American evangelicalism is defined by political tribalism

David Crumm at Read the Spirit asks Anglican bishop and theologian N.T. Wright why he doesn’t like Fox News. Wright responds with a sharp critique of the political tribalism that shapes white evangelical Christianity in America:

I’m not talking about Fox News in any detailed way and I’m not claiming that everything they tell you is wrong. I’m just referring to the well-known political viewpoint that comes through Fox News and I’m saying: We should be careful about listening to that point of view exclusively. There is a striking, radical polarization between your Left and Right that I have to say is really disturbing because it distorts so many issues. This Left-Right polarization forces people to say: We are all on this side now! We must check off every box on this slate! We must keep in line!

As an example of how this political tribalism “distorts so many issues,” Wright discusses America’s recent modest health care reform, the vehement opposition to it from white evangelicals here, and how utterly bizarre that appears to our evangelical brothers and sisters everywhere else in the global church:

In your country, for example, there seem to be Christian political voices saying that you shouldn’t have a national healthcare system. To us, in Britain, this is virtually unthinkable. Every other developed country from Norway to New Zealand has healthcare for all of its citizens. We don’t understand all of this opposition to it over here in the U.S. And, we should remember: In the ancient world, there wasn’t any healthcare system. It was the Christians, very early on, who introduced the idea that we should care for people beyond the circle of our own kin. Christians taught that we should care for the poor and disadvantaged. Christians eventually organized hospitals. To hear people standing up in your political debate and saying—“If you are followers of Jesus, you must reject universal healthcare coverage!”—and that’s unthinkable to us. Those of us who are Christians in other parts of the world are saying: We can’t understand this political language. It’s not our value in our countries. It’s not even in keeping with traditional Christian teaching on caring for others. We can’t understand what we are hearing from some of your politicians on this point. Yet, over here, some Christians are saying that it’s part of the list of boxes we all should check off to keep in line.

I came across that interview via Michael F. Bird, who writes the Euangelion blog on Patheos’ evangelical channel. Bird fits there because he’s a theologically conservative Protestant who clearly aligns with any theological or doctrinal attempt to define “evangelical.” But he also doesn’t fit there very well because he’s Australian, and the political tribalism that shapes white evangelical theology in America is literally foreign to him.

This is a longstanding tension between American “evangelicals” and “evangelicals” in the rest of the world. We use the same word, but not in the same way. Adding to the confusion is the pretense that this word is primarily a theological term, referring to a strain of Protestantism that expresses itself, in David Bebbington’s terms, through “biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism and activism.”

That “quadrilateral” comes from Bebbington’s history of Evangelicalism in Modern Britain. It’s a terrific framework for understanding British evangelicalism. It’s useless for understanding American evangelicalism, which is not a theological stream defined by those characteristics but a white subculture defined by its political tribalism and its whiteness.

Before about 1980, an American “evangelical” was a white Protestant teetotaler. American evangelicalism has shifted over the last 30 or so years. Nowadays, we drink wine and beer. Today, an American “evangelical” is a white Protestant Republican.

In that N.T. Wright interview linked above, Wright offers some appreciative criticism of C.S. Lewis. At the same time, Wright precisely echoes Lewis’ puzzlement over the tribalism of American evangelicalism. Like Lewis, Wright is a prolific writer who enjoys enormous popularity among American evangelicals. And like Lewis, Wright is bewildered by the tribal totems those American evangelical readers have latched on to as paramount .

For Lewis, half a century ago, this involved American evangelicals’ condemnation of beer (see several asides in Mere Christianity, or the parody of American teetotalism in Prince Caspian). For Wright, in 2013, it means American evangelicals’ Fox News-shaped politics, their knee-jerk opposition to social justice, and their pervasive anti-feminism (another point on which Wright and Lewis would disagree).

Michael Bird shares Wright’s bewilderment over this reflexive antipathy to universal access to health care. Here’s Bird:

When it comes to the American  evangelical opposition to universal health care, global evangelicals look at them with a mix of disbelief and disgust. Its not just N.T. Wright, ask someone at the Lausanne Congress or at the World Evangelical Alliance or at the Tyndale Fellowship what they think about American evangelicals howling protests against Obamacare! We are mystified as to how can good Christian men and women oppose – in some cases in the name of religion — providing health care for it citizens. … Adequate healthcare for all should be championed by evangelical Christians who follow the teaching of Scripture.

