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

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

"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.


  1. Though I am aware that human nature never really changes, I continue to pray that brave Christ-followers like you will become increasingly vocal! I have recently been reading about the human atrocities committed by Hitler’s army. As I ponder how one can reconcile the following quotes, all by Hitler, I realize how vulnerable fear renders mankind.
    1. “I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator.” Adolph Hitler
    2. “Humanitarianism is the expression of stupidity and cowardice.” Adolph Hitler
    3. “it’s not truth that matters, but victory.” Adolph Hitler
    4. “I do not see why man should not be just as cruel as nature.” Adolph Hitler
    Tribalism is an outgrowth of replacing faith with fear!

  2. Thank you for mentioning atheist Americans, agnostic Americans, and spiritual-but-not-religious Americans. We, too, wonder (and worry about) what our role would be in a Christian theocracy. We appreciate finding solidarity with people of faith who understand the threat posed by this kind of candidate to *everyone*’s freedom of conscience.

  3. Good points — and chilling quotes.

    Trump is certainly not Hitler, but the phenomenon of evangelical Christians supporting Trump shows how little they know or have learned about history and its lessons.

  4. Mary Ellen, freedom of religion includes freedom to choose atheism as well as theism. We are not going to become a Christian theocracy. For millions of us who love Christ and believe that freedom is a gift of God, America will become a Christian theocracy, or any other kind of theocracy, over our dead bodies. We believe that the Gospel itself requires freedom to choose atheism as well as theism, because we believe that coerced faith is an oxymoron. For faith to be efficacious, people must have the right to say “no” as well as “yes.”

  5. Thank you, Pastor Gushee, and those who have posted thus far in response to your article. To further borrow and adapt the words of others, . . . let us have “more light” and more all-inclusive compassion and humility. Too bad such virtues don’t seem to generate votes. . . .

  6. Dr. Gushee, how do you reconcile the article you wrote a few weeks ago critical of clergy endorsement of politicians or any kind of public political involvement (which I agree with you 100%) with the numerous articles and Facebook posts you’ve written just within the previous year alone expressing your political views?

  7. Religious articles are like the mission Impossible tapes. They self destruct in 5 seconds.

  8. I believe the comments I make fall within my own guidelines. Of course, I may be wrong. But a check of my articles against my proposed rules will, I believe, find no inconsistency.

  9. The “phenomenon of evangelical Christians supporting Trump”, Jack, shows that being a Christian is not dependent on what folks “know” about “history and its lessons.”

    Nor is it dependent upon who they choose to vote in an American political election (which is a game of smoke and mirrors for decades now).

    The hypocrisy of politically superior “Christians” is what’s driving evangelicals by the thousands to Trump. Russell Moore may be responsible for more Southern Baptists voting the Trump ticket than any other individual. What polictically superior Christians have learned about “history” and its lessons sure hasn’t seemed to help them much in the area of common sense……also a gift from God.

  10. Can’t reconcile it. Politcally superior Christians don’t have to give an account for their hypocrisy. They’re enlightened 🙂

  11. Definitely think it would apply more to the Christian enemies of Trump than vice-versa based on observation.

  12. The “proposed rules” may be source of problem.

  13. I’ve seen the same tribalism take over my former church, plus hostilities toward gays grew there to where it was sucking the life out of me. I am a straight mom of a gay child so I felt targeted and harmed (like others who’ve been sharing their experiences). I appreciate you and others who share my perspective on this and other topics.

  14. If I’m not mistaken, Scott, I believe Russell Moore was among the writers in the most recent National Review issue titled “Against Trump.” So I don’t see how you can say that Moore is helping Trump, except in perhaps driving anti-Moore people toward Trump.

    I am no fan of Moore because I think he’s too accommodating to political correctness, but I certainly appreciate his standing up to Trump.

  15. Jeff, I think you’re confusing two very different things — political endorsement of candidates and taking stands on issues. The laws concerning tax-exempt status, for example, make a serious distinction between the right of clergy to speak out from the pulpit on issues of the day and the prohibition against overt endorsement of particular candidates for office.

    It seems to me that David Gushee is making a similar distinction. I would say that even if there were no such laws, it is wise and prudent for Christian leaders to try to avoid endorsements of particular candidates and stick with speaking on issues of concern to Christians.

  16. Good read. I’m not sure I would label the tribe as being “white and fundamentalistic.” I almost wish it were true! White to be sure but do serious Christians really believe that a significant number of Trump’s so called Christian followers are serious about Biblical faith? I think not. They are a hoard (my terminology instead of tribe) of people who are using their brand of faith as a red carpet walk way to express their angst about an already corrupt political DC gang. Unfortunately they leave behind the stench of corrupt Christianity in the wake of their unguided political overtures.

Leave a Comment