There’s a term we use a lot around here to describe a certain type of Christian: “tribal.” Today I want to talk a little bit about tribalism and about one aspect of it in particular that has been in the news lately.
Tribalism is a term used to describe social groups that are very uniform in how they think and behave and that tend to value group loyalty and cohesion over individual members’ needs or any laws/rules/etiquette. Tribal group members value that one membership above that of other groups to which they may belong. And the members of a tribal group tend to act very decisively to protect the group’s cohesion against challenges and threats, even imagined ones.
Obviously, not all groups are tribes. Many of us were inducted in high school into an academics-based honor society. We might have gone up on stage during a school assembly to get our certificates of membership. We might have met together as a group, or attended banquets honoring the group, or even applied for and received scholarships in the name of that group. We might have gotten letter jackets because we were members of this group; we might been mentioned as members in our high school yearbooks, or we might have taken photos as a group for the local community weekly or student-run school newspaper. We might have put this group membership on our resumes and college or job applications for a while. Some of these groups might provide benefits that last for years after our graduation! And we might value our membership in them very highly, for good reason. I certainly value my memberships in these groups highly and would never imply that it was a waste of time to be involved with them.
But I’ve never met anyone who was a member of a group like that who would have abandoned their own family had the group demanded it. If they even ever tried to make such an outrageous and unreasonable demand, not only would nobody actually do it, but nobody else would even blame members for refusing to do it.
We don’t set the same exact value on all of our group memberships, and most of us wouldn’t sacrifice anything really important to us over one of those memberships.
But some groups demand exactly that level of dedication.
And worse, often they get what they want.
The Perseverance of the Saint.
A few years ago, I read an interview written by a gay Christian journalist who was interviewing a gay teacher of his from his high school days for a book. The teacher had been run out of town on a rail when his orientation had become known in what sounds like a truly appalling and humiliating confrontation; religious schools are not known for their tolerance in this situation. After losing his job and suffering a series of personal setbacks as a result of his onetime “church community’s” poor treatment of him, the teacher–who had been a very firm Christian until then–began to wonder what so many of us have wondered: why does Christianity, which keeps promising that it makes believers superior human beings, seem to boast so many absolutely terrible people in its ranks? When he found the same answer to the question that so many of his fellow travelers have found, the teacher deconverted.*
So now, years later, onetime student and former teacher were talking about that ugly incident and how it’d affected the teacher’s life and his religious faith. When the teacher revealed that he had left the religion behind and was happier now, the student was actually quite angry about it. Though he didn’t confront the teacher over what he saw as a defection, he wrote later–plaintively, I think– “This is how it ends? Where’s the redemption? Where’s the endurance of the faith? Where’s the perseverance of the saint?” The journalist was so upset over the deconversion of his formerly much-admired teacher that he even lied about remembering the whole event and dishonestly downplayed its importance in his life as a then-closeted young gay Christian.
At the time I was disturbed greatly by that journalist’s question and how he treated his teacher. Now I understand a bit better why he might have chosen to go that route. It was very likely a matter of tribalism.
The tribe Jeff Chu identified with was that of “the saints:” the body of Christians. Even though a great many of them might think of him as a lesser human being, desire to deny him basic human rights and civil liberties, and hold him personally responsible for any number of ills in human society, he still identified as Christian and felt very strongly about his faith. That tribe mattered so much to him that when he discovered that someone he cared about had been treated that shamefully by his tribemates, he could not find in himself sympathy or compassion. And he still held his former teacher responsible for group membership despite even the hardships this man had suffered.
That’s what tribalism does to someone. In the face of an outrageous betrayal or injury done by a tribemate, a tribal Christian’s first loyalty is to the tribe. Instead of taking firm action against abusers or showing human compassion to someone who desperately needs it, the tribal Christian will instead shore up the leaking sandbags around the tribe’s reputation and cohesion. In the face of challenges to the tribe, a tribal Christian will commit sins like lying without a second thought.
Tribalism isn’t just a Christian thing. It’s not even just a religious thing. People who get into certain 12-step programs or tangle with multi-level marketing scams will know tribalism’s kiss as well. I’ve even seen workplaces whose employees start behaving as a tribe, and sometimes you’ll see tribalism pop up in the weirdest places–like a group of stay-at-home mothers I once heard about who met at a park every morning and slowly began to morph into a clique. Anywhere a group starts emphasizing loyalty and cohesion over all other groups and social mores, the danger is there.
When a Christian gets more caught up in winning an argument or protecting the group’s interests than in actually doing what the Bible tells Christians to do, it’s glaringly obvious to others no matter how skillfully the Christian might spin-doctor this inconsistency. “Lying for Jesus” is little more than tribalism in action.
A tribe becomes stratified when it achieves a permanent hierarchy of membership. One subgroup within the tribe becomes its rulers, while the others all become followers. Groups begin to jockey among themselves for power within the tribe–often while not realizing that not only is it almost impossible to become rulers themselves, but that the rulers’ power and authority are quite, quite safe from encroachment because of the dynamics they’ve put into place and fostered in the tribe.
I’ve mentioned off and on this idea of the “Cool Kids’ Club” in the denomination to which I belonged at the end of my time in Christianity, and that’s what I mean by the phrase: that there was this little sub-group of devoted church members who were considered influential, super-spiritual, and absolutely dedicated to the denomination. Everybody wanted to be in the club–and once there, membership was jealously guarded. It was like a clique in high school, except there were mostly middle-aged and elderly people in it. I sensed early on that I’d never be a member of the Cool Kids’ Club and was a little sad about it, but the only solution I thought I had was to try to ignore that sadness as best I could.
