Politics, Identity, and the Iron Bowl

“I hate Michigan State.” So begins a recent opinion essay by Jane Coaston in the New York Times. The essay grabbed my attention because I completely resonate with it. Growing up in South Alabama, I would not have been able to tell you two things about the Michigan/Michigan State rivalry. The only rivalry that mattered to me was the one that came up every single day in my heated exchanges with friends and classmates. I hated the Alabama Crimson Tide, and I still do.

But here’s the thing: Coaston’s essay isn’t really about Michigan State at all. Insert whatever rivalry you wish. If you are a sports fan, you have likely experienced illogical disdain for your favorite team’s rival. Whether it’s Cardinals and Wildcats, Yankees and Red Sox, or Cowboys and Giants, sports fans share an impulse to despise everything about the team on the other side.

Coaston’s essay takes a deep dive into the psychology of fandom. She concludes that fans are not logical. Sports can make otherwise very healthy, successful, and well-adjusted people lose their minds. She cites one study that finds fans tend to distrust news as biased when it accuses their own team of wrongdoing even when the source is reliable.

So, what causes intelligent people to participate in such blatant information bias? What drives such blind loyalty and trust?

These questions are important ones because, as Coaston shows, the same dynamic is behind our nation’s increasing political polarization. Participation in politics today rarely involves a process of thinking through the issues one-by-one and then choosing a candidate based on reasoned research. Elections represent loyalty to a team. Accusations of wrongdoing are eliminated from consideration without a second thought. There’s no logic to it, and it’s equally true of both sides.

Coaston concludes that sports and politics are so similar because both share origin stories. The process by which one becomes a fan of a team and the process by which one becomes a member of a political party are very similar. I didn’t choose to become an Auburn fan. My family and the cultural circumstances in which I was born decided these things for me.

If I disavowed these loyalties, I would be disavowing more than just a team to cheer for on Saturdays. I would feel like I was renouncing part of who I am. My sports loyalties are baked into my story and my relationships. For 39 years I’ve been loyal to one team. I’ve built relationships around that loyalty. I have unforgettable memories shared with the people I love the most because of that loyalty. I wouldn’t trade “one second” of my time as an Auburn fan.

The process of political belonging is largely the same. I grew up around Republicans. In fact, I can’t name one person from my childhood who publicly identified as a Democrat. If you walk into any place of business in the South that keeps a television on, there’s a ninety percent chance Fox News will be playing from open to close. But it’s no different in blue states. On the rare occasions when I venture into the comments section of the New York Times, I find an echo chamber of progressive views. Identity is found and fostered through team loyalty, and identity is a powerful motivator in human life.

But what happens when we find our identity somewhere else? What happens when we realize that our origin story is larger than the cultural circumstances of our birth? What happens when I realize that the political circumstances in the little town of Bethlehem over 2000 years ago are actually more relevant to my life and identity than the results of the 2020 election?

When we find identity in Jesus Christ, other sources of identity become secondary. When loyalty to Christ becomes the chief concern of our lives, other loyalties fade in importance.

My sister, up until recently a lifelong Auburn fan, has now sent four of her children to the University of Alabama on generous scholarships. They have switched sides. I don’t like it. Quite frankly, I believe they have committed Deep South apostasy. But here’s the thing: I love my sister and brother-in-law and nieces and nephews. My loyalty to my family will always trump my silly loyalty to team.

In Christ, my loyalty to his Kingdom must likewise trump any other loyalty. If I am loyal to Christ, I don’t turn a blind eye to hypocrisy and immorality within my political party. If my identity is established in Christ, I’m not dependent on cultural identities. I am free to vote based on my conscience, guided by the principles of Christ’s Kingdom. I’m free to maintain unpopular positions that used to be universally agreed upon–ones like the character test for elected officials. I’m free to reject the binary choice between two unqualified candidates. Loyalty to God’s family–the one I’ve been adopted into through Christ–trumps loyalty to political team.

I’m free to stand for the dignity of life from womb to tomb and to advocate for human flourishing without joining ranks with parties that don’t align. And, because my Savior loved me when I was still his enemy, I’m free to love those who may disagree.

1 thought on “Politics, Identity, and the Iron Bowl”

  1. Thank you for this beautiful message. God loves us in spite of ourselves. What more can we ask for. We are so blessed.

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