Sunday, March 12, 2017

On Christian Tribalism

So this article has been making the rounds among my Facebook friends.
Dying before We Reach the Promised Land: How moral degradation didn’t come for evangelicals, but from them

To quote from part of it:

This has helped provide me with some context for the most confusing phenomenon I have observed in my life: the evangelical capitulation to President Donald Trump.
No, confusing isn’t quite the right word. During the run-up to the 2016 election, it was mystifying. Infuriating. Even, at times, heartbreaking.
At this point, we hardly need to re-litigate all the things that make President Trump unworthy of Christian praise. He has shown himself to be proudly against almost everything Christians claim to be for.
He is a vain and cruel man, obsessed with power and wealth. He sows fear and distrust, stoking the very worst impulses of our society. He is quick to speak and slow to listen. He notoriously has no respect for sexual morals or women’s bodies—be they Rosie O’Donnell’s or his own daughter’s. And as to the truth, well, you treat your washcloths with more respect.
He is, in other words, exactly the sort of person you would expect the Religious Right to lambast with their famous smear machine. That, as you may be aware, did not happen.
Evangelicals—the white ones anyway—voted for Trump in waves. They didn’t just help him get elected; they were the key to his victory. Aided by the support—sometimes begrudging, sometimes enthusiastic—of several high profile evangelical leaders like Wayne Grudem, James Dobson, Eric Metaxas, and Jerry Falwell, Trump got just the sort of minority vote he needed to win.

I agree with the author that this is infuriating. (and- something- I've- often complained about on this blog many times this past year).

However it also has a long history.

Ever since Constantine, the church has supported all sorts of kings, emperors, and rulers who did extremely non-Christian things.

How to explain all this?

My theory is this:
All dominant ideologies have about only one or two generations where they represent a real idea.  After that, they simply represent an identification with your chosen tribal group.

In other words, there are very few real Christians in America--that is, there are very few people who actually take the message of the Gospel seriously.  Most people simply identify as Christian because it's what their friends and family identify as.

Some Christians perhaps have had "born-again" experiences, but spiritual renewal is very hard to maintain in the day-to-day struggle.  People get tired, and worn out by their struggle to pay their rent, or raise their kids, or advance in their jobs.
And eventually natural human instincts re-assert themselves and they become selfish and greedy and impatient --just like everyone else.
This is why it is impossible to distinguish Christians from non-Christians just based on their good deeds alone.  The atheists are often just as kind, thoughtful, loving, etc. as the Christians are.

Now, perhaps at this point you're thinking: "Gee, you're hardly the first person to point this out.  Quit trying to pass other people's ideas off as your own."
 And I know.  Google "Christian Tribalism" and your see lots of people have already written about this.  And I've been influenced by other people's writing.

But it occurred to me the other day how many seemingly confusing things can be perfectly explained once we accept this explanation, and view Christianity not as a set of beliefs but as a tribe identification.  Allow me to enumerate a few of them.

* Recently a friend of mine from Facebook, someone who's living in Grand Rapids, posted this:
There is such CRUSHING poverty in this city, this city with a church on every corner... it's confusing.
A couple other people in the comments expressed their similar concern about this, but no one was able to give a satisfactory answer.
But actually the answer is quite simple.  Indeed, it would be confusing if we expected that going to church every Sunday correlated with any obligation to take the Gospel messages seriously.  But going to Church is simply a sign of identifying with your chosen group (and distinguishing yourself from the other groups who don't go to Church.)

* Many of the cultural wars that Christians have fought over the years do not advance the Kingdom of God at all.  The bitter battles over having the ten commandments in the court house, for example:

But to what purpose does having the ten commandments in the Court actually serve?  Does it make people behave better?  Does it convert non-believers?
No, it's simply symbolic.  The presence of the ten commandments in the court house indicates that one group is able to proclaim their dominance over other groups.  The absence of the ten commandments indicates that this group is losing their dominance in the culture.  In other words, it's a tribal conflict, not a religious conflict.
This is the same with just about any issue in the culture war that you can pick out.  The battle over whether to say "Happy Holidays" versus "Merry Christmas", for example.  Every year certain people make a huge deal over saying "Merry Christmas," and yet no one could argue that the central message of the Gospels would be advanced by forcing everyone to say "Merry Christmas".

This also explains why so many religious and conservative leaders - have - histories - of  - sexually immorality, and yet do not lose their leadership standing.  From a tribalistic standpoint, whether or not the sexual codes of conduct are actually being followed is of secondary importance to the religious and political victories.

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.  You could list examples all day.

And this explains why the Christians rallied behind Trump.  The actual beliefs did not matter at all.  What mattered was that Trump was part of their tribe, and Hillary Clinton was clearly part of the other tribe.

