02 The Effects of Tribalism

The Effects of Tribalism


Americans have been lonely for a long time. In 1995 Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam published a paper called “Bowling Alone.” Several years later, it would be expanded and published in book form.2 In it, Putnam wrote of the decline of membership in various communities that have traditionally been a staple of American life. This included churches, but also things like the Rotary Club or bowling leagues— which inspired the title. He warned that America’s “social capital”—the various “soft” benefits people enjoy when they are in close community with other people—is in decline.

Social capital is accrued through simple acts—borrowing a cup of sugar from a neighbor or chaperoning a school field trip—that bring us into contact with the people in our communities, weaving strands of familiarity into a web of connectedness. When this web begins to fall apart, society suffers. In 2015, for example, one in five Americans told Barna they regularly or often feel lonely. In a separate 2017 survey, just one in four Americans said they had managed to become friends with one or two of their neighbors.

This is why viewing religious liberty issues through a lens of relationship is so important. Our conversation around the issue is taking place in this context of increasing isolation and alienation. Absent the community bonds that social capital creates and the empathy it fosters, it is all too easy to perceive others as truly Other—to view difference as danger, the strange as suspicious, the unknown as a threat. The result, as we consider the debates over religious freedom, is that both sides seem to be digging in.

This chapter explores how pastors and the general public are moving toward group solidarity in response to mounting uncertainty about religious freedom. It addresses questions about the intersection of group identity, loneliness and religious liberty in the United States.

  • How can we build strong communities of faith marked by real solidarity with one another without also inadvertently adopting more tribalistic vices?
  • Most Americans believe that no one set of values should dominate the country, but a growing number want preference for their own set of values. Will these tribalistic tendencies produce deeper divisions?

This chapter also examines data on difficult conversations and the importance of friendships with those who are different.

The Rise of Tribalism

In the past decade, the word “tribalism” has become ubiquitous in American public discourse. Commentators have argued that tribalism, and the mentality it engenders, were critical in President Trump’s 2016 election. It is the driving force of much of today’s identity politics—a strong tendency to want to belong to, and identify with, a group of people who are like you. In a world marked by so much loneliness, it is inevitable that people will seek out communities that look and believe as they do. Group solidarity can be a good thing. It can lead to mobilization, to action, to survival. However, in an increasingly pluralistic society, it can also create deep divisions and an “us vs. them” mentality. It leads to echo chambers, ideological stubbornness and a vulnerability to subjective thinking.

The changing demographics of the United States are at the root of many of these anxieties and fierce divides, as we see in the data. More than 84 percent of adults told Barna in July 2015 that they agree with the statement, “There is a lot of anger and hostility between the different ethnic and racial groups in America today.” The lack of a shared identity that can bridge growing ethnic, cultural, religious and economic divides is a very real challenge to resolving a contentious question like setting the boundary between freedom of conscience and the requirements of law.

How are clergy doing in this regard? When they were asked in 2014 about their preference for what should be the common standard for moral values in America, they tended to choose their own, showing a pronounced preference for the group to which they belong. Respondents were offered two options: “Traditional Judeo-Christian values should be given preference in the US” and “No one set of values should dominate the country.” Two-thirds of US clergy (66%) chose the former over the latter (34%). Protestant non-mainline clergy (78%) were the most likely to prefer the first option, along with seven in 10 Catholics (68%). Fewer than half of mainline Protestants (46%) and just over one-third of non-Christian clergy (34%) agree. (Since this group’s make-up includes more than four in 10 who self-describe as Christian but do not fall within orthodox Christian beliefs—Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness—this explains why such a large number still prefer traditional Judeo-Christian values.)

These numbers are significant. On one hand, it is unsurprising that clergy feel most loyal to their own value system. But on the other, their desire for preferential treatment appears to challenge the very notion of freedom of religion.

Views among US adults on this question have begun to shifted in recent years. From 2012 to 2017, the proportion of US adults who agree that traditional Judeo-Christian values should be given preference in the US has increased from one-quarter (26%) to one-third (32%). Despite a strong overall preference for neutrality, the tide is beginning to turn in the direction of tribalism.

