1 min read

Outsourcing our identities: the corrosive effect of political tribalism

Andy Flannagan is an author, organiser and musician. He is Executive Director of Christians in Politics and wrote the critically acclaimed book Those Who Show Up.  

Political identities need to connect with core identities, Andy Flannagan reflects on how political disagreement can distort the lives of participants.
Across the heads of a roadside crowd, men wearing orange sashes and military band uniforms march along.
An Orange parade in Larkhall, Scotland.
Ross Goodman, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

I spent the first 24 years of my life in Northern Ireland. I am incredibly proud to say that it is my homeland. I am still a regular visitor. I love it. I love the people. However, that doesn’t change the fact that my beautiful, yet broken home provides a disturbing case study in what can happen when two communities live in the same space, but separately.  

That is sadly what is happening in the USA right now, and increasingly what is happening in the UK too. What is at the root of an inability to co-exist with those with whom we disagree? There are many answers to that question. I am not saying that what follows is the only answer, but that perhaps some ancient realities underly our present-day struggles. 

When we hold too tight to an identity and someone pokes it, we get angry. But what shifts us from holding something healthily to grasping it with a clenched fist? 

It is difficult to have an academic discussion about where the border (if any) should be in Ireland. The hurt and history go deep. Reactions are visceral. You only have to note the violent responses to a green, white and gold flag flying on a civic building, or an unwelcome red, white and blue kerbstone appearing overnight to realise that something deeper is being triggered. Similar to the ‘culture war’ issues that plague our present, these coloured symbols illicit emotional reactions because they challenge our very identity.  

When we hold too tight to an identity and someone pokes it, we get angry. But what shifts us from holding something healthily to grasping it with a clenched fist? In the political realm these tribal identities may be conservative, progressive, brexiteer, remainer, Democrat, Republican, or many others. 

We all need what I would call these ‘secondary identities’ to survive and get things done in this world. We need a sense of belonging to a tribe. But without a strong primary identity, we cling to these secondary identities so tightly that we are unable to engage healthily when someone challenges them. I’ll put my cards on the table. I believe that the primary identity of every human (whether we believe in a deity or not) is that we are made in the image of God. We have divine DNA in us. It’s the common thread of our humanity, designed to represent (or image) the kind, just leadership of God to the world. 

This is our core identity. This is the thing that people should see if they bite into us like a stick of rock. But if we lose connection with that core, we will still find our identity elsewhere. Our God-given desire to get a sense of who we are and where we fit in continues to operate.  

The problem with idols is that once you give your primary allegiance to them they exact an increasingly large price from you, without you even noticing it. 

The ancient scriptures also give us a useful language for what happens when we give over too much of our identity to a cause or group. The nation of Israel were experts at doing this. In their bones they wanted to worship something or someone, but rather than the hard yards of a mystical journey with a God who was often playful or invisible, they chose the more tangible, internet-speed version and created an idol from what they already had and what they already knew. Cue golden calves and strange statues. 

This grasping for simplicity, and tangible immediacy, helps to explain why Brexit or wokeness have become an idol. And why Trump has become an idol too. In Northern Ireland, the Irish flag has become an idol, as has the Union Jack. And the problem with idols is that once you give your primary allegiance to them they exact an increasingly large price from you, without you even noticing it.  

We often talk about shifts in culture without recognising that the word culture is derived from the same root as the word cult. ‘Culture’ provides invisible, uncontested leadership – it is that which we presume to be true, without stopping to question it, as we would not question a cult leader. 

This is about avoiding the outsourcing of our identity to things that may be good, but that shouldn’t control us. 

In my work with Christians in Politics, bringing Christians together from across the political spectrum, I have become fairly good at spotting when folks start to lose touch with their primary identity. You notice it from the visceral, speedy reactions on social media, subliminally prioritising their immediate emotional state above the emotions of others.  

Sadly, this accelerated during the COVID lockdowns, when it was all too easy to spot the radicalisation of previously fairly centred people. More time than usual on social media, more fear than usual from living through the global pandemic, all leading to them spending more time down algorithm-induced rabbit holes. 

This is not about the elimination of emotion. Nor producing an anodyne, academic, rational public square. After all, many who believe that they are made in the image of God also follow the human who they believe perfected that image, and he spent plenty of time raging against injustice and turning over tables.  

This is about avoiding the outsourcing of our identity to things that may be good, but that shouldn’t control us. Such things should influence us, but they shouldn’t forge us.  

