The march toward the 2012 presidential election inevitably brings a heightened level of political discourse. The campaign season is marked by advertisements and speeches larded with language so parsed and focus group-tested that it can be difficult to wade through the political hedging to get to any real meaning. The American populace is left woefully removed from the messages of its political leaders and inspires an all-too common reaction across the partisan landscape: fear.
Perhaps no other adjective better captures the American political climate than fearful. The past decade has witnessed a spike in fear-driven politics, at least accusations of such. The coming election appears no different.
For the past four years and dating back to the Bush-43 Administration, Democrats’ chief charge against Republicans has focused on the GOP’s alleged fear-mongering. With varying degrees of legitimacy, the Left leveled claims of terror-infused politicking against its conservative opposition. Those accusations gained mainstream traction and successfully steered Barack Obama’s vehicle of Hope and Change to the Oval Office.
The 2010 midterm elections saw the introduction of the Tea Party to the political arena. As the Tea Party progressed in influence and success, so did the Left’s charges of fear trafficking.
The 2012 edition presents a stark contrast from the elections of 2008 and 2010. This time around, Republicans are promising change while Obama’s reelection bid is adopting a tune of trepidation. Ross Douthat and Maureen Dowd each have taken to the pages of the New York Times to note the devolution of Obama’s campaign strategies from inspirational to reactionary and fear-driven. Following the strategies of their political adversaries, the Right has responded accordingly: At the beginning of the month, American Crossroads put together a video montage juxtaposing Obama’s 2008 message of hope and change to a 2012 revised version of “fear and loathing.”
Political disillusionment and angst is widespread and bipartisan. Certainly, the coming election carries weighty implications for the future of the country. A due amount of anxiety is allowed, but how has fear become the preeminent tone of today’s political discourse? And how, exactly, is the electorate to react?
The answer begins with the recognition that the paranoia problem isn’t partisan. Neither Republicans nor Democrats, nor conservative or liberal ideologies, have a monopoly on a fear. Today’s political conversations are just as likely to include calumnies from the Left about a supposed Republican “war on women” as conservative warnings of a communist economic overhaul. Deeming one party the “party of fear” is its own form of propaganda.
Any solely political examination of fear is incomplete because this emotion is the subject of such a vast theological history. Old Testament writers consistently identify fear as the proper response to God. Psalm 111:10 and Proverbs 9:10 state plainly, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Qoheleth, the speaker in Ecclesiastes, concludes that man’s final duty is to “Fear God and keep his commandments” (Eccl. 12:13).
Of course, the Old Testament brand of fear is something entirely different from the type espoused in political advertisements. The Catholic Encyclopedia not only differentiates between grave fear (metus gravis) and petty worry (fetus levis), it makes a third distinction: metus reverensalis, a variety of fear that stresses reverence, respect and trust. This is the sort of fear promoted in the Old Testament. It’s what John Calvin meant when he wrote, “Without the fear of God, men do not even observe justice and charity among themselves.”
Like the Founding Fathers, Calvin recognized the dignity of the individual. It stems from humanity’s created nature in the image of God. This imago Dei recognition is what’s absent when fearful reverence in political banter is reduced to fear-mongering.
So perhaps what today’s political landscape needs is not a prohibition on fear, but a reclaimed sense of fear—more metus reverensalis than fetus levis. This is the fear that’s found in America’s cultural DNA. It’s present, not over the airwaves or behind a bully pulpit, but in the country’s Judeo-Christian backbone. Only when that reverential sense of fear is restored to our nation’s politics can we experience a society marked by justice and charity.