Andy Schmookler: Trump’s ‘be afraid’ vs. the Bible’s ‘be not afraid’
The most striking thing about the excellent article I was reading was that it appeared on a site that calls itself “Virginia’s Conservative Voice.”
The point of the article was to challenge the idea, coming out of the Republican National Convention, that Americans are less safe than they were in past times.
The truth is, the article declared, “We are living in an era in which Americans are more secure than any time in the past 45 or 50 years.” The article then proceeded to flesh out that general idea with these particulars, providing charts to prove each one:
- “Violent crime is down.”
- “Crime committed by immigrants is as low as it has ever been (and it has generally been low).”
- “Terrorist incidents are lower than they were 30 or 40 years ago.”
- “Despite several recent high-profile tragedies, police officers are much safer than they used to be. Fatalities, shooting deaths, felony murders of police are way down.”
How different that reality is from the image presented at the Republican National Convention, a convention full of scary messages culminating in the acceptance speech from the Republican nominee, Donald Trump. Mr. Trump’s speech might be summarized as “Be very afraid,” and “Only I will protect you.”
Which raises the question: What does it tell us about a candidate who chooses, as his path to power, to foster fear – unnecessary fear – in his followers?
Part of the answer is given by scientists who study the human brain. They have discovered that fear – an elemental part of our emotional make-up that deals with sheer survival – reduces us to primitive forms of consciousness. In a state of fear, we become less able to think rationally or to understand things clearly. (Panic – an extreme form of fear – shows how fear can make us “blind.”) People in the grip of fear are more prone to resort to violence to protect themselves from threats.
That is why destructive leaders throughout history have used fear to make people readier to believe a false picture of the world – filled with exaggerated threats from people who are not part of “Us” – and to hand the leader great power.
(And it works. A study released this spring suggests how powerful a political asset fear is for Trump. These social scientists divided 152 people randomly into two groups. Then one group was asked to think about their own deaths, while the other half was asked to think about something else. The study found that getting people to think about their own mortality made them much more positively inclined toward Trump.)
Another part of the answer is that a candidate who stokes people’s fears is animated by a spirit opposite to the teachings of our religious tradition.
Much has been said by some in the evangelical Christian world about how Donald Trump – with his many marriages, his adulteries, his other womanizing, and with his building a career off gambling – has fallen short of Christian ideals.
But no less of a sign of Trump’s being ruled by an unchristian spirit is his use of fear. “Be not afraid” is a vital theme in the Bible, appearing numerous times. (The idea of being “God-fearing” – from the Hebrew word, “yirah” – is really a different concept, more about reverence and awe than about fearfulness.)
- “Do not fear, for I am with you” (says the Lord in Isaiah 41:10).
- “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (says Jesus in John 14:27).
- “There is no fear in love; but perfect love drives out fear” (I John, 4:18).
Being captive to fear is inconsistent with the love that is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching.
Yet here is a candidate whose stock in trade is conjuring up reasons for people to be terrified.
Then the question arises: What does it mean that a large portion of self-described American Christians – e.g. 62 percent of evangelicals – intend to vote for a candidate who works to instill unnecessary, inappropriate fear in the American people?
Andy Schmookler – who was the Democratic nominee for Congress in Virginia’s 6th District in 2012 – is the author most recently of “What We’re Up Against: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World – and How We Can Defeat It.”