Playing the fear card is very tempting to politicians

Religious issues, and Islam in particular, are likely to be exploited in this election season. While there may be a … Continued

Religious issues, and Islam in particular, are likely to be exploited in this election season. While there may be a “debate” among the GOP about Islam, the trend is toward more not less Islamophobia. It is very tempting to conservative political candidates to engage in Muslim-bashing and promote Islamophobia because playing the fear card is politically effective with their base. Through ten years of post 9/11 work at the grassroots, fear of Muslims is becoming a staple of conservative politics. This is dangerous for America, and profoundly wrong, but very, very tempting to politicians.

When a tactic promises to help someone gain a lot of political power, it is hard to resist using it. Getting power seems to be a very hard temptation to resist. This was clear to the Devil when he tempted Jesus in the wilderness. The third temptation of Jesus is the promise of “all power and authority.” (Luke 4:5-6) Jesus resisted it, but humanity has notoriously found this a hard temptation to resist.

Islamophobia will be a campaign issue in the 2012 elections because it is hard for politicians to resist using fear to get out the vote. Clearly not only conservatives have done this in American history, but in the last ten years fear-mongering against Muslims has become a “wedge” issue for conservatives. But that begs the question, why does fear work so well in politics?

Fear works in politics by capitalizing on two very common human responses that are related to each other. The first is the fear of the “other,” someone who is a stranger or who is “different” in some way from myself. In this kind of “othering” I see the one who is different from me as a threat to my identity, and to my group’s identity. And in some ways, this is true. How can we keep our group together and all bonded to each other if the customs and practices that hold us together are challenged by the existence of someone who lives, believes, and thinks in a different way? And the second fear is also real; it is the fear of violence. Strangers can be a source of physical threat.

Othering and the threat of violence the two main reasons why fear-mongering works so well in politics. Power in politics comes from the group and the group’s affirmation of one set of ideas and values that give them enough cohesion to motivate people to vote for their policies. So far, so good. But one really powerful way to get your group to cohere is exaggerate a threat from a group that is different from your own, paint them as “aliens” who are not just different but “a threat to our way of life.” Then, you can really up the ante on group cohesion and motivation when you add the threat of violence to the threat of the alien other.

This kind of political power the comes from exaggerating the differences of Americans one from another, painting those differences as “alien” and “a threat to our way of life” and then topping it off with painting “them” as part of a shadowy and violent world conspiracy is fundamentally corrosive for our society. It takes issues of policy on which there are legitimate differences and escalates them into the virulent polarization we find characterizes our politics today.

Breaking with this negative and destructive political cycle will be difficult, but it is absolutely necessary and the moral thing to do.

From the perspective of the Bible, tearing people apart from one another and painting them as a threatening stranger is profoundly wrong. We are commanded instead to love the stranger as ourselves. “You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10: 18-19)


Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and immediate past President of Chicago Theological Seminary. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her most recent books are "#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power" and, as contributor and editor, "Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War."
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