Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan
Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shout slogans and wave Turkish national flags during a pro-government demonstration on July 19, 2016 in Sarachane park in Istanbul. Photo by Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

Thick beats thin every time

(RNS) One of the most important developments in global politics and religion is the triumph of "thick" over "thin." By that I mean the triumph of politicians and religious leaders who offer strong rather than weak national identity platforms, passionate rather than becalmed articulations of loyalty, particularist rather than universalist policy visions.

I borrow the "thick" and "thin" language from my teacher Glen Stassen, who got it, I think, from Jewish political philosopher Michael Walzer. Both used it to describe culturally rooted, robust, detailed, substantive, particularist intellectual and moral traditions as opposed to detached, broader, weaker, abstract, universalist alternatives. (Neither Walzer nor Stassen are to be blamed for how I use the terminology here.)

In many contexts, thick is better than thin. Thick identity. Thick loyalty. Thick traditions. Thick connections. The point applies in realms beyond religion and politics. Take family. Or even business.

And thick is besting thin all over the world. In Russia, there's Vladimir Putin's Russian nationalism combined with Russian Orthodox traditionalism. In Turkey, there's Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Muslim-inflected, post-secular Turkish nationalism. In Britain, it's the United Kingdom Independence Party and Brexit, representing British (or at least English) nationalism over globalism and Europeanism. In Israel, it's Israeli nationalism over liberal internationalism. And in America, it's Donald Trump's America First populist nationalism over Hillary Clinton's cosmopolitan internationalism.

In religion, it's the resurgence of fundamentalisms, orthodoxies, and traditionalisms of all types — Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant-evangelical come to mind, but I am sure there are others. It's the triumph of strong and exclusive religious identities over weaker and more inclusive ones, traditional doctrinal formulations over modernist revisions, and demanding religious practice norms over looser or more nominal expectations.

It's especially powerful when these thick religious and political loyalties flow together into a composite religious nationalism. Add a dollop of "race" and you've got a tiger by the tail.

One of the most striking things Donald Trump regularly said during the election campaign was that without border enforcement, "you don't have a country."

Perhaps what he meant to apply to one policy issue has broader application, wider resonance. People want to "have a country" that still means something, so they choose country over Europe, country over global trade deals, country over international norms, country over inclusivity ethics. It's a thick, local, particularist identity and loyalty.

And in religion, "you don't have a religion" without doctrinal borders, without behavioral expectations, without clear identity demarcations over against those of other religions and no religion.

The dangers of this kind of thinking are manifest with every "thick" nationalism and religious orthodoxy. We know them well — intolerance, extremism, repression. Those problems or potential problems tend to produce anti-nationalist, anti-tribalist, and anti-orthodox reactions and the move toward various thinner and more abstract universalisms. But then these tend to produce their own reactions with a swing back to stronger and more passionate thick loyalties.

My own 40-year experience as a (Southern) Baptist, and now a pastor, amply confirms this observation. Baptist fundamentalism produced a "moderate" and liberal Baptist reaction; moderate and liberal versions of Baptist life produced a resurgent fundamentalism; this resurgent fundamentalism produced an even deeper anti-fundamentalist allergy among its opponents.

Far too often we have ended up with a thick Baptist fundamentalism sure of everything and a thin Baptist anti-fundamentalism sure of nothing — other than the evils of fundamentalism, which is not an agenda that can sustain a religious community for very long.

I am confident this description describes more than the Baptist predicament.

These days as I prepare to preach weekly sermons in a post-Southern Baptist church outside Atlanta, I am trying to offer a non-fundamentalist but still thick account of Christian theology and practice. Here, I am seeking to say, we teach a religion with substance, a religion worth devoting your life to, a religion with biblical rooting, doctrinal solidity, and ethical-communal expectations. So far, so good.

The same thing will need to happen at the national political level. If we don't like Donald Trump's version of thick American nationalism and national loyalty, we must offer an equally thick but more compelling alternative. We must articulate and demonstrate why our understanding of what it means to be American, of the core values of American democracy, and of best public policies, are superior to the alternative on display — within the terms of a thick American identity and loyalty.

Because thick beats thin every time.

(David Gushee is distinguished university professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University in Georgia. He writes the Christians, Conflict and Change column for RNS)


  1. As soon as you advertised the phrase, “doctrinal solidity”, you just admitted you need thickness to survive. Just like the fundamentalists.

