Directly following the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, HarperCollins released a hastily written book by the Columbia University humanities professor Mark Lilla. Before commenting on the new book, I want to recall something Lilla wrote at the end of his much more thoughtful book, The Stillborn God (2007):
Those of us who have accepted the heritage of the Great Separation [of secularism] must do so soberly. Time and again we must remind ourselves that we are the exceptions. We have little reason to expect other civilizations to follow our unusual path, which was opened up by a unique political-theological crisis within Christendom. (308)
Lilla would have done well to heed his own warning as he wrote his most recent work, The Once and Future Liberal (2017). While I am generally in agreement with Beverly Gage’s book review in The New York Times, the connection I am after here is more rhetorically subtle. It has to do with Lilla’s multiple uses of religious frames within his most recent text.
The first frame Lilla employs with rather strategic ambiguity: the use of political “dispensations” – mainly F.D.R.’s and Ronald Reagan’s. A dispensation may either be a period of time or a suspension of law. In this sense, there is a resonance with exceptionalism at work. Lilla’s words from Stillborn God situate him and his audience within an exceptional frame, and his lament in The Once and Future Liberal is the loss of a unifying liberal “We.”
I argue that Lilla – and many people posting on social media over the last week – ought to know better than to rely on arguments based on historically white-supremacist American exceptionalism in order to rebuke “neo-Nazis” and “white nationalists.” Arguments that conflate fighting in World War II with a defeat of white supremacy are gravely mistaken. As James Q. Whitman and multiple others have argued, the Nazis admired American racist law and used it to justify their own legal ethnic and racial exclusions.
Racism is as American as apple-pie, as the ongoing devastation of Native American land at Standing Rock and the upcoming Keystone Pipeline evidence. While Lilla separates African-American experience as a “case apart,” noting, “America had offered protection to white religious and ethnic groups; it had enslaved the African” (65), he has little to say about the inherent racism that occupies a rationale for American exceptionalism. He concludes stating that “Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity,” both unsavorily and hyperbolically comparing the movement to “Mau-Mau tactics to put down dissent and demand confession of sins and public penitence” (129).
Numerous books in religious studies in recent years have examined the ethnocentric, racist, and Protestant underwriting of the modern, Western conception of ‘religion’ itself. Just some of these titles include Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions (2005), Daniel Dubuisson’s The Western Construction of Religion (2007), David Chidester’s Empire of Religion (2014), and Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion (2015). As a scholar, even if writing for a popular audience, Lilla ought to be somewhat aware of these discussions.
While Lilla’s book is meant to be for a wider audience, he does contrast the American affinity between religion and state with the European Wars of Religion. Religious identification with the state “turned out not to be impossible in America, because the principles the country was founded on gave Christians reasons to identify with the state because the state guaranteed their right to identify with their churches” (63). He then connects this identification as subordinate to citizenship, which in its Anglo-Protestant dominance framed religious freedom.
According to Lilla, citizenship broke down in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the face of liberal splintering into separate identity groups and with the ideological support of Reagan’s ideological focus on Libertarian values as opposed to the more collectivist values displayed by the New Deal dispensation (66-67). This is, of course what scholars refer to often as neoliberalism, a term that only makes a passing appearance in Lilla’s text, and Carl Raschke’s recent post in Political Theology Today does a much better job at locating shared sentiment between the “alt right” and the former New Left.
What I continue to be perplexed by with Lilla is not the grumpy-old-man disconnect with the youth but the slippery usages of religiosity in his text. Much of his argument against liberal identity politics focuses on universities, and professors which he refers to as a “caste of high priests” (114). He then characterizes the American “split mind” between Cotton Mather and Mark Twain. He characterizes the rhetoric of identity politics as “evangelical,” in affinity with a kind of religious fanaticism.
So, first liberals consumed by identity politics are a “caste” or a kind of Catholic priest, then they are Protestant evangelical fanatics. “Relentless speech surveillance, the protection of virgin ears, the inflation of venial sins into mortal ones, the banning of preachers of unclean ideas – all these campus identity follies have their precedents in American revivalist religion” (115). It now seems that according to Lilla, the mistakes of the university professors has been their “religious” binding to a faith that would not recognize a “Great Separation” between its liberal orthodoxy and a truly secular citizenship.
In other words, Lilla frames university professors as obstructing the path to teaching the “citizenship” that ought to contain the fanatical impulses of religiosity within the tempered frame of “bland” (138) civic education that baby boomers received in the 1950s.
Now, contrast the rhetoric of unbending religious fanaticism to his characterization of academics as practicing “archaic religion.” Against the fractured epistemologies of identity-based perspectives which must hyper-consciously state their identity before their argumentative position, Lilla writes:
What replaces argument, then, is taboo. At times our more privileged campuses can seem stuck in the world of archaic religion. Only those with approved identity statuses are, like shamans, allowed to speak on certain matters. (91)
Like shamans? Like priests? Like fundamentalists? At least the academics are vastly versatile.
More seriously, while I certainly recognize Lilla’s complaints about identity politics and self-obsessed Facebook culture – something I reflected on in a reading of Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization on this blog last year – his laying the blame on identity politics is a gross misreading, or superficial reading, of academic theories of the past fifty years which he conveniently separates into French (self = nothing) and American (self = whatever you want) – though “the most advanced thinkers hold both views at once” (86).
