Over the last four days, I have had the privilege of serving as a chaperone on a 1,163-mile-trip from Virginia to Iowa. There are five middle school students (my younger son is one of them), two teachers, and two parent chaperones. The young people are excited with good reason—they are in the Odyssey of the Mind World Championships! There are teams from at least a dozen nations and probably twenty-five states. Thousands of screaming students pack the Iowa State arena each evening.
Due to budget constraints, our group drove in two minivans, instead of flying. On the second morning of our drive, we were getting ready to leave the hotel. One of the teachers noticed the glove compartment was open and empty. Someone robbed the van! The burglars made off with one of the teacher’s purses and a student’s suitcase. No one was hurt. The items stolen, while creating an inconvenience, were all replaceable.
At first, the kids took the robbery in stride. They talked about it, laughed a little, until…
From the field nearby, somewhere over the horizon, fear crept in… They started getting excited. Their little adolescent voices grew higher in pitch. They talked faster, saying things like, “What if… this… or that?”
The teachers were busy. One called her bank. The other filed a police report. I said to the students, “Hang on. Listen.” And, they listened.
“Was anyone hurt?” They shook their heads.
“Can we replace the missing items?” They nodded.
The other parent took the girl with the missing bag to the store to buy more clothes. All was well. The students, then, threw a ball, talked, played video games, and generally killed time until we resumed our drive an hour later.
In this case, the students were generating their own fear. It was fairly easy to disrupt it. In U.S. national psyche, widespread fearmongering gains traction. In an article in The Washington Post, Robert Kagan presents the rise of Donald Trump’s political ambition as resting on fearmongering. Kagan makes a compelling argument, drawing parallels with Mussolini’s fascism and Hitler’s national socialism. Neither Il Duce, nor Der Führer presented solutions to problems. They both rested their program on scapegoats and alienation.
The Trump phenomenon is, similarly, based on a machismo that lacks substance. In Christian theology, the final answer always rests with God, not humanity. People who build their lives on hubris miss the rich fulfillment of service to others and spiraling kindness. Service and kindness exemplify the agape love God expresses for humanity.
Agreeing with everything a politician believes, says, or has done will be impossible, but, for the sake of the country, voters should be able to have some bellwether indicating how the politician might govern. Even if the politician is disappointing or changes some position, there should be some indication. Over the last century, the U.S. has consistently elected people who pleased some and displeased others. Thoughtful Christians recognize the good/bad in each one. Nixon, who in public parlance is labeled as consummately corrupt, signed the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, signed the Clean Air Act in 1970, signed the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, and signed the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974. The same logic applies to every president since then: Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama.
Christians can practice faith in freedom: the freedom to gather, freedom of speech, freedom from religious persecution. When a presidential candidate calls for systemic persecution of a religious group, all religious adherents should feel a chill and hear Martin Niemöller’s words afresh:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Niemöller was a German Protestant pastor. He criticized Hitler and spent seven years of in Nazi concentration camps. “But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated” (1 Peter 3:14). Do not let Trump’s talk of the boogie man scare you. Do not give in to fearmongering. As Christians, we have a higher hope and we have much at stake if fearmongers, like Trump, gain power.