Religion, Sin, Identity Politics and the 2016 Election

The Language of Religion May Have Played a Large Role in Electing Trump

Hillary Clinton and Jorge Ramos speaking at the Brown & Black Presidential Forum. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The word “election,” has its latin roots in religion. The solemn experience of voting conjures up a kind of national revival. Clearly, the language of Hope and Change and Renewal, all come out of America’s religious experience.

Georgetown Professor Joshua Mitchell mixes all of these ideas into the simmering stew of identity politics, gender roles and the Democrats’ view of Trump as a kind of satanic figure, to provide a unique analysis of election 2016.

In his conversation with WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman, Mitchell explains why identity politics may doom the Democrats, why Hillary Clinton lost, and why women may very well be the future of the republic.


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Full Text Transcript:

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy, I’m Jeff Schechtman.

Perhaps no modern campaign has generated as much coverage as the 2016 presidential election. Wall-to-wall, and 24/7. Everything has been covered and analyzed. Or has it? Even with an occasional hat tip to the Christian-right of the Republican Party, it seems that religion has certainly not been a tool to add further analysis to this sui generis selection. And few would argue that among all the other crises engendered by the election, that a religious crisis is part of the mix. However, that’s exactly one of the conclusions reached by my guest Georgetown University professor, Joshua Mitchell.

Joshua Mitchell is a professor of Government to Georgetown, where he teaches the history of Western political thought. His articles have appeared in Politico and Providence, and his most recent book is Tocqueville in Arabia: Dilemmas in a Democratic Age. And he’s just written for First Things, “Sex and Sin in Protestant America.” It is my pleasure to welcome Joshua Mitchell to the program. Joshua, thanks much for joining us.

Joshua Mitchell: My pleasure, thank you for having me.

Jeff: Great to have you here. One of the things you talk about early on in your First Things articles is this idea that elections by their very nature have a kind of religious cast to them. Talk about that.

Joshua: Well, the word, election, is a religious term. When the Puritans thought of who the true Christians were, they would talk about, the elect. And the word, vote, has a linkage to the word, vow. So there is a somber and religious sense even to what we take to be secular events like elections.

Jeff: And beyond that, particularly in the context of elections, that when we talk about change in hope and renewal, that those also have a certain religious iconography.

Joshua: This is what was so interesting about Barack Obama, was the language of hope is a theological language. It is so ironic to me that the that the left thinks of itself as secular, and looks at the right and says, “My goodness, you’re a bunch of Christian conservatives and Jewish conservatives who have these old-fashioned views about religion.” But in point of fact, since the 1960s when the mainline Protestants who occupy the Democratic Party, have in a way, succumbed to the East Coast elites which are the former Puritans, the Democratic Party has actually become more theological, not in any overt way, but the language of identity politics for example is a language of purity and stain, and this is a profoundly Protestant and Puritan idea. So my sense is we’re still living very much in a religious country, it’s just the terms aren’t expressly religious anymore.

Jeff: And some of that comes out of the civil rights movement, some of that, that language with respect to identity politics. You talk about Martin Luther King as really being pitch perfect in terms of understanding that.

Joshua: Martin Luther King in my view is, well, he’s the great hero of the 20th century in America. And for lots of reasons. The obviously, one, of course, is civil rights. But I think, and you indicated this, what is so important about him, was that he caught the religious language. If you read his speech, if you go look at the “I Have a Dream” speech, it is suffused with Old Testament language, which is Protestant language, of the wounds that have to be healed. The famous statement, “I may not get there with you,” well, this is a reference to Moses leading his people over to the Promised Land. This was an exquisite theological moment in American history. The reason why this was so important was it rang true with so many Protestants in America who understood this language because Protestantism really does emerge as an attempt to answer the Roman Catholic Church, by going back to the Old Testament. So Martin Luther King was pitch perfect in 1960s. This is part of the reason why I think the white community understood what he was saying, and there were so many people in the mainline Protestant groups who were completely with him.

My view is that there’s actually been a crisis since then, and I don’t want to blame it on Jesse Jackson. He’s an exquisite preacher. When I was doing graduate work in Chicago in the 1980s, I would literally go down the street and hear him preach. But there’s a shift in the vernacular, away from the language, the theological language of promise and hope to the language and history of Rainbow Coalition, which is in effect an identity coalition. And then you get full-on identity politics, I think, with the Clinton administration and the culture wars. And I actually think that is what is standing in the way of the necessary rapprochement between black and white in America now. It’s really a zero-sum game, Identity Politics is. Where I think the older theological language of Martin Luther King pulls everybody together in one national covenant.

