On Social Media and Identifying as a Christian

| Theologian Russell Johnson reflects on implications of social identity theory for the online lives of Christians, particularly in the US context, arguing that “how we conduct ourselves in online spaces is a crucial component of Christian identity.”

Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram provide us with valuable things like memes and information about our high school girlfriend’s new baby. But at the end of the day the main reason we use them has to do with identity. We want to show others how they should identify us and we want to feel a sense of community—to feel like we belong.

As sociologist Chris Bail writes, “We are addicted to social media not because it provides us with flashy eye candy or endless distractions, but because it helps us do something we humans are hard-wired to do: present different versions of ourselves, observe what other people think of them, and revise our identities appropriately.” Through social media, we learn the opinions of people like us, and we then shape our own opinions to match.

Even though people who use social media are exposed to more viewpoints than people who do not, using social media often has the effect of making people more closed-minded. It doesn’t take an algorithm or nefarious Russian bots for social media to make Americans more polarized. All it takes is the ordinary human desire to want to be part of an “us,” to want to identify with others and have others identify with them.

While sites like Facebook can in theory be spaces for people with different political and religious views to discuss ideas, identity markers tend to get in the way. Truth-seeking dialogue and disagreement are impeded when people take themselves to be representing differing ideological groups. Two people who disagree about an ethical matter will be less likely to honestly evaluate arguments if they understand their interaction as “a Democrat and Republican debate on immigration” instead of just “a conversation between Hank and Leslie about immigration.” Meaningful encounters can happen on social media sites, but they are not built with substantive disagreements in mind; they are designed to incentivize “owning the libs” or “bashing the idiot conservatives” and raking in the likes from like-minded people.

Since identifying oneself with a group leaves one susceptible to these polarizing tendencies, some argue that the best course of action is to be cautious about publicly identifying oneself as a vegan, a libertarian, a pacifist, a Vikings fan, and so on. In an essay titled “Keep Your Identity Small,” Paul Graham writes, “The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.” That is to say, the more you identify with an ideological group, the more pressure you will face to conform to that group’s shared viewpoint, the less critical thinking you will do, and the harder it will be for you to have real conversations with people who identify with opposing groups.

Identifying with a particular group, political or otherwise, can be a source of meaning and community. And for many people, group identification is inevitable. But there is nonetheless a danger: these group identities make it more likely for us to get entangled in destructive conflict. Given all of this, is it wise for Christians to identify as Christians, or should we change our “Religious Views” on Facebook? Is it so dangerous to identify with a social group that Christians should reevaluate their commitment to the church?

Robin Lovin raises this question in his recent book, What Do We Do When Nobody Is Listening? Lovin warns that “Christian” can become an identity marker so tied up in “us versus them” social dynamics that actual Christian faith becomes hollowed and distorted in the process. Asking “What group am I part of? What group are you a part of?” can get in the way of asking “How can I love my neighbor? How can we cooperate to make our society better?”

Thus, the kind of thinking that social media encourage us to do are at odds with the kind of thinking that is necessary for responsible witness. Rather than emphasizing distinctive Christian identity-markers, as some theologians do, Lovin argues that Christians in a digital age ought to dismantle barriers to finding common ground.

Lovin is right, up to a point. His argument helps us clarify what it means to live out the Christian life. If people will know Christians by our love (John 13:35), then how we conduct ourselves in online spaces is a crucial component of Christian identity. Part of what it means to truly follow Christ, to identify as a follower of Jesus, is to reject all “us versus them” ways of thinking and speaking. 

This does not mean that Christians should be passive in the face of injustice, but when we challenge injustice, we are doing so in part for the sake of the one who is acting unjustly. As Desmond Tutu said, “Oppression dehumanizes the oppressor as much as, if not more than, the oppressed.”

When Christians challenge false ideas and dangerous practices, we love our enemies by seeking to guide them to the truth that sets them free. This compassion ought to come across in the tone of our criticism. In online communication as in all communication, we are testifying to a truth we do not fully possess; what we are sharing is good news for the opponent as well as for the friend.

Thus, Christians can be vocal about their religious identities precisely because it is not what makes us distinctive that makes us special in the eyes of God. Since all have sinned and all are beloved, the authentic gospel challenges any worldview in which Christians are the good guys and others are the bad guys.

Similarly, the standard to which Christians aspire is not defined by consensus but Christ. Other social identities reinforce conformity—you’re a real Republican if you believe and behave like other Republicans, you’re a real leftist if you re-tweet the anti-capitalist hot takes, you’re a real Lord of the Rings fan if you wear the t-shirts and buy the extended edition Blu-rays.

But to be a “real” Christian is to try—and often fail—to live in light of the good news and to invite others to help us on our journey to realize the all-surpassing goodness of God. The gospel invites us to challenge the crowd’s definition of what it means to be a good Christian and to return ever anew to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

While Christianity can turn into a social identity that gets swept up in digital antagonisms, at its core the gospel calls into question any identity that would set people in fundamental opposition. As Desmond Tutu says, “Any policies that make it a matter of principle to separate God’s children into mutually opposing groups is evil, immoral, and unchristian.”  Rather than making “Christian” one more identity marker that gets enlisted into the culture wars, Christians can use their online presence to testify to the reality that everyone has a place in God’s family, whatever their status.

Russell Johnson

Russell Johnson is Assistant Director of the Undergraduate Religious Studies Program at the University of Chicago Divinity School.