“We live in a time when the claiming of a religious identity has become more important than abiding in what that truth implies,” Marilynne Robinson said last month at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College.
That “claiming of a religious identity” and the elevating of it above the meaning, content or substance of that faith is what I’ve been describing as evangelical tribalism. Robinson, author of the novel Housekeeping and of the new essay collection When I Was a Child I Read Books, does not seem to be a fan of tribalism.
At least not as described by Rachel Stone, who recounts Robinson’s appearance at the Christian writing festival for Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics blog. Stone begins her article with an anecdote from Robinson’s talk in which an apparent evangelical tribalist did what such folks always do during any Q&A — asserted himself aggressively and demanded that the speaker account for which side of the culture war she pledged allegiance to:
“Bill Moyers would have loved your talk and Fox News would have debunked it. How do you expect to have credibility among conservative evangelicals?”
The question was pitched contentiously from the front of the auditorium at Calvin College. … As is usual for me when I hear what might be taken for fighting words, I became chilled, and trembled a little. In short, I felt afraid.
Robinson wasn’t. Without a hint of the fear that I felt simply as one who admires her greatly, even too well, Robinson said:
“The only obligation I recognize is to say what I believe to be true […] and to say it with kindness. I believe that is how a Christian conversation should proceed.”
The audience broke into applause. Later, by chance, I passed the questioner outside, where he was still fuming into his cell phone about Bill Moyers and Fox News.
Yeah, that guy. That guy always shows up at evangelical events, which is part of why we evangelicals can’t have nice things.
Stone says fear — the same fear that, I believe, drives evangelical tribalism — was the theme of Robinson’s talk at the festival:
Fear is unChristian, says Robinson. Calvinists — Robinson identifies herself as such — have been said to “fear God and nothing else.” Yet Americans — and perhaps especially, religious Americans — can’t seem to get over the idea that we are under attack. “We’re stuck in psychoemotional bomb shelters,” says Robinson, when, in fact, we Westerners are more free, safe, and stable than most people throughout the world and throughout history have ever hoped to be. “Why not enjoy it?” said Robinson with the hint of a chuckle. More soberly, she argued that fear — and people feeling “justified in fear” — leads to violence in the form of “preemptive self-defense.”
… Fear … shuts down creativity and the capacity for imaginative, loving identification with others, who, in fear, become perceived threats.
Others, due to fear, “become perceived threats.” And if they’re not threatening enough on their own, then we’ll just have to make them seem more threatening — pretend that they’re Satanic baby-killing monsters intent on destroying American families and outlawing religion.
That’s what evangelical tribalism looks like in practice. It’s driven by fear of the Other. Not because those others are different from us, but because we’re frighteningly indistinguishable from them. Thus the need for totemic tribal symbols and “stances.” And thus the need to confront everyone, everywhere and demand that they declare which side they’re on.