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Donald Trump and the travesty of Christian tribalism

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, on January 18, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, on January 18, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, on January 18, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

“We’re going to protect Christianity,” said Donald Trump over at Liberty University on Monday. A bit more really is worth quoting:

“Christianity is under siege. Very bad things are happening … Somehow we have to unify, we have to band together, we have to do really in a really large version what they’ve done at Liberty … You band together, you’ve created one of the great universities, colleges anywhere in the country, anywhere in the world, and that’s what our country has to do around Christianity.”

A man leading in the GOP contest to be the next president of the United States appears to be saying that “we” have to do for “our country” what the good folks at Liberty U. (supposedly) have done for global Christianity and Christian higher education. On a really, really, really large scale, “we” have to unify around Christianity in the United States. If “we” do this, presumably “we” will make America great again.

Who is the “we” here? Is it all Americans? Probably there are a lot of Americans who would not be too interested in banding together in a really large way around Christianity. For example, there are Jewish Americans. And there are Muslim Americans. And there are Buddhist Americans, Hindu Americans, Wiccan Americans, agnostic Americans, spiritual-but-not-religious Americans, atheist Americans, seeker Americans, and lots of others. What is to be done with them in this America-newly-unified-around-Christianity?

There’s also the little problem of the First Amendment. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” Perhaps that law would not apply to the executive branch if Donald Trump became president. After all, the executive branch is not listed there. Maybe the president could just issue a series of executive orders, like mandating that all federal government office windows in Washington be filled with suitably Christian displays. Anything to make America great again, right?

Of course, this kind of language is not really or mainly about policy. It’s about “us” and “them.”

There is a great word for the kind of faux religiosity trotted out by Donald Trump at Liberty, and not only by him. That word is tribalism. Its narrow meaning is “strong loyalty to one’s own tribe, party, or group.” The particular tribe that Mr. Trump was ham-handedly courting on Monday was white evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. He is not alone. Every Republican candidate courts this tribe, which constitutes a substantial share of GOP primary voters.

But usually the candidates are more fluent in the actual language and customs of the tribe. Usually they know how to send tribal signals in more subtle ways. But Donald Trump is not known for subtle, and would not be capable of it in this regard because he is completely unfamiliar with the actual practice of evangelical Christianity.

Tribalism thrives on us vs. them thinking. Our tribe is better than your tribe. God is on the side of our tribe and against your tribe. This land has always belonged to our tribe. Other tribes are outsiders; perhaps we will tolerate them, but they do not belong here in the way that we do. We will muscle them aside and let them know who is in charge here. And if an obvious member of another tribe dares to come into one of our tribal gatherings we will let them know that they are not welcome.

Tribalism violates the American spirit, which at its best is inclusive and welcoming of people from many places, many “tribes.” Tribalism is unworthy of a major American political leader or party. It is the kind of spirit that has plunged many countries into civil war. Only if Iraqis overcome tribalism do they have a future. The same is true in Syria and many other places. Political leaders who take the tribalist path make us look more like the most divided and violent nations of the world and less like the America we want to be.

And of course, it should go without saying that Christian tribalism is a complete travesty. The Christian faith is centered on Jesus, who taught love of all, including stranger and enemy, and who died for all. The early church, moved by the Holy Spirit, became a post-tribal community that brought together Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, people of every language and tribe and nation (Galatians 3:28, Ephesians 2:11-22).

Therefore all hints of tribalism are clearly sinful in Christian terms: racism is ruled out for Christians. Nationalism is ruled out for Christians. Xenophobia is ruled out for Christians. Contempt for people of other religions is ruled out for Christians.

Anyone who offers or falls for “Christian” tribalism separates himself from the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

About the author

David Gushee