Christian Witness among Anxious New Tribes 1

Christian Witness among Anxious New Tribes 1 July 6, 2015

There is in the modern world, even beyond the North Atlantic realm, a deep consciousness that public identities, the ways in which we are known not only to ourselves, but others, are chosen, not given. And they are chosen in the midst of uncertainty and instability.

And these two things: the breakdown of stable public identities, and the consciousness that identity and affiliation are chosen rather than given, shape the formation of what I call anxious new tribes and their role in public life


By new tribes I mean social groups that appear to offer the stability of identity that in the non-modern world might have come from the tribe or religious sect into which one was born. Such identities are primal, in the sense that they are not chosen but are understood to exist prior to the individual or even group that holds them. They are exclusive and excluding, distinguishing the group and its members from other possible identities presented by the diversity of persons and groups in the larger cultural or social realm. And finally they are primarily narrative identities whose origin and key features emerge in the telling of a story or stories about the group.

The Tea Party

One example would be the contemporary Tea Party. It has constructed a primal narrative based on its particular reading of US history, rooted in a mythologized account of the Boston Tea party and the subsequent revolution.

It goes on to assert “a strong belief in the foundational Judeo-Christian values embedded in our great founding documents.” ( This of course is an equally mythological and anachronistic reading of political history. The term “Judeo-Christian” emerges in US discourse only in the 1950’s. Most American Christian readings of Jewish values at the time of the American Revolution were profoundly negative and in the modern era would be regarded as anti-Semitic.

By stressing that “true American Patriots” agree with this narrative and its non-negotiable principles the Tea Party is both exclusive and excluding, so that members can readily distinguish between themselves and others. Such exclusion is driven home by the assertion “English as a core language is required” and that “illegals are here illegally.” Not surprisingly its formal statements are shot through with religious language. Gun ownership, for example, is characterized as “sacred.”

What makes this identity relevant to Christian witness is its deep engagement in the larger public discourse about United States identity, political leadership, and social policies. Itself dismissive of alternative narratives, it cannot be easily dismissed by missiologists concerned with Christian witness.

The New Atheism

The same can be said for the new atheist tribe, which is increasingly uneasy with allowing religion to manifest itself in public discourse. (Atheist responses to my own blog posts are a constant reminder.) A recent issue of the AARP magazine that spoke of older Americans being “prayerful” drew, in the words of its editors, “an angry response to mentions of prayer” (AARP Magazine, June/July 2015 p 4). A letter in that issue made clear what was at stake, “We don’t want to read religious articles.” For the new atheist the mere presence of religion is more than can be tolerate, so threatening is it to their identity.

It is a kind of tribalism that has been extended to what some (including scientists) are calling “scientism,” or the belief that science alone has a legitimate place in public discourse and not merely scientific discourse. In scientism the new atheism finds the primal narrative (science alone has emerged in human discourse to comprehend reality) to compliment its exclusion of other stories and other human experiences. To find such scientism on display one merely needs read Scientific American (I am an avid reader), not merely the articles but the advertisements.

Islamic Essentialism

This new tribalism isn’t just manifest in Anglo-American Christian communities. One finds it in Muslim communities that have increasingly narrowed the scope of possible narratives that a “good Muslim” can pursue. (as noted in a recent lecture I heard by Amyn bin Sajoo) In a growing number of American Muslim communities outward signifiers such as conformity to dress codes and behavior between different genders emerge from the normalization of a single narrative centered on an imagined Muslim golden age and the rejection of other narratives equally present in Islamic history, not to mention any emerging narratives of Muslim identity.

Again this new tribal narrative is relevant to Christian witness because it makes its claim amidst public debate about Islam and Muslim identity. Its advocates claim to be the exclusive authentic representative of Islam. Thus we have seen American Muslim leaders reject any characterization of Islam that doesn’t conform to their narrative, whether that of the recent Atlantic Monthly article linking ISIS to Islamic principals, or that of Ismailis, Ahmadiyya, and other non-conformist Muslim groups. (

Contested Zionism

And we can see something similar happening, amidst enormous contestation, in the Jewish community. Among many Jews a single narrative of modern Israel’s  indissoluble link with Jewish identity and destiny is asserted as the primal Jewish narrative. All other choices, choices that reject or ignore the centrality of Israel to Jewish identity, are dismissed as the choice of “self-hating Jews” or even apostates. The rejection of the J-Street Jewish Lobby by The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations is indicative of the exclusivity of that narrative when it comes to unquestioned support of Israel’s policies regarding a Palestinian state. As are the accusations of anti-Semitism against non-Jews who do not offer whole-hearted support for Israel’s policies.

These struggles to create a stable, primal, identity in the midst of emerging possibilities for Jewish identity (see Donneil Hartman on the New Tribes of Israel) becomes an issue of Christian witness as Christians struggle to formulate their own policy positions vis-à-vis Israel in a public environment of real anti-Semitism, human rights concerns, and increasingly public Messianic Jewish communities.


In all four cases and many others (for no religion is exempt) these new identities emerge to secure otherwise threatened identities, and play themselves out in public discourse as they try to secure a place in the larger narrative of the nation and world.

Yet, as I’ll show in the next post, they offer no escape from anxiety – which has become the perhaps the most pervasive feature of American public life.

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