Christians should appeal to the disillusioned and fearful on left and right, showing them that no presidents can fix our collective problems.
It’s been a depressing couple weeks for conservative voters. Especially Christian ones.
But any chagrin or despair we feel over this messy, scandalous, objectionable election should not be coupled with shock or surprise. These candidates were not born overnight. Neither was the system that birthed them. Our increasingly polarized and anxious citizenry has sought comfort in all the wrong places. Donald Trump promises an end to fear—fear of the crushing economic possibilities of globalization, fear of illegal immigration run amok, fear of the “other” and the unknown in all its various forms.
Hillary Clinton promises an end to discomfort: the discomforts and pains of poverty, of disenfranchisement and alienation, of racism and entitlement, of unwanted pregnancies and financial woes. Our politics as a whole promises fulfillment—the satiation of our political and social desires, the assuaging of our discomforts and woes.
Politicians and the media have promised us an end to fear, but only by making us fear those we disagree with.
How Our Politicians Foment Fear
Donald Trump’s speech last Thursday made this abundantly clear. “There is nothing the political establishment will not do — no lie that they won’t tell, to hold their prestige and power at your expense,” he told supporters. He continued,
For those who control the levers of power in Washington, and for the global special interests, they partner with these people that don’t have your good in mind. Our campaign represents a true existential threat like they haven’t seen before. This is not simply another four-year election. This is a crossroads in the history of our civilization that will determine whether or not we the people reclaim control over our government.
… Let’s be clear on one thing, the corporate media in our country is no longer involved in journalism. They’re a political special interest no different than any lobbyist or other financial entity with a total political agenda, and the agenda is not for you, it’s for themselves.
And their agenda is to elect crooked Hillary Clinton at any cost, at any price, no matter how many lives they destroy. For them it’s a war, and for them nothing at all is out of bounds. … They will attack you, they will slander you, they will seek to destroy your career and your family, they will seek to destroy everything about you, including your reputation. They will lie, lie, lie, and then again they will do worse than that, they will do whatever is necessary.
Of course, Trump is not entirely wrong: the media do dislike him. The Center for Public Integrity found that 96 percent of the press corps prefer Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump. The media’s fixation on Trump, especially over the last couple weeks, have largely been a vitriolic and disdainful fixation.
But Trump has not left them wanting for fodder. His campaign comments have been foolish at best, racist and assault-minded at worst. In this particular speech, the one he spent fomenting fear and rage, he was supposed to be responding to allegations of sexual assault and misogyny. Thankfully, “crooked Hillary” and the slanderous media served as welcome distractions from such topics.
If you listened to the celebrities and other speakers heaping praise on Hillary during the Democratic National Convention, you may have heard similar rhetoric and fear-mongering—just skewed in a different direction. Speakers castigated Republicans as anti-woman, anti-minority, anti-LGBT. They took every controversial and condemnatory comment Trump ever made, and used it to their advantage.
How to Combat Disempowerment and Anxiety?
We Christians should have noted all of this, and known that there could be no happy ending—at least not on the national stage. Many did, and have tried to assure the world that they had no idealistic visions associated with the GOP or its candidate. We’ve been stuck between a rock and a hard place: trying to espouse values that both left and right seem to have abandoned them wholeheartedly.
But a nagging thought has persisted in the back of my mind, asking me, “What if people are looking at this election all wrong? What if we’re missing the point?”
Americans are frustrated. Our working class feels cut off and disconnected from the powers that be. They feel disempowered and disenfranchised. As Andrew Sullivan wrote for New York Magazine earlier this year, “The once-familiar avenues for socialization — the church, the union hall, the VFW — have become less vibrant and social isolation more common. Global economic forces have pummeled blue-collar workers more relentlessly than almost any other segment of society.”
To these folks, Trump has promised change and hope. He’s promised an economic environment in which folks could prosper again—in which their children could come out on top. He has promised relief from government overreach and abuse. He has relieved their fears of voicelessness.
Some religious Americans have supported Trump out of fear for their religious liberty. They’ve seen a swath of political changes unfold over the course of the Obama administration—changes in the definition of marriage, most notorious among them—and they began to fear that their religious freedoms would crumble under progressive pressure. They sought out a leader who would, in the words of Federalist author Eric Sammons, enforce their ideological “checklist.” And Trump promised to do just that.
