Friday, October 31, 2008

Fear or Hope? The Path Before Us

I talked yesterday about the tension between fear and hope in our democratic society—about the possibility that we may retrieve hope and that fear will lose its power as a tool of manipulative interest groups (including some church leaders) to undermine healthy participatory democracy.

Since I posted those reflections, I’m hearing echoes everywhere. This theme—hope pitched against fear—is emerging strongly in many folks’ thought as the election nears.

For instance, in an article entitled “Too Much Fear” at Huffington Post today, Sophia Carroll explores the way in which the use of fear by right-wing interest groups (including religiously based ones) has been undermining our democracy ( Carroll asks, “But can a people remain democratic and self-reliant when its choices are dictated by fear?”

Such questions are important to ask, as we try to reorient ourselves culturally and politically at a crucial transition point in our history. As a tool of control, fear pits us one against the other. It enchains our minds, making us suspect each other.

As I noted yesterday, I have learned this through bitter experience in the workplace. I have had the unpleasant experience of working for people who actively prided themselves on having no trust of others, and who were gifted about playing colleagues against each other in order to assure their domination. I’ve worked for leaders who, even as they talked about transformative leadership and empowerment of others, proclaimed with pride that they cannot and will not trust others—as if lack of trust is a virtue rather than a moral and psychological pathology.

These were folks who have also found a comfortable niche in neoconservative power structures. Their belief that no one is trustworthy and their willingness to exploit fear as a tool of control and domination allow them to fit right into the worldview of the men who have ruled us in the long nightmare of neoconservative domination of our culture and politics.

Sad to say, some of these “leaders” have even been African-American women who have learned that they can advance themselves and secure their power by doing the bidding of the men (largely white) who have been ruling us. To move beyond the politics of fear and division such folks have created, we need to turn now to folks like Mary McLeod Bethune. We need to heal our wounded democracy by re-appropriating and re-applying the insights of prophetic leaders such as this African-American educator who battled on multiple fronts to make the democracy of her day more inclusive.

At a time and in a place in which black and white people did not mix, Dr. Bethune brought the races together for dialogue and created an interracial leadership team for the school she founded. In a period and culture in which women were second-class citizens, she advocated for women’s rights.

At a period in which African Americans and women paid a real price by marching to vote, Dr. Bethune led the way. I have no doubt at all that she would have been right beside Coretta Scott King at the dawn of the 21st century leading the way towards inclusion of gay Americans, when there is a particularly steep price to pay if one advocates for this form of inclusion, both in the African-American community and in society at large.

Another commentator who is urging us to move beyond fear to hope is evangelical activist Jim Wallis. In an article entitled “Be Not Afraid” in today’s Huffington Post, Wallis notes,

Fear has always been the dark side of American politics, and we are seeing its resurgence in the campaign's final days. Demagoguery has come from both the right and the left in America, and the most dependable sign of it is the appeal to fear over hope. Facts don't matter when fear takes over (

Wallis is frank about the source of much of the fear mongering in our political life at present: it comes from the religious right, and it arises from the perceived sense of that movement’s leaders that they are about to lose a control of others that they’ve worked hard to establish:

Some of the worst fear-mongering has sadly come from leaders of the Religious Right who are worried about losing their control over the votes of the evangelical and Catholic communities, especially a new generation of believers . . . . When religious leaders sound so desperate and seek to stoke fear and hate, they have lost their theological perspective by putting too much of their hope in having political power. It is that loss of power and control which seems to be motivating the current campaign of desperation and fear now being waged by so many conservatives.

They have lost their theological perspective: how does it happen that people who tell us they are on intimate terms with God, and who tell us to trust God, have invested so largely in power and control? What really does count in the end for the men who rule us in the religious right: power and control? Or God? Why are these men so confident at this point in history that renewing threats of damnation will motivate people politically?

As Wallis concludes, “It is always better to live (and to vote) in the light of hope than in the darkness of fear. It is always an act of faith to believe that, in the end, hope will prevail over fear.” (For more analysis of how the religious right has been fear-mongering in this election, see Wallis’s analysis of James Dobson’s recent statements at

Alternet today carries a particularly sobering article on the negative role religion has sometimes been playing in our democratic society. This is George Monbiot’s “The Triumph of Ignorance: How Morons Succeed in American Politics” ( Monbiot notes that, in recent political analysis of how our democracy has been dumbed down (e.g., in Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Religion), “One theme is both familiar and clear: Religion -- in particular fundamentalist religion -- makes you stupid. The United States is the only rich country in which Christian fundamentalism is vast and growing.”

Overcoming fear-based ignorance and reviving hope is not easy. Religious groups have a unique ability to reach into our psyches. Their influence begins in childhood, and is shored up through the bold claim that they oversee a reward-punishment system with eternal results. When religious groups have actively worked to instill fear into a whole populace for decades, retrieving hope demands work.

As Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez noted at a conference called “Transformed by Hope” in Chicago yesterday, hope is not a matter of waiting for a better future to fall into our hands—it requires collaboration with others who share our vision of a better world, to begin building such a world: “This is the future, not waiting for beautiful reasons to hope, but to try to do something to create that hope” (

The work of rebuilding hope is going to require, on the part of people of faith who want to build a society energized not by fear but by hope, critique of the religious forces that brought us to the place where we now find ourselves. We are going to have to ask now, as Douglas Kmiec asks in a commentary today on why Archbishop Chaput’s abortion stance is wrong, how some of our religious leaders have allowed themselves to become “trapped within the narrative framework of one political party” (

Becoming trapped within the narrative framework of one political party; becoming so partisan that we can no longer see the growing gap between a party’s ideology and the values we profess to cherish: this is a form of what the Judaeo-Christian scriptures call idolatry. No political party or no political leader deserves that kind of slavish devotion. This devotion has cost the Christian churches a tremendous amount, in a period in which too many pastors have sold their souls to one party.

And “sold” may be the operative word. In trying to understand how it happens that some pastoral leaders have so blindly divinized one political party, we cannot discard the influence of money. As we try to undo the damage that this kind of partisan politics has done to communities of faith, we are going to have to follow the money.

Who are those anonymous donors to the homophobic state amendment in Florida, whose identity Mr. Stemberger has sought to shield? Who’s been funding those thinly veiled “religious” ads for the Republican party like the ones in Colorado about which I’ve blogged? Who paid for the pro-Republican video that Bishop Martino of Scranton was able to produce with breathtaking speed for this last week before the election? Where is the money for homophobic robo-calls like the ones associated with the campaign of Catholic Mick Mulvaney in South Carolina coming from (though Mulvaney is denying that he is responsible for the calls)?

Inquiring minds want to know. We need to know because a healthy democracy requires transparency, in which we can see who is trying to influence our political process and for what reasons. One of the huge wounds inflicted on our body politic in recent years is the breach of the wall of church and state. If churches are now allowing themselves to be used as overt political tools of one political party, is it not time to tax the churches?

It has just been revealed that a secret donor who recently gave a million dollars to the campaign for the homophobic proposition 8 in California is Alan Ashton ( Alan Ashton of Lindon, Utah, not of California. Alan Ashton, a devout Mormon whose grandfather was once the President of the LDS Church.

One has to wonder about the lavish funds some churches and some people of faith are investing in these political battles to keep hatred alive. In a world of such pressing need, something seems downright obscene about spending money to remove human rights from a despised class of citizens.

For many of us who are Catholic, it is obscene that the Knights of Columbus also gave a million dollars to this homophobic initiative. It is equally obscene that the Vatican chooses to announce right at the same time that it wants seminaries to screen candidates for the priesthood for “deep-seated homosexual tendencies”

This is an ugly political move designed to deflect attention from the bishops’ (and the Vatican’s) mishandling of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, by insinuating that the crisis is due to the large proportion of gay men in the priesthood. As anyone studying the abuse crisis quickly learns, it is about pedophilia, not homosexuality. The sexual orientation of the priest abusing children is not the problem; the problem is the desire and willingness of a significant number of priests to act on their desire for sexual contact with children—who include both male and female minors.

The problem is also about power and the abuse of power. Pedophilia is rooted in the desire to have power over others. Clericalism, as a system of church governance, is about the same kind of power. There are deep, undeniable links between the abuse crisis and clericalism. This is the secret that church authorities do not want ordinary people to discover, since it means that, if we are serious about changing the abuse situation, we have to change the clerical system in the church. And that would require substantial change.

The Vatican document scapegoating gay seminarians and priests comes out on almost the same day in which the current pope, as Cardinal Ratzinger, issued his infamous Halloween Letter in 1986. That letter has caused a world of woe to gay Catholics and their families and friends, by defining gay human beings as “intrinsically disordered.”

One has to wonder about the wisdom (or better, lack of wisdom) of church leaders who continue to expend valuable resources to promote an agenda that is increasingly seen by people of good will as hateful. One has to wonder about the lack of wisdom of pastoral leaders who continue to rub salt into wounds they have inflicted, especially when many Catholic leaders live in glass houses when it comes to the issue of sexual orientation.

Is it any wonder that a large majority of Catholics in the United States are simply choosing not to listen to bishops who continue to promote a political agenda that, in the view of many of us, is allied with hate? Is it any wonder that, as of February this year, weekly Mass attendance by American Catholics had dropped to 23%?

We who continue to believe that faith has the potential to be a powerful force for good in the world, an energizing force for those building participatory democracy, and a source of hope that trumps fear, have work to do now. It is not just our democracy that needs to be rebuilt, but our churches, too.