The politics of fear afflicts our culture and infects our congregations.
Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics speaks today to Tennessee educators about politics of fear. (CBF/Mark Sandlin)
"We have become a nation consumed by fear, worried about terrorists and rogue nations, Muslims and Mexicans, foreign companies and free trade, immigrants and international organizations," wrote Fareed Zakaria in this week's Newsweek magazine cover story.
"The strongest nation in the history of the world, we see ourselves besieged and overwhelmed," he wrote, noting that "the Bush administration has contributed mightily to this state of affairs."
"The politics of fear" threatens human rights, according to Amnesty International's 2007 human rights report released last week.
"Fear can be a positive imperative for change, as in the case of the environment, where alarm about global warming is forcing politicians belatedly into action," wrote Irene Khan, general secretary of Amnesty International. "But fear can also be dangerous and divisive when it breeds intolerance, threatens diversity and justifies the erosion of human rights."
Khan, a Muslim believer, said: "Fear thrives on myopic and cowardly leadership. There are indeed many real causes of fear, but the approach being taken by many world leaders is short-sighted, promulgating policies and strategies that erode the rule of law and human rights, increase inequalities, feed racism and xenophobia, divide and damage communities, and sow the seeds for violence and more conflict."
"The Politics of Fear" is the title of the first chapter in Al Gore's new book, The Assault on Reason.
"Fear is the most powerful enemy of reason," wrote former vice president. "Leadership means inspiring us to manage through our fears. Demagoguery means exploiting our fears for political gain."
Exploring the relationship between reason and faith, Gore warned: "Fear…can disrupt the easy balance between reason and faith--especially irrational fear of a kind less readily dispelled by reason. When fear crowds out reason, many people feel a greater need for the comforting certainly of absolute faith. And they become more vulnerable to the appeals of secular leaders who profess absolute certainty in simplistic explanations portraying all problems as manifestations of the struggle between good and evil."
He rightly turned in the next paragraph to religious fundamentalism and correctly noted that President Bush used fear, religious symbols and simplicity to convince the nation to go to war in Iraq.
Gore, a Baptist, wrote, "Fear displaces reason, reason challenges faith, faith overcomes fear."
Indeed, the rightful role of faith in politics may be to overcome fear--fear of immigrants, fear of gays, fear of the homeless and poor, fear of science, fear of Islam, fear of change, fear of fairness, fear of sacrifice, fear of the unknown and the known.
When I address today a statewide meeting of the Tennessee Education Association, I will talk about two of the fears behind the anti-public school fever within Christianity: xenophobia and fear of the loss of a so-called Christian worldview.
Fear is real, negative and highly infectious. It's harming our culture and our congregations.
Later this summer, the Baptist Center for Ethics will release its documentary-style DVD on faith and politics.
When we started the project some seven months ago, we pursued the core question: What is the rightful role of faith in politics? We did not anticipate the emergence of a powerful theme.
Interviewing centrist to progressive Christians, we expected commentary on the separation of church and state, advocacy of the prophetic voice, preservation of a pulpit free from partisan endorsement, criticism of the Christian Right's endorsement of candidates through voter guides and church rallies, calls for civility and complaints about the lack of public discernment when clergy claim that God is the side of their political persuasion.
We did not know that in video interviews and conversations with clergy and politicians of faith that such a consensus would emerge about the necessity for faith leaders to confront fear.
Interviewees repeatedly said that the rightful role of faith in politics is to confront fear.
"For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind," wrote Paul (2 Tim.1:7).
In his Cotton Patch Version of Timothy, Baptist prophet Clarence Jordan translated the passage: "For God has not given us the heart of a coward but of a strong man filled with love and self-discipline."
If God didn't give us a "spirit of fear," or "the heart of a coward," then why are Christians so afraid and Christian clergy so timid?
Overcoming the politics of fear in our culture and congregations will demand faithful leaders with courage, clergy with strong hearts and laity with moral audacity.
People of faith with sturdy hearts and sound minds may provide our society with the much needed immunization to the fever of fear.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.