Jeff: Where is the divide there between the identity politics, and the politics and the language of King?

Joshua: It might be Jesse Jackson. See, I come at this as a political theorist. I did my work at University of Chicago. In the 1980s what you got was the French intellectual movements coming over to United States, and identity politics was one of them. And all of a sudden everybody was talking about identity. Now throughout history, people have talked about kinds. So on the one hand we say, “Well, everybody has an identity, everybody is a kind.” And that’s all true. But identity politics is something very peculiar. It comes, as I say, from Europe, but I think it ultimately gets this American twist. And the American twist is the category of purity and stain. And the way identity politics works is there is one group that is the stain group, and this is largely whites frankly, and that other groups measure themselves against the backdrop of the stain. So, how far removed, how much victimization have you have you suffered at the hands of whites? Now, I want to be very clear, if the white groups in America have a lot to answer for, my argument is that the way it has to be thought through is not in terms of identity politics, which just sets up hostility and produces the language of racial identity that we saw in some measure in the Trump campaign. So it’s not that I don’t think there are very, very serious problems and wounds that need to be healed. My concern is that with identity politics language there’s no wound to be healed, there’s only an eternal debt to be paid. And this I think is deeply destructive- destructive to a polity. So I would love to go back to the…,  to the language of King, and frankly, am very curious about whether African-American preachers are doing that, seeing that there are limits to this identity politics language the Democratic Party has frankly foisted upon them, and a returning to the language of King, which is the native language of the African-American churches, because slavery was the experience of the Jews in captivity waiting to get to the Promised Land.

Jeff: And where does Obama’s language, both early on in his campaign and then later in his presidency, where does that language fit into that continuum?

Joshua: He’s next I think. He knows the language of hope, coming out of various black churches. He certainly knows the tropes that are used, the wound that has to be bound together, the covenant; he knows all that language deeply. But he did, let’s be clear, he did go to Harvard and Harvard was one of the places where this identity politics language is still to this day very, very powerful. So I see him as a transitional figure.

What made me most concerned about Hillary Clinton, I think this is part of the reason why she lost, was she said things. You can find this, I might’ve made reference to this in my First Things article. She would say things like, “I’m going to have to talk to white people about their racism.” The magical thing about Barack Obama was that, for good and bad, he was seen as a mediary figure between the two races. Hillary Clinton was white and what that meant was she had to really prove her bona fides, not just to the African-American community, but to all the communities of color, so to speak, all the nonwhite communities. Which meant she was going to double down on this identity politics on white privilege. She was going to do that. I think why this was so wrong this time around was because, again, not that this wound isn’t a serious wound of the vestiges of slavery, the reason why it was so wrong this time around is if you go out to the heartland of America-I live hundred miles away from Washington in a relatively poor town, and people are hurting, and it just struck too many Americans this time around. That while there are great racial wounds to be healed, the language of identity politics which establishes whether you’re pure or stained is not going to help us because Americans are fundamentally a commercial people. And what has happened, the elites have betrayed them, the 1%, with globalization. And the middle class got screwed. And I think enough people said, “Enough, we can’t just keep pointing out who is the privileged person when so many white people are hurting too.” And as I said to so many of my colleagues, one of the problems is once you rule out the language of religion as something that binds us all together and only provide language of racial identity, then what really do you expect white people to say? It’s going to sound like white racism, but they’ve been denied the more broad capacious theological language of covenant. Then the only language that they can speak with is the language of race. So when every, every tool you have is a hammer, then everything is a nail. This is a problem. So I think identity politics is deeply dangerous for America, and I think that’s part of the reason why Hillary Clinton lost, was there are bigger issues right now.

Jeff: The other thing you point out, the other person in the mix is Bill Clinton, and his previous language, and the fact that even Toni Morrison called him the first black president.

Joshua: Yes, so Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton may be married, but theologically, they are worlds apart. Bill Clinton is part of what I would call the mainline Protestant tradition. That’s not what I called it in the First Things article, but it’s also part of the black church wherein you know you’re a sinner, you redeem yourself for a moment, but you’re always backsliding. And so you’re never assured of your own salvation.

