Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Tribalism as Illuminating Category for Discussing American Catholicism and Evangelicalism: Carrying on the Conversation in 2013

As 2012 ended, I began compiling a list of religion-politics-culture discussions from the year that seemed worth continuing in 2013. Then I thought better of posting it, though, because much of what I had to say by way of commentary as I put the list together seemed to be a downer. (Yes, believe it or not, I do sometimes curb my tongue and suppress postings I've drafted if they seem excessively negative or doleful.)

At the top of that never-published list were the themes of tribalism and of the straight white male listening problem that I'm happy to find more and more people discussing openly of late. Since, in my view, this topic warrants open, public discussion for reasons I keep enumerating every time I talk about it . . . . 

About tribalism: as the list of postings below demonstrates (they're in chronological order), that term sprang to my mind early in 2012 as I listened to fellow Catholics respond to the arguments of the Catholic bishops and their supporters that the Obama administration was stepping on the toes of the Catholic tribe with its HHS guidelines requiring contraceptive coverage by employers. In the first posting listed below, I noted how curious it is that Catholics asking that any and all Catholic-labeled institutions be granted broad exceptions to deny contraceptive coverage to employees simultaneously  recognize the limits of their argument when it's applied to other religious groups--like the Jehovah's Witnesses.

The response of many Catholics to the HHS guidelines struck me from early in 2012 and throughout the year as frankly tribalistic: me and my group, good; you and your group, bad. I remain convinced that the demand of many Catholic leaders that Catholic employers be granted broad conscience exemptions over the issue of contraception is essentially tribalistic as I watch some of my fellow Catholics respond to the recent news story that several nurses in Indiana have been fired because they refused to have flu inoculations, since they don't believe in such inoculations on religious grounds.

And this morning, as I read Fred Clark's Slacktivist blog, I'm reminded that, even as some of us carried on an ongoing discussion of Catholic tribalism in the past year, other commentators--notably Fred Clark--carried on a simultaneous discussion of evangelical tribalism. As my list of Bilgrimage postings below suggests, I've learned much from Fred's postings on this topic.

And I'm continuing to learn, as he notes that tribalism involves tribalistic thinkers in a zero-sum game in which "we" have no choice except to view "their" advancement or triumph as cut out of our own living flesh: Fred writes,

Once you accept the framework of a zero-sum struggle between competing tribes then it no longer matters whether or not you feel any such feelings — you’re still bound to regard any advance for them as a loss for us. You’ll still imagine that "we" cannot be up and in unless "they" are kept down and out. 

Tribal thinking is inherently us-vs.-them. It demands that we construe "them" and their advancement as threats to "us" and our hegemony. It also blinds us to our own shortcomings and parochialism, so that when we engage in tribalistic thinking, we can, with a straight face, propose that if our tribe does it, it's good and right, while we simultaneously entertain the notion that when their tribe engages in precisely the same behavior, it's morally murky.

Because the tribal mentality clearly remains alive and well in American Catholicism--and notably in its powerful centrist commentariat--I continue to think that the theme of tribalism demands attention. Here's a list of postings I made exploring or using that theme in the past year. For a list of Fred Clark's postings on evangelical tribalism, click the tag "tribalism" on his posting to which I link above.

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