What's Tony Thinking

Mediating Institutions and Tribalism


Constant Contact, which handles the distribution of my blog, frequently suggests that a blog’s title is key to readership, and that mine could be better. I suspect this one, “Mediating Institutions and Tribalism,” will merit a chiding.

Here, however, is a story of this blog’s provenance. It came to me in a dream. Now, you  and the Constant Contact monitors, are probably even more concerned. What kind of weirdo has a dream about “Mediating Institutions and Tribalism”? Perhaps one who isn’t sleeping all that well? In the dream I was part of a panel discussing some variation on the question that interests my kind, i.e. “What’s gone wrong? And what can we do about it?”

Just to reassure you, I do have dreams that are more colorful, bizarre, perplexing and exciting, but not this one.

At any rate, what are “mediating institutions”? The sociologist, Peter Berger, described them this way: “those institutions standing between the individual in his private life and the large institutions of public life.” They help bridge the gap between each of us and the overarching society that we live in. Some refer to this arena as “civil society,” the network of mostly voluntary associations the breadth and depth of which De Tocqueville considered America’s unique genius.

And this from the newsletter of the Acton Institute: “One of the most vital insights of modern social thought is the importance of mediating institutions–churches, schools, fraternal organizations, professional associations, and even clubs–for a free society. Not only are they effective, sometimes crucial, in providing services of all sorts, they are, as Tocqueville pointed out, a bulwark of freedom against the encroaching power of the state.” In totalitarian societies, this sector is repressed and eventually absent.

Libertarians tend to emphasize the role of “mediating institutions” as a bulwark against the state. But I think they also serve, and perhaps are even more needed, as a bulwark against very large, concentrated, global corporations. In any event, such institutions, not only mediate between the individual and large aggregates of power, they also are the arena in which most people find meaning for and in their lives.

In the world of churches, mainline Protestant churches tended to be mediating institutions, standing in the middle ground. But their hold on that ground and presence in our society is now much diminished, as is that of others mediating institutions, like public schools, the family, voluntary associations of all kinds.

True, there still are all of these things — including churches. But the dominant kind of church these days, the evangelical and the mega-church tend to be different in this way — they have hard boundaries. You are either in or you’re out. There’s not much fluidity. The boundaries are not porous as they have tended to be in mainline Protestant churches in their period of greater strength.

Tribalism is positive in the sense that it provides smaller associational levels of human engagement. But the hard boundaries feature, the “if you’re not with us, you’re against us,” changes the game. Such institutions may mediate between the individual and large power blocs, but they don’t bring people together despite or across their differences, whether of politics, class, education or others. Even those that today tout their “inclusivity” often have a very limited definition of that quality.

I think this is one way to describe our decay, if you will, as a society. Too few, strong mediating institutions grounded in a sense of basic trust and openness to one another; too many tribal groups with hard boundaries and the tendency to aggravate division among tribes.

My hunch is that tribalism is stirred by heightened levels of anxiety. Anxious, worried, jittery, we tend to look for security in a hard(er) boundaries group of some sort. That, or we become more isolated, on our own, alone. Neither is a great alternative.

My point, here, as often in my musings, is to put in a good word for a particular kind of church. The church that includes people of different political views and commitments, of different educational types, of varying social/ economic classes or categories, as well as varieties of virtue. My friend Ryan Slifka, a United Church of Canada pastor, quotes Archbishop Desmond Tutu, of blessed memory: “We may be surprised at the people we find in heaven. God has a soft spot for sinners. His standards are quite low.”

Churches do best when they avoid the extremes of either hard boundaries (you’re in or you’re out) or no boundaries (anything goes, belonging has no meaning) in favor of being centered, centered in the abiding and mysterious grace of God. That is another way of being a “mediating institution,” mediating the grace of God to sinners, which turns out to be the truly most inclusive category of them all.



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