as an undergraduate religion and philosophy student, and I read it assuming that Reinhold Niebuhr had been a Christian. And so, you understand the sense in which I’m going to say this: I became convinced later that he is not really a theist. And so, what we had in Reinhold Niebuhr was the attempt, and, by the way, it's a course called The Christian Theologian, although he never actually wanted to be called a theologian, he wanted to be called a social ethicist, which is, I would say, actually much more true. I would simply say that what Reinhold Niebuhr tried to do was to recover some notion of original sin, and even human depravity, a word he didn't like, but some sense of human depravity, without any fundamental offense against a holy God, and instead, it is merely a human social category. And that's where I have to say, Dr. Mitchell, I don't think sin can survive as a meaningful category simply as a matter of sociology or social ethics.

Joshua Mitchell:

Well, we agree, actually. To amplify on what you said about Niebuhr, I think he's working, as it were, on the secular side of the meniscus, trying to point secular people in the direction of this without making the leap over into the proper theological domain. So, I think that was his failing. But at least he understood that there was a problem here sociologically, but he wasn't prepared to make the theological leap that was really necessary in order to capture what he was trying, ultimately, to say, and maybe he didn't even understand this himself fully. Don't know.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah, although he had every reason to, coming out of a confessional background. He had every reason to understand, but he didn't. The subsequent parts of your book have to do with bipolarity, and also addiction, and yet, in a way, and I think it's brilliant, by the way, I just wanted to say that to you. I think what's important is to recognize you're actually using those terms in your own way to make a point beyond what the average reader would think of with bipolarity and addiction, although both classical bipolarity and classical addiction would be included. So, just kind of explain those categories for us.

Joshua Mitchell:

So, yes, you're right, I want to take... To be bold about this, I want to take the idea of bipolarity and addiction out of medical hands and give it the larger human framework. That's the first thing I would say. The second thing I would say is that I think after writing this, I discovered that I had actually been... The book is about three different kinds of relations. So, identity politics, the first part, is about the relationship between transgressor and innocence, right? The bipolar part is about this relationship between the highs and lows of life, and the addiction part is about the relationship between supplements and substitutes, and I'll get to that one later. But the bipolar part is, I think, very interesting.

You know, America is a place where drugs are administered for psychic dis-ease at a rate no place else in the world. And Tocqueville saw this in the 1830s; said, In America, you're going to have conditions of madness like we've never seen before." And he wasn't joking; he really meant that as we moved from the aristocratic age to the democratic age, and all the links between us were broken, you would produce these individuals who are lonely and isolated, and they would oscillate back and forth, and this is a direct quote from later in Democracy in America, "between feeling themselves to be greater than kings and less than men." It's an extraordinary insight. It's not "greater than kings or less than men," it's "greater than kings and less than men." And he argues that when you're lonely and isolated, you can cut yourself off from other people and become a sovereign self. Well, we know what Augustine would've said about this; this is the pride of man, living in the city of man. But in addition, what would happen to the person would be that, by virtue of being delinked, they would feel completely impotent. And so, you would have these beings, these democratic souls, to use Tocqueville's language, who would oscillate back and forth between feeling greater than kings and less than men. And the pathology that I tried to indicate in that section of the book was, I phrased it as "management society and selfie man". So, the phenomena that requires some account is why it is that literally hundreds of millions of selfies are being taken every day around the globe. What does this mean, that the world is a background for you? And yet, at the same time, so many of these people who are taking selfies will say that even the smallest tasks of life are something we can't accomplish, we have to hand things off to the global managers. So, when Trump pulled out of the Paris peace accord, young people around the world were saying, "Well, the planet is doomed." Well, that is silly. That presumes that the only way we can solve problems is with this management society thing. So, you've got a generation of people who are oscillating back and forth between feeling that they're absolutely sovereign selfie men and feeling that they can't do anything. This is a profound pathology, and the only way to attenuate it is to build a world in these face-to-face communities where we come to be bound by one another and bound to one another.

