The identity politics practiced by liberals (i.e. social justice warriors) and conservatives (i.e. the alt-right) is soaking America in the acid of tribalism, leaving the fabric of our communal life threadbare. That’s the gist of Noah Rothman’s important new book, Unjust: Social Justice and the Unmaking of America. While he doesn’t reference them, it struck me that his book is best understood as the final instalment of a trilogy, with the other two works being The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt and Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers by Christian Smith and Melina Lundquist Denton.
Rothman describes what he calls the “identitarian” politics of those whose university experience devalued rationality (Lukianoff and Haidt’s thesis) and whose high school years over emphasized the emotive (Smith and Denton’s thesis). If the books are read together, we can move from merely lamenting our politics to forming a proactive apologetic aimed at persuading those with whom we disagree.
Reducing the Rational
“Perhaps the simplest method for distinguishing classical liberals from militant social justice advocates” says Rothaman, “is the extent to which the latter are threatened by the articulation of challenging ideas.” In order to understand the identity politics of the new right and left, one must understand the deep suspicion both groups have toward rationality. This is where The Coddling of the American Mind is helpful.
Lukianoff and Haidt make an argument that our educational system has isolated us from reason by coddling our safety, something that goes against the very essence of education. Say the authors:
“The notion that a university should protect all of its students from ideas that some of them find offensive is a repudiation of the legacy of Socrates, who described himself as the ‘gadfly’ of the Athenian people. He thought it was his job to sting, to disturb, to question, and thereby to provoke his fellow Athenians to think through their current beliefs, and change the ones they could not defend.”
Education is meant to make us uncomfortable, in other words. As teachers stopped pruning, prodding, and provoking, students sank more deeply into the cozy blankets of their already held beliefs.
Elevating the Emotive
If the rational is no longer preeminent, what is? Central to the answer given in Soul Searching is the notion of Moral Therapeutic Deism (MTD). In MTD, the chief end of man is to find happiness. “M” and “T” are easy to understand—God is something akin to a friendly therapist who wishes you’d be nicer. To understand the “D” part, it’ll be helpful to say a word about classical deism circa the first half of the 19th century.
“Fix reason firmly in her seat,” Thomas Jefferson insisted, “and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion.” Key to understanding classical deism is the revolutionary notion that reason, rather than scripture, is the benchmark of truth. Indeed, Jefferson went on to say that we should, “Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”
The image Jefferson is evoking is that of a courtroom. When the bailiff says, “all rise!” the judge, “Reason,” takes her seat. Pleading their case is every fact and opinion we might believe, waiting to be ruled acceptable or not by her honorable judge Reason. MTD is deistic in that it keeps the proverbial “self” as judge, but relocates the authority from the mind to the emotions. We thus walk through reality as if we’re Marie Kondo going through her closet, throwing away any and everything that doesn’t bring us joy—truth be damned.
Persuasion in our Tribal Age
With these two books in our minds, the grave story of identitarianism being told by Rothman becomes comprehendible: Our politics became tribal and instinctual as we devalued our rationality and idolized our emotions. To continue with the Jeffersonian illustration, is not the answer to impeach “her justice Emotion” and return “her honorable Judge Reason” to the bench? That’s certainly the argument being made by many who often quote the famous Ben Shapiro quip, “facts don’t care about your feelings.” The implication is, your emotions are a terrible guide on the expedition of life. Which, to be fair, is true. However, is rationality the solution?
Keep in mind, Jefferson didn’t use his emotions to justify the holding of slaves—he rationalized it. Conversely, I don’t think it was rationality that lead to the pro-choice backlash of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s comments about post-birth abortion. Rationally, what makes the killing of a child ethical one minute, inside the womb, but immoral the next, outside the womb? Even if infanticide is rationally defensible in light of pro-choice assumptions, it remains emotionally unbearable.
The holding of slaves and the killing of children are both wrong in God’s world. Jefferson’s rationality kept him estranged from reality when it came to slavery just as pro-choice advocates’ emotions are keeping them tethered to reality when it comes to infanticide. Facts care neither about our feelings nor our rationality. By spending all of our energy commending reason and critiquing emotion we miss an opportunity to witness to the transforming power of the gospel, which takes away something and gives something to every cultural moment.
The Christian worldview takes away our autonomy. Jefferson’s argument that our reason should be the judge is the heart of all sin. It’s not reason that’s the problem; it’s the self. Jesus claims authority over our whole being. T.S. Elliot reminds us that we curtail this truth only to our own peril when it comes to evangelism:
“You will never attract the young by making Christianity easy; but a good many can be attracted by finding it difficult: difficult both to the disorderly mind and to the unruly passions.”
The Christian worldview takes control of our passion and our mind—taking away our ability to rationalize slavery, for example.
The Christian worldview gives us justification. To those pro-choice advocates horrified by the thought of leaving a baby to die, we can offer a justification for that feeling—that baby is made in the image of God. If one is an atheist, there is a chasm between what “is” and what “ought” to be that their worldview can’t rectify. The gospel offers a bridge to get one from “is” to “ought.” It gives us a justification for our moral sentiments, a reason for our dogmatic intuitions that things are not as they should be.
Rothman ends his book saying, “No messiah will save us from ourselves… the hard work ahead falls on all of us.” He’s right to say it is ourselves from which we need saving, but that makes it even more odd that his solution to the problem is…ourselves. Indeed, our salvation will take nothing less than a messiah. Thankfully, such a Savior has come and is coming.
Dustin Messer is Worldview and Cultural Engagement Coordinator at Legacy Christian Academy in Frisco, TX and author of the forthcoming book, Secular Sacraments: Finding Grace in the World and Sin in the Church