Fear and Evangelical Politics

Photo Courtesy of SESpider

By Phillip Hanson

Published October 1st, 2020

            There is much to fear in our world today. Life in the United States seems to increasingly give us more reasons to fear. This year has been marked by uncertainty, violence, unrest, injustice, unease, and chaos. One natural human reaction to these stimuli is fear. Fear has inhabited the hearts of many. Its uncomfortable visage torments and haunts. So we search for a way out, an escape. How can we mitigate this fear? How can we ease our discomfort? How can we stop this upheaval? How can we end conflict? How can I stop being afraid? This is the crux of all our questions and the axis around which political engagement in conservative Evangelicals turns. Fear is running our lives and to fight it we must open our eyes to its movements so we might move out of fear into faithfulness.

Fear of Loss

            Remember when America was great? Remember our great history? Remember when Christian morality governed our lives? Remember the days when we truly were “one nation under God.” One Christian writer, reminiscing on America’s righteous but abandoned past, in a letter to the Washington post writes, “ours is a rich heritage passed down by men who had a deep and abiding love for God and for Jesus Christ. One has only to look at men like Franklin, Madison, Sherman, Dayton and Washington to see lives that were directed by their belief in God.”[1]

            These are the stories we have all heard about how glorious America used to be. Sociologist James Davidson Hunter calls these stories “myths,” in the sense that they are instructive and formative stories which guide our present actions. Hunter writes, “Christians and contemporary political culture is rooted in the particular way that they understand the origins of America. The American founding is the point of reference against which the present is measured.”[2] These stories all serve to give us a romanticized (and perhaps reductionistic) ideal of what once was and what is no longer. Furthermore, they offer us a path forward to reclaim that lost past, or rather, the past that has been taken.

            No longer is America this great nation. It has been taken. Hunter masterfully records this widespread feeling of the loss of Christian America,

America today is in a virtue deficit where our standards of right and wrong have become increasingly hazy. Out of this haze have arisen great problems within our society including: hostility towards organized religion, sexual exploitation, the homosexual agenda, the demise of the family, and the culture of death. Sadly, we now live in a country where children kill children, families are broken, mothers have been told that allowing an abortionist to take the life of an unborn baby is simply a matter of “choice,” and where the public expression of our nation’s religious heritage is considered a crime. These are disastrous trends for our country. If they aren’t reversed, America - this great experiment in self-government- will be in jeopardy.[3]

Sexual purity, abortion, and cultural purity, these dangers drive our political action. We are afraid that our way of life, our morals, our children, our education system are all in danger of being lost or taken by the infamous and unyielding “liberals.” So what we must do is protect what is ours and take back America for God.

            What this all turns into is this amalgam called Christian Nationalism, which I’m endeavoring to show as a cultural imagination that is based on fear. Sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry define Christian Nationalism as “a cultural framework,...a collection of traditions, symbols, narratives, value systems, and myths that idealize and then advocate for a fusion of Christianity with American civic life.”[4] This is an apt description of what I’ve been illustrating here. The myths and defining narratives are what I’ve described above: the idealized vision of Christian America and the disaster narrative of losing that America to the enemy. This is all motivated by the fear of loss.

Fear of the Other

            The second fear which motivates Christian nationalistic politics is fear of the other. We touched this briefly in my discussion of how the Christian Nationalist believes that the ideal of America and all that is good and right about this nation has been usurped and perverted by the looming left. In this story, the liberal left is the enemy, hell-bent on stealing, killing and destroying our children, families, economic systems, morals, lives and freedoms. Though I am using hyperbole to make my point, this drastic language is often precisely what you hear from many Christian Nationalists. The left is completely villainized. And this happens out of fear of what they might do to the life that I have and the life that should exist in America.

            Religious persecution becomes figural in this narrative of fear. We, the enlightened and righteous ones, are under vicious attack from the enemy, the left. They seek to take our liberties and freedoms. We are unjustly persecuted by them. We are suffering under their unfair agendas which are specifically targeted to destroy our ways of life and take away our inalienable rights. In this story there is no seeking to understand another, or perhaps extending grace to “outsiders,” that perhaps their intent is not malicious. Perhaps they, like some conservative thinkers, are trying to create a society of liberty, equality and justice. But no. These “liberals'' must be evil and corrupt through and through, systematic and painstakingly coordinated in all their attacks on religion, morality, education, economy and life. In some extreme narratives, the left and other supposed “anti-Christian” institutions are said to be possessed or influenced by demons. A Christian author and writer for Religion News Service writes, “Novels such as Frank Piretti’s This Present Darkness, pitted a small group of God fearing folk at war with demon possessed academics and newspaper editors, police chiefs and executives running multi-national corporations.”[5] Of course this is just a novel, but it influenced the cultural imaginations of millions creating the culture that we see today.

