The only reason I have any regard for Donald Trump and his presidency is because I am so afraid of the Left, and what they will do to social and religious conservatives once they are back fully in power. I don’t actually believe Trump will do anything to stop this, or could do much to stop it; I think at best he can slow it down. Nevertheless, my politics are driven entirely by fear of the Left, specifically on matters of religious liberty and social policy.
This is an easy statement to criticize—and as we all know, Twitter is undefeated at helping people state the obvious: Christians should be animated by love and hope, rather than fear. There are Bible verses aplenty that prove the point. And Rod seems to have heard them. After listing the standard conservative complaints about how Christianity is under threat (nearly all of which, I hasten to note, I agree with!), Rod muses that we need some distinction between a ‘healthy fear’ which shows “respect for actual dangers,” and a fear that is “paralyzing and destructive.”
I’ve been spending some time with Augustine’s expositions of the Psalms lately, which are full of evocative, Christological readings of the text. I’m no expert, but it seems to me few theologians have so fully developed an understanding of the ‘healthy fear’ which is required for the Christian life than Augustine. His expositions of the Psalms are replete with descriptions of the reverence that safeguards our loves from finally leading us away from God.
Consider his exposition of Psalm 85:11 (86 in most Bibles): “Lead me in your way, Lord, and I will walk in your truth; let my heart be so gladdened as to fear your name.” As Augustine exposits the verse, we shall someday have a gladness that is free from fear—but the present insecurities of this world mean that our gladness is imperfect, and that fear is necessary. “If we are completely secure,” he writes, we “exult in the wrong way.” Such fear prevents us from abandoning the Way and the Truth, and is especially crucial when we are in the midst of blessings: “Whenever our undertakings prosper, my brothers and sisters, we should be the more fearful.” This is true even of those things which “prosper for us in the affairs of Christ and true Christian charity.” Make a convert, and remember to take care. Defeat an intellectual foe, and pay heed to the present troubles. “Our rejoicing must not make us careless…” Augustine contends. “Let us not expect security while we are on pilgrimage.”
Augustine’s reflections on fear here aren’t disconnected from politics, though they are framed primarily with reference to the individual Christian life. The ‘sufferings’ he thinks should chasten Christian gladness include schism, and would presumably also include the sufferings at the hands of the state that Augustine would have been familiar with.
And in that sense, Augustine’s account of the fear that we should have in the midst of gladness almost perfectly distills how I’ve thought and written about the Religious Right, political theology, and our response to the totalitarian progressivism that would seek to rid the world of Christianity. The Religious Right’s triumphalism was never Christian, because it was never tempered by the Godly fear that Augustine thinks is necessary. Such fear can rejoice in the midst of blessings, while recognizing that any happiness is contingent and limited. But it can also rejoice when those blessings are replaced by suffering, because it sees within the gifts even of God’s creation temptations that might turn our hearts from Him. As Augustine writes, this is “a land of scandals and temptations and all kinds of woes; we must groan here, and earn the right to be joyful in another land; we have to be afflicted here, and consoled in that other land where we shall say, You have freed my eyes from tears, and my feet from slippery places; I will find favor with the Lord in the land of the Living…”
To put the point differently, the fear Augustine exhorts us to have arises in situations that are almost the perfect inverse of those Rod lists. Where Rod and I worry about Christian universities losing their tax-exempt status, Augustine would have had us be more afraid when they were granted such a status in the first place. It is not the erosion of Christianity in the West that should cause the heart of the Christian to tremble, but the way in which our lack of fear has caused us to give ourselves to idols (even if unwittingly), making us complicit in the very destruction of all we love that we currently decry.
Little wonder, then, that the world which conservatives defended so vociferously would collapse—and that the unhealthy fear of bad things happening to Christians that Rod so effectively channels for his readership would arise and consume us. The scandal of Christianity is constituted by our Savior’s imperative to rejoice when we are persecuted for the name of Christ—to rejoice, and not to dampen or escape the imperative with the thousand qualifications or conditions that invariably hasten into our minds. We have more to fear from disobeying Christ’s command to rejoice when persecuted than we have to fear from persecution itself.