Yes, I’m a Fear-Monger

BibleBulletAs often as not, when I talk with Christians about how to engage politics, fear becomes part of the conversation: We talk about the role it plays in political discourse, the biological mechanisms that trigger it and the way Christians are called to respond to it.

Fear is a powerful tool in political communications. If you can trigger the amygdala into a fear response and the listener doesn’t have a deeply embedded neurological bulwark against that fear, it’s easy to get your call-to-action around a listener’s analytical filter, to get them to accept your message quickly and uncritically.

Because getting around their analytical filters is such an assured way to secure a listener’s support, even politicians who truly believe their policies and claims could stand up to careful scrutiny regularly try to make their listeners and readers feel threatened by their opposition.

This isn’t just an abstract theory—I’ve traded on fear this way myself:

During the 2006 election cycle, I was working on a campaign in the midwest, trying to unseat a long-incumbent party. One of our regular volunteers, a semi-retired man in his 50s, came into the office carrying a green helmet with a hole shot in it.

When he told me, “My son just came back from Iraq,” my heart sank, expecting to hear that his son had been injured or killed. But then he went on. “And he and his buddy decided to use his helmet for target practice this weekend. Look at this!”

He was laughing at the novelty of a military-grade object with a hole shot in it. He thought it was funny or ironic and wanted to share. I looked at that helmet and immediately had a litany of questions: What caliber ammunition were they firing? How does that compare to the ammunition the soldiers were likely to encounter in the field where they were stationed? Was this helmet meant to be worn in the field or just around base? Even if a helmet could be rated to stop cold a bullet of this caliber, what would that amount of force do to the soldier’s neck and spinal cord?

As a citizen, I understood that this helmet with a hole in it was meaningless. But as a political communicator, I understood how powerful that image could be.

I had a lot of questions, but the only one I asked was, “Can I keep this for a couple weeks?”

I displayed that helmet in the bullpen/reception area of our office. Whenever a volunteer came in to make phone calls, whenever a canvasser came in to pick up flyers or hand in their daily reports, whenever someone came in to the office looking to learn more about the candidate, they had to see that helmet. And when they asked what it was, I answered, “That’s what the people in charge are giving your sons, your daughters and your friends when they send them into combat.”

Enthusiasm went up. More people committed to volunteering. And when election day came around, we won big. My work helped put a good person in office—he was thoughtful, capable, humble, hard-working and honest. He was the best man for the job and I’m proud to say I worked for him, but some of the techniques I used to generate and maintain enthusiasm were problematic.

As Christians, we are called not to fear the powers and principalities of the world around us. But we only fear the principalities that we trust to have some kind of power over us. The way to resist that fear is not to force yourself to keep a stiff upper lip—it’s to internalize the fact that the apocalyptic power and authority that the principalities of our political system claim really belongs to Jesus. And that comes through the normal means of spiritual growth: Scripture, prayer, meditation and community.

One of the greatest assets devout Christians (should) have in engaging politics is the fact that the gospel’s promise of the coming kingdom is a reliable shield against the kind of fear-mongering that forms the undercurrent of a lot of political discourse. Thoughtful Christians of good faith can disagree about almost any policy proposal I can think of. But if you find yourself most often experiencing fear or anger when you think about politics, if you find yourself feeling threatened by a political party in exactly the same way your friends outside the faith do, then you may have an exciting opportunity to learn to trust Jesus more deeply right around the corner.

Lead image taken from Australian Light Horse Studies Center.

Election Year Fear

Former senator Rick Santorum ended his campaign for the Republican nomination for president this week, effectively inaugurating the general election. Former governor Mitt Romney, long the presumptive nominee, no longer faces any realistic challengers in the Republican primary, and he and President Obama have begun attacking one another more directly in their public remarks.

In the weeks ahead, the two major political parties, along with scores of television anchors, radio hosts, and deceptively named political action committees will begin advocating for their preferred candidates aggressively. They’ll hold rallies to motivate sympathetic voters. They’ll release ads designed to persuade undecideds. They’ll send volunteers and paid staffers door-to-door armed with talking points written by researchers who have studied the psychological profile of people from every demographic, professional guild and magazine mailing list to which you belong.

And most of them will try to make you afraid.

Afraid of a general American decline. Afraid of a war against a particular right or class. Afraid of the death of an industry. Or just afraid of death.

“My opponent doesn’t want to see you flourish,” is the message underpinning too much political conversation in this country. What makes it such a dangerous message to use as a political attack, though, is that, to some degree, it’s universally true: We know that every human being is fallen, and that means that every human being has a propensity to try to seize power and authority that only belongs to God. We are prone to self-interest and we look out for our own tribe when the scripture calls us to seek the peace and prosperity of strangers, enemies and hostile cities.

