The Spiritual Tribalism of American Christians

I shared in an earlier post that my attraction to the Mennonite faith was due to my respect for their commitment (not always lived out perfectly) to opposing the status quo, to the “upside-down kingdom” that privileges the poor, sides with the weak, and triumphs in death. This model requires some folks—the high and the mighty—to lose. Christians shouldn’t be afraid to lose; in fact, it’s what we’re called to do—to humble ourselves, even to the point of losing everything, even to the point of death.

But if we define Christianity according to what the conservative Protestants who have such cultural power in the US right now do with their faith (the “lived religion” way of defining religion), the picture doesn’t look promising. In fact, I’ll lob a pretty big insult at them, one they’ve hurled at Catholics for ages: they are cultural, nominal Christians, NASCAR Christians who can’t be bothered with church if it interrupts the race (the equivalent of C&E Catholics), people who care more about political power than the gospel and who identify as Christian only in that life is easier when they do so; their Christianity is a way to protect, not risk, themselves. Also, they’re lazy and uninformed about the religion they claim to adhere to. That’s not just me sneering (it actually hurts my heart): the research shows that the poorer their understanding of their faith and the weaker their ties to religion, the more committed they are to Donald Trump.

Joel wondered if American Christians are more tribal than spiritual, but their spirituality and their tribalism work together.  (In fact, tribalism is too kind of a word for their practices. Tribes care for their members. And spirituality is probably too kind of a word for their faith.) An entire theology of selfishness and entitlement—best exemplified in the prosperity gospel that has been so influential in Trump’s outreach to Christians but also integral to Christian arguments in favor of “Biblical immigration” and the end of welfare—circulates in Religious Right churches and media in softer and harsher versions.

Speaking from a scholarly perspective, it may be a losing formula. Conservative churches are bleeding members right now, especially young people. (It’s tough—you have to balance the donations of the old folks against the longevity of the younger members. I’m sure some consulting firm has a formula to figure out how far you push each demographic before losing funds or future congregants.)  Younger people are tired of the culture wars but yearning to put their faith into action in ways that don’t harm their LGBT loved ones. My own students (overwhelmingly Baptist or Church of Christ) rarely want to talk about abortion or gay marriage, but they are eager to talk about sex trafficking and human slavery.

The result of a continued commitment to spiritual tribalism may be smaller, less diverse, and more ideologically pure churches; more unaffiliated “spiritual but not religious” young people; a continuing small stream of new converts to the Episcopal tradition, Catholicism, and the Orthodox Church, which provide sacramental life without quite so much of the political baggage; and more religious “nones”—those who are done with the whole endeavor. Conservative churches may become even more conservative, louder, and more dangerous to democracy.

Panel - Christ Feeding the Five Thousand

Above, a late 12th/early 13th century stained glass depiction of Jesus feeding the 5000, currently in the William and Eileen Ruddock Gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The story does not tell us that he asked anyone he fed for their passport, visa, or birth certificate; he did not inquire about pre-existing conditions, political ideology, or the details of their faith. He did not demand they provide proof of income to insure that they were among the “worthy poor.” He fed them simply because they were hungry, even though he was personally tired.  Some of them probably even wasted their food or were ungrateful. Some of them probably didn’t join up with his movement, despite his generosity.  He seems to be okay with all of that. 

Speaking from a Mennonite perspective, the spiritual tribalism of much of conservative Protestantism is wicked, an offense to the wideness of God’s mercy, a show of disdain for scripture, and a usurpation of the authority of God, who did not charge us with gatekeeping. (For those who would like to toss out my perspective because you might assume that Christian progressives don’t care about sin, scripture, or God as sovereign—read that previous sentence again.) We have no models of Jesus scolding anyone for being too generous in their sacrifice, their love, or their hospitality—and plenty of models of grand and often dangerous gestures of generosity.

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