What's Tony Thinking

The New American Tribalism


(This is a re-print of my post of August 23, under a different title).

There was a time when the ugly question, “Would You Want Your Daughter to Marry One?” referred to racial differences. That’s much less true today, for which we can be grateful.

But there’s still someone we probably don’t want our daughter (or son) to marry. Now it’s a member of the other political party.

Yascha Mounk’s article “McPolitics” in The New Yorker (July 2, 2018) reports that Americans are now more likely to discriminate on the basis of party than race.

“Asked to chose between equally qualified scholarship applicants, Democratic and Republican participants alike heavily favored applications who were identified as belonging to the same political party they did. White participants in the study were much less likely to penalize an applicant for being black than participants of one party were to penalize applicants of the other.”

As I say, progress on the racial front. But, and this is the burden of Mounk’s article as well as several other recent studies, politics has increasingly become identity.

In her book Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity Lilliana Mason says that there was a time when our various identities tended to be less rigid and predictable. We might be conservative on some things, liberal on others. Or there might be parts of life where those categories were irrelevant. Someone, like Fred Rogers (as noted in a recent piece on “Mr. Rogers”) might be both a liberal Protestant and a lifelong Republican.

That has changed.

“A single vote,” writes Mason, “can now indicate a person’s partisan preference as well as his or her religion, race, ethnicity, gender, neighborhood and favorite grocery store.” In the past decades, “partisan, ideological, religious, and racial identities have moved into strong alignment.” One result of this is that, “Religious communities are far less politically diverse than they once were.”

I found all this fascinating. It rings true. I have more friends who are black than friends who voted for Trump.

And I find this worrisome. For one of the things it means is that we are becoming, in our own way, about as tribal as were Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, as Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, as Serbs and Croats in the former Yugoslavia.

As Mounk comments, “A situation in which partisans on both sides think that they face existential stakes every four years is not sustainable for very long.”

After the 2016 election a clergy leader asked my take-away. I said, “Our politics have become too religious and our religion too political.”

It was something like Mason’s observations that I had in mind. Our politics had become an arena of ultimacy, of life and death, of either/ or, of no compromise. While our religion and religious congregations are too shaped by and aligned with partisan political identities.

I realize that some of you will think what I am saying here is heretical. You may believe that our religion should be more political not less, especially now.

In one way, I agree. Faith has to do with all of life, how society is organized and power used and misused. Ergo religion, and Christianity, must concern themselves with politics.

But in another way, I disagree with the argument that our religion should be more political. Our religious institutions and congregations should be less, not more, politically partisan, that is predictably Republican or Democrat or implicitly endorsing one party or candidate or another.

In church (temple, synagogue) we need to be reminded that God is greater than our politics.


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