Albert Mohler:

I was reading a biography of Admiral Nelson just recently, and I saw where he, in the midst of battle, turned to one of his officers and said, "Get ahold of yourself, man." And I thought, okay, I'm going to simply say there's a line in history somewhere, and I'm not sure where it is, but it's between Lord Nelson and Sigmund Freud. Somewhere between Admiral Nelson and Sigmund Freud, there's a line that was crossed in which it made sense on one side of the line to say, "Get ahold of yourself, man," and it makes no sense on the other side of the line to say, "Get ahold of yourself, man." And I look at that, and reading your section on bipolarity, I thought that's exactly it. We've lost the ability to say to someone, because you talk about Tocqueville's dark vision there, we've lost the ability to say, "You know, being disappointed, being unfulfilled, being frustrated, being bored, that's actually a part of being human." Now, there are things instantly to be overcome, and that takes you to the addiction category of your book.

Joshua Mitchell:

Yeah. So, I read Plato, I teach Plato and Rousseau, and while there are problems with both of them, obviously, they both have this very interesting insight, that human life, for it to go well, you need to have these supplements. So, for example, if you're having a meal, and you're going to be a weightlifter, you can have vitamins or something like this. Or, if you're a warrior, to use Rousseau's language, you need to have courage, and the weapon is a supplement to the courage. And what Rousseau and Plato and others have seen is that something could go terribly wrong with this relationship, that the supplement can become a substitute. So, you can, instead of developing the difficult thing, which is courage, instead of learning how to make a meal, you can take shortcuts. And so, instead of developing courage, you can just put on more and more weapons. Instead of figuring out how to make a meal, you can go out and have fast food. Instead of, let's press this, instead of developing friendship, which is very, very difficult and time consuming to do, you can go have Facebook friends. This is the general pattern that's happening. Instead of learning the connoisseurship of shopping, you can go online shopping, and Amazon will even tell you, Amazon Choices, so if you can't, if you don't have connoisseurship in shopping, these are the things you need to buy. So, everywhere you look, I think even opioid addiction is part of this, drug addiction is part of this problem. It's using what should be a supplement as a substitute. So, my view is that everywhere we look, we see this problem with what I call substitutism, and that's another word for addiction. And so, after I concluded the identity politics portion, in which I said, "Well, we have to get past identity politics in order to get back to liberal politics of competence," I realized, no, there were these two immense obstacles that still stand in the way, and one of them is this bipolar oscillation back and forth, and the other is this substitutism problem, even driverless cars, for example. And then, the most frightening of all, and I get into very large arguments with some of my intelligence community friends, because the military's going full-on digital, is digital a substitute for analog life, real life, embodied life, or is it a supplement to it? And my argument is, if properly understood, it's a supplement to analog life, but it's not a substitute for it. And the thing is, America's divided, really, into these two communities, the analog community that lives in real time, that's... Analog, of course, is a messy signal, so it's the messy signals of friendship and all these things that we need, really, to live, versus this whole new group that can live digitally. And that's the great divide in America, and my argument is, it's not that we have to say one is more important than the other, it's just the digital can supplement the analog, and therefore can't keep castigating the people who live this life in the red states America, but it can't be a substitute for it, and the blue states really dream it can be a substitute for it. That's the pathology.

Albert Mohler:

Well, I have no choice, as a person embedded deeply in a red state, I have no choice but to spend a great deal of my time reading what is produced by people in the blue states, reading the books they produce, reading the research they produce, reading the media they produce. I have no choice but to engage their ideas and try to understand who they are, their thought, their worldview. And I have constant, every week, many conversations with national media, usually located in Washington, Los Angeles, New York City in particular. It's just clear to me that it is not a two-way street, that blue America intentionally disregards red America. And if they ever do try to understand a neighborhood like mine or an institution like mine, it is like a National Geographic experience. In other words, they see it as exotic, and "Now we've reported on it, now we can go back home and go online."

