America 2021: Resentment, Alienation, Endless Political Dysfunction

Oct 16th, 2021 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

American civilization is in trouble.  One troubling symptom is what sociologists are now calling “tribalism” within our civilization.  In one sense, the state of our civilization resembles the period between 1850-1860, when the battle lines between the north and the south hardened, which ultimately produced the Civil War (1861-1865).  But, the tribalism of 2021 is different.  It is not about slavery and the direction of America—slave or free.  It is much deeper.  It is about the very character and meaning of America.  There is no middle ground where reasonable debate and discussion can occur.  Tribalism has produced “tribal politics.”  In the words of the columnist Tom Friedman, “The ‘other’ is the enemy, not a fellow citizen, and the only two choices are ‘rule or die.’  Either we rule or we delegitimize the results.”  The American democratic-republican experiment is no longer based on coalition-building and compromise in our pluralist culture.  The question now is “Are you in my tribe or not.  So there is less focus on the common good, and ultimately no common ground to pivot off to do big hard things.”
The epidemic of tribal political correctness on the left has energized the tribal solidarity on the right.

How did we get here?  How has this tribalism developed?  What is the nature of these tribal divisions within American civilization?  Barton Swaim of the Wall Street Journal perceptively observes the tribal perceptions in America:  “On the left, markets generate inequality; democracy works only when it achieves the right outcomes, individual freedom is uninteresting unless it involves sexual innovation or abortion, the state is everything, and religion doesn’t deserve neutrality.  On the right—or anyway the intellectual/populist right—markets destroy traditional moral conventions, democracy is mostly a sham, individual freedom encourages behavioral deviances, state power is a force for good, and the First Amendment’s ban on the establishment of religion was likely a bad idea.”

Several observations about “tribalism” in American civilization:

  1. First of all, many analysts attribute this development to economic reasons and therefore posit an economic solution.  Benjamin and Jenna Silber Storey make a different argument.  “The problems we are facing are not fundamentally economic problems.  They’re fundamentally educational and philosophical problems.  [I would add spiritual as well, but more on that later.]  Because we live in a Postmodern culture where personal autonomy is the hub of decision-making and ethical focus, “every decision becomes an existential crisis.  You’re a free floating atom.  You have to guess what the proper response is to any circumstance.  If these free-floating atoms aren’t bound to institutions and conventions, many are governed by our nationalized political mayhem.”  Tribalism provides the comfort and antidote to the alienation and restlessness of personal autonomy.
  2. Columnist David Brooks has made a series of astute statements summarizing the cultural and political shifts behind the growing alienation, restlessness and resentment so pervasive in American culture today.  He argues that there are basically two cultural groups in America—[1] the cultural elite, who are progressive in their values (and politics) and metropolitan in their orientation.  These elite dominate Hollywood, television, journalism and many of the Silicon Valley visionaries.  [2] A countercultural elite has emerged that reflects nativism, nationalism and “a willful lack of tact.”  Both groups are affluent, influential and determined.  The countercultural elite now control the Republican Party, while the cultural elite dominate the Democratic Party.  The result is “tribal politics.”  Brooks analyses the constituent parts of each “tribe.”
  • The Democratic Party [“blue”] consists of the following hierarchy: 1. “[T]he blue oligarchy: tech and media executives, university presidents, foundation heads, banking CEOs, highly successful doctors and lawyers.  The blue oligarchy leads key Information Age institutions, and its members live in the biggest cities.”  2.  “[T]he creative class, a broader leadership class of tenured faculty, established members of the mainstream media, urban and suburban lawyers, senior nonprofit and cultural-institution employees, and corporate managers, whose attitudes largely mirror the blue oligarchy above them.”  3.  “Younger versions of the educated elite, many of whom live in the newly gentrifying areas of urban America, such as Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York or Shaw in Washington D.C.”
  1.   The lowest rung is “the caring class, the largest in America (nearly half of all workers, by some measures) . . . It consists of low-paid members of the service sector:  manicurists, home health-care workers, restaurant servers, sales clerks, hotel employees.”
  • The Republican Party [“red”] consists of the following hierarchy:  1.   “The GOP’s slice of the one-percenters.  Most rich places are blue, but a lot of the richest people are red.  A 2012 study of the richest 4% of earners found that 44% voted Democratic that year while 41% voted Republican.”  These are the corporate executives and entrepreneurs who aspire to lower taxes and libertarian ideas.  2.  “[T]he large property-owning families, scattered among small cities like Wichita, Kansas and Grand Rapids, Michigan—what we might call the GOP gentry.”  3.  “Contractors, plumbers, electricians, middle managers, and small-business owners.”  4.  “[T]he rural working class.  Members of this class have highly supervised jobs in manufacturing, transportation, construction . . . They are supported by networks of extended family and friends, who have grown up together.”
  1. Finally, where does the church fit within the emerging tribalism of American civilization?  Members of the church are citizens of the kingdom (Philippians 3:20), acknowledging Jesus as Lord and King (1 Corinthians 12:3; Romans 10:9-10) and serving as His ambassadors until He returns (2 Corinthians 5:20).  The fundamental struggle in this age is over who has the right to rule: God or Satan?  The church of Jesus Christ is a part of that cosmic struggle.  The term “world” in the Bible is not related to creation but to the Fall.  It describes a world of evil, of adverse spiritual powers that work through humanity and aspects of God’s creation to produce hate, selfishness, greed, murder, violence and perversion.  Satan, who rules this “world” (2 Corinthians 4:4), seeks to influence people in such a way that the true function of creation is brought to ruination.  He distorts the structures of existence and seeks to hold people under the power of his perversion.  Satan works through the structures of culture to distort, pervert, and disfigure that which is good.  No part of the created order can escape the influence and power of Satan.  This created order involves not only the physical realm of nature, but also the cultural institutions that regulate human existence:  The state, economics, the family, ideas, social rules and regulations, and everything that orders human life and social institutions.  The reality of satanic and demonic power is real and integral to biblical revelation.