Other Notes
* To my mind, the fact that religious beliefs so strongly correlate with geographical location is yet another indication of Tribalism.  If religious identification were actually based on the quality of the beliefs themselves, we would expect that they would be evenly dispersed.

* Although it's a bit of a cliched example by now, the history of Northern Ireland is a perfect example of how religion is nothing more than tribalism.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky vs Canadian Journalists Video Audio 1988


Whisky Prajer said...

Not much to add, really, except to make a distinction between voters and Evangelical grandstanders and GOP lick-spittles like Dobson, Graham Jr. and similar ilk who approved this belligerent as "a baby Christian." I'm gathering from FB commentary and other similar chatter aggregates that while Evangelicals may have voted en masse for Trump, a substantial number were not happy about it. They weren't happy with the choice on offer.

As a distant spectator I found it confounding how both sides could so clearly identify the mote in their opponent's eye but be blind to their own. I was firmly in the "anyone but Trump" camp, but even I had to admit that, if seriously meditated on, everything Trump was evidently guilty of happened to be glaring deficits of character for Clinton as well (though the business of sexually predatory behavior was (and one assumes still is) embodied by her husband, it is behavior that was and is enabled by her -- but this is the only distinction to be made between her venalities and Trump's. Though now that I think of it she isn't as lazy as he is, so there's that).

Anyway, I don't want to make excuses for Evangelicalism -- a morally bankrupt and thoroughly insular praxis, to my eyes. But making Trump the sole locus of despair is not helpful to anyone, I don't think.

Whisky Prajer said...

And then there's this: Trump's approval ratings are historically low, as in Richard Nixon's second term low. But who's approval rating is even lower than that? The DNC. Some very pointed lessons are very pointedly not being learned.

Joel Swagman said...

Yeah, okay, fair point. I tend to sometimes get so upset at Trump that I forget all of Hillary's faults.

Okay, ignore Trump then for the moment, and just focus on the other examples--the battle to keep the 10 commandments in the court house, or the battle every Christmas about whether or not to say "Happy Holidays" or "Merry Christmas". This strikes me as just fighting for symbolic victories to showcase the dominance of a particular tribe

Whisky Prajer said...

"Fighting for symbolic victories" is spot-on, and is the sort of spectacle that drives this Huckabee writer of yours crazy. The POV I was raised in hammered home that a genuinely "Christian" (best read: "Mennonite") way of life was never going to gain the cultural upper hand, and if it ever looked like it had then you knew something was terribly wrong and you were probably on the wrong side of persecutor/martyr equation.

But symbolic victories are a big deal for the Protestant impulse -- focus on the argument and major in the minors.

And yet, and yet ... I can't shrug off symbolic victories as hollow or insignificant. This "Happy Holidays" business, for e.g. -- I don't care what you say to me the week before Christmas, but how did it become preferable to say HH over MC? I wish my grocer "Ramadan mubarak," give my Jewish friends a customary "Shanah Tovah" and in a few weeks' time they'll both say "Happy Easter" to me. Specificity and clarity of identity is preferable to sincerely held vagaries -- if only because it makes for invigorating conversation. And if you no longer identify with the tribe that brought you into this world and gave you the grammar to interact with it, a "Happy Festivus" is a huge improvement on HH.

But this business of grammar is essential. How did we come to identify HH as preferable to MC? How did we come to identify "Christianity" as dominant, ergo "oppressive"? How did "tolerance" and "empathy" for the perceived minority become the optimal social value? I'd say it's likely from frog-marching generations of kids through Sunday and Torah School, so they could learn the Golden Rule and its variants. So why not put the Ten Commandments up in the courtroom? We may regard American justice as superior to the Levitican exercise, but those are very much its origins. Citation is all, as they say in academia. The minute we presume the current manifestation of social justice is unfettered from its history is the moment we accord it a dangerous degree of authority over our imaginations and our lives.

Whisky Prajer said...

Further grist for your mill: "Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: they don't really go to church."

Joel Swagman said...

Regarding HH versus MC:

Something I was going to write up in the original version of this post, but then decided not to because I didn't want to lose focus, was that Christian tribalism was just one manifestation of the tribalism that affects every group. In other words, the other side (my side) is just as guilty of tribalism.

Some of the attempts to remove the word "Christmas" completely from the calendar strike me as misguided secularist tribalism. The holiday exists, so I see no harm in acknowledging that December 25 is Christmas.

But on the other hand, when Christians over-react to this sort of thing, that strikes me as Christian tribalism, because it's just purely a symbolic fight.

As for generic store greetings: when stores instruct their greeters to say "happy holidays" instead of "merry christmas", that strikes me as well-intentioned. Because the greeters don't know who they are talking to, and there's no sense wishing a Jew or a Muslim a merry Christmas.

Joel Swagman said...

Just got done reading that article now. Thanks a lot for the link. It is appearing that perhaps things are a lot more complicated than I first thought.