I felt whiplashed by passionate but conflicting appeals for me to be afraid. I was reading the book We Will Not Be Silenced by the noted pastor emeritus of The Moody Church, Edwin Lutzer. His opening sentence is, “The secular left does not believe that America can be fixed; they say it must be destroyed.” He goes on to say that the political left “despises Christianity” and consequently, “This is not the time to surrender to the radicals.”
Lutzer then attacks socialism and claims that climate change legislation is a way to give government more control over our lives. He is for free speech and against what he considers the cancel culture of Critical Race Theory (see my 3-31-21 blog at bobfryling.com), but he also believes Critical Race Theory should be cancelled.
In a similar vein, the Florida state legislature is debating a bill that would prohibit schools from making white students “feel discomfort” in talking about past discriminations in our country such as slavery or Jim Crow laws. Humorist Alexandria Petri suggests that if the purpose of laws is to keep students from feeling discomfort, then algebra and physical education should be banned for middle school students!
Lutzer’s message is clear: Christians need to be deeply afraid of the political left or we will lose our freedom of religion and the primacy of Christian values like the sanctity of marriage in our culture. Therefore, the church needs to urgently “own the libs” and speak out against the tyranny of socialism, racial divisiveness, and any efforts to legitimize the LGBTQ+ agenda.
But on the Other Hand…
While reading Lutzer’s book, I also read Democratic congressman Adam Schiff’s book, Midnight in Washington, and watched a CNN documentary by the highly respected journalist Fareed Zakaria called “The Fight to Save American Democracy.” They too had a message of what we need to fear but with a very different perspective and narrative.
Schiff writes about the decay of political norms and ethics during the Trump administration, leading up to the insurrection of January 6 and the perpetuation of the “Big Lie” that the election was stolen from Trump. Schiff’s fear is not the ideological pronouncements from some on the left. Instead, he fears the personality cult of Trumpism that is restricting voting laws in state legislatures and politicizing the process of who gets to count and authorize votes.
In the CNN documentary, Zakaria goes back in history to look at how Hitler rose to power—not through a leftist agenda but through democratic elections in which the majority of German voters chose to follow a white nationalist autocrat who blamed the Jewish minority for their country’s economic problems. The German church was supportive in electing a racist authoritarian leader. Zakaria raises the specter that this may be happening in our country today.
A Primal Human Emotion
Lutzer, Schiff, and Zakaria all utilized the emotion of fear to magnify their opinions, knowing that fear is extremely persuasive at a primal level. It is a natural part of our human experience. Fear motivates us to drive carefully and to lock our doors at night. It is an instinctive and protective emotion. And as Jonathan Haidt writes in The Righteous Mind, our emotions largely control our decisions.
Yet fear is also a great enemy of reason. In fact, our Founding Fathers chose a representative democracy as our form of government instead of a direct democracy because they knew that the fears perpetuated by a demagogue on a general populace could overwhelm the reasoned thought of “a well-informed citizenry.”
Fear may be powerful, but it is not always right. This is especially true in our politics and raises significant questions like:
Should ideological convictions alone drive our fears, or should we fear evil wherever it manifests itself along the political spectrum?
Should we be more fearful of the scattered protests of those on the radical left or of the violent threats of hundreds of white supremacist organizations?
Should we be more afraid of those who speak about social and economic justice or those who dismiss such concerns as a trojan horse for socialism?
Should we be more afraid of pro-abortion activists or anti-vaccine activists who both declare that we should be able to control our own bodies?
Or should we have any fears at all? The psalmist David testifies that even though he walks through the shadow of death, he “will fear no evil.” Jesus taught, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28).
Whom then should we fear: the right or the left or both or no one? Is it spiritually legitimate to channel our fears into political activity or do we alleviate our fears by disengaging from political opinions because “this world is not our home”?
I don’t have a simple answer to these questions. There is no doubt that the pervasive message of God in the Bible is to “fear not” even amid fears. Mary was afraid of the angel Gabriel. The shepherds were afraid of the angels on the night of Christ’s birth. The early Christians were afraid of the Jews. Fear was not deemed to be wrong but a precursor to faith. It often came before a surrendered trust in the power and presence of God.
In addition to the message of “fear not,” though, is the biblical exhortation to “fear God.” One application of this reverence for the Almighty is that “the fear of the Lord is to hate evil” (Proverbs 8:13).
When my faith is dependent on a political party, it is easy to be fearful of the opposing party, especially if it is in power. But when my faith—and fear—is dependent on God, my calling is to hate evil, wherever it comes from. It is to pray and act for God’s Kingdom to come “on earth as it is in heaven.” This is not a passive stance but one of reasoned and faithful obedience.
In light of this calling to hate evil, what are some of the political evils we see today that we should hate?
Fear of the Evil of Lying: From the Old Testament commandment against lying to the declaration of Jesus that the devil is the father of lies, lying is a foundational sin that undermines all human relationships. Lying, disinformation, and false accusations are all too often the weapons of politicians, commentators, and social media trolls determined to hinder any reasoned and humble discussion of widely established facts.
We see this particularly in the “Big Lie” about the 2020 election and the many lies about COVID vaccinations that are dividing our country. We also see this in the rejection of truths about our country’s history. How do we combat all of these deceptions in social media that so often lead to arguments in families and churches and among those we thought were friends?
One easy answer is not to fight fire with fire. Anger and argumentation over such emotional issues of personal and political identity rarely brings agreement. But denying or avoiding the truth doesn’t enhance our understanding of the issues or of each other either. Silence distances us from each other and keeps us isolated with only those who reinforce our own predispositions. Selective online research often has the same effect!
