President Donald Trump is frequently blamed for the divisions in our society and it is hard to deny that he has been a contributing factor. But the president is like a person tearing a sheet of perforated paper. The perforations were already there.
Those perforations were created by sociological and psychological forces that are constantly at play in our culture. Many of these are well-attested and frequently cited: race and sexual discrimination, wealth disparity, and educational inequality, to mention a few. One dynamic that is often overlooked is the human need for belonging.
Among the life qualities that social scientists and psychologists say contribute to personal satisfaction, none is more important than a sense of belonging. Wealth, goal setting, sexual fulfillment, and even the practice of religion cannot substitute for it. A sense of belonging is a primary human need.
Our church sends students and adults to Tijuana, Mexico to help and encourage disadvantaged children and elderly adults living in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Each year when they return home, they always tell the same story: the people there have nothing compared to us, but they are happy. They belong.
This reality exposes the hollowness of the lone ranger, I-don’t-need-anyone narrative that is so often told in America. People experience the need to belong, whether they admit it or not. That need is not only present in us, it has an impact on our attitudes and actions, even when we are not aware of it.
This has been apparent throughout the pandemic and the run-up to the election. As the coronavirus swept the nation and state after state ordered shutdowns and other measures, people quickly formed opinions about how to proceed. Within a short space of time, two different narratives emerged, one which called for an energetic and proactive engagement and the other an essentially hands-off approach.
The fervor with which people lined up behind these positions, especially in the light of a flood of constantly changing data, was surprising. There was almost a religious fervency to it. An us-against-them mentality was obviously at work, which signaled the presence of the need to belong.
The election has been, to a significant degree, animated by this need to belong. I can join a side, toe the party line, carry the party banner. It helps me feel like I belong to something big. It gives me a platform to stand on and, even more importantly, a people to stand with.
This human need to belong is one of the implements that creates the perforations along which society divides. But where does this need come from? Is it entirely psychological, the emotional relic of our earliest experiences? Is it an evolutionary imperative that protects us in illness and threat?
Without discounting other possible explanations, I would suggest that there is a theological dimension to the need to belong. Christians and others believe that there has been a breach in the relationship between God and humans. This is described narratively in the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis and attested throughout the rest of the Bible. Belonging is to this separation what drinking is to thirst.
The Bible goes on to narrate how the tear that split humans from God continued tearing, dividing humans from humans. This is a principal theme of Genesis 3-11. Along with the estrangement from God came the disjunction between humans.
Because our identity is so wrapped up in our sense of belonging, this rupture not only divided humans from God and from one another, it separated individuals from their own God-given identities. The Bible speaks of “the ignorance that is in [people] due to the hardening of their hearts.” This has left a rift between who a person is and who they perceive themselves to be. The fault line doesn’t just run through the nation, it runs through us.
When a math problem goes wrong, it is necessary to find the initial error. Fixing subsequent mistakes is necessary, of course, but it will not correct the problem. A solution depends on going back to where things first went wrong. When it comes to the need to belong, that means going back to God.
(First published by Gannet.)