America has become a land of many tribes.
I use the term tribalism to refer to an atmosphere of herd mentality, group think, and clannishness that divides our society through our politics, religious life and our culture.
There is a tribalism in which folks retreat into their political tribes. Others disengage from their religions as if they were blocking out the world to stay inside a cocoon of like-minded religious ideologies.
Wherever I go and talk to people in our community, they say the same thing;”I have never seen America so divided and isolated as it is today.”
It really doesn’t matter whether that assertion is factual or not. As a teenager, I witnessed the tumult and rebellion in our society about the Vietnam War. It was as divisive and self destructive as our differences are today. It is, however, all about perceptions. What matters is the moment we are living in. So does the religious community encourage this cultural tribalism?
Extremists on the political spectrum foment tribalism. Does the same dynamic apply to the religious community? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Does the fact that we differ in our conceptions of God cancel what have in common: the image of God?” My sense is that most people would agree with Heschel. But more people today are challenging and ignoring that core value of ecumenicism. The more tribal we become, the more fearful and mistrustful we are of each other.
There are many examples of religious groups working together on social action projects or joint learning classes so there is reason for optimism. But the question is “can we do better?” Identity politics is toxic to religion. Each generation of clergy and volunteer leadership has a moral obligation to open up the doors and promote interfaith dialogue. The problem is that our nation’s politics rides a wave of isolationism on all sides. That plays right into our tribalism syndrome and ushers in a sense of spiritual and political confinement in American life.
On Hilton Head Island and in the surrounding communities, can we honestly say our congregations have been proactive in nurturing interfaith dialogue? We drive by these houses of worship everyday but do we have relationships with the folks inside? Have we ever sponsored a program between different religions just so we can talk and learn about each other?
Our economy is almost entirely dependent on tourism so we have to project the feeling that Hilton Head and the Lowcountry are friendly to visitors. Can we make that same assertion that our community is “religion friendly” as well?
Political and religious tribalism are dangerous because they promote fear, mistrust, hate speech and can even trigger violence. Isn’t the religious community supposed to build a firewall against these kinds of volatile attitudes? How can we attend worship services or study scriptures and turn a blind eye to the humanity of our neighbors, regardless of their religious heritage? Heschel wrote, “No religion is an island. We are all involved with one another. Spiritual betrayal on the part of one of us affects the faith of all of us. Views adopted in one community have an impact on other communities.”
Let everyone debate, disagree and argue ideas in the public square. Being an American must mean we have core values of community and mutual respect that enable us to rise above the current tribal influences.
If we want to make America great then we have work to do. America is resilient, but we cannot take this nation and its moral strength for granted. The future of our nation rests upon each generation’s commitment to preserve a moral, spiritual and political equilibrium. If we fail to maintain that balance, we put the nation at risk. There is a passage from the Talmud which embodies the choices before us: “Every community which is established for the sake of heaven will in the end endure, but one which is not for the sake of heaven will not endure in the end.”
Tribalism, whether political or religious, suppresses our independence, subdues our spirit, and obstructs our vision about the America which rests on our shoulders. Isn’t America supposed to be a nation that allows us to live inside our own subcultures.
America calls on us to step out of those tribes to engage each other, in spite of our differences. Overcoming the parochialism of tribes and experiencing the broad spectrum of national identities has always been one of our greatest assets.
So we finally ask: “What kind of nation are we bequeathing to our children?”
This is the question that is before us at this hour.