In order to exemplify the problems in the university, Lilla asks us to imagine a certain type of student who is “drawn to political questions” (84). In a cartoonish sketch, this student is seduced by a curriculum that fosters her own narcissism and identification with the victims of historical oppression to the extent that she too can only identify as a victim, hardened into an absolutist of moral superiority.
The problem with this, as Lilla later points out with respect to Trump’s victory, is that someone else is always likely to come from beneath and steal your thunder, even mock your prissy, bourgeois claims to oppressed status.
Lilla does not acknowledge that this caricature is not your typical American university student and therefore cannot reflect the presumably massive sway that identity politics have over our population. What she reflects, perhaps, is a family background and education that gets a young woman into Columbia University at about $71,000 a year and takes courses in the humanities.
At Cornell University’s School of Criticism and Theory, where I was lucky enough to attend Victoria Kahn’s seminar on Political Theology in 2011, which is where I first encountered Lilla’s work, is that in the very privileged universities there is no “crisis in the humanities.” It is not comparable to the city university in Denver where I have taught since 2003.
My guess is that Lilla and other professors from well-to-do universities have little experience with poor students with limited and disaffected educational backgrounds. Yet, while they complain about the “priests” of higher education, they’re really just complaining about their own conflicts with students and abstract threats to tenure that will never actually affect them.
And so, I resent Lilla’s characterization of the priestly-shamanic caste of bourgeois professors. When he complains that “classroom conversations that once might have begun, I think A, and here is my argument, now take the form, I am offended that you claim B” (90), I simply have to retort that this rarely, if ever, happens in my classes. I certainly see the impulse of which he is speaking, but that same self-directed impulse is the rhetoric of the lower-class, young white student who has to overcome the fact that when we are talking about white privilege we are not talking about him or her specifically, which in turn calls them to reflect on their own investments in white privilege.
And this is something that, largely speaking, the older generation has not succeeded in doing – not just at a personal level but at the level of university curriculum – the necessity to divest in the white supremacy that underwrites American exceptionalism. I qualify by noting that more and more scholarly work certainly directly addresses this explicitly.
As a recent case in point, for example, Theodore Vial’s recent book, Modern Race, Modern Religion (2016) more directly addresses the problems of the social progress narratives that Lilla complains too many students read themselves into without understanding the true historical difficulties.
Drawing on Enlightenment thinkers, Vial argues racist and ethnocentric ideas present within the Enlightenment continue to conceptually affect the ways we think about religion in the 21st century. He says, “when we look critically at our concepts, we can raise the question whether it is possible to delink our historical analyses from a teleological idea of progress” (251). Vial makes this argument with erudite information of the field, rather than a hasty rant about identity politics.
Most importantly, if Vial and thinkers like him are correct, then Lilla’s formulation of identity politics cannot be so conveniently the mere product of Reagan’s dispensation rising against the wane of the New Deal. What must be located and divested from is our own cultural entrenchment in white-supremacist social positioning. It is not a matter of calling out fascist neo-Nazis as being “un-American”; it is about recognizing the shared white-supremacist roots of both and divesting in them.
The very problem of reactions against slogans such as “Black Lives Matter” among white people is that they take the slogan personally as rejecting them. In other words, they see it as exclusive rhetoric. What they don’t see, just as I did not see at first as a young white man coming to university in the 1990s, is that it is not about me – but whatever made me think that it was about me to begin with was part of the root of the problem.
Counter slogans, such as “all lives matter,” actively ignore ongoing inequity in favor of unrealistic universalizing sentiment. Slogans such as “white lives matter” refract the internalized narcissism that Lilla complains of, for sure. But because of historical injustice, and because the mass incarceration situation is a direct carryover from slavery that was employed by the rise of “Law and Order” politics as a direct reaction to the Civil Rights movement’s displacing of Jim Crow laws, it is just poor thinking to claim that what is meant by Black Lives Matter is exclusive, internal myopia, or “reverse racist.” No, this is what reactions such as “white lives matter” do. Lilla misses all of this.
One last appearance of religiosity in Lilla’s book appeals to people who give thanks in prayer earnestly. Lilla sees this humble piety as taken over by Reagan’s individualism (125). This is an uncharacteristic appeal to “true” religiosity. It comes across as insincere. Lilla is nostalgic for nationalism as religion, for a nationalism that William Cavanagh has implicated in The Myth of Religious Violence .
The only way for liberalism to survive is to confront the white supremacy inherent in Americanism and American exceptionalism itself.
Roger Green is a Lecturer in the English Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver. His work brings political theology into conversation with psychedelics and aesthetics. He is the author of “Aldous Huxley the Political Theologian” in Aldous Huxley Annual (vol. 14, 2014 / 2015), and “Force in Religious Thought: Carl Raschke and Victoria Kahn in Dialogue” in The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory. His doctoral dissertation, Beware of Mad John (2013) explores connections between political theology and psychedelic literature. He is currently working on a second PhD in Religious Studies and Theology at University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology.