American Awakening

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* Book: American Awakening, Joshua Mitchell.



1. By Alexandra Nieuwsma:

"Overall, Mitchell’s book is an invaluable resource in breaking down the religious categories and pathologies of identity politics. If we are to understand the crisis of American communities, the crisis of American politics, or the crisis of the American citizen, we must first understand the religious “substitutism” that is taking place.


"In American Awakening, Joshua Mitchell argues that identity politics is ultimately a relocation of religion to the realm of politics. Through an analysis that is theological, philosophical, and psychological, he offers a penetrative diagnosis of just what ails America: the “three separable but ultimately related ailments” of identity politics, bipolarity, and addiction. While mainline Protestant churches are deteriorating, identity politics wokesters have hijacked the Christian concepts of guilt and innocence, and stain and purity. This is taking place alongside a denunciation of both Western inheritance and the idea of liberal competence.

While vast improvements are constantly being made in the material economy, an “invisible economy” looms over us which measures transgression and innocence. Identity politics comprehends this economy “in terms of the relationship between visible groups.” Rather than focusing on who we are as individuals, identity politics is concerned with the “stain and purity associated with who we are as members of a group.”

For instance, the white, heterosexual man, simply by virtue of his existence as a descendent of a race that historically enslaved black Americans, is irredeemably stained. He is doomed to perpetually atone for the sin of his existence by “innocence-signaling”—supporting social justice causes—although doing so will never completely wipe away the stain of his transgressor status. In reality, there is no healing power to which he can appeal, and his purpose is to serve as the scapegoat for the identity politics innocents, who consist of ethnic and sexual minorities. It is only through their relationship to the transgressors that these victims establish their identity as innocents and are justified.

In making determinations of guilt and innocence, the identity politics wokesters effectively determine who can and cannot speak, silencing all those they deem transgressors while declaring legitimate anything that comes from the mouths of the purported innocents. Rather than focus on who are the most competent practitioners, identity politics banishes the value of liberal competence completely to further its goal of proportional representation.

Because it is vital to clearly determine who the transgressors and innocents are, identity politics must assign an “unequivocal group affiliation” to every person. Yet here the identity politics crowd enters into some difficulties because it ascribes a uniformity to group members that differs drastically from the reality: not all blacks have the same experience, neither do all women or all homosexuals for that matter.


So where does identity politics lead us? In short, to a dead end: identity politics needs a purity that always requires a mortal group to scapegoat. Thus, when it runs out of groups to purge, “the last indictment will be: the indictment of man himself, for which the resolution will be either the embrace of transhumanism or the eradication of man altogether.”

Mitchell believes “there is no expressly political or legal remedy to our problem.” Rather, people need to work through their misunderstanding of transgression and innocence; only then will our politics change. Two obstacles stand in the way: bipolarity and addiction.

Mitchell’s concept of “bipolarity” refers to citizens’ oscillation between “feelings of extraordinary grandeur and utter impotence.” The modern “selfie man,” constantly entertained by his gadgets and digital “friends,” is filled with a self-aggrandizing impulse that convinces him he doesn’t need his real-life neighbors. Ironically, this sense of radical freedom is juxtaposed with a disposition of “structural fatalism” regarding current societal problems. Feeling helpless in the face of insuperable forces, selfie man looks to global managers to solve these challenges. As the government grows, citizens believe there is little need for them to engage in the nitty-gritty, mediated, and imperfect work of building a world together, exacerbating their alienation from each other.

The root of addiction lies in “the problem of supplements becoming substitutes.” Just as vitamin supplements only yield a benefit when taken with a real meal, so too does the “supplement” of government assistance programs require the “meal” of vibrant civic institutions to yield a true benefit. However, today we have deluded ourselves into thinking that the supplements themselves are the true source of our power. We erroneously conclude that we need more of the supplement, rather than the meal itself. Gorging ourselves on supplements that do not ultimately satisfy us, we find we need more and more of the supplements to function.

Giving in to the temptation to turn supplements into substitutes results in the degradation or loss of liberal competence. As the state steps in more and citizens engage less with their fellows, those societal institutions where liberal competence is developed atrophy in a vicious self-reinforcing cycle.

Mitchell believes that addiction and bipolarity can only be fixed by “face-to-face, real-time relations between citizens in the institutions of society”; that is, through the development of liberal competence, the “meal” that we have displaced through substitution."


2. Rebeccah L. Heinrichs:

"Mitchell’s book, one he tells us in the acknowledgments that he wrote in the “convulsive aftermath of the 2016 election,” is a treasure of insights and diagnoses of cultural ailments and political phenomena. He is a professor of political theory and a Protestant Christian, so he is well-armed with the training and education from the great thinkers who have shaped the Free World and, in particular, the American Republic as she was intended.

Contrary to what some commentators conclude, Mitchell instructs that Americans have not lost their religion. Instead, he explains:

Americans have relocated their religion to the realm of politics. The institutional separation of church and state may be largely intact, for the separation between religion and politics has largely collapsed more precisely with respect to the matter presumption of guilt and innocence they have traded places. One 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 the 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 men—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 take hold. On the political left, explains Mitchell, the “woke” lift from Christianity critical teachings related to guilt and innocence, and in particular original sin and the need for atonement, and apply them to secular and temporal ends. But unlike what the Christian Gospel offers, the woke left offers no reconciliation, peace, or joy. The fruits of wokeism are perpetual penance, excommunication (cancellation), and humiliation. To be sure, Mitchell’s sharp rebukes are not reserved only for the lefty end of the political spectrum. He has sharp words for the Alt-Right as well, a group that he says seeks “nothing less than to return man to an aristocratic world, which is to say, a non-Christian world.” It, like what plagues the political left, cannot improve let alone save the American regime. Yet it is far less powerful than the identity politics that wokeism brought us.

Mitchell’s contrast of wokeism with Christianity not only explains our confused and confusing times, but also showcases the truth, beauty, and freeing peace of the true Christian Gospel. Moreover, American Awakening feels like a conversation—with whom he has invited such men as Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Alexis de Tocqueville—and it has poetic stretches of biblical references that illuminate and stir the heart and mind like a Puritan prayer book."