Essay
Comment
7 min read

Outsourcing our identities: the corrosive effect of political tribalism

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.  

Essay
Belief
Comment
1 min read

Everyone comes from somewhere

Why young people need to understand the religious landscape.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

A young person stands in front of railway station platfrorms and below a large informaton display.
Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash.

I had never been so self-conscious of being British. I had flown into Denver, Colorado and for the first time I realised that I had an accent. I had gone to study and a Canadian instantly knew I was a Brit. The locals were less clear. Some had me down as an Aussie, others guessed a South African.  

But it wasn’t only accents. I quickly learned the differences between us went much deeper. Private health care, guns and the separation of church and state were a whole new cultural landscape. They felt very strange to my British sensibilities that were accustomed to the welfare state, the absence of guns and an established church.  

My exposure to all things American began in the early 1990s. The sociologist James Davison Hunter had just published his prophetic commentary, Culture Wars: the struggle to define America. For those I was beginning to get to know, the campaigns to reverse Roe Vs Wade and ban abortion, along with active attempts to introduce prayer into the public school system highlighted the cultural differences between us. 

Likewise, they found it hard to comprehend that in England Religious Education (RE) in state-funded schools was mandated by Act of Parliament. That I considered this a bad thing mystified them. 

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime.

Of course, RE itself had a chequered history. The 1902 Education Act provided state funding for denominational religious instruction, mostly benefiting the Church of England. Nonconformist churches were outraged at the thought of the established church indoctrinating their children. Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists withheld their taxes and, by 1904, 37,000 summonses had been issued, thousands had their property seized and 80 had gone to prison in protest.   

Thankfully things have moved on. During the twentieth century denominational instruction evolved through several stages to the present world religions curriculum. 

Still, over the years I have consistently felt that our approach in the UK was in danger of proving ‘the inoculation hypothesis’ with regard to faith. That is, providing a small harmless dose of exposure to religion in childhood can effectively prevent the real thing developing in adults. 

Of course, faith-based schools and RE remain hot topics. Only this month the government launched a public consultation on removing ‘… the 50 per cent cap on faith admissions’. Warmly welcomed by providers like the Catholic Schools Service, it was condemned by Humanists UK and others advocating a fully secular provision.  

This line of contention has become a familiar one. On one side sit around a third of mainstream state schools that are church or faith-based, most affiliated with the Church of England. On the other are groups like the National Secular Society who correctly point out that the privileged position of church-sponsored education is not reflective of wider society. 

These positions have become entrenched over the years. Arguments are laced with rhetorical hyperbole and are often either ill-informed or merely raise strawmen arguments to symbolically knock down. We can no longer afford to be so self-indulgent.  

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime. It is now more important than ever that we have a handle on it.  

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism. 

The invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia is no mere materialist land-grab. To fail to take into account the theological dimension compromises any understanding of what is going on. The history of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Russian Orthodox Church help define the Russian identity that sits behind this conflict. 

In Israel, the bloody atrocity enacted on Israeli citizens by Hamas, and the brutal devastation wrought in Gaza by Netanyahu’s Israeli Defence Force are beyond words. But this conflict is theologically as well as politically fueled. Hamas embraces a militant interpretation of extremist Sunni Islam, while Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition sees his Likud party kept in power by ultra-Orthodox parties and far-right religious factions.  

In India, the world’s biggest democracy, 970 million voters this year participate in an election stretching over six weeks. Yet this formally secular state has been travelling on a different trajectory. Yasmeen Serhan observed in The Atlantic that under Prime Minister Modi the ‘Hinduization of India is nearly complete’. 

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism.  

A leading newspaper recently carried instant opposition to the thought of Kate Forbes being a potential First Minister of Scotland because of her ‘traditionalist’ views. Somehow, her commitment in a BBC interview to defend the right to same-sex marriage even though it clashed with her personal views was insufficient. 

Across one of my social media feeds as I was writing this piece came a plea, ‘I’m proud to be British. I’m proud to be a Muslim. I am not a terrorist. Why don’t they get it?’ 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars. 

But always there is America. And here’s where a penny unexpectedly dropped for me. If you keep religion out of schools, for many young people you deny them the tools, the ideas, and a framework with which to understand the religious dimension of life. This can have catastrophic implications.  

As G.K. Chesterton is reputed to have observed, ‘when people stop believing in God they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything.’ 

Then, for those living within a practising religious home, the absence of religion in school heightens the possibility that their thinking is siloed purely in their own rarefied tradition. 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars.  

If it's true that whatever happens in America inevitably makes its home in Britain, we need to sit up and take notice. More than ever, we need our young people to be adept at understanding the religious landscape. With the ubiquity of social media, the unseen influence of echo-chamber algorithms and the nefarious activities of those bent on radicalising the vulnerable, we need them to have the tools and skills to be aware, see and understand. 

This is what has caused me to think again and, surprisingly, change my mind. We need to draw a line in the sand on our historic arguments, disagreements and differences of conviction. The situation is more pressing. We need a reset.  

If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward. 

The encouraging thing is that the groundwork for such a step change is already in place. In 2018 the Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) proposed a reconceiving of the subject as Religion and Worldviews. Their intention was to make it more appropriate and inclusive for the twenty-first century. For them, the ‘complex, diverse and plural’ landscapes of different religions and worldviews deserved both understanding and respect. Yet, students also needed to develop the ‘necessary critical facility to ask questions and challenge assumptions’. 

Such an approach embraces the insights and philosophical commitments of non-religious worldviews too. ‘Everyone has a worldview’, said the report. Nobody stands nowhere was the title of an excellent animated short film on YouTube produced by the Theos think tank. 

The truth is, ‘everyone comes from somewhere’. This is as true for secular humanists as it is for cradle-to-grave Anglicans, majority-world Pentecostalists and British-born Muslims. Helpfully CoRE defines a worldview as: 

… a person’s way of understanding, experiencing and responding to the world. 

The report maintained that it was vitally important that different worldviews were understood as ‘lived experience’. This was not just about abstract beliefs, doctrinal understandings and theoretical convictions. This was about real people, the lives they live and what is important and gives meaning to them. 

If living in a genuine democracy is about learning how to rub along together. If it is about understanding and respecting those who have a different take on life than we do, no matter how ‘odd’ it seems. If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward.  

Given the challenges that face us, it seems to me that not to change our approach to RE would be negligent. Yet to remove all reference to religion from our schools risks our young people falling prey to manipulation, subversion and control by bad actors, misinformed activists and cranks. 

These would be the seeds of our very own culture wars.  

Personally speaking, I’d rather not go there.