More of Richard Beck on Tribes: Liberalism is Loneliness

Loneliness. Photo by jma.guimaraes

Richard Beck recently posted another in his excellent series of posts on how liberal or progressive types move, by nature, beyond tribal affiliations and thus lose something very important that they long for but cannot find.

The heart of the matter, as I wrote about two weeks ago, is how Western liberalism dissolves traditional and historical sources of connection and community. Liberalism dissolves group affiliations and treats us as rights-bearing individuals who stand alone before the state. In my posts I said that liberalism has an aerosolizing effect upon groups, it atomizes and then disperses us.

Here is [Christine] Emba summarizing this impact and its consequences:

As liberalism has progressed, it has done so by ever more efficiently liberating each individual from “particular places, relationships, memberships, and even identities — unless they have been chosen, are worn lightly, and can be revised or abandoned at will.” In the process, it has scoured anything that could hold stable meaning and connection from our modern landscape — culture has been disintegrated, family bonds devalued, connections to the past cut off, an understanding of the common good all but disappeared.

And in the end, we’ve all been left terribly alone.

That’s the heart of it, really. Liberalism is loneliness.

Many of us are lonely, desperately lonely in today’s American culture. The only solution, according to Beck and Emba, is for us to “become a whole lot more intentional about forming close knit communities.”

But this goes against the grain of the forces that make Western liberalism so attractive and vital to its adherents.

I have felt this in the depths of my being.

I am remarkably sentimental about my small town roots, about what I perceive to have been a sense of community, an organic connection in families and among neighbors that gave ballast to our lives. I found a form of this in the small churches we served over the years. At heart, I think of myself as a Mayberry guy.

But I have also felt this almost irresistible urge to rebel, to counter the narrative of the status quo, to find my own place in the world and distinguish myself from the herd.

Even today, I find myself appreciating and lauding a society that, imperfect as it was, could advance the freedom and abundance I grew up blessed with. My heart is saturated with the mythology of “the greatest generation” and the kind of communal oneness that many Americans felt in the post-war years.

And then, immediately, my liberal impulses react, protesting that the blessings I’ve known were not available to others. I get angry knowing that various tribes in power fought to keep others from those blessings in a thousand different ways. I miss the sense of community, but at the same time I despise the parochialism and downright meanness I’ve witnessed toward “outsiders.”

I struggle with loving my tribe, my people, and at the same time being able to speak about my sense of outrage at the small-mindedness that offends me. I want to feel the love. I want to stand apart.

Richard Beck ends his post with this quote from Christiane Emba, pointing out the challenge that lies before us:

Yet the deepest solution to the problem of liberalism is as personal in scale as its deepest quandary. To overhaul liberalism, we will have to overhaul ourselves, exchanging an easy drift toward selfish autonomy for a cultivated embrace of self-discipline and communal responsibility. As daunting a project as reforming a political order might seem, this internal shift may be just as hard.

• • •

Photo by jma.guimaraes at Flickr. Creative Commons License

71 thoughts on “More of Richard Beck on Tribes: Liberalism is Loneliness

  1. Again, just to clarify, when Beck as a sociologist uses the term “liberalism” he is saying such in the classical sense. All of “American culture” is based on/rooted in Classical Liberalism–or as some have said it, Modernism. As John Barry expressed it, “The *foundering* fathers of this country…” were the Liberals of their time while the the King and his men were the Conservatives.


  2. Seeing this late… my parish is similar to what you describe, especially from a political perspective. I believe that is because the Church is supposed to be apolitical… conservatives like the moralistic approach, liberals like the social justice approach. My parish has seen its share of issues…. we are small with an older demographic being that this portion of suburbia is pretty built out (and Pittsburgh has an older and homogenistic demographic anyway). We are not on fire… probably because the town is made up of a lot of cultural Catholics but there is a smaller community within the community who have taken the faith as their own.

    I have gone through some Christian mystic phases so I have some affinity to eastern thought and do enjoy Divine liturgy when I can experience it (I am usually picky though on what nationality I go to as there are some big lines there and some are more closed than others)…. for me Byzantine rite satisfies at the moment…


  3. Robert, I know that. I merely cited Haidt’s findings as background that conservatives tend to have foundational values that lend themselves more to having cohesive groups and institutions, while liberals value things that tend to lead to a distrust of such groups and institutions. This is not “proof” that one group feels more alienated than another, merely background which might help us understand why some do.

    Again, I’m not trying to prove anything universal here, nor do I think Beck is. I think we are both citing studies that show general trends that resonate with our own experiences.


  4. Reread the Haidt post. He is using data based on self-reporting in response to questions regarding the respondents’ values; but this nowhere touches on the level of loneliness and alienation the respondents might have been experiencing, or comparing the feelings of loneliness and alienation of traditionalist respondents against those of progressive ones. Apples and oranges.


  5. Robert, some of it arises from what we talked about when we looked at Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind.

    Haidt. In an effort to understand why people disagree so strongly about religion, politics, etc., Haidt describes how liberals and conservatives tend to have different moral foundations from which they reason. Those on the liberal end of the spectrum value care and fairness most, values that are more open and welcoming to change and innovation, and distrustful of institutions that have at times oppressed and marginalized people and groups. On the other hand, those at the conservative end value things like loyalty, authority, and sanctity, which are values that tend to appreciate the order and stability that institutions give, and which often see danger in change or disruption to group culture.


