The principal enemy of democracy is hierarchy in all its forms—patriarchy, oligarchy, totalitarianism, any kind of system that gives the few power over the many. But another, more subtle enemy of democracy is tribalism—building our fortresses of like-minded people who only talk to each other and read the same books and watch the same news stations and affirm their certainty about being God’s chosen. People who feel threatened by the idea that others who don’t see the world the same way may have a valid and defensible point of view. Because within tribalism is the desire that power should be in the hands who share my tribe, my world view, my religious understanding, my values. Both sides are tribal.
My oldest daughter told me that her daughter, now a college junior, has found her tribe. I am happy for her, but I hope she doesn’t stop searching. My youngest granddaughter is 15, and she has three tribes: Girl Scouts, tap dancers, and science nerds at her High School, Aiken Scholars Academy. My sister’s granddaughter found her tribe in a sorority. I, too, have found my tribes over the years. Academics. Economists. Unitarian Universalists. Members of the League of Women Voters. Feminists. The UConn Huskies of my alma mater and the Clemson Tigers whose presence is very large in my adopted home town. These are my people.
There’s lots of overlap among my subtribes. I am drawn to the ones that share and affirm my values and my worldview. They are the ones I seek out to do things with, to talk to, to exchange information and sigh together about the state of the world. I am sure that you, too, have circles of people that matter to you that are part of overlapping tribes.
Some of these tribal members are more my people than others. I probably don’t have a lot of common ground with a white male Southern Baptist real estate developer and Trump supporter other than skin color and being a Clemson Tiger fan.
In our search for power over our own personal lives we often seek advantage in those aspects of our identity and our tribe that help others identify with us. Good old boy networks. Alumni of the same college. White people. Good old girl networks. We join lobbying efforts to confer advantages on us because of our group membership, whether it is farmers, hedge fund managers who will vote for Trump if Elizabeth Warren is the Democratic candidate, or members of AARP. That’s not to condemn all political tribes as self-serving. The League of Women Voters, the Sierra Club, the NAACP, the Moral Monday folks are all tribal groups that seek to build community by allying with members of their tribes of progressive Christians, senior citizens, environmentalists, and African-Americans. They are tribal in their shared values but inclusive in other important ways. The League welcomes male members, NAACP is happy to have white folks join, and Moral Monday includes some agnostics, heretics, Jews and Muslims All of them believe in intertribal alliances.
One often overlooked message in the Christian story is that Jesus came from a tribal people. Twelve tribes, tied together by their history, their land and their distinctive religious beliefs and practices which survive to this day. Part of the success story of Christianity was in moving beyond tribalism to proclaim a message of hope and shared humanity to all people, at least all the people they knew about. Of course, tribalism frequently reasserted itself rather violently , erupting into nationalism and warfare and battles for power. Non-Christians, especially Jews and Muslims, were the other, fair game for conversion or extinction. Christianity did not bring about world peace, or end misogyny, or result in equality. But it did from time to time hold up those lofty ideals.
Finding your identity is an important challenge of adolescence. It is a stage in our personal, moral, and spiritual development as we recognized our membership in ever larger communities. But we ae no longer adolescents, and we need to outgrow the narrow comfort of tribal identity to truly connect with the interdependent web of all existence. Political engagement with others not of our tribe is an important part of that growth.
Great thinkers of our time have described this challenge to further growth in various ways. Catholic theologian Richard Rohr describes the task of adolescence and early adulthood as building an identity, and the task of the later years of tearing away that outer identity shell as a scaffolding we no longer need. James Fowler, in writing about stages of faith development, sees a steady growth from o a narrow we to a more inclusive we to a global we as we pass through the stages of moral and faith development. According to Fowler, there are six stages, from the infant’s tribe of one growing to two and then three plus any siblings, to larger groups, until they find a tribe or tribes with which they can identify. Nelson Mandala, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King were sixes. I am not. Nor, I expect, are you. But we can move beyond tribalism to embrace those who are different from us in many of the ways that divide us. 4 is a lot better than 2. Even a 5, which is not quite universalism but well beyond tribalism, is an attainable goal if we work at it.
How do we begin? First, we need to recognize tribalism in ourselves and how it keeps us seeing members of other tribes as not quite as fully human as we are. Many faith communities are bumbling through efforts to conquer certain forms of tribalism, especially the often unconscious racism toward African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans. But tribe is not just race. It also includes age, gender, sexual orientation, class, and ability or disability. And even access to and mastery of technology that splits us into separate and often warring tribes of troglodytes and geeks.
One of the important lessons of colonialism in the Americas was the ability of colonists to pit tribes against one another in order to gain power over all the natives. That is what we are experiencing in American politics today. Each major party is a coalition of tribes, bound together by a mix of self-interest and certainty that their understanding of the way things are and the ways things should be is the right one. No one is immune from that kind of tribalism. A bigger tribe with subtribes is still a tribe.
What are our tribes? How do they call forth the best in us and affirm the worst? Awareness is the first step. Acknowledging our tribes and the shared world view they embrace and being open to criticism of that worldview. Taking the uncomfortable step of affiliating with other tribes where we may be a minority, like male members of the League of Women Voters or white folks who join the NAACP, is a possibility. Searching for common ground with people whose world view is different from yours is uncomfortable, but it’s a part of your spiritual growth challenge. So let it begin with me. And you.