The Pew Research Center reported in 2014 that Republicans and Democrats were further apart ideologically than at any point in recent history and that growing numbers from each party expressed highly negative views of the opposing party. They identified several other trends, including the increase in silos—where most conservatives and liberals have close friends who share their views in ideological echo chambers—and clear movement away from the centre toward philosophical and policy extremes.
A Stanford research team also found more partisan antipathy than in the past but also noted an increase in the intensity of the negative views—a phenomenon they refer to as affective polarization. Two years later, as we near the end of a protracted and ugly election season, these findings sound like gross understatements of the current environment, where there is little talk of our commonality as citizens and plenty of talk of opposing groups as “stupid,” “deplorable,” and “crazy.” It is difficult to recall a time period, at least in my half-century-long life, characterized by such division between political camps.
We should of course expect some of this at the end of an election season as groups scramble for control, but the degree to which the current polarization moves beyond healthy group identification and differentiation to the degradation of other groups is alarming. While political parties play an important and critical role in maintaining a democracy, between-group hostility in the current political climate has created divisiveness not only among legislators (where gridlock seems commonplace) but also, and of equal concern, among the populace.
Understanding the increasing polarization in our current context requires stepping back and considering a few things about the nature of groups themselves. Here social psychology illuminates aspects of the groups we gravitate toward, which might also provide clues about ways to alter the trajectory toward unity. Examining the call to unifying practices within the body of Christ provides a model for the formation of habits in all of our group affiliations, and suggests why the church might be crucial to our society’s remembering how to live together with our differences.
How Groups Work
To begin, we need a quick review of group dynamics. From their smallest manifestations as family units to their most complex forms as national identities, groups meet a wide range of our social needs: survival, information, and a sense of belonging. But their importance seems to extend even beyond this. Groups serve as one of our most significant sources of identity by providing “objective,” externalized feedback about how to view ourselves.
This connection between groups and self-esteem is straightforward. But there’s more to understanding the relationship. As the Stanford team observes, “There is a tendency on the left and the right to associate primarily with like-minded people, to the point of actively avoiding those who disagree.” In spite of the fact that there has been considerable attention drawn to the benefits of diverse groups, especially in the church, where actual cross-cultural relationships are known to be critical to racial reconciliation, and despite the proven reality that diverse groups are more creative, able to solve problems, and less prone to groupthink (see Christena Cleveland’s book Disunity in Christ), we routinely gravitate toward like-minded groups. We are more homogeneous than ever.
Why do we instinctively gravitate toward similar others? Because these are the places where our identity will be positively affirmed. If we surround ourselves with similar others, the probability increases that they will agree with us and, frankly, like us. So while our innate need for identity is helpfully provided by our group affiliations, our self-esteem or self-identity gets a particular boost when we attach to groups that affirm our identities.
When Grouping Goes Bad
But there’s another group dynamic at work here. To protect their collective self-esteem, groups often carefully differentiate themselves from other groups. On one hand, that’s very natural. Defining the ways a club, organization, or even nation is distinctive is a healthy aspect of identifying its unique identity. The problem is that groups often move beyond simply articulating distinctions for the sake of defining themselves into grossly defensive postures. To defend their turf, they inflate their own merits.
And the sad, but logical, result of inflating the importance of one’s own group (your in-group) is the undermining of competing groups (out-groups). We often exaggerate the faults in out-groups and maximize the strengths of our own. Along the way, we inadvertently increase the space and animosity between our group and other groups. Our current political parties have differentiated themselves and their views by drawing rigid boundary lines around their sacred group ideology—boundaries that effectively place them miles away from the views of other groups.
The basis for group defensiveness relates to the strong connection between individual self-esteem and group identity. Because of the symbiotic group-individual connection, I feel best about myself when my group is admired and respected. And bolstering my group and putting down others puts my self-esteem in the best possible position. In other words, our tendency is to defend our groups at all costs because they carry something dear to us, our own self-esteem.
These principles apply directly to our current political situation. Remember that political groupings are subject to the same principles as any group. They positively supply self-esteem, identity, information, and a sense of belonging to their members. Messages in each camp attempt to draw in followers by offering these incentives, especially targeting those who have felt marginalized by other groups in their everyday lives.
Research has shown that the mere act of identifying with a political group is enough to trigger negative evaluations of out-groups. And just like a squabble between young siblings, the defensive rhetoric and strategic posturing of one party will match the tenor and tone of the others. The insults increase in intensity and, unsurprisingly, so do feelings of between-group animus. Indeed, studies show that while emotions toward one’s political in-group have been positive and stable over the past three decades, affect toward one’s political out-groups indicate growing animosity. We might expect this among political activists, but it notably shows up among non-activists as well.
Every Tribe and Tongue and Nation?
All of this has important implications for us as citizens and followers of Christ. While we naturally tend toward biased characteristics that contribute to group polarization and overall disunity, we need not be victims of such dynamics. Imagine the morning of after an election: one group will rise to power and the others will not. Group dynamics allow us to predict in- and out-group behaviour. Members of the winning group will experience a rush of positive affect, including a boost of self-esteem. They’ll connect their victory with superiority and potentially malign out-groups. Members of losing groups will experience a bruise to their self-esteem, but many will find restored emotional equilibrium through blame, or worse, withdrawal.
This is where a posture of humility and a fierce reliance on confession can help us. It is easy, even normal, to get swept away by in-group loyalty and strong emotions. But at the end of the day, neither specifically moves us closer to the interdependent relationships typified by the metaphor Paul referred to so often, that of the physical body. Because all groups play a role in the functioning of the whole, none can be quickly or immediately discounted.
