In 1992, historian Francis Fukuyama wrote a book called The End of History and the Last Man. His premise was that with the end of the Cold War, humanity had entered a new era peace and cooperation and that democracy would inevitably be embraced by nations around the world. As a generation X-er, I recall this sense of optimism. The European Union was created. English was becoming the default world language. Interracial marriage was on the rise. Trade and travel were dramatically expanding. I wondered if one day, all borders, races, and tribes would become a thing of the past. While many obstacles stood in the way to this utopia, back in the 90s, this actually seemed possible, even probable. The good guys had won, Russia was on our side. The only thing standing in the way to the millennium was Islam. Bring in Armageddon against the Arabs, the 2nd Coming, and the Millennium would be right around the corner.
Fukuyama was correct that democracy would continue to increase, and along with it, greater prosperity and cooperation. But since the 90s, there has been a dramatic rise in nationalism and tribalism. Here in the UK, we had a recent referendum on Scottish independence which would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Whenever I go to Wales, I’m always amazed to see young Welsh couples doggedly speaking Welsh to their toddlers, even though their own parents never spoke it. A UK referendum on leaving the EU is also just around the corner, and if it passes (as it likely will), it does not bode well for the rest of the EU. In the US, tribalism is running rampant as people abandon mainstream media outlets and retreat to ideological echo chambers like Fox News, or MSNBC. We’ve always had Red States and Blue States. But today, we have Trump States, Cruz States, and Clinton States and Sanders States. These political tribes are increasingly impatient with compromise or cooperation with other tribes. This new era of tribal hostility is disheartening, but I’m trying not to get too depressed about it. Humanity has always been tribal and perhaps utopian visions from the 90s were a delusion.
Beauty and Variety through Tribalism
In the temple, God commands His co-creators to “beautify and give variety to the earth.” Scientists tell us the secret of this variety is competition. On a planet with limited resources and constant difficulties, life forms must constantly adapt. These adaptions lead to the astounding variety of life. Humans have had to adapt for the same reasons, and this has led to the enormous differences of culture around the world. “Competition,” is an ugly word. But it is only through competition that we have “beauty and variety” on the earth today.
In the 90s, I thought that unity was the goal, not competition. Christ says, “If you are not one, you are not mine.” John says “When we shall see Him we shall be LIKE Him.” At church, we are constantly reminded to “be ye therefore perfect” according to a clearly delineated set of commandments and expectations.
But there is another dimension of the gospel which is tribal and competitive. We see ourselves as separate, peculiar, and above all, better than other churches and cultures. As a gospel tribe, we are expected to produce good fruits. Outsiders will admire us because “by their fruits ye shall know them.”
Brigham Young speculated that during the Millennium, most people would not be Mormons. Without a common religion, how could there be unity in the Millennium? Perhaps a more likely scenario would be that there will be many good churches and cultures competing to show off who has the best fruits. It will be a beautiful and peaceful society, not because we are one, but because we are all good in different ways. Maybe if we all joined one church, it would be detrimental to growth, because without competition, there is little progress.
Progress through Competition, not Unity
The individual states in the US have been called “laboratories of democracy.” We have Obamacare today because in 2006, Massachusetts experimented with a similar health reform law which was quite successful. While Obamacare may have been a step in the right direction, perhaps it would have been even better if individual states had continued to experiment with their own reforms. Those states with the most success would become the most replicated, and the best ideas would gradually win out. As individual tribes discover successful new ideas these ideas are often adopted by other tribes. This is the reason Western democratic culture has been adopted by many Eastern Cultures. Likewise, Eastern ideas like alternative medicine, yoga, or “tiger moms” are being adopted by Westerners. But just because we may adopt good ideas from other tribes, does not mean we become UNITED with the other tribe. We each find our own unique way to implement these ideas, building upon them with our own unique perspectives.
I suspect something similar has happened in our church and other churches. Mormonism is a very demanding religion. Yet we have experienced phenomenal growth and activity rates relative to other churches. I think Evangelical churches have been influenced by this. If Mormons can demand a full tithe, maybe they can too. Today’s most successful churches are the most demanding ones, and Mormons were the first to demonstrate the truth of this principal. Likewise Mormons have been influenced by innovations and ideas from other tribes. The “I’m a Mormon” campaign borrows ideas from media culture, and familysearch.org takes the best from silicon valley web designers. The early LDS church borrowed many hymns, doctrines and practices from churches of the day, and Joseph Smith added masonic elements to the temple. “Take all the good you have and add it to ours.” Gordon B. Hinkley once said.
Balancing Unity and Competition
Of course unity is also important. A united people can do many great things, working hard, and building towards a common vision. But, to paraphrase a common church meme, “with unity, the thinking is done.” With unity, there can be no new ideas or change. Change is only possible when people are allowed to criticise, re-evaluate, and re-think how things are done in their culture. Tribes that do not allow any criticism and conjecture will not be able to improve themselves. The fact that the LDS church does continue to innovate and change, demonstrates that they do in fact allow people inside the church office building to offer criticisms and conjectures. The faithful speculate that every church change comes about through revelation, without remembering that God said, “study it out in your mind” and “I will not command in all things.”
Many in the bloggernacle argue that the church doesn’t do enough to innovate, that it stifles criticism to the detriment of its progress. This could be true. But it is also true that all tribes must cultivate their own internal unity in order of having any hope of implementing their visions and any changes they may want to implement.
- Do you see growing tribalism as a good thing, or a bad thing?
- Do you believe, as scientists do, that God brings about “beauty and variety” through competition and “individual adaption” (see Proclamation on the Family)?
- Does the US Government strike the right balance between Federal Unity, and State Tribalism?
- Does the church strike the right balance between unity (which inspires work towards an existing vision), and criticism (which inspires improvement by entertaining new ideas)?