3 min read

The Georgetown University professor talks to Daniel P. Schmidt and Michael E. Hartmann about philanthropy as a supplement to justice, our commitment to liberty, and trusting the “deplorable” to govern themselves.

“Identity politics, in my view, is a pretty profound distortion of Christianity,” Georgetown University professor Joshua Mitchell told us late last month. Mitchell studies the relationship between Western political theory and theology. His newest book, the profound American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time, includes an analysis of our understanding of charity in this context.

“Christianity makes this remarkable claim—namely, that the sins of the world are taken away by the divine scapegoat, if the Christ is the one who takes upon himself the sins of the world,” according to Mitchell. “What identity politics does is it retains the idea that there are sins, and in fact the original sin, and retains the idea of the scapegoat. But instead of finding a divine resolution to the problem, it finds an immanent one.”

This immanence essentially seeks to transform America by turning politics into a religious venue of sacrificial offering, Mitchell explains in American Awakening. Notions of charity and mercy, too, are thus necessarily altered—to quite ill effect—as we explored with him.

Real work

Mitchell was kind enough to explore this concerning shift, and its implications for philanthropy, with us. His previous books include Not By Reason Alone: Religion, History, and Identity in Early Modern Thought, The Fragility of Freedom: Tocqueville on Religion, Democracy, and the American Future, Plato’s Fable: On the Mortal Condition in Shadowy Times, and Tocqueville in Arabia: Dilemmas in a Democratic Age.

He is also a fellow of the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life, an active participant in the Woodson Center’s 1776 Unites effort, and a signatory of the Liberty and Justice for All statement co-sponsored by 1776 Unites and organized by the Real Clear Foundation (as are The Giving Review co-editors).

The 15-minute video below is the second of two parts of our conversation with Mitchell. In the first part, we discuss what identity politics has done to charity and philanthropy.

Schmidt and Hartmann (top row) and Mitchell (bottom)

“Government is really interested in building a comprehensive system,” Mitchell says. “And I guess that’s really the question in America: are we trying to build a comprehensive system or is the commitment to liberty such that we recognize there will always be openings and places where there are going to be troubles” through which we have to work together.

“This is why liberty is important,” he notes. “The great question before us is whether we’re going to trust the deplorable and the irredeemable to govern themselves.”

Citing the work of Robert L. Woodson, Sr., Mitchell makes a recommendation relevant to grantmakers. “You go into the communities that are in distress and you find the people who, by grace and good fortune, are the pillars of the community.” They “might not be the ones on the organizational chart, but they are the people that those in trouble go to. And you ask them the question: how can we help?

“If you are in a position where you can help, and so many of us are,” Mitchell concludes, “why don’t we start by looking at our neighbors and our neighborhood and our local communities? It’s not grand and glorious. But that’s where the real work will get done.”


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