Meanwhile, the Black Lives Matter movement has drawn attention to the illegitimate use of violence in the workings of our police forces, highlighting the pain and bitterness resulting from that violence. This issue has only grown more painful and contentious over the past two years, unleashing a wave of protest among American citizens who feel voiceless and alone. Hillary Clinton has addressed these fears, banding together with advocates who see only injustice and racism in police shootings over the course of the year. Whether just or no, Clinton recognized that these fears were real and potent. And she promised her constituents that she would address them.
And then there were the college students and millennials voting who supported Bernie Sanders—crippled by student loans, frightened by terrible job prospects, drowning in a sea of doubt and financial fear. He promised change: free college, a pathway out of debt, a correction to supposed and real injustices in our economic environment. He saw their fears, their economic and financial isolation, and addressed them.
The President Cannot Save Us
Voices of fear have eclipsed this election. No candidate, be they orange-haired, pant-suited, or spectacled, has been able to avoid the language of fear. This is how politicians succeed: they pinpoint the most visceral anxieties of the populace, and capitalize on them. They cater their platforms to the apprehensions of the people.
But in doing so, particularly this election, politicians sell us a false gospel. They paint over the actual import and meaning of the executive branch—its meaning and purpose—with a facade of comfort and joy. They tell us that, if only we elect the right candidate (the most virtuous, powerful, successful, empathetic), all our problems will be solved. All our fears will dissipate. All our problems will fade away.
But that’s not really how politics work. That’s now how the executive branch is supposed to work. No politician is supposed to have messianic powers. The more we see our president as a sort of economic or societal savior, the more power we invest in him—and the more likely we are to see a corrupt, power-swollen leader rise to the presidency.
Balance of powers? The importance of federalism and limited government? Unfortunately, all these traditional American principles have faded in importance. Instead, we seek a king.
Fear Is Inevitable—But What We Fear Matters
In his excellent essay “The Rarity of the God-Fearing Man,” Russell Kirk suggested that our post-Christian society would struggle deeply with fear, because it has forgotten what proper fear looks like. “Meek before Jehovah, Moses had no fear of Pharaoh,” he wrote. But if you take God out of the picture—or turn him into a sort of cosmic teddy bear—then you will fear a host of lesser things. As Kirk put it, the post-Christian man is “contemptuous of God but fearful of everything else”:
Beside the terror of God’s judgment, the atrocities of the totalist tyrant are pinpricks. A God-intoxicated man, knowing that divine love and divine wrath are but different aspects of a unity, is sustained against the worst this world can do to him; while the good-natured unambitious man, lacking religion, fearing no ultimate judgment, denying that he is made for eternity, has in him no iron to maintain order and justice and freedom.
Mere enlightened self-interest will submit to any strong evil. In one aspect or another, fear insists upon forcing itself into our lives. If the fear of God is obscured, then obsessive fear of suffering, poverty, and sickness will come to the front; or if a well-cushioned state keeps most of these worries at bay, then the tormenting neuroses of modern man, under the labels of ‘insecurity’ and ‘anxiety’ and ‘constitutional inferiority,’ will be the dominant mode of fear.
In our country today, 40 million adults suffer from an anxiety disorder, and 80 percent report experiencing daily stress. We battle a myriad of fears—but how many of us would say we have experienced “the fear of God”?
Politics Is Downstream From Culture and Faith
I believe that the president we put in the White House will have crucial consequences for our policies toward refugees, immigrants, Christian believers, minorities, and the unborn.
We should fear a witness that is not vibrant, winsome, or appealing to a struggling and hurting world.
But conservatism (and common sense) suggests that politics is downstream from culture. Abortion clinics are not open just because Planned Parenthood gets federal funding—they are open because there is demand for them. Same-sex marriage is not legal just because SCOTUS deemed that it should be so—it’s legal because a large portion of Americans clamored and campaigned for it.
Christianity suggests that culture is downstream from faith. What we believe and desire in our innermost beings affects our everyday actions. We become what we desire. We are what we love (to borrow a phrase from James K.A. Smith). And we vote according to our fear.
