The Power of Fear in Politics

The other night, I went to a local candidate forum organized by the various Republican Party groups in the county where I live. It featured people running for offices from justice of the peace all the way up to U.S. senator.

Where I live in Central Texas, the Republican primary functions as the general election for local races. Even this year, in what seems to be shaping up as a big election for Democrats, the chances are minuscule that any of the small handful of Democrats running for county-level races will win any of them.

The ideological hegemony here is smothering. In November 2016, the least-supported Republican in any race on the ballot received 63 percent of the vote. Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton here by 50 points.

Meanwhile, the county sits within various districts that also are overwhelmingly Republican. In the Texas Legislature, it’s part of the 73rd House District, where no Democrats were on the ballot in 2016, and the 25th Senate District, where the incumbent, a hard-core Tea Party conservative, won re-election in 2014 with more than 76 percent of the vote. On the federal level, infamous climate-change denier Lamar Smith has represented the bulk of the county for three decades, defeating his Democratic challenger in the county by 60 points.

The point is: This is a conservative county in a conservative state. Republicans have nothing to fear here.

Which is pretty much the opposite of the message several hundred attendees heard at this forum.

Instead, they were told they should in fact be quite afraid.

They should be afraid of “Austin liberals” trying to win one of seven seats on the state’s Third District Court of Appeals, or maybe picking off one of seven seats on the state’s highest criminal appellate court – where the smallest margin of victory for a Republican candidate in the past three election cycles has been 13 points. (Even if they succeeded, it doesn’t take advanced math or polysci to see that turning a 7-0 vote into a 6-1 vote is a symbolic victory at best.)

They should be afraid of government regulations (never specified) suffocating small businesses and hampering the fossil-fuel industry. They should be afraid of moderate Republicans like outgoing House Speaker Joe Straus, whose decision not to seek re-election received one of the best rounds of applause all night. They should be afraid of losing their Second Amendment rights, of gay marriage, of undocumented immigrants – if one takes the implication of the candidates’ primary focuses.

They should be afraid of all this despite currently living in a country in which the presidency, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court and every single statewide office are held by their party.

Fear is powerful, and it is easy to weaponize.

On a local level, an incumbent prosecutor invoked the fear of murderers going free were she not re-elected. A candidate for Commissioners Court played to fears of incurring debt. A candidate for the state’s Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas, campaigned to the right of an incumbent who has all but rejected the notion of regulating the industry she is charged by law to regulate. In doing so, he joked that “we” should build a wall around Bexar County, home of San Antonio and its apparently intimidating left-leaning voters.

It bears repeating: These are not people fighting for their political lives. Their principles are essentially unchallenged in this county and, to a slightly lesser degree, in this state. They form the overwhelming majority, and will continue to do so for years to come.

Yet they are afraid.

Sitting in this room, surrounded by the politically strong acting like the politically frail, I couldn’t help but think: This is how a political party surrendered itself to the dark side. This is how the party of conservative values gave the keys to an authoritarian with no knowledge or convictions about conservative policy. This is how the party of family values came to defend a man who brags about his sexual assaults and pays off porn stars. This is how the party of religious freedom and Christian faith – one that opened and closed the event tonight with lengthy Christ-centered prayers – sold its soul to the racist, sexist, xenophobic, narcissistic spirit of antichrist.

Because they were afraid.

They were afraid that their position of privilege was slipping away. Despite the frequent and eloquent descriptions of his own Christian faith, Barack Obama was mistrusted by conservative Christians because his faith led him to support robust protections for LGBT people, led him to support easier access to contraception, led him to support expanded access to health insurance for those who couldn’t otherwise afford it.

And, sure, perhaps some of those proposals did legitimately raise concern about religious freedom for Catholic groups opposing birth control or conservative groups opposing gay marriage. Those questions can be – and have been – litigated. But those concerns don’t explain why 43 percent of Republicans as recently as 2015 said they believed Obama was Muslim (as opposed to atheist or agnostic). Nor why in a field of more than a dozen candidates promising to roll back those policies objectionable to conservative Christians, Republicans chose the one who made his political career by questioning the first black president’s place of birth.

Fear of “the other” is a real thing, and rulers have long used it to maintain power, especially when they feel it starting to slip away.

But Christians should be among the last people to be susceptible to such campaigns. A quick search brings up 81 examples in the Bible of the phrase, “Do not be afraid.”

  • When forming a covenant with Yahweh, to Abram: “Do not be afraid.”
  • When lost in the desert and believing she and her child were about to die, to Hagar: “Do not be afraid.”
  • When contemplating whether to make the journey to see his long-lost beloved son, to Jacob: “Do not be afraid.”
  • When the presence of God settled on Mount Sinai with thunder and lightning, to the Israelites: “Do not be afraid.”
  • When confronting the inhabitants of the land God had established for them, to the Israelites again: “Do not be afraid.”
  • When entering the land promised by God for the first time, to Joshua: “Do not be afraid.”
  • When the people realize they have angered God by asking for a king, “Do not be afraid.”
  • When faced with enemies from Babylon, from Philistia, from any number of surrounding nations, to kings and peasants alike, over and over: “Do not be afraid.”
  • In the Psalms: “Yahweh is with me; I will not be afraid; what can mere mortals do to me?” (118:6)
  • In the Proverbs: “Have no fear of sudden disaster … for Yahweh will be at your side.”
  • When summoned to speak unpopular words to powerful officials, to Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Daniel: “Do not be afraid.”
  • When facing social stigma for accepting his pregnant fiancee, to Joseph: “Do not be afraid.”
  • When confronting angels with disturbing news of unnatural pregnancies, to Zechariah and Mary: “Do not be afraid.”
  • When facing the confounding mystery of the empty tomb, to Jesus’ female disciples: “Do not be afraid.”
  • When teaching his disciples, from Jesus: “Peace I leave you; my peace I give to you. … Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
  • When experiencing persecution for refusing to be silent about the message of Jesus, to Paul: “Do not be afraid.”
  • When facing the risen Christ enthroned in glory, to John: “Do not be afraid.”
  • When experiencing torture and death for their faith, to the suffering church of Revelation: “Do not be afraid.”

Despite these many admonitions, no doubt many Christians were afraid when a plague tore through the Roman Empire in the 250s CE. Now known as the Plague of Cyprian, named for the bishop whose records have preserved its memory, Roman officials tried to blame its spread on the followers of Jesus and used it as an excuse to round up and execute them. Notwithstanding the risk of death from both illness and persecution, Christians stood their ground and cared for the sick. Their courage helped speed the spread of Christianity in the empire.

Today, in the American Empire, we are falling victim to our own plague – but this time the disease is fear itself. We are seeing in real time what happens when the infection of fear becomes resistant to the antibiotics of faith, hope and love.

Those of us watching in horror – and perhaps a little fear of our own – at what is happening in the political world must be wary; we are not immune either, and more than ever our world needs courageous representatives of Jesus to stand fast, care for the sick and be ready to light the way back home.

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