The church, created at Pentecost, is the New Covenant community of Jesus, indwelt by His Spirit, and empowered thereby to represent Him to the “world.”  We represent Him with a certainty rooted in Christ’s finished work:

  1. The church is the agent of God’s power in the world.  The church is inextricably linked with the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, through which evil was defeated.  Robert Webber writes: “This new view of life belongs to the church because Christ, the head of the church, is inseparably linked with it.  His power over sin, death, and the dominion of the Devil now belongs to the church . . . The church acts in the name of Christ to witness through prayer, preaching, baptism, communion, lifestyle, and other means proclaiming that Satan is now doomed.  The church is a corporate body of people who know Satan as a deceiver and liar.  He has no ultimate power over them and their lives.  Consequently, the church is a threat to Satan.” [The Church in the World, pp. 40-41] Satan truly hates the church and seeks to destroy it.
  2. Satan seeks to produce heresy in the church, discord in the church, to re-order the church’s priorities and to get the church to cultivate faith in power, in wealth and in human authorities, not in Christ.  Anything that seeks to get the church off focus becomes a tool of Satan.  For that reason, the church must be vigilant, on guard and dressed with the whole armor of God.
  3. The witness of the church in this age is to expose evil and to be the agent of reconciliation to God.  That is the nature of the Gospel.  That is the nature of being salt and light.

In my opinion, the church is to rise above the growing tribalism of American civilization.  The Gospel is the transforming power that solves the growing alienation, resentment and dysfunction of our culture at all levels, proving once again that the fundamental problem of the human condition is spiritual.  Only Jesus offers the solution.

See Thomas Friedman in the New York Times (15 September 2021); Barton Swaim’s interview with Benjamin and Jenna Silber Storey in the Wall Street Journal (18-19 September 2021); and David Brooks, “Blame the Bobos” in The Atlantic (September 2021), pp. 56-66.

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