What I mean by evangelical ‘tribalism’

In a recent guest-post at Jon Acuff’s Stuff Christians Like blog, Paul Angone wrote about the evangelical subculture’s enthusiasm for “Claiming Musicians as One of Us.”

If you’ve ever been a part of this subculture, then you know exactly what Angone is talking about. If not, just think of the fervent evangelical fandom that’s sprung up around Tim Tebow and imagine he were a musician instead of a football player. (Think of it this way, Tim Tebow : football :: Scott Stapp : music.)

Angone ably describes this claiming-as-one-of-us phenomenon, then asks:

But why? Why is it so tempting for us to throw the Christian label on musicians who have purposely tried to avoid it?

He offers three reasons, but I don’t think any of them is really the cause of what he describes. They’re all, rather, just related symptoms of the same disease.

That disease, once again, is what I’ve been calling evangelical “tribalism.” This is what’s at the root of many of the worst aspects of American evangelicalism. It’s the idea that evangelical Christians constitute “Our Team,” and that Our Team is in a constant competition with Their Team. This tribal framework shapes how evangelicals approach nearly every subject or area of life — functioning like the old binary view during the Cold War in which any event was perceived somehow as a “victory” for either the U.S. or for the Soviets and thus as a “defeat” for the other team.

This tribalism is why Evangelical Christians like Claiming Musicians as One of Us. Just look at that phrase: “One of Us.” As opposed to “One of Them.” Every musician claimed as “one of us” is a victory for Our Team and a defeat for Their Team. This never-ending competition between the teams or tribes is a zero-sum game. Every musician claimed as “one of us” is a win for “us” and a defeat for “them.”

This zero-sum view, I think, accounts for part of the backlash against Tebow. No one would mind evangelicals celebrating the accomplishments of an evangelical athlete any more than they would begrudge, say, Japanese fans’ celebration of Ichiro’s amazing career. But because of evangelicals’ zero-sum tribalism, their cheers for Our Team are usually inseparable from trash-talking directed at Their Team. It gives every “Hurray for Our Team!” an implicit, unspoken (usually) echo of “Suck it, Their Team!”

The tribal dynamic also explains the odd flip-side of what Angone describes. To paraphrase a line from The Blues Brothers, American evangelicals listen to “both kinds of music” — both “Christian” and “secular.” Those are the tribal categories evangelicals apply to every musician. The distinction usually depends not on the quality of the artist, the style of music played, or even the lyrical content. It depends on the record label. A musician on the Myrrh or Word or Sparrow labels is, by definition, a “Christian” musician. A musician who isn’t on such a “Christian” label is, by definition, a “secular” musician. (Thus, for example, John Rutter’s Requiem would be a “secular” work of music.) It’s the same idea as a “Christian novel” being one that is from a “Christian” publisher and sold in a “Christian book store.” Thus Left Behind is a Christian novel, but The Brothers Karamazov is “secular.”

But as much as evangelicals like “Claiming [Secular] Musicians as One of Us” — eagerly anointing Mumford and Sons or Justin Bieber as part of “Our Team” — they also despise as “sell-outs” any established Christian-label artist who crosses over to “secular” success. When Miley Cyrus had the No. 2 song on the charts with “Party in the USA,” evangelicals were eager to claim her as “one of us.” When Amy Grant had the No. 1 song on the charts with “Baby Baby,” evangelicals vilified her for supposedly no longer being “one of us.” This is because Cyrus is somebody that they thought was on Their Team, but who really turns out — once “claimed as one of us” — to be part of Our Team. Yay, Our Team! Grant was somebody that we thought was on Our Team, but who we came to fear was really part of Their Team. Boo, Their Team!

And it’s not just musicians and athletes — evangelicals can do this with everything. Everyone can either be claimed as “ours” or condemned as “theirs.” Every event can either be claimed as a victory for Our Team or mourned as a defeat.

This causes problems.

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  • VMink

     Yes; the Christianist symbols on a variety of workplaces is not to witness; it is to indicate in ways both subtle and not-so-subtle that this is (supposedly) a person you can trust, and more importantly, someone who is Christian(ist) so you can feel comfortable about giving them your hard-earned, God-given money without worrying about it going to one of THEM.

    I’ve yet to see an integrated workplace, or a person of color running a business, who uses those symbols.

  • rrhersh

    How many Evangelicals have ever heard of John Rutter?  At a guess, not many.  So far as I can tell, he is Church of England, and his music is clearly of the “spiritually dead” variety, just like the music of Bach and Mozart and everyone before whichever praise chorus is popular nowadays. 

    For what it is worth, I think Rutter’s music is vastly overrated and not terribly interesting.  Does this mean I hate the Church of England?

  • rrhersh

    How many Evangelicals have ever heard of John Rutter?  At a guess, not many.  So far as I can tell, he is Church of England, and his music is clearly of the “spiritually dead” variety, just like the music of Bach and Mozart and everyone before whichever praise chorus is popular nowadays. 

    For what it is worth, I think Rutter’s music is vastly overrated and not terribly interesting.  Does this mean I hate the Church of England?

  • rrhersh

    “Apparently an evangelical celebrity pastor writing a book that suggested
    that a literal hell of everlasting pain was not the point of the
    Christian message was enough to get him banned from the tribe (and all
    of his writings retroactively banned).”