Conscious awareness of one’s own biases and those of our in-groups are critical to rightly responding to out-groups. Humility and regular confession are critical to the right understanding of ourselves as fallen and, therefore, prone to reliance on false information about ourselves and others. We are prone to form biases for the purpose of ego maintenance and inflation, but awareness of that tendency leads to a slowing of automated processes and the intentional evaluation of any group hierarchies we’ve consciously or unconsciously constructed. Further, such conscious awareness can lead us to discern which responses are simply driven by an emotional need to “save face” psychologically and which are true ideological convictions formed out of a love for God and the desire for a world characterized by shalom.
An understanding of the fallen nature of groups is also important to maintain. We must remember that groups naturally serve themselves and their own interests, very often wonderfully so, but can also lead us in harmful directions. We can idolize our groups and their values, even faith-based ones, in ways that serve creation more than Creator. Along with this, however, we must hold our belief in fallenness in tension with a belief in the inherent creativity and redemptive potential within every group. The universal nature of our individual image-bearing creativity implies that every group also holds such potential and, therefore, represents a potentially necessary contribution to the whole.
We can also learn something valuable from our tendency to form a self-identity based on group identification. Jesus was clear about our greatest group allegiance—the one we share with him and others in the church catholic. We are called to act within our earthly group memberships, of course, but in ways that directly reflect our ultimate group membership. Whatever form our groups take, we’re instructed to look to the body of Christ as the ultimate source of our individual identity, sense of belonging, and love. Our smaller tribes are not to be the sole source of our identity, and in fact relying on them for our sense of identity might be risky in light of their inconsistent ability to dish out belonging, unconditional love, and grace.
From Face to Face to Side by Side
In her excellent book, Disunity in Christ, Christena Cleveland calls for an intentional emphasis on embracing and loving the entire body of Christ. She writes, “Research shows that Christians tend to treat fellow group members well and nonmembers poorly.” The reality is that we may not be especially well-versed at loving out-groups because our homogeneous in-groups don’t create much room for practice. This principle is true outside of the church also. While Independents may be skilled at loving other Independents, they’re likely not good at finding merit in Bernie Sanders followers. Maintaining rigid group distinctions places us at risk for clinging to similar others and minimizing opportunities to learn to love to every man, woman, and child.
But identifying commonalities and learning to love different others will require considerable between-group interaction and dialogue—each of which are undeniably challenging in light of the high probability of distrust, discomfort, and dislike. The contact hypothesis, proposed by Gordon Allport decades ago, is useful here. He cited interpersonal contact as the most effective means of decreasing conflict and distance between groups. Others have subsequently qualified such interpersonal contact, indicating that it cannot carry the condescension or superiority that groups are prone to. It requires, instead, a context that is safe enough for honest dialogue.
The contact hypothesis has bold possibilities when we consider the regular habits and practices of the church. In engaging together in activities like worship and service, the potential for building trust increases. Trust doesn’t imply letting go of our differences, but a common desire to “build one another up” in our mutual journeys. Consider common practices such as the “passing of the peace,” and committing to pray for one another. These assume a posture of trust as we pray for the peace of Christ to enter into the particularities of each other’s lives. And they imply that though our experiences differ, we are oriented in a similar direction. In other words, these habits can offset the tendency toward distrust and alienation and instead build loving relationships.
The church has all the marks of a group with the potential to function entirely differently from typical groups. While we are clearly called to minister to the in-group, the church was never intended to be characterized by diffuse boundaries with the purpose of separating us from out-groups. Nor was it to function as a group with a fully complete identity. Its purposes are to boldly proclaim an identity, but to hospitably invite others to participate in the mutual “working out” of our faith. To recognize that in our mutual pilgrimage, we will require travellers with vantage points outside of our own.
While the body of Christ ought to be a model of group cohesion, we have sadly often fallen into the same tribalistic traps as most other groups—defending our theological turf, distrusting those with culturally different styles, and inflating our importance at the expense of others. Changing the direction of this trend will require the honest exploration of our hidden biases. This exploration implies differentiating our identities as churches or denominations, but humbly recognizing that when we emphasize one thing we likely de-emphasize another. Further, it implies more emphasis on our shared mission of loving God and others and less on issues on the margins of that mission.
My oldest daughter was deeply affected by the experience of living in London for a summer and observing the collaboration among numerous faith-based organizations. In their shared commitment to serving a particular neighbourhood, they met regularly to collaborate efforts and avoid duplication. Cleveland suggests the importance of churches banding together to form a larger group with an equal playing field, say a community garden, oriented toward a common goal. In the political arena, this implies forming non-partisan groups oriented toward particular common goals such as a group in my area who meet regularly to study educational policy reform. In my church, I recently observed a Trump follower and a Clinton follower teaching Sunday school together. In such instances, we form something new, effectively moving people from our former out-groups into our in-groups.
In our current scenario, there’s far too much emphasis on identification with political group memberships. If we are a nation divided into self-serving, defensive groups, we will be inclined neither to serve all persons nor to pursue the common good. That’s because serving the common good requires an expansive view. It requires looking beyond one’s own needs and interests to those of the whole.
As followers of Christ and fellow citizens, we are called to intentionally see ourselves as part of something larger. Doing so will require stepping away from safe, self-affirming groups into unknown places. This implies real conversations with different others, where we listen with a view toward learning. Where we assume that we have something to learn from those who look and sound like our political polar opposites. Where we view one another as fellow citizens and image bearers who are critical to the functioning of the whole. Where we especially lift up and listen to the voices of those we dislike, who have little to offer us in terms of identity affirmation, yet who undeniably should be part of our tribe.