I believe that the best answer is to follow the biblical teaching of “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). This means doing our homework by listening to historians, journalists, and commentators who have a well-vetted reputation for honesty and professional integrity. But it also means having an attitude and perspective of love and respect for others even if they don’t return the favor because “love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). Careful, respectful dialogue may not change minds quickly but it will be an example of engaging others with both truth and grace.
Fear of the Evil of Racial Injustice: Hatred and attitudes of supremacy toward anyone because of their race is worthy of our fear for them and for our country. Such evil manifests itself in white nationalism and in the acceptance of prejudice toward immigrants, hate speech toward people of color, and racial biases in voting laws and edits of history in school curriculums. May that fear motivate us in how we vote, pray, and act. (A good new book on this topic is Jemar Tisby’s How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey toward Racial Justice.)
Fear of the Evil of Violence:We can be afraid of an exploding culture of gun violence and hate crimes. Recent attacks against police, airline attendants, school board members, and public health officials all reflect a loss of civility in public behavior and discourse that is essential to a well-functioning society. Equally alarming according to a poll by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute is that 30 percent of Republicans and 11 percent of Democrats believe that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence to save our democracy.”
Violence is not only physically dangerous but it often reflects an idolatry of individualism and a complete loss of caring for one’s neighbor. We saw this in the January 6 attack on the Capitol, where Christian slogans and symbols were flying even though the insurgents’ actions reflected anything but biblical values. The call to Christians is not to attack but to love even our enemies.
Fear of the Evil of Sexual Immorality: I believe we should also have a deep fear of compromising sexual moral standards in our society, our homes, and our churches. Adultery, promiscuity, pornography, abortion on demand, and sexual deviancy destroy families, faith communities, and ultimately cultures.
Our fears, however, should not be directed at those who struggle with their sexual identity or who are living with the consequences of sexual sin but with those who flaunt the need for biblical sexual integrity and moral standards. It was said in awe of the early Christians that they shared everything except their marriage bed. May we today not only confront sexual sin but may our Christian reputation have that same witness and attractiveness of a healthy biblical sexuality.
Fear the Evil of Losing Our Democracy: This is perhaps the most complicated fear we face in politics today. Although the Church has survived and even thrived under all types of government, democracy is a wonderful ideal that not only supports freedom of religion but also gives dignity to all of its constituents. Our Constitution and our democracy are a combination of biblical principles and Enlightenment values that together recognize the beauty of humans created in the image of God along with the ugliness of human sinfulness.
Our democracy, though, is very fragile. We see this across the political spectrum. This is where it’s important to look beyond ideology to what is truly worth fearing in light of the biblical exhortation to hate evil. We can hate the efforts of Antifa to oppose democratic processes and governmental structures as well as the efforts of Donald Trump and his followers to overturn or deny the Constitutionally certified results of the 2020 election. Although democracy is not our highest allegiance, it is something worth fighting for in its legacy and potential to do good.
We may have legitimate political fears, but the overwhelming message of God to his people is to not be afraid. Even under Roman oppression, the Apostle Paul says to the Romans that “everyone should be subject to the governing authorities… because they have been established by God” (Romans 13:1). Paul’s call is for Christians to do what is right, such as paying taxes and loving your neighbor as yourself (Romans 13:6, 9).
Psalm 27 gives us insight into what it looks like to live without fear yet with a hatred of evil. In this psalm, David at first confidently proclaims that he is not afraid of his enemies because, “the Lord is my light and salvation” (verse 1). We too can be confident that the chaos, disorder, and dark places in both political parties cannot extinguish God’s purposes.
Yet, later in Psalm 27, David expresses his great need to seek the Lord and receive God’s mercy. He pleads for God not to hide his face from him or forsake him. He needs the Lord’s help to maintain a posture of faith and hope in his current circumstances. His conclusion is “to wait for the Lord, to be strong and to take heart” (verse 14).
When we wait in fear of the Lord, we can hate the evils of injustices, abuses of political power, and distortions of truth. Ultimately, as we wait, we need not fear what the world wants us to fear. We need not find ourselves swayed by shocking political commentary or fatalistic discourse. Instead, we can speak, act, and pray from a place of longing for things on earth to be as they are in heaven—to hate what God hates and to love the things he loves.
Thanks, Bob. Viewing the complexities and demands of our present social and political moment through the lens of fear is most helpful. And, like you, I think that we must return, again and again, to the ethic of neighbor love. Those who claim to follow Jesus, can’t sidestep his command. And even those who are irreligious, can see the virtue in that ethic.
Cam, thanks for your comment. It is good to hear your voice again!
Thanks, Bob. As you’ve noted fear of things on the right and on the left abound in our culture. You mention “fear of the Lord,” which of course is a different kind of fear. But if we are indeed vulnerable people, I wonder if in some sense we cannot avoid fear as much as decide which fear is worth fearing.
Mark, thanks for your comment. I think you are right. Fear is instinctual but it can be fostered, moderated or rejected. Discernment is needed.
Thank you Bob. I deeply appreciate and agree with your irenic analysis. We hope all is well with you and Alice and your family. Mary has been home for almost a year after 10 months in the Beacon Hill Health Center. We are enjoying Encounter with God Together and all that Gail Martin has brought to Scripture Union.
Sara, great to hear from you. I’m glad things are going well with SU.
Well written Bob. Thank you. fear; a natural emotion that serves a purpose. yet, when allowed to go to an unhealthy level, our coping mechanisms either tend to move us towards paralysis or a fatalistic burying our head in the sand. So, it’s important to not deny the fears, rather seek the one who is our refuge and respite in order to get a kingdom perspective. As 1 John states, perfect love casts out fear. I’m frequently reminded when I find myself fearful that I’ve got a lot of work to do in moving towards that perfect love. But from that posture I’m reminded my response must come from His love working through me that is meant for others.
Thanks, Mark for your thoughtful and personal comments