  6. I understand. As a non-evangelical, who did not grow up in an evangelical church, I can say that I have also experienced a similar disenchantment and loneliness, though perhaps not as acutely, since my original circumstances always felt alienating to me; but I nonetheless have memories of feeling the world was closer and less lonely when I was a child, and that it was smaller, which I think is a;so a significant cause of what Beck is describing.

    I understand that people, intellectuals, psychologists, what have you, have advanced the idea the modernism leads to breakdown in community which leads to loneliness, and I won’t argue with that idea; evidence has been amassed, and likely it is correct. But how does that lead to the idea that what we call progressives suffer more from this development more than what we call conservatives? I don’t see any basis for that idea in Beck’s posts, or in other sources; it is a speculation based on personal experience, which is fine, but it may not be true.


  7. it sounds like your community there was a wholesome one . . . Northern California is special . . . . I’ve never lived there but my son was stationed north of SanFran in Petaluma with the USCG for three years . . . beautiful coastline !!!


  8. then I guess it’s okay to trust in Christ ‘because’ . . . . at some point, there is a ‘certitude’ that doesn’t stop with ‘reason’ but goes beyond it into a faith in what is ‘known’ in some other way than our human ability to ‘reason’


  9. Thanks, Christiane. The priest (or pastor) definitely sets the tone, and it sounds like you’ve a good one.

    But I wasn’t talking about “friendliness” or why ministries got done, necessarily. I was trying more to convey that, although we generally didn’t think we were better than anyone else (thank God!), we did believe we were different. We belonged because we were baptized, and, for the more aware, because of our belief about what the Church IS – not because we were individuals choosing to initiate a voluntary association based on agreement with doctrinal points, or friendliness, or pretty much anything else.

    Because my town was so small (about 5000 when I was growing up) and so isolated (northern California coast), everyone in my parish actually did know everyone else’s business :/ The knowledge itself wasn’t bad, only when it turned gossipy or people tried to manipulate things. Most of the time it contributed to the cohesiveness, and when there was a need it evoked real help.


  10. I’m not sure Beck is advancing a “grand theory.” He’s writing about the experience of so-called “progressive Christians” like himself and many others he knows. A lot of the material I quoted in the post comes from an article by someone else who has advanced the idea that modernism (Western liberalism) leads to breakdown in community which leads to loneliness. It’s not Beck’s theory; it’s a piece that he finds resonance with in his own experience.

    Likewise, I myself, as I tried to indicate in the post, also find resonance as a post-evangelical. Loneliness and the inability to trust institutions, dogmatic assertions, and “tribes” seems to me to perfectly describe a genuine aspect of the wilderness experience.


  11. I think that Beck’s sense of loss of connectedness as an adult progressive in comparison with his childhood experience in a conservative church (which seems to be the primary piece of data he uses to substantiate his assertions) is really the result of the general de-institutionalization of American society, which all have suffered, progressive and conservative alike. I don’t think that can laid at the feet of progressive politics.


  12. I read the series of posts, and I see Beck switching back and forth between the words progressive and liberal as if they have the same meaning, when they do not, at least not in the way he’s using them; he’s being careless with his terminology. As a matter of fact, we in Western democratic societies are all inheritors of a liberal social/political arrangement; we’re all liberals in that sense. But we are not all progressives.

    The other thing is that he offers nothing but anecdotal evidence for his assertion that, within the general liberal framework of our society, progressives are more lonely or alienated, or less socially connected, than conservatives; he doesn’t even refer us to sources or studies that would document this assertion. It’s all very subjective conjecture, based on his experience and that of the people he knows; if you’re going to advance a grand thesis like this, you really need to substantiate your main premise, otherwise you are really grounding yourself on guesswork.


  13. I get that Beck doesn’t feel a connection to his former conservative group, and I very much agree that loneliness is a major problem in our society, but unless I’ve massively misunderstood, I just don’t see the connection between liberalism and loneliness. It’s like Beck is adding 2 + 2 and getting 5. Like others have pointed out, conservatism is more linked to rugged individualism, but still, I would never relate liberalism or conservativism to the problem of loneliness and lack of connections any more than I’d relate either to the problem of our late spring and lingering cold.


  14. Assuming by “orders” you mean monastic orders (and female equivalent if there is a different word for them), then they are under most definitions views of tribes. More precisely the individual monastery/nunnery would be a tribe, the order would be a tribe of tribes, the larger denomination they are part of would be a tribe of tribes of tribes … Which is analgous to the concept of a segmentary lineage society, which is a type of tribal society. Israel as described in the Old Testament appears to have been a segmentary lineage society.


  15. “The future is all around us, waiting in moments of transition, to be born in moments of revelation. No one knows the shape of that future, or where it will take us. We know only that it is always born in pain.”
    — J Michael Straczynski, Babylon-5


  16. True, Dana, but they haven’t spread out not because they wouldn’t want to if they could, but because there is nowhere to spread to. In the UK and other places, it may be that stricter class consciousness and stratification than exists in the U.S. stands in for the inability to move away physically.


  17. Christiane, see my comments at the end, I belong to no tribe that I am aware of . Are not the Cleveland Indians called the Tribe? I think we should all be good Americans and become one of common purpose out of many.


