Catholics, Tribes, and the 2016 Election

You are scrolling through your Facebook newsfeed, and you see a political post from an old college friend. Turned off at what you perceive to be a severely biased or untrue claim, you hover over the tiny arrow in the right-hand corner of the post and click “Unfollow,” “Hide Post,” or, if you are in an especially bad mood, “Report Post.” Poof, the offending post is gone, and you can avoid seeing any more such comments in your virtual world with a simple two-second click. Soon, Facebook’s algorithm gets a better sense of what political tribes you belong to and sends only corresponding things your way. Over time, your world becomes narrower, its “content” gradually “curated” to fit your unique preferences, interests, and, yes, biases.


Recently, I came across an article by David Bauder of the Associated Press, who describes how talk radio, “political” journalism, and the expansion of the Internet have allowed people to shape their own political universes, populating them only with like-minded individuals: “In this world of hundreds of channels and uncounted websites, of exquisitely targeted advertising and unbridled social media, it is easy to construct your own intellectual ghetto,” he explains.

GodinTribesIn 2008, entrepreneur and marketing guru Seth Godin argued in a book and a widely viewed TED talk that increasing “tribalism,” facilitated by social media, was a potentially powerful marketing tool, one that if harnessed could lead to hugely successful social and political movements. He was right, but his optimistic vision, considered less than a decade later, seems to have an obvious downside: our view of life and its many options can quickly become limited. Bauder points out some of the results of shaping our identities around niche interests and causes:

A generation ago, majorities in each political party described themselves as moderate. That’s changed. In ABC News exit polling between 1976 and 1992, the number of Democrats who described themselves as liberal fluctuated between 24 to 34 percent. This year, 62 percent of the Democratic primary electorate said they were liberal. Similarly, 76 percent of today’s Republicans identify themselves as conservative, roughly double what it was in the 1970s.

Although there are some advantages to narrowing one’s perspective, it comes at a price: grouping ourselves into various tribes can easily box us into a sheltered, oversimplified world where we don’t have to deal with the complexity of facts, of real human existence. While allowing for a sense of belonging and shared purpose with like-minded individuals, it can also make us static, stuck with a set of talking points and ideological views, rather than persons capable of continuous change, conversion, and potential renewal through the discovery of better ideas.

Even the metaphor of “tribalism” should give us pause—like the literal tribes of other cultures and eras, our virtual tribes can rapidly tend to exact intellectual and even physical violence against apparent outsiders—intellectual in the form of shutting someone down, ignoring them, or mocking them on the internet, and physical, as has been demonstrated by recent violent confrontations between supporters and protesters at campaign rallies, or in the underworld of radical Islam that seems to be fueled by vigorous online recruiting forums.

This kind of compartmentalized universe tends to divorce us from ourselves and those around us. It also likely prevents us from asking the crucial questions that underlie our millennia-old tribal tendencies. Beneath all of this is the desire for belonging to a community and to dedicate ourselves to something wholeheartedly, more than a cause or hobby or partisan project, something both truly universal and accommodating of our particularity as distinct persons. In these various tribes we see a longing for communion with other persons filtered through an insufficient purpose—such that “communion” becomes possible, but only with people who agree with us about certain ideas or who share certain interests.

It is this underlying desire that we as Catholics are called to respond to pastorally. The word “catholic” is derived from the Greek words kata and holos, meaning “with respect to the whole” and “universal.” This profound desire for unity and belonging is in need of something, or Someone, that can truly unify us—in a way that gives us the freedom to embrace the outsider and those who are different. As Christians, we have such a unifier in the person of Jesus. A relationship with him can be wonderfully diffusive, continuously generating new, authentically shared life.

Consider how extraordinary the circumstances are surrounding the Great Commission of Christ to his apostles (Matthew 28)—and how applicable to our present circumstances. Jesus was speaking to a Christ_Taking_Leave_of_the_Apostlesgroup of men who had spent their lives immersed in divisive sectarianism and violence, men who grew up shaped by their identity as people of the Covenant. It would have been very difficult for the apostles to imagine a place where Jew and Gentile could become one people. But Jesus opens the Covenant to everyone, offering a new, shared life for all in himself. It is our life in Christ that we must bring to our relationships with others, always striving to be a source of unity rather than division. We must always try to keep our temporal interests—whether they be political, social, or other—in perspective, realizing that, although they are “goods,” they pale in comparison to the eternal reality for which we, and those around us, are intended.