It was hard not to notice the appeals to fear and uncertainty in our recent campaign season.
The more urgent the final stretch of the contests became, the more emphatic were the ominous suggestions that a vote for the “other side” would bring one’s worst fears to pass.
The “politics of fear” has received a lot of post-election analysis, and it is probably good for us to reflect on its power and whether it leads us in a healthy direction.
Few would question the effectiveness of fear as a motivator. Many a sinner has been brought to repentance by the fear of a hell graphically described with fire and brimstone.
Fear of undesired consequences has been an effective, though not always successful, enforcer of moral behavior.
Fear of getting caught has probably prevented action on a misguided thought for all of us at one time or another.
Several adages about fear are well-known to most of us, including: “Fear not, for I am with you” (Isaiah 41:10); “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7); and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
In spite of, or maybe because of, these adages, it seems helpful to reflect on the difference between fear as a healthy element of human experience, such as the fear of an approaching tornado that leads us to seek shelter, and fear as something that can be conjured and exploited for another’s purposes.
I remember various sales approaches over the years drawing upon the fear of what might happen if I didn’t buy the product.
The less I knew about the product and its functional circumstances, the more vulnerable I was to the sales appeal. My ignorance was fertile soil for the seeds of fear to sprout and thrive.
Even though the covenant faith journey has frequently fallen to fear-based tactics in making its appeal, it seems to have thrived more on the basis of a vision for new possibilities.
Jesus’ call to his disciples did not appear to be based on what would happen to them if they didn’t follow, but on a vision and a promise of a new kind of community that would facilitate a more profound expression of what it meant to be children of God.
Hope not fear was the basis of Jesus’ message.
By contrast, it is easy to see hints of conjured fear in the religious establishment, which saw the possibility of losing its grip on people’s loyalty as Jesus’ new vision of what faith might mean began to take hold of the people.
The gospel portraits reflect an effort to whip up this demonizing fear that was successful enough to turn the cry of “Hosanna!” into “Crucify him!” within a few days.
A perceived possibility of the loss of privilege can easily lead to a conjured fear designed to protect one’s status.
When coupled with resources and a lack of awareness of its influence among the general populous, it can be manipulated quite effectively toward a desired result.
When conjured fear is aligned with a narrative that supports a particular agenda, people can be encouraged to act against their own better interests, whether in purchasing products, embracing philosophies and lifestyles, or supporting leadership and policies.
Fringe religious groups, perhaps even non-fringe groups at times, have known and employed this strategy for generations.
Cliques and gangs know and use its influence. Larger societies can be vulnerable to it as well.
The election is over, and “Team Fear” had a good season. Watch for this “team” to be diligent in the off-season – if there ever really is an “off season” in electoral politics – on issues like immigration, the environment, health care and economic justice.
The team sponsors will guard their privilege carefully, and they will underwrite generously the development of new strategies in closed practice sessions to assure success in the next season.
Like the national anthem at the beginning of the game, the “players” will proclaim the message of “Peace on earth, good will to all” and then get on with the contest, whose purpose is to win and preserve rankings (and sponsorships).
The reality and power of fear presents people of faith and hope with a crucial choice: To chart a course on the basis of what some voice says should be feared or to choose the path of personal and collective love that “casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).