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The New Politics of Fear

The New Politics of Fear

This post originally appeared on Trans/Missions, the USC Knight Chair in Media and Religion site.

Although there are still some lingering questions from last November about the role that values-voters played in the midterm elections–for example, were moral issues trumped by personal financial interests?–more recently, a new politics of fear has begun to dominate legislative bodies from the local to the national level. Taken together, these efforts seem to be more about looking backward to a homogeneous Christian America that never was, rather than looking for ways to build a vibrant multi-ethnic, multi-faith nation.

Despite the fact that most observers—and politicians—agree that the last election was about the economy and jobs, some recent efforts by city councils, state legislatures and House Republicans seem intended to control the culture in different ways. For example, and not surprisingly, the role of Muslims in communities across the U.S. continues to be a hot-button issue. In Temecula, Calif.—a town of about 100,000 people located 85 miles southeast of Los Angeles—the city council (finally) approved a building permit for a new mosque after hearing from supporters and opponents for more than eight hours. Opposition to the mosque was initially presented as a zoning ordinance issue (inadequate parking, traffic problems and the like), but quickly devolved into, “We just don’t trust those people,” as the Baptist pastor whose church will be next door to the new mosque put it.

Similarly, since late 2010, conservative legislators in at least four states–Wyoming, South Carolina, Texas and Oklahoma–have initiated efforts to ban Sharia law, despite the absence of evidence that it is legally possible to implement it or that any significant constituencies in those states are genuinely interested in doing so.

At the national level, House Republicans are making renewed efforts to roll back access to legal and safe abortions, whether by changing the new health care law or by redefining rape so as to exclude any form of sex that did not involve force. That means that any abortions of pregnancies that might result from the new exclusions would be outlawed (the only exceptions are for incest and for young women under 18). Tellingly, the shootings in Tucson have been linked by Arizona state senator Linda Gray not to lax gun laws and the actions of an unstable individual but to Roe v. Wade and abortion rights.

These seemingly separate developments have a common theme of fear, whether of “the other” or of a rapidly changing society and culture, and all of them have a religious aspect that isn’t always obvious. Fear can be a great motivator, and for reporters who want to get to the bottom of the religion connection, they must get past the obvious “he said, she said” story-lines to examine the role that conservative religious groups and their political allies play in this new politics of fear.

Specifically, they need to ask what is at the root of this fear and what role religious organizations and beliefs play in nurturing it. Why do otherwise hopeful, religiously committed people become susceptible to appeals to fear and the scapegoating of others? How have politicians at all levels–whether local, state or national–managed to parley the insecurity spawned by an unstable economy into religio-political movements motivated primarily by the fear of difference and sexual freedom? Whether this politics of fear will gather steam as we head toward the next election, or whether more hopeful voices can win out, will be an interesting story to watch.

Richard Flory is the executive director of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.