  18. Wisdom is okay, Susan, but folly for Christ is better.

    flowering dogwood
    whiter than a dream of snow
    rooted in earth and sky


  19. Hi Dana,
    my parish is a large suburban-type parish out in countryside and everyone is friendly and gets along as far as I know, probably because Father Brian wouldn’t have it any other way. Human nature being what it is, I’m sure there are problems, but I think they must be handled rather well at St. Stephen’s . . . . now the OTHER parish I live close to, well, I’ve heard stories . . . . . … 🙂 (a little parish rivalry goes on in my town)

    From what I know, we don’t have ‘church discipline’ in the way I hear it described on some evangelical blogs, no. We don’t have people publicly shamed. Confession is a private matter. And we are involved in service projects and jobs within the parish, but I don’t think we have the same ‘social’ ties that evangelicals have where everyone knows everyone’s business. My parish is ‘comfortable’ to belong to. I think it is that way for everyone. I credit Father Brian’s example for the good vibes.


  20. I was raised as a third culture kid, so I’m not sure I ever fully belonged to the American evangelical tribe after I returned here. However, to the extent that I did, I did not leave that tribe; that tribe left me. The only group identity I belong to that has endured is the one I share with the other TCKs I grew up with. We can meet up again after decades and pick up where we left off no problem, with a connection that’s deeper than almost anything I’ve known since.

    I don’t think the characterization of liberalism as somehow uniquely creating loneliness is accurate. I think American culture of all political stripes is imbued with an individualistic ethos and dynamic that feeds loneliness. And I actually think that ethos and dynamic is stronger in conservative circles than in liberal in a lot of ways.

    I’m in the post-evangelical wilderness not solely, but in no small part because although I haven’t lost faith, I do lean liberal in my social and political views. And the bare fact is that this makes me unacceptable to the majority of the white American evangelical tribe. The best I could hope for in most cases would be tolerance with occasional disdain. And who wants that? Now, this isn’t the only reason I’m in the wilderness, but it’s a significant factor in the equation.


  21. I think one of the reasons you experience things differently in the UK, Iain, aside from the cultural/political differences, is that you all still live pretty close to one another there. I would suppose that commuters, esp to London, might be the exception, but you don’t rely on cars so much to get you where you’re going, so you mostly haven’t spread out so much as we have here in the US. Pre-automobile, that’s what we looked like, too, and so tended to want to contribute more to our communities, because it wasn’t so easy to get away from them…

    Christ is risen!


  22. Of course, then you get the flip-side from the individuals/rebels/anarchists:

    The word for the Tribe is “Brain-washed”.
    The word for those leading the Tribe is “Brain-washers” aka “The Enemy.”
    The word for those outside the Tribe is “Enlightened”.


  23. I think among Christians there is a difference between the mentality of the parish – which extends through the more mainline liturgical bodies – and the mentality I found as an Evangelical, for which my brain can’t produce a snappy term at the moment.

    Growing up Catholic, I had a world-wide tribe; I could go anywhere, and as long as there was a Catholic parish in which I could worship, I belonged. My home parish in a VERY small town was an expression of that universal belonging. Yes, we had problems, including infighting and backbiting, power struggles, suspicion of Mexican immigrants, and a pedophile priest (who served in tandem with another priest assigned to keep an eye on him – our parish was way too small to support 2 priests, and only later did it dawn on me that the one was the other’s monitor). I suppose we were pretty much in the middle of the healthy/unhealthy scale. Yet, we all managed to have friends in the parish, work toward goals, and maintain worship for the pious. Had I lived in a more populated place, I could have switched parishes, but it’s likely that I would have found that the new would have been just like the old. It was very much a “we’re all in this together, sink or swim” kind of attitude. There were political conservatives and liberals both, and those differences didn’t matter. I’ve been away from RC for too long to know if this is still the case. I suspect, from what I have read and heard, that most parishes have drifted from these kinds of connections. (Christiane? Radagast?)

    As an evangelical, and particularly during the Jesus Movement days, there was a bond between intentional Christians that was similar to the worldwide-tribe feel of RC. If you were wearing a visible fish necklace or cross, then you were part of my tribe, especially if you had had a conversion experience. At the same time, different groups (made up of 20-somethings and younger, even) developed around doctrinal points and worship or lifestyle practices, which made them seem no different than the more institutional non-sacramental bodies that didn’t want the “Jesus freaks” in their midst. In my +30 years “in country” as HUG likes to say, there was almost none of that parish sensibility (except for my time at one of the original Vineyard churches). I noticed lots of litmus tests to determine who was a true Christian. If doctrinal or personal problems developed, it was time to find a new church – or make your own church, whether a house church or a more mainstream type. I think this Protestant way is much more reflective of the “classical Liberalism” that is an expression of post-Enlightenment Modernity. And this is the water in which our country as a whole, founded by classical Liberals (like Iain describes) who were inspired by Enlightenment ideas and values.

    I’m very happy to be in a parish again. I’m spoiled, in that my parish has been pretty healthy under its last 2 rectors. There were good priests in the past, too, but there was also a bad split. Now, if there are problems, they get addressed, not swept under the rug. Orthodoxy is, by its nature, “conservative”, but political opinions come up at lunch, not in the sermons; we don’t believe any political system, even theocracy, is what ultimately matters. We have people of all political stripes, and we know that the secular political identities are not how we define ourselves. It’s a breath of fresh air, I’m telling you.

    My book group is reading “The Righteous Mind” by J. Haidt. Haidt is not religious and does not have religious tribes in view at all, but he makes some very interesting observations about the differences between what political “liberals” and “conservatives” find important. In his purview, I think he is dead on. I also find that the particular specific qualities Classical Christianity values – not simply a generic “Christlikeness” or a blanket “morality” – work to mitigate the problem areas Haidt describes.



