Saturday, September 23, 2017

Tribalism and the American Civil Religion

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Tribalism is the human tendency to relate to a group of like-minded people in politics and religion.  The centrifugal force of American politics has created a partisan duopoly of extremes on the left and right, leaving political moderates with nowhere to go.  American religions are also tribal, but they are not bipolar.  There is a wide diversity in the many American religious beliefs.

            Michael Gerson has questioned the prevalent view that America’s bipolar politics are immutable.  Americans could avoid partisan extremes by choosing multi-party politics like those of European parliaments; but Americans have chosen to limit their politics to one of two choices.  It’s the good guys (us) versus the bad guys (them)—the red team versus the blue team.  Politics are like sports in America: There’s a winner and a loser, and nothing in between. 

            But political issues are seldom black and white.  There are shades of grey—a third way—in almost all critical issues, especially those that lead to war.  In hindsight the Vietnam and Iraq wars were mistakes, and the U.S. Civil War was probably America’s worst mistake.  Slavery in the U.S. could have been eliminated without that terrible war, and preservation of the union was not a sufficient justification for the 600,000 casualties of that awful American tragedy.

            Gerson speaks of “…the dangerous triumph of cultural identification over unifying political ideals” and asks, “Who is at fault for this mental divide?”  Gerson speaks of needing the spirit of Abraham Lincoln for “mutual forgiveness” and “genuine reconciliation.”  But in 1860 Lincoln and southern fire-eaters polarized America and led it into its most destructive war.

            Both sides bear responsibility for that great American tragedy.  The voices of reason and options short of war were ignored by the bipolar political tribalism of that day.  Since then America has continued to limit its political choices to just two partisan alternatives, an overly simplistic approach that has produced extremist politics; but it doesn’t have to continue.

            Multiple parties could moderate our polarized two-party duopoly, as in parliamentary systems.  But Americans don’t seem willing to consider sensible alternatives to bipolar tribalism in politics.  In the polarized 2016 election, Americans rejected third-party candidates in favor of either a Republican or Democrat.  And they deserved what they got.

            Gerson asks: Who is at fault for our bipolar tribalism?  The answer is: We are.  As Pogo observed, We have met the enemy and it is us.  In a democracy we cannot escape responsibility for our political decisions, and any politics of reconciliation to remedy our bipolar tribalism will require ending our two-party duopoly—and that doesn’t seem likely anytime soon.           
            The religious half of the American civil religion is also tribal, but it’s not bipolar.  That’s because American religions have diffused into numerous sects.  And an increasing number of believers have disowned religion as nones to practice a more individualized “spirituality.”  While Inus Younis considers individualized spirituality an interim phase that leads to religious affiliation, there is no evidence that nones are returning to institutional religion.

            Tribalism defines American politics and religion, and our polarized two-party politics can take a lesson from our diffused religions.  Good religion and politics require independent and critical thinking and a commitment to provide for the common good, and both should be based on the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors—including our neighbors of other races and religions—as we love ourselves.

            That’s a common word of faith of Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, and it can defuse polarized tribalism in the American civil religion and promote a politics of reconciliation.  



On the good religion of Michael Cromartie that is “…a better kind of faith…that can teach us to think critically, not just about society at large, but about religion itself.”  See

Related commentary:

 (1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
(6/7/15): The Future of Religion: In Decline and Growing
(9/20/15) Politics and Religious Polarization
(4/23/16): Standards of Legitimacy in Morality, Manners and Political Correctness
(7/9/16): Back to the Future: Race, Religion, Rights and a Politics of Reconciliation
 (1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(4/30/16): The Relevance of Religion to Politics
(5/7/16): Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation
(8/5/16): How Religion Can Bridge Our Political and Cultural Divide
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(10/8/16): Revolutionaries, Moderates and Reactionaries in a Polarized Democracy
(10/22/16): The Need for a Politics of Reconciliation in a Polarized Democracy
(11/19/16): Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation Based on Shared Values
(11/26/16): Irreconcilable Differences and the Demise of Democracy
(12/10/16): Partisan Alternatives for a Politics of Reconciliation
(6/24/17): The Evolution of Religion, Politics and Law: Back to the Future?
(7/15/17) Religion and Progressive Politics
 (8/19/17) Hate, History and the Need for a Politics of Reconciliation
(9/9/17): The Evolution of the American Civil Religion and Habits of the Heart
(9/16/17): The American Civil Religion and the Danger of Riches

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