When a tribe is based around ideas that aren’t objectively true, there’s a real danger of very harmful stratification in belief. One group tries to outdo all the other groups in fervor and zeal, and because fervor and zeal are at least ostensibly prized generally by the tribe and there are no objective reins on the entire tribe’s behavior, fervor and zeal start carrying the day because that is the only real way to stand out from the rest of the tribe.
Welcome to modern fundagelical Christianity.
How it plays out.
Recently, professional pearl-clutcher Mike Huckabee got upset over Rainbow Doritos chips. These were a limited-edition product available as a perk for people who donated money to a LGBTQ cause called It Gets Better. They aren’t available anymore.
Mike Huckabee, however, saw them as a symbol of everything wrong with America–and a symbol that he had to fight.
It’s worth mentioning that when people decided to quit eating at Chik-Fil-A as a protest against company’s anti-gay bigotry, Mike Huckabee protested mightily, saying that such boycotts were “economic terrorism”.
I suppose that when people do it to someone his tribe likes, it’s “economic terrorism.” But it’s totally fine for his tribe to do exactly the same thing to people they don’t like because they’re merely expressing their values. One really needs to get the hang of whiplash-inducing mental turnarounds to understand the Christian Right nowadays.
Oh, but as the slogan goes, it gets better.
Mike Huckabee and his supporters are trying their best to position this rather odd skirmish in their self-created culture war as one waged by Christians as a whole against what they view as a serious challenge to their cultural dominance.
But it isn’t a cause embraced by all Christians at all.
Mike Huckabee is acting like he speaks for all Christians in America, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t even speak for all evangelicals. Most Christians are totally on board with equal marriage and the other causes his tribe opposes. The war isn’t “Christians vs. the forces of evil,” but “Mike Huckabee’s particular narrow-minded, willfully ignorant, and increasingly shrinking gang of bigots who happen to be cloaking their bigotry in religion vs. people who think that all Americans deserve the same human and civil rights.” And there are Christians aplenty on either side of that fight. It’s no more “Christian” to oppose equal marriage than it is “Christian” to oppose artificial sweeteners. If you asked me right now to say where I think the religion as a whole stands on equal marriage–what I think the general tenor of their opinion is–I’d say “Warily accepting of it and just wishing their extremist elements would shut the fuck up about it already.”
By making this fight into a stratifying marker belief in their end of the religion, the Christian Right is hoping to drag more pro-LGBTQ Christians into their type of bigotry. They’re insinuating that one cannot be a proper and true Christian without being anti-gay like they are, and that having any other opinion on the matter is displeasing to their Savior. If Christians in America want to join the Cool Kids Club and hang out with Mike Huckabee on a platform while stolen music blares, then they have to be bigots too.
But a huge part of successful attempts to stratify is that the dominant group has to be one that the rest of the tribe wants to join. That’s simply not true anymore. More and more often, Christians are deciding that if being an anti-gay oppressor is what Christians must be like, then maybe they don’t want to be Christian after all. If that is the definition they must use, then they’re willing to disengage (not entirely deconvert, but at least to pull back). And they’re starting to speak out firmly against Mike Huckabee’s type of religious grandstanding and pandering.
The fallout of this ill-advised war against colorful tortilla chips has shown in spades that not only has he failed utterly to draw other Christians to his banner–meaning that his attempt to further stratify the religion has failed completely–but that he’s really just highlighted how ridiculous his brand of extremism can look.
We’ll see if this boycott turns out any better for them than previous ones did. You’d think that if they really wanted to negatively impact a company’s sales, they’d encourage people to buy them–because these boycotts certainly seem to backfire far more often than they succeed.
As even this Christian site acknowledges readily, Christians like Mike Huckabee who call for boycotts don’t care about unethical business practices, unfair labor laws, safety-law violations, or even broken health codes. All they care about is trying to strong-arm businesses into pandering to their bubble-borne insularity.
When Mike Huckabee becomes more known for opposing the fact that a minimum-wage worker literally can’t support a family on that pay or that businesses in America are all but enslaving workers in worse than sweatshop conditions at times, then I might care more about what His Royal Prissiness thinks of tortilla chips. But if all he’s got is a bawling “WAAH! AMERICA IS STARTING TO THINK THAT GAY PEOPLE SHOULD HAVE RIGHTS! WAAAH! THAT’S CHRISTIAN PERSECUTION! WAAH! THAT’S LIKE THE WORST THING EVER! WAAH!” then I’ll keep saying he’s exactly the kind of tribal Christian that is causing Christianity to suffer such dramatic drops in membership and influence.
In years to come, I really think we’re going to look back at this whole rainbow Doritos thing as a distinct point on the timeline of right-wing Christianity’s race to the bottom. But nobody ever said right-wing Christians were really good at recognizing important signs or graciously conceding defeat.
Be watching for examples of tribalism and stratification from groups that maybe weren’t so focused on these concepts until recently. There are a lot of these examples, too–attempts that are signs of desperation, not of strength. We have a lot of reasons to feel optimism these days! We’re going to talk about some of those other examples in the days to come. See you soon!
* The answer is, of course, “because there is no divine power behind any of it making people better.” If the Christian asking this very dangerous question already believes some liberal variant of Christianity that already accepts that truth, then realizing this answer won’t cause too much shaking of the house of cards, but if that person happens to be one of the many who are taught as axiomatic and rock-solid truth that belief in Jesus–or the power of Jesus himself–magically makes adherents kinder, more loving, or more compassionate people in and of itself, then it’s going to be really hard for that person not to arrive at the answer and then immediately begin wondering what other claims the religion makes aren’t true. The more claims a person’s variant of Christianity makes, the faster and more dramatically this point is reached. The solution to this conundrum might seem obvious to non-believers, but strangely, the solution those variants are apparently going with is to make even more claims that are even more demonstrably untrue. We’ll see how this bold move works out for them in a few years.