Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Fear and the Republican Party

Historically, traditionalism has always been a reaction to change. Christian fundamentalism arose out of a climate that had become increasingly progressive via higher criticism, liberal theology, and philosophy. Feeling the need to defend their orthodox beliefs, fundamentalists have worked to repudiate the advances of modernity and emphasize the value of tradition. In the last 30 or 40 years, we've seen the Republican Party of the United States adopt a very similar modus operandi. Republican leaders of the distant past, like Lincoln, Roosevelt, and even Eisenhower, each had political philosophies of their own, which they would typically justify through reason. Yet beginning in the Reagan era, reason has increasingly been abandoned in favor of emotional and religious appeals, with a large focus on that elusive beast, "American tradition."

I believe it's accurate to say that a significant component of traditionalism is fear. The fundamentalists fear what might happen if their biblical values are lost. The GOP fears what might happen if "family values" are lost. Traditionalism means one is fearful of change that could supplant the individual's favored traditions. We don't appeal to tradition because it works (otherwise it would make more sense just to say that), but because we find tradition familiar, nostalgic, etc., and we fear what is unfamiliar, new, and different. A certain kind and amount of fear is not unfounded, however, and it can be a good thing to fear the effect that an action will have, which may lead to being better prepared, or eliminating the undesired effect altogether. But there is also a definite point where the line is crossed. If fear has no basis in reality or is concentrated only in those with specific prejudices, then it is unreasonable to give into fear.

As the Republican Party has developed a heavier rhetoric for tradition, we have seen fear start to play more and more of a central role in Republican politics. In recent news, GOP candidate Rick Santorum has been the subject of attention for statements made in 2008 about Satan attacking the United States. [1] This struck me as particularly important because Satan is not just a symbol of evil for many people, but also a strong symbol of fear. Though believers may deny fearing the devil out of religious pride, it wasn't that long ago that "Satanic conspiracies" fascinated and terrified the American public, leading to incredible injustices like the West Memphis Three. Satan is a symbol of fear that superstitious people invest with all they consider profane, and so expressing the opinion that Satan is attacking the United States shows tremendous fear about the condition of America.

Rick Santorum's fears are unfounded, though, built as they are on homophobia and sexism. We've also seen the Bachmanns offer their homophobic views, we've seen Newt Gingrich say some highly sexist things, and more than a few of the candidates have made racially insensitive remarks. Fear is what seems to drive the current Republican Party, and it's not all that surprising that the Religious Right has virtually taken over the GOP in the last 20 or 30 years. As many have said, religion appears to be based upon fear of death, fear of the unknown, and so forth. The prophecies and certitudes of religion have proven popular in part because they provide comfort and serve to subdue our fears.

This is one of the biggest problems I have with the Republican Party today: it places value on tradition for tradition's sake. But longevity is not a reason to accept an idea over another. In religion, many people tend to associate truth with the antiquity of a belief - just look at the Muslims who try to pretend that Islam has always dominated the world, claiming that Abraham was even a Muslim. Tradition can be fun, and I have no issue with going along with something because it's a fun tradition, but when it comes to important matters of policy that drive social and personal well-being, there has to be a better justification for our positions than mere tradition. For all the complaining of the GOP candidates about Obama's freedom-hating Socialist behavior, it will be fear that will truly enslave and exploit us if we give into it irrationally.

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