As 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.