Vinoth Ramachandra

The Politics of Fear

Posted on: May 11, 2016

In his justly acclaimed encyclical Laudato Si’ (subtitled “On Care for Our Common Home”) Pope Francis claimed that “many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centres of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor with little direct contact with their problems.”

This observation may partly explain why it is so often the case that media pundits and political soothsayers get it wrong when it comes to predicting election outcomes. The recent election of an ultra-right wing President in Austria has sent shock waves around the European Union. Donald Trump’s surging popularity among the white lower-middle classes in the USA has caught almost everybody by surprise. If left-wing politicians often incite class resentment, the right-wing thrives on fear: the fear of the stranger and foreigners, the fear of rising unemployment, the fear of changing cultural norms.

Many “liberation theologies” have romanticized the poor. They ignored the racist, sexist and homophobic prejudices that are just as prevalent in many poor communities as among the middle classes. Lacking the educational opportunities that rich kids have open to them, such prejudices are clearly less culpable; but, nevertheless, they have to be acknowledged and confronted. Fascists have long known how to exploit them for political advantage.

It is all the more tragic when Christians, whether in the USA or Brazil or Uganda or South Korea, support political candidates simply because the latter claim to be “born again”. On 6 May a Brazilian Supreme Court judge suspended Eduardo Cunha as speaker of the lower house of the Congress, citing his attempt to obstruct a probe into his alleged corruption. He is known as a “born-again Christian” and is head of a right-wing party. Despite facing criminal charges including bribery and hiding money in Swiss bank accounts, Cunha has survived months of attempts by prosecutors and a congressional ethics committee to see him brought to justice. Brazilians refer to him as a real-life Frank Underwood- the corrupt American politician in the popular TV series “House of Cards”. The ruling reflected concerns on the Supreme Court that with Dilma Rousseff suspended, Cunha would have moved up to first on the presidential succession list. Justice Zavaski said in his ruling “there is not the least doubt that the suspect does not meet the minimum personal requirements for fully exercising the functions of speaker of the chamber of deputies at this time.”

I returned last week from a very interesting gathering of hundreds of Christian university students and graduates in Kenya. This conference was part of the public launch of a national campaign against corruption called Hesabika (“Stand Up and Be Counted”) led by the indigenous Kenyan movement affiliated to the organization for which I work. Over 70 per cent of Kenya is identified as “Christian”; yet corruption, nepotism, and dishonesty is rife in public life.

I heard several laments from the podium over the (very un-African) separation of the “spiritual” and the “secular” in the lives of Christians. This is the product of years of Western evangelicalism (not least through popular “Christian TV” channels). But indifference towards politics has given way (just as in the USA since the 1980s) to active support for “born-again” politicians who have proved to be disastrous for their countries. Church leaders naively assume that putting “believers” into public office will automatically bring about a Christian politics. Yet non-Christians seem to follow more biblical values than do many such “believers”. Indeed, dictators generally love “born-again” pastors, for they know how to co-opt them into their patronage networks. Simply offer them state lands for putting up church buildings, public money for evangelistic crusades, laws curtailing the activity of Muslims, and banning homosexuality!

Political naiveté, of course, is not confined to such “born-again” pastors. Self-styled “liberal progressives” would do well to note that diversity for the sake of diversity does not translate into progressive politics. The kind of feminism that Hilary Clinton and her (mostly white, upwardly mobile) supporters espouse is out of touch with the different social realities that American women inhabit and so is blind to the wider structural issues of gender justice. The Bush administration, after all, included Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell: demonstrating that identity politics can be deployed by conservatives just as well as by progressives.

To return to where I began. Surely, church leaders everywhere should be publicly renouncing the politics of fear-mongering. They should, instead, be taking a cue from our Kenyan brethren and standing up (“Hesabika”) for a politics of justice, compassion and honesty.

Why cannot Christians of all nations and denominations unite around the Christian political values articulated in books such as Laudato Si’: viz. pursing a global common good, speaking up for the most exploited and excluded in our societies, unmasking corruption, showing hospitality to refugees, respecting the non-human creation, seeking economic justice above addictive consumerism, and protecting the civil and human rights of all people?

7 Responses to "The Politics of Fear"

Thanks Vinoth for such an insightful and helpful analysis. I would be also interested in your thoughts regarding the election of Durterte as the new President of the Philippines.

Thanks so much for this Vinoth.

There are nations, I think, that fight for the values you cite in your last paragraph. Some of them have Christian roots but have moved in a more liberal/secular direction.

Why some seemingly Christian nations seem to act so corrupt (like Kenya), while others do not so much is really a mystery to me. It does seem, at least on the surface, that liberal/secularists are more inclined to fight for the important values you cite rather than their Christian counterparts. Why?

Thanks, Steve. Don’t know anything about Durterte. Any Filipinos out there who can enlighten us?

Dear Vinoth, greetings from Austria! Thank you so much for this insightful article. Just a small thing, Hofer (the right-wing candidate) is not elected just yet. The second round between him and the other candidate is going to be on this Sunday. I hope that Austrians will make a wise decision. Although I fear that many believers will not vote for his opponent Alexander van der Bellen because of his background in the Green party and his values as far as family policy etc. are concerned. However van der Bellen is a man of integrity and a statesman. Anyway I appreciate your reflections.

Ewald, thank you.

Dear Vinoth,
Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

To update Ewald’s comment, after a truly nail-biting tally, Van der Bellen was elected President in Austria with 50.3% of the vote. The point you make in your article, of course, still stands: the near-election of Hoffer still sent shockwaves around the country, and the fact that 49.7% of the population voted for him should give us pause for thought.

“A politics of justice, honesty and compassion vs the politics of fear..”(‘scaremongering’ – the oft quoted accusation by both sides of the divide) “..pursuing the global common good…”
Thanks once again Vinoth.
Much food for thought as we look at the hollow motivations of self centred ness vs Christ centredness on the eve of the EU Referendum in the UK.

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