I really respect Fred Clark who writes the Slacktivist blog over at Patheos. He’s an evangelical Christian who has the increasingly rare talent (among evangelical Christians) of being able to stand outside his group and look at things from others’ points of view. And in so doing, he writes some of the most insightful, intelligent, and incisive critiques of evangelical Christianity and its role in contemporary American culture.

I’m going to be quoting from and linking to him quite a bit in this piece because it’s an attempt to tie two of his ideas together, because when Fred has written something well there’s no need for me to reinvent the wheel, and because it’s important to show that the kind of problems I have with the majority of evangelical Christianity today aren’t just my observations as an outsider; these issues are being raised (first, and more loudly) by someone within the group.

One of Fred’s writing talents that I admire is the ability to turn a phrase that neatly summarizes an idea. Two of those phrases are “evangelical tribalism” and the phenomenon of the “persecuted hegemon.”

I posit that evangelical tribalism directly gives birth to the phenomenon of the persecuted hegemon. I think this is important for anyone who struggles with issues of recognition for majority religions in the US, and the issues of discrimination against minority religions, to understand.

Fred may have drawn this connection himself, but I haven’t seen it done explicitly. So I think it’s worth pointing out; these aren’t separate things that accidentally developed along the same timeline, they’re directly interrelated.

Fred described evangelical tribalism as a particular kind of zero-sum thinking:

This is what’s at the root of many of the worst aspects of American evangelicalism. It’s the idea that evangelical Christians constitute “Our Team,” and that Our Team is in a constant competition with Their Team.

And it’s not just musicians and athletes — evangelicals can do this with everything. Everyone can either be claimed as “ours” or condemned as “theirs.” Every event can either be claimed as a victory for Our Team or mourned as a defeat.

This causes problems.

He also describes how tribalist evangelicals try to de-legitimize other Christians and how such superficial tribalism can replace the ethical struggling of deeper religious commitment and provide existential comfort of a kind seriously needed in some versions of Reformed theology. (That last bit might be a bit obscure to anyone who’s not engaged with some of the subdivisions of Protestant theology. Feel free to skip it if that’s not your area of interest; I threw it in because it’s a smart observation, and an example of good theological investigation.)

Fred describes the “Big Four” of evangelical tribalism as four positions or attitudes that one must demonstrate with sufficient vigor in order to maintain in-group credentials:

  • anti-choice, which is evolving from simply anti-abortion to anti-contraception as well
  • anti-QUILTBAG rights and homosexuality in general
  • anti-evolution, especially in the form of Young Earth Creationism
  • anti-environmentalism, especially in the form of climate change denial

Note that each of those starts with “anti.” Yes, some evangelicals differ on some of these, largely in matters of degree, and many try to spin them in terms of pro-something else, but functionally in our evolving culture, they take the form of arguing against something, not standing for one’s own values.

This is why evangelical tribalism directly gives birth to the phenomenon of the persecuted hegemon. Fred has also had some lovely things to say about people who get high from taking offense. The apotheosis of this phenomenon is religious majorities, replete with privilege, who constantly decry their status as the persecuted outcasts of society, which Fred accurately describes as the (non-)phenomenon of the persecuted hegemon.

And Fred’s right that part of the problem stems from these folks engaging in what has been called “hegemonic religion.” In evangelical Christianity, this comes in the form of the requirement that everyone must hear the good news – or in some versions, that everyone must actually become a (evangelical) Christian. Taken strictly, these positions demand that evangelicals become hegemonic, or even the sole religion. Every example of someone who is not an evangelical – or even a Christian who is not your approved flavor of the evangelical tribe – is an example of the work undone, a reason that your mission is not yet accomplished. The very existence of people who disagree with you – whether or not they are trying to take away your rights – is a kind of insult or at least a problem.

But this attitude of resistance to the presence of non-Christians isn’t restricted to the aggressively evangelical groups, and that’s because of questions about privilege. Christians have a ton of privilege in this society. I thought about trying to provide examples of this, and I decided not to; at best it wouldn’t convince those who need convincing, since they think that such privilege is simply the Right and True way for the world to be, and at worst it would become sour grapes or a catalog of reasons for me to take offense myself, and that gets exhausting.

As the US becomes more pluralistic, some Christians are experiencing marginal loss of privilege. I don’t deny that, and I’m sure that it’s difficult for some of them. And again, every example of the very existence of people who are different seems like a step away from the mythical Good Old Days where Christianity was so hegemonic that no one had to defend it, and those nice respectable others, like the Jews, knew how to keep in their places and be thankful for their scraps.

One way that the formerly super-privileged can respond to these changes this is to withdraw into a kind of tribalism and in-group-ism. At the same time, as culture evolves, they’re being faced with more and more challenges to their tribal markers. Because of all of this, retrenchment in the anti- positions described above becomes ever more important as an affirmation of one’s tribal credentials and hence, one’s righteous claim to the privilege that is being questioned.

This is what causes the Persecuted Hegemon. Staking one’s religious identity on a handful of oppositional points – what you’re against rather than what you’re for – and marginal loss of privilege create a vicious cycle of perceived persecution, retrenchment that involves escalating demands of privilege, which leads to more perceived persecution.

In fact, I think that the perception of being persecuted, marginalized, or somehow fundamentally at odds with the rest of society ought to be considered as a fifth marker of evangelical tribalism. It both identifies the phenomenon of tribalism and is the source of some of its most toxic effects in the broader society.