I’m writing this so my American friends can, as your own poet Robert Frost said, “See ourselves as other see us.”  Why do global evangelicals look at you in this way? Maybe its not us who are enthralled to a godless philosophy! I want to challenge my American evangelicals friends to consider whether your views of health care are truly biblical, and to consider whether you have been blinded by a culture of hyper-individualism, economic rationalism, placing faith in market forces. Because to outsiders the anti-Obamacare thing looks like “civil religion,” a syncretistic concoction of Christian teaching, Republican partisanship, capitalistic-worship, and  social Darwinism with its mantra of the survival of the fittest.

Let me explain why, to global evangelicals, it appears as though white evangelicals in America are captive to civil religion and “a syncretistic concoction of Christian teaching, Republican partisanship, capitalistic-worship, and social Darwinism.”

It’s because white evangelicals in America actually are captive to civil religion and “a syncretistic concoction of Christian teaching, Republican partisanship, capitalistic-worship, and social Darwinism.”

Evangelicalism in America is shaped, primarily, by political tribalism. Not by doctrine. Not by the Bible. Not by a conversionist spirituality that emphasizes a personal relationship with God. Not by admiration for Billy Graham, or by an aversion to drinking, dancing and R-rated movies. Not by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

White political tribalism. Period. American evangelicalism may admire or aspire to many of those other things, but when push comes to shove, they’ll all be eagerly jettisoned if need be to check off all the boxes that need to be checked off to stay in line politically.

White political tribalism. Above all else. Above biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism and activism. Above Christ, above the Bible, above love.

White political tribalism is pushing all of those aside, gradually becoming not just the primary characteristic of American evangelicalism, but the only characteristic of American evangelicalism.

When fantasy role-playing replaces faith (cont’d.)
When fantasy role-playing replaces faith
When some faction says they, and they alone, are the Real, True Christians, you shouldn’t take their word for it
Bullies have always been intersectional, even before that was a word
  • esmerelda_ogg

    So, Tom, if you feel you should scold Deird because “women should not speak”, I suppose you also believe it was wicked for the women who went to the tomb on the first Easter morning to shamelessly tell the grieving disciples about seeing the risen Jesus? Would it have been more appropriately submissive for the women to keep that news to themselves? All the men were convinced that He was just plain dead, a corpse beginning to rot like any other dead man; how dared the mere women disagree with them?

  • Cythraul

    Every time Fred uses the word “tribalism”, I misread it as “tribadism”, and I snicker helplessly.

  • AnonymousSam

    Yet another thing the conservative right-wing folks would deny while secretly appreciating on a scale which is probably unhealthy. :p

  • Loki1001

    I wish it was as socialist as Medicaid.Medicare. The program would be massively improved if it was even mildly socialist.

    Side note: it’s kind of amazing how often I have to explain that forcing people to buy products from private firms is pretty much the exact opposite of socialism.

  • AnonymousSam

    That’s because they’re not operating with the same definitions we are. Socialism, to them, is anything which undermines their ability to make choices independently, and anything which takes choices out of their hands–even if the only choices denied are obviously all bad ones–is evil by design and just one step closer to Nazi Germany.

  • Loki1001

    Who would have thought that in the 21st Century there would be people screaming their heads off over the inability of businesses to scam them?

  • AnonymousSam

    Oh, some are happy to admit that businesses will scam them, but then they say that if businesses scammed people, customers would stop frequenting them and their profits would dry up, so either they know better than to try or they’re doomed to fail and it all works out in the long run.

    This also turns out to be untrue. The number of honest HMOs, for example, is pretty much nil.

  • Loki1001

    Yep. Apparently we are supposed to ignore that collusion is more profitable than competition. Remember how if you have a Bank of America account with $100 dollars in it, if you just left it alone for a year, it would be in overdraft? Yeah, allegedly capitalism is supposed to prevent that, but what really happens is one company thinks up a scheme, tests it out, and then every other company hops on board.

    I also like how the same people who claim that a business would lose its customers also are likely to claim boycotts don’t work.

  • Tom Giacondra

    Your actually trying to start an arguement…how “christian” of you.