  24. finally for me it came down to them all simply moving, not settling anywhere, with not a lot that was more cohesive than the general discontent. I had done my time in the sea of general discontent, and wanted a place to land.

    You can take Doom & Gloom & Grimdark & Crapsack & Anger For The Cause only so long before you either burn out, go crazy, kill yourself, or bail out for something — anything –else.

    This dynamic explains a lot of Nones & Dones.
    (Similar to the dynamic that led to Star Trek, Star Wars, and My Little Pony fandoms approaching mass movements — they became “a place to land” in a Zeitgeist of Chaos and Pessimism.)


  25. And remember a quirk common to most (if not all) actual tribal languages:

    The word for the Tribe translates as “The People”.
    The word for those outside of the Tribe translates as “The ENEMY”.


  26. Rick Ro. says: “Individualism is an odd sort of tribalism in that it says “No tribe is good, and people that belong to them are bad.” See what happens there? Suddenly, the individual feels superior, which is exactly what tribalism is.”

    Rick has the potential to be right there. Individualism implies tribes of one. (And “One is the loneliest number” as Harry Nilsson reminded us fifty years ago.) But one can be an individual and believe individuals are what matter without feeling superiority. Our tradition gives us the image of God to remind us that all individuals are valuable, and the awareness of our own sin to avoid pride/superiority. Though we often fall flat on both our awareness of our own sin and avoiding pride.

    While I don’t much care for the SJWs, the notion of intersectionality can help defeat tribalism. Of course, as Jordan Peterson has pointed out, given all the important ways that people can differ in their life history and desires the logical consequence of intersectionalism is intersections of one individual, although the SJW intersectionalists haven’t reached the conclusion yet.


  27. I tend to agree. In the 90’s I moved into a very conservative tribe…. but as I kept hearing nothing but negative and longed to hear other voices I left after a time. I am still conservative, but I can’t define my whole self by that one tribe, I am too complicated for that (unless you talk to my wife, she tends to think I am a bit simple….).

    I am a tribe hopper anyway since I get bored hanging out in any one place too long. And since I am not really an introvert by classic definition I need to engage others outside of my tribe…. even liberal progressives….


  28. I think you are seeing something important, HUG.

    The types of tribes to which progressive types are attracted are those who eschew many connections in the first place – whether because of being hurt from being pushed out of previous groups, or coming to a very different ideological or theological position and finding one really doesn’t belong anymore. There may be some feeling of “don’t get too close (or close in specific ways) or you’ll get hurt again”. There may also be a component of searching for something that nobody in the new group has yet found – so we’re united in the searching, but still uncohesive because of the not finding.

    I think a lot of cultural waves post WWII (or maybe even post WWI) have contributed to this – it’s not strictly a Baby Boomer and later kind of thing; it’s just that there have been more numbers of people in BB and later generations than before, so a wider influence.

    I moved in some Progressive Christian groups in my time in the Wilderness. There were lots of good people with lots of good ideas – and finally for me it came down to them all simply moving, not settling anywhere, with not a lot that was more cohesive than the general discontent. I had done my time in the sea of general discontent, and wanted a place to land.

    Christ is risen!


  29. We’ve been around this bush a few times, and there really needs to be a distinction between tribes and tribalism. There ain’t nothing wrong with tribes, whether it be the tribe of University of Washington alumni, the tribe of addicted to playing Battlefront, to the tribe of enjoying action movies, to the tribe of being an author…etc… These help us stay connected with people who enjoy similar things.

    Tribalism is bad, though: I’m BETTER than you because I’m a UW alumni, you are WORSE than I am because you like stupid rom-coms, etc. etc. The problem being, of course, that being in a tribe can lead to tribalism.

    This brings me around to the tension that CM mentions in his original post:

    “At heart, I think of myself as a Mayberry guy.
    But I have also felt this almost irresistible urge to rebel, to counter the narrative of the status quo, to find my own place in the world and distinguish myself from the herd.”

    I think the rebel in us…those that have that in us…is healthy. Rebels are always wary of the tribe turning to tribalism. I think the problem with “liberalism” (as defined in this post) is that it tends to look at all tribes cynically, always waiting and expecting a tribe to shift into unhealthy tribalism. Individualism is an odd sort of tribalism in that it says “No tribe is good, and people that belong to them are bad.” See what happens there? Suddenly, the individual feels superior, which is exactly what tribalism is.


  30. “Today, I can’t look at all these people and be truly Pessimistic, we will figure something out. People are much less Ideological than many would have us believe – there are a whole lot of people want to find a way forward, and have fun along the way.”

    Yes Adam… I agree we are a whole lot less ideological when living in the real world. The real tribe is made up of those around us from different backgrounds and ideologies, in our neighborhoods or places of work. Sometimes this is limited because of where we live…. at the moment my city/suburb is more homogenistic but still retains hints of the bygone era when we were known more by ethnicity. When I travel to DC I see how the diversity thing works well, flows well in a melting pot of different… well… everything.

    I can identify with what you say above as I am at an age where I can still make a choice to communicate, be in relationship, make connections with those around me.

    I am more of a pessimist though when I observe the youth, mostly because I have worked with them from the time my twenty something children were small and continue to as I still have a 12 year old at home. I watched how interactions with other kids have changed over time partly because of technology (and as compared to when I was a kid and spent all day outside) – lots more loneliness – but that is a story for another day.