The term idol is useful as it is now in popular usage thanks to TV shows like American Idol. Something in us knows that such here-one-minute-gone-the-next celebrity is not exactly bad for us, but also that such celebrity does not exist without a large number of people giving inappropriate amounts of time and attention (proportional to their talent) to these celebrity lives. 

There is a reason people try to keep religion and politics away from polite dinner table discussions. 

The challenge is that the most toxic idols are often actually really good things. Money. Food. Sex. These are good things. But as many of us know, if they start to control us rather than serve us, our happiness, waistlines, and marriages may be in trouble. With this understanding we can affirm someone’s political activism and enthusiasm as a good thing. We can affirm a political ideology as broadly helpful, but critique it when it has clearly become an idol in someone’s life, commanding time, energy and in real senses – worship. 

There is a visceral quality to our present debates that goes far beyond the discussion of policies. The enraged offence and wild language thrown at the other side speak of a deep and unhealthy suffusion of our identities to these tribes. 

The reactions we see on social media are the reactions of a child when their iPad is taken away. It is primal. Bearing in mind the toxicity of the social media-scape, it is easy to see how tribes are needed for protection, but if our responses to every situation are the knee-jerk reaction of our tribe, then we leave no space for breath, reflection or even prayer. And there is certainly no time to consult some ancient wisdom. There is a reason people try to keep religion and politics away from polite dinner table discussions. Nobody likes their identity being questioned. But rather than avoid these subjects, could we instead be so rooted in our primary identity that a disagreement doesn't have to lead to the end of fellowship and embrace? 

Tom Wright often points out that in life we will always need progressive (things need to change) moments but at times we also need conservative (things need to stay the same) moments. History is littered with both being significant. To pretend that one is always more important than the other is intellectually vacuous.

Our 'othering' of them renders them less human in our eyes and we are then able to countenance appalling things happening to them,

The same is true of parenting. There are times when a progressive response is required (okay you can start eating solid food now) and times when a conservative response is required (no, we still don't pour milk on the laptop). On a more serious note, discussions around parenting styles that sit on a spectrum between earth-motherly co-sleeping and Gina Ford military drilling are another good example of when disagreements within and between families get visceral. Again, it is because we don't just feel that this is a theoretical discussion. So much of our identity is unhealthily tied up in our insecurities around parenting that we feel that our very person is being attacked. The political and parenting spectra are eerily similar. 

Failing to remember that we are all made in the image of God and all part of the one human family also leaves the door open to the next level of ugliness – it leaves us able to dismiss' those we disagree with. They become people who are easy to label, mock, and dismiss. Our 'othering' of them renders them less human in our eyes and we are then able to countenance appalling things happening to them. They may become people we would rather see removed from proceedings than have reconciled to us. We forget the words of theologian Vinoth Ramachandrara, who said that:  

"when you stand face to face with another human being, made in the image of God, you are standing in the presence of a vehicle of the divine".  

Yes we need to be part of earthly tribes, but we also mustn't lose our identity to the tribe.  

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6 min read

For want of better words... the impact of the indescribable

Henna Cundill is a researcher with the Centre for Autism and Theology at the University of Aberdeen, and editor of the But… Bible Study Series for Young People.

Confronted with a question about belief, Henna Cundill found herself stumbling for words. She contemplates the link between our self-identity and what we can communicate.
A woman stops in her stride down a street and pensively runs her hand through her hair as she looks to the side.
Joseph Frank on Unsplash.

I recently got into conversation with a young man who asked me, “Do you believe in God?” When I replied, “Yes,” I almost regretted it, because his next move was to ask, “Why?” and I found this question troublingly difficult to answer.  

Of course, I could have dredged up the old philosophical arguments for the logical existence of God – but none of that would have really captured the thing I have no words for. Belief is like… Oh, what is it like? A glitch… no, a glimmer… no, like a glimpse of… No. Goodness. What is it? I’m lost for a word or even a metaphor that will somehow express what it feels to say “yes” and “I believe in God” and in that moment, even if only for a moment, to feel oneself transported or transposed out of this tiresome, human existence and into something that is... well, it’s something…  

I think it's fair to say that conversations about believing in God are unusual these days, especially when the circumstance is an 18-year-old lad talking with a woman in her late 30s – albeit the lad in question was a philosophy undergraduate and we were at Cumberland Lodge, where such conversations are welcomed amongst those of all faiths and none. Even so, it still felt rather unusual to be asked a question like that, not out of hostility but just casually over dinner, and to see him genuinely and respectfully interested to hear what I might have to say in response.  

