If our hopes indicate what we value most—what keeps us going, then our fears reveal the same in reverse. What do we need (or think we need) so much that we would be unable to go without it? And what do we believe in so much that if it doesn’t come through for us we’re totally disillusioned?

Even the most casual observer of these final days in the countdown to the general election is aware of the enormous largess being spent on fear. Tragically, some of the most extreme examples of fear-mongering hail from churches, on the left and the right. Earlier in the campaign, some evangelicals expressed alarm that a Mormon might become the high priest of the nation’s soul, while reviving the rumor that Barack Obama is a Muslim. (“After all, he’s not quite like us, is he?”) Yet many conservatives now think that Mitt Romney is just right for the job. In fact, maybe we’ve been too hard on Mormonism. It’s a God-fearing faith of family values. Isn’t that what matters most?

Let’s face it: Mr. Romney belongs to a religious community that officially rejects the Christian creed and Mr. Obama is a member of a liberal Protestant denomination that has largely abandoned it. Since George Washington we’ve been electing presidents with dubious confessional credentials, including a string of deists, Unitarians, and agnostics who nevertheless invoked the Unknown God for the American cause. The real question is not whether Americans generally will elect a non-Christian, but whether churches will redefine Christianity as a surrogate of civil religion. Judging at least by public profession, our next president will once again not be an orthodox Christian. That’s not a tragedy. The real tragedy is quasi-apocalyptic and eschatological claims that are made in churches on the left and the right that create a cycle of false hopes and false fears. The official name for this is idolatry. Who is Lord, Christ or Caesar? Churches and Christian leaders often send mixed signals on that one, especially at election time.

Responsibility versus Fear

Now, there is fear and there is responsible concern. Christians are called to be faithful in caring about and acting for their neighbors’ welfare. Our temporal good is wrapped up in the common good of our nation. We are right to be concerned about the value of human life and marriage, as well as “justice for all,” including our weaker and less privileged neighbors. We are faced with complex crises, foreign and domestic. Some wonder if they’ll ever find employment. Others fear that the economy will hit yet another, perhaps more catastrophic, dip. While the Arab Spring has become a scorching Islamist summer and dictatorships are replaced in some cases with jihadist sects, tensions continue to build between Israel and Iran. North Korea continues its threats, relations with China grow increasingly strained, and many feel a sense of vertigo about the future role of the U. S. in the world. These are not unimportant matters; they demand our attention.

Yet all of these anxieties get whipped up into a virtual frenzy at election time. It’s easy for opinions and strategies—even deeply-held political convictions—to morph into deified ideologies. Unrealistic hopes typically end in disillusionment and cynicism, if not something worse.

My next post will focus on how we put first things first again.