Many Christians, unfortunately, have signaled during this election that they fear Hillary Clinton more than anything else. “But Hillary” is the punchline to every anti-Trump argument, the excuse for every condemnatory statement or proposal. What does this communicate about our fears? We should not fear a Clinton presidency. We should fear a faith that is weak. We should fear a witness that is not vibrant, winsome, or appealing to a struggling and hurting world.
What We Really Need Post-November
If there is one thing the Trump’s 2005 tape and Wikileaks’ email revelations have revealed, it is that there is no good scenario in November. Whether we have a President Trump or Clinton (or, by some miracle, a third-party candidate) most voters will be upset, disillusioned, and embittered.
Plenty of online ink has been spilled arguing for or against Trump, Clinton, Gary Johnson, and Evan McMullin (among others). We do not need another article to add to the profusion.
An empowered, inspired, and hopeful people will not need a messianic president.
What we have not talked about enough—what we must talk about going forward—is how to address the hurts and fears of Americans outside the realm of presidential politics. How do we empower and serve them apart from the workings of the executive branch? The promises of a presidential candidate, one can be certain, will not result in an overflow of prosperity and peace. Presidents face a myriad of limitations, beyond their own character and the surety of their word. But regardless of the reasons, Trump will not save you. Neither will Hillary Clinton, or Gary Johnson, or Evan McMullin.
Our ability to assuage fear and anxiety at the grassroots level influences the electorate’s decisions at the national level. An empowered, inspired, and hopeful people will not need a messianic president. But if we ignore the needs and fears of those around us, fear will grow like a gruesome monster. And we’ll end up with an election like this one.
I wrote about this for The Week back in May, as the GOP began to realize that Trump would, indeed, be the party’s nominee. Many responded to his nomination with anger and denial. But I believed then (and still do) that their deep grievance displayed an unhealthy fixation on the executive branch, as the sole arbiter of our country’s wellbeing:
The deleterious idea that what happens in Washington matters more than anything happening in the rest of the country is the root of our problem.
French political scientist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville believed America’s highly unique government worked because its citizens were active in the political sphere. They voted and attended town meetings, involved themselves in private associations, and went to church. But all these things have faded in popularity as our news and politics have become more centralized. Many of us don’t take the time to talk to our neighbors, let alone go to a town hall meeting. And when no one shows concern for the local sphere, it’s easy to feel unimportant and helpless, which results either in apathy or bitter anger — both of which we’re seeing in this election cycle.
Our negligence of vital private associations—from the church to the Rotary Club, the chamber of commerce to the local homeless shelter—has resulted in a breakdown in neighborhoods and communities, a sense of fragmentation and isolation. (Yuval Levin makes some excellent points on this topic in his book The Fractured Republic.) Because there are no vibrant local leaders or empowering outlets at the disposal of the average voter, people have grown angry, embittered, anxious. And they look to leaders like Trump to fix their problems.
As Ross Douthat put it for the New York Times, Trump supporters “all imagine that the solution to our problems lies with a more effective and still-more-empowered president, free from antique constitutional limits and graced with a mandate that transcends partisanship.”
Of course, the man or woman we choose to be commander in chief is absolutely important. But this election, we keep pretending that the only decision that matters is the one we make with our ballots on November 8. We’ve denigrated the political and societal import of decisions we make the other 364 days of the year, for the four years surrounding that pivotal November ballot. That is an egregious mistake.
Christians Need To Embrace a Winsome Message
Sadly, the church in particular could be playing a vital role here. But it is not. This national outpouring of fear, coupled with widespread appropriation of presidential savior rhetoric, suggests a deep and gaping hole in America’s cultural and spiritual life. But instead of tending to this wound, Christian leaders are busy trying to determine which president will best serve our interests and address our checklist.
Christians must defend the unborn—but they cannot ignore the plight of the poor, the single mother, the refugee. We must appeal to the disillusioned and fearful on left and right, showing them that no president can fix our collective problems. We need to empower and encourage each other to change, to grow, to correct the course of our country without the help of a national executive.
This may sound smarmy and weak. But if politics is downstream from culture, and culture is downstream from faith, then no presidential candidate can alleviate the fears people face. Our only hope comes from a realignment of desires and loves, a reanimation and empowering of the local, communal sphere.
If Christians cannot offer that, then 2020 will be no better than 2016.