The One Community Where Fear-Mongering Shouldn't Work
Rick Barry is managing editor of The Body Politic. He has worked on campaigns for local, state and federal office, is a former writer and editor for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and currently oversees communications for the Grace DC church network in Washington, DC.
Fear is a powerful tool in political communications. If you can trigger the amygdala into a fear response and the listener doesn’t have some kind of deep, instinctive comfort in the face of that fear, it’s easy to get around a listener’s analytical filter, to get them to accept your message quickly and uncritically, and to control what action they take.
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 voters feel afraid of their political opponents.
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. My goal was to get a congressional district that hadn’t elected a Democrat in at least 20 years to, well, elect a Democrat. One of our regular volunteers, a semi-retired man in late middle age, 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. I had helped put someone in office who I genuinely thought would be able to better deal with the challenges and difficulties of working in the Congress, someone who I genuinely thought had the best interest of the widest range of his neighbors at heart. It was a worthy end, but I accomplished it by encouraging the voters to fear the powers and principalities of this world.
Political professionals want you to believe that their political opponents have the power to keep you from flourishing, to bring your country to ruin, to blot the sun from the sky. But the gospel is the good news that, no matter what, Jesus is going to make that world new.
So what can a Christian do to resist political fear-mongering? The answer isn't sexy. There's no sure-fire secret technique for keeping a cool head amid political fear-mongering. It's just the normal means of grace: Find a community of Christians who are willing to challenge you and to be challenged themselves. Make yourselves vulnerable to one another. Use that vulnerability as a series of opportunities to remind one another of that good news. Read scripture. Meditate on it. Pray a lot.
Do that, and eventually you’ll internalize God’s repeated commands to not be afraid and his repeated promise that everything is going to end in healing and restoration. Armed with the courage of the gospel, you’ll be freer to more honestly consider which politician or party's concept of government seems best to you, holds policies that seem soundest, or is spreading a message that you actually want to take root in the heart of your community.
In short, you’ll be better protected against people like me.