  • AnonymousSam

    I experienced that one for myself when they upped their minimum balance to $500.

  • Tom Giacondra

    Not a single Apostle had a theology degree…God chose the foolish of this world, the poor, the sick…you think in the flesh, not like God

  • Loki1001

    …Theology degrees did not exist back then. You think in anachronisms.

  • Loki1001

    Exactly. And if everything we’ve been told about capitalism is true, that would never happen because a different business would swoop in and take your money. Instead all it does is give all those other companies ideas of how to implement the same policy.

  • esmerelda_ogg

    Pot, meet kettle?

    Tom, you have made a great many hostile, offensive comments on this thread and at least one other one on this site. Yes, you managed to provoke me; congratulations.

    And now that we’ve covered that issue, how about replying to the substance of my comment? You scolded Deird for having an opinion and stating it. There are scriptural examples of women speaking out. Were the Biblical woman sinful for not keeping their mouths shut? If so, why? If not, why can’t Deird say what she thinks, other than the minor detail that you can’t figure out how to refute her?

  • Tom Giacondra

    Oh look an idiot…Pharisees, Sadducees…your crying for attention, but its obvious your too stupid to engage…anybody who cant see any sign of “socialism” in Government run healthcare is not just few french fries short of a happy meal…dont expect another response from me, I dont suffer fools well…by all means type as many comments as possible…somebody needs to keep you out of the general public, reducing any chance you will mate…or worse pop your cork and go libtard in a movie theater…as libtards usually do

  • Tom Giacondra

    Thats because your a murderor of babies and not a christian…I hope the Word of God offends you, thats why I use it constantly…it weeds out the phonies, the self deceived, the heretics…just quote the bible and watch them get infuriated…first come back is usually “stop judging us”…bingo you can can check that box. The next box is well Jesus would murder the babies too (using this subject matter as an example), but they never quite have the scriptural backing…bingo you had that one too. Next they assault the scriptural directives,saying stupid things like…anyone can cut and paste…triple bingo for you witchypoo…do you mind if I call you witchypoo…thats what your name reminds me of…a witch.

  • Tom Giacondra

    You mean Barack “you can keep your current healthcare plan if you like it…29 times” Obozo isnt a liar…lol…I merely credited him with his greatest gift. I suppose politicians dont lie..especially yours.

  • AnonymousSam

    I claim no particular special affection for Obama. I just know he would have been better than a man who mocked the idea that half the country felt they were entitled to food.

  • Ian

    To be fair, while Wright did mention Fox News (only because i assume he was asked about it), he only condemns our political discourse for its polarization. And for what he says about Obamacare, it doesnt seem as if he is totally aware of what it is, but it isnt socialzed medicine as what exists in Europe (which I would support). It seems to me to be (though im no expert) just another entiltement program floating around in our already existing system. A true socialed health care system would eliminate premiums entirely and be funded entirely through tax dollars (small for the poor and larger for the rich). Obamacare seems to only confound the problems that exisred in the system even more and i think that insurance companies are going to be the only ones to benefit. Ill be happy.with healthcare reform when it becomes truly socialized and rewritten from the ground up.

  • Ross

    It’s “Down with” not “Down on”

  • Tom Giacondra

    Well you certainly did your part…now the number of people receiving some form of Government subsidy exceeds the number of Americans with full time employment for the first time EVER. We are now 17 Trillion in debt, and with more than half receiving free money and not working, and the minority left to both feed the unemployed and pay off the ever growing debt…not to mention people who once had healthcare are now losing it…ya I would say your discernment in the voting booth was spot on…hey my kids and grandkids thank you…moron. even if it hit you right in the face you miss it.

  • esmerelda_ogg

    Why, Tom, I would never have guessed that you were a fan of Discworld!

    Aside from that, I suppose you’ve answered my question, in your own way. No, you have no intention of having a serious discussion of why it’s all right for various Biblical women to speak up, but not all right for Deird. Instead, you retreat to another incoherent rant, accusing me of holding opinions I’ve never said anything about.

    There’s no real point in trying to engage with your latest fit of hysteria. I will note that I am, in intention and, I pray, in God’s eyes, a Christian; what you think of me or pretend to think of me doesn’t matter.