Joshua Mitchell:

Yeah. No, I agree. So I live on the Eastern Shore; I did live in Washington, DC, for many years, and you've identified the reason why I left. I felt utterly disconnected from everyday life. I live now on five acres of farm, and we're restoring an old house. I can't imagine a world that could be happy without embodiment, so to speak. And yet I drive into Washington several days a week, and it's as if I'm making an interstellar flight from one region of the world to the next. And I think you're right, they do believe that they are a substitute for this embodied life, but my claim is that, in point of fact, it's not a substitute, it can only be a supplement, and we have to get the relationship right. Just very quickly, China, you might know this, China is embarking on a 5G digital strategy, which is basically trying to erase analog life and have it be completely coordinated digitally from above. My argument is that that literally cannot work, because the very structure of reality entails that these things can be supplements but not substitutes. And my worry, frankly, is that the American intelligence community and American thought leaders are saying, "Well, in order to compete with China, we too have to go that route." And my argument is, no, America's this vast reservoir of this analog competence, and that's really our strength.

Albert Mohler:

Yes. Well, I wholeheartedly affirm that. Just as we bring thoughts to a close, let me ask, how does all this relate to you as someone who teaches in a prestigious American university? What kind of hearing do you get for these ideas from your students at Georgetown?

Joshua Mitchell:

Well, it's gotten more difficult, considerably more difficult. I don't have very many conversations with my colleagues. I have a wonderful national network of people… have a range, I mean, I gave the list at the end of my book. I would characterize them as mostly being part of what I would call the new conservative movement, the kind of Trumpianism movement, by which I mean not satisfied that free markets can have veto power over the mediating institutions of life, and not satisfied with the idea that America should have a very aggressive military posture abroad. So, I have a wonderful national and international group of friends and fellow writers. I mean, we're really trying to come up with a new way to pull all this together after Trump, I think, properly undid the Republican Party. That's a much longer story. But among my students, more precisely, I get the following. So, I teach what I teach, and I'm very hard on identity politics, but I do it, I should be very clear, I do it through the lens of all the great authors in the history of political thought, and Augustine in particular, and it is... Their eyes are opened when I do this. I think what they... Many of them who even say they adhere to identity politics know that it's thin gruel. Very few will defend what I say in class, but it's really quite remarkable how many people will show up at my office door or send an email to me and say something like this: "I agree with you entirely. I can't say it out loud, because I'll be scapegoated." So, this is the crisis we have in universities today. There's still people who are thinking well, there are still students who really do want to learn, but identity politics has completely captivated the American university, not just Georgetown but just about everywhere. Hillsdale College, Claremont, a few other places, mostly, frankly, Christian colleges, but even those, I will say, I don't want to name too many names, but even Christian colleges who you would think would know better, many of them have succumbed too. It's deeply discouraging to see this.

Albert Mohler:

Well, imagine how discouraging it is to sit in my seat. Yes. What you see is the fact that the educational machine, which has always sought to make every institution in its own image, is now able to do so with a velocity and a force of coercion unprecedented. And it doesn't have to do so necessarily by changing accreditation standards; it can just change the way the marketplace for higher education works. No, it's very discouraging, but it also makes institutions like the one I serve, I think, a great deal more important. And that's why I really looked forward to this conversation, Professor Mitchell, because I'm greatly encouraged by the fact that you are where you are and have been able to contribute as you have. And I see your book and this conversation, frankly, as quite courageous, fascinating, and credible, most importantly because I think the things, we talked about are true, and I'm thankful that a man of truth is where you are.

Joshua Mitchell:

Thank you so much.

Albert Mohler:

Thank you for joining me today for Thinking in Public.

Joshua Mitchell:

My pleasure.

Albert Mohler:

Many thanks to my guest, Professor Joshua Mitchell, for thinking with me today. If you enjoyed today's episode of Thinking in Public, you'll find well more than 100 of these conversations at albertmohler.com under the tab Thinking in Public. For more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, go to boycecollege.com. Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I'm Albert Mohler.

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