    Which brings up an interesting suggestion from a scholar, Gavin D’Costa, in an old Religious Studies journal many years ago. Simplified, it went something like this:

    Scratch far down underneath ANYBODY’s words or positions, no matter how liberal or conservative he or she is, and you are going to uncover a fundamentalist. No joke.

    The ONLY difference, will be what gospel they’re preaching to you.

  2. Jesus had a robust thinness in the face of a thick headed pseudo-orhtodoxy and suffered the consequences. The Gospel at its heart is thin with its only thickness being in telling the religious thickheads to bugger off. So called “evangelicals” who are neither evangelical let alone Christian have a thick agenda which has produced an American cowboy jesus who is a fraud and a preacher of the golden calf heresy they so passionately embrace. I will take thin which is thick in its defense of the poor, the outcast, the stranger, the elderly, the prisoner any day and I will take thin which thickly assets its identity and purpose in a Person over a thin that doesn’t know dittly from squat!

  3. You write an interesting article Dr. Gushee. As a very visual learner and artist, I have a problem with your imagery. I think you have it backwards.

    Fundamentalism, white nationalism/white supremacy, Republicanism is a very thin restricted stream. It’s tightly regulated, controlled and limited, only open to a select few. It cannot be thick due to the large number of those who are rejected because they do not fit within the narrow parameters. It’s vulnerable to the “wrong type” and so must be carefully guarded and protected. Rather than a big tent, it is a small hut.

    Multiculturalism, “liberal” churches, Democrats are the thick stream of all sorts of people from all sorts of place in all sorts of colors and beliefs. It’s a growing river across the globe. It’s not protected by walls, doesn’t need to keep people out, nor does it require rejection of “unsuitable” types. No building can or needs to house it.

    (Note that the previous paragraphs are about imagery, and not perfectly literal.)

    Sticking to the old ways is more comfortable and easier and there is nothing wrong with ease. The cultural changes, nearly all of which I support, sometimes make me uneasy too. The thing is, they’re not going to stop coming. We may have a temporary lull during the next 4 years, but it’s only temporary. It may even have a benefit of allowing people who are frightened about the rapid pace of change to catch their breath.

    In my imagery, the pres-elect is actually building a dam on the thick river of the world. The thin stream that trickles out at the base of the dam is Fundamentalism, white nationalism/white supremacy, Republicanism. It’s the only stream allowed past the dam. However, the thick Multiculturalism, “liberal” churches, Democratic river keeps building on the other side till the reservoir becomes too large and bursts the dam. The water gushing through the dam overwhelms the thin stream, the waters mingle and become one beautiful, wild river of life.

  4. Typical redneck and typical hate spewing that we all have come to expect and are never disappointed. Just for your information the fastest growing “religious identification” is non affiliated and this is amongst folkes under 35 and whose IQ is larger than their belt size. I am not Episcopalian by the way. Lastly girlfriend in 1930 the fastest growing churches in Germany were the Reformed “churches” that supported Hitler! You just go ahead and follow your leader trump and his grand lizard pence they will guide you in the paths of self righteousness all the sad sorry days of your life. Hope you find Jesus before it is too late!

  5. I see what you are saying but having much experience with sticks (dogs), the thin sticks are much more resilient whereas the thick breaks in two. So I see the thin bending and being restored and not breaking.

  6. What does Mrs. Clinton’s “cosmopolitan internationalism” encompass? Maybe I should use the past tense, what did it encompass, and how would it have moved forward this country’s still-sluggish economic situation? Since 2009, approximately 60 percent of jobs created in the U.S. have been low-wage.

  7. Rev. (don’t believe you are one), you, Achy Breaky and the author of this article are among the reasons I left my church. I have my religious beliefs within, so I no longer have the need or patience for all the smugness and messages of superiority ripening in most of these comments – and in the article itself. I happen to know I am not alone.

  8. yep I am a “rev” I have been ordained for over 40 years. One aspect of this site which I do find disturbing is the lack of review for want of a better term that allows racist and anti Semitic commentary to remain on site. The editor did remove some particular racist comments by one of the several trolls that love to extol white supremacy but far too much of what we see is not removed.

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