Stacks Image 3

Community, Not Tribalism
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
November 2017


Divisiveness permeates our country and gives sustenance to nationalism and identity politics. The trend betrays the founding principles of our country and Christianity itself.

From its founding our country too often embraced the sin of racism and even enslaved an entire people based on the color of their skin. The consequences of slavery and racism still permeate our society. Our country, however, was not founded on the principle of white supremacy.

The first Americans were mostly Christian, even if many of the nation’s founders were deists. Yet the United States was not created to be a Christian nation.

The colonists were overwhelmingly Protestant. Although there were scatterings of Catholics and Jews, they were mostly kept, by law or practice, from full participation in society. Yet our country was not founded as Protestant nation.

The colonists overwhelmingly spoke English, but the country was not founded for Anglophones or to be an “English-Only” nation.

The settlers brought with them customs and traditions that were primarily Northern European and especially Anglo-Saxon, but our country was not founded to protect or foster any ethnicity or tradition.

Vestiges of aristocracy existed, especially in the southern colonies, and, by most European standards, American colonists were what we today would call a “middle class.” Yet the United States was not established to maintain class systems.

The founding fathers, as it usually was at that time, were men. Women did not have equal rights under the law. Yet the country was not founded to entrench and further patriarchy.

While other nations have formed from an attachment to the land stretching back hundreds of years, our ancestors on this land were newcomers and sometimes usurpers.

From its beginning the United States embarked on what is perhaps the greatest accumulation of wealth by private citizens in modern history, but its founders did not intend to create a nation devoted solely or even primarily to power and material wealth.

In short, even if we have too often failed in following their vision, our country’s founders rejected, in principle, all the usual features that define a nation, such as culture, land, religion, or ethnicity. The United States transcends blood and soil.

Instead, our country was founded upon aspirations and a commitment to universal principles rooted in recognition of the rights, responsibilities, and capabilities of every human person. Moreover, nation is supposed to be dedicated to the idea that no one should be excluded because of race, ethnicity, or religion.

Although our country was not founded as a Christian nation, Christians should recognize these foundational principles. Saint Paul repeatedly wrote about the universal nature of the human family, created through Christ and for Christ.

“Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian,* slave, free; but Christ is all and in all.” (Col 3:11.) “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28)

While it is common to read and hear interpretations of these and other passages as applying only to the body of Christian believers, such interpretations miss some fundamental principles of our faith. Every human person is created by God and in God’s image. Thus, everyone is bestowed with innate dignity from which flow certain universal and inalienable rights.

Indeed, immediately before the passage cited above from Colossians, Paul teaches to reject the sinful “earthly” acts and to put on a “new self” and be “renewed” in the “image of its creator.” (Col 3:5-10) It is more, therefore, than a change into a new self. It is a conversion that accepts who we were created to be by a savior who created all in his image.

This does not mean that patriotism and pride for country and community are not laudable virtues. Saint John Paul II’s love for his native Poland exemplifies this affection. It does mean, however, that there is no place for an “us verses them” mentality. Solidarity must prevail over politics of exclusion.

Subsidiarity requires that communities not be unduly stripped of their ability to govern themselves. Sometimes corrections are necessary. Families, neighborhoods, communities, and self-governance are important. When, however, the call for community turns into insularity, isolationism, nationalism, or exclusionism the principle of subsidiarity is perverted. Moreover, community formation itself can never justify racism, ethnocentrism, parochialism, identity politics, or any form of unjust discrimination.

The root of the ugly divisiveness that threatens our country — and sadly many others — is a failure to see the “other” as one of us. When we fail to see the image of God in others, we fail to respect others. When we fail to respect others, we place our needs ahead of theirs. When we place our needs first, we view others with fear. When we cultivate a politics of fear, we succumb to tribalism. When we succumb to tribalism, we betray American ideals and Christ himself.