    Lastly – Since I have not gone through a time in evangelism I do not have the understanding of loneliness when leaving a church, or the tribalism experienced there. In my community of cultural and nominal Catholics, we do not get as close from a parish wide perspective, and this may be due to having more cultural Catholics in the area and less Catholics there by decision/growth/choice.

    My thoughts….


  31. CM,

    I think that in the American political scene, “Liberal” and “Conservative” are highly charged words that imply tribal association. This carries over into the Christian context, but doesn’t seem to have the same intensity there, even though the terms may be related in origin and the associated behaviors may have similarities.

    Just try searching the internet for definitions of the two words and you will find conflicting meanings all over the place. There is a difference, even, between classical liberalism, as referenced by libertarian-minded folks, and contemporary liberalism of the more progressive sort. The two concepts are almost completely opposite each other. And that is just on the political side, without reference to the Christian community.


  32. I meant that conservatives try and say that progressives / liberals somehow inherently can’t form communities because they are progressive / liberal: that was the “myth” I was referring to, not that progressive Christians were finding it tough going as Beck describes. I hoped that was clear from the rest of the post. I don’t think conservative evangelicals would fare any better (and probably worse) in reforming their own communities if they were the ones finding themselves isolated and estranged from their existing group.


  33. “I think Beck is falling for a conservative / fundamentalist myth in looking at “liberals” failing to form a community.”

    No, he’s actually reflecting upon his own experience and the experiences of others he knows.


  34. Richard Beck recently posted another in his excellent series of posts on how liberal or progressive types move, by nature, beyond tribal affiliations and thus lose something very important that they long for but cannot find.

    I think Beck misses something.
    They do not “move by nature beyond tribal affiliations” so much as make new tribal affiliations with the Progressive Activist Tribe. Or Tribes PLURAL; A.W.Pink Syndrome holds for that tribe, too, and the universe cannot have two One True Ways.


  35. There is a lot of truth here. Humans evolved as tribal social creatures (being much more likely to die/fail to reproduce successfully) outside a tribal gathering. The Genesis 2-3 creation story expresses this with “It is not good for man to be alone.” So we have a deeply ingrained need for a tight mutually self supporting social group.

    Churches can be that group, and much of both the Old Testament and the New Testament tells us that we should be. Yet it is quite possible to go to church and not be part of a tight social group, by the attender’s choice or otherwise.

    When a church is such a group, leaving it is painful. This is part of why those who have been pushed out of a church feel great hurt about it and may be reluctant to join another. Being pushed out happened to me about 3 years ago – and to my mother and thus indirectly to me about 37 years ago. 37 years ago, I was only a cultural Christian so the loss was light for me and I chose the response “why go to church, I’d rather play”, and it took decades before I gave God another look. Fortunately, 3 years ago I and my wife were committed enough and wise enough to know we needed to find another church and we quickly found a good one. I might not have survived the loss of my prior church without it. (I did get depressed and suicidal, but that is cleared up now.)

    This loss on departure is why for a pastor or their spouse, leaving a church is a double hit – they lose both income and their social tribe. If they work at the church, they also lose the social group of their workplace and thus the added stress of changing a job. Those of us who work outside a church don’t lose our workplace’s social group when we change church.

    Part of what I see as the problem with church discipline processes is that they can be used too lightly. The loss to someone pushed out can feel to them like they are being killed, because we are wired that way by human history. Churches should never push someone out/excommunicate lightly and if it is necessary they should do it with mourning.

    This also touches upon the response to church leaders being suspended or removed because of a #ChurchToo accusation. They should be weeping when that happens, and the biblical injunction is to mourn with those who mourn, not to cheer those to mourn.


  36. This is such an encouraging comment, Adam. Thank you. Lots for me to think about (or, more accurately, for me to actually do something about).


  37. “there is less community further up the income scale in middle class urban / suburban environments ”

    I don’t agree. Middle class people are wealthier in every way–including social capital. They get married before having kids, get divorced less, keep their kids in school, join or start organizations, etc.

    The idea of the ‘socially cohesive poor’ is romantically appealing but doesn’t actually describe reality.


  38. Yes. Nothing about the state of things in strongly ‘tribal’ societies looks healthy right now. You want to ‘live tribal’? Plane tickets to Syria or the Congo are relatively inexpensive.


  39. But J.B., supposing your tribe ‘dehumanizes’ ‘the others’?
    For example, the white supremacists most definitely dehumanize their targets. And now, even within the evangelical giant, the SBC, two ‘tribes’ have formed that are not in agreement over soteriology . . . . they don’t ‘dialogue’ with one another so I wonder if the SBC will continue as a going-concern as a force for Christian missions.

    The thing about ‘tribe’ is that it is defensive. And it must have an ‘enemy’ that is ‘different’. And its members must conform to the tribe or, if they won’t knuckle under, they will be excommunicated (banned). In the days of primitive people, I expect being thrown out of ‘tribe’ meant sent out to probable death.

    Is our human need to ‘belong’ so great that we have become inhumane to ‘the others’? It’s complicated. Maybe we should begin to examine what it is we are really a part of in this world, and learn to welcome diverse gifts as in the model of the Body of Christ, where diversity is welcomed? Even the Holy Trinity is an example of diversity working in unity.

    What are your thoughts about ‘diversity’ in our country? Or do you think we should all ‘conform’ to a ‘sameness’?
    I’ll take the diversity model any day over the enforced order of conformity prevalent in a fascist-type of nation-state.


