Despite our exhortation as Christians to fear not, we often let various types of fear prevent us from engaging in political discourse. It does not help that much of what we hear about politics through the news and social media is geared towards promoting fear.
Dr. Brad Littlejohn has recently written a piece for The Gospel Coalition entitled “Resisting the Politics of Fear,” and he joins us on this week’s episode of Family Policy Matters to discuss this idea. Dr. Littlejohn is President of The Davenant Institute and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Dr. Littlejohn points to the recent COVID-19 pandemic as one example of how fear tends to dominate our political discourse from both sides of an issue. “I think it is important to examine our own motives,” he says, “and ask ourselves whether our Christian political engagement is being governed primarily by love or by fear. […] I think the problem is when we move from fear as a kind of emotional response in the moment to fear as a state of mind.”
So, Dr. Littlejohn’s advice to Christians engaging in public policy is to love all things in relation to God. While we desire to protect what God has given us—our homes, our families, our country—“that concern should be mitigated by a calm confidence that God is working His purposes out.”
What does this practically look like in public policy engagement? Well, for one, it means “whatever harm can befall us from bad political leadership has to be contextualized within the great story that God is working out and the triumph of His kingdom.”
“It means that we are neither going to be overly fearful of bad political leadership, nor are we going to—in our fear—turn and cling to other political leaders for protection.”
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Dr. Brad Littlejohn share more tips from his article “Resisting the Politics of Fear.”
DR. BRAD LITTLEJOHN: Thanks for having me. Happy to be here.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So start, if you would, by giving us some examples of the ways you’ve noticed fear dominating our political discourse in recent times.
DR. BRAD LITTLEJOHN: Sure. Well, I think you don’t have to look very far here in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic to see examples of fear taking hold. Obviously, you can see that in terms of the way people responded to the virus itself. There’s, of course, a very prudent response of seeking to be wise and reduce the risk to yourself and family and friends. But there have obviously been some people, particularly on the left end of the political spectrum, who have let a kind of irrational fear begin to dominate their response, and to the exclusion of all other considerations. But the interesting thing is that those on the right side of the political spectrum, who’ve often been quick to point this out and even use slogans like “we refuse to be dominated by fear,” very quickly adopted a kind of fear-based rhetoric of their own. It’s a fear of government overreach, fear that the virus is being used as an excuse to curtail our freedoms, and so on.
The interesting thing is these are all legitimate concerns: the virus is legitimate concern; the response to the virus is legitimate concern. When we let those concerns morph into fears that sort of dominate our perception and our reactions, we become less and less capable to engage as wise Christian citizens. I think it’s important not to be too quick to judge others’ motives. I think it’s easy to look at someone else’s response and say, “Oh, they’re obviously dominated by fear,” but you know, you don’t necessarily know that; you don’t know their situation. But I think it is important to examine our own motives and ask ourselves whether our Christian political engagement is being governed primarily by love or by fear.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So you talk about motivation. Why is fear such a powerful motivator, do you think, especially in the political arena?
DR. BRAD LITTLEJOHN: Fear is a very natural kind of basic, instinctual human response. God rightly wired us to be alert to danger and to react in the face of danger. There’s actual biological impulses of how the body responds in the face of danger. You know, there’s nothing wrong with, if you see a car speeding towards you, to have a fear impulse and jump out of the way. I think the problem is when we move from fear as a kind of emotional response in the moment to fear as a state of mind. I think that really happens from seeking too much to be in control of our surroundings and control of our own lives and control of our reality, such that we are constantly afraid of losing something that we feel like we have a right to. I think that there’s a natural human impulse to fear, but there’s also a very fallen human impulse to selfishness and to grasping and to seeking to hold things close instead of resting on God. When we do that, it’s very easy to be fearful of losing them.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: How do we navigate the difference between appropriate and disproportionate fear? Any practical suggestions for us on that?
DR. BRAD LITTLEJOHN: I made the distinction here between love and fear. And 1 John says—I quote this in my piece—”Perfect love casts out fear.” And I think it’s something interesting to reflect on because as we think about what kinds of things cause us to fear, we might say, “Well, it’s fear that comes out of love.” I gave an example of a car speeding towards me. In the essay, I give an example of if you see a car speeding towards your daughter, you’re going to fear for her life and you’re going to react and try to get her out of the way. So, because you love something, you are fearful of harm to it. Extending that because we love our country, we are fearful of harm befalling your country.
So, we might say it’s appropriate for our politics to be guided by fear, but I think we need to think about that passage, “Perfect love cast out fear.” How is it that love is opposed to fear there? I think maybe the answer in the adjective, right? Perfect love. What is perfect love? Well, perfect love is a rightly ordered love. The Christian tradition, particularly St. Augustine, has a lot to say about the ordering of our loves, that we should love all good things. We should love our family, our country, our possessions even in some ways, but we should love everything in relation to God. We should love it in the proper ordering, instead of as an end in itself. Therefore, because we love things in relation to God, we recognize that those goods are given to us by God, for his purposes and for his glory, and therefore that while we should seek to protect those goods, we protect the goods that God’s given us in confidence that he himself is working out his purposes. So, if we feel like some good that we desire to protect is at risk of loss, there’s an appropriate concern there, but that concern should be mitigated by a calm confidence that God is working his purposes out.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: I think a lot of people would listen to you talking about engaging in politics, and you’re talking about love, and they would think that’s impossible. So, how is that not impossible?