  • Tom Giacondra

    Youve made your satanic view of God clear to me, murdering the unborn is biblical to you, in violation of Thou Shall NOT Murder (a command, not a suggestion).

    If hell is what you crave, then I say Godspeed to you..Go To Hell Murderer!

  • esmerelda_ogg

    Dijon mustard and fresh thyme leaves make an excellent flavoring for chicken breasts.

  • Loki1001

    I’d advise you to actually do a google search before you respond to someone. Both the Pharisees and Sadducees were sects. They were religious movements, not levels of education.

    “Government run healthcare”

    Please explain how this is government run healthcare? Obamacare is pretty much the exact opposite of government run healthcare. The actual running of the healthcare is all done by private companies.

    And anyone who needs to type out a statement like this, “dont expect another response from me” is clearly, “crying for attention.” Mature adults do not feel compelled to tell other people they are disengaging. Mature adults simply disengage.

  • AnonymousSam

    When the world is still here in 2016, and then again in 2020, I’ll accept your apology if you should recall the time when you were so fearful of the things you had always had and never seen.

  • IndigoV

    There’s no proof that this is linked to the President.

    Progressive groups are also currently in “limbo” over this.

    Most of these conservative and progressive groups deserve to have their charter status refused.

  • Bart Breen

    I get that Loki. It reminds me of the old joke, I don’t belong to any organized party, I’m a Democrat.

    The fact is however that while there’s certainly broad differences that you can find if you pick and choose which movements to compare, that Tribalism is less about whether the leadership circles are primarily formal or informal, and more about the dynamic underneath which promotes a homogeneous appeal to support those who are like “us” as opposed to those who are like “them.”

    I don’t have a need here, nor am I attempting to say that both sides (which why do we have to assume there are only 2 sides) do it therefore the issue is artificial or washed out by each other. The way that these tribalism issues work out are more matters of underlying psychology and identification than they are the structures that form around them.

    That said however, I can’t argue against you that in today’s political environment that these issues appear right now to be more in the venue of the evangelical right-wing and Tea Party elements of the Republican Party. It’s one of the reasons I’ve left it and now define myself as an independent.

    I’m just not willing to correspondingly demonize all who come from that direction as being primarily motivated by those issue to where i ignore its influence elsewhere, including as at times, maybe in my own back yard.

  • Tom Giacondra

    Your just stuck on stupid huh? You are the gift that just keeps on giving. From Acts 22:3, Paul speaking to fellow Jews in Jerusalem; ” I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Clicia, but brought up in this city . Under Gamaliel, I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers and was just as zealous for God as any of you are today.”.
    The Jews, both Saddusees and Pharisees had years of training in the scriptures…even these ancient texts testify to that…the gift that keeps giving…where are the so called christians in the room to correct your error…nowhere, why, because they are ALL PHONY MURDEROUS PAGANS, GODHATERS…FOOLS

  • Bart Breen

    Loki, don’t engage with Tom on this, I would suggest. He seems to pretty much rely on dragging people down to his level of arrogance and ignorance and then he has the advantage of experience.

  • AnonymousSam

    But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.

  • Tom Giacondra

    Indigo…watch and learn how corrupt your news sources are…learn the hard way if you insist… Watch. Somebodies going to jail… over this thing you call a non-event.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    We are now 17 Trillion in debt, and with more than half receiving free money and not working

    Just because Romney tried on that “53%” thing doesn’t mean you should fall for it and keep digging, in addition – first of all even by the SGS Alternate Measure, unemployment + underemployment is only 22% not 50%.

    Second of all, they are not “receiving free money”; have you any idea what the government budget would be if ~150 million Americans were doing nothing but sucking up $10k a year from the government?


    The US goverment spent a total of $3.45 trillion on EVERYTHING for fiscal 2013.

    Note that ALL discretionary spending (that is, stuff that has to be appropriated by law) is somewhat under $1.3 trillion.

    $2.6 trillion is Social Security and Medicaid/care.

    So you’re calling a bunch of old folks who put in a lot of time and effort working Old Economy Steve jobs and who deserve to get something back from all that -

    you’re calling them all a bunch of freeloaders.

    I hope you get whacked with an old lady’s walker for saying that.

