In a piece in The Atlantic last November, James Fallows wrote about our tendency to form into tribes, and worse, our even stronger tendency to cling to those tribes like grim death. There is clearly a survival mechanism involved, but let’s face it, we are a clingy species, and we can sometimes take the tribe thing a little too far.
I had this in mind when one of our own posted about the recent funeral of physicist Stephen Hawking. Now, I’m a huge fan. In my childhood there was a huge campaign in New York State to de-stigmatize people with physical disabilities, and to emphasize that these people could also make some contributions to humanity. It just amazes me that they were shooting in the 1970s for “Sometimes they can wash their own dishes” when Stephen Hawking was at Oxford changing the world.
I had the experience recently of some Evangelical friends and acquaintances fawning over Billy Graham and his legacy on the occasion of his passing. He was a rock star in their world, but even beyond that group, one friend — a hardcore self-described political rightwinger, with underlying Christian identity politics woven in — expressed extreme disgust with Obama for not attending Graham’s funeral. She cited some article in the rightwing press she reads, and it amazed me that he was still a whipping post, a punching bag for these people. I don’t have anything (strongly) against Billy Graham; he and I just see the world in some pretty different ways. I blame him to some degree for politicizing Christianity and helping convince (along with Jerry Falwell and others) a swath of our population that their religious beliefs could only be fully realized through political power, and in effect initiating the culture wars, and turning them into an all-or-nothing battle: no compromise!
I do appreciate that in his later years, he came to regret some of his divisiveness and his politicization of Christianity — lessons his son has yet to embrace. In his older years he engaged with people outside of the rightwing-Republican-Evangelical Christian world, people he likely wouldn’t have even acknowledged in his prime. It’s not that his views on Christianity changed, but that he came to see less reason for the cultural wars, for vilifying those who saw the world differently.
And so it strikes me as I consider these two funerals, for Hawking (a personal hero) and for Graham, how events like this still serve to separate, to deepen our tribal identities. I find it comforting and encouraging that so many turned out for Hawking’s funeral, and honored him by applauding as his casket passed. Hawking to me represents the best of humanity, or rather humanity at its best — what we can achieve, and how we aspire to be more than we are today.
But this thought about the very different kinds of people attending the respective funerals of these two men who, whether we like it or not, have shaped our modern world in some important ways, is troubling.