Eventually I did come up with some kind of an answer; I can’t remember what. And naturally, I turned the question back on him. Turns out he did believe in God, in fact he was Jewish, so he stumbled out some kind of answer too, but I think it's fair to say that he was hardly more erudite than I was. Eventually, we both agreed that it was rather difficult to describe the indescribable, and our conversation turned to rather easier topics - the food, the weather, geopolitics... 


There is a loneliness to the feeling that there is a bit of ourselves that cannot be valued because it cannot be shared, and it is hard to recognise a part of our inner world as ‘real’ and valid if it cannot be communicated and affirmed. 

The question of believing in God was done with. Yet here I am weeks later, still pondering why it was so hard for me to articulate what it means to live with that belief, and why that part of the conversation ended, but still felt so unfinished.  

Has faith always been so indescribable? I suspect it rather has not. These dark evenings always tend to lure me to my bookshelves, seeking out my “comfort books” that I read and reread year after year. Mostly cosy fiction of course, but alongside those, a non-fiction favourite is Sheila Fletcher's, Victorian Girls: Lord Lyttleton’s Daughters. The book is a fascinating study of a family of young women in the Victorian era, faithfully compiled from their own real letters and diaries, so that the voices of Meriel, Lucy, Lavinia and May Lyttleton themselves can all be heard clearly on every page. I just love to read this book over and over again, entering into the hopes, sorrows, loves and ambitions of these young women – so similar and yet so different to my own.  

One thing that stands out particularly is how clearly and easily they each articulate their sense of faith. They were, of course, heavily schooled in Victorian public piety, but there is most certainly a real faith there too. A favourite passage of mine is an excerpt from the teenage diary of Lucy Lyttleton, recounting the day of her Confirmation. She speaks of a ‘nice and stilling’ drive to church, with her parents either side in the carriage, and then:  

I seem to remember nothing very distinctly till I went up and knelt on that altar step, feeling the strangest thrill as I did so… and I know how I waited breathlessly for my turn, with the longing for it to be safe done, half feeling that something might yet prevent it. 

Oh, to be so thrilled by a religious ritual, and to have both the words and the courage to write about it. After all Lucy, what if someone might be reading your diary 150 years later?  

In mainstream society nowadays, most of us simply don't talk about faith, religion, and what it all means to us personally in that way. It’s not the done thing in a (presumed) secular society. Consequently, it is now very hard to write about it too. Yet, many philosophers in the past century have observed a link between our self-identity and what we can communicate. For example, philosopher Charles Taylor describes how our sense of ‘self’ is formed in “webs of interlocution” wherein what we take to be “good” relies on what we can effectively talk about, and thus have affirmed by those we talk to. If we turn Taylor’s idea around, might we say that when there are parts of ourselves that we cannot talk about, parts for which we cannot find social recognition and affirmation, then we cease to value those parts of ourselves as good, or may cease to recognise them at all? 

 With that comes a sense of isolation. There is a loneliness to the feeling that there is a bit of ourselves that cannot be valued because it cannot be shared, and it is hard to recognise a part of our inner world as ‘real’ and valid if it cannot be communicated and affirmed.   

To me it feels that, as we talk about faith less and less, and as the language of faith becomes ever more confined, not even just to private conversations but to our own inner worlds, our “webs of interlocution” are beginning to shrink and disintegrate – until believing in God can feel more like dangling on a loose and solitary strand than being part of any kind of web. It’s a lonely place to be – there is a part of me that feels important, but no one can affirm it.  

And yet, by simply asking the question of each other, and being ready to listen respectfully to whatever answer was forthcoming, it seems that me and a teenage lad managed to connect two lonely strands together. It was of no consequence that we worship in different faith traditions, or that neither of us really found the words to say what we wanted to say – a conversation took place, and a certain web of interlocution started to form. For some, reading this, there may be a feeling of resonance, or a moment of understanding, and perhaps that too adds a little to the web, as different people’s words and thoughts and experiences begin to connect across different times and places.   

Webs do more than just create connection; webs capture things too. Perhaps, as this web spreads between different readers and thinkers and speakers, that’s what will happen to this question of believing in God. After a certain point, such a web may even become large enough and robust enough to finally start to capture some useful words, or an apt metaphor, that will really help me to say something about what it means to have faith. To be able to say it is to be able to share it, and in these lonely times, being able to say something is really not nothing.  

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