The 19th-century French writer Alexis de Tocqueville observed that the thinkers of the generations before him were wrong in their expectation that religion would slowly wither away, noting drily that “the facts do not fit this theory at all.” At almost two centuries’ remove, Joshua Mitchell notes that “religious zeal” indeed persists—but not exactly in the way Tocqueville expected:
Religion, [Tocqueville asserted], is a permanent feature of human life. And it is because there are eternal longings in the human heart that cannot be erased. Tocqueville’s brilliance was to have seen that the “secularization thesis” that took hold in the academic world a century after he wrote was a delusion. Man is a religious being. Human nature perennially makes its claim.
Tocqueville was, I think, a bit too confident. Man is religious, he thought, because his sorrows and suffering cry out for answers that the world cannot provide. In offering a language of hope, Tocqueville thought that religion “could reign in the democratic age and in all others.” Yet religion in general, and Christianity in particular, offers more than a language of hope; it provides a language of transgression and innocence. About this, Tocqueville says little in Democracy in America.
Our problem in America today begins there, with the way we are haunted by the language of transgression and innocence, but no longer have a Christian way of understanding it. This development suggests neither the permanence of religion nor the advent of an entirely new, secular, stage of history that Tocqueville thought impossible. This strange intermediary is identity politics. Because it is not quite Christian and not quite secular, it is perhaps best understood as Christianity’s Walking Dead.
Once, because of the doctrine of original sin, there was a presumption of guilt in the churches and, because of our legal history, a presumption of innocence in the realm of politics. Today, this abandonment of the doctrine of original sin has had the curious effect of lifting the burden of guilt in the churches—and of shifting it to politics. Whatever the law may say about our innocence, the presumption of identity politics is that man—or rather the white heterosexual man—is guilty.