On a closer look, it appears this tribalistic mentality is most pronounced among Christians (clergy and laypeople). For example, the growth in this view among evangelicals is remarkable: Three out of five (59%) expressed a preference for traditional Judeo-Christian values in 2012, increasing to four in five (81%) in 2017. Evangelicals have been at the forefront of disputes about religious freedom and, as they witness their own value system decline in America, they may be increasingly motivated to see it given preference. The same is true to a lesser extent among practicing Christians. In 2012, almost two in five practicing Christians (37%) believed Judeo-Christian values should be given preference; in 2017 this had climbed to three in five (59%). For comparison, those who do not claim a faith have shifted very little, with most preferring that no one set of values dominates (93% in 2012 to 89% in 2017)—again, pointing to a growing divide between tribes.

We see a smaller but similar movement among US adults when asked whether they would be more likely to support a group that protects the rights of all religions, their own religion or a secular vision of America. While support for the protection of all religions commands a strong majority, there is a measurable shift in those who chose “an organization that protects the rights of those who practice your religion,” from 11 percent in 2012 to 17 percent in 2017.

Difficult Conversations

Americans are increasingly likely to want to preserve their own interests and rights. This splintering and polarization of American culture has made it more difficult than ever to reach across cultural divides. Recent Barna research shows that most Americans think it would be difficult to have a natural and normal conversation with minority groups who are different from them. A majority of Americans says they would struggle to have a conversation with a Muslim (73%), a Mormon (60%), an atheist (56%), an evangelical (55%) or someone from the LGBT community (52%).

Evangelicals seem to have a particularly difficult time talking to those outside their group. They report higher tensions than any other group when it comes to having conversations with those who are different from them. For instance, almost nine in 10 evangelicals (87%) believe it would be difficult to have a natural and normal conversation with a member of the LBGTQ community, but only six in 10 in the LGBT community (58%) say it would be difficult to have a natural and normal conversation with an evangelical.

This holds true across the board. Evangelicals consistently report higher levels of difficulty with other groups than those groups report with them. Nearly nine in 10 evangelicals (87%) think it would be difficult to have a conversation with a Muslim, but only seven in 10 of those with other faiths (69%) report difficulty in conversing with evangelicals. Similarly, when it comes to speaking to atheists, 85 percent of evangelicals think it would be difficult, but only two-thirds of atheists, agnostics and those who do not have any faith (66%) say they would have a hard time talking with evangelicals.

Although evangelicals are most likely to report this difficulty talking to a member of another group, what is most striking is how often a majority of any group says it would be hard to have a conversation with any other group. Tribalism impairs the connections necessary to a healthy society on even the most basic level.

Viewed through the ministry lens, this suggests it would be helpful for pastors and churches to think creatively about how to develop stronger relationships within their neighborhoods. Churches might organize service-oriented events whose main goal is simply to meet people in the neighborhood surrounding their church—neighborhood block parties, for example. These events could have evangelistic value as well—but if the primary goal is simply building relationships, it might remove some of the fear associated with conversations across religious lines.

Viewed through the relationship lens, individual Christians could try to create non-intimidating spaces for meeting neighbors—perhaps inviting co-workers or neighbors to play board games or other casual activities. Rebuilding social capital requires simple acts that ease the fear and discomfort from interfaith relationships.

Not surprisingly, most groups tend to have more internal than external harmony. For instance, almost three in 10 evangelicals (28%) think it would be difficult to have a conversation with another evangelical. That’s a comparatively low number—especially when 87 percent of evangelicals think it would be difficult to have a conversation with a Muslim—but even so points to tension even within groups. This goes beyond evangelicals. Four in 10 LGBT adults (39%) think it would be difficult to have a conversation with another member of the LGBT community. The problem with growing tribalism is not simply that members of individual tribes do not trust other tribes; it’s that tribes themselves tend to splinter into subgroups over time, creating ever greater mistrust and isolation.

Difficult Conversations in the Church

Churches ought to be the place where this growing divide is bridged. In a world that increasingly looks at differences as definitions, scripture teaches that all are one in Christ (see Galatians 3:23 and Colossians 3:11).

The good news is that most clergy (93%) feel at least somewhat prepared to teach their faith community to constructively engage with people who disagree with their views on social issues. Almost two in five (38%) feel very prepared, and a majority (55%) feels somewhat prepared. While still a minority perception, more Catholic clergy (17%) feel not too or not at all prepared; that’s four times more than mainline Protestants (4%) who report feeling not too or not at all prepared. Non-Christian clergy are more likely than other pastors to say they are very prepared (56%) to teach their faith community how to engage well in disagreement. This is not surprising, given that adherents to other faiths or no faith often find themselves in the minority in America, at least when it comes to religious self-identification, and thus may have more experience contending for their point of view.