Hillary Clinton is a different kind of Christian. You look at that the picture of her on the second debate, which is what my essay was about, and she was literally wearing a Puritan dress. And the Puritans are a different breed of Protestant. They were all but assured of their salvation, so there’s no backsliding. They were the elect, to come to the word election again. Bill Clinton isn’t that kind of person. And so Bill Clinton is haunted at the moment just before the election by Donald Trump, calling a news conference with all the various women that Bill Clinton had purportedly had affairs with. I mean he’s always backsliding. But Hillary Clinton really does believe that she is part of the redeemed, and so the language of, for example, “the deplorables”, this was the unredeemed people.  She’s speaking the language of purity and stain. She’s speaking the language of the early Puritans, even though it sounded rather secular to most people’s ears.

So she, there are two different kinds of people, Bill and Hillary Clinton. The third person, as you know in that article, is Donald Trump. And he has an entirely different Protestant background. He grew up in New York City, went to a Protestant church in the fifties, I don’t know, in which Norman Vincent Peale was the pastor. Norman Vincent Peale,1950s, wrote this amazing book called The Power of Positive Thinking, and it was the attempt by Presbyterians, and really Protestants, and haunted Americans who never really could understand their religion, to find a new way to think about the world. So instead of sin and redemption, it was winners and losers, be positive.

And so when Donald Trump would say things like I’m going to win-win-win, this was this Norman Vincent Peale power of positive thinking. Where this really hit the road was in the flare up over his bus conversations about groping women. You know, if you think in Protestant theological terms, you’re going to say, “I’m a sinner, I need to repent and redeem myself.” But if you’re thinking in terms of winning and losing, you’re going to think, “Oh that was just a mistake, and so I apologize for it.” But it has no religious overtones, and I think this is what so incensed the Democratic establishment, both the media and Hillary Clinton, was that there wasn’t this religious overtone. Here was a man who was utterly, morally unworthy, meaning, was not like us, was not among the Puritan elect. And this is going to play out in very, very interesting ways, if you don’t mind me continuing for a moment, in terms of foreign policy, because the language of purity and stain, applied to foreign policy came out in the following way: If you’re a foreign country and you have democracy, you’re not stained. If you’re a dictatorship, you’re stained and we won’t do business with you.

So this language of purity and stain in foreign policy has all sorts of implications and I think has twisted American foreign-policy for quite some time. It goes back really, well before Clinton. But she does think in terms of democracy, or authoritarianism, as the basis for her foreign policy. Trump doesn’t. Trump’s view is, “I don’t care what your republic is, or what kind of country you have, I only care if I can work with you, whether we can be winners together or losers together.” So for example, on Assad in Syria, I don’t think he even cares if there’s a democracy. And it’s not because he’s mean or insensitive. It’s because his moral vocabulary is not purity and stain, its winners and losers. It’s “let’s cut a deal.” And so his book titled, The Art of the Deal, is an entirely different theological supposition. So Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump are three different kinds of theological people.

Jeff: Is there a theology though to the just transactional nature of what you’re talking about, vis-à-vis Trump?

Joshua: Well, I frankly think it’s bad theology. I think it’s the Protestant attempt to free itself from guilt and stain. And I frankly, here’s my prediction, that if there are problems in the in the Trump presidency, it will be because the language of repentance and the old Protestant language of stain and impurity, is not there. So he’ll be, I think, overly bold. I don’t want to jump to conclusions here, but this is I think, the theological weakness of Trump and it’s transactional. Let’s cut a deal, and that’s that. There isn’t moral overtones. I will say in dealing with international relations scholars for the last 20 or 30 years, while a lot of them don’t like Trump; a lot of them are very, very concerned about American foreign-policy being attentive to this moral language, as opposed to political realism. I think Trump will be much more of a political realist.

Jeff: Talk a little bit about the broader context for all of this in a country that considers itself in some respects, certainly in a coastal sense, of becoming less and less religious more and more secular.

Joshua: Well, this is a very complicated issue. The way I think about this is the following. You know, I came out of biology a long time ago, and so I look at human creatures and I think of them first as biological creatures. And then if there’s anything super additive, it’s generally something that’s religious. So, it’s true that America has become more secular, but that doesn’t mean unreligious. It just means religious in a different way. I think, for example, the language of purity and stain is very much in our vocabulary. This is the language of identity politics. Even if you look at the post-election trauma of the Democrats, it’s a theological trauma. It’s as if somehow evil has been let loose on the world and Donald Trump is the minion of Satan. They’re looking for the source of the evil, and if it’s not Donald Trump, my God, it’s the Russians who have hacked the election.

I mean this is a witch hunt that’s going on, and America has this long tradition as you know dating back to Salem in 1692, of trying to rout out the impure evil things. So, looking at this from the outside, it looks to me like the Democrats are the most religious group in America right now in terms of their reaction to the Trump presidency. There’s a theological trauma here. So you can be secular. Look, Marx was a secularist, but he really did believe that the meaning of history was the final redemption of man understood now as Communism, not as God.

