Religion & Liberty Online

Ideological Tribalism: How Evangelicals Go About Social Ethics

MyWayYourWayI recently had an exchange with a Duke Divinity School student regarding many of things I’ve written at the Acton Institute over the past 12 years. The student said this about me:

When it comes to speaking comfort to power and castigating the most vulnerable in our society, there is perhaps no public theological voice more eager than that of Anthony Bradley’s. His body of work is a textbook in blaming the victim and reducing problems to pathology.

Not only had the student actually not read most of the things that I have written but the comment exposes something that Jonathan Haidt explains well that I’ve talked about before: ideological “tribalism.”

Evangelicals generally develop perspectives on justice down tribal ideological and political lines because they normatively do not source the Christian social thought tradition when constructing perspectives on justice. It turns out, that I was simply being critiqued by a card-carrying, bona fide political progressive who is be also Christian. In this light, I was not surprised by the content of the critique. I do not hold the same presuppositions about creation, the implications of the fall, natural law, human dignity, the role of the state, the authority of Scripture and so on, as progressives do so naturally progressives are going to see calls to personal moral virtue and challenges to the patriarchy, soft bigotry, and historic tendency for coercive government to make things worse off for those on margins through the welfare state as “speaking comfort to power and castigating the most vulnerable.”

The exchange provides a clear example of how evangelicals, ignorant of the Christian social thought tradition, go about the business of addressing social issues. It goes something like this:

Step 1: For a variety of well-intentioned reasons, choose a preferred political ideology you believe is the right one and will adequately to address the differentiated problems in society. As David Koyzis, explains it could be libertarianism, socialism, nationalism, conservatism, progressivism, or democracy.

Step 2: Read your preferred political ideology into Bible in a such way that it becomes a tool for interpreting and applying the Bible to social issues. That is, your political ideology becomes your hermeneutic for “Biblical” views on justice.

Step 3: Cherry-pick Bible verses (often taken out of context) and repackage them to make the case that your preferred, tribal, political ideology is indeed “Biblical,” “follows the teaching of Jesus,” is “Christian,” and so on. Here the goal is to prove that God must obviously be on your tribe’s side.

Step 4: Now that you have baptized your political ideology by pouring on a random assortment of Bible verses, you are ready to declare your ideological tribe and those who agree with you, “right.” As a result, any other tribe that does not read the Bible through your ideological lens is not only wrong, they are the enemy and a threat to the church and the world.

Step 5: Issue a call for all other Christians to embrace your tribal ideology. Now that your tribe is “right” you are free in the blogosphere, for example, to declare all of those who are not-like-us — that is, not in our tribe — to be “wrong.” Those in the other tribe (i.e., the enemy tribe) need to change their views so that they can more closely adhere to what your tribe believes the Bible teaches and, therefore, advance to the right side of Truth. Your tribe’s truth.

Those are the basic steps in evangelical tribalism when applying theology to social issues and this approach has been adopted carte blanche by many millennials in recent years. One of the best examples of a polarizing tribal progressive millennial is Rachel Held Evans. Anytime she writes anything critiquing “conservative” evangelicals is it because people like Owen Stratchan do not embrace the presuppositions and methods of progressive Christianity and poorly represent Christianity. For reasons that are puzzling to many, Evans wants men like John Piper and Al Molhler, to join her tribe’s ideological progressivism. Progressive leaders like Jim Wallis want the same.

Again, conservative and progressive evangelicals can both live tribally. For example, from the conservative world, someone like Gary North will proof-text free-market economics as the Bible’s economic system and progressives like Jim Wallis will proof-text the Bible to support the democratic party’s ideological platform invoking his concern for “the least of these.”

In the Protestant ideological tennis match, progressive evangelical Christians and liberal, mainline Protestant liberals, however, have this in common: they both believe that Christians who embrace the inerrancy, infallibility, and final authority of the Bible are the wrong kinds of Christians. There is a key difference between them, however. Protestant liberals are open and honest about their theological and methodological presuppositions. Mainline Protestants, for example, will tell you that they are liberals and do not believe the Bible to be the final authority, reject atonement theology, and so on. Progressive evangelicals, however, tend to not be so forthright it seems. Progressives present themselves as being objective representatives of the teachings of Jesus as historic, yet advanced evangelicals. Progressive evangelicals, like their liberal, mainline cousins, have simply traded-off, in many cases, the tools in the Christian social thought tradition for the analytical tools of the social sciences and the humanities (critical race theory, feminist theory, etc.). For progressive evangelicals, the social sciences are authoritative and are often above critique.

For most evangelicals, principles in the Christian social thought tradition like natural law, solidarity, subsidiarity, sphere sovereignty, personalism, and so on, do not provide the raw material for helpful discourse because the only thing that matters is whether or one’s tribal understanding is supported, defended, and promoted. Evangelicals are left with an ethical framework derived from individualist biblicism. Most do not even use a confession of faith as a starting point. This is classic Christian post-modern tribalism because the goal is to prove that God is on your tribe’s side and not theirs.

In recent years it’s become apparent that conservative evangelicalism has raised a generation of millennials who have left their orthodox and traditional evangelical circles and fully embraced ideological progressivism. They have no tradition and no tested, authoritative texts. The conservative versus progressive tribal discourse, while it may get students graduate degrees and professors tenure, is doing nothing to advance the Christian social thought tradition, nor is it providing Protestants a credible voice in the public square.

In conclusion, the Acton Institute makes its case from within the Christian Social Thought tradition and these are the principles worth debating. Instead of tribalism perhaps we should be asking, “Are we being consistent and rightly apply the tools of the Christian tradition?” Are we rightly applying subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty? A lively discourse about the right application of Christian principles within the Christian tradition is far more fruitful and interesting to me than engaging in a tribal war trying to prove whose tribe best represents Jesus. Mainline Protestant liberals and conservatives evangelicals understand this and no longer really engage one another. Progressive evangelicals, on the other hand, believe they are above the fray but seem to be lost in their own self-deception. Progressive Christians, one might argue, are simply mainline Protestant liberals attempting to wear “evangelical” tribal clothing. It does not seem to be working and secularists seem to enjoy declaring Christianity irrelevant by pitting conservative and progressive Christians against one another. Can we not do better than this?

Anthony Bradley

Anthony B. Bradley, Ph.D., is distinguished research fellow at the Acton Institute and author of The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone on the Black Experience.