  40. What you and Beck are calling “liberalism” I think what most people would call “western individualism”, which creates a certain amount of confusion.
    More than nomenclature, however Beck in his article (but I don’t think you in yours) is conflating western individualism with progressive liberalism in what I think is an entirely unwarranted manner. Individualism and self reliance are (at least for the last half century or so) very much conservative values, with group, collective and social action associated far more with the progressive side of the fence. Conservative stress on “family” is a distraction to this, because by it they generally mean the nuclear family, and an extension of individualism as being a person’s family as belonging to them and for their benefit as an individual, rather than a collective enterprise (certainly that’s what “complementarianism” is about).
    I think Beck is falling for a conservative / fundamentalist myth in looking at “liberals” failing to form a community. All community organisations are under pressure due to individualism and the way modern life is put together. Liberals are just as able to form communities as conservatives, albeit they may be perhaps less formally organised and more inclusive, with perhaps a higher turnover of people as a result. If progressive Christians are failing to form vibrant communities I suspect it is because it is much more difficult for fewer and scattered progressives to start a new church community from scratch with disparate people leaving (or being ejected from) conservative Christianity than for the existing conservative Evangelical churches to simply keep together established communities.
    I also suspect the problem lies more with a collective lack of confidence or vision by progressive Christians as to what their faith is about and for, and what they want to do and achieve, than any inherent reason why progressives can’t organise into enthusiastic and vibrant communities, since in the secular field, as I said, they are actually rather more successful at it than conservatives.


  41. hello, Susan

    I have found that ‘wisdom’ is mostly learned through pain and grief. I wish it were different, and maybe I’m not counting my blessings and being thankful enough, but it does seem that grief has had an ability to clear my vision in a way I wouldn’t wish on anyone, not that I mind seeing things more clearly now.

    I take it now that ‘wisdom’ is the result of a process that is painful but does not destroy hope.


  42. I see ‘progressives’ as much more tuned in to the concept of ‘the Common Good’ than political groups claiming to be ‘right-wing’ or ‘conservative’.

    Essentially, I see ‘progressives’ being tuned in to the concept of the dignity of the human person FAR MORE than any extremist-right wing conservatives. To me, it’s the extreme conservative political movement that believes in people fending ‘for themselves’ in a ‘rugged individualism’ tradition. Today, these same individuals take care of ‘their own kind’ rather than look out for ‘the common good’.

    Tribalism? That is not community, no.
    Tribalism to me is a pulling apart from ‘community’ into a ‘group’ that is exclusive and has strict control over who may be in the ‘group’ and boy-howdy they better not step outside of the ‘norms’ of that particular group. Tribalism is defensive to the max. It enforces conforming to the group and does not tolerate independent thinking outside of the group.

    For me to say ‘community’, I have an understanding of ‘Incarnation’ where all of mankind is now connected through the Incarnated Lord Who took our humanity to Himself . . . . as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, ‘we are now the brothers and sisters of all mankind’. That frees us to be respectful and caring far beyond any boundaries that divide humanity into ‘tribe’. So a small Christian Church in the south CAN invite its Muslim neighbors to come and be sheltered until their own mosque is built across the street. And only those who are intensely opposed to ‘liberalism’ will object . . . . in fact, they won’t ‘get it’ that it was an act of Christian charity to help those Muslim neighbors.

    To me, ‘tribalism’ is division FROM the whole of humanity, ruled by ‘control’ and ‘repression’ and an ‘alternate’ sense of reality that does not respect those who see things differently.
    But ‘community’ includes all within its ability to incorporate and shelter and feed and nurture ‘for the sake of the other’, because the ‘other’ is a brother also in an Incarnational sense.

    In what sense do people define ‘liberal’? Like Big Bird? ‘Free to be you and me’? Maybe I’m a Big Bird ‘liberal’.
    By what parameters do I set myself apart from my brother, my sister, my neighbor? Or do I welcome the diversity into my community, knowing diversity is not a source of division, but a way to incorporate the strengths individuals bring to one another?

    I challenge the idea that ‘liberal’ means a freedom that has ‘nothing more to lose’. If anything, it is a freedom to be human in the best and deepest sense of recognizing ‘others’ as creatures of the same Creator, formed of the same soil, and given souls by the same God as myself . . . . . an ‘incarnational’ viewpoint? I hope it is. 🙂


  43. Perhaps if each iteration of evangelicalism stopped populistically defining the “true” tribe along the lines of each one’s unique sectarianism” and perhaps if the opposite poles of the Christ-following tribe stopped dissing the other side’s hermeneutic while also ceasing from exclusivizing their own, then perhaps the opposite ends of the tribe could cheerfully perform the “one-anotherings” as one body composed of eyes and toes and everyone in between.

    So, perhaps the liberal sense of loneliness arises from the factory-installed rejection “app” that each iteration of evangelicalism built itself upon. Those becoming progressive reject the constrainers because that implanted “app” activates, while the same app leads conservatives to reject the progressives.


  44. > I disagree with Beck’s vocabulary

    In an Academic’s vocabulary his usage is spot-on; but outside the Academy the words are so loaded with connotation…

    > I deplore the politics and isolation of any tribes available to me

    This is the cause for my, what I call, Pessimistic Optimism.