    Well, sure.  Stalin used to do the same thing to people for less than that…

  • rrhersh

    “Apparently an evangelical celebrity pastor writing a book that suggested
    that a literal hell of everlasting pain was not the point of the
    Christian message was enough to get him banned from the tribe (and all
    of his writings retroactively banned).”

    Well, sure.  Stalin used to do the same thing to people for less than that…

  • rrhersh

    I live in an area where ads in the local paper or yellow pages for contractors and the like often include the fish symbol.  I actively avoid hiring them.  It is inconsistent with my understanding of Christianity to use Christianity as a marketing tool.  I also note that there is a long and discreditable tradition of hucksters using professions of Christianity to gull the faithful.  I would be willing to overlook the fish and hire a tradesman if I had some affirmative reason to believe him to be reliable, but if I am just going from the ad, I take the fish to be fair warning.

  • Apostrophe Skye

     For some variants of Christianity, she was never in: an anti-rock-music presentation at my fundie Baptist elementary school made sure to mention that Amy Grant couldn’t possibly be a Christian because—everyone edge closer to the fainting couches, please—she admitted to occasionally having a beer at baseball games.

    This was around 1984, which was 4th grade for me. By the time I got to college, Christian rap existed. I can only imagine what their presentation on that would be like!

  • Kiba

    …when the Time of Troubles came…

    I read this and all I could think of was the Forgotten Realms. 

  •  Creed was really popular about 10 years ago and were always terrible.  They took the faux-uber-sincerity of Christian rock and just made it really loud and “rock-ish.”  Feel happy that you’ve never heard anything by them.  “How to Save a Life” is a classic song in comparison (and one I sort of enjoy guiltily).

  • Guest

    So jealous. Can I be you?

  • Beroli

     Sorry, I’m kind of attached to being me.

  • Mary Kaye

    I think there’s some kind of sideways relationship to this post to note that a local Unitarian-Universalist church does a public sing-along of Handel’s _Messiah_ every year on December 26, and for at least the last ten years there have been 3+ Pagans among the singers every year, sometimes more.   The music is brilliant.  There’s a reason people have been singing it for centuries.  The heck with tribalism.

    A Pagan conducted the Hallelujah Chorus a couple of years ago, having won the privilege at a church auction….  (He compared the experience to being the focal person in a large Pagan energy-raising ritual.  Serious positive crowd energy there.)

  • Monala

     I always thought it was because Amy Grant was raised Church of Christ. You know, the folks who believe in “works righteousness” because they believe baptism is a necessity for salvation.

  • Lori

    Being raised Church of Christ didn’t seem to hurt Grant much when she started her career. She was the Next Big Thing in Christian music for a while there.

  • Michael Pullmann

    I still like to call up “Baby Baby” on Youtube and mentally apply Cartman’s lyrical rule to it.

  • Tricksterson

    No, he’s not part of Fray.  he was the lead singer of Creed, probably best known for “With Arms Wide Open”, which I’m not ashamed to say I like.

  • An equivalent that comes immediately to my mind is geekdom, eg. “Vin Diesel got a tattoo inspired by one of D&D characters, OMG so adorkable!  He’s One of Us!”

    Key differences:  although some geeks do have an Us vs. Them mentality, I wouldn’t say it’s a signature belief.  Therefore it takes a lot more to cause cultural banishment — “I used to do that stuff, but then I got a life, haw haw” would do it, but thankfully that seems rare.

  •  I participated in a performance of the Hallelujah Chorus a couple of times at the arts dorm in college.  We were a bit of a mess – no practice, just fun, especially with transcribing for saxophone on the fly – but it was wonderful anyway.  The act of playing such sacred music that was sacred not just for being “Christian religious” but for being beautiful to everyone was really powerful.

  • …when the Time of Troubles came…

    I read this and all I could think of was the Forgotten Realms.

    … a chaotic period when the gods were made flesh and forced to walk the earth. 

  • LoneWolf343

     Shouldn’t be, since Newt did it twice.

  • Tricksterson

    There you go applying logic again.  That trick never works.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I’m amused by the language used in your comment cos around these parts you “come out” as religious, not atheist. Until you say otherwise it’s assumed that you’re atheist, or at least agnostic/don’t give religion much thought.

    Cultural differences are fun and interesting.

  • Pat68

    I think another reason for the disdain shown to Amy Grant was her divorce and remarriage, which is the problem with being made an icon of a subculture.  The minute you deviate from the accepted or expected norm, you may be vilified for it.  That’s why Tim Tebow and anyone else should beware.  Be your own person and don’t buy into the hype.  The minute he changes his routine, people will descend on him like white on rice for betraying his faith, caving to pressure, etc. ad nasuseum.  

  • Alton Brown is one of my heroes, but it was a little disappointing to
    find out that he was a born again… I couldn’t help but wish that he of
    all people would be on our team.

    On a similar note, when the Saints went Super and suddenly all these publishers were wooing Drew Brees in hopes of being the house to print and sell his memoir, I winced hard when I read that he went with Tyndale because their sharing his faith was important to him.

    Drew Brees and LaJenkins have a publisher in common. Eesh. But he didn’t go on from there to start Tebowing all over the place, thank goodness.

    (I’m also amused by the opposite-day symmetry between Brees and Tebow. Tebow got shot into the limelight first by his mom’s anti-abortion Superbowl ad. Brees took his mother to court to stop her using his name in her political campaigns.)