By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Clashing identities in politics and religion are nothing new in America. Over 150 years ago a clash of cultural identities within America gave rise to a terrible and cataclysmic Civil War. It seems to be happening again. Identity politics in America have once again polarized partisan politics and religion, and our competing identities are getting worse, not better.
Clashing identities are the result of conflicting standards of legitimacy that define what is right, and religious beliefs are a primary source of our standards of legitimacy. Over 70% of Americans claim to be Christians, but their beliefs are as divided today as they have ever been. Today white Christian evangelicals support a man who is the antithesis of Christian morality.
Those evangelicals who support Donald Trump and his radical right politics represent a large percentage of Christians. Their distorted family values and prosperity gospel conflict with the moral teachings of Jesus summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors, including those of other races and religions, as we love ourselves. .
Christianity in America, like its politics, has an identity crisis. There is a pervasive ambiguity in Christian moral standards. The United Methodist Church is currently struggling with whether homosexuality should be a disqualifying factor in the ordination of pastors and bishops, while U.S. law prohibits any discrimination based on sexual preference.
Most UMC congregations avoid discussing the issue of homosexuality in the church, just as they avoid other controversial political issues. The church has become a popular social institution that supports traditional values. By way of contrast, Jesus was a Jew who challenged the status quo, emphasizing love over law when Mosaic Law was the standard of righteousness.
Christians need to define the moral standards of their faith, and distinguish the altruistic teachings of Jesus on sacrificial love from popular moral standards of legitimacy That will not be easy since the church measures its success by its popularity, and the moral teachings of Jesus are not popular in a materialistic and hedonistic culture.
Conflicting standards of legitimacy are not unique to Christianity. Islam is also plagued with clashing identities between moderate Muslims who wish to live in peace with their neighbors of other religions and Islamists dedicated to purifying their religion of all infidels who do not share their fundamentalist beliefs, which include the imposition of Islamic Law (Shari’a).
While most Americans claim to be Christians, the myriad variations of morality between them will continue to cause religious and political division. Like Jews and Muslims, Christians will always have diverse beliefs, but if Christians could find consensus in the altruistic moral teachings of Jesus as summarized in the greatest commandment, they could promote a politics of reconciliation that would minimize America's clashing religious and political identities.
The greatest commandment is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims. It’s from the Hebrew Bible, was taught by Jesus, and has been acknowledged by Muslim scholars to be at the heart of Islam. If followers of those Abrahamic religions were to follow the moral imperatives of that common word of faith and love those of other races and religions as they love themselves, our political and religious identity crisis could be resolved.
Robert J. Samuelson has argued against conventional political wisdom that it’s not the economy, stupid. Citing Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America by John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck, a new book that argues “that the most recent presidential campaign was a clash of identities. ...People saw their adversaries as threats to their way of life — and, of course, were often urged to do so. Donald Trump was proud of his ability to incite partisan crowds; Clinton was not totally blameless either, with her condescending reference to “deplorables.” ...Trump’s victory ... relied on activating people’s preexisting views of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. . . . Democrats reacted against Trump’s agenda. Thus, the alignment between partisanship and attitudes about issues like race and immigration only increased, and with it the likelihood of even more divisive politics. The resulting partisan polarization is the linchpin of America’s identity crisis.”
Adam Rothman has argued that tribalism doesn’t explain our political conflicts. “Complaints about tribalism typically fall into two distinct, if overlapping, categories. On one hand are the well-worn laments about identity politics. This is the idea that Americans have divided into hard-shell groups (or “tribes”) based on racial, religious and sexual identities; people who possess those identities, the argument goes, then organize their politics around the belief that they are victims. ...On the other hand, the anti-tribalists warn against escalating tension between Democrats and Republicans, America’s supposed mega-tribes. It is true each party demonizes the other with rhetorically vicious language that embitters politics and sometimes flares into violence. The two parts of this anti-tribalist argument fit together through the notion that identity politics has fueled intense partisanship. Organizing politics around claims to identity makes it harder to compromise, since every core issue seems existential.
...Concerns about political tribalism also neglect an important trend in American politics. It may be true the parties are becoming more ideologically polarized, but a smaller proportion of Americans identify as Republicans or Democrats than they used to, and more people identify as independents than with either party. The 40 percent of Americans who now consider themselves independents do not fit into tribalist scaremongering, yet the parties spend a great deal of money and energy in every election trying to get them to vote.
...Those who fear tribalism have gone so far as to conjure up nightmare scenarios of descent into civil war. Of course, once upon a time the United States did endure a terrible civil war, but no historian today argues tribalism was at its root, because “tribalism” is a vacuous concept with no explanatory power. A more plausible answer is that rival nationalism arose within the United States in the mid-19th century. One was built upon an antislavery vision of the Union, the other upon the cornerstone of slavery. These coalesced geographically, split the country, and the two sides fought it out with a horrific fervor.
If we are to avoid repeating that disaster, we might pay closer attention to another important, and more hopeful, strand of U.S. history: the tradition of religious pluralism.
Despite the pundits’ overwrought complaints about tribalism, local communities across America are showing that diverse people can come together across our differences to support each other.
Americans are in for a long struggle over the kind of nation we want to be, but all the talk of tribalism misses a crucial point. Diversity, when combined with equality, makes us stronger.
Tim Dixon has expanded on how research shows how partisan extremes are masked by an exhausted majority of approximately 40% of voters, as mentioned by Adam Rothman (above). But he warned: “Some say we are entering a new “Cold Civil War”: not a cold war between America and an external enemy, but a war between Americans. And with so many flashpoints ahead in national politics, there are real dangers that this war heats up. In this time of polarization, we need to mobilize churches and faith leaders inspired by the peacemaking vision of the prophet Isaiah: a vision to turn the swords and spears now being used against each other, on social media and in public debate, into the plowshares and pruning hooks so that all can flourish in a peaceful and secure future. That vision may seem far away today, but it is only with such a vision that we can overcome that the forces of unity can overcome the forces of division.” https://sojo.net/articles/research-shows-how-partisan-extremes-mask-exhausted-majority
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