So, there’s many ways you can retain the religious tropes if you want to use that kind of language and not go to church, and not go to synagogue. I think that’s what we have in America today, is religion without the religion so to speak.

Jeff: I wonder what that would’ve meant, just speculating for a minute, with a candidate like Bernie Sanders who comes at it as a Jewish atheist socialist.

Joshua: Bernie Sanders was in a way the most interesting character of all. I don’t know how to read him religiously, but I will say that he would have been very important. It would be very important for him to win because it would’ve sent a signal, before the post-election crisis, to the Democratic Party that identity politics isn’t working. I mean what’s interesting about Bernie Sanders, as he goes back to a, I would call, a post-1968 Democratic Party, when there was a great deal of flirtation with Marxism and class analysis, and as I said earlier, it was really in the 1980s, and I’ll date it 1989 just conveniently, that this identity politics thing crept into the Democratic Party.

Bernie Sanders was interesting because he was going back to an older understanding within the Democratic Party. But there are structural problems. It’s not about whether you’re white and stained. It’s about whether you’re in a certain class or not. And I think that would’ve been much healthier, to go back to that 1968 Democratic Party insight. My worry about the Democrats now is that they’re going to double down on this identity politics thing. I see no evidence whatsoever that they’re prepared to give that up, and in part, because they have created this huge problem. If they decide they want to repudiate it, in affect the people they have trained, their own, the Blacks and the Hispanics, the people they have implored to use this language- trained is the wrong word, implored to use of language, will then turn on them and say, “So you’re turning away from identity politics, you don’t want to look at race in this way anymore, so you must be racist.” So I think the Democratic Party is in a terrible, terrible mess right now. And I don’t see one person who’s going to make it better.

Jeff: One of the other things that you talk about beyond identity politics is gender politics. Talk about that.

Joshua: Well, this is in part from another article, that the gender issue and identity issue go together, and the Democratic Party has doubled down on both. And the way I think about this is the following: Gender is the first term to come along, and it comes along in the 1960s, and you and I remember this, when it became clear that the traditional understanding of what a woman was -namely a homemaker, was largely not going to work anymore, in part because money had become so important and women rightly said, “So we too want to feel important, and so we need to have a place in the workplace.”

And if you use the language of sex, then I think, you’re condemned to say, “Well, these are fixed roles, man is this, a woman is that.” But if you use the language of gender, then what you can do is say, “Look, these things are fluid and women have multiple roles and one of them is woman in the workplace.” So I think gender was the language that’s got women into the workplace. And I think it was an important development. What happens though is that once you see gender as completely fluid, which is the way it has started to move, completely fluid, then there’s no reason in principle why it should stop with women as this substantive gender category. And so the gay movement, as a gender category. And that’s all fine, and I think those are political issues. What’s become very interesting to me is that now you have the proliferation of gender categories. The transgender. If you look at Facebook, if I’m not mistaken, one point they had 54 distinct gender types, and now they’ve completely opened it up so that everybody can just declare what they are. I think this is a problem because a Republican country like ours, only has limited resources. And we can talk about anecdotal cases where men and women feel trapped in their bodies and that’s fine, and I have tremendous sympathy for them – but my worry is that if you extend the category to a huge, make it much more extensive and include smaller and smaller groups on the margin, you lose sight of the fact of what you were first trying to address and what you’re really trying to address, is this profound quandary that 50% of the American population have, namely the women, can they be both the traditional – which is a sex category or can they work in the workplace? And so pushed our gender category.

So I think what’s happened is a category that was invoked initially with a view to serving one very large group that needed to be addressed, has now been extended, and I worry that what will happen eventually is that the group that it was supposed to support, namely women who are trying to find a way to be both mothers and work in the workplace, will be hurt by this. There is a corollary, let me just finish up on this if you don’t mind. It’s identity politics, because I see the Black Lives Matter, for all of its excesses, I see it as a very important protest because if you look at race and you pay attention to the African-American community only, which is I think the only group that you should be paying attention to.

I’m half Lebanese. My father came over in the 1890s. My view is that every immigrant group after two or three generations, they make their way and it’s tough, but that’s how it goes. But the one group that really needs our attention is the African-American community because of the experience of slavery. And so you have initially this category of race, and we’re looking at black-and-white relations. But when you move to the category of identity, then everybody has an identity and an identity claim. And so Hispanics have an identity claim against whites, and every other possible group has an identity claim. And so just as with gender, of the initial group that it’s supposed to support, ultimately gets put into a mix of a lot of other people who may have grievances, but frankly you can’t, you don’t have an infinite number of resources.

