‘Convulsive ingatherings’ and the reaction against immigrants

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European Union and British Union Jack flag flying in front of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament at Westminster Palace, London, in preparation for the Brexit EU referendum

European Union and British Union Jack flag flying in front of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament at Westminster Palace, London, in preparation for the Brexit EU referendum. Shutterstock.com creative commons.

The text for our mid-year, mid-decade Sightings has been with us from the beginnings of The Fundamentalism Project of the American Academy of Arts and Science, which R. Scott Appleby and I co-directed decades ago. Its words addressed discontents and upheavals associated with the word “Fundamentalism” and its synonyms, but their applicability is portable. Think of “Brexit” and other stresses on The European Union, the character of American partisanship in this election year, the fights over the word “Islam,” and language about immigration, classes (as in “elites” versus “dissenters”) etc. as we repeat these opening words from Harold Isaacs’ still-important Idols of the Tribe


“We are experiencing on a massively universal scale a convulsive ingathering of people in their numberless grouping of kinds—tribal, racial, linguistic, religious, national. It is a great clustering into separatenesses that will, it is thought, improve, insure, or extend each group’s power or place, to keep it safe or safer from the power, threat, or hostility of others.”


Isaacs did not observe or contend, nor do we, that such “convulsive ingatherings” are unprecedented or, that all “ingatherings” are unnecessary and destructive—this side of their often being “convulsive.” He did chronicle what was novel in the tribal idolatries of the 1970s, and we applied to the “religious” versions, in various “fundamentalisms.” In the threat to the EU experiment, many observers are giving “religious” kinds a bit of rest in the United Kingdom, while they are on the rise in American politics and media.

To do an encompassing analysis of the Brexit champions, or, this week, of religious convulsions in, for example, the Middle East or the United States; is not possible in this small space or by this small analyst. For the moment it is urgent to understand why a British electoral majority, however slight, chose to demolish the dreams of cooperation, economic and otherwise, on a continent which, in the past century, saw dreams deferred, nay, demolished, as nation rose up against nation in the two most destructive wars in history.

The immediate occasion for the present chaos, is reaction against immigrants, immigration, and governmental elites which have not found or chosen ways to convulsively ingather people into “clusters” of “separatenesses.” Are there counter-trends?

Last week on page one were accounts of Pope Francis, who contends against separateness-forces (including many associated with his Church), but whose reference to the late Ottoman Empire’s killings of populations in Armenia as “genocide” irritated Turks. Many others of his reconciling gestures produce non-convulsive gatherings across tribal (religious, national, and other boundaries) but, alas, also see the convulsive reactions of many in his own Catholic flocks, in Europe and elsewhere.

The ecumenical and interfaith movements do their part to keep ears and boundaries open, but their resources are limited. Voices for understanding promote support of better immigration policies and relief for suffering immigrants. They do not get tweeted or twittered or financed in ways that help them emerge as popular counter-signs or as forces which do not demand fealty to the “idols of the tribes,” but which do exemplify more open and generous dealings among peoples in their gatherings.

Few, in our reading and hearing, are optimistic, but not all have abandoned hope.


Author Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at  www.memarty.com.