Michael Gerson on Fear, Hope, and Advent

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In Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump I wrote:

Fear has been a staple of American politics since the founding of the republic.  In 1800, the Connecticut Courtant, a Federalist newspaper that supported President John Adams in his reelection campaign against Thomas Jefferson, suggested that, if the Electoral College chose Jefferson, the founding father and religious skeptic from Virginia, the country would have to deal with a wave of murder, atheism, rape, adultery, and robbery.  In the 1850s, the anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant American Party, commonly known as the “Know-Nothing Party,” was infamous for its American-flag banner emblazoned with the words “Native Americans: Beware of Foreign Influence.”

In modern America, campaign ads keep us in a constant state of fear–and not always from right-wing sources either.  I still get a shiver up my spine when I watch “Daisy Girl,” the 1964 Lyndon Johnson campaign advertisement that opens with a little girl standing in a quiet meadow picking the petals off a daisy.  Midway through the ad, an ominous countdown begins, and the camera zooms into the girl’s eye, where we the viewers see the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion.  As the ad closes, we hear the voices of sportscaster Chris Schenkel reading the following words on the screen: “Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd…The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”  This ad played an important role in Johnson’s landslide victory over his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, the conservative Arizona senator who made reckless statements about the use of nuclear weapons.  Fear is a powerful political tool.

Political fear is so dangerous because it usually stems from legitimate concerns shared by a significant portion of the voting population.  Thomas Jefferson did question many supernatural elements in the Bible.  Barry Goldwater did support the use of atomic weapons in Vietnam.  Today the growing number of Muslims living in the United States does raise important questions about how religious identity intersects with American values, or how we should defend the religious liberty of the millions of peaceful Muslims while still protecting Americans fro, the threat of murderous Islamic terror groups.  The United States States does have a problem with undocumented immigrants entering the country illegally.  And it is clear that television and social media make it easier for politicians to define our fears for us.  They take these legitimate concerns, as political theorist Corey Robin puts it, and transform them “into imminent threats.” 

And here is what I wrote in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump about hope:

Can evangelicals recover [a] confidence in God’s power–not just in his wrath against their enemies but in his ability ability to work our his purposes for good?  Can they recover this hope? The historian Christopher Lasch once wrote this: “Hope does  not demand a belief in progress. It demands a belief in justice: a conviction that the wicked will suffer, that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things is not flouted with impunity.  Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to most who lack it.”  I saw this kind of hope in every place we visited on our [history of the Civil Rights bus tour].  It was not mere optimism that things would get better if only we could elect the right candidates.  Rather, it was a view of the world, together with an understanding of the world to come, forged amid suffering and pain.  Not everyone would make it to the mountaintop on this side of eternity, but God’s purposes would be worked out, and eventually they would be able to understand those purposes–if not in this life, surely in the world to come….

But too often fear leads to hopelessness, a state of  mind that Glenn Tinder has described as a “kind of death.”  Hopelessness causes us to direct our gaze backward toward worlds we c an never recover.  It causes us to imagine a future filled with horror.  Tyrants focus our attention on the desperate nature of our circumstances and the “carnage” of the social and cultural landscape that they claim to have the power to heal.  A kernel of truth, however, always informs such a dark view of life.  Poverty is a problem.  Rusted-out factories often do appear like “tombstones across the landscape of our nation.”  Crime is real.  But demagogues want us to dwell on the carnage and, to quote Bruce Springsteen, “waste our summer praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets.”  Hope, on the other hand, “draws us into the future,” and in this way it “engages us in life.”

If I ever met Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, I think we would have a lot to talk about.  Here is a taste of his recent column on hope, fear, and the Advent season:

This is the time of the Christian year dedicated to expectant longing. God, we are assured, is at mysterious work in the world. Evil and conflict are real but not ultimate. Grace and deliverance are unrealized but certain. Patient waiting is rewarded because the trajectory of history is tilted upward by a powerful hand.

None of this is to deny the high stakes of politics and elections. But the assurance at the heart of Advent is the antidote to fear. No matter how desperate the moment, we are told, time is on the side of hope.

Such hope does not come naturally to human beings. On the evidence of our senses, despair is perfectly rational. Entropy is built into nature. Decay is knit into our flesh. By all appearances, the universe is cold, empty and indifferent. There is a certain bleak dignity in accepting the challenge of a hopeless cause.

But most of us can’t be content in this state. We fill the void with cries of protest, or hymns of thanksgiving, or demands for justice. This search for answers seems essential to our humanity. It is possible, of course, that our deepest longings are actually cruel jokes of nature. But it is also possible and rational that our longings are hints of a reality beyond nature. Perhaps our desires exist because they are meant to be fulfilled.

Read the entire piece here.

Fear not.