It takes a deep, abiding humility born of the gospel to admit that kind of fundamental brokenness without the admission crushing your sense of self. And keeping that innate, fallen disregard for Other Groups in check requires that you be surrounded by people who are bold enough to call you out on it and sympathetic enough to encourage you to transcend it. Being a judge, a legislator or a chief executive doesn’t exempt you from human nature. When candidates imply that a universal human fault is true only of the “other side,” it becomes a little harder for everyone to remember that we are all fallen.

However, just being told that a candidate doesn’t want to see you flourish isn’t always enough to incite the kind of fear that secures a vote. No, the fear really gets stoked when the campaign volunteer on the other end of the phone implies that if the other party wins the election, they’d actually have the power to keep you from flourishing.

Christians reject the belief that any candidate or party has ultimate, apocalyptic power over the fate of a nation because we know the fate of all nations, and it isn’t degradation. It’s renewal.

For millennia, people hoped that the cycle of death and the slow encroaching of entropy weren’t the final truths. Against almost all evidence, the prophets of the Old Testament affirmed those hopes, saying that the will of God was to gather all the nations to Himself, raise up the low places and make the bent paths straight.

For Christians struggling with the dire forecasts of a presidential campaign year, Jesus’ resurrection offers us two assurances: It tells us that life and flourishing can and will overcome even the most inexorable forces of decay and death, and it tells us that the ultimate victory of life over death will come from God, not from our own hands. The apostles didn’t need to administer CPR to raise Christ from the dead.

At the resurrection, even the most inept public administrator will see that all things worked for the good of God’s beloved people. No policy, no matter how badly bungled, can stop all the old, worn things of this world from eventually being made new.

When you’re at a bar, or a coffee shop, or your children’s baseball game, and a friend tells you to be afraid, you have the right to respectfully refuse.

Keep Not Fear Alive

Good Stuff Eatery

Much like New York

After work today, I’ll get on a bus and head to Washington, D.C., where I’ll meet up with an old friend and spend the weekend hunting down good burgers and checking out the Rally to Restore Sanity, Jon Stewart’s attempt at putting together a “million moderate march.” While I don’t know exactly what’s on the docket for the rally this weekend, I’m expecting a good show with some entertaining speeches, and I’m expecting a staged conflict with Stephen Colbert, whose rival event–the March to Keep Fear Alive–is scheduled for the same time and place.

Colbert’s theme raises a big issue that is of central importance to Christians who are trying to figure out their place and posture in public life: fear.

As things get rolling, I imagine we’ll be talking about fear regularly and in greater depth, because it is a major part of many campaigns for public office. Fear of what will happen to us/our children/our schools/our jobs/our environment/our health/our country/our planet/our values if “the other guys” get elected is an easy and powerful motivator, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that politicians trade on it so often. It encourages us to react quickly and single-mindedly, which is always good for getting out the vote.

Fear is also a recurring theme in scripture, but scripture tends to find it less useful. Under a variety of circumstances, Jesus exhorted his disciples to “Fear not” and “Be not afraid” as often as he commanded them about anything else. Both before and after his resurrection, his message was fairly consistent: “I know it seems like you have plenty of reasons to freak out right now, but don’t.” Even after his ascension at the end of the gospel narratives, “don’t freak out” remains a recurring theme in scripture. Under some of the most dispiriting and threatening possible circumstances, Paul wrote from prison to his young colleague Timothy, “God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power, love and self-control” (or, as the KJV puts it, power, love and “a sound mind”).

According to the sermon on the mount, one of the roles believers in Christ are collectively supposed to play in their communities is that of a “city on a hill.” Jesus dares Christians to live as a visible example of the gospel’s story and promises rather than being driven solely by the same concerns that drive their immediate cultural contexts. Christians are asked to operate under the assurance of ultimate freedom, ultimate peace and ultimate flourishing, not under the specter of fear, and we should consider that carefully when we think about how (or if) to use our votes.

A Christian who is truly invested in the peace and prosperity of their community may need to consider not just whether their own vote is based on personal fear, but also whether it would contribute to fear being sown amongst the people around them. Might a candidate whose campaign trades in fear have policy positions that a Christian thinks offer a legitimate chance to make the earthly state around us function better? It’s perfectly possible, and there’s no cut-and-dried answer for how we should order our priorities in such a situation.

If you’re thinking about voting (I know a lot of Christians aren’t. We’ll talk about that later.), there are many factors that could shape your vote: Take the time to look at the candidates’ websites, read their position papers or use the League of Women Voters’ voting guide to get the lay of the land. Vote on which vision of government seems best to you, which policies seem soundest, which candidate seems most capable or who has a message you would most like to see take root among your friends and neighbors.

But when you’re weighing these factors, just remember: Stephen Colbert is probably joking when he says you should keep fear alive, but when Jesus says not to freak out, he’s definitely serious.