Religion, the Election and the Politics of Fear

The pundits are already at it. The re-election to the presidency of a man universally despised by those who do not live here, and by many who do, is the result of moral values. The majority of Americans resonate with President Bush,s particular moral sensibility. That is why he will be with us for another four years.

One might be tempted to ponder the ironies of this particular moral sensibility, a sensibility that has more to do with exclusion than inclusion, with violence than with empathy, more to do with domination than cooperation. However, we should leave this temptation aside. There is something important to be grappled with here. We will never grasp what happened on Tuesday until we understand the character of this moral sensibility.

The fundamentalists and evangelicals who came out in such great numbers this election are driven, and have always been driven, by fear. As a philosopher, I take pride in noting that it was Nietzsche who analyzed this fear most trenchantly. The religious orientation of these people is characterized by a constant fear of the Other that is perpetually seeking to infiltrate, seduce, and ultimately destroy the minds and lives of good Christians. The Other is, of course, Satan. In our world, that Other takes many forms, homosexuality and feminism perhaps chief among them.

Until 9/11.

On that day a new form of the Other was introduced, one that does not displace the other Others, but stands above and reinforces them. For many of us, the term for that Other is terrorism, but evangelicals and fundamentalists know who the real Other behind terrorism is.

Terrorism is not a shock to evangelical consciousness. It is woven seamlessly into it.

Karl Rove and those who produce the image of the President understand this, better than us left-leaning types. We tend to live in small liberal enclaves in urban areas. That is not where most of America lives. While we fought for peace and justice, the President,s handlers were busy harnessing terrorism to the vision of a decadent America, an America too tolerant of the Other. Note, among other shifts, how the term liberalism has migrated from being a insult that has primarily to do with spending to becoming one that has more to do with being soft on the Other.

Those who argue about whether it is terrorism or gay marriage that sunk the Kerry campaign miss the point. They are two aspects of the same consciousness. And they are at the heart of the Bush administration,s politics of fear.

As many have pointed out, the appeal to fear dominates the Bush presidency. From capriciously raised and lowered terror alerts to invasions of individual privacy to the suppression of dissent to the stoking of racism against Arabs and Muslims, the administration,s strategy for consent is driven by periodic infusions of fear. What has been missed, however, is how cleanly that appeal fits into the religious framework of the population that has just put him in office a second time.

Not everyone in the United States who has been harnessed by this fear is an evangelical or a fundamentalist. Far from it. However, the appeal to fear, in its convergence with the deepest motivations of many Americans, has helped to create an unmistakable atmosphere of anxiety. Foreigners are often puzzled by this, as well they should be. What I am describing here is a peculiarly American phenomenon.

Since 9/11 the politics of fear has become the point of intersection between the political/corporate elites who run this country and the religious elites and their flock who offer them the mandate to do so. It has been the great strength of the Bush administration. As such, it is also its great weakness.

While those driven by a religious zealotry against the Other are nourished by fear, most Americans are debilitated by it. They are weary of the anxiety they are asked daily to sustain. A politics that counters fear with something other than fear would, if not immediately then certainly soon, be embraced by many Americans who were frightened into offering the President his renewed “mandate”. What is that other something?

It is hope.

What the left must articulate now is what it is least able to find in itself at this moment: hope for a better future. The Kerry campaigned discovered hope, but it did so late in the campaign and, because of the constraints of mainstream politics, could never use it to shake loose of the politics of fear. In the wake of the election, liberals and leftists are no longer so constrained.

The content of that hope is more than can be provided here. But hope is more than a set of principles or outcomes. It is an orientation toward the future. Hope opens the very future that fear closes off. Americans can be motivated by hope as easily, perhaps more easily, than by fear. In fact, in American ideology, hope lies deeper than fear. Hope had to be driven out of us by people with other concerns.

We have been trained in fear for the past several years. But most of us would rather live otherwise. Let it be the left, then, that recovers the America of hope and places it before our eyes. After all, we were only a couple of percentage points away from replacing one of the most onerous and tyrannical of recent U.S. governments with something that, while not what we would choose in an ideal world, would certainly have changed the world we actually live in for the better.

And that alone should be reason for hope.

TODD MAY is a Professor of Philosophy at Clemson University. He can be reached at: