A Christian Response to Tribalism

The following is an edited version of a talk I gave at the Townsquare Coffee Shop in Orange City, Iowa on October 19, 2018

In his posting titled “The Spirit of the Parties” for my eCircle on “Reforming Political Discourse,” Kevin den Dulk, a political science professor at Calvin College, proposed that the major pathology in public discourse these days, especially on any issue that is political in nature, is “tribalism.” In my own words, here is the scourge of tribalism.

It is human nature to gravitate toward those who are like us. Where that tendency becomes very destructive is when we will not give careful consideration to the views of those who are not like us in that they disagree with us. We create an us-versus-them mentality that effectively silences “them” (they are wrong, we are right, so why should we even listen to them).

As den Dulk points out, such tribalism, which he labels “affective polarization,” reflects a deep emotional attachment to the in-group and a visceral reaction against the opposition – the out-group. In light of that emotional attachment, there is no incentive for you to talk to any of “them” to see if they have some good insights that you could incorporate into your thinking.

As den Dulk has also noted, tribalism becomes extremely destructive when an unwarranted extrapolation is made from a belief that the other is “wrong” to a belief that the other is “untrustworthy, immoral, and dangerously threatening.” If being “wrong” about something makes us “evil,” than we are all in big trouble.

In her recent book Fascism: A Warning, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright paints the dangers of tribalism even more starkly as engendering “contempt” for members of the out-group who disagree with us.  noting how such “contempt” for the “those people” makes us “unwilling to listen to what others say – unwilling, in some cases, even to allow them to speak.”

Albright adds that such contempt “stops the learning process cold and creates a ready-made audience for demagogues who know how to bring diverse groups of the aggrieved together in righteous opposition to everyone else” (A compelling warning in our present political climate).

Such “tribalistic contempt” for “those other people” is not limited to non-Christians. Too many of us who profess commitment to the Christian faith all too often mimic the ways of the larger secular culture by resorting to name-calling and demonization of brothers and sisters in Christ and others who disagree with us about controversial issues.

So, in summary up to this point, a telltale sign of tribalism is an unwillingness to even talk with those who disagree with you because me and my people have the truth and you and your people don’t.

The Colossian Forum, a small Christian non-profit organization in Grand Rapids (MI) with which I am affiliated as a Senior Fellow, totally rejects such tribalism. In my own words, the mission of TCF is to “create hospitable space where Christians who disagree with one another can respectfully talk about their disagreements, striving for ‘unity in Christ,’ not uniformity in all their beliefs.” 

The venues for the work of TCF are small church groups that can take courses designed by TCF that address some current “hot-button” issues (to date they have designed what they call “The Colossian Way curriculum” on the creation/evolution debate and human sexuality – for details regarding these excellent resources for churches, go to www.colossianforum.org).

As a Senior Fellow at TCF, I enthusiastically embrace the mission of TCF, but I have chosen the most inhospitable venue for such work, the Internet. I owe you an explanation for such apparent insanity.

In late 2010, I did some research on blogs on the internet and was appalled by what I found. A blogger would post a piece that typically elicited numerous responses from readers, sometimes 50 to 100 in number. But the responses were very cryptic, either applauding the blogger or, more often, vilifying the blogger, resorting to name-calling and demonization. Very few, if any of the responses advanced a genuine conversation. 

As far as being a venue for respectful conversation about disagreements, I found the internet to a cesspool. There had to be a better way to carry out an electronic conversation, possibly even a “Christian way.”

And so, to make a long story relatively short, with the help of a tech-savvy friend, I launched my own web site, www.respectfulconversation.net, about seven years ago, on which I have hosted four 8-11 month extended electronic conversations (eCircles) on some contentious topics about which Christians have strong disagreements.

After each eCircle, I have written a book that attempts to capture the highlights of the electronic postings. The third such book that emerged from my eCircle on “human sexuality,” is titled Respectful LGBT Conversations: Seeking Truth, Giving Love and Modeling Christian Unity (A copy of which I just happen to have with me if you want to take a peek). 

The format for my eCircle on human sexuality was that I chose ten subtopics, including Voices From the Gay Community, Biblical Understandings, Findings From the Sciences, Anti-Discrimination Laws, Voices From Younger Christians, and Case Studies that reported on how two churches and one Christian University navigated the difficult process of developing institutional positions on LGBT issues. 

For each of these subtopics, with the exception of the Case Studies, I recruited two “conversation partners” who I knew would present opposing views for a month-long conversation precipitated by some Leading Questions that I posed. One conversation partner presented some variation of what can be called a “traditional” view of human sexuality, including the belief that marriage is reserved for a man and woman, and the other conversation partner presented a “non-traditional” view, including the belief that God will bless a monogamous, life-long marriage commitment of same-sex partners.

As a result of this eCircle structure, the book that emerged is not advocating for either a traditional or non-traditional position. Rather, its main purpose is to model respectful conversation among Christians who disagree about human sexuality issues, as a Christian alternative to the name-calling and demonization that is rampant in current discussions about human sexuality in the larger culture and, unfortunately, within many of our Christian churches and denominations.