Fear and Action

            This narrative of persecution, enmity and war, handed to us by politicians, political operatives, media, novelists and average Christians, has primed us to militarize ourselves against “the others,” and entrench us deeper into our cultural narratives. And what is the outcome? All manner of exclusion, enmity, violence, conflict, disunity and hostility. Our fears have driven us to dire consequences. Whitehead and Perry commented, “What Christian nationalists are very keen to do is to assume that there are going to be violent people in the world. They are going to be ‘bad guys’ with evil intentions. And the solution isn’t to turn the other cheek. The solution is to counter that ‘bad guy’ violence with what I call ‘righteous violence,’ ‘good guy’ violence: military, police violence, corporal punishment, authoritarian approach to social control.”[6] Authoritarian violence goes hand in hand with Christian Nationalism. It seems that our perceived solution to the “secular-liberal takeover” is to gain power and use it to combat the violence of the takeover. “What we find over and over in our work and different studies is that Christian Nationalism wants to align what it sees as good for the country with positions of power to be able to enforce those things...And so as it gained access to [power] it didn’t want to lose access to it. So it will support authoritarian measures.”[7]

            Power, violence, and villainization. Unfortunately, this is what marks Christin interaction in the political sphere. Those who are supposedly known by their love are in reality known by their belligerence, intolerance, support of violence, and quest for political power. Our faith has been used to entrench us in political tribes and secure our vote one way or another. Our morality is no longer a tool we use to promote and manifest the abundant life of Christ, it is an identity marker to know who’s in and who’s out, to know who to embrace, who to exclude and who to violently oppose. Miroslav Volf laments, “Faith that is so life giving has been hijacked so that it can’t speak in its own voice, so that it is always refracted in ways that domesticate it, that pull it into a herd mentality. This instrumentalization of faith is what troubles me.”[8] Is this what it means to be a Christian today? Is this Christ in us? Certainly not! Though this article is primarily descriptive in purpose, I will offer some preliminary thoughts on a way forward. What does it look like to be a faithful Christian in today’s political climate?

            For this question I only have two things to offer, (1) hopeful curiosity and (2) faithful presence. How can we mitigate fear? Hopeful curiosity, I believe, is a way forward. This curiosity is a bright one. It is not morbid. This is not an expectation of disappointment, betrayal, or attack. We become more entrenched in our own camps when we interact with the “other side,” expecting to have our presuppositions confirmed and see that we were “right all along.” In this situation we almost always find what we expect. However, hopeful curiosity opens us up to the possibility of being surprised. It opens us to see the humanity of the other. Which in turn might lead to civility and love for the “enemy.”

            The second, faithful presence. This term comes from James Davidson Hunter’s Book To Change the World, which deals with Christian action in the political realm. One thing that Hunter points to in his book is that, “politics is the tactic of choice for many Christians as they think about changing the world...the dominant public witness of the Christian churches in America since the early 1980s has been political witness.”[9] What I would simply offer and what Hunter offers is that there is more required. Being a Christian means more than voting and supporting certain “Christian issues.” God wants more than your vote. David French says, “People would be surprised to know - growing up in an American Evangelical church - that you didn’t get training in, 'how does a Christin interact as a political being' ...The instruction was basically about issues: A Christian in the body politic is concerned with these issues. I didn’t hear about the character we bring into that space.”[10]

            Within the political realm we should do more than just vote. God wants more than your vote. He’s concerned also with your personal witness and the character you bring to your interactions. The Christian love ethic is more than how one votes or the political issues one champions. Don’t leave your faith at the feet of the issues or inside the ballot box. God is changing the world and He’s doing it through love. Love, not voting, political power, or violence is what changes the world. This is the faithful presence of God in us. So let it mark us in all areas of life, that we may dispense with fear and walk in faithfulness and love for the salvation of our souls and for the transformation of the world.

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Footnotes:

            [1] Peter McManus, "Letter to the Editor," Washington Post, 27 January 1996.

            [2] James Davidson Hunter, To Change the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 112.

            [3] From American Values, www.americanvalues.org (Accessed on 17 July 2006) quoted in James Davidson Hunter, To Change the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 115.

            [4] Miroslav Volf, "Interview with Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, "For the Life of the World, (Podcast Audio, July 4, 2020), https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/taking-america-back-for-god-miroslav-volf-w-andrew/id1505076294?i=1000482568439

            [5] Quoted in Dan Koch, "Interview with Jon Ward," You Have Permission, (Podcast Audio, July 20, 2020), https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/you-have-permission/id1448000113?i=1000485496145.

            [6] Miroslav Volf, "Interview with Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry," For the Life of the World (Podcast Audio, August 8, 2020), https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/violence-fascism-christian-nationalism-miroslav-volf/id1505076294?i=1000487545085.

            [7] Ibid.

            [8] Ibid.

            [9] James Davidson Hunter, To Change the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 12.

            [10] Miroslav Volf, "Interview with David French," For the Life of the World (Podcast Audio, July 25, 2020), https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/public-faith-across-divide-david-french-miroslav-volf/id1505076294?i=1000486117427.

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