Identity Politics: A Faulty Lens
I recently reviewed the book Faith and Resistance in the Age of Trump. Sadly, it’s not a very good book.
It is made up of twenty-five essays from twenty-three different contributors, mostly professors of theology and ethics, along with some leaders of NGOs. It might have been a stronger book had some leaders of actual congregations been among the authors.
In the great post-mortem debate on the 2016 election — race versus economics — most of the authors come down on the side of racist causation. Kelle Brown Douglas writes, “To what lengths will America go to protect its mythic identity of Anglo-Saxon greatness? Answer: The election of Donald Trump as president. This is the truth about America.” Jim Wallis says bluntly, “It was a race election.”
Well, yes race and racism were part of it.
Beyond that debate, and the false dichotomy upon which it rests, the problem with Faith and Resistance in the Age of Trump, is that it reflects the identity politics lens on the world that is predominant these days. The majority of contributors appear to have been selected for their racial, ethnic, gender or sexual identity. Most write as if they speak for one group or another.
Just as race and racism were a part of Trump’s election, so identity framed through the lens of race, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation has some truth to it. But not the whole truth. That lens distorts even as it clarifies.
In a column today David Brooks offers the first of a series of essays on core beliefs of a democracy. He turned to novelist Thomas Mann and his essay “The Coming Victory of Democracy” written in 1938. (Writing under that title in 1938 is a testament of faith itself.) Here’s Brooks extracting a key point from Mann.
“Democracy begins with one great truth, he argued: the infinite dignity of individual men and women. Man is made in God’s image. Unlike other animals, humans are morally responsible.” There are actually at least two points there, but I want to emphasize the first, the infinite dignity of the individual.
The “infinite dignity of individual men and women” is eroded, over-ridden, by contemporary identity politics. Individuals are reduced to their racial, gender or other group or markers. For some time it has been conventional to decry American “individualism,” and that critique is not without merit. If individualism means indifference to other people and to human community it is problematic and worse.
But when the mystery and uniqueness of each individual is nullified, when everyone is understood or explained with reference to their gender, race or sexual orientation primarily or exclusively, something crucial is lost. The individual and her or his dignity and uniqueness vanish. A firm belief in the dignity of the individual — and of the moral responsibility of each individual and citizen — is crucial to democracy and to our society. It is also crucial to the church. Mann’s essay alludes to Genesis, the human being made in the image of God.
As in Faith and Resistance in the Age of Trump, the adequacy of the identity politics construal of reality is often simply assumed today. Such an unthinking presumption is the sign of an ideology and not of free or critical thinking.