    When I exited Evangelicalism it was a bad time for me. It probably involved at least teetering on the edge of depression. I also made it not so great a time for those closest to me – thank God for their patience. I gained weight, got health problems, everything, it was lousy, and I was lonely.

    One of the seminal discussions in my life, years before, was with a southern baptist minister who was fond of saying: “everyone wants a life changing experience, so long as it doesn’t change anything”. Years of working in the Church did give me a potent disdain for “those people”. Yet… pot kettle black much?

    So I changed everything; I became what my Progressive friends would call “intentional”. I changed where I went, how I got there, where I shopped. I read a stack of books about this “tribe” and “loneliness” thing. Ironically, the admonishment of that southern baptist dogged me out of my depression.

    And low-and-behold, there was a “small town” floating in the sea of my city, which was “hey, you finally showed up, pull up a chair”. I go place to place and am greeted by name; my bucher, my barber, sitting in line at the barber and there is as often as not someone I know. I have a tribe. And within that tribe are Progressives, and Trump voters, and gays, and atheists, and Christians, and quite a few none-of-the-aboves [pretty much the only group it does not include are Evangelicals].

    Now I look back at those dark years – and I recognize I was both a clueless idiot and a snob.

    Today, I can’t look at all these people and be truly Pessimistic, we will figure something out. People are much less Ideological than many would have us believe – there are a whole lot of people want to find a way forward, and have fun along the way.


  45. Ian, I think it is time to provide a clarification of terminology.

    The first thing I would encourage you to do is to read all of Beck’s posts, so that you can put his terms in the specific context he is addressing.

    Second. “Liberalism” (capital L) is “Western Liberalism” or the great Liberal tradition = modernity.

    Third, within that Liberal tradition, Beck is talking about those in our day who have a more “progressive” mindset vs. those who have a more “conservative” mindset. In particular, Beck is concerned about those who have left conservative, fundamentalist/evangelical Christianity and who identify as “progressive Christians.” He expresses concern that these folks (and he himself is one) have been unable to form vital communities in the same way many of them experienced when they were part of more conservative groups.


  46. Each day more difficult. Today was a day facing bureaucracy.
    May they lie straight in their beds!
    So I try to see things around me as my connection with the Almighty.
    How else can I wake and face each day.

    Barn owl’s steely eyes
    sees all, visage so silent
    he sees God’s Glory

    I just wish I had his wisdom.



  47. The foundering fathers of this country and our documents were the base for at least limiting and controlling the effects of tribalism, that becoming prevalent in in our society. . The motto Out of Many One has lost its meaning and value and replaced with a misguided notation that a multi cultural nation with no shared national values, beliefs and goals has gotten us where the nation is and where we are headed California for example is acting like and seems to want to be not a part of the USA and the question is why? California is SC in 1960 and Ark. in 1959 but it is ok because the media tribe agree with them, its different.

    One of the historic goals of American society, politics and culture in the past was to have immigrants and those from a foreign culture to become Americanized. Now that goal is being replaced by different special interest groups identified by race, economics, origin and religion, who are actually encouraged to keep their language, culture, values and not embrace the political and values of America. For sure the group historically that was not allowed to truly be given full access to becoming a part of the American community was the black community and that was and is one of the tragic , terrible actions and decision of American society and politics.

    Now for sure we have three major groups in America white, black and Hispanic with a widening gap that is becoming an threat to our national id and future. Group politics and group think are becoming the norm. If you “think” you are American than you are and should come here is the new mantra gaining a following. America is not a nation but an idea which is good for a college debate but not a way to keep a functioning society.

    We did not accept different points of views without labeling people into a group or now a “tribe”. My father in law was born in Italy in 1920, came here as a baby, fought in WW 2 in Italy, was a member of the Italian American club for social reasons but fully embraced American culture, values, historical narrative and only thought of himself as American, Lugi did become Lou. The term Italian American only meant that when he went to his club they shared opinion on food, wine, dancing or whatever but being American overrode being Italian. Many in the Italian American club were Democrat but some Republican but that was okay back then. Now the Italian American club is fading as are all the national identified clubs and being replacing by what?

    Tribes are being encouraged even unknowingly like when I just heard that I live in fly over country by a TV news reader from NYC who I consider from a NYC liberal tribe , his tribe and I am from the yokel tribe he flies over going to California to be with his west coast tribe.

    Tribes are not a good thing for American democracy unless they are loosely constructed social groups that feel a social kinship.


  48. Like others commenting, I disagree with Beck’s vocabulary, but I sympathize with his point. When I left the evangelical world, I committed myself not to become isolated to a particular tribe. Now, I go to a mainline church only for word and sacrament. I don’t go to retreats or get involved in the denominational politics (local or national). I work hard to avoid serving in any way that ties me to the tribe of the culture of the mainline denomination of which I am a member.

    At this point, the only tribe I seem to be a part of is the ‘wilderness tribe’, with loose connections at work and on the internet. I long for more, but I deplore the politics and isolation of any tribes available to me. I am still in the wilderness, and there I may always stay. I cannot see a way out.


  49. According the National Institute of Health loneliness is about twice as dangerous as obesity. So I don’t know.

    I also think you and Robert are overlooking a V-A-S-T middle ground; presenting this as a false choice. It is not a choice between Isolation and hazing one-self into a secret order.

    But then I also think Mr. Beck is approaching “tribes” [aka: strong affiliation] with an overly Ideological lens (but he is a academic) – possibly creating extreme archetypes for the purpose of discussion. Interesting discussion, but a mode of discussion I fear tends to wander far from the practical realities of the lives most people live, facilitating radicalized conclusions [snark:on – we don’t see any evidence of that in our society -snark:off].