  • Tom Giacondra

    you are a bigger idiot than I thought…only 8 years ago our budgets were 800 Billion a year…you think 3.45 Trillion is a smaller it because 800 is bigger than 3.45? Do you not pay attention to units Billion vs Trillion…my God where do you go to school? Oh wait your unemployed so you those who worked hard to pay for your lazy ass…so you can get money you did not earn, off the backs of those who do…putz. and redo your math if we owe 17 Trillion and less than half the people have full time employment, as the remaining suck the life out of this country on a free ride (Weeeeeeeeeeee!)…the math will show you the impossibility of digging out of this blackhole…every single person owes `$113,000.00 (that is if everyone worked, but more than half don’t pay any taxes at all, so that `$266,000 per working person!)…I repeat your an idiot!

  • Tom Giacondra

    Your no Christian, youre cheerleading for the murderors of Gods Children, the most innocent among us, youre an enabler, a soldier of satan, leading the masses into marginalizing the murder of children.
    The scriptures you use as proof texts show God judging adultery, the human gives the water, if the accused is innocent then no harm comes to the child from the bitter water, if guilt was present that same bitter water killed the fetus…it wasn’t the human priest doing it, it was a supernatural act of God. The difference is ONLY God can take a YOU he gave the commandment THOU SHALL NOT MURDER…and you sit there and lead the masses into committing genocide …you are satans tool witchypoo.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    You honestly have no fucking clue how much your own government spends, do you?

    2013 United States federal budget – $3.8 trillion (submitted 2012 by President Obama)
    2012 United States federal budget – $3.7 trillion (submitted 2011 by President Obama)
    2011 United States federal budget – $3.8 trillion (submitted 2010 by President Obama)
    2010 United States federal budget – $3.6 trillion (submitted 2009 by President Obama)
    2009 United States federal budget – $3.1 trillion (submitted 2008 by President Bush)
    2008 United States federal budget – $2.9 trillion (submitted 2007 by President Bush)
    2007 United States federal budget – $2.8 trillion (submitted 2006 by President Bush)
    2006 United States federal budget – $2.7 trillion (submitted 2005 by President Bush)
    2005 United States federal budget – $2.4 trillion (submitted 2004 by President Bush)
    2004 United States federal budget – $2.3 trillion (submitted 2003 by President Bush)
    2003 United States federal budget – $2.2 trillion (submitted 2002 by President Bush)
    2002 United States federal budget – $2.0 trillion (submitted 2001 by President Bush)
    2001 United States federal budget – $1.9 trillion (submitted 2000 by President Clinton)
    2000 United States federal budget – $1.8 trillion (submitted 1999 by President Clinton)
    1999 United States federal budget – $1.7 trillion (submitted 1998 by President Clinton)
    1998 United States federal budget – $1.7 trillion (submitted 1997 by President Clinton)
    1997 United States federal budget – $1.6 trillion (submitted 1996 by President Clinton)
    1996 United States federal budget – $1.6 trillion (submitted 1995 by President Clinton)

    (Eight years ago in BOLD TEXT)

    You’re an embarrassment to any thinking person out there. You who claim to be a scientist are so sloppy with your facts and figures that you’re a walking hazard to any lab.


    The US government last spent “only” $800 billion in nominal dollars in 1983. In 2005 constant dollars, 1966.

  • Loki1001

    Wow. You really failed to live up to your promise. I expected a response from you, and I certainly got one. How pathetic do you have to be to type out “dont expect another response from me” and then leap at the chance to respond?

    I would love to point out that literally nothing in this poorly formatted, poorly worded block of text show me to be in error in any way.

    I’m going to be very excited to hear your next incoherent response.

  • Tom Giacondra

    To be honest, its called freewill, I have total control over what I respond to and what I CHOOSE NOT TO, and even more shocking, I can even make exceptions…what a concept…revolutionary…egad…un heard of…

  • Invisible Neutrino

    There are allegedly secret Executive Orders, but those usually pop up in the context of the omgFEMAcamps folks.

  • Loki1001

    Why yes, you do have total control. Which is why it is hilarious that you completely lack impulse control. When you make a giant point about how you will not respond again, and then immediately respond again at the first possible opportunity… that’s all on you. You are,as you said, in total control.

    You are just sad, pathetic little child throwing a temper tantrum, which is the difference between us.

  • IndigoV