DR. BRAD LITTLEJOHN: Part of the problem there is so much, of our politics now is consumed with such wide horizons. When we think about politics, we generally think about national politics. We think in terms of kind of abstractions, in terms of these parties and these issues and politicians thousands of miles away and talking heads on TV. We don’t think of politics as a form of a neighbor love. So, I think one way to re-inject love into our politics is to start local. Think local and see political engagement, first of all, as a form of love of neighbor. The nice thing about that is when you start doing that, when you’re engaging local politics, then differences over issues have a face to them—a person that you might know and you kind of like, even though you disagree with them. So, from that you can then extend that and say, “You know, maybe if my neighbor who’s on the other end of the political spectrum and disagrees with me at city council meetings, maybe if they’re still a decent person, then maybe that person in another state who votes in a different way in a presidential election is a decent person, too, as much as I might be concerned about the impact of the policies that they’re advocating.”
I don’t want to trivialize things. I think there are serious issues at stake that merit serious concern on the part of Christians, but if that can’t be framed within a context of love for our fellow citizens—if it just becomes a way of clinging protectively to our ideals and seeing everyone else as a potential enemy—then we’re really going to move beyond politics. We use that language of “enemies” constantly in reference to politics; that’s the language of war, really. That’s not the language of politics.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: I think you’re right, and your suggestion to get involved in local politics, too, what a great idea! Of course, here at the North Carolina Family Policy Council, we really try to explain that as often as possible. Local and state politics is huge and it can even have an effect (oftentimes does) on national politics. So, it is a good place to start for sure. Now, you talked about the political fear—you said there are like two ends of this—one would be fear from political leaders and the other would be clinging to political leaders for safety. So, explain how these are different and what you mean by that?
DR. BRAD LITTLEJOHN: It’s fascinating how these two often coexist. It’s the people who might be most irrationally consumed by fear of a certain political opposition—they’re constantly talking about how bad this politician is and how they’re going to ruin the country—and then you turn around and you hear them just constantly extolling how this other political leader is going to be the solution to all this, and we all need to stand behind this leader and we all need to get on board, need to vote for this person no matter what. And I’d say, okay, hang on. You are rightly aware of the harm that can come from bad political leadership. Okay. And Psalm 20 says, “Put no confidence in princes.” Okay, you’ve got that part right down. Put no confidence in princes, but then you are putting confidence in princes on the other side.
So, I think if our fear is rightly ordered by fear of God, and we recognize that every four-year election cycle is just one tiny blip—and it’s not even a tiny blip on the scale of eternity—but it’s a tiny blip on the scale of Christian history. So, whatever harm can befall us from bad political leadership has to be contextualized within the great story that God is working out and the triumph of his kingdom. So, what does that do? It means that we are neither going to be overly fearful of bad political leadership, and neither are we going to—in our fear—turn and cling to other political leaders for protection. We’re going to have a healthy skepticism of bad leadership and a healthy skepticism of good leadership. We recognize there’s a difference between good and political leadership, but we recognize it’s not a difference of Satan versus Jesus.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So you also talk in your article about how Christians should possess a curious calm that characterizes our political engagement.
DR. BRAD LITTLEJOHN: There’s this mature calm that isn’t unconcerned; it isn’t detached. It’s not just let the world go to hell in a hand basket. But it is saying, in the grand scheme of things, I know that God has worked his purposes out. I know that the kingdom of God will triumph whatever happens here. and so I’m not going to let it consume me. Practically, one way to cultivate that is anchoring yourself in God’s word and in worship every week. But I would say the other thing is just don’t spend much time watching the news. I mean, I don’t watch news at all. I do probably check news on my smartphone more often than I should, but even there, I use BBC News as my source, because I figure anything in American politics that’s actually really big news will show up in the British news. But if it’s just kind of a tempest in a teapot, they won’t bother covering it, so it’s not worth getting worked up about. I think we are inundated with everything that’s wrong with the world 24/7, and it’s so easy to get absorbed in that through TV, your smartphone, your social media feed, and you lose perspective. It’s impossible to have that calm confidence, because nobody’s trying to sell that to you. I mean, none of these media places are telling you, “Hey, things aren’t actually that bad,” because that’s not the way to get people to tune in, right? The only thing they’re telling you is “Crisis! Breaking news!” And so we’re kept in this constant state of agitation, and so I think we just have to cultivate the discipline of unplugging.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: We’re just about out of time for this week. Before we go, Brad Littlejohn, where can our listeners go to read more about your work and your article “Resisting the Politics of Fear”?
DR. BRAD LITTLEJOHN: So, that article is at The Gospel Coalition—gospelcoalition.com—and just search for that title, “Resisting the Politics of Fear.” And my work more generally you can find at eppc.org. My organization, the Davenant Institute, which is really engaged in attempting to give Christians of an appropriate historical and theological perspective on their task as citizens, I’d encourage you to check out the resources from the Davenant Institute, which is davenantinstitute.org.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Great. Dr. Brad Littlejohn, thank so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.
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