I have touched on this issue before, but it has come back with force in these last few weeks, and that is the pervasiveness and power of irrational fear. Fear, however it’s defined, is not always a bad thing. There are things one should be afraid of, or should at least give cause to some serious anxiety. Irrational fear is different, and by it I do not intend the standard range of phobias, fear of flying for instance. What I have in mind are what might be called political or even spiritual fears that have no, or very little, foundation in observable facts. They are fears that take possibilities of extremely low probability and exaggerate them into near reality. In the same way, they are fears that turn blind eyes toward serious danger in pursuit of safety from imagined danger.
An interesting if fairly minor case is recent polling that shows a higher favorable rating for Cheney than Pelosi. A June 5 Gallup survey has Cheney at 37% favorable and Pelosi at 34%. Neither is high, but what is driving the shift is a PR effort to display Pelosi as an out of control ultra liberal intent on stripping away American freedom under the weight of oppressive government. The fact that Cheney has an eight-year track record of doing that very thing is easily ignored because he acted to keep us safe from some vaguely defined but very scary enemy. The particular issues generating fear of Pelosi are even more vaguely defined and seem to arise mainly from the reputation of her San Francisco district.
On another front, gun sales have exploded. The data are not easy to gather, but one source had background checks up 22% January over January, and background checks do not include gun show and private sales. On air interviews reveal gun purchasers driven by fear that Obama will soon outlaw guns and begin confiscating them. Others believe that if more of us were armed society would have a greater defense against gun toting murderers. Then there is the inane holdover idea from the Cold War that an armed population will be the last defense against the commie invaders who are sure to come. Commies are passé but have been easily replaced by imagined armies of terrorists of some sort.
From Ronald Reagan on, the public has been sold on the idea that government is part of the problem not the solution, that any and all government programs are wasteful bureaucracies (except the ones that provide subsidies to my industry), that private industry can always do everything better and more efficiently, and that market forces work better than any form of governmental regulation. The result is two fold. On the one hand is self-imposed ignorance about some blatant failures in the market place. The second, related to the current health care debate, is an equally self imposed ignorance about the current private health insurance system ruled by bureaucratic providers of plans with strict limitations and controls having more to do with corporate profits than individual and public health.
The irrational fear associated with it has an operating assumption that any government provided health insurance would be wasteful, take away individual choice, and ration out health care to people other than me. Related irrational assumptions ignore the easily researched fact that American health care consumes a far greater share of GDP than any other developed nation, and does so with great inefficiency. American health care is like an old, decrepit municipal water system: one that takes in millions of gallons of fresh water and loses half of it through leaks and breaks before it can get to a tap.
A self-imposed ignorance about national debt avoids any recognition of the cost of our current wars, and an irrational fear of national debt is fired by a dreadful lack of understanding about the hows and whats of programs such as Medicare and Social Security. Irrational fear drives middle and lower class Americans to favor tax policies giving breaks to the wealthy on vague promises that somehow they also will benefit. Intentionally engendered fear drives a good deal of advertising and too much news reporting. We are told to fear that our breath smells bad, that we may not find the right mate, that our latest gadget is technologically obsolete, that we are eating the wrong foods, that e-coli, salmonella and germs of all sorts are threatening our lives, that obscure incidents in one place are evidence of an epidemic of something of which we should be very afraid. We are inundated by twenty-four hour news broadcasting reveling in sensationalism and unreflective fear mongering, and talk radio that is even worse.
All of this infects our spiritual lives in harmful ways. The perfect love of God that drives out fear becomes nothing but a nice and very impractical sentiment. The commandments to love one another, to bear one another’s burdens, to become agents of reconciliation, become minor footnotes to sermons heard on increasingly infrequent days given to worship. Pulpit words warning of the power of the devil who rules this world, of sin that surrounds us and hell that awaits us, take the words of Jesus and twist them into fearful threats intended to frighten a fearful people into a shallow faith. Whatever faith they might inspire, they also feed fear driven beliefs, attitudes and behaviors in ordinary daily life. They deprive the love of God, the reconciling life, teaching, death and resurrection of Christ, of their most essential meanings, and they make it harder for the Gospel to be heard by those who need to hear it most.