This week, Alastair, Matt, Andrew, and Derek talk about tribalism.

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Posted by JF Arnold


  1. […] MERE ORTHODOXY Mere Fidelity: Tribalism […]


  2. Alastair J Roberts April 12, 2016 at 7:42 am

    The Slate Star Codex post we discuss can be found here.


  3. I’m glad Andrew was there to point out the Beatles thing because that has been bothering me ever since FDR became a thing.


    1. It’s not a “thing” until someone besides Derek runs with it.


      1. I don’t care what any of you say. FDR will be a thing. I have spoken.


    2. Alastair J Roberts April 13, 2016 at 8:33 am

      Jake (and Derek), stop trying to make FDR happen. It’s not going to happen.


  4. This was a great episode (though I felt like y’all had a hard time shifting within topics). It seemed like Matt’s big concern was that the more we talk about “tribes”, the more we perpetuate tribalistic thinking. Which I think is a good point, along with his frustration that arguments get dismissed on tribalism, not on their merits. However, the aspect that I felt deserved more attention was FDR’s connection to Jon Haidt’s righteous mind stuff as well as the idea of institutional formation in general. Scott Alexander mentioned this in his post about the losses that occur when a tribe dissolves and certainly I think there’s plenty of dots to connect to The Big Sort/Coming Apart trends here. If our tribal affiliations guide our moral reasoning (or the other way around), then that helps to determine on *which* merits we’ll find an argument worthy or not. If Andrew thinks that the government should provide healthcare to everyone and bear the costs to satisfy justice/fairness and Derek thinks the government should avoid such a thing to satisfy autonomy/freedom, then we can talk more meaningfully about our assumptions if we can lay out the other’s tribal affiliations that guide said assumptions than simply arguing about how much it’s gonna cost or what have you.


    1. Let it be noted that in this very smart comment, Matthew Loftus (a doctor, mind you) has used the term FDR. Thank you.


      1. we fancy doctors must look out for each other!


        1. C. Quinn-Jones April 18, 2016 at 5:48 am

          So tribalism is alive and well, it would seem ;-)


    2. This is well said. We all operate with a limited set of tribal allegiances, whether we admit it or not. I suspect that we’d do a better job of sorting out policy-related questions if we made more of an effort to think about those allegiances and consider how they shape our thinking. That’s not to say that we should disabuse ourselves of those allegiances. But we do need to recognize how they shape our thinking, and be willing to acknowledge that “normal” doesn’t have to be normative.

      I was recently thinking about this in regards to male height. I’m 5’5″, and weigh about 120 pounds. In the evangelical subculture, where a form of soft-core patriarchy still prevails, being so short and thin was problematic. Most evangelical women want to date someone who’s significantly taller. But now that I’ve left the evangelical subculture, I’ve found dating to be much easier. Women with a more egalitarian outlook don’t necessarily need to be married to a guy who physically embodies male dominance in the relationship. Evangelicals attach virtue to height to a degree that the broader culture doesn’t. Yes, the broader culture still gives a nod to height, but not nearly to the degree that the evangelical subculture does.


  5. I’m an adult convert. I could happily spend all day reading Spurgeon sermons but never I have never felt *at home* in the evangelical world. It’s been 10 years now and I’ve kind of given up on the social side of Christian life. My tribe is unchurched/atheistic LGBT even though I declare “Jesus is Lord” and honor the traditional Christian sexual ethic.

    I was never quite sure why it was so difficult to achieve a sense of belonging and now see class as a greater barrier to belonging than the (ex) gay thing. It’s both funny and depressing how thick the evangelical cultural ‘bubble’ is – as Christianity itself should persuade its adherents to be the least concerned about social/cultural differences. My only explanation for Christian tribalism is that there just aren’t very many ‘born again’ Christians. A typical evangelical conversion story is that of a person who was raised in a Christian home who then took his/her faith more seriously as a teenager or young adult. I don’t say this to invalidate this type of conversion (it’s the reason parents raise their children to be Christians) but merely point out that such people are already a part of the tribe.


    1. Joe,

      I hear you. I reflected on this in my comment on Jake’s piece from a few days ago. The comment was lengthy, so I won’t repeat it. But I explain my reasons for leaving evangelicalism after 15 years, even though my theological views are more in line with evangelical theology than with that which prevails in many mainline churches.

