Tribal Religion and Tribal Politics


So I’ve been increasingly convinced, that in the US, being a Christian is often considered part of a package. A package that includes an American form nationalism, right wing politics, and an identification with the GOP.

This creates pressure among Republicans, who do not have a religious bent, to identify with Christianity so as to be part of this whole package. And liberals of a religious bent have pressure to not identify with Christianity for the same reason.

This hunch comes to me from Robert Putnam. I saw this recently in action in a column, that proved to be a confirmation of this dynamic.

That leads me to . . . drum roll . . . the Christian Right. It is no small feat, switching tribes. It feels stressful and weird to abandon your tribe for the Detested Other Side.

Since November 8, my husband and I have been taking the kids to church. (He is politically conservative with a religious bent, so no argument there.) I have come this close to buying a giant poster of the American flag for the living room. I may do it still.

She describes Christianity as a tribe. It is identified with the Christian right and it’s an identity marker. As she moves from “secular liberal” to “Christian right” lots of symbolic identifiers have to change. So the American flag goes up. Going to church becomes a thing. After all her husband is a political conservative so of course he goes to church.

There is a difference though. He has “a religious bent.” Is there any indication that this columnist has a religious bent? I don’t see it. I do see a desire to be part of the Christian/nationalist/GOP tribe though. As she writes:

Right now, I am struggling to accept the basic Christian doctrines (virgin birth, resurrection, second coming) because I feel the Christian tribe may be the right tribe for my family.

I am officially tired of the type of people who have surrounded me my entire life. In the wake of Trump’s election, I am experiencing “tribe fatigue.” I’m not tired of The Other, Detestable Tribe. I’m tired of my own.

Did she have an experience of Jesus? An attraction to his teachings? Did she have a religious experience of sorts? We know she is changing parties and political identification, she is changing tribes as it were. I’d argue that the religious and political polarization in our country makes examples like hers expected.

This is juxtaposed to a column by Ross Douthat who chronicles religious experiences by known “secular liberals” such as Barbara Ehrenreich. Such experiences are not likely to lead folks to church. Why? One reason, I’d argue, is that they don’t want to participate in the GOP/right-wing/nationalist/Christian package. Or maybe there is a Dem/liberal/cosmopolitan/secular package that is part and parcel of one’s identity?

I don’t want to speak for Barbara Ehrenreich, but I do think that these identities exist and that they exert pressure towards or against being part of the church. When you read Anne Rice, she has this pull of someone with a religious experience but can no longer identify with the “Christian tribe.”

“I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity,” she said. “It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For 10 years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”

The author reiterated that her faith in Christ was “central” to her life. “My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn’t understand to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me,” she said. “But following Christ does not mean following His followers.

This was in response to homophobia, in particular. My point is that we are not seeing people join or leave religions because of some experience but because of social political pressure to join or leave a particular tribe, a tribe that has defined itself by its politics.

The result is that the religious resources of our traditions can no longer be accessed outside of these tribal loyalties, that people that could gain much from the Christian tradition would never go near it and those that are ostensibly secular, are coerced to be part of the Christian tribe to keep their identities intact.

This political sorting out is only several decades old. In 1972 there was no necessary connection in polls between church attendance and politics. My father could teach Sunday School and vote for Walter Mondale and never once was his faith questioned, that he was somehow violating a tribal norm.

By time I worked on the Clinton campaign in 92, I as barraged with questions from secular liberal friends of mine and evangelical friends, one side wondering how I could be a Christian because it is was homophobic, patriarchal,  and opposed to science, the other side asking how I could be a Democrat who supports homosexuality and abortion.

The idea that a religion can belong to all who feel drawn to it is being lost and as a society we’re not the better for it. And as a pastor I’d say Christianity is not better off either. It’s made our religion and our country more tribal, less open to each other and God’s world.

Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma

Categories: Feature, Politics, Religion

2 replies »

  1. We too often confuse attending a Christian church with living a Christ-like life style. The Christian Right is a minority and will remain such. The church to which I have belonged to all my life is opposed to a woman’s right to choose and gay unions. When religions of any denomination or belief system try to make their beliefs illegal, then I have a serious problem. Republicans can make no claim to religious or family values particularly when one views their elected leaders and supporters throughout the country.

  2. Contemporary Christian doctrine would astonish Jesus. He makes it clear throughout the Gospels that to enter into Christ is to do one thing: to seek, with all means in our power, to bind love to the world. [Matt. 7:21-23] This means rejection of anger and fear. It means trusting in love, even when it takes a form that seems materially bizarre to us. It means eschewing tribal associations when they come with pressure to categorize others as unworthy of receiving love.

    Islamic scholars talk of the Qu’ran as “the middle way” between the restrictive rules of Judaism and the ambiguous contextual morality of unconditional love. The latter requires a complete surrender of control and a devotion to the well-being of others. It is the end-point of Judaism, but not something that is apprehensible or comfortable for many people. For most, the only accessible path to Christ is to reject the fashionable teaching of modern scholars, throwing oneself instead upon the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

    Unfortunately, that is a path that many religious authorities impede, as their first priority is to secure an income through popularization of Jesus’s teachings. Unfortunately, that involves making those teachings “comfortable” and “relevant,” characteristics that are inconsistent with the nature of Jesus ministry.

    As in Jesus’s time, the problem will be solved when the faithful recognize that their survival depends upon rejecting human doctrine for divine authority.

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