  50. “””I am remarkably sentimental about my small town roots, about what I perceive to have been a sense of community, an organic connection in families and among neighbors that gave ballast to our lives.”””

    I am caught by the use of the term “organic” here; and suggest there might be a lot there. The scale of the place meant you saw the same people regularly, probably on a routine basis – like every time you went to the hardware store. How much of the [sense of] connection came just from that?


  51. Agree, I think the essay is good – but one needs to carefully separate “Liberal” from its partisan meaning, and recognize nearly every-single-person in Western Culture is a Liberal (individualist).

    > While trying to offer a general goodwill to all,
    > you can end up missing out on a closeness to anyone.

    But I do wonder if this is true. Is that how friendship works? C.S. Lewis’ essay on friendship uses the example that a friendship can develop based on something as esoteric as a shared interest in white mice. That has been my experience. I believe this Lonliness is a double bunch – Liberalism is a factor, for sure, as described – and a society constructed in such a way as to create few opportunities for friendship as well as voluntary association burdensome [if for no reason other than distance].


  52. > If he is referring to local neighborhoods and communities, I don’t see at all that liberals
    > somehow ignore or don’t get on with their neighbours,


    > there is less community further up the income scale in middle class urban / suburban environments


    I am pretty solidly in the “built form” camp, that much of what we get in society is f-a-r less Ideological than we [like to] believe, and more so is a myriad small adaptations to practical concerns. Not that there are not groups attempting to drive the built-form and other structures in particular directions because they know very well that doing so is the best way to control the type of society that will naturally develop in those spaces.


  53. > but I am afraid I don’t recognise this picture of it at all.

    It is important to distinguish between the Partisan use of “Liberal” and the “Liberal” being described here. In America Partisan Conservatives are the most fiercely “Liberal”, and many who are Partisan Liberals are less-so. Unfortunately the selection of the term Liberal here muddies his essay – personally I feel “Modern” would have been clearer and more effective.


  54. I agree. Strong tribes, which are centrally rooted in extended kinship groups, depend on long-term identification with place, hence “Blood and Soil”. Where people do not stay in one place, neither extended family nor the other tribes that orbit around it can take root or last. And people will not stay in one place unless they are forced to by circumstances; that alone should tell you something about the negative aspect of even the best traditional tribal institutions, and how they have their own forms of alienation and loneliness that we in modernity have forgotten about.


  55. Iain, I am from the UK too and I get what you are saying absolutely about the politics of this but I also feel the truth in my life of Chaplain Mike’s observations in the post. The more I see the perspective of outsiders and the excluded, the less I want to feel part of my traditional communities – particularly of church and social class. I have, to some extent, stepped away from my traditional tribes as a reaction to the exclusivity that I sense in them. But, as CM says, there is such a risk that you stay disconnected. While trying to offer a general goodwill to all, you can end up missing out on a closeness to anyone. I find the post really interesting and really challenging.


  56. Thanks for the critical insights. I think you are right: conservatives and liberals are equally lonely and alienated, because equally immersed in modernity. The alienation and loneliness that Beck is talking about is the result of the way modernity has dissolved extended kinship networks of traditional society. In American society, talk of “family values” is the province of conservatives, and there is an underlying misconception on both the left and right that, since conservatives are about family, they are about tradition. But the fact is that the nuclear family that conservatives emphasize is a thoroughly modern, non-traditional social institution that already carries and conveys the widespread loneliness and alienation that Beck is talking about. It is the divorce from extended kinship networks that causes the problems Beck describes.


  57. Maybe it’s because I am from the UK, where “liberalism” is viewed differently, but I am afraid I don’t recognise this picture of it at all. It was a Conservative Prime Minister here who famously said “there is no such thing as society”, and it is conservatism that stresses individual “self reliance” and personal responsibility over making provision for others. The Beck article linked to makes a claim which I find, frankly, bizarre, that progressives / liberals are reluctant to do things “for the group” in a way that conservatives, by implication, are. It is almost the essence of the conservative / progressive divide that progressives stress communal action where conservatives insist individuals should be left to act by themselves. This part of his argument is simply nonsense.
    That progressives don’t form “tribes” or act as part of a group I again something I cannot understand how someone living on the same planet as me could assert. I genuinely do not understand what he is talking about.
    If he is referring to local neighborhoods and communities, I don’t see at all that liberals somehow ignore or don’t get on with their neighbours, or that not excluding people from communities or the attitude to authority actually helps on this. It might be the case that there is less community further up the income scale in middle class urban / suburban environments where your classic middle class liberal might live, but how this could bes caused by liberalism is beyond me, and conservatives in the same areas are no different.
    If he is talking about “tribes” in the sense of social groups / movements (hipsters, goths, emos, etc) progressives have just as many such groups as conservatives, at least here in the UK, perhaps more.
    If he is referring to more organised social or community action, he is, frankly, talking out of his bottom. Community organisers, local pressure groups, campaigners, environmental and social activists, the vast majority of social movement and activism that I can think of which is not directly organised by a political party or commercial lobby of some kind (NRA take a bow) is progressive, not conservative.
    As far as I can see, I am sorry to say Richard Beck seems to be simply re-defining “liberal” as meaning “objecting to any kind of group or society” and then just making stuff up about these nonexistent “liberals” he just invented.


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