Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Tribalism in the American UMC

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Consider this description of American United Methodists:

"Progressive Activists and Devoted Conservatives together comprise just 14 percent of the American church membership—yet it often feels as if our denominational conversation has become a shouting match between these two groups at the furthest ends of the spectrum. Together with Traditional Conservatives (who share values and tribalism like the Devoted Conservatives, just less intensely), they compose the 33 percent of people in the groups we label the Wings.

"Combined, the members of these three tribes comprise just one-third of the membership, but they often dominate our denominational conversation. Tribalism runs deep in their thinking. Their distrust and fear of the opposing side drives many of the people in these groups, and they have especially negative opinions of each other. When people today speak about how United Methodists seem to hate each other, they're usually talking about the opinions and behaviors of the Wings.

"The Wings are also the most unified internally. On many of the most contentious issues—race, immigration, LGBTQI+ rights—the people in these three tribes express high levels of unanimity. Often more than 90 percent of people in one of these groups holds the same view about a controversial issue, and typically, it will be the reverse of whatever the opposing wing believes. In contrast, the remaining two-thirds of American United Methodists at the center show more diversity in their theological views, express less certainty about them, and are more open to compromise and change—even on issues that we all tend to consider highly polarizing."

Sounds pretty accurate, right? Only here's the catch - this isn't a description of American United Methodists. It's a description of the American electorate from the Hidden Tribes of America project, which I changed slightly to shift references from the nation to the church. The fact that it can be read so easily as a description of the church makes the point that divisions in The United Methodist Church in the United States mirror the divisions within wider society.

Increasingly, scholars and commentators have been referring to US society as becoming more "tribalized" - that is, divided into exclusive and competing groups constructed around communal identities. Amy Chua is perhaps the scholar most associated with this analysis, but it has been adopted by many others. The Hidden Tribes project takes such an approach. The ways in which their description of tribalism in American politics maps so neatly onto the church shows us that the American church has become tribal as well.

For many Americans, thinking of their society as a tribal society is new. During the Enlightenment and colonialism, the West (including the United States) took great pride in its belief that it had advanced beyond a tribal basis for organizing society. Thus, Americans in general may struggle to figure out what a resurgence of tribalism means for American society. Similarly, American Christians may struggle to figure out what a resurgence of tribalism means for the American church.

Yet Americans do have Christian brothers and sisters who have long experience in trying to think through the implications for and intersections of tribalism and the church: African Christians. While the impact of tribalism on and in the church is still a contentious issue that Africans have by no means solved, they do have a long history of trying to bring Christian theological and ethical resources to bear on tribal conflicts in church and society and have acquired a good deal of wisdom in the process.

The debates over homosexuality leading up to the called General Conference in February of next year are perhaps the biggest expression of tribal conflicts in the US UMC today. What if, in the face of these tribal conflicts, American United Methodists were to ask their African sisters and brothers not "Which tribe will you align with?" but "What can you teach us about how to handle tribal conflicts in the church?" It might not end conflicts in the US church, but it might help us to move forward in new ways that transcend rather than merely replicate the conflicts in the broader US society.


  1. An interesting observation - although I think it does an injustice to actual tribal peoples. Real tribal people (and the OT gives us a model) understand their limitations, both territorial and cultural. They don't insist that other tribes dress like them, or dance like them, or even worship the same gods. But the UM tribes live in the shadow of the enlightenment totalitarianism that continues to dominate the character of American religion. Whatever their definition of salvation, they all believe that everyone needs to be saved JUST LIKE THEM. They want their tribe to be the only tribe, or certainly they want to be acknowledged as the only legitimate universal tribe worshipping the only real god and possessing the only real ethic of justice. In short, like our Euro-American ancestors they are perfectly happy to push all the other tribes off the land entirely or into reservations. They are tribes, but more like the Persians, and Han, and Greeks, and Romans, and Aryans were tribes. And in that sense are more competitors with than participants in God's Reign.

    1. I think that's a fair critique. Perhaps we need to come up with a new category of "totalizing tribe" or something to the effect. The comparison to the Persions, Han, Greeks, Romans, and Aryans is an interesting one and I think generative.