Midterm Reflection: Rooting Political Engagement in Faith, Not Tribe

By Lincoln Gimnich

Last week, the United States held its midterm elections. For months leading up to the election, streets were lined with campaign signs. People young and old campaigned for candidates through social media, text messages, rallies, cold calls, and donor events. It was the highest turnout for a midterm election since 1966, with nearly 110 million Americans participating (47 percent of eligible voters).  

The lead up to the election highlighted an emerging and concerning trend: we are increasingly separating ourselves into political tribes. And, as New York Times columnist David Brooks recently noted, it is the extreme poles—far left and far right—that are dominating our political culture today. Brooks rightly highlights that American politics is becoming less about substantive policy argument and more about “identity, psychology, moral foundations, and the dynamics of tribal resentment,” as well as “narratives of menace—about who needs to be exorcised from society.”

While information about public policy has become more widely available through the Internet, and our society has become more information driven, we are relying increasingly on party-line politics of identity. We vote one way or another due to nominal identity groups rather than voting on our actual considered opinion on issues of conscience, values, and interests. Too often, we inadequately evaluate the stances of candidates, whether from apathy, a blind ignorance to the issues, or a minimal commitment to finding out what candidates stand for.

As a result, our political discourse is increasingly about validation of our own political tribe, rather than policy particulars. This divisiveness has even seeped out of the political arena, as people who identify as Republicans and Democrats are less likely to marry or even be friends.  

Political parties themselves are not inherently the problem, though. They hold a vital part in constitutional democracies, providing a platform through which individuals can collectively pursue justice. However, political identity can become dangerous when held above all else.

When political party affiliation becomes an all-encompassing identity, many people begin to tie up their other major group identities—race, religion, region, ethnicity, and so on—with their partisanship. This intersectional political identity becomes more and more consequential, especially when people feel like someone—the partisan “other”— is threatening their identity. Recent social psychology research demonstrates that the best way to get people to defend their identity is to make them perceive a threat to it.

Our political discourse is increasingly about validation of our own political tribe, rather than policy particulars.

It is easy for us to want to have a political identity that reassures us of a sense of belonging to a group and that does not require much constructive critical analysis. Growing up in a Southern conservative Christian home, I believed that because I was a Southerner and, more consequently, because I was a Christian, I had to be a Republican (or at least staunchly conservative). Years later though, I came to the realization that neither political party, Democratic nor Republican, truly encompasses the array of values I hold.  

A Way Forward

As people of faith, we believe that every person is created in the image of God. Politics that are defensive, bitter, and divisive don’t tend to honor this dignity well. Christians must be wary of a politics that uses faith as a weapon in defense of political leanings. Instead, our faith should inform our political views and engagement. Of course, Christians, who are diverse in every sense of the word, often deeply disagree about matters of policy. Disagreement is not a bad thing; in fact, principled disagreement and persuasion are vital to democracy. What does it look like, then, to live with our political differences while maintaining a primary identity that is rooted in our faith? What does a healthy form of engagement look like?

Healthy political engagement is not a sporadic activity or something that occurs only when an election comes around. It requires an informed, active, and participatory citizenship that expresses what we’re for, not just what (and who) we’re against. Representative democracy isn’t just electing officials to represent us symbolically in Congress; it’s striving to see flourishing in our communities and our nation.

What happens, though, when our elected officials don’t perfectly represent our values and conscience? That’s ok. Not every partial failure is a crisis or an outrage requiring still more radical polarization and demonization of opponents. We can prepare for future elections by learning about our candidates and our policy options, and by helping others learn. As Center for Public Justice CEO Stephanie Summers wrote in Citizenship is Our Common Calling, we can:

examine where potential injustice resides and what should be done about the current state of the political community so that it begins to resemble the just political community God intended... In some cases, this may mean advocating for reforms, or working to help shape new laws and administrative structures and processes that ensure a more just political community for all.

It is a good thing, and even a God-given calling, for Christians to engage in their political communities through acts of citizenship. The work of loving our neighbor is not relegated solely to individual acts or to the Church; instead it has a very public dimension. We are called, as Christian citizens, to participate in the public square, calling upon government to create and promote just policies while at the same time supporting a robust civil society in which diverse institutions can thrive. But if we are lacking in a political formation that is informed and infused by our faith, it’s only natural to pursue politics through the lens of increasingly bitter partisan politics. Let’s find a way to participate that airs our honest disagreements and pursues public justice without falling prey to the temptation of tribal politics.

Lincoln Gimnich is the Graduate Fellow for Development at the Institute for Global Engagement, a think-and-do tank that catalyzes religious freedom around the world.  He is also a first-year master’s candidate in the Security Policy Studies program at the Elliott School for International Affairs at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.