Typically, talk about identity politics is focused on domestic American politics. But earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal ran an article entitled “Identity Politics Goes Global,” warning that the spread of identity politics abroad is threatening the destruction of multi-ethnic states in Asia and Africa.
So what is identity politics, really?
Oberlin’s Sonia Kruks explains that “what makes identity politics a significant departure from earlier, pre-identarian forms of the politics of recognition” is the nature of its demand: “the demand is not for inclusion within the fold of ‘universal humankind’ on the basis of shared human attributes; nor is it for respect ‘in spite of’ one’s differences. Rather, what is demanded is respect for oneself as different.” So you need to listen to me because I’m part of X, Y, or Z group. Conversely, you need to support this political party or issue because you’re part of X, Y, or Z group. (For instance, you’re a woman, so you’re not supposed to be pro-life.) This isn’t a politics built upon unity and uniformity. It’s a politics built upon difference and division.
But why would such an obviously destructive political movement become popular, and what can Catholics say in response to it?
One reason is that it gets something right about the relationship of identity with politics. That is, one strength of identity politics is that it recognizes that identity drives action. If you don’t know who you are, you don’t know how to behave. Imagine waking up during a soccer game and not knowing whether you were a fan, a referee, a goalie, or one of the other players: you wouldn’t know what to do next. In this world, we have a hunger for a sense of identity and a sense of belonging, because without these things, we have no way of knowing what to do with our lives.
Another reason is that identity politics takes personal stories seriously. That might seem counterintuitive at first, given that this is a politics that lumps people into clumsy racial and ethnic boxes. But it does so by tapping into the power of people’s personal experiences. Second-wave feminists even had a slogan for this: “the personal is political.” Carol Hanisch, who popularized the phrase, explains that “personal problems are political problems. There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution.” Michelle Gao, a Harvard student writing about “Why I Don’t Support Identity Politics Anymore” for the student paper, explains that “I used to believe in identity politics because it told me: You and your experience matter. Your identity gives you authority. Your beliefs can’t be invalidated because your identity can’t be invalidated.”
Identity politics succeeds in no small part, then, because it gives people a sense of belonging, a sense of identity, and a sense that they matter and are seen and affirmed as who they are. Granted, it often does this in a sort of lowest-common-denominator way, by reducing people’s identities to the intersection of certain politically relevant details: their race/ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, and so on. But this should be a wake-up call to Catholics. Why? Because we have something better to offer in each of these areas.
Pope St. John Paul II begins his encyclical Fides et Ratio by declaring that “faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.” The claim is striking, because the pope isn’t condemning us for wanting to figure out who we are. He’s instead arguing that we’ll come to that knowledge only once we know who God is. It’s only when Simon realizes that Jesus is the Christ that he’s able to “come to the fullness of truth” about himself by letting Jesus reveal him to himself as St. Peter (Matt. 16:15-19). Logically, that makes sense: if we don’t know whether we’re a cosmic accident or part of the loving plan of God, then what hope do we have of really knowing the “fullness of truth” about our own identities? My best hope to understand my unique nature is to learn from the one who designed me.
We Catholics sometimes recoil from unbiblical language like “my personal Lord and Savior” when used by Protestants, because we (rightly) don’t want to obscure the fact that being “children of God” (1 John 3:1) also entails being part of the Church, the “household of God” (1 Tim. 3:15). But each of us has a relationship with Christ that is unique, personal, and unrepeated. We can’t let the big picture—men are rational animals, created in love by God for eternity with him—obscure the intimacy of the detailed individual scenes within that picture: God knows and loves you. Jesus’ promise to the triumphant saint is that “I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone which no one knows except him who receives it” (Rev. 2:17). He expresses this intimacy by combining the image of a private, hidden Communion with that of finally learning your real name, your true identity, in a way known only to God and (ultimately) you.
If you think about the dictators in history, their stories are depressingly similar: the rise to power, the domination of enemies, the awful bloodshed. But if you think about the saints, they’re wildly different. St. Joan of Arc and St. Thérèse of Lisieux were both young female French saints, but after that, they have little in common. The former was a medieval warrior, saving France on the field of battle. The latter was a contemplative nun, praying from her cell for the conversion of the world. Indeed, part of Thérèse’s spiritual journey was realizing that she wasn’t called to be Joan, for “our Lord made me understand that the only true glory is that which lasts for ever; and that to attain it there is no necessity to do brilliant deeds, but rather to hide from the eyes of others, and even from oneself, so that ‘the left hand knows not what the right hand does.’”
We are not reducible to our skin color or our sex or any of our other politically convenient characteristics. We are not even reducible to being Christians or Catholics, as if we were interchangeable pieces in God’s plan. No, the deepest identity that we’re all searching for is something both utterly personal and revealed only in intimacy with God. The first step toward revealing that identity is knowing how to answer Christ’s question: “But who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15). When you know that, you’ll know who you are, too.