And so you got to choose, pick and choose what you’re going to do. So my view is identity politics, just like gender, may have initially been set up to help the African-American community, but what it ended up doing is rounding everybody together. And so I think African-Americans quite rightly say, “But wait, our experience isn’t like everybody else’s, even if you include sexual identity, there’s no grievance that’s as great as the African-American community in America.” And I think the Black Lives Matter movement, at its best was saying that. It was saying, “No, all lives are not the same.” Now, I want to say all lives matter, I do believe that, but I think if you can get behind the rhetoric and some of the excessive actions, I think there’s a very legitimate point here.

And I come now to the final issue I would raise, which is in a liberal polity there’s only so much you can do. And the two groups you really, really have to pay attention to are the African-Americans and women. And I think gender did that initially, but now it includes everybody. Identity initially pertained to Blacks, and now it pertains to everybody. And so I think you really have to step back from this and think anew about the terms used. And I think the Democrats have blown it because they were initially concerned with the blacks, the African-Americans, and with women. And now they’re doubling down on unisex bathrooms and transgender sex transplantations for being paid by universal healthcare. This is just preposterous and I think a lot of people in the heartland just said, “Enough, this has got to stop.”

Jeff: Bringing these two things quickly together as we wrap it up, in terms of the religious aspect we talked about at the beginning, and this gender aspect, you spent some time in the First Things article, talking about this surprise, particularly among progressives, and among progressive women, about women that supported Trump. Talk about that.

Joshua: It was my mystical musing at the end of the piece, and I hold to this, I think the first reaction of the media was, “Oh my goodness, how will anyone possibly support this man?” But I think what, I don’t want speak in too general terms, but let me for the sake of argument, I think what progressives don’t understand is that there are, I’m not to give numbers, but millions and tens of millions of women who really look at men and say,
“Yeah, you’re beasts, you’re all Donald Trump, and part of our task is to domesticate you.”

There’s a long history of ideas about this dating back to Rousseau in the 1760s, and Tokyo in the 1830s, is the great decipherer of America saw this too, that there’s a, what could be called, what has been called, “a male socialization problem.” And the real question I think that separates progressive women from conservatives, again I’m speaking very generally is, “Who is the one that does the socializing of men?” Is it going to be through Title IX and the US government? And I think the progressives think that men can be domesticated by passing laws, and conservative women think, “No, the problem of male socialization is so great that it has to happen in a place the State can’t even touch,”- namely, family, local communities, etc.

And so Donald Trump strangely reinforced for millions of American women what they knew already, namely the State can’t fix Donald Trump, and Donald Trump wannabes, with Title IX restrictions on how you’re supposed to talk about sex and the preamble to it. It’s simply not going to work. Now you need some, I want to be clear; the State needs to step in when there’s egregious problems, but finally the problem of male socialization is a problem that has to be dealt with in society, not in the polity. And I do think that is the huge divide that separates progressives in general from conservatives. I would even say capital L, liberals, which I want to call myself more and more these days. Men are a problem, and the question is, “How can they be softened?” And Trump confirmed what every conservative woman knew, which is, “Yeah, my husband’s kind of like that too.” And the big surprise to the conservat… to the liberals was what percentage of women voted for Trump. I knew this was going to be high, way higher than they predicted because women saw in Trump a confirmation that their traditional role actually does matter.

And I end the piece by saying: there’s the great standoff. Nothing is going to change in the politics of this election cycle, whether it’s Trump or anyone else. The real battle for America, until Phil saw this, is going be fought by the women. And the question is whether society is put together in the home by the women, or whether the State is the thing that manages society. That’s the titanic struggle, that is playing out very quietly between women right now. And it will play out for the next 20 or 30 or 40 years. And who knows maybe another hundred years. But I don’t think men can really enter into this. Because I think women are the ones that are ultimately going to decide the shape of this country. And this is not my idea. This is exactly what Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America in the 1830s, and what Rousseau wrote so long ago in Emile in the 1760s – it’s women that shape the mores and habits of the society, not the polity.

Jeff: Georgetown University Professor Joshua Mitchell, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.

Joshua: My pleasure Jeff, thank you.

Jeff: Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast, I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate

 


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Hillary Clinton with women(hillaryclinton.com)

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