The Catch-22 of Identity Politics

““For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified...”

Yale University
Yale University (photo: David Mark/Pixabay/CC0)

This January, Yale University announced it would be canceling its art history course, claiming it was “too white, too male, too Western, too heterosexual.” Art history was deemed offensive, and rather than finding a way to integrate other cultures, it was completely erased. Western civilization was “canceled” rather than taught.

Yale University caved to identity politics.

Another example of high-profile identity politics was the outrage over Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt. When it was first released, it had the accolades of Oprah Winfrey, People magazine and author Stephen King, as well as actresses Salma Hayek and Gina Rodriguez. Praise turned to hysteria because Cummins wrote about a Mexican migrant. She was accused of cultural appropriation and canceled her book tour. Oprah, instead of dropping American Dirt from her book club, had an Apple+ TV special filmed in Tucson that aired March 6. The novel’s critics took Oprah to task for not having Latino authors in her high-profile book club. Oprah apologized for her lack of Latino authors, then went to the border wall and interviewed migrants as a penitential act.

Yale University’s art history debacle and the American Dirt controversy show the destructiveness of identity politics. Identity politics attacks not only Western civilization, but civilization itself.

The concept of Western civilization reduced to “dead white males” dates back to the turbulent ‘60s. One of the first colleges to teach “identity politics” and “queer theory,” long before it became ubiquitous in the academy, was SUNY Buffalo’s Tolstoy College. It was no longer about the importance of ideas, but of identities. Turning Martin Luther King, Jr.’s maxim on its head, teaching became about the color of Plato, Aristotle and Euclid’s skin rather than the “content of their character.”

The term “identity politics” was coined by the Massachusetts-based Combahee River Collective in their 1977 statement. The Combahee River Collective was a lesbian black feminist organization based in Boston from 1974 to 1980. According to the statement, “This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end someone else’s oppression.” While they called for an end to racism (a form of identity politics), they also called for “the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy. We are socialists because we believe that work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products, and not for the profit of the bosses.”

While some, such as respected author Mary Eberstadt, have traced identity politics back to the sexual revolution and contraception of the ‘60s, Scripture shows that identity politics is older than that. Like the poor, “identity politics” has always been with us, in some shape or form.

While God has his Chosen People in the Old Testament, the most striking examples are of those who transcend their identities. From the first, Scripture shows that God not only opts for a People, but his primary interest is in those who choose him. In fact, one could say that God chooses a people for the intent of showing that race is irrelevant. So, Ruth is a Moabite; not one of the “Chosen.” Yet she chooses to stay with her mother-in-law Naomi. Naomi says (Ruth 1:15), “Your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and her gods.” Ruth refuses, saying (Ruth 1:16), “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” She decides to travel with her widowed mother-in-law to Bethlehem (Ruth 1:22). Instead of clinging to her Moabite identity, Ruth’s willingness to join the Israelites makes her akin to Rachel and Leah (Ruth 4:11).

A striking example of “identity politics” was the Gospel reading March 15, about Our Lord and the woman at the well. When Jesus asks for water, the woman’s first response is (John 4:9), “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria? For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.” At first, she sees Jesus as merely a Jewish man. Our Lord, however, beckons her to drink of the water of eternal life (John 4:13-14). He illuminates the irregularity of her living situation (John 4:17-18), and proceeds to teach her about true worship (John 4:21-24). The disciples marvel at Jesus speaking to a woman (John 4:27), but they don’t accuse him of “mansplaining.” Remarkably, the story of Jesus’ time in Samaria ends with the woman herself. Her powerful testimony enables her fellow Samaritans to believe in Jesus as the Savior (John 4:39-42). Jesus transcends “identity politics,” saying that worshipers will “worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23).

At Pentecost, the Apostles spoke in many tongues, transcending divisions (Acts 2:5-13), but there was still the issue of “identity politics.” St. Paul specifically rebukes this in his first letter to the Corinthians. He says (1 Corinthians 1:12-15), “What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’ or ‘I belong to Apollos’ or ‘I belong to Cephas’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I am thankful that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, lest anyone should say that you were baptized in my name.” St. Paul condemns it as dissensions and quarreling. He again rebukes such “identity politics” saying (1 Corinthians 3:3-6), “For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving like ordinary men? For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and another ‘I belong to Apollos’ are you not merely men? What then is Apollos? What then is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”

Instead of identifying with himself or Apollos, St. Paul encourages people to look at the big picture of God’s glory. It is merely human to focus on “identity.” Identity is limiting. The point is to transcend one’s individual (or group) identity to become part of Christ’s Church.

Using the example of Yale University, Western civilization is in the “out group” for being “too white, too male.” Moreover, identity politics shows how “cancel culture” is reductionist. Instead of looking at the vast scope of Western civilization, it reduces it to some leaders and their superficial traits. It becomes a case of the revolution devouring its own. “Intersectionality” leads to a pecking order. It is no wonder that Mexican-American author Sandra Cisneros, author of the popular novel House on Mango Street, called the critics of American Dirt “exagerados.” It becomes a contest for who identifies as the most oppressed. And who is to judge?

Identity politics have left us mired in a swamp of mutual recrimination. It has led to division rather than reconciliation and it has further made reductionism and minimalism the framework of the moral imagination. Though St. Paul could easily have ended his argument with his various victimizations and his identity, he insisted how Our Lord transcends identities. He said (1 Corinthians 1:22-24), “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”