      In short, I came to the conclusion that being an evangelical involves making certain sociological commitments in addition to making certain theological commitments. In fact, in many cases, evangelical theological commitments are intertwined with those sociological commitments to the point that unraveling them is difficult (at least for those who have grown up in the movement). Evangelicals are highly tribal, and have constructed a near-endless list of litmus tests to measure one’s purity. I played that game for a while. When I joined a PCA church (at the age of 23), the church required me to be re-baptized, claiming that my mainline (UMC) baptism was ineffectual. The session also forced me to write a letter to my parents, in which I disclaimed the faith of my upbringing. This caused a major rift in my family that took years to repair. But I eventually got tired of playing the game. I started pushing against things like inerrancy, “biblical manhood,” and the like. When it was clear that the pastor’s education from some two-bit diploma mill in St. Louis (where Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin received his training on female anatomy), I was asked to leave. In his book, “The Drama of Doctrine,” Kevin Vanhoozer notes that evangelicals are just as guilty of having taken the post-modern turn as anyone else, and maybe even more so. For evangelicals, “truth” isn’t measured by whether something comports with reality, but, rather with whether it comports with the hagiographic narratives that prop up the evangelical movement and justify its institutional perpetuation. I lost interest in paying homage to those “noble lies.”

      I suspect that it’s difficult to for anyone who’s had gender-related issues to find a home in evangelicalism, as rigid gender-role conformity (i.e., “biblical manhood”) is central to evangelical theology. I tend to view the concept of gender as a complex admixture of biological reality and social construction. But that’s a heresy in evangelical contexts. Evangelicals firmly believe that there is a necessary one-to-one correspondence between one’s biological sex and one’s gender. I tend to be demisexual, meaning that I only experience sexual attraction in response to an emotional connection. I found that evangelical pastors had no idea what to do with that. The “biblical manhood” theology tends to treat heterosexual desire with a kind of second blessing, without which one is something of a second-class Christian. If I suffered within evangelicalism simply for having insufficient heterosexual desire, I can’t imagine how an LGBT person could ever find any meaningful fellowship within that subculture.

      I walked away from evangelicalism about a year ago. Doing so preserved my faith. I think evangelicalism is fine for those who grew up within the subculture and who can satisfy all the tests of social purity. It’s probably also a decent environment for people who lack impulse control, and who function better under the tutelage of “noble lies” than in environments that focus on the acquisition of wisdom. I suspect that we’ll see churches arise within the next few years that fill in the interstitial space between evangelicalism and the mainline, i.e., churches for people who’s basic theological orientation leans in an orthodox direction, but who aren’t really up for the obsessive boundary policing that’s a traditional hallmark of evangelicalism.

      Tribalism doesn’t really bother me. In fact, I think it’s inevitable, and probably healthy. The problem comes when we start to get too self-righteous about our tribes, and try to dress sociological disputes up as theological ones. The Larycia Hawkins incident at Wheaton College is a good example of that. Yes, Larycia is not a good “fit” for Wheaton College, but not for theological reasons. As a single, African-American women, she just wasn’t ever going to be a fit in a school that serves the white evangelical tribe. I wasn’t a fit in that tribe either, and I assume that you’re not. Most evangelicals wouldn’t fit into the tribe in which I was raised and to which I’ve returned. No biggie.


  6. It was very difficult to get a clear sense of the working definition of the word ‘tribalism’ from the discussion. Certainly, we all belong to multiple tribes for various reasons. The question becomes can any degree of loyalty or sense of belonging be classified as tribalism. I don’t believe so.

    Here I would start with the Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of the word ‘tribalism.’ It states that tribalism exists when one has a strong degree of loyalty to one’s group(s) (see ). Using this as starting point, we see that not every positive sentiment or feeling of loyalty to a group can be classified as tribalism. Now we need to determine the degree of loyalty that must exist for tribalism to exist. Again, the Cambridge dictionary offers some help in that it states that the loyalty is so strong that one supports their group regardless of what it does. This allows us to define tribalism in Christian moralistic terms. What follows that addition from the dictionary is the idea that tribalism exists when loyaty to a group trumps commitment to morals and principles so that right and wrong depends on who does what to whom. We see from this that tribalism is nothing more than an anthropological term for having a gang mentality.

    But there is something else we should note about tribalism; it shares attributes with authoritarianism and narcissism (see ). So besides the relativity, we see two other reasons for avoiding tribalism when belonging to different gruops.

    However, the authoritarian trait is a draw for Conservative Christians because most of our relationships are hierarchical. And here, just like we must distinguish between belonging to a tribe and embracing tribalism, we must be able to tell the difference between being in authority-oriented relationships and embracing authoritarianism.


  7. Joe,
    But what is missed in that definition is simply this, there are multiple definitions of tribalism and the one that should concern Christians is the definition that talks about a minimum degree of loyalty to the group that is a strong degree of loyalty. The reason why we Christianss must deal with this definition of tribalism because it is this definition that competes for our faith in and obedience to Christ. Will our loyalty to any of the many groups we belong to cause us to compromise following Jesus. Will it cause us to judge what is right and wrong by who does what to whom or by absolute moral standards we’ve learned from God’s Word?


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