I am delighted to be able to report that my conversation partners modeled such respectful conversation to an admirable degree. For example, my two conversation partners for the  month-long conversation on “Voices from the Gay Community” were Justin Lee, a gay Christian who used head the Gay Christian Network and Eve Tushnet, a lesbian Catholic blogger. Justin believes that God will bless a monogamous life-long marriage commitment of same-sex partners. Eve disagrees with Justin, believing that Gay Christians are called to a life of celibacy. Here is what Justin said at the end of their month-long conversation.

So as I wrap up my part in this conversation, I find myself deeply moved. I am moved by Eve’s grace in disagreement and her friendship to me as we challenge one another. I am encouraged, too, by the depth of conversation we’ve been able to have in six simple articles. But I’m also reminded why these conversations are so important in the first place. Many hurting, lonely people’s lives hang in the balance.

My own position on this topic hasn’t changed, but my appreciation for Eve and understanding of her view has certainly increased, and I’d say that’s worth it. Respectful conversation of this sort is hugely undervalued in the church. It may not always change minds, but it is powerful and effective. Given the importance of this topic, we can’t afford not to listen to each other.

We are, after all, supposed to be known by our love.

In terms of my earlier reflections on tribalism, none of my 23 conversation partners were practicing tribalism. Each participant, whether presenting a traditional or non-traditional position, listened carefully to the opposing view of his/her conversation partner and they then talked respectfully about their agreements and disagreements.

Now that you have a glimpse of the structure of my eCircle/book project on human sexuality, I will consider two themes: (1) The Basic Premise Underlying my eCircle/Book project on human sexuality; (2) A Possible Fatal Flaw in this project.


No Christian I have ever met denies that Jesus has called all who claim to be his followers to love their neighbors (Mark 12:31). So far, so good. But there is considerable disagreement, as to how to give expression to such neighbor-love. 

All my respectful conversation projects focus on one oft-neglected expression of neighbor-love. The premise behind my eCircles and the resulting books is very uncomplicated and easy to state (it isn’t rocket science, at least to state; it is much harder than rocket science to do).

Providing someone who disagrees with you a safe and welcoming space to express that disagreement and then to talk respectfully about your disagreements is a deep expression of love.

A corollary of this premise is: You don’t love someone who you have silenced.

So, my eCircle/Book projects are not peripheral to my Christian faith. They are central to my understanding of how I should live as a Christian.


My hopes and prayers for any lasting redemptive results emerging from my eCircle/book project on human sexuality may be dashed by the increasing prevalence of tribalism. 

While the 23 conversation partners contributing to my book reject tribalism, with some good results emerging from their conversations (which I summarize in a concluding chapter that proposes a “Way Forward”), they are the rare exceptions among Christians and not the rule. 

Locally, I have found it to be extremely difficult to get traditionalists and non-traditionalists regarding human sexuality in the same room together to discuss their disagreements. There is a strong element of tribalism in both traditionalist and non-traditionalist circles, with too many Christians in both camps saying “I am my people have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about human sexuality; so we don’t have to listen to and talk with those who hold opposing views.”

The net effect is that my book, which gives an equal voice to both traditional and non-traditional views may leave those practicing tribalism in both camps very unhappy. The traditionalists who are tribal will be unhappy because I have not silenced the non-traditionalists and the non-traditionalists who are tribal will be unhappy because I have not silenced the traditionalists. I have been viewed with suspicion by both traditionalists and non-traditionalists for providing a safe and welcoming space for “those other people” to freely express their beliefs.

So, how can this potential fatal flaw be averted? By calling Christians back to the central Christian virtue of “humility,” a virtue to which Christians give considerable lip service but all too seldom practice. Let me explain.


Being humble does not mean being wishy-washy about your beliefs, fearful to express them in public. Not at all! Being humble means recognizing that you are not God. As a finite,  fallible human being, you do not necessarily have a God’s-eye view of the truth about the issue at hand. As 1 Corinthians 13:12 teaches. We all “see through as glass darkly.”

So, you should hold to your beliefs strongly and be willing to express them in public with clarity and deep conviction. That is NOT tribalism! You are practicing tribalism when at the same time that you hold strongly to your beliefs, you fail to acknowledge that you, and those who agree with you, may be “wrong.”

It sounds paradoxical. You hold to your beliefs strongly at the same time that you hold to them tentatively, because you may be wrong. So, you need to talk respectfully to those who disagree with you to see if they have some important insights that you have missed.

The late Christian historian Ian Barbour has given eloquent expression to the nature of this rare combination in his definition of “religious maturity.”

It is by no means easy to hold beliefs for which you would be willing to die, and yet to remain open to new insights. But it is precisely such a combination of commitment and inquiry that constitutes religious maturity.

Openness to the beliefs of others without commitment to your own beliefs too easily leads to sheer relativism (I have my beliefs, you have yours; end of conversation). Commitment to your own beliefs without openness to listening to and respectfully discussing the beliefs of others too easily leads to fanaticism, even terrorism. (As C. S. Lewis has observed, to which past and recent world events tragically testify, “Those who are readiest to die for a cause may easily become those who are readiest to kill for it.”).

One of the most pressing needs in our world today, is for all human beings, whatever their religious or secular faith commitments, to embrace, and hold in tension, both commitment and openness.