Whether or not they feel very prepared to teach their faith communities to engage constructively on social issues, most clergy agree their congregations want coaching in this area. Almost four in five clergy members (79%) agree that the people in their congregation want help with these kinds of conversations.

In the 2015 / 2016 study, Christian clergy were asked how well they feel their congregants are equipped to have difficult conversations about challenging and sensitive social topics. For the most part, very few clergy (7%) believed their congregants were very well equipped. More than half (55%) said they were somewhat well equipped, which was the most common response among clergy from all denominations. But significant numbers (38%) still believed their congregants were not too or not at all equipped. This is noteworthy, especially considering how well-prepared clergy feel to teach their congregation to engage in constructive conversation. There appears to be a disconnect here, which likely relates to how comfortable clergy feel about speaking out on certain issues, a problem explored in more detail in the next chapter.

Reaching Across the Divide

Challenging tribalism requires leaders who are willing to reach across the divide and find common ground with groups they have little in common with. The good news is that, based on the 2014 data, more than seven in 10 clergy (72%), regardless of faith tradition, would definitely or probably be willing, in the coming year, to work on religious liberty issues with a local clergyperson of another faith. African American (82%) and mainline Protestants (77%) were more likely than Catholics (70%) or non-mainline Protestants (70%) to say they would definitely or probably be willing to do so.

Small percentages in each segment said they would probably not or definitely not be willing to work with another clergyperson of a different faith. The largest segment among these is non-Christian clergy, one in 10 of whom (11%) reported their strong unwillingness to cross the lines of faith tradition. This is double the proportion of mainline, non-mainline and African American Protestants who said the same.

Barna has found in many instances that positive exposure to those outside one’s group leads to increased empathy. As one example, one-quarter of people who spend time with Muslim friends (24%) strongly disagree that the majority of terrorism is perpetrated by Muslims, compared to just 13 percent among those who do not spend time with Muslim friends.

Unfortunately, most Americans do not interact much with those outside their group. In a 2015 study, most people admitted their friends are mostly similar to them in religion, ethnicity, political ideology, socioeconomic group, stage of life, and so on. This kind of tribalism causes people to believe whatever their group believes, regardless of external evidence or opinions to the contrary. Tribalism, then, poses one of the most severe threats in a contested culture, at the very least keeping groups from welcoming one another, let alone learning from each other.

That said, for Christians it also affords an exciting opportunity. For those who share a common faith, there is a chance to embody unity in compelling ways, particularly across racial and political lines—two qualities that should not and must not divide believers in Christ but do often divide ordinary Americans. For example, there is opportunity here, viewed through a ministry lens, for churches to take steps to promote non-white pastoral leadership. Similarly, the biblical call to lift up the poor, to shelter the stranger and to work for the good of the city all offer rich ways to think about solidarity with those who are not Christians.

Viewed through the public square lens, there is opportunity for Christians to partner with people of other faiths or no faith at all to offer aid to the poor and the underserved through joint sponsoring of shelters, food kitchens and so on. There may also be opportunity for supporting local organizations that assist in low-income schools and work with poor children.

In one of his final editorials for Christianity Today, Philip Yancey wrote about the experience of an evangelical friend in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Sao Paulo, a major city in Brazil.

I recently heard from a friend who visited a barrio in São Paulo, Brazil. He grew nervous as he noticed the foot soldiers of drug lords standing guard holding automatic weapons. They were glowering at him, a gringo invading their turf. “Then the chief drug lord of that neighborhood noticed my T-shirt, which had the logo of a local Pentecostal church. He broke out in a big smile: ‘O, evangelicos!’ he called out, giving us hugs. Over the years, that church had cared for the children of the barrio, and now we were joyfully welcomed.” Some of my friends believe we should abandon the word evangelical. I do not. I simply yearn for us to live up to the meaning of our name.3

In a fractured society with few common objects of love, followers of Jesus have two options—to follow the pattern of fracture or to model a better way, embodied through sacrificial love offered to the other. The numbers tell an alarming story about America, but they also implicitly suggest that “the harvest is plentiful.”

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