Acton Institute Powerblog

Tribalism and the dangers of identity economics

Occasioned by some local controversy over a political endorsement by the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, in the Detroit News today I have a piece worrying about the implications of what might be called ‘identity economics,’ or “where we only agree to economic transactions with those who agree with us on an ever-growing list of moral or even political shibboleths.”

A highlight:

The deleterious effects of limiting our economic and social interactions on the basis of visible characteristics like ethnicity or gender are obvious. The negative consequences of limiting these same interactions on the basis of other considerations, such as adherence to a political agenda or a particular worldview or religion, may be less obvious but for that reason perhaps even more insidious. If we only associate with, and even buy from and sell to, people who think and live like we do, we deprive ourselves and others of opportunities to learn, grow, and love. In doing so we make ourselves more isolated and more fragile. We become poorer, in both material as well as spiritual terms. In its extreme forms, identity politics and identity economics create apartheid systems, in which injustice is endemic and hopelessness abounds.

Another piece worth considering about the fragility of pluralism in the public sphere is John Courtney Murray’s “The Return to Tribalism” from 1961, in which he gave a salient summary of the challenges of maintaining unity amid diversity:

I would suggest that the premises of any national unity that we want in this country are two: the first is the simple fact that there is no religious unity in this country. We exist in a state of religious division, a deplorable state, if you will, undoubtedly. Nevertheless, these religious divisions are not to be blurred, they are not to be transcended in the name of some common secular democratic faith and they are not to be reduced to some religious common denominator. This would, of course, be the end. Secondly, regardless of our religious divisions, civil unity among us is necessary. Therefore, the only question that confronts us is this: What is civil unity in itself, and in its relation to religious pluralism in society? And secondly, how is it to be achieved?

It is one of the great achievements of modernity that we have been able to live peacefully and profitably with and among people who are different from us, often radically so. The alternative, I fear, is the loss of civilization. Or as I conclude, with the descent into tribalism, “the loss of a peaceful and prosperous society cannot be far behind.”

